“Artists should not be trusted. If an artist is not deceitful
every so often in the cause of his art, then he is a poor artist.”
-- Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev
LOST was quite possibly one of the biggest shows to hit television in the last decade. More remarkable was the fact that it was ostensibly “cult television” and yet it still hit it big in the mainstream. It was never the highest rated show on television, but it was in the American top-20 for most of its six-year run, it was the most recorded TV show at the time, and it was also an international sensation. It garnered 55 Emmy nominations (the American equivalent of BAFTAs) winning 11; many critics once called one of the greatest shows ever made.
As far as this blog is concerned, we shouldn’t be surprised. Like Doctor Who, LOST provided a means by which disparate genres could be smashed together. Doctor Who has the TARDIS; LOST had The Island. A place for people who were metaphorically lost in their lives, it allowed all kinds of different stories to play out. One week The Fugitive would be running about helping people and all the while trying to evade the law. Next week there might be a medical drama, followed by a comedy, a family drama, a love story, a con game, or a tragedy. This all got mixed in with the adventure of exploring a mysterious Island, populated by ghosts, time travel, an Island god, and a Smoke Monster for good measure. It hit the sweet spot of soap tropes and “genre” mythology.
Today its reputation is far different, and it’s impossible to go back and watch it again without keeping this in mind. The finale (as was the case for most of its final season) was largely panned, and it isn’t unusual to find it on a critic’s “10 worst” list of some sort or another. People expected answers that were never delivered; new but less compelling characters came to the forefront; the show veered into iconography better found in a greeting card penned by Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Which really begs the question: What the hell happened?
~~~ whooosh ~~~
KATE: We have to go back for him.
CHARLIE: Go back? There? Kate, there's a certain
gargantuan quality about this thing.
(1x01: Pilot, Part 1)
~~~ whooosh ~~~
It’s August 15th, 2005. Oasis is poised to hit number one, with McFly, Babyshambles, Iron Maiden, and British Whale all charting. Americans are killing Iraqis, but Indonesia signs a peace treaty with the Free Aceh Movement, so there’s that. India celebrates its 60th Independence Day. Helios Airways Flight 522 crashes near Athens, killing 121.
While on Netflix, it’s Disc One of Season One of LOST. I inhale it quicker than Bill Clinton can suck down a cigar. Yes, I’m late, almost a year late to the LOST party (it premiered on September 22nd, the Fall Equinox of 2004) but it won’t take me long to go back and get caught up. I’m struck by how cinematic the show is – lead directors Jack Bender, Stephen Williams, and Tucker Gates know their stuff, and of course JJ Abrams directed the twin pilot episodes, and of course Hawaii makes for a gorgeous backdrop. It’s immediately apparent that this also a literary project – from the character naming conventions (famous authors, foundational philosophers, and blatant allusions) to how quickly it dives into serious subject matter, be it a debate on euthanasia, the nature of human politics, or how to survive a crash landing in the South Pacific.
For most people, the introduction of the Monster (still hidden under cover of night) at the end of Act One sufficed as a hook; others immediately began translating the varying iterations of the Frenchwoman’s transmission at the end of Pilot Part Two, but for me it was the construction of Walkabout, the 4thepisode of the series that put the nail in my coffin. This is the first episode to feature John Locke, who in Flashback is seen to be a lonely, angry, office drone of a man, a lumpen who rails against being told what he can’t do. Locke, we discover, works at a box company, is nicknamed “box man”, and even wanted to be a boxer when he was a teenager.
It’s deliciously character-centric, and yet it’s the Reveal of his plight in Australia that’s astonishing, coupled with the emotional climax of his rising off the beach of the Island after the plane crash, hooking your faithful writer like a rainbow trout out of Candlewood Lake. I should have known better, of course, given that “fish” are highlighted in this episode as symbolic of “faith,” but also of “suckers” – of marks taken in by con artists.
~~~ whooosh ~~~
SUN: I want to go back to the beginning. Can't we just start all over?
(1x17: …In Translation)
~~~ whooosh ~~~
To properly understand LOST, one must examine the underlying philosophy of JJ Abrams’ storytelling. While Abrams wasn’t generally involved with the show much beyond its launch, he did lay the groundwork with Damon Lindelof, who ran the show with Carlton Cuse all the way to the end.
In 2007, Abrams gave a TED talkconcerning LOST. He brings up his grandfather, Harry Kelvin, who would bring over radios and TVs (boxes) and open them up for Abrams to see how they worked. This got Abrams deeply invested in boxes. One day, because Kelvin got Abrams interested in stage magic, Abrams bought a box from a magic store, a Mystery Box that contained a surprising number of magic tricks. Abrams, however, didn’t open the box. He was having too much fun imagining what could be inside. In fact, as long he never opened the box, it could very well be anything! Which made the Mystery Box all the more enticing. This, then, became a guiding narrative principle: Mystery was such an effective hook that it could be employed throughout a story to generate constant tension and curiosity.
This is, in fact, how LOST was structured. It set up two grand Mystery Boxes (The Island and The Smoke Monster) which were endlessly deferred while several other Mystery Boxes provided periodic Reveals as a show of good faith. Any time a box was opened – for example, meeting the Frenchwoman whose radio transmission generated such excitement in the second pilot episode – a new mystery box would be put on display -- like, what the hell happened to her to make her this way? In other words, answering a question simply leads to another question.
There are a couple problems with this method of storytelling. First, using a Hook – a first-act device – through an entire story can lead to deficits in other areas, from poor plot development in the second act to unsatisfying climaxes (Reveals) in the third. A story that’s made entirely of hooks simply begins to sting; there’s never any fish to cook. Second, and more egregious, this principle is often extended to characters as well. This poses a dramatic problem, because while it’s enticing to anticipate what’s in a Mystery Box, it’s difficult to believe in or fully appreciate the conflicts between characters when we don’t know what’s actually motivating them.
Mind you, the Mystery Box lecture Abrams delivered for his TED talk was directly in response to all the questions he received about LOST, and specifically about the nature of the Island. Much digital ink has been spilled about the show’s failure to deliver on that particular Reveal, but Abrams closes the TED talk specifically with an admonishment that the Mystery Box will remain closed. (And what’s with the bit about showing us two characters mirroring each other, and the appreciation of sleight-of-hand over explosions? No one ever brings this up.)
Anyone who’s seen this lecture should have guessed that the Reveal of the Island would never happen. While it’s fair notice – well, not really, given that most people who watch TV don’t watch TED talks – it’s not particularly satisfying on dramatic grounds. The only justification for such ambiguity is if the narrative itself provides enough clues for the savvy viewer to figure out a plausible theory. Even so, doesn’t tackling such a puzzle box amount to little more than a leap of faith?
~~~ whooosh ~~~
JACK: You didn't want to go back there. Did you know about this?
HURLEY: Jacob kind of, sort of, hinted at it...
(6x05: The Lighthouse)
~~~ whooosh ~~~
It’s April 16th, 2006. Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” tops the charts, and has been topping the charts since David Gilmour’s album “On an Island” disappeared. The Danube floods in Eastern Europe, displacing hundreds of people. Dan Brown, writer of The DaVinci Code, fends off a copyright suit from Henry Lincoln, writer of Holy Blood Holy Grail and three Doctor Who stories. Scientists conclude that containment of the avian flu pandemic has failed.
While in my Easter basket, courtesy of the love of my life my ex, it’s The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien. As if I don’t have enough to read, given the rigors of the academic life, but this one’s a treat. It’s a masterpiece of postmodernism, but it was virtually unheard of before it appeared in “Orientation,” the third episode of Lost’s second season. The book details the surreal experiences of an unnamed amateur scholar of De Selby, a fictional philosopher-scientist with decidedly eccentric and esoteric ideas on the nature of the Universe. De Selby’s outlandish theories put LOST theorists to shame.
