Exclusive interview: ‘Lost’ producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse talk ‘Across the Sea’

Senior Television Writer
05.12.10 363 Comments

Last night’s “Lost” review appeared to put me in the minority in enjoying the episode. And “Lost” showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse are certainly aware of the polarizing reaction to “Across the Sea,” and we talked about that – and about certain details of the episode, and complaints fans have had about the season, and even about my own personal obscure “Lost” obsession – in a wide-ranging phone interview this afternoon.

How much attention have you paid to the reaction to last night’s episode?

Carlton Cuse:
Some degree. We get a little bit of general feedback. We try not to obsess about the boards and all that stuff. So we have some sense.

Damon Lindelof:
It’s never exactly the reaction you’re expecting. We knew it would be an episode that would be divisive. We’ve been talking since the beginning of the season about the idea that the great thing of doing a show on your own terms is you have no excuses, but it’s also slightly terrifying that if you’re a mystery show, there will inevitably be episodes that answer mysteries. That has the potential to frighten, terrify, make people hate. This was going to be the season where we said, “Whatever your theory was, our presentation of the endgame of the show may disprove your theory, so we’re sorry if you don’t like the fact that you don’t get the Man in Black’s name, but you don’t get it.” So that’s going to piss some people off, and it’s their right to be pissed off. In terms of what the specific reactions are, it’s too hard to say 12 hours after the fact, and without seeing where this episode plays in the grand scheme of the series. That’s all we can say.

One of the things I found interesting – and this is just me playing armchair psychologist – is that there’s a lot of text and subtext in this episode about how much of Smokey’s pain and the deaths it led to were caused by Mother’s refusal to explain things and give him honest answers. And I’m wondering if that was intentional on a conscious or subconscious level – that perhaps after six years of doing this and seeing how angry people get when you don’t tell them what they want to know, you’ve recognized the downside to that approach.

CC: We want the show to speak for itself. We don’t want to offer up our interpretation of what the thematics are of the episode. But a lot of the things you say are very interesting. But we will say this: This is what an episode of “Lost” that is about answering questions looks like. This thing is a big mythological download. Our belief is that the real resolution of the show and the one that matters is what happens to these characters. We’ve felt a desire to provide the audience with Jacob and the Man in Black’s origin story and make it not the last episode of the show for a very good reason. The show is going to focus on these characters. That’s what we believe is more important and that’s what we believe the audience wants to see. This all worked the way we wanted to. We planned it out so we could do a big mythological download episode at this point so that it would allow us to have the end of the show be more character-centric. That’s the way we chose to tell our story.

Well, you guys have talked a lot over the years about how you feel the show is driven more by character than mystery. There have been some fans who have been very vocal in saying that they disagree – that they’re watching for the mysteries. I dealt with this a lot in covering “The Sopranos,” where David Chase was making one show, and a certain segment of his fanbase wanted him to be making a completely different show. How do you deal with losing control of the audience’s expectations?

DL: Being fans of other shows ourselves, we always have the perspective is that one of the things you sign up for when you do a show like this is that it is a spectator sport. It feels it’s a variance, because we all break up into respective groups and talk about what we think the show means, and there’s a sense of ownership. You commit all this time to the show and you’re inviting it into your own living room. But at the end of the day, it’s David Chase’s show. It’s easy for people to say what they don’t want the show to be, it’s very difficult for them to say what they want the show to be. Carlton and I and the writers and everyone else who’s creatively involved – it’s it’s our job to figure out what the show is and not what the show isn’t. Usually, when we get criticisms, it’s along the lines of, “I really wish you hadn’t done that.” Or “I wish it had been different.” And you throw it back at them and ask, “Well, what did you want it to be?” And they say, “I wanted to see the statue built,” or “I wanted the Man in Black’s first name,” or “I want to know about the guy Sayid shot on the golf course.” Okay, that’s cool, you wanted those answers and we decided not to provide them to you. It’s not because we’re being cutesie, it’s because that that didn’t fit with our vision of the show. Right or wrong, we’re going to have to deal the rest of our lives with questions about how “Lost” ended. We’re comfortable with that, and at the end of the day, we have to remind people that we chose to end the show. We did not go on for a couple of more seasons and sort of pad it off to oblivion. And we knew we chose to end the show, that we were going to have to take our lumps. That’s fine as long as we’re happy with how we ended the show. We’re not being obnoxious or cocky, it’s just us saying we’ve done our best.

