Endings: Why the Dark Tower succeeds where Lost fails

This was cross-posted from my blog Books Worth Reading.

Please understand that if you read further, you will be totally and irrevocably spoiled for the endings of both The Dark Tower series by Stephen King and the Lost television series. The choice is yours.

Stephen King’s Dark Tower series and Lost have a lot in common, and it’s no secret that the Lost writers were greatly influenced by King. Both stories are sprawling, epic, complex, sometimes head-scratching, and play with similar themes and ideas. Both seem largely made up as the writers went along. Both require you to suspend your disbelief a lot and accept some truly crazy things that happen. Both have very similar elements in their endings.

Here’s why I think The Dark Tower largely succeeds and Lost largely fails. The short version: It comes down to the basics of story-telling.

What is The Dark Tower about, in one sentence? It is about Roland‘s quest to reach the Dark Tower. This very simple, very clear motivation drives all action that follows, and we know it from the outset. We may not understand yet exactly what the Dark Tower is or why Roland needs to reach it — that comes later — but we do understand that this goal is more important to Roland than anything else.

Aside from Roland’s motivation, King introduces us to three key concepts that are fundamental to the story at the very beginning of the series. If as a reader, you don’t buy any of this, you’ll probably stop reading by the second or third book.

The first is the idea that multiple, parallel universes are real and the characters can travel between them. The mechanics of how this occurs isn’t really important; what is important is that it is literally possible. We know that Roland’s world, a post-post-apocalypse world that has “moved on,” shares some common characteristics with ours. In the first three books, characters travel between our world and Roland’s, and in the fourth book, the characters pass through another related world, but with some telling differences, which is where the events of The Stand took place.

A second key theme is that of the role fate — which Roland calls ka – plays in the characters’ lives. Roland forms a group of people, his ka-tet, who are interlinked by destiny to help Roland in his quest. We learn early on that the members of Roland’s previous ka-tet did not come to good ends, and as the story progresses, we find out that Roland also lost his first love and his parents in horrific ways. This helps us realize that the other characters probably won’t make it to the end. Roland himself acknowledges that he would sacrifice them for the Tower, and even the others seem to understand this. This in no way diminishes the emotional power of their deaths when they do come — Eddie’s death left me in tears, and Oy‘s slayed me — but we are nevertheless prepared for them as a function of fate.

Even though all of the members of Roland’s ka-tet do die, we see them together in another world. As readers, we are able to accept this as literally happening because the idea of the multiple universes is long established. These aren’t the exact same people but other versions of them who get to live happier lives together. We are free to layer additional interpretations on top of these — the alternate universe is a kind of afterlife, the characters’ reward for throwing in with Roland and sacrificing themselves — but that is entirely up to the reader. Regardless, this epilogue functions within the rules already laid down and lets us feel a bit of catharsis about these characters’ fates.

Finally, King introduces the idea of cycles right from the beginning. A large part of fate is repeating things until you get them right — the “wheel of ka.” Roland at first sacrifices Jake and then he is given the chance to save him. Susannah is injured twice by the same man, but she can break the cycle once she looks him in the face.¬†When Roland finally reaches the Dark Tower but has to start his quest all over again, it is frustrating and aggravating, but it is also fair. King has set up the idea of cycles and repetition, and we are left with the hope that next time, Roland will get it right and succeed.

So what can be learned from all this? What couldthe Lost writers have done differently to make their resolution more satisfying?

1) Answer the questions you pose. Lost posed a lot of niggling questions and left many unresolved. Granted, a lot of these questions weren’t all that important to the overarching story. For instance, I wasn’t concerned about the Dharma supply drops, because for me, the Dharma story line wrapped up nicely in season 5. But I am still bothered about why women can’t give birth on the island. That seemed so important, and then it was just dropped.

One mistake I think they made was saving up so many unanswered questions till the end. If the questions aren’t overwhelmingly important, it’s okay to give answers as you go along. A good example is: what is the hatch? Asked in season 1 and answered in season 2.

But the larger, more critical questions definitely need answering by the end. And the biggest question of all for me is: what is the island and why is it so important? I had the same question about the Dark Tower. But we learned early on that the Dark Tower is the nexus of all universes, and destroying it means the destruction of all existence. These are very high stakes that I can get invested in. For me, what makes the most sense is that the island is some kind of nexus too, and it exists outside of time and space. This would explain a lot of the anomalies in my mind. But I had to supply this explanation myself, because it wasn’t given in the show, and in fact, a lot of what we saw actually contradicts this interpretation. I don’t mind bringing my own take to the story, but I shouldn’t have to work quite that hard.

2) Play by your own rules. King establishes a metaverse early on, and remains consistent to that idea to achieve what he wants to achieve. On the island, the manipulation of time is clearly critical. But it is never explained conclusively or tied together satisfactorily. Up to the last 15 minutes of the finale, I was expecting the sideways universe to be a true alternative universe that was created when the nuclear bomb exploded. I expected there to be some connection between the island world and the sideways universe; perhaps the characters would move from one to the other to somehow save the island, with the Desmonds as the key. When it turned out to be a death vision or limbo or whatever you want to call it, I felt cheated because this didn’t follow through on key themes that were introduced previously and it brought in an entirely new idea that didn’t connect to anything that had happened before.

3) Give your characters clear, simple motivations and remain consistent to them. Everything Roland does is directly attributable to his goal of reaching the Dark Tower. The motivations of the Lost characters are frequently mutable or incoherent, particularly during the last season. Widmore is the bad guy who wants to take over the island, until suddenly he doesn’t? Ben is a badass, then he’s redeemed (okay), then he’s bad again, then he’s caught under a tree, then he’s not. When I learned that Kate had returned to the island with the goal of finding Claire and reuniting her with Aaron, I breathed a sigh of relief; at least one person had a clear goal that I could get behind.