More to the point, it also opens up a new way for me to appreciate the epic mythology that is LOST. Since getting hooked on the show, I’ve taken an intertextual approach. It starts with Watership Down, a childhood favorite that appears early in the first season, and which vaguely foreshadows future events on the show. When A Wrinkle in Time appears later in the season, I happily re-read it, and am handsomely rewarded with a fabulous joke in the 19th episode, “Deus Ex Machina.”
But The Third Policeman is something else entirely. In the end, it’s revealed that the despicable protagonist is dead, in hell, and that hell is an eternally recurring Sisyphean circle that keeps getting forgotten. So, if the books are intertextually relevant and not simply gratuitous – as all the other titles that have appeared in the show bear out – it seems I’ll have to go back and watch it again, with an eye for cracks in the narrative that allude to such circularity. I wonder if Nietzsche has been referenced yet?
~~~ whooosh ~~~
KATE: I've spent the last three years trying to forget
all the horrible things that happened on the day that we left.
How dare you ask me to go back?
(4x13: There’s No Place Like Home, Part 2)
~~~ whooosh ~~~
If one hopes to decode LOST through literary analysis, a library is required. Nearly a hundred different titles appeared in the show, and coupled with the enormous number of other references to philosophers, scientists, and critics (hello, “Brother Campbell”) one could spend far more time studying external sources than watching the show itself, which is saying something, given that LOST is comprised of 121 episodes of television, all in service to a single story.
The bigger problem with a puzzle-box story is that most people aren’t watching stories to decode puzzles, they’re watching to see characters in conflict, and how those conflicts evolve and resolve. In this respect, LOST somewhat acquits itself. While few of its characters are actually likeable, the huge cast provides a myriad of different faces to follow, and even identify with. And indeed, the show has consistently devoted itself to character-based storytelling, even within the framework of epic mythology.
This is as good a place as any to highlight one of LOST’s main narrative conventions, which is the use of FlashBacks to tell its story. The vast majority of the episodes focus on one of the main characters, to go back and explore the resounding climaxes in a life prior to arriving on the Island. This allows the show to have its cake and eat it too, by juxtaposing heavily mythological content with mundane ordinary life, week after week, with a different character. In this respect the show has an almost anthologized feel to it, not unlike Doctor Who – if you don’t like Jack Shephard, for example, don’t worry, because next week will have Kate Austin in focus, or Hugo Reyes.
This technique was much more effective in the early going of the show, when each character was a Mystery Box, and the FlashBacks were actually revealing of character. At their best, the character stories were heavily laden with dramatic irony, often via supporting characters, as in “The Moth” which showed Charlie Pace’s journey from choir-boy to drug addict, a mirror-image of his brother Liam, who starts out as the wannabee rock-star and ends up a straight-laced family man. The two fates are the same, but the characters trade places, replacing each other in their crossing trajectories.
Another example: Jack Shephard was originally supposed to die in the Pilot episode. The network honchos said that wouldn’t work, so Abrams and Lindelof replaced Jack’s death with the death of the airplane pilot. The pilot takes Jack’s place, but in the meantime the two characters are juxtaposed: Jack opens the episode lying on the ground, alive, with a close-up on his opening right eye that reflects the trees and sky above. The pilot, whose right eye is swollen shut, is found through a reflection in a puddle of water on the ground, which reveals up in the trees, dead. Jack says he trained to be a pilot, but it wasn’t for him. Architecturally it’s rather clever.
But at times this “X” structure stretched credulity. John Locke and Ben Linus were similarly juxtaposed, but through some incredibly coincidental trivia – their mothers share the name Emily, they both have operations on their backs, they both spend time in wheelchairs, they both moved a mystical Wheel in the heart of the Island, and they even share similar lines of dialogue. This builds to the crescendo of John replacing Ben as the leader of the Others, and Ben becoming the butt of a cosmic joke – a contrivance with a reprehensible entailment.
In the LOST universe, the roles people can play are fixed, not unlike Campbellian archetypes. The characters can swap places, but there’s no opportunity to fundamentally change the material social dynamics of the different roles in play. This is the very antithesis of progress, not to mention of alchemy. It’s more like a game of musical chairs, but worse, because it never ends.
~~~ whooosh ~~~
BEN: So how is it that you think you know this island better than I do?
LOCKE: Because you're in the wheelchair, and I'm not.
BEN: I want to help you, John.
BEN: Because I'm in a wheelchair and you're not. Are you ready to see?
(3x13: The Man From Tallahassee)
~~~ whooosh ~~~
It’s September 26th, 2006. Blah blah blah.
While in the world of games, it’s the end of LOST’s first Alternative Reality Game, or ARG, otherwise known as “The Lost Experience” or “the TLE,” which is, yes, redundant. Now, anyone who knows me know that I love games, especially when there’s a computer of some sort involved; after all, as a child, I played games on a Commodore machine. But the TLE isn’t really a game so much as a webmaze, a scavenger hunt for clues to LOST’s mythology that takes place all over the Internet. And it completely wastes one of my summers.
This ARG doesn’t just take place on the Net. Parts of it take place in the Real World™ with the distribution of Apollo Candy Bars. It’s first alluded to in a fake commercial (like one of those fake ads in GAMES magazine) that aired back in the Spring of 2006, advertising the website of the fictional Hanso Foundation, which on LOST was the organization that funded the Dharma Initiative that left behind all those Hatches filled with rusting technological boondoggles on the Island. And indeed, the parallel “story” of the TLE includes a fictional character (Rachel Blake, aka “Persephone”) interacting with real people on the internet.
(This isn’t the last time a weird commercial appears during a LOST broadcast. For the Season Four finale, for example, which introduced the Dharma Initiative’s Orchid Station, Old Navy will run a commercial that features an “orchid print” dress, despite the fact that no such dress exists in their catalog. However, the commercial also has a soundtrack culled from Lights’ “Last Thing on Your Mind,” so there’s that.)
The TLE, in other words, is not only an opportunity to keep marketing the show during its summer hiatus, and not only a way for the showrunners to flesh out non-crucial backstory to their epic without intruding on the television show proper, it’s a way for the show to blur the edges between fiction and reality. So, on the show, Hurley and Sawyer discover a manuscript called “Bad Twin” (written by the fictional Gary Troup, which is an anagram) before Jack throws it into the fire. In real life, the manuscript is actually published, a mediocre potboiler that purports to expose salacious details of minor characters on the show, but which contributes very little to actually understanding LOST, other than, perhaps, its use of “mirror-twin” characters – literally twins, but with reversed facial characteristics – as a source of metaphor for the show at large. (It was actually pretty awful, and I’m not tempted to go back to it again, even as reference material.)
I’m more disappointed in the final Reveal of the TLE – a woman is reconciled with her father, playing the same note of “daddy issues” that have been prevalent in the show – but still, the notion of a “breach” between the show and the culture surrounding it is much more interesting. I mean, I watch a lot of TV, and I couldn’t help but notice that LOST was getting referenced in other shows – a fortune cookie with Hurley’s numbers showed up on Veronica Mars, for example, or Chuck from “Chuck” announcing, during a close-up on his eye, that he knows the secret behind Flight 815, the plane that crashed on the Island in the very beginning of the show – on the actual date that the show first aired.
