Wednesday, July 4, 2007

What's It All About?
A Non-Unified Theory of Lost

Sometimes it seems like Lost wants to be all things to all customers.

It's got yer magic,

yer mysteries,

yer comedy,

yer tragedy.

It's got everything.


Science fiction.


Word games.

Name games.



Rock & roll!

...Well, really there isn't enough rock and roll on Lost. Maybe they can work that in next year.

Another way to look at it is that the whole big beautiful mess is a kind of labyrinth, with intricate pathways that all look plausible, but that mostly are fakes.

A shell game. A three card Monte

Where you keep thinking you know where it's going, but just when you're 100% sure, you run smack into another dead end and realize what an idiot you sound like defending theories that constantly blow up in your face.

But probably the most accurate description, at this point in time, and it leaves all the other avenues open, is that Lost, as Carlton Cuse said recently, is a MOSAIC. A pattern being built out of order that won't make any sense until the last tile slips into place.

It's an ideal metaphor for Lost as we know it - not least because of the visual artists and cinematographers who make this show a thing of such beauty. The one mainstay of Lost, especially in this just ended Season Three, is that even when the storytelling falters, it always looks amazing. And since we moderns are such a visual people, it's important that they tell this story so well in pictures. So with pictures we'll try to figure it out.

First things first.

It's a challenge to parse out the constant collage of themes and motifs the writers throw at the audience, but let's start here: The rabbit. Specifically, a white rabbit. Like the one

who led Alice into Wonderland, later revisited in Through the Looking Glass,

a world where the White Queen is living time backwards, where memories flow in both directions. Sort of how they do on Lost. And where we're never really sure what direction the time is moving in.

It's About Time.

Time on Lost is an unchained melody. This season time was really hopping and bopping on Lost. In Flashes Before Your Eyes, Desmond found himself transported back to his own past.

He had memories of his future self...I mean, his present self (his present self being a guy from the future living in his own past) ...and what he was forced to learn was ... that he had no choice but to relive that past in exactly the same way, even though he now knew it would lead him inevitably to banishment and pain.
His teacher's name was Mrs. Hawking.

A name not to be taken lightly. Her bizarre predictions raised one of the big questions in her namesake's book :

Is time travel possible? This actually requires no advance degree to respond. Short answer: No way.

So why do so many geniuses spend so much time trying to think up ways that time travel might be possible? Theoretically, it's possible for matter to pass through something called wormholes. Maybe Desmond traveled from one spot on the great time space continuum to another...

....only he'd need infinite amounts of exotic matter to provide him the negative energy required to accelerate all his subatomic particles faster than the speed of light. Quantum physics to the layman doesn't really sound any less fantastical than unicorns. Sometimes it kind of sounds like teenagers discussing last night's Dungeons and Dragons game. But in televised fiction, it's the looking glass that science passes through to become science fiction.

Not to mention the time travel thing will get your head spinning if you try and think it through, even without the quantum physics. The classic question goes something like this - If you travel back to before you were born and kill your father, how can you still exist?

Tell me that's not a relevant question on this show.

Physicists are all wicked smart, but the way they answer this kind of question still reminds me of the way five year olds answer big questions. They just make stuff up... We are to imagine that time is like a whirlpool within a river, where in certain places time loops around back on itself. Or it's like a tree that can branch off into parallel, alternate, concurrent realities, all totally independent and even contradictory to each other.

Maybe in one universe the Flight 815 passengers all died, like Naomi said,

but in this other one, they are alive and well (or as well as can be expected).

As for how she got between the two universes...hell, she was in a spacesuit!

Maybe she got super accelerated faster than the speed of light. Basically, in quantum phsyics, if you can somehow manage to get accelerated faster than the speed of light, you can pretty much be God. Only problem is, you know, that's still about as reality based as unicorns. But time travel is one of those rabbit holes, one of those trails on the labyrinth, that Lost took a detour into this year. We just don't know yet if it's a dead end or not.

It's about Destiny.

Mrs. Hawkings tells Desmond that he must simply go back through all the paces of his past and repeat every action he now knows was a mistake, because if he doesn't "then every single one of us is dead!". And she tells him "You don't do it because you choose to, Desmond. You do it because you're supposed to."

Supposed to? Pretty weak way to put it. It's not like he HAS to. He's just SUPPOSED to? Like how we're all supposed to eat five servings of vegetables every day? Strange, because she also says he is forced to turn the failsafe key. So did Des have any choice? Could he have chosen to do differently and let mankind die?