Even some people who were positive about the episode last night objected to or questioned its placement this late in the season, right after this big episode where so many characters died and right before the final hours. And at times I and other people have wondered about whether Desmond should have more prominently appeared in the sideways universe sooner, or if we needed to spend as much time in the Temple as we did, etc. Looking back over the season now, how do you feel about how you placed things and about certain landmarks. Did they have to be at the particular parts of the season where they occured?

CC: We told the story the way we wanted to. Like David Chase, we tried to make the show to entertain the audience. That was our primary goal. We kind of planned this episode to come at this period of time because we actually wanted to take a break after the deaths of these major characters. It felt like this was the perfect time to take a time out from the main narrative. And since this was the final big mythological episode that we were going to do, we felt like it was a good placement for it, and now we’ll roll into the finale. We make no apologies. We planned this to be the way it is. Again, it is funny, because there are a lot of people who are very happy with the show, there’s going to be a very vocal group of people who are not happy, and that just kind of comes with the territory. We’re making the show the best way we know how to make it, and we stand by it, and we’re excited about how it ends and how the journey’s unfolded.

Let’s get into a couple of specifics about last night. Last week, when you spoke to Jeff Jensen, you said all of the deaths happened in part so you could establish Smokey’s bonafides as a bad guy, and to make it clear he’s not on the side of our characters. And in that episode we were clearly meant to side with Jack as the newfound man of faith. But in “Across the Sea,” it’s Man in Black, who’s the man of science, who winds up being the more sympathetic character, and the victim of his upbringing. So is it supposed to be black and white like the backgammon pieces, or is still supposed to be more complex in the war between the two sides.

DL: We have long sort of spoken about the interesting dynamic in the show is nobody is 100 percent good, nobody is 100 percent evil. Everybody has the capacity for both. Every time you come up with an explanation that’s black and white, it turns into shades of grey. Ben Linus starts as a villain and then can become sympathetic. Sawyer and Jin who were also first presented in less than sympathetic lights became increasingly more sympathetic. We wanted to explain why the Man in Black had behaved the way that he does, and to show that like a lot of other characters on the show, he’s the victim of very bad parenting. To reduce him to just a supernatural force, as opposed to a person, was not our intent. “Across the Sea” was our attempt to say, “Here’s why Jacob feels the way he does about people, why the Man in Black feels the way he does about people,” and a bit about their childhood. It’s as simple as that and as complex as the themes of the show are.

Okay, you’ve now said at a couple of points here that you’re not going to reveal the name of the Man in Black. Is there a significance to that, or you’ve just decided you prefer the air of mystery it gives the character to not give him a name?

CC: I think for us to explain why we’re not giving him a name veers too far into the territory of explaining things that we don’t feel the need to explain.

A couple of my readers pointed out that when Jacob sends the Man in Black down the log flume and he turns into the Smoke Monster, the light in the cave goes out. And they’ve wondered if that means that Smokey now is the light that Jacob is supposed to protect and that’s why he can’t leave the island.

CC: You’ll get more information that will help you understand that in the episodes that follow this one.

When Mother slaughters the people in the human village, the iconography looked very much like the Dharma bunkers after the purge. Was this your way of suggesting why it was Jacob might have allowed The Others to slaughter the Dharma folk – that this is the punishment for anyone who gets too close to unlocking the island’s secrets?

DL: In terms of what Jacob allowed, what he didn’t allow, what The Others did of their own volition, with Ben basically saying “This came down from Jacob” is all in the area that is subject to interpretation purposely. What our intention was is that there is a repeating vicious cycle that seems to happen on this island, where people come to the island, they try to figure out what makes the island work, and the closer they came leads them to their own inevitable demise.

CC: Like Icarus

DL: The more curious you become about why the island has its properties, inevitably the protector of the island feels the need to engage in some form of mass genocide. It was more our attempt to say that history repeats itself, and this is an ongoing and continuing motif.

You’ve said many times that when people find out who Adam and Eve are, we’ll all realize just how long you’ve been planning the mythology. Well, I went back and watched the “House of the Rising Sun” scene, and Jack says that the clothing looks like it’s 50 years old. Is he just not very good at calculating the rate of decay on fabric?