It’s also around this time that I start getting active in online communities devoted to discussing and dissecting LOST. That is to say, it isn’t just impinging on my reading habits, and interfering with my other studies, but that it’s becoming a part of my social life as well. Which, frankly, is one of the best things to come out of LOST. I’m not exactly a people-person, but interacting over the Internet is something I actually find enjoyable. Especially when I can employ an avatar and any number of different names. It’s interesting to see how people’s attitudes and ways of interacting change depending on who they think they’re talking to. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for authenticity – well, as long as your mail isn’t getting stolen or anything like that.
It’s also instructive for understanding LOST. So many characters on the show are not who they say they are, and there are even a few who aren’t who they think they are, well, according to the Season Two trailers. This might explain why so many of them have such striking names, like “Christian Shepherd” or “Mikhail Bakhunin.” The ethic of the confidence man rules, and very much in the postmodern fashion suggested by Melville’s “Confidence Man,” the last novel he wrote.
It’s at the online forum called The Fuselage that I become acquainted with one Robert Goodman, who claims to be a friend of showrunner Damon Lindelof’s (dead) father, and indeed of Damon himself. Goodman proposes a game where every narrative convention in the show has to have a diegetic purpose. This allows him to spin a grand conspiracy narrative explaining the show – Walt wasn’t lucky, he was a con-artist who used loaded dice at backgammon; the characters picked fake names to indicate to other characters which sides they were on; there was a security system on the Island that prevented anyone from speaking of the true nature of their deceptions; and so on. It’s an inventive theory, and though obviously demented, it speaks to the conspiracy-theory paranoia undercurrents of American culture.
Another online personality, “Ada” at the ABC boards, tried instructing hard-core fans on the art of “close reading” the show. Pointing out not just the blatant literary references, but the kinds of literary techniques the show was using – repeated dialogue, mythological symbolism, the importance of episode titles as clues to character analysis, how to make a timeline, and even something as basic as noticing which numbers keep coming up over and over again.
I think I’m finally starting to “get” LOST.
~~~ whooosh ~~~
DESMOND: Why'd you try and to kill me?
CHARLIE: I didn't try and kill you. I was trying to show you something.
(6x11: Happily Ever After)
~~~ whooosh ~~~
One of the things that became apparent through the online ARG, The Lost Experience, was that the showrunners were more actively engaged with their audience (or, to be specific, with their fandom) than either had previously enjoyed.
Indeed, this has become a model for showrunning. Damon and Carlton got into the habit of hosting semi-regular podcasts to dissect recently aired episodes, and to respond to criticism of those episodes. They granted numerous interviews, interviews which were picked over in search of clues that might reveal the nature of their show, not to mention the Island. Many people on the show, from production staff to the talent, would post on online forums like The Fuselage. They became headliners at cult-ish events like San Diego Comic Con. Damon even wrote an essay about Harry Potter for the New York Times, all the while drawing (misleading) comparisons to LOST.
Of course, this is all part of marketing a show now, generating buzz, keeping audiences engaged. But it provided them several opportunities, related to the Mystery Box nature of the show itself, to fuck with their audience.
First, they lied incessantly. Early in Season One, for example, Damon stated unequivocally that there was “no time travel,” which later turned out to be quite the red herring. This lying had some rather felicitous entailments. On the one hand, it helped to mitigate spoilers, through the spread of misinformation, and misdirecting those hardcore fans who were determined to unearth the Island’s secrets in advance of a Reveal, preserving the sanctity of the Mystery Box. On the other hand, and far more important, it made Darlton into unreliable narrators, which in turn made it easier for fans to spin their own theories on the show without relying on external authorities to validate (or invalidate) them. In essence, this kind of showrunning pays homage to the Death of the Author; one must consult the text in order to determine what’s actually being said.
The other implication of this interactive form of showrunning has to do with using the show to reflect back to the audience what they’ve been voicing about the show. In this respect, the use of many Mystery Boxes can function like so many mirrors. When the Hatch was conceived in Season One, the writers didn’t actually know what was going to be found inside; after all, they didn’t even know at the time if the show was going to be renewed or cancelled.
So a Mystery Box can have nothing at all inside of it, except a plan to put something into it culled from audience speculation. The idea of finding TV dinners and rusted-out world-saving technology appealed to the writers, so they built the Dharma Initiative out of those visions.
Using the Mystery Box notion extended through the run of the show, and provided more opportunities for the show to respond to its audience. In 2009, when one very creative online theorist likened LOST to The Muppet Show, including a detailed mapping of LOST’s characters to the iconic Muppets, she was rewarded with a flash of Kermit the Frog on one of the Dharma Initiative’s monitors less than a week later – and such a feat is possible in last-minute post-production when the show is filmed with all monitors covered in blue-screen cut-outs for future editing.
Another theorist likened the show’s use of coincidence to Lawrence Weschler’s “Everything That Rises: a Book of Convergences,” spawning a discussion of Flannery O’Connor’s collection of short stories as related to LOST, in particular regards to its spiritual concerns; in the Season Five finale, the mysterious Jacob is seen reading O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” just before touching John Locke and bringing him back to life the latter’s fall from the eighth story of a skyscraper. Other online theorists have seemingly had their work acknowledged through inserted references to Stephen King’s “The Shining” and Philip K Dick’s “VALIS.”
~~~ whooosh ~~~
CLAIRE: People don't seem to look me in the eye here. I
think I scare them. The baby... It's like I'm this time bomb
of responsibility just waiting to go off.
(1x05: White Rabbit)
~~~ whooosh ~~~
It’s December 1st, 2007, and I think I’m going insane. I’ve got LOST pouring out my ears. My work has suffered due to my obsession with this show. But I’m so close to figuring it out! It has something to do with mirrors. Reversed images. Continuity errors that are too on-the-nose to be anything but deliberate. And I’m sure that the writers are seeding the online forums with clues. It would be so easy for them to create fake online personas – after all, they’re in the business of making up characters. The writers are “the Others” – everything on the show has a real-world analogue. It’s a Breach between fiction and reality.
The Island is a resurrection hub. When you die, you go back, and you can change things, but only the latest iteration can be shown. The FlashBacks are particularly dangerous. The characters don’t know they’re having them. It’s clearest to see with Claire, whose name means Clarity. In “Raised by Another” (raised by an other?) she starts having flashbacks, and starts getting sick. She’s filled with regret, with guilt, and the Smoke Monster is keenly attuned to it. She’s about to make a decision that might create a paradox – if she doesn’t take the tickets to get on Flight 815, she’d never come to the Island, never have flashbacks, never not take the tickets. But she takes them because Charlie has faith in Malkin, the psychic con-man.
In fact, I’m sure that in a prior iteration, Claire’s flashbacks caused her to get Smoked. Charlie saw it happen, and Ethan showed him how to go back and stop it from happening. Ethan hung Charlie from a Banyan Tree, and Charlie traveled back in time. There’s a reversed image of Charlie running through the trees, right before Claire’s fateful flashbacks. I found it because of Magritte’s painting, “Carte Blanche,” a repeated phrase in Outlaws. And now Charlie’s necklace is reversed – a continuity error. No wonder his head is haloed by vines after Jack retrieves him from the Banyan Tree! Charlie sacrificed himself to save Claire. A leap of faith, all the way around.
In Claire’s next centric episode, which explains her disappearance after Ethan kidnapped her, there’s a FlashBack where Claire asks Ethan what happened to Charlie. Ethan says, “Oh, he’s fine. When we got far enough away from camp, I let him go back.” He let him go back.So it’s true. On LOST, “to die” means “to go back.”
~~~ whooosh ~~~
HURLEY: They all think I'm dead. When we get rescued
and I go back, I'm gonna be free.
