Lost in a MacGuffin

Okay, I admit that I was happy these two found each other again. Just once, though, I want to see a character called "Juliet" not perish in a most tragic death.

You watched it, didn’t you? If you didn’t, you’re more of a statistic than I am. Because according to ratings reports, 20.5 million of us watched the Lost series finale. All of us optimistically expecting a resolution, despite the inkling that 1 hour and 40 minutes (sans commercials) probably wasn’t enough to cover even the basics of the island’s time-travel properties, let alone most of these unanswered questions.

Based on message boards, reviews and Twitter, the big finish was a big let-down for many. The consensus is that while we’re glad these long-tortured characters get their happily-ever-after, we sure as hell would have liked the writers to throw us a bone about that other character: the flippin’ island.

After a lot of reflection, I’m finally able to articulate the wherefores of my disappointment. You see, the Lost ending decided that the island was a MacGuffin at the last minute, when it had already become much more significant to the audience. And the reason it did was the creators’ fault: they made us care about the island and its mysteries by constantly reminding us that they existed. They even went so far as to imply that the island had motives (quote Benjamin Linus upon Ilana’s explosive death: “I guess the island was done with her”), with the omnipresence of a fickle god.

The thing about a MacGuffin is that no matter how you define it, it’s a plot device. It’s functional. It doesn’t have a personality. While fictional characters can care a great deal about that MacGuffin (be it stolen diamonds or some covert operation), it should almost be a moot point to the audience. It doesn’t really matter why Kate Austen blew up her stepdad. What matters is that she’s convinced she’s not a murderer, and her character’s development relies on her redemption to others, to herself and to you. It’s the story’s job to show you she’s a murderer, but it’s her character’s to convince you she’s not.

In many respects, the creators allowed the island to act like a MacGuffin. It often seems to drive the characters to do things, until the characters make it clear that the island is more than a cluster of still life. The characters often suggest that the island doesn’t just have eccentric, sometimes contradictory functions. Some of them believe these are actual behaviours, that the island wills people to either come to it, to fulfill a duty, to live or to die.

The island occupies an awful lot of space for a mere MacGuffin. It has to be protected; it has electro-magnetic properties; it heals certain types of illnesses; its brightly lit spring needs to be corked or a whole lot of evil will be let loose; babies conceived on the island have a hard time being born; and so forth. In addition to all this, the island’s idiosyncrasies are ultimately consequential to the characters. And this is how it is most unlike a MacGuffin.

An ending not unlike the beginning.

The whole thing feels rushed. The Lost creators didn’t fully demystify the island, and to me, that’s tantamount to not finishing what they started. I came to terms with the “what” of the island, but I wanted the creators to fill me in on the “why.” I wanted to believe that the creators knew exactly what the island was, and not just how it worked. But the ending suggests what many viewers feared throughout the series: the creators were making it up as they went along and didn’t actually understand the island themselves. The creators will argue that they wanted to tell the characters’ stories in the end, but the island had so much to do with the characters we got to know. It’s impossible that the creators didn’t understand that, and entirely likely that they ignored it. Maybe because the hole they dug themselves was too deep. Maybe because they should have started explaining some of the mysteries in Season 4 instead of introducing brand new enigmas. It’s very simple, though. If they didn’t want the island to matter as much as it did, they shouldn’t have let it get so big.

Even the head writers admit that not everything was thought through. When asked what his least favourite Lost episode was, executive producer Carlton Cuse said, “’Strangers in a Strange Land’ (Season 3, Episode 9)… We didn’t yet have an end date for the series, and we were stalling, hoarding our mythology. So the big question/revelation in that episode is how did Jack get his tattoos? And he’s flying a kite with Bai Ling. That really didn’t cut it.”

In the end, the intrigue drew in millions of viewers, which, as creator Damon Lindelof explains, was the point. “Would it be easier if [Jacob] stopped bringing people to the island? Sure. But then our characters never would’ve crashed…and who wants to see a show about a guy weaving?”

Word is, Cuse and Lindelof plan on exposing some of the secrets on the Season 6 DVDs. And if they do, I challenge them to answer at least 25% of these questions:


All photos used in this blog are courtesy of ABC/Mario Perez. This blog is not for commercial purposes, nor any of the material used herein.


  1. Good job Livvy. I personally loved the finale and have been defending it ever since but your arguments are the most agreeable ones I’ve heard.

    Livvy Jams: You’re welcome, Adam. To be fair, I enjoyed the experience of the finale as well (I really was so happy when Sawyer and Juliet found each other again). I enjoyed the whole series, in fact. I wish the writers had satisfied some of my needs a little more, but they’ve said this on a number of occasions, and I have to agree: no matter how they would have chosen to end this series, there would always have been a faction of disappointed fans. I voiced my grievances, and now that I have, I’m considering writing a follow-up listing all the things that were so great about the series.

  2. MacGuffin! What a great word! Agreed, they didn’t demystify the island. When I watched the ep a second time I enjoyed it a bit more. A very difficult series to wrap up though.

    i wonder how hurley and linus wound up running the island? maybe hurley made the island have a star wars theme…

    Livvy Jams: Hah! We should be so lucky.

  3. Two questions:

    1.) What could a popular breakfast sandwich possibly have to do with ‘LOST’?


    2.) Why is ‘College Humor’ apparently so mean that they won’t let you hotlink their videos? I mean, shouldn’t they call themselves, ‘College Bad Humor’ instead?


    Seriously, though, as per Adam’s comment, I loved the finale as well, but only after working through the same confusion and disappointment that you experienced. I really didn’t ‘get it’ until watching it a second time, and then, it was one of — if not THE — most powerful emotional responses I’ve had to any TeeVee show in my life.

    Great arguments though, and another well-written piece.

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