CC: Jack is not really an expert in carbon dating.

DL: He’s not really a forensic anthropologist. We need to bring in Bones.

CC: Or Charlotte. She’s an anthropolgist.

DL: The other theory that I would like to throw out there is that Jacob and his mother were just expert craftsmen. They made those clothes on that loom so well, it would appear that they were only 50 years old in decomposition, when in fact it’s several thousand.

CC: Or perhaps the fabric is magic. A lot of theories there, Alan.

As we’ve gone into this final season and you’ve introduced new characters like Dogen and Lennon and the other Temple people, and new mysteries, there have been some people who’ve said, “Okay, they don’t have to answer all the old mysteries if they don’t want to, but it’s not fair for them to keep introducing lots of new ones at this late date.” How do you respond to that?

DL: Are there any readers who actually like the show?

Many readers like the show. I like the show. But these questions are out there.

CC: We feel that we as storytellers, basically can only approach the storytelling the way that we do, which is it felt like there was no way that we could just be answering existing questions without the show feeling didactic. There would have been no larger narrative motor. For the show to devolve into running through a checklist of answers, we would have been, honestly, crucified for that version of the show. It’s ironic that the episode that’s generating so much controversy is one in which we answered questions, but it’s not surprising to us. Between what the audience thinks they want and what they will find entertaining – we have tried ot make the show in a way that people would find it entertaining, moving engaging. To do that required having new mysteries. That’s the way we operated.

Getting back to Adam and Eve for a second, can you talk me through the thought process of including that flashback to “House of the Rising Sun.” Was there ever a thought of not having it in there and hoping the viewer could fill in the blanks, or did you just feel that the skeletons were too obscure a mystery to not have that extra context?

DL: The reason that we put it in certainly wasn’t because we thought it was too obscure and we wanted to hit people over the heads with it. It was more a matter of, here’s an episode where our characters don’t appear in it at all, and we wanted to make it clear to the audience that this little family drama, this dysfunctional relationship between these three people is really responsible for everything that’s happening to the passengers of Oceanic 815. We wanted to illustrate that by, at the very end of the show saying, “Oh, right, Jack and Kate and Locke are affected by the fact that Mother decided to raise her kids this way, and Jacob ended up bringing these people to the island.” The idea was to say that this chapter of the series is significant to the story we’ve been telling you, and that the series is about the survivors of Oceanic 815. To have an episode that they did not appear in at all was never our intention.

CC: We also liked the juxtaposition of what those characters were like in “House of the Rising Sun” versus where they are now. We felt it was interesting for the audience to see the growth, the change, the evolution, the degree to which these characters had been affected by their time on the island. And we felt that the most effective way to do that was to recontextualize the Adam and Eve discovery by replaying that scene. It really provided a contrast that shows you how these characters have evolved.

The sideways universe, it seems as if those stories have also been used to illustrate that point. We see a Jack who hasn’t been through everything on the island, a Locke who behaves differently, other characters reverting to a season one mode. Was that by design?

DL: Everything is by design. Unfortunately, when you ask that question, if you’re not a believer, you say, “They’re making it up as they go along,” and if you are a believer, you say, “It’s all part of a design.” It’s lose-lose for us, because you think we’re just lying if we say everything was by design. I do feel that hopefully the conversation about the sideways will be a different conversation when the series is over than it is now. We knew going into it that the sideways would be a very polarizing form of storytelling.. But as Carlton reiterated earlier, we’re doing our best version of ours how. We understand that you can’t please all the people all the time, that’s the kind of show that “Lost” is. If we tried to please all the people all the time, it’s an impossible task. We loved “The Sopranos” ending. It was actually shocking to us the next morning when people were going, “It’s a cop-out.”‘ We’re looking at it as the best, most poetic thing that we’ve ever seen on television, and other people were calling it a cop-out, and we got into these very impassioned arguments about it. The fact that he could make a creative choice like that that would create that sort of debate, I’m sure it wasn’t his intention to create a debate. He was just doing what he wanted to do – what he felt was right for his show. We’re doing the same. Whether or not what we’re doing is in the best interests of our show is a matter of debate, and there’s no way that we can enter into the debate, because were’ the ones who did it. We could say, “Yes, this was great!” And the fans would say that we jumped the shark. I love the idea that some fans are literally saying we jumped the shark last night! 119 hours in! We finally jumped the shark! So good! You guys are going to spare yourselves the agita of the final three hours of the show.