4) If you get “lost” (ha ha), return to and reinforce the themes you have already introduced. I think the show started losing its way in season 3 and completely gave up on coherence by season 6. Everything with the Temple, Sayid’s “infection” and Widmore made absolutely no sense. The writers would have been better off returning to those big ideas they introduced from the beginning, such as faith versus science, the game being played between dark and light, the theme of being lost and finding purpose or redemption, and Jack’s famous “live together, die alone” line. (Here’s an essay that expounds nicely on this tenet of complex storytelling.)

I would argue that the writers of Lost didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. They didn’t play by the rules that they had established. Maybe they were just messing with our heads, as I have seen posited elsewhere. That’s okay, but there are still rules that must be followed. In The Dark Tower, Stephen King introduces himself as a character and posits that Roland’s story is really only a story that he is writing. It’s a nutty idea, but it works for me, because King still finishes Roland’s story. The metafictional elements are layered on top of the epic adventure we’re already invested in; they don’t negate it. To allude to another book that influenced Lost, the Lost writers shouldn’t invite us to pull back the curtain and look behind it, because instead of a wizard, there’s just a bunch of guys who in the end didn’t really know what they were doing.

Thank you for sticking through this very long essay with me until the end. I appreciate the chance for a little catharsis and would enjoy reading your reactions in the comments.

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Hell is repetition: The theme of cycles in science fiction

Recently, I have become fascinated with the notion of cycles. We humans tend to regard everything linearly, with a beginning and an end, because that is our individual experience. But taking a wider view, we can see that events tend to happen in cycles, that an end leads inexorably to another beginning. It’s easiest to see this in nature, with our regular seasonal cycles and the cycle of growth to death to fertilizer to new life again. In physics, the concept of eternal return posits that the universe has been recurring and will continue to recur in a self-similar form an infinite number of times. According to Eastern religions, we are all caught up in the Wheel of Life, an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth, until we can escape via enlightenment.

Post-apocalyptic literature, a favorite of mine, is obsessed with endings, an interesting mind game in itself. What would happen if everything, as we know it, just stopped? But the concept of repeating patterns, of endless cycles, is even more of a mind bender. Recently, a couple of favorite TV shows have explored this theme.

**Spoilers for Battlestar Galactica and Lost follow, so stop reading now if you don’t want to know.**

Battlestar Galactica‘s controversial finale, seen as a happy ending by some and as a silly warning to be nice to your robots by others, was, in my view, highly pessimistic. Despite all their efforts to break the cycle of Cylon uprising and mutual destruction, even to the point of sacrificing their technological advantages, the surviving characters only managed to put the inevitable off for a few thousand years. But all this has happened before, and will happen again — and the cycle begins anew on modern-day Earth.

Lost is exploring similar themes, although it is not clear yet whether the pattern can actually be broken. Still, last night’s excellent season finale asks the question: If the pattern is destined to keep repeating, why take action at all? Why not just opt out? In my opinion, the show has not taken a side. We’ve seen characters opt out (Bernard and Rose), and they seem perfectly happy. We’ve seen other characters take action to try to change the pattern, break the cycle, but we don’t know if they will be successful. Even if they are unable to change the pattern, will just trying be enough for some kind of personal salvation or redemption? Is what matters making a choice and doing something, rather than the effects of that action? These are great questions to ponder on a sleepless night.

I am now getting interested in science fiction novels that explore similar themes. Here are a few that I could think of (ahoy, there may be spoilers ahead):

  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which is structured in a cyclical manner progressing forward and then back through time.
  • The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, in which Roland seems doomed to relive the events of his quest for the Dark Tower until he can find a way to break the cycle of repetition.
  • The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, in which an alien civilization is doomed to cause its own apocalypse and then rise from the ashes over and over.
  • Replay by Ken Grimwood, in which a man relives his life again and again (I haven’t read this).

Does anyone have other suggestions? I would love to hear them.

Lost as book and the books of Lost…

I don’t write about television much, if at all, on this blog. So you probably don’t know that I am obsessed with the television series Lost. Lost, however, is very literary television, which is why it appeals so strongly to me. This is a show that is known for being confusing and misleading, but it certainly helps if you’re broadly read.

The series creators have actuallly compared Lost to a book series, with each season corresponding to one novel. Not a lot of television writers think of themselves as novelists, which is another reason why I think Lost is so great. There are weak and strong seasons, just as any book series would have weak and strong entries. I like to think of Lost as being most like Stephen King‘s Dark Tower series, since both explore the mysteries of time and space. The series creators have said that King’s works have influenced them. Perhaps that’s why the on-island book club was reading Carrie.

Lost is also a literate show. Itfeatures a lot of books in the show itself, which has spawned book clubs in the real world. Many of the characters read frequently on-screen, despite being shot at, blown up and transported through wormholes, and we want to read what they’re reading. I am keeping my own Lost book list, and I’ve read about a third of the books. You’ll discover some really good books about challenging topics like time travel (Slaughterhouse-Five), the nature of reality (The Third Policeman) and paradox (Catch-22), although there are some real stinkers as well (Bad Twin). You can visit the official ABC Lost book club, or check out the Lost books challenge blog. If you want to know more about everything Lost, there is no better source than Lostpedia, which also has a books page.

If you haven’t watched Lost but are intrigued, I recommend you start with Season 1 and work your way through in order. This is not the kind of TV show where you can drop in and out and still expect to know what’s going on. And remember, if one of the seasons isn’t working for you, keep pressing forward, as you may find the next one to be much more enjoyable. Each season truly is like its own novel, with its own themes, story arcs and focal characters, while tying in to the series as a whole.