(4x01: The Beginning of the End)
~~~ whooosh ~~~
After three years of fleshing out the characters through FlashBacks, that particular narrative convention had thoroughly run its course. The characters were no longer mysteries, and the flashback conceit had become very predictable.
It was at this point that the Cuse and Lindelof decided to switch things up and start playing with the narrative convention itself. For the Season Three finale, “Through the Looking Glass,” they replaced Jack’s FlashBacks with FlashForwards. They did this without making it apparent until the very end of the story, when Jack implored Kate to go back to the Island as they stood at the edge of an airport runway.
This game-changing device, called “the Snake in the Mailbox,” was perhaps the greatest twist in the show’s history, but it also marked the beginning of the end. By showing us the characters’ futures off the Island, the show lost a lot of its dramatic impact. Well before the end of the next season, everyone knew who would make it off the Island and who would get left behind. The main narrative principle of the show, the setting up of a Mystery Box for a subsequent Reveal, had been violated. Effects preceded causes, denuding the events on the Island of any tension – if we know that Sayid, for example, escapes the Island, there’s no real danger to his being captured by the Others.
So the show stopped being a character-driven drama, and took a hard turn towards plot-driven mythology dependent on cliffhangers, incredibly strained twists, and the proliferation of hunting for Easter Eggs.
Ah, Easter Eggs. It’s one of the things the show is famous for. On the one hand, it’s commendable that the show would trust its more devoted fans to study the show closely. On the other hand, it makes it less accessible to the typical casual viewer. To be clear, the show has employed Easter Eggs from the beginning. In the pilot episode, for example, the Frenchwoman’s transmission is supposedly on a loop, but each iteration of the message is slightly different – though one would need to translate French in order to know this. The Whispers were in fact highly processed voices that again would take technological prowess to decode. Other Easter Eggs were more benign – using Backgammon as a metaphor, or a sign in a medical facility misspelled as “Magnetic Resonance Imagining.”
And then there were the queer editing choices – certain reversed images that served no clear purpose, or having a background character speaking backwards. Splicing in images that would take a DVR to find. To expect an audience to wade through the show studying every line of dialogue, and every frame of footage, is frankly insane.
~~~ whooosh ~~~
LOCKE: What if everything that happened here, happened for a reason?
(1x05: White Rabbit)
~~~ whooosh ~~~
It’s December 4th, 2007, and I’ve started hearing voices. Obviously they’re in my head – I’m not so loony as to think they’re externally generated. They’re more like… whispers… and they tell me things about LOST.
Well, let me take that back. Sometimes they’re externally generated, but in a peculiar way. Like, I’ll be asking myself a question, and then a commercial comes on the television that answers that very question, but in the form of riddle or metaphor. Or, I’m wondering about the four-toed statue (it has a “lost toe”) and my best friend (definitely not my ex) starts telling me about an article concerning the latest “theory of everything” in quantum physics, including the fact that a TOE is an acronym for a “theory of everything.”
And then there are the problems with material reality. Both of my VCRs die in the span of a couple of days. How can I do a frame-by-frame analysis of the episodes coming next month without a VCR? Also, the toaster oven is acting up: I put two frozen hash-brown patties into it, side-by-side, and one comes out burnt while the other is still cold. Even my food has become “mirror twinned.”
Most peculiar of all, someone asked if I were pregnant. Ha ha, very funny. Nice way to say I’ve gained some weight lately. (I have gained some weight lately.)
But the Voices are what’s really bugging me. One of them definitely has a British accent, and another is certainly female. Lately they’ve been concerned with decoding Jacob’s Cabin as seen in the third-season episode “The Man Behind The Curtain.” This is one of those episodes were images and sounds were spliced in. In a fraction of a second, as John Locke shines a light on an empty chair in a creepy cabin, someone calls out “Help Me” while the cabin shakes and people and objects are thrown across the room. Locke accuses Ben of being a charlatan, of faking a supernatural event, and I believe Locke – until I see the screenshots.
Ever so briefly, there’s a splice of someone sitting in the Chair, and a close-up of someone’s Eye. And there’s a continuity error that follows this event: Ben replaces a lantern outside the cabin door after all this, even though the lantern broke inside the cabin when all hell broke loose.
The voices tell me that Ben was supposed to sit in the Chair and replace the person who’s sitting there, some poor time-traveler who got caught in a loop; hence the pathetic cry of “help me.” Locke, who’s been juxtaposed with Ben for the better part of the season, could have done it, but Ben ended up shooting Locke by the Dharma pit, where the bodies of the DI were dumped after The Purge. Regardless, whoever’s in the Chair will be stuck there indefinitely. Whoever this Jacob fellow is, I feel sorry for him. He obviously got tricked into his terrible fate.
I’ve also realized that Liam tricked Charlie into taking his place on Flight 815. But, did Liam do it out of self-preservation, because he didn’t want to drown in the Looking Glass? Or was it for the greater good, given that Charlie was a better musician and could properly enter the code for Good Vibrations to cut the jamming signal?
~~~ whooosh ~~~
JACK: It doesn't matter, Kate, who we were - what we did before this,
before the crash. It doesn't really... Three days ago we all died.
We should all be able to start over.
(1x03: Tabula Rasa)
~~~ whooosh ~~~
There were two types of LOST fans, for the most part. There were those who were primarily concerned with understanding the characters on the show and following their journeys, and there were those who were obsessed with understanding the mythology underlying the show, from the nature of the Smoke Monster and the Island to the evolution of The Others, the Dharma Initiative, and indeed the nature of the show they were watching.
This is, of course, a false dichotomy; most “theorists” had characters they gravitated towards, and most “shippers” were as pleased as anyone else about the discovery of the latest Hatch. Which makes sense – after all, the Mysteries of the Island were, in the end, wrapped up in the nature of the characters, and the characters themselves were revealed in juxtaposition to the strangeness they discovered on the Island.
Nonetheless, it’s a useful dichotomy for understanding the reception of LOST’s finale (and final season.) Those who were most satisfied with the show tended to be most concerned with the resolution of the characters’ stories, which they got, by and large; as it turns out, the characters needed only each other, not a damn mystery Island, to move on. Conversely, the people who were invested in a Sixth Sense type of reveal were sorely disappointed, as the Mystery Box was essentially kept closed, and what little was revealed was so steeped in obvious symbolism and ambiguity it might have been better just to chuck the box back into the ocean.
We’ve seen such dichotomies in fandoms before. It’s not exactly the same as the gun/frock debate amongst Whovians back in the 90’s, but its close. More generally, it’s the debate between plot-driven stories versus character-driven stories, but it goes further than that. This is because LOST, being a popular mainstream story, was understood through basic narrative conventions. Its ability to tell character stories through FlashBacks, for example, was possible only because we understand the conventions of prolepsis and analepsis, that stories don’t have to be told in a strictly chronological fashion.
But this same contract also applies to genre conventions. A Mystery Box story is supposed to have a Reveal, and indeed the early going of LOST seemed to promise such a Reveal – from the shocking revelation of John Locke’s chair at the end of Walkabout to the thorough exploration of the Swan Hatch throughout Season Two.
LOST made a deal with its fans, implicitly through its narrative conventions, but ultimately failed to deliver the goods.
~~~ whooosh ~~~
JULIET: I lied.
SAWYER: You lied?
JULIET: It was the only way he'd let us go back.
SAWYER: So why are you going back?
(3x22: Through the Looking Glass, Part 1)
~~~ whooosh ~~~
It’s December 8th, 2007. I’m watching TV with the love of my lifemy ex, and a bad rendition of A Christmas Carol for some sitcom episode gets quickly skipped over (I'm not the one wielding the buttons) and some other show comes on, probably the History Channel.