And that brings us to Jack on the fateful day that Locke told him "You're not supposed to do this."

Which, many years later, Jack seemed to be agreeing with, when he told Kate "We weren't supposed to leave."

Could Jack have chosen differently? Given the circumstances, why would he have chosen differently? It almost seemed like he was forced to conclude the phone call was the right thing to do. And you know, the funny thing about Jack's future is there didn't seem to be anything "wrong" about it...

....except for Jack. L.A. seems to have survived from whatever apocalypse hit good Dr. Jack. The freeways and hospitals and slums and airports are all still there. Mankind has clearly survived. It looks like things worked out as they were 'supposed to' in the end....Or did they?

Desmond is not named Hume for nothng.

Hume the skeptic, who didn't want to be pinned down on exactly how a cause creates an effect, except to call cause and effect "the cement of the universe".

One thing we all tend to count on in life: the cause comes first,

then the effect.

As Charlie learned all too well.

But nothing, unfortunately, is ever that simple. If one believes in destiny, as Desmond does, as Mrs. Hawking made it clear he had to, then that means the effect (your destiny) comes before the cause (what you do to create that destiny). Since the destiny has to happen, all the things that lead up to it are caused by what they cause!

Or to borrow a much clearer explanation, from Through the Looking Glass, which is our guidebook after all:

... `For instance, now,' she went on, ... `there's the King's Messenger. He's in prison now, being punished: and the trial doesn't even begin till next Wednesday: and of course the crime comes last of all.'
`Suppose he never commits the crime?' said Alice.
`That would be all the better, wouldn't it?' the Queen said ...

I hope everyone is following this. In other words, Charlie had to die...which caused him to do the things that would cause his death. See? It's elementary.

So, if time is moving backwards, or in spirals, or any which way it chooses, then does that mean our characters can step in and out of this time space continuum at will? Does that mean Jack's fans will get to see their hero stagger out of his drug addled state

and flash back to the moment before he made that phone call,

so he can "fix" all the wrongs that were caused by that action? Hmmm, dunno. Hope not. That kind of sounds like Gilligans Island meets Dr. Who, which - hilarious as that might actually be - would be a jump the shark evolution of epic proportions. But I will note that the voice on the end of the phone Jack called - the bad guy, I'm guessing - was named Minkowski. And that would also be the name, because a name is never just a name on Lost, of the famous mathematician Herman Minkowski, an associate of Einstein and the first to define and name the concept of Timespace (binding time to space as the fourth dimension).

We may be Enslaved by Time and Space, but rules are made to be broken and who knows? There may still be an escape hatch hiding somewhere out there in Timespace.

To sum all this up, the characters on Lost may be trapped in a block of Timespace that allows them to super accelerate their atomic subparticles and travel like chrononauts through time, where the future causes the past but any screwups along the way and all of humanity will be destroyed. OR they could just be stuck on a Craphole island they were predestined to crash land on and are as helpless as most of us are trying to understand all the quantum physics mumbo jumbo I have tried to decipher for this piece.

I think we need to change gears here. Time was far from the only important story this season. We really should be getting back to the rabbits.

One thing rabbits do very efficiently is make more rabbits.

And it was hard to ignore that theme on Lost this season.

It's about Redemption.


This is probably the glibbest and most popular way of summarizing Lost's "meaning". It's a thin description. Lost isn't about Redemption the way the Sopranos is about the Mafia, for instance. But the story does concern itself with the Circle of Life and Death and Birth. And Death.

We found out Sun's baby was Jin's.

And in about a month or so, it's going to put Sun six feet under.

This is also a problem for Kate...

who, after making the hot, hot love with Sawyer, may now be carrying her very own Bundle of Death.

Actually, these babies are only getting a head start on what has become one of Lost's most consistent themes:

First, kill all the parents.

Not that they don't deserve it.

The characters of Lost are trapped in the Oedipal misery of a vicious Parent Trap. Where the killing of the father is not a crime, but almost a sacred rite of passage. Where little babies still in the womb suicide bomb their own mommies. The entire circle of life on the Island seems tainted and unclean.

It's enough to make you question where this Island = Redemption myth actually got started. The only guy who is actively dying and being reborn

doesn't really seem like much of a role model.

Eko did not repent

and he died.

Charlie did repent, many times over

and he died too.

So, if this is a story of redemption, it doesn't seem to be taking the black and white path of moral absolutism to get us there.

