After Lost devoted its antepenultimate episode to an hour of beginning-of-time mysticism and Biblical allusions, there was a lot of fear that they’re heading for a finale that will annoy everyone, and perhaps even drag down the reputation of the entire show with it. (Look at The Sopranos. There were, and are, a lot of people who liked the finale — but the cultural backlash against the show probably has a lot to do with the sense many people had that they were let down by the finale, that the whole show was revealed as not having a point.) The idea being that at a time when the show needs to provide satisfying answers, its answers are becoming even more confusing than the questions, and there’s no way they can wrap it up in only one full-length and one double-length episode. When it comes to “Across the Sea” as an episode, it’s not a problem for me; unlike Buffy trying to introduce those awful “evil men and wise women from ancient times” segments in its last months, this kind of mystical wackiness has always been an organic part of Lost, and it pretty much had to get its own episode before the series ended. But in any case, I don’t think the finale of Lost is going to disappoint that many people, and here’s why:
Lost has a fixed conclusion. If they take it, that gives the audience closure. And if we get closure, many of us accept any number of loose ends.
By “fixed conclusion” I don’t actually mean that it can only end one way. But there is a way to end the show that would give it a sense of finality: everybody (who’s left alive and/or has come back from the dead) gets off the island. Forever. Whether they want to leave or not. It’s the same fixed conclusion that Gilligan’s Island had, except that show was canceled before they could get off. Lost is much more than a story of people stranded on an island, but… it’s still a story of people stranded on an island. I don’t know how the finale will play out, but I’m definitely guessing that it will bring that story to an end in some way or another. They were Lost. Now, at least in the literal, non-mystical sense, they’re no longer Lost. It’s like the bus was no longer Speeding at the end of Speed. Not all shows have obvious endings, because not all shows are about extreme circumstances. (There is no obvious ending to a show about a family or a workplace, though there are several options the writers can choose from to create closure.) But some shows can really only end one way. Take M*A*S*H. We knew from the very first moment that the show was over when the war ended. The war ended, the M*A*S*H unit was disbanded, and the world was happy. Getting off the Island is Lost‘s equivalent of ending the Korean War, and it can cover up a multitude of sins, even if they spend the last two hours with a character crying about a chicken and a baby.
The finales that anger people the most are often the ones that provide no closure whatsoever, and the angriest reactions of all are to the shows that set up an ending with the very first episode, and then don’t provide that ending. Remember Quantum Leap? We were told every week that Sam’s goal was to stop leaping and get home. When that happened, the show was over. And then the final episode informed us that “Dr. Sam Becket never returned home.” (Tacked on to a show that wasn’t really supposed to be a finale, but nonetheless, “Sam Becket eventually returned home” might have been a better way to go. Or “Sam Becket died after returning to his home planet.”) And those words have been inspiring fits of rage ever since.
This is why I don’t think Lost will leave the majority of viewers unsatisfied unless they pull a Quantum Leap and don’t give us the ending we were promised. Most people who watch a show, even who watch it every week, are not ferociously committed to one view of what the show should be; that’s for very passionate fans of the show (often those who post about it online). So the show has a lot of leeway in the answers it chooses to give or withhold, or what side of itself (sci-fi, survivalist adventure, character drama) it chooses to emphasize. But one thing the majority of viewers won’t accept is the feeling that an implied promise has been made, and then broken. Seinfeld made people angry because it broke an implied covenant with the viewers: for years, we had followed and liked these people in spite of their flaws, and then the show turned around and told us we should never have liked them, that they’re horrible people. The covenant Lost has made with its viewers is that it will follow the story of people on a mysterious island where nothing makes sense, and we will watch them until they’re permanently off the island and can’t ever come back.
Now, that doesn’t mean that there’s no way a show can screw up a fixed ending. Battlestar Galactica (2004 division) had a fixed ending and managed to blow it anyway, at least in the eyes of many of its fans. Who knows what kind of bizarre ending Lost might come up with, or how they might manage to make “getting off the island” seem like it’s not really an ending at all? But since the creators of Lost are not idiots (which is why they’re still standing and all their imitators have crashed and burned) I’m still willing to predict that they will know enough to provide that basic sense of closure: what we have seen for the last six years cannot continue, at least not in its original form.
And then, on the other hand, they might just put up a caption that says “And nobody ever got off the Island.” But if they do, then you’ll see some real anger.