If you haven't watched the Lost series finale that aired yesterday, stop reading now.
After the jump is spoilerland.
On it's own, as 2.5 hours of thrilling and emotional television, the finale was excellent.
As a caring sendoff for the characters and their stories, it was great.
As an explanation for 6 years of craziness and mystery, the finale left a lot to be desired.
Here's what I was able to piece together about the plot:
On the island, Jack and Flocke bring Desmond to McGuffin's Cave of Pretty Lights. Desmond's unique resistance to electromagnetism appears to be the sole reason he's so important, as he's the only one who can uncork the core of the island and turn off the light without being fried/turned into a smoke monster. No explanation is given about what the light is, but it definitely provided the source for the "island magic" that gave the Smoke Monster his powers. He can now be killed. This leads to an incredibly epic and satisfying fight (can I please have that shot of Jack's furious leaping punch as my computer desktop?), the death of Smokey, and the mortal wounding of Jack. Jack goes on to pass immortal island stewardship to Hurley, recork the island, and - his purpose completed and humanity saved - die in the exact spot where he first woke up on the island, giving the show the perfect final shot: his eye closing. Meanwhile, everyone else who is still alive, most notably Kate, Claire, and Sawyer, escape the island on the Ajira plane.
While we're watching this, we're also getting flashes of the Sideways world, which many had guessed was an alternate timeline created by the hydrogen bomb detonation at the end of Season 5. This was a brilliant, brilliant misdirection and an even more brilliant narrative device. It allowed the writers to give each character the type of loving send-off they deserved without disrupting the meaning of any of their deaths on the island. In uniformly beautiful and heart-tugging scenes, the characters remember their lives on the island and gather for a funeral. Ostensibly, the funeral is for Jack's father Christian. In reality, the funeral is for themselves: they're already dead! Dun dun DUNNNNNN!
It turns out that the entire flash-sideways universe was a part of the afterlife, a place their souls had created to allow them to come together, work out a few final hang-ups, and let go of their mortal lives.
I don't think it was a cop-out in any way, and in fact was the opposite of a cop-out. By confirming beyond a doubt that the island and its events were real, and that each of the deaths was an actual death that meant something, the writers really own up to the story. (and if you think that the island itself was purgatory and they all died in the original plane crash, I'm sorry, but you're obviously wrong, for about a million reasons)
Imagine how big a cop-out it would have been if SidewaysLand was actually a parallel timeline, and all of the characters were somehow able to escape the island timeline and go there so they could live happily ever after (an outcome which Desmond seemed to be banking on right up until he popped the cork)?
The character-driven part of the finale was a rousing success. All of the characters got beautiful, heart-rending moments that made many of us stop caring about whether we got all the answers. Sawyer and Juliette "going dutch", Locke forgiving Ben, and even Jin's beaming smile upon seeing his friend Sawyer again for the first time (yes, I rate that as one of the top 3 emotional moment of the episode, even above Jin/Sun) were so emotionally satisfying that I think the characters got one of the best send-offs in TV history.
But that leaves us with where the finale fails - and fails hard. The real cop-out was in how the writers chose to explain - or not to explain - the island's mysteries.
The series had always hinted at the underlying systems and their explanations. There was always promise that the clues we were being fed led to something.
It turned out that the sci-fi and fantasy aspects of the show were nothing but a backdrop and device to get the characters to do cool and interesting things. That worked out great, but giving so little care the mythology was a disservice to all of the fans who had latched on to that mythology and devoted a lot of time and interest to trying to figure out the island.
The explanations the writers did give were enough for the narrative to work. A lot of crucial questions were answered (sort of), but many of those were simply steps back to new questions that no one could reasonably answer. The writers basically said: "you want to know why Alpert doesn't age? Well it's because Jacob has magic. How does he get this magic? Well, we aren't going to explain exactly how it works, but we'll tell you it comes from this magical cave full of light. What's in the cave? A stone radiating light while plugging a hole full of lava. What is the light, the stone and the lava? Well none of the characters can reasonably be expected to know that, so that's all you get!" We find out that the island is important for some supernatural reason, and that the Losties have to protect it, but we never find out exactly what it is that they are protecting (though we get enough hints to make our own conclusions). These big questions are answered well enough to be passable for the story, but not satisfying to those who were puzzling over the mythology.
What really pissed me off were the "clues" that the creators of Lost dropped (carelessly) in the previous seasons, before they themselves had bothered to figure out the answers that fans were spending hours trying to suss out. Things that seemingly got thrown out as unimportant because they didn't fit the vision the creators had of what would finally happen. Why was Walt special? Who was doing the food drops? Where did the four-toed statue come from? It feels disrespectful to the audience to give them what appear to be crucial clues, but are really just crap they threw out there to be "mysterious" and toss by the wayside once they no longer fit where the writers wanted to take the story.
It felt like a bait and switch. They put a puzzle in front of us that had no answer because they wanted us to feel puzzled. Fine as a narrative device, but a disservice to the fans nonetheless.
Many fans spent hours coming up with complex sets of rules that explained what was happening on the island. Though the show alluded to rules (when Ben's daughter dies, when discussing Jacob and his brother), it never delivered them in the end. There was never any grand plan, and everything really was made up as the writers went along. The show would have been a lot better if they had figured out the ending ahead of time, and built the series with a bit more focus, instead of littering it with broken pieces of old ideas as they went. It betrayed the faith the fans put in them, and it seems insulting that the people paid to write the show couldn't be bothered to come up with something as interesting as what these random internet people had done with the mythology.
Instead, Lost's creators stuck to their strengths and focused on characters and emotions. And though I'm disappointed by the seemingly haphazard handling of the mythology, in the end I have to agree that they made the right call, and the finale worked on the most important levels. Vanity Fair's writer makes this point in a slightly different way in one of the best next-day thoughts on the finale out there.
The writers may have made the right choice for the characters by avoiding a "Midi-chlorion" moment that ruins the magic by overexplaining it. But the bottom line is that they shouldn't have dug themselves such a big hole in the first place, then asked us to jump down it only to find nothing but an unexplained, vaguely magical light and our own mortality.
Lost worked like the best science fiction and fantasy is supposed to: it used circumstances that couldn't exist in real life to explore the human condition from a new angle. The backdrop of the island and its mythology allowed grand, riveting, and emotional stories to be told that couldn't be told otherwise. It was an end in itself, and from that perspective, it didn't need any explanation at all.