Saturday, April 26, 2008


Games aren't just for kids. Grown men play them too. Even powerful men. Their games may use the simple components of board games, like playing pieces and rules,

but the stakes are much different. Men of power need a proper motive in order to be tempted into competition. Something real. Tangible. Valuable.... Like a magical island accessed through mystical portals and ruled by a mythical spirit who sits in a rocking chair in an invisible cabin. You know. Important stakes like that.

Lost doesn't seem to be shaping up to be about a bunch of plane crash survivors after all.

Doesn't that all seem like a million years ago?

It also seems more and more that those original themes of loss and redemption are less and less significant.

It's not really about the characters so much anymore. And in fact, some of them have been so feathered through the gears of the merciless plot machine that they've been stripped of almost all their dimensionality.

I know. It's a mystery how that happens.

Lost is not necessarily a fantasy either. Not totally. What Lost may be about, in the end, is the very thing our own global community so often seems to be about:

Old rich white guys fighting over real estate.

It's a game with a rich and textured history.

It's important to have Luck,

because a lot of games rely on the element of chance.

Strategy is key to most games.

But strategy often depends on making choices without knowledge of what choices your opponent is making simultaneously.

In order to maximize one's advantage, it may be necessary to form Alliances with other players. As we saw these three men and a baby doing,

sometimes two join together to beat one who would otherwise defeat them both.

A cooperative alliance is when you join with those you trust in order to serve your own self interest,

the way that Sawyer and Hurley and Claire do to try and get back to the beach.

And there's probably some form of self interest here at work in Jack's placid and passive Lotus Eating commune on the beach

but it's like trying to read dolphin language to figure out what's going on there.

Some alliances are different.

Instead of trust, some allies accept the risk of betrayal in order to make use, perhaps temporarily, of another player's resources, as we see that Locke is still willing to bend over for Ben if it means he'll get to Candy Mountain.

This alliance has one crucial playing piece - Ben's pet dog Super Cujo.

But they still need to bargain for Hurley,

who is the piece they need to jump to their next open space - Jacob's cabin.

And Miles has made a sudden alliance with Sawyer,

but there's a pretty good chance there's a playing piece

he's angling for to improve his position in the game.

Sayid, he of the newly impulsive temperament,

makes an instantaneous alliance with Indiana Ben in the future.

And there's no way this alliance is about trust.

Mathematicians have tried to formalize games - how we play them, how we win them - into theories, where choices are analyzed according to models that predict outcome.

They've even tried to use game theories to predict how economics and genetics and politics will operate. But it remains a very unreliable field of study. Mainly because the theory relies on determinism, on effect following cause. And it's that very thing that is so often violated. Things don't always go according to plan. What ultimately destroys game theory is irrationality. Including the most irrational behavior of all: Altruism.



Pure heroism, when a man acts against his own self interest for the good of others. Indeed, this is the ultimate fly in the ointment of game theory. Much of game theory is predicated on the belief that organisms will behave in their own self interest. But heroism is the kind of variable that blows those game theories all to hell.

On Lost message boards, it's commonly accepted that the ultimate hero of Lost must be Jack.

In fact, even raising any doubts on this topic can create quite a bit of...tension. Yet Jack has been nothing but a chump this season. It took Mr. Med School Genius a whole week to process what dainty Daniel told him the very first day they met!

The freighter was never coming to Lost Island in order to rescue these mooks.

I know I heard Daniel tell this to Jack in the second episode. Didn't you? Why was Jack listening to his "gut" instead of to the words that came out of the frakking guy's mouth? Was he distracted by his menstrual cramps?

Or did he start dipping into the meds a lot earlier than we'd previously suspected?

It used to seem like a good thing to have a doctor around. But maybe this playing piece didn't provide quite the advantage we'd presumed. I mean, did they need a doctor to tell them that the guy on the beach died from a slit throat?

No shit, Sherlock.

So, Jack hasn't been much of a hero this season. But others have.

Bernard pulled out one of those mad secret skilz he has. First sharpshooting. Now Morse Code. If they don't fill us in on Bernard's secret ops background one of these episodes, he'll go down as the greatest waste of tertiary character since Rousseau.

Who's really dead, apparently. (I get that you need to cut down the payroll, guys, but that was still unfrakkingforgivable.)

Hurley's Cowardly Lion has been growing ever less cowardly and more lion.

He's taking care of the Chosen One. In the Bible, Aaron is the brother of Moses - whose life was saved from a baby killing monarch when his mom set him afloat in the Nile in a reed basket.

Hard to ignore a foreshadow like that one.

Hurley's defying the evil alliance of Locke and Ben, who would have hung Sawyer and Claire out to dry.

And he's acting against his own self interest when he offers to guide that evil alliance to Jacob's cabin, in order that his friends can get safe.

In the quiet way of life's many unseen gentlemen, Hugo has evolved into the noblest kind of hero.

But he's still not the coolest! That honor goes to the man of the hour, the only viable Action Hero in the whole mythical islandverse.

(gif thanks to susan14509)

Apparently, the serenity of a week at Othertown Spa has washed away all the Cooper killing anger in this tortured soul and filled him with the pure spirit of a Knight.

When danger strikes, he thinks first of saving poor, doomed Frenchie and her kids