Samuel Brace on mystery, resolution and the virtue of ambiguity…
A mystery, a puzzle that needs solving, and the facts unknown are key ingredients to what brings us back to our favourite TV shows episode after episode. They are the factors that hold our attention as a movie plays. The fact that all the pieces to a puzzle aren’t ready and available to us right from the get go is why we continue to watch. Well, at least it used to be.
There has been a change in how we want our content to be presented to us and how we want our stories to develop. We have become obsessed with resolution, with closure, if things aren’t all wrapped up nice and neat, more and more, many of us are becoming frustrated, annoyed, even taking this approach to content making as a sign of poor quality, or just something we don’t like. The vast majority of content — in both film and TV — is becoming a black and white affair where every mystery or ambiguous moment has to be quickly answered. If by the end of proceedings things aren’t explained to us in an easily digestible way, we tend to turn off as a culture. For whatever reason, we have chosen to be spoon fed.
The debut episode of HBO’s second season of The Leftovers landed just last week, an episode, like the show itself, which is wrapped in mystery and intrigue. It is a show that is cryptic by nature, which asks questions of its audience but chooses to not answer those questions for them. This is a series that deals in metaphors, scenes of vague happenings that on the surface don’t make much sense, that require the viewer to think a little about what they are watching. Speaking to some fellow viewers of this show, this is a problem for them. They don’t like or enjoy this style of storytelling at all. They need answers and they need them sooner rather than later. So god forbid if a series like The Leftovers chooses to make them interpret events for themselves.
The Leftovers is undoubtedly a reaction to co-creator Damon Lindelof’s work on Lost, a show while wildly popular in its early days; soon found itself with a much smaller and frustrated audience. Lost was a show with a lot of ideas, a show that was steeped in mystery and intrigue. There were a lot of questions being asked in this series and unfortunately Lindelof and team felt the pressure from its audience to answer them. Even more unfortunately, the answers they then provided were convoluted or just plain stupid. Lindelof felt the pressure from Lost‘s failings and with his new series The Leftovers, he has gone — thankfully — in the other direction. He has helped create a show riddled with mystery, subtext and ambiguity. He has presented to us a show that requires us to look beyond the surface of things and this time he isn’t providing answers. Unfortunately his audience — for the most part — hasn’t seemed to have changed all that much.
For many that watch The Leftovers, the randomness and obscurity of the ideas presented are not captivating or intriguing, but frustrating, bordering on annoying. We have gotten to a point in the culture where we need black and white, good guys and bad guys, right and wrong. There is too much mystery in real life for these people, the world is an uncertain one, and they have decided that their fiction needs to be more clear cut and transparent.
For someone that champions the vague, the ideas that force me to think outside the box and analyse what might be underneath; this is a direction that is most disconcerting. There are so many films and shows throughout history that have provided us with fascinating conversations, plot points and moments to discuss with our friends and families because we were unsure of what we had witnessed, because debate was needed. Films like Mulholland Drive, where nothing was certain, nothing was clear. Films like The Thing and Blade Runner, whose endings weren’t quite so definite and that left the audience hanging. Even recent films like Drive and Martha Marcy May Marlene, these films provide talking points and things to discuss. Without that intrigue what would we talk about? A huge part of enjoying a film is getting to speak with others after the fact. If our entertainment becomes nothing but spoon fed information that answers its questions almost before asking them, things would become pretty boring. Things ARE becoming pretty boring.
The beauty of what Lost once was is that it encouraged conversation. I’ll never forget talking with my friends at school and my mother at home about last week’s events, about what it all might mean. I recall lunch times filled with debate over what the monster in the jungle was, or who The Others could be. Sometimes the unknown is far more interesting than the alternative, and sometimes it’s okay and often better when things don’t get answered. Resolution isn’t as vital as it’s made out to be. Perhaps my sensibilities are contrary to the norm but imagine how much better Lost would have turned out to be if we didn’t force the show to answer every mystery that it ever presented to us. Why couldn’t The Others have remained hidden? Why did we need to know where that polar bear came from? Whatever we imagined in our heads would have surely been better. Imagine if Lost ended at the end of season two, or one for that fact? Yes, there would be plenty unresolved but our memories of that show would have been greatly improved. Do we really want The Leftovers to start explaining everything, all the mysteries large and small? It would be awful. There would no point in watching. We have imaginations for a reason. And more importantly, sometimes things just can’t be explained.
The sad truth of the matter is that shows like The Leftovers are in the minority, most shows aren’t brave enough to challenge their audience. Sure, there is a place for content that just washes over you without much thought required, but when this type of product becomes the norm, it causes audiences to then react negatively towards fiction that puts great value in its ambiguity. The reality is that we are moving towards a very dull state of affairs. It’s this kind of myopic thinking that dulls creation, that encourages our content makers to pump out copies of copies, dramas and comedies that have nothing innately interesting about them whatsoever. It’s a dangerous road we find ourselves on. There are a small number of other shows providing similar content to The Leftovers, shows like Hannibal — now finished — that presented its viewers with outrageously obscure imagery and then just let it be. Hannibal wanted us to think, to take in the themes and story of the show through other means beside from dialogue and exposition. This type of show unfortunately is a rare sight but when witnessed with an open mind it can be truly invigorating.
We should thank the stars that shows like Hannibal and The Leftovers exist today. We should be grateful that films like Drive , Martha Marcy May Marlene and to a more mainstream extent the movies of Christopher Nolan are accessible to us. Without them these mediums would be quite dull affairs. The power of TV and film is that it encourages debate and conversation. It can make us think in ways that we never thought we were able, or travel down paths that we never thought to take. If you as a viewer are willing to look a little deeper, past the surface of what is before you, the answers are more often than not there to be found. Sometimes however, the answers behind these mysteries aren’t available, sometimes resolution isn’t an option. And that’s completely okay. Life provides us with plenty of questions, questions that quite often don’t get answered. So why can’t this be represented in film and television? And when it is why do most reject it? We are moving in strange places culturally but do we really want a world without ambiguity? I sure don’t. We need depth in our lives, in fiction as much as anywhere else. Don’t be afraid of unanswered questions. Mysteries are fun. Ambiguity is not without virtue.