We have asked from the beginning whether Lost creators J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof ever had a master plan for the show’s tangled web of mysteries. Committing to a show that would take (and has taken) years to reveal its secrets hinged on whether or not the initial mysteries really pointed to something bigger. After all, we’ve had our hearts broken before. Twin Peaks collapsed after wrapping up the mystery of Laura Palmer’s demise. The X-Files limped on into mediocrity. Many expected Lost to simply implode on itself, another casualty of creative minds spinning an intricate tale without a clue as to where it was all headed.
For many, Lost assumed the mantle of cult phenomenon as early as its fourth episode, “Walkabout.” As the mysteries unfolded into the third season, cracks started to show. Once audiences followed Jack to Thailand to get his tattoos, we began asking the question in earnest: Is any of this actually going somewhere?
David Fury, who wrote the famous Locke-centric “Walkabout,” dashed any such hope back in 2005, telling Rolling Stone that most of the show’s early plot developments were created on the fly. Ain’t it Cool News recently asked first season co-producer Jesse Alexander if the notion of time hopping the castaways to 1977 (a major story arc last season) was ever discussed during his tenure in the writer’s room. His answer? An emphatic "no."
Meanwhile, various comments throughout each season’s DVD commentaries or special features hint that the series writers have spent significant time mapping the show’s trajectory. Lindelof and co-show runner Carlton Cuse have insisted in interviews, most recently this past Monday for TVGuide.com, that they developed a mythology with a specific story conclusion in mind. That conclusion, they maintain, has never wavered, only shifted to accommodate characters and events as they developed.
So the question is: how much of Lost’s enigmas and unanswered mysteries find their answers in this developed mythology? Will we learn what makes Walt so special? Had the writers always determined to “move” the island? What’s the real significance of Jack’s cryptic tattoos?
While considering just how much the writers have known from the beginning, allow me to posit that, not only did Lost never have such a detailed master plan, its success was never dependent upon having one. What we fail to realize in maintaining faith in a master plan is that the business of network television usually doesn’t allow for that kind of creative mapping.
More than any other visual medium, television has the best opportunity to unroll the kind of dense, complicated storylines typically found in novels. Novels, however, have a built-in sense of anticipation the closer you get to turning the last page. Hour-long episodic television works on a different dynamic, one that leaves both its creators and the audience blind to where its final page falls.
Writers will tell you that stories unfold organically—characters develop and take on lives of their own; they influence the narrative in ways the author’s original outlines never anticipated. In television, this creates tension between doing business and the art of telling a good story. Some hour-longs have an easier time with this (re: Law and Order or House, M.D.). Serialized cult favorites face a tougher struggle between continuing the story the writers/creators had in mind, maintaining their ratings, and keeping their fans happy.
On a typical hour-long, writers and producers meet at the beginning of each season, pitch ideas, and map out a narrative course for the year. Lost has developed along similar means (see here, re: “mini-camp”) Given its heavy mythology and tight serialized narrative, writing an episode involves more than just crafting this week’s latest adventure. As Fury suggested, plot elements are set down to set up future pay offs that no one in the writers room may have ever conceived. The trick, as Lindelof has hinted before, rests in keeping the illusion alive that payoffs were conceived.
Storytelling at that level requires a specific set of gifts, and not every writer (or writers room) can handle the challenge for very long. A few, however, have managed to make it work. Aaron Sorkin, for instance, was known to write every successive episode of The West Wing on the fly. He never developed a narrative arc beyond the next script he had to turn in, and still managed to keep his plotlines somewhat together for four straight seasons.
Ronald D. Moore, show runner for Battlestar Galactica, had always planned to end his reinvented show on Earth’s ancient past, but he has admitted that certain plot developments (like Daniel, Cylon model 7) were developed later to cover errors in earlier writing. Other later developments, like the true identity of Ellen Tigh (a hanging suspicion from the show’s first season), were never settled upon until it came time to produce the show’s final season.
Similarly, Lindelof and Cuse continue to insist that their endgame for Lost has remained fixed; getting there, however, has remained in flux. It would seem if any plan for the show’s overall narrative had ever existed, it existed in some of the vaguest possible terms to allow the writers room to the develop the specifics over time. Therefore, in suffering the malaise of the show’s third season, the show runners negotiated a rare deal in network television, and worked out a solid end date for the show. In essence, they placed audiences within sight of a final page.
ABC announced in 2007 that Lost would take its bow in 2010. Perhaps more detailed plans for the series’ final chapters really were laid down once an end date was marked on the calendar. The third season closed stronger than it had opened, and each successive season has driven onward with a better sense of…well, destiny.
Lost returns to ABC for its sixth and final season February 2, 2010. Expectations for a satisfying close remain high with only 18 hours of this epic tale left to unfold. Fans and detractors have already taken sides in the debate, and once the curtain falls, it will likely continue.
Regardless, Lindelof and Cuse have managed to keep their ship on a steady course through some occasional rough waters. Here’s to seeing them steer it home.