Seventeen Seconds Dead Air

The Girl just finished watching Lost for the first time and thus I was forced to play the role of Lost apologist. (her: “does kate ever stop being boring?” me: “kate is always boring, sorry”) Most flaws I admit readily but one common complaint against it I’ll always defend as its greatest success: the endless procession of unexplained mysteries and strangenesses. Lost was at its overambitious best when it piled up mystery after mystery at high velocity, answering questions with total insanity that only raised dozens more questions. What’s in that hatch? Oh, it’s a button that ends the world if you don’t press it. How does that work? Because there’s a magic time-travelling steering wheel beneath it. What is with that spirit horse? Why are all these characters named after philosophers that have no bearing on the plot? Why does that statue have four toes?

Maybe I’m unique in this but I find incompleteness to be compelling. The writers can promise that EVERYTHING IS PLANNED and you will be AMAZED AND ASTONISHED but in reality it’s usually a letdown when the central mystery is revealed to be aliens/God/destiny/whatever routine explanation is supposed to satisfy. The unknown and unknowable answers are the ones that dig into my brain and give me that tingling spooky feeling. When The X-Files tipped its hand it revealed that the real ultimate truth was irredeemably campy. When Twin Peaks ended with a batshit insane non-ending it produced maybe one of the greatest TV episodes of all time, because that thing can resolve any number of different ways in different viewers’ heads. You get to pick the answer you want.

Lost was about the unknown, the Fortean, about the writers making up the craziest things they could think of in each season finale and then trying to explain them in the next season. It was inevitable that the final explanation would some large chunk of the audience. It’s an okay ending, but it’s not a great one. It doesn’t leave you with the same sense of mystery you came in with. But then explanations are rarely as compelling as mysteries.

In 1978 an Australian Cessna pilot disappeared along with his aircraft, after reporting another strange aircraft hovering above him. There’s a recording of his final transmission. I’ve never been able to track it down. But it ends with seventeen seconds of dead air and metallic noises. Even here sitting on my bed in the sunshine the thought of it gives me goosebumps. There is no final explanation, no authorial plan to give us answers. There is only the knowledge that strange things might be out there, that sometimes there’s a hole in reality that you can fall into and never return from. Seventeen seconds dead air and then nothing ever again.

So why not in fiction too? Look at Picnic at Hanging Rock, also perhaps not coincidentally from Australia, and there is the perfect mystery movie. Nothing is resolved or explained but it wriggles around the edges suggesting hints of something great and terrifying. When the novel it was based on first came out people assumed it was based on a true story, because it all unfolds the same way things do in reality: the truth is only glimpsed in slivers that serve to confuse instead of clarify. And when audiences first saw it they reportedly hated it, because they felt it wasted their time and made no sense. Why does everything have to be answered all the time? Why not embrace the unknowable?

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One Comment on “Seventeen Seconds Dead Air”

  1. lostnlost says:

    As someone who has every single answer in the show….. the show is much better when you don’t know the answers and its just a mystery.

    People don’t know what’s good for them when the writers didn’t spoon feed them.


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