And I should say I was not challenging the whole plan/not-plan issue with that question. What I meant was, was one of the purposes of the sideways a chance to, before we get to the end, revisit these characters in a state similar to how they were before the plane crashed?

CC: The anser to that quesiton is yes. We wanted there to be a symmetry to the show from the first season to the last season. In the first season, the show was very character-centric, and one of the great revelations was discovering who these people were. It’s revelatory when you learn Kate is a fugitive and Sawyer’s a con man and Hurley’s a lottery winner. We wanted to have that same sense of revelation be a part of the final season. We wanted to bring the show back around to the characters and give a sense of this journey kind of coming full circle. We felt the sideways were a good narrative device to do that. You’ll see in the end how the narrative closes. It’s always how we saw the show working out, and we stand by it.

You’ve talked about the idea that you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and you can’t please everybody. But how much of a sense of responsibility do you feel you have – that the ending has – to the legacy of the show? There are some people who say, “Oh, if I don’t like the ending, this has all been a big waste of time,” and others who say they still will enjoy what they watched until then, and then others who say that if you don’t stick the landing, they’re never going to watch another show like “Lost” for fear of being strung along again.

DL: There are people who are in relationships with loved ones and then that relationship ends horribly and they say I’m never going to fall in love again. Diferent people are going to have different reactions. There are shows like “Seinfeld” where one guy says the “Seinfeld” finale wasn’t a great finale, but it doesn’t make it not be a great series, because it’s a sitcom. “Battlestar” was one where the vocal fanbase said the finale affected in hindsight their entire experience of the show. But other people who said they loved the finale, and it made the series better for them. But because they chose to end their own show, we are opening ourselves up to the fact that an inordinate amoung of attention will be paid to the finale itself. The day after the finale ends, and the month after the finale ends, all anyone is going to be talking about is the finale. But hopefully a year or two or three or five years down the line, people are talking about the series as a whole. And certainly, that perception will be colored by whether or not they liked the finale, and newbies may be less likely to try the show if the zeitgeist says, “The last episode of ‘Lost’ was so bad that it made every episode that preceded it terrible.” That’s going to have an affect, but who are we to say what people are going to think?

Okay, finally, I have to ask, simply because it’s been driving me nuts for a year and a half: what’s going on with showing the other half of the outrigger shootout?

CC: The outrigger shootout is not something we’re bending around in gyrations so we can solve it. In the grand scheme of the show, that is a fairly obscure piece of the show. It is your particular obsession…

DL: …and you’re not alone in it.

CC: You’re not alone in it. And yes, it would have been great if we had had the opportunity to close the time loop. But you can’t get everything done and keeping the narrative going in a straight line. This is one of those things where we made a very conscious choice to ask, “What are the big questions? And most importantly, what are the paths of these characters? Where do they lead?” And we followed those paths and tried not to trip ourselves up getting too diverted from that. We felt that that’s the thing that’s ultimately going to make the finale work or not work. We got to the point where we made the finale we wanted to make, that was our approach, and I think it was the only approach we could take. We sat here in my office, had breakfast every day for six years, talked about the show, and we used this gut check methodology, where if we both loved something and thought it was cool, that would go in. We applied that same methodology to the finale, and that was the only way we could do it. We came up with a finale that we thought was cool, that was emotional and one we really liked. That’s the best we could do.

When we wrote that scene and somebody started shooting at them, we knew exactly who was shooting at them. That is not a dangling thread that we don’t know the answer to. That being said, as we started talking about paying that off this season, it felt like the episode was at the service of closing the time loop, as opposed to what the characters might actually be doing in that scenario. It never felt organic. We decided we would rather take our lumps from the people who couldn’t scratch that itch than to produce an episode that was in service of putting people in an outrigger and getting shot at.

You put people in a lot of outriggers this season. It feels, frankly, like you’re taunting me.

DL: We can’t entirely deny that we’re taunting you.

CC: Honestly, though, the logistics of getting all the participants in the outriggers in the configuration that was on the A-side of the time loop was actually really daunting.

DL: Considering half of them had been killed off

CC: It’s not like we didn’t want to do it. Like Damon says, it was just too much of a narrative deviation to do it.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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