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Lost for Words? Do We Really Need an Explanation for Lost?

Lost is entering its final phase. Just two weeks left and it will all be over. I have no doubts that The End, the final episode, will be a bit of a phenomenon – ABC are reportly charging nearly $1m for advertising space during the finale. However, I imagine that a lot of people tuning in will be disappointed – as I expect a large number of viewers will be expecting an easy answer or several to (in fairness, perfectly reasonable) questions like “what is the island?”, “why was there a polar bear on the island and how did it survive?” and “what the hell happened?” To be honest, some of these questions have already been answered (not necessarily satisfactorily), but I still don’t think that the answers – even if they are provided – will be offered in a viewer-friendly mode. And I’m actually reasonably okay with that.

Lost at sea?

I’m not delighted with it or anything. I think it’s a little mean-spirited to claim that you are going to explain everything when it very clearly isn’t the case (even if the show answered one of the millions of laft-over questions from the past six-years at a rate of one-a-minute, there simply isn’t enough airtime left overo fit it in). However, I can respect what the producers are doing.

The temptation is to sell Lost as The X-Files on crack cocaine. You remember that show, the ground-breaking and really awesome one from the nineties? The one that we seldom ever really talk about anymore, because “the truth is out there” became a literal statement (because it certainly wasn’t “in” the show). The comparison between the two is obvious. Both have structured a central mythology around a light and crusty exterior. For The X-Files it was the “monster-of-the-week” episodes flirting around the exterior of a grand alien invasion conspiracy, and for Lost it was all the character development and exploration structured around the mysteries of the island and why the cast had been brought there.

I can understand the comparison, but I don’t think it’s fair. The X-Files attempted to offer its grand central conspiracy as an on-going plot thread – the visitors are coming, and each two-parter is but a step in their plans, and those in the government allied with them. Even from as early as the first season it was clear that this particular thread needed to be resolved and an explanation offered in the course of things. After ten years of being told you were getting the opening acts of a grand epic, you deserved a fitting third act. However, Lost is different. There is no central narrative thread locked with the mystery of the island. Quite simply “solving the mystery of the island” has never really been offered as goal for the main characters.

You could make a case about abstract philosophical self-discovery being the core of the series (and it is, thematically, all about identity and what makes us who we are – good or bad), but the core narrative has shifted year-on-year. If you asked a viewer at the end of the first season (or even the second or third) what the driving narrative of the story was, I imagine that most would reply that it was about getting the survivors off the island. Being honest, the island is almost incidental to the plot. Unfortunately, the way the series has been advertised and sold, the notion of the mystery of the island has taken up central importance – it’s a hook and a gimmick. I don’t think that’s fair, and I do think that the expectations that such an approach creates are entirely the fault of those behind the hyping of these elements.

Think of the series as a pulpy horror movie. It isn’t far off as it is, what with a “smoke monster”, ancient ruins, cages and wild beasts. In any such horror movie, it’s generally “the unknown” that victimises our protagonists and stands between them and escape or freedom. From a narrative point of view, the particulars of the beast don’t really matter – be it monster, demon, serial killer – just the impact they have on the lead characters. Sure, you do have to offer some hint of explanation to get the audience on board, but it’s not generally a good idea to ever really explain everything – partially because it removes the power of “the unknown” on the audience, but also because it introduces narrative drag. It was when the Nightmare on Elm Street movies started really focusing on Freddie that they fell apart (the same with Jason in Friday the 13th).

How does this relate to Lost? In the same way as horror movies use these sorts of creatures as dramatic devices, Lost uses the mystical island as a vehicle for its own purpose. Lost is, at its core, a character and philosophical drama (or at least I’d argue that at it’s core it is). It’s an exploration of free will and all the responsibility that comes with it, destiny and predetermination and choice. Everything else flows from that central premise. Take for example The Man From Tallahassee, a third season episode of the show. The Man From Tallahassee sees John Locke, the bald wilderness survivor who has become one of the show’s breakout characters, confront his father – the same father who pushed him out a window and left him in a wheelchair. Now, how does Locke’s father get to the island? I’ll let Ben explain:

Somewhere on the island is a large box and whatever you imagined, whatever you wanted, would be inside that box.

So John’s father gets to the island “by box”. Of course, this creates all manner of questions, for example: How does the box work? What’s the point of the box? Who built it? Being honest, I don’t imagine that this little plot element from three years ago is going to get an answer in the three hours of remaining screentime. The simple fact is that the box is a plot device. Its sole function is to allow John to see his father again and make a choice – to see how the island has changed him and if it’s made him strong enough to face the man who crippled him. At the same time, it also fits thematically with John’s dead-end career in a box factory and provides a literary allusion to The Third Policeman, a novel by Irish author Flann O’Brien. We don’t need to know why or how it works, just that it works. Hell, the producers have even acknowledged that the box isn’t really a box at all.

