Why George R.R. Martin is wrong about the ending of LostS

George R.R. Martin is taking his time finishing his A Song Of Ice and Fire book series, because he doesn't want the ending to be as unsatisfying as the end of Lost — an assertion that has ruffled some feathers.

Spoilers ahead if you haven't seen Lost's finale episode...

Martin's critiques of the island-castaway show, in a New Yorker article, drew the attention of Lost producer Damon Lindelof, who took to Twitter. Lindelof, who's been reading and enjoying Martin's A Game Of Thrones, tweeted:

George RR Martin is terrified of "pulling a LOST" by ending Game of Thrones shittily. In related news, my therapist just hit the jackpot... George? You got yourself a feud, motherfucker... I've just been informed George is working on his feud response. I'll have it in FIVE YEARS!

And then more comments from Martin about Lost, from an interview a couple weeks back, surfaced in Time Magazine, where Martin was quoted as saying:

I watched Lost in its entire run and I was fascinated, but you know, even as early as the second season and certainly the third season, I started saying, how the hell are they going to pull all of this together? If they pull all of this together, it's going to be the greatest show in the history of television, man. They better know how to pull all of this together! And then when I reached the end and they hadn't pulled it altogether, in fact, they left a big turd on my doorstep? I was pretty upset, you know.

Having been a veteran of not only writing for but watching Twilight Zone [Martin wrote for a CBS remake in the 1980s] it was about the second episode of Lost, I said, "Oh, they're all dead." They're all dead. That's what it would be in a half-hour Rod Sterling Twilight Zone, in 1958.

Lindelof responded more eloquently to Martin's comments in an interview with EW, saying among other things that he can handle criticism of his ending most of the time, but when it's someone like Martin whose work he admires, "that's a boulder." And that Martin may have an easier time with the ending of ASOIAF because the fantasy book series "doesn't have a mystery at its core."

Mo Ryan, from TV Squad, also weighed in on the controversy, saying that the most important thing is for creators to craft the ending they want, rather than trying to pander to fans.

They weren't all dead, and Lost didn't leave threads untied.

The thing is, I'm as staunch a critic of the ending of Lost as you'll find anywhere, and I still think Martin's criticisms are off base.

The "they were all dead" criticism is clearly not true — nobody on the island was dead, except for Locke and Jack's dad, who were impersonated by the Smoke Monster. It's definitely not true that everybody was dead, for the entire six seasons of Lost. What is true, however, is that the people in the "flash-sideways" world were in some sort of transitional afterlife, or Purgatory, after death. But you can't really argue that the "flash-sideways" world is the show's main storyline, or integral to its premise.

Why George R.R. Martin is wrong about the ending of LostS

If anything, I'd say the "flash-sideways" world is more like a grace note or an extended epilogue to the show, interwoven with the final season. Nothing that happens in this afterlife setting "matters" or has dramatic heft — like, when Sun is shot, there's no danger that she'll "die" from it — but if you view the "flash-sideways" stories as just a sort of thematic counterweight to the final season's storytelling, then it doesn't really matter if they were dead. More on this in a minute.

Then there's Martin's other implied criticism — that the show didn't bring the threads of the storyline together in a satisfying way. By that, I'm guessing he means things like the Dharma Initiative, the Others, and so on. Obviously, Martin himself is the master of interweaving many narrative threads, and we'd all kill to have half his ability to keep track of a sprawling world. But he's mistaken if he views Lost as a story with a ton of narrative threads, or if he thinks there were major mysteries that the show's ending left unsolved.

Basically, most of the stuff that happened over six years of Lost can be summed up in a sentence:

The Island has magic properties, and lots of people have come there over the years and sought to control the Island's power, and weird things happened to these people as a result.

That explains the Others and the Dharma Initiative, and the wacky Romans, and so on. (You can add a corollary that lots of people came there by accident, but also wound up trying to understand/control the Island.)

Back before the final episode of Lost aired, I wrote that the show had already answered given us tons of answers to its core mysteries — way more than Battlestar Galactica ever did. And I still believe that. Unlike BSG, Lost really did tie up the major loose ends, and most of the minor ones.