Love is redemptive. And this was supposed to be the Season of Romance. They remembered to name Jack's V3.0 Love Interest after the most famous romantic heroine in literature

but aside from that I think what we all learned this season was that maybe geeks should not be allowed to write romance. Not that there weren't moments of beauty,

of love in all its guises, romantic and otherwise,

but they had to be swallowed along with some really harsh doses of sado/maso imagery wrapped up as romance

and female characters left clawing each other in a kind of mirror image of the shipper groups they inspired.

I'm speaking here of course about the great Greek and Trojan Armies fighting Lost's Endless Battle of the Warring Contractions:




Which doesn't look like much of a battle any longer, when you look at it in perspective, but hey, it's a long hiatus and if it makes people happy to still pretend this is a contest...Enjoy.

It's about Literature.

Visual generation or not, it helps to be a reader watching Lost.

From A Tale of Two Cities that set up the mini arc, where the future alcoholic Jack did the 'far, far better thing' to set the lovers the tragic human raggedness Of Mice and Men...

to the vicious circles of fate and free will in Catch 22...

to the upside down cracked mirror of Through the Looking Glass, these stories were part of the story. The Bible was represented, with Ben, the youngest son of Jacob, the father of the twelve Israelite tribes... with references to Isaac and Naomi and Ruth..and with the ongoing confusion of whether Jack is meant to be our Good Shephard or our Moses...or just a big fat disappointment.

There were other, more obscure references as well, like the PALA FERRY in this shot,

which is reminiscent of Pala, the name of the Island in Aldous Huxley's book - a futuristic utopia where parrots give pep talks, spirituality is centered around a clifftop temple and everyone has LOTS of sex. (I'm seeing the tie ins, are you?) One book that seems a natural fit for Lost is Lord of the Flies - whose issues of social structure are on the minds of the writers, implicitly rather than explicity throughout the story.

We have Locke, who believed each life was a tabula rasa and that man's rights within society were natural and God given,

sometimes thought of as the Father of Liberalism.

The believer in mankind's innate goodness, Rousseau,

the Father of Socialism.

Burke, the believer in the natural superiority of the upper classes,

the Father of Conservativism.

And for good measure, Bakunin, the atheist,

the Father of Anarchism.

Uh, oh, we're back on the fathers again. That's never good. Although in most of our lives, fathers aren't bad people at all. In fact, for many of us, good old Dad is our first Hero. Which brings us to the very important idea...

It's about Heroes.

If I had to choose only one thing about Lost that makes it most special, I would have to say it is this:

The characters. The main ones. The minor ones. The dead ones that come back and visit.

There were some great character arcs this season.

Sawyer fell in love for the first time in his life,

travelled to the fringes of Redemption

only to be thrown violently back into the turbulent seas of his soul.

Desmond's story had its own seperate orbit, funneling through wormholes in Timespace.

Juliet came from nowhere to add an entirely new level of enigma and poignancy to the story.

Charlie stared into the eyes of destiny and found his apotheosis.

As for Kate's character arc this year, this face might be the best way to describe it:

We learned Ben's entire life story in one episode, from his beginnings as the original infant assassin

through his complex psychological profile as an exceedingly bizarre creature.

Locke climbed out of one pit

and fell into another.

But he climbed back out again, to challenge his alter ego....

Jack, who also came full circle this season,

from miserably stalking one woman in his past...

to miserably stalking a different one in his future.

Some people think Lost has a main character. But, does it? If Jack is the main character of Lost, then is Lost the Story of Jack? In other words, is Lost a Monomyth - the story of one hero, one person whose story reflects the story of any one of us as we fight through the Thunderdome of life.

The "mono" in the Monomyth is the Hero. The Hero goes on a Hero's Journey - a rigorous ritual of Departure, Initiation and Return marked by such stages as The Call to Adventure, the Training by the Mentor, the Meeting with the Goddess, the Inmost Cave, the Magical Boon...It's almost Dungeons and Dragons all over again! Actually, it's not as rigid as it sounds. Even little Alice goes on a Hero's Journey of sorts when she travels through the looking glass. So you see it can be adapted to fit almost any story, and that's the point.

So is Jack on the Hero's Journey?
He has a Challenge - he wants to go home. But that's hardly unique to Jack.

His medical skills make him "special", but he's not the only doctor on the Island either.
Who is Jack's Mentor? This guy?

Who was his Oracle? This chick?

His "Trials"

are just too wimp-ass for words.

Are these two his Allies?

Or just the only two people on the island who can stand to be around him?
We know Jack grew up wanting to be a hero.

We know he thinks he's the Hero.

But is that really how it works?