And I have a weird feeling. A not so good feeling. I don't know why, but I have the feeling that I’m going to die. Tonight. For some reason, I don't know why, I'm going to die this very night.
Downstairs, in the garage, Timmy the Rat Terrier rattles his chain. He's on a new short chain, 'cause he's been pooping where he shouldn't - he's a rescue dog, and not very amenable to training. I go downstairs, and I'm horrified - the dog is on the landing of the steps, right on the edge of falling off and choking to death from the short chain. I move him away from the ledge, and back upstairs to try to sleep. Again, the chain rattles, and again I go downstairs and scoot him away. Again the chain rattles, and this time I just remove it. My “ex” swears if the dog poops on the floor one more time, he's a goner. I promise myself I'll clean it up first thing in the morning; besides, the dog's going to kill himself tonight on that chain.
I go upstairs, and try to sleep, but I can't. I start running the loops in my head, over and over again, Charlie going to the Tree and getting hung, and he does this by Choice, to save Claire. Knowing what we know of Charlie, he would do this, he would sacrifice himself out of his love for another. Charlie's going to die so that he can Go Back, 'cause he saw Claire destroyed by the Smoke Monster. And then Ethan will have to take him to the Tree again, to complete the loop, and Charlie will forget it all.
Both stories have two versions of events, and for each story I play the loops simultaneously, one on one side of my mind, the other on the other side of my mind. It’s holographic, in 3D, but only one side can ever be shown.
And then there’s that poor man stuck in Jacob’s Chair. I wish I could help him. If I could sit in that Chair and free him from his torment, I would. I see the Chair whirring past me, holographically, and I sit in it. I sit in the Chair, and that’s when I died.
~~~ whooosh ~~~
CHARLIE: It's a mulligan. Mulligan. It's a gentleman's sport,
you've got to get the words right. Mulligan.
~~~ whooosh ~~~
In “Flashes Before Your Eyes”, the eighth story of season three, it’s revealed what happened to Desmond David Hume after he turned the key in the underbelly of the Swan Hatch, after the timer reached zero, replaced by mysterious Egyptian hieroglyphics that Darlton have lied about – they say the glyphs mean “Underworld,” but they’re actually lifted directly from the Admonitions of Ipuwur, a phrase properly translated as “to cause to die.” Desmond’s consciousness goes back in time, to another island (Britain) many years before he arrived in the South Pacific.
It’s almost the same as any other FlashBack we’ve seen before on LOST, but this one is different. First, we stay in FlashBack almost until the end of the episode – the FlashBack itself is a feature of the story. Second, the character of Desmond becomes aware that he’s in a FlashBack of some kind, especially when he encounters a woman named Hawking who’s determined to make sure he doesn’t make any changes to the decision process that led him to arrive on the Island in the first place.
This argument between Hawking and Hume manifests over the choice of whether to buy a “ring” for Hume’s lover, Penelope Widmore. The “ring” becomes a metaphor for what ends up being Hume’s time-loop, a causal loop from which he can’t escape. He ends up throwing the ring into a river – another metaphor for time, but of the linear variety. When his consciousness returns to the Island, he is “reborn” amidst the implosion of the Hatch, naked, and desperate to “go back”:
DESMOND: Please, let me go back. Let me go back
one more time. I'll do it right. I'll do it right this time.
I'm sorry, Penny. I'll change it. I'll change it.
This episode functions as a synecdoche for the series as a whole, or a Russian Nesting Doll if you prefer. It reveals that the heart of LOST is a time-travel story, driven by regret, a perfect union of myth and character. It also suggests that the narrative conventions for telling the story, namely the FlashBacks, the FlashForwards, and the FlashSideways, are more than storytelling conventions, but part of the plot itself. The Flashes are always character-centric – is it possible that other characters’ consciousnesses are travelling through time, but that they’re generally unaware of it?
This, in turn, might explain a mystery of the Smoke Monster, and why it seems to be bound by certain “rules.” If someone inadvertently changed their own timeline because they were having or about to have a FlashBack that would somehow prevent them from coming to the Island in the first place if a different choice were made, the Island’s “security system” (which can read people’s memories) would jump in an stop them, thereby protecting the Island.
Let’s be clear here: “go back” is one of the most repeated phrases in the show, starting in the Pilot. The repetition is a form of literary technique – not unlike Vonnegut’s repetition of “so it goes” in Slaughterhouse Five after every description of death. LOST is filled with repetitions, this most basic literary technique, from its dialogue and catchphrases to the kinds of symbols it consistently employs: the Opening Eye, a moment of revelation and rebirth; the confluence of Water and Faith; of Trees, a symbol of connection in myths all over the world; of Chairs, from which brainwashing occurs; and especially in its deployment of Mirrors, at moments of reversal, the revealing of character, and passage to or communication with “the other side.”
But all this means nothing. What was once a show devoted to exploring serious philosophical and social issues – long gone are the days when it deconstructed ignorant stereotypes! – is now a show predicated on cheap thrills, narrative trickery, and warmed over symbolism from 19thCentury esoterica best left to cold-reading “psychics” and the deluded recordings of so-called near-death experiences. LOST lost its concern with the material conditions of living life, and was much the poorer for it.
~~~ whooosh ~~~
BEN: This must be quite the out-of-body experience.
LOCKE: Something like that.
(5x15: Follow the Leader)
~~~ whooosh ~~~
lost river lethe after my memory goes back to quench the barren desert, unfolding hereafter in the eternal maelstrom, purple stars
The voices are laughing at me as all gravity slips away, and I’m sailing up to the center of the Galaxy, to the resurrection hub. I think the voices are what other people might call Angels, but I call them Whisperers. The Whispers are Beautiful.
And then I’m alone, crossing an endless expanse of blue sand, under the night sky. I have to find the mountain. Inside the mountain is a cave, and buried in the cave are bones. I have to dig up the bones, and bring the witch back to life.
coming into being with a divine intention reveal secrets of light reflected off the mirror
of the heart
And suddenly I’m lifted up yet again, beholding a bright, all-encompassing Light. I can’t see the face, won’t see the face, for to know the face of God is to know madness. I’m terrified. I’m enraptured. Fear and Love are One.
“What about all the Goddesses I’ve worshipped throughout my life?” I ask, not with words, but thoughts. The Universe unfurls before me, the living Goddess, and She smiles. It’s not like I ever believed in Gods and Goddesses, in all my rituals – I always took them to be metaphors. Symbols of the subconscious mind.
And now my life is spread out before me, half-shadowy images as if flickering from an ancient film projector. I remember everything, and everything in my life was absolutely necessary to come to this moment. I’m asked if there’s anything I want to go back and change. The terror of bullies in school. The sexual abuse at the age of three. The loss of loved ones. No. I won’t change a thing. Not even the choices that were wrong? No. I will go back to the present, with a debt on my soul. I owe the Universe two boons. And that frog that ended up in a lawnmower when I was ten, I will do something about that, too. Judgment is harsh, but I’m grateful, so grateful, that I can go back to my life with a chance to balance the scales.
opens an ephemeral eye, shining out unwinding heavens, a juicy torrent comes forth never thirsting ere we forget aletheian wine found
~~~ whooosh ~~~
JACK: I've already heard everything you had to say, John.
You wanted me to go back. I'm going back. Rest in peace.
~~~ whooosh ~~~
The lack of concern with material social progress is the biggest problem in most mythologies, especially the epic variety, which try to speak to all times and places, but are necessarily constrained and ultimately rendered useless by historical, material conditions. We’ve dealt with the problem of epic mythology in this blog before, and specifically with the problem of Joseph Campbell. Ever since Star Wars, Hollywood has become enamored with tailoring stories to edicts of the Heroic Journey. In short, the hero hears a call to adventure, receives guidance from a mentor, ventures to a special place, and secures a boon to heal the ordinary world. A resurrection and a love interest usually happen along the way.
