Lost began with a compelling premise, attracted a strong following, and subsequently annoyed the hell out of us with plodding story lines, dangling plot threads, and a lackadaisical attitude toward character development. Though ratings have fallen off as a result, ABC is nonetheless trying to keep expectations high for Sunday's finale, promising "the television event of the decade." But even a disappointing endgame will be a fitting end to a series that has waged a war of attrition on its millions of viewers. Colson Whitehead may have tweeted it best with this faux "spoiler," anticipating the big reveal: "They made it up as they went along & every 'answer' will be a gross insult to your intelligence."
It's a shame that things turned out this way. When Lost premiered in 2004, it held incredible promise not just as entertainment but as a narrative with liberal political commitments. The initial cast was diverse in race, gender, and national origin. Characters were named after political philosophers: Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Bentham. The plane-crash survivors initially adopted, as their slogan, the phrase "Live Together, Die Alone" -- a battle cry for a social democratic polity if ever there were one. Moreover, the entire series almost offered a fictionalized version of philosopher John Rawls' "original position": Take a group of people, strip them of their material advantages, and see how they decide to share resources. Initially at least, Lost was about the possibility of building community from scratch. And it approached the task with idealistic optimism, usually glossing over the divisions of race and gender among the castaways. In fact, the series can certainly be said to have taken a "post-racial," "post-feminist" approach to its pluralism, emphasizing the castaways' common humanity over their differences.
But as the seasons dragged on, Lost's writers seemed to lose interest in the theme of community. This may not have been a conscious move, but the group only became more fragmented with each new character and each new intrigue. Indeed, the writers may have unwittingly written themselves into a corner with their early identification of two white men as Lost's main characters. The ensemble cast was important, but Jack Shepard (Matthew Fox) and John Locke (Terry O'Quinn) were the two poles around which most of the dramatic conflict was organized. And barring some unforseen deus ex machina on Sunday, they will remain so right to the end. Given the sheer number of leadership alternatives, the placement of white men as the major stars in the show's rather complicated constellation may have doomed the series' animating philosophy of pluralism from the start.
That may not have been entirely the writers' choice, of course. According to Lost's creators, the original plan was for a hybrid version of two characters, Kate and Rose, to be the castaways' leader, but the network intervened. Perhaps that explains why there has always been a whiff of the arbitrary around the choice of Jack -- a former alcoholic with daddy issues and a talent for making the decision that angers the maximum number of castaways -- as a leader. That the castaways follow Jack, often without any serious challenge to his assumed authority, has thus long been the least believable aspect of the show. Just this last Tuesday night, in the penultimate episode, Jack was finally acknowledged as the Island's savior, which the series has long hinted at without explaining why. He chose the role, the other castaways said nary a word, and he drank some water. And that was it. It felt ordained, not earned.
Even if Jack's leadership had felt more organic, the mere choice to have the show's plot revolve around white men was enough to move the women and people of color to the margins. While Lost occasionally focused on those who were not white males in flashbacks, it became clearer and clearer that when the series' final climax came to a head, they would be dispensable. It was hard to be surprised when three of the remaining characters of color -- Sayid, Jin, and Sun -- were unceremoniously killed off in a failed attempt to flee the island by submarine just three weeks ago. These characters joined a long line of their female and non-white predecessors to the grave: Ana Lucia, Danielle Rousseau, Mr. Eko, Juliet, Ilana -- all gone. White men have died as well, but in nowhere near so large a number.
It's true that many of these characters are still alive and kicking in a parallel timeline, in which the plane crash never happened and everyone is living out an alternate life in Los Angeles. But in the series' main timeline, the one preoccupied with ponderous conversations about life and death, good and evil, light and dark? By and large, those discussions will be had this Sunday among white men: Jacob, "the Man in Black" (who has taken on the form of Locke), Ben, Jack, Desmond, Sawyer. Kate (Evangeline Lilly) and Hurley (Jorge Garcia) are still there. But Kate is now identified as a "mother," and therefore no longer concerned with such high-flown subjects as "the end of the world." Hurley, meanwhile, has mostly existed for comic relief, despite Garcia's efforts to give him depth. It's unlikely that either will suddenly move into the spotlight in the finale.
So when Lost gets down to the real business of accounting for itself, accounting for the Island, accounting for why we've all been sitting here scribbling notes and checking Lostpedia to make some sense of the six years we've dedicated to this story, the writers have somehow managed to cut out of that account almost everyone who isn't a white man. It's possible -- quite possible, in fact -- that this isn't deliberate. It's possible that this is just the old story of the unconscious drift toward the authority of white men, explained only by vague senses of trust and inevitability that are more felt than reasoned. But these exclusions matter on television, much as they do in the real world. When you tell entire swaths of your population that they'll be shoved aside when the big questions are on the table, you treat them like accessories. And much as one might like to discount the importance of pop culture, ambition is somehow predicated on imagination -- if you can't see yourself in these conversations, you probably won't fight to be included in them. It's just too bad that no matter what happens Sunday night, Lost never appeared to understand that.