In “The Man From Tallahassee,” the 13th episode of the third season of Lost, tropical shyster Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson) conducts a mental exercise with island devotee John Locke (Terry O’Quinn). “Picture a box,” says Linus. “What if I told you that somewhere on this island, there’s a very large box, and whatever you imagined, whatever you wanted to be in it…when you opened that box, there it would be.” That scene is probably the most efficient summary of the whole of Lost. The epic series about a diverse group of damaged characters who wash up on a not-quite-deserted island has been a peerless, character-driven story, a riveting adventure, and a head-scratching sci-fi geekfest. But for all the things Lost was, the show was always measured by its potential: the engaging questions it raises and the mind-blowing answers they could yield. The obsession with Lost wasn’t about what it was, but what it could be.
Lost piles mysteries on top of mysteries, braiding its mythology so meticulously that it has often seemed that even its creators wouldn’t be able to untangle it. To the degree that the show has experienced audience attrition, as television shows inevitably do, it isn’t attributable to a decline in quality or an exhaustion of narrative options. It’s due to a lack of trust from some viewers that all the bread crumbs that show runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have dropped will ever be picked up again. There have certainly been times, during some of season two and much of season three, when I’d fallen into that camp myself, on the verge of forcing myself to stop watching, lest I get all the way to the end and be disappointed. But after watching the sixth and final season, I’ve arrived at a new, more comfortable place: I don’t want the answers anymore. I don’t want to know what’s in the box.
I’m not saying there aren’t major mysteries of Lost that I don’t want solved; I still need to see this season’s parallel universes collide, for example. But I’ve accepted at this point that the running tally of questions I’ve had about the show will likely never be answered, and at this point, I don’t want them to be. Why? Because the answers would probably suck. Take, for example, last week’s episode, “Across the Sea,” perhaps the most polarizing episode of the series. The episode flashed back to an ancient time in the island’s history, to provide the backstory of the mythical Jacob (Mark Pellegrino) and his brother, the Man in Black (Titus Welliver). At long last, the audience was treated to an explicit look at the powerful energy that has made the island so feared, so revered, and so coveted, and that energy is…a goofy glowing cave. Where does it come from? What does it do that’s so awesome? Who knows, but it is, apparently, full of “the warmest, brightest light you’ve ever seen or felt.” And it must be protected at all costs, because there is a little bit of that light in every man, and if the light goes out in the cave, it goes out everywhere. For a moment, I forgot I was watching Lost and thought I was reading pages from a botched manuscript I fished out of Eckhart Tolle’s garbage. There have been many funny scenes in Lost, but never before had the humor been so unintentional.
The source of the island’s potency has been one of the central questions, one that Lindelof and Cuse couldn’t, in good conscience, end the series without answering. The answer they gave, however, is terrible. It’s vague, quasi spiritual, and just kind of lame and silly. But what else is it going to be? The light in the cave isn’t much more than a metaphor for what the philosopher Adam Smith referred to as “the spark of humanity,” the boundless potential that exists in every mind. It’s hard to describe in words, let alone depict visually within the context of a television show set on an island. This is the problem with seeking “answers” from Lost. The questions Lost toys with are the ones mankind has toyed with since the beginning of time, couched in a character-driven drama. What is the utility of faith? Do any of us have a purpose or is the object of living just to keep your head above water as long as possible? Is there such a thing as destiny, or is it all just free will and coincidence? If Lindelof and Cuse really had the answers to questions like these, I’d hope they would find better uses for them than a prime-time drama.
On one hand, you can fault Lost’s brain trust for kicking around so many Big Questions and themes that are central to the human experience, because doing so cranked up the intrigue level to places their resolutions can’t possibly reach. But it’s exactly that audacity to explore such questions that made Lost such an absorbing, engaging series, and one that allows the viewer a safe way to discuss weighty, frightening existential issues. All the Lost finale needs to do is provide some closure for the characters we’ve grown close to over the past six seasons. As for answers to the big questions? Lost doesn’t have them any more than we do, but it is to be lauded for getting us to ponder them in ways we might not have otherwise. In other words, there’s nothing inside the box except more boxes. That is as it should be.