This is reductive template. There’s a lot more to heroism than this. Furthermore, there’s a lot more to mythology than this. Campbell’s work can’t be taken seriously within the field of comparative mythology; furthermore, it wasn’t even meant to be a storytelling template in the first place. On top of it, there are several regressive elements to the framework, from its treatment of women to the insistence that everything in a myth be taken metaphorically, as if the literal elements of story had no real value. This is deeply unfortunate for those who are invested in material social progress.
All of these problems afflict LOST. Women are reduced to baby machines and love interests, even the ostensibly tomboyish Kate Austin. Worse, however, is how LOST ends up treating the notion of Utopia. Utopia has gotten a pretty bad rap in today’s culture. Hardly anyone indulges in utopian thinking any more, and when they do it’s usually wrapped up in an eschatological framework that denies the possibility of carving out a materially better future, as if the messiness of real progress is too much to overcome.
Make no mistake, Utopia is on the LOST plate, in many different forms. The first season explores the possibility of creating a new society in nature, away from the constraints of contemporary culture. By the second season, the Losties are perpetually in conflict; power games are rife. The Others are another model of utopianism, a religious cult built around an absent god but clearly authoritarian and shrouded in secrecy. The Dharma Initiative storyline, taking place in the 1970s, especially takes utopian thinking to task, and roundly denigrates the opportunities of technological advancement. Always, there is an external threat to paradise.
Only in the deeply flawed final season does the show come back around to presenting contemporary culture as potentially redeeming, but even here it’s wrapped in eschatology, as apparently the alternate timeline where heaven on earth can be achieved is only possible if everyone (including the mythological Island) is dead.
So LOST purports to deliver a modern day myth, fulfilling Campbell’s call to adventure, but falls into the same potholes as Campbell’s work – too many of the episodes are clearly structured according the Heroic Journey, and the series as a whole is blatantly concerned with “daddy issues” while shunting women’s issues to the side. And while the show is obviously concerned with its own symbol-system, with lingering shots on “world trees” and “opening eyes” and all kinds of “mirrors,” there’s no attempt to delineate a system for interpreting them. What’s the use of a symbolically rich mythology if it can mean anything to anybody?
~~~ whooosh ~~~
HURLEY: I got like, six different kinds of cheeses.
I don't even know what they are, but the lady at the store
said they were good, so... I figured you'd like cheese because...
everybody likes cheese.
(6x12: Everybody Loves Hugo)
~~~ whooosh ~~~
It’s December 9th, 2007. Dawn creeps across the ragged field, quiet and diffuse. I’ve been looking out the window, waiting for my long dark night to end. I remember everything. Flushed with relief, I cross over to the kitchen. I make coffee, strong and dark. I scrambled eggs, fry sausage patties, and butter toast. Wake up! I can barely contain myself. I’m in the flesh.
We take the dogs for their morning walk. Damp softness beneath my sandaled feet. It rained last night, three hearty squalls. I remember. It’s warm for early December. I don't wear a jacket. Everything changes.
"You're not cold?" my eventual ex wonders.
"Not at all," I say. I'd just as soon wear nothing.
The dogs know. The bulldog drools, his slobbering maw agape and panting. The rat terrier runs around in circles, and rubs against me like a cat. My companion’s eyes well in silence.
The light isn’t quite right. The lavender sky, the florescent grass, the copper halos of the street lamps still burning. A skinny adolescent tree throbs, its thin bark veined with blood-colored sap. I inhale the musky air. I love it. Connection to everything and everyone. Pure love. I will never be alone, never grow cold, being one with all the world. On the other side, all I can do is giggle. The chorus laughs.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes," I smile brilliantly. "I'm perfect."
~~~ whooosh ~~~
BOONE: You know, we're going to have to tell them.
LOCKE: Tell them what?
BOONE: What we found. You know, they're not going to keep believing
that we're coming out here hunting. We never go back--
LOCKE: They're not ready. They won't understand it.
(1x13: Hearts and Minds)
~~~ whooosh ~~~
If there’s a saving grace to the LOST myth, it’s the fact that it’s obviously consulted other resources for understanding mythology. Specifically, Mircea Eliade. Not that Eliade isn’t problematic. In his youth he was linked to mystical fascism, and like many mythographers his concern for the nostalgia of the past and the uncovering of primordial patterns is inherently conservative. Like Campbell, he tended to overgeneralize, and was prone to essentialism.
But this doesn’t, in fact, inform the central concerns of LOST. Rather, LOST looks at Eliade’s study of The Myth of Eternal Return and explores the conflict between mythologies that are cyclical and constantly recreated versus the emergence of myths (like Christianity) that are more linear, specifically through their adherence to the uniqueness of historical events. A unique historical event can’t truly be recreated, and attempts to do so result not in the regeneration of the world to a primordial golden age, but only result in the generation of facile copies or simulacra.
As mentioned before, there’s a certain amount of recycling of roles for the characters on LOST. Claire, for example, ends up taking the role of Crazy Mother previously occupied by Danielle Rousseau, which in itself is a (poor) recapitulation of events that happened nearly two-thousand years previously. Meanwhile, men who are “mirror-twinned”, from the pairings of Ben/Locke to Jack/Sawyer, vie for leadership positions on the Island, recapitulating the power struggle between Jacob and The Man in Black.
Only when the source of the show’s mythology, the Island itself, is finally buried under the sea, can the characters escape these prescribed fates and move on. The FlashSideways that torments the final season of the show ends up serving as a “final iteration” where the concerns of material social progress are now the source of Myth itself; sadly, the remembrance of their time on the Island brings about their cathartic departure from heaven on earth.
The inclusion of Buddhist icons in the show serves to underscore the underlying conflict of linear time versus cyclical time. In some Buddhisms there’s a myth of the cycle of rebirth; until we learn to let go of our attachments, we are consigned to the suffering of the wheel of birth, death, and rebirth. Escaping the cycle of rebirth confers peace and enlightenment.
But the show is caught in a double-bind. The “real” events of the show happen on the Island, which is steeped in mythology. The “fake” events of the show happen in the Sideways, which conflates our current material historical moment with the Afterlife. It seems that LOST, in its very conception, has made a fatal mistake – it is constantly negating itself.
~~~ whooosh ~~~
JULIET: You're wasting your time. The knife is too big,
you need something smaller, a safety pin or--
KATE: We're going back.
JULIET: What? They did this to us, why would we go back?
KATE: You say this like you didn't lock me in a cage
and watch me break rocks all day.
(3x15: Left Behind)
~~~ whooosh ~~~
It’s January 31st, 2008. I have no fucking idea what’s at the top of the charts, or on TV, or in the goddamned news. I can’t watch it anymore, it’s too painful.
While in the wreckage of my life, and after two rescheduled appointments, it’s my first day with a new therapist. His name is Lee. He’s got a poster on the door in the waiting room, something about not changing the past, only the future. It’s another coincidence. I hate them now. They all remind me of dying, of the day I died. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of it.
It’s a terrible thing for an atheist to have a near-death experience. I don’t know if I can call myself one anymore. I mean, it’s obvious I’ve had a psychotic break with reality. I can easily intellectualize the experience away. But it’s an experience I had, nonetheless. I wonder if it’s possible to be an atheist and a believer at the same time. Two different pictures, running side-by-side in my head, polar opposites. Like watching a movie in 3D.