You can probably make a case that almost any other character on Lost is the Hero.

Sawyer has had a Reversal on his trail to the Adventure of rejoining the human race,

but he has been Tried and will surely be Tried again.

He has defeated his psychic Nemesis (and gained nothing by it).

He has found something that is Sacred to him.

He has a Mentor now,

and Allies...

but also the most unreadable path of any character. And that's not a bad place for a Hero's Journey to be at the midpoint of a story still very much in flux.

Lost may be a Fight Club of sorts, but there's no law that says girls can't be heroes, and Juliet, trapped on an enchanted island with an evil overlord

has been Called to the Adventure of giving life,

the Magical Boon they may all end up needing most before it's over.

Maybe Ben is the Hero.

He hits all the marks. (Plus, he's got the rabbit.)...
He's definitely special.

The Call to Adventure.

The Challenge.

The Goddess.

The Mentor.

The Magical Boon

...Unless being the "chosen one" of a temperamental poltergeist hermit isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Maybe Ben right now is in the Belly of the Beast phase of the journey,

and still has to defeat his Nemesis, a twist in the story no one will be expecting next year.

Maybe Locke is the Hero.

He was Called to Adventure even before he came to the Island, but it wasn't until he fell out of a plane with his spine magically restored that he became "special". He lost his way last season, but this year he struck out on his own path.
He has a Mentor.

A Nemesis.

And another Nemesis.

....aaaand another one.

He is visited by an Oracle in his time of need.

He's been to the Valley of Death,

and has found his Magical Boon, even though he doesn't know yet what it is. And you can't really fault him for that. Do you have any idea what's up with Jacob? No Hero has gone deeper into the mysterious unknown than the amorally intrepid Locke.

In the end, maybe he will be the Hero.

Maybe Desmond is the Hero.

Like Odysseus, who doesn't enter his own story until the second act, Desmond is still a relative newcomer to our story. But his story seems to cleave closest of all to that Mondo of all Monomyths. He was Called to Adventure

and was lost at sea

but the Goddess continues to search for him,

Penelope, named for Odysseus' own wife.
His Mentor set him on the correct path.

His Oracle kept him there.

(Plus these two seem to know each other!)

The hatch was his Belly of the Whale. He died and was reborn. And now he has the Magical Boon

that he still doesn't know what to do with. Not only does Desmond seem to be following the Hero's Journey most closely,

his fascinating story ripples furthest out into the larger tale.

But some fans are stubborn. A lot of people seem to think that Jack has to be our monomythical hero. It's like thinking outside of that box makes their heads explode. So, we'll give that one more shot. If Jack is the Hero, we just left him, at season's end, in the Inmost Cave. Dead. Hopeless. If the story is going to follow his monomyth, then the next step for this "hero" is the real life Hero's Journey known as Detox and Long Term Rehab. Followed by a new quest to round up the posse and return to the uncharted shores of who knows where. To reset time? To vanquish enemies? In other words a whole new show. Kind of like the Friends of Bill meet Captain Nemo. Does that sound good? We'll get some idea once the new posters come out for Season Four. If they look like this

we'll know that's exactly where they're taking this story.

Truth be told, there doesn't seem to be any one hero or protagonist on Lost, any more than there is one theme. With it's multiple viewpoints, its rejection of simplistic moral absolutes and the constant ironic cultural allusions, Lost is marked as a post modern piece of work. It borrows from the kind of techniques used in films like Magnolia.

It even borrows the cover art.

The antique chauvinisms of the Monomyth may end up being a poor fit for this rambling, sprawling tale.

In fact the only constant in the story, the only central protagonist I can positively identify is this one:

The Island itself.

As for a central theme, if anything, maybe this:

Namaste is one of those wonderful double meaning words that express their own opposite. Its the Hindi version of Aloha. Hello/Goodbye. Whichever works. Like so much on Lost, it's self referential. Like this logical impossibility:

Like Buddha, who told that the only people to reach Enlightenment are those who don't seek it. Like Hume, who believed that man could exercise Free Will only if his life was predetermined. Like Alice, who went through the mirror into the world where memories come before the actions they remember.

The eye

is a camera.

So often this season we found ourselves looking at people on our screens looking into screens at people looking out from screens.

Lost watches itself and we watch ourselves inside it. The Looking Glass reflects more than just the image of the looker.

"Art is a mirror not because it is the same as the object, but because it is different. " G. K. Chesterton

Next season, more tiles will shift into place and the picture in the mosaic will change yet again. Once the missing pieces are all added, who can guess what it will look like next?


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