Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Law & Order & Lost say goodbye: Why no answer is often better

In Christopher Marlowe's Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, the unhappy doctor who has made a deal with the devil asks Mephistopheles to answer his many questions. One is a doozy; Faustus wants to know why eclipses and such are different from year to year: Well, resolve me in this question: Why have we not conjunctions, oppositions, aspects, eclipses, all at one time, but in some years we have more, in some less? 

Mephistopheles says immediately, On account of their unequal motion in relation to the whole.

You know what Faustus says? Well, I am answered. It's a colossal disappointment to receive an answer that you have not worked out for yourself. I think of Faustus often when I watch Law & Order, and this week Law & Order went away without burdening us in the way Mephistopheles burdened Faustus.

Just like that, while the world was watching Lost, one of the greatest shows ever came to an end: Law & Order, on the air for twenty full seasons, came to an end with a finale that wasn't even a finale. In a way this was fitting.

Sure, there could have been a series ender of the traditional sort, that saw fit to bring back favorite characters from the past-- I picture Michael Moriarty and Jill Hennessey for some reason on opposite sides of a case that manages to bring in everyone. That didn't happen because the show didn't plan to be canceled. I get that; a lot of us don't plan to be canceled and wind up that way.

I think I'm glad there was no finale, though. One thing I always appreciated about Law & Order was how it flouted convention, how it made a glacial suspense out of whether we might learn more about the characters. The show was about the crime of the day and the law to be applied, and though living humans investigated and lawyered, we weren't bludgeoned with endless discussion of what moved them, what they wanted, why they talked the way they talked, whether they wanted something more. We the viewers could guess at these things, but we saw only snatches, we would learn through a snippet of dialog that two characters had slept together-- a while back, so it doesn't matter now, and another character died, offscreen, but there's work to do, and you catch an instant of despair and that's all. There's plot going on in the character's lives, and if we pay attention we can glean it, and honestly whatever we glean will be better than whatever they could tell us. I simply loved this. I find the mystery more satisfying.

And as anyone who watched the Lost finale can attest (and really, did you expect a better experience than the equally disappointing X-Files finale?) explanations are bound to disappoint anyway.

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