That night, the 4th Season of LOST premieres. It’s about Hurley, who has a big belly, like me. He returns to the mental health institution. I hate LOST now. How terribly irresponsible of the writers, to create a television show that can induce such an experience. Near death! And as the show unfolds over the final three seasons, it hammers it home. “The freighter could be approaching from the other side,” says one character in Confirmed Dead. “That’s the spirit,” another rejoins.
The worse part, the absolute worst, is that there’s no one to talk to about it, not without sounding crazy. And it strikes me, I never had reunion with the people in my life who’ve died and gone before me. I never had a “homecoming” to put it in NDE terms. This makes me angry, and sad. If there’s one positive thing I have to do with this experience, it’s to reconnect with my estranged family. I may be going to hell, or I may be going crazy, but I’m not going to live this life alone. Nothing is more important, I now realize, than my relationships.
The other thing I’m going to do is everything I can to keep this from happening to anyone else. I will do everything in my power to destroy LOST. I will expose its secrets; no one will believe me! And if I can lobby for an ending that upholds kissing, and that affirms relationship over mythology, so much the better. The only good myth is the myth that negates itself.
~~~ whooosh ~~~
JULIET: I'm gonna go back inside and make sure
that I didn't miss anything -- I don't wanna take the chance
that we didn't cover our tracks.
~~~ whooosh ~~~
Before we consign LOST to the rubbish tip, suppose, just for a moment, that one’s expectations for the conventions of the story are being fucked with. That, unannounced, your authors have decided to use these conventions against you, the better with which to pull the wool over your eyes.
For example, we have an understanding that television productions will necessarily have a certain number of errors in them, more so than in a novel, because there’s so many people involved, and so many material conditions that can’t be fully controlled. We look the other way when a prop ends up in the wrong hand from one shot to another, or when a set faintly wobbles. Indeed, some websites are devoted to meticulously detailing all kinds of production errors, and even the popular Doctor Who site, Gallifrey Base, has a regularly scheduled thread for discussing “gaffes” with each new episode.
It is, in a sense, both admiring and insulting of a production team. Perfection is expected, yet it’s impossible to deliver – and who in their right mind is more concerned with the technical minutae of a television show versus, say, the plot or character development?
LOST was a show that was well aware of such proclivities. In the Season One DVD release, a featurette included a discussion of this very phenomenon. Perhaps this is what spawned one of the most outlandish theories regarding the show – that the production team made certain mistakes on purpose.
Remember, this was a puzzle-box show designed to be read closely. As it turns out, there’s a phenomenal number of “clues” to be culled from seemingly purposeful errors. In the Season One episode “Born to Run” there’s a sign in a hospital that reads “Magnetic Resonance Imagining” (not Imaging) that led to speculation that the FlashBacks or even Island events were being implanted in the characters’ heads, thus explaining the Strangeness of the story – which was further bolstered by the focus on Electromagnetism in Season Two, naming a character “Faraday,” and having one character “remember” his past life upon entering an MRI machine in the final season.
Other “continuity errors” are more egregious. In the episode “Deus Ex Machina,” a title that invokes a narrative convention, there’s a close-up of a woman’s driver’s license that reads “Expires On Birthday,” but gives different dates for expiration and birth. Those two dates correspond to Nietzsche’s birthday (a philosopher referenced in this episode) and the Spring Equinox, being the polar opposite day of the show’s inception. In Season Four, a painting in Ben Linus’s apartment changes from one episode to the next, from a young woman to an old woman, but with obvious effort to look like the same painting. In other episode, the picture frames in a woman’s home change from wood to metal between shots.
At times the show seems to make jokes out of it. In the 4thSeason story “Eggtown,” John Locke throws a bunch of plates in anger after being manipulated by Ben Linus, a man who is his prisoner, and who he’s given a book to pass the time; the wall Locke throws the plates against visibly wobbles, an obvious production error. But this whole scene is practically a repeat of a scene from the 2nd Season story “Maternity Leave,” where John Locke gives a book to his prisoner Ben Linus, whose manipulations lead Locke to angrily sweep a bunch of plates across the floor – and it’s in this scene that Ben reveals that his prison cell has “thin walls.”
So what are we to make of a show that seemingly makes production errors on purpose? First, it’s a sign of self-consciousness, that the show is “aware of itself” as a television show. Second, such errors can be the source of extradiegetic clues regarding its central mysteries. And finally, it’s possible to put forth a theory that such instances can be explained by the story itself.
For example, in Steven Moffat’s short story “Continuity Errors” all kinds of mistakes in continuity are revealed as the Doctor goes back in time to rewrite his antagonist’s life; the continuity errors aren’t mistakes at all, but markers of time travel. LOST does the same, but on a far grander scale – and thus, the show can be deemed “perfect” at least in the technical sense, because “mistakes” have been redefined as something else, a form of narrative convention.
In fact, this notion illuminates the nature of “mistakes” and “perfection.” Both are fictions. They don’t exist, not materially speaking. We only categorize in these terms because we constantly compare the maps we carry around in our heads to the reality we encounter. Of course, though, no map of any kind can ever fully capture the territory. This is the greatest weakness of mimesis, and its attendant conception of “truth” as a representation of reality.
There is more evidence to support the notion that LOST is very self-aware of how it’s toying with narrative conventions. You see, one of the most inventive aspects of LOST’s writing is how it uses metaphors to describe what it’s doing, narratively speaking. Unlike symbols, such as the Opening Eye, which draws on meanings employed over and over again in various mythologies and other stories, LOST’s metaphors are seemingly unique to itself.
One of its primary metaphorical devices is the use of games to highlight the mechanics of its plot. In “Deus Ex Machina” John Locke explains the working of the board game “Mousetrap” to a child; it turns out that the Rube Goldberg architecture of the game is an apt metaphor for the series of unusual coincidences that leads John to banging on the Hatch door, only for it to shine a light up into his face. Back in the Pilot episode, Backgammon was introduced, with its two players, light and dark – Jacob and his unnamed twin brother, it’s later revealed. Hurley proclaims that “Australia is the key to the whole game” in another episode, which is apt no only because Flight 815 took off from Sydney, but also because the production crew had to us reversed images in certain scenes to reflect the fact that Australians drive on the other side of the road.
Music and media analogies are also rife in the show. The Season Five opener presents the image of a record player that starts to skip back to the same lyric in a Willie Nelson song, over and over again; this is a metaphor for what happens to the Island when Ben turns the Wheel that’s buried underneath the Orchid Station. That same Orchid station, where time-travel is studied, has a videotape that mysteriously starts to run backwards halfway through. The “orientation” film in the Swan Hatch eventually has splices inserted into it, not unlike the spliced images inserted into Lost in the form of Easter Eggs.
The most intriguing metaphor has to be the allusion to the Beatle’s album “Yesterday and Today,” which is famous for its “Butcher Cover” that featured the band covered in chopped up meat and baby dolls. The image was considered too graphic, so Capitol Records ordered a more sanitized image to be pasted over the album after it had already gone to press. In the 12thepisode of Season Two, “Fire+Water,” Charlie has a FlashBack/Dream/Vision where his father, a butcher, is chopping up meat amidst baby dolls while proclaiming that music won’t save anyone. Narratively speaking, it suggests a process of rewriting a nicer story over a more gruesome one – which actually makes sense for a story that involves time-travel. The much decried ending to LOST is nothing less than this, taking the subject of Death and putting a happy face on it. The final episode even features a musical concert.
And, because the authors have made themselves unreliable narrators concerning their work, it’s of course impossible to verify or refute such a theory through an appeal to authorial intention. There’s something very appealing about a text that’s actively been left for its readers to decode.