It's not about answers, it's about closure.

And yet, I still hated the Lost finale — but not because I wanted answers. I wanted a narrative climax, and didn't feel like we got one. The show just sort of coasted to a stop. There was no raising of the stakes, no final challenge, and not much emotional pay-off.

Here's where we come back to the "flash-sideways" world — I actually have no problem with tacking on an epilogue where everyone is in Heaven's waiting room. That's totally fine. I mean, it's goofy, but I've swallowed goofier stuff from Joss Whedon over the years. The only problem I have is when you try to use your epilogue to provide an emotional payoff that your main story lacks. That's a faux pas.

So let's just leave the "flash-sideways" scenes aside, with their attempts to arouse emotion by showing us clips of previous seasons and bringing back characters who were already dead, like Faraday and Juliet.

Why George R.R. Martin is wrong about the ending of LostS

Once you strip out the "flash-sideways" stuff, you're left with a very flat resolution, and most of the problem has to do with Jack. Arguably, Jack is the hero of Lost — and the final episode certainly seems to support this interpretation. And we've seen Jack struggling with his destiny for six years by this point — so when Jack's destiny arrives, it must be something pretty momentous, right? Right?

And here's where the final episode really left me flat, at the time and when I've revisited it since. I don't feel like Jack's story gets a pay-off in the final episode. We've seen Jack go from a skeptic who just wanted to leave the Island to a bearded maniac who'll do anything to go back to the Island. After his "set off a hydrogen bomb" plan shockingly did not work out, Jack gave up hope, only to regain a sense of his destiny after smashing up a lighthouse. So there's been a lot of "resisting the call to heroism" followed by embracing the call to heroism.

What I wanted to see, in the final episode, was what Jack had learned in six years. Not what he'd learned in the sense of plot information, but emotionally and spiritually. What did he come to understand, that made him able to save the Island? And the way we would have seen that is by watching Jack face a momentous final test of some kind — which I really don't feel we saw. Not a test of brainpower, necessarily, but a test of wisdom. He does sacrifice his life, true — but he's seemed as though he wanted to die for a whole year, by that point.

In the final episode, Jack solves the show's plot dilemma — how to stop the Man In Black — but does not solve the show's emotional or spiritual dilemma. The action in the final episode involves whether a rock belongs in a hole, which feels like the sort of question a show should be asking in one of its middle seasons.

Why George R.R. Martin is wrong about the ending of LostS

I also did not feel like I gained any great closure on the show's other main characters or core relationships. It seemed, very much, as though all of the great storytelling about Sawyer had taken place in season five, and he was reduced to standing around while Jacob and the Man in Black worked out their endless sibling rivalry in season six. Actually, the one character who had a great last act was my least favorite, Kate — who is determined to bring Claire back to her son no matter how many times Claire tries to kill her. That's actually, in retrospect, a great story.

Why George R.R. Martin is wrong about the ending of LostS

That's the thing — Lost really was about the characters. And I just didn't feel like the writers had a powerful final statement about the main characters in the final episodes, especially the finale. Sure, the shot of Jack dying with Vincent was cool — but it didn't come after an engaging climax.

(I still believe Lost should have taken a leaf from the Harry Potter books. J.K. Rowling doesn't just lecture us about what will happen if Voldemort takes over — she gives us a whole book of Voldemort being in charge, and shows us. What if Lost season six had been showing us what happens if the Man In Black manages to leave the island?)

A final thought: When people say they were left wanting answers, as often as not what they really mean is that the characters they care about didn't get a proper resolution. Fans love to be left without answers, because this lets them come up with their own answers. It's why we have No-Prizes and fanfic and stuff. But what if Starbuck was your favorite character on Battlestar Galactica? And you identified with her, and wanted to know what was going through her head in the final scenes on the prehistoric Earth? Having Starbuck vanish into thin air cheats us of getting to hear what Starbuck thinks is going on.

Obviously, if you set up mysteries, it's nice to have some resolution. But most of the time, what people really want is a powerful character resolution — even if they say they want something else.