... Or will you choose the mystery box?

A lot of Lost functions through allusion, direct and indirect. From the names of characters like John Locke and Desmond Hume (both named for philosophers) or Jacob, through to clever little snippets or clues buried in scenes, even through to basic imagery and archetypes. When characters in the show explain anything, they typically speak in metaphors or similes – Jacob comparing the island to a cork when explaining his function to Richard, for example – as if to suggest that the concept of the island cannot be properly articulated in words. Hell, all you need to know about the mysterious figure driving the final season, “The Man in Black” masquerading as John Locke, comes from his name. You also have abstract ideas like “the light”, which burns on the island, but also inside all men.

In the last episode to air, Across the Sea, we discover the origin of Jacob and The Man in Black. However, it doesn’t provide any answers – only more questions. Where did the mysterious woman who raised them come from? Why can’t she answer a straight question? How come Jacob can leave the island as he wishes, but The Man in Black isn’t allowed? Early in the episode, somebody questions the mysterious woman, but she cuts them off, stating that, “Every question you ask will just lead to another question”. That seems to be a statement from the creators to the audience: there will always be questions, because some things are just unknowable or incomprehensible. The island doesn’t exist of itself, it can’t be boiled down to a single answer or statement, in the same way that any other question leads to further questions. Of course, our questioning typically stops when we reach a level we can comprehend. For instance, were we to ask “what is the island?” and receive the answer “it is heaven” or even “it’s the bag of a giant, imaginary space whale”, then our questioning would stop, because we have a conception of heaven or of the word “whale” and “space”. However, the show seems to suggest that there is no term of reference for what is happening on the island. We will never really understand it, because we will never be able to boil it down to our own frame of reference.

I mentioned above that the temptation is to compare Lost with The X-Files, which suffered from a terrible ending by seemingly attempting to fit all of its answers into one giant, jumbled mess. I think a better comparison is to The Prisoner, a sixties British television show which introduced with to floating white ball know as Rover, perhaps more famous now as a joke on the Simpsons (“Why did you think a giant ball would stop them?” “Shut up, that’s why!”). Following a former secret agent known as Number Six (that’s where Battlestar Galactica got the reference, by the by) as we woke up in a strange village that was more than a bit abstract. The show never bothered to explain who was holding him (or why – though it hinted it had to do with state secrets), or the nature of the strange village (or adjoining regions – including a “Wild West” zone!) or Rover. Instead it served as an abstract philosophical exploration of free will. It’s rightly hailed as a triumph of television and an example of how the medium spread its wings. Don’t get me wrong, the show had a linear plot from episode to episode (usually revolving around Number Six’s escape attempts), and a conventional character arc, but a huge portion of the series was intentionally left unexplained, particularly the nature of the environment.

Can't make an omlette without cracking an egg chair...

I’d argue that Lost is the American equivalent to this British abstract television show. The temptation is to point to David Lynch’s superb Twin Peaks as an earlier counterpart, but I think that particular show is best left in a league of its own (fittingly described as “Lynch-ian”). Instead, Lost is about a bunch of people in an environment they can’t understand exploring all sorts of notions of free will and faith. The island itself, though it offers an exotic locale, is incidental to it. As are, I’d argue, the particulars of the battle between good and evil which has been playing out over the last year. These are only of note as far as they affect the characters.

I’m not hoping that “all will be revealed”. I want to be left with food for thought. Besides, we know from Battlestar Galactica how disappointing a reveal can be when it seems to be offered merely to plug storytelling holes (a wizard god did it” indeed). I just hope the show embraces its philosophical themes and gives us some fitting food for thought on the nature of free will.

You can keep your polar bears.

(Apparently they were brought to the island by the DHARMA initiative and survived for in the wild twelve years after the group was destroyed, before getting shot by Sawyer – so that’s one we can scratch off)

4 Responses

  1. Ahaha funny post. I also expect a lot of people to be angry after this is all over and done. Let’s face it, the writers just made up stuff and they went and there is no “great” design behind it all which makes it tough to neatly explain everything.

    • I’m not sure. I find too many little things tie up perfectly thematically (the backgammon pieces shown in the first episode, for example) for it to be entirely made up. But I get the sense that a lot of details have been… “in flux” to put it kindly during the show’s run – which causes problems when you need to tie everything down.

  2. That’s a hell of a lot of money for advertising. I never followed Lost from the beginning, so have no clue what’s happening in it, probably like those of you who have watched it from the start.

    • Yep. With three hours to go, you probably actually know more about the show than I do – it’s that kinda mind-messing going on.

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