Metaphor is the other side of mimesis – it’s version of “truth” isn’t representational, but revelational, the idea that understanding comes from the “uncovering” of reality rather than duplicating it in some kind of internal model. It’s the difference between the Roman concept of veritas versus the Greek concept of aletheia.
~~~ whooosh ~~~
LOCKE: I think the film's pretty self-explanatory.
MICHAEL: Really? All I heard was something about electromagnets
and an incident. What about all the missing pieces?
LOCKE: Oh, you mean the splices? Yeah, just a frame
here and there, I think -- nothing important.
(2x09: What Kate Did)
~~~ whooosh ~~~
I have a dream. It’s Spring Equinox, 2047. I’m sitting on a park bench. It’s sunny. I know I’m going to die. This is it. The final thought that comes to me is this: “Everything turned out okay after all.”
I wake up, and do some math. If this dream turns out to be true, then my near-death experience with LOST will turn out to have occurred exactly half-way through my life, like passing through a looking glass. I can deal with all the drama in my life now, without tension, because I have a glimpse of how it’s all going to end.
Nope. Sorry, that’s a lie. My life is over now. It’s time to blow it up. You see, I don’t know if I’m really alive anymore. This could very well be my afterlife. Which is to say, I think I’m dead, but still here. Some would say that this is just Cotard’s Syndrome, that I’m deluded, but how can I know?
I can’t know. I can only make a choice. I have to choose to engage with this material reality as if it were real – even though I suspect it’s just a simulation, a pocket universe to keep me separated from real people, because all I ever seem to do is betray the people in my so-called life. But of course I could be wrong about that – the unreality bit – in which case, it really does matter what impact I have on other people.
A small digression. The most repeated name on LOST is “Tom” – which means “twin.” Anyways, in the course of my research, I came up with a couple of interesting Biblical references. One is from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, passage 18: “Have you discovered, then, the beginning, that you look for the end? For where the beginning is, there will the end be. Blessed is he who will take his place in the beginning; he will know the end and will not experience death.” Which, I dunno, sounds like Eternal Return. Nietzsche says to embrace Eternal Return, in spite of all the terrible things we’ll experience over and over again, is the highest affirmation of life. If so, then perhaps I am the cause of my own suffering. I kind of like that.
The other “Tom” is of course “Doubting Thomas,” who only accepts the resurrection after seeing it. John 20:29 says, as if in admonishment, “Blessed is he who has believed and not seen.” My italics. Because to have “seen” rather takes away the Choice, or at the very least, complicates it terribly. I wrote as much after Season Four. In Season Five, the Doubting Thomas story ended on LOST. Fuckers.
But at least I get to live as if I were dead. All I can take with me are my experiences, and the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had have been with others. There’s a freedom in eschewing the material conditions of my life; however, it’s not a choice I can or would force on anyone else.
All I can hope to accomplish is to show you something.
~~~ whooosh ~~~
ANA LUCIA: Let's just get the hell out of Sydney.
Let's just go. Let's go back.
CHRISTIAN: I can't ever go back.
(2x20: Two For the Road)
~~~ whooosh ~~~
The first thing we should note is that LOST has a bigger impact on television than may have been supposed. At the most blatant level, it spurred on all kinds of “mythological” or “cult” shows that could simultaneously appeal to a mainstream audience.
We would not have gotten Fringe, for example, without the success of LOST. Like LOST, Fringe had an overarching mythology that served as the Long Game for the show, while slowly moving along a variety of character arcs in the manner of a soap opera, and inserting all kinds of small Easter Eggs for obsessive fans to hunt down and argue about. Unlike LOST, it stuck to a more procedural, episodic format, weaving in stand-alone stories that would be accessible to the so-called “casual viewer” who wasn’t willing to invest in following every episode. While Fringe never hit it as big as LOST, it lasted five seasons and got a proper ending. Other popular shows like Heroes were explicitly marketed in relation to LOST – usually in comparison to the latter’s deficiencies, particularly the facet of delayed gratification.
But most shows that tried to follow in LOST’s shoes largely failed. For every Fringe there was an Eli Stone, a FlashForward, or The Event. These shows followed LOST’s playbook closely, setting up indefinitely prolonged Mystery Boxes, using character-centric episodes, telling their stories through incessant flashbacks, and trying to tackle “important” philosophical and spiritual issues. Journeyman and Daylight played with time-travel conceits; neither got a second season. Touch, on the other hand, played with some of LOST’s thematic concerns – from character naming conventions (Jacob) to a preoccupation with meaningless numbers and absurd coincidences contrived to manipulate sentimental emotions.
And this will apply to Doctor Who as well, especially when we get to the Moffat era, which should be no surprise if the time-travel theory of “continuity errors” has any merit, given that Moffat invented the idea back in 1996. When Moffat takes over, we’ll be seeing most of LOST’s symbolic signifiers – mirrors, water, eyes, trees, fish, and chairs; we’ll be seeing an exploration of thematic concerns like the fatalism and con-artistry of time travel, images and metaphors that stand in for death, and the near-holiness of Memory. Doctor Who becomes even more serialized, an Series Seven will start repeating the word “lost” over and over again.
But it starts in Davies’s final seasons. Yes, one of the LOST-type stories is in Moffat’s Library, with its use of a Chair as a vehicle for River’s ascension to a virtual afterlife, and the repetition of words like “the Others,” but there’s also a Chair-ascension in The Next Doctor, and LOST symbolism in Waters of Mars, both largely penned by Davies.
The first example, though, manifests in The Fires of Pompeii: a fatalistic time-loop, the symbolism of eyes, and especially the oft-repeated admonition to “go back” – and note, the various meanings of “go back” that come from LOST are certainly in play for Pompeii. The Doctor says he can’t go back, sadly, because of his deep regret for what he did in the Time War; but it’s also true in the sense that to “go back” is a euphemism for death; the Doctor can’t die, because he’s the star of a own TV show which carries in its DNA the ability to live forever.
~~~ whooosh ~~~
KATE: What do you mean he changed his mind?
What did you say to him?
SAWYER: He ain't coming with us.
KATE: We have to go back and get him.
SAWYER: We're done going back, Kate.
(6x13: The Last Recruit)
~~~ whooosh ~~~
It’s November 27th, 2013. Perhaps our post 9/11 fears are starting to wane – real dialogue has opened up between the United States and Iran. On the other hand, Obama continues to drone away over Afghanistan. Everything changes; nothing changes; both of these are completely true. The celebration of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary, an event witnessed simultaneously in over ninety countries across the globe, in every time zone, is finally wrapping up. Lily Allen has the number one single (she’s got two in the top ten). Eminem and Rihanna have one called The Monster; hmmm. Storm Queen, Bastille, and Gary Barlow also chart.
While at the TARDIS Eruditorium, there’s a guest post on LOST. And I’m so grateful for the opportunity to contribute to my favorite blog of all. Thank you, Dr Sandford Phillips, for giving me a second chance. Also to the various commentators on the blog: Graham Jackson, the moral conscience of right-thinking here; Anderson David, Cole Maniain, Siena Toby, and Celeste Matthews, for such interesting opinions; Ó hÍceadha Andrews, thanks for your brain surgery & love bites; Tracy Riddick, our resident long-suffering Marxist; and Anna Bunches, a true inspiration.
My name is Alison J Campbell, and I’ve been haunting this place for some time, whispering. If you’ve made it through this epic mess, I don’t know whether to commend you, or call you a sucker. But I do know this: If you’ve skipped to the end, please, please… just go back. Go back. (Others will know what that means.)
~~~ screech ~~~
JULIET: Do you see that little flutter? Right there?
That's the baby's heartbeat. Perfectly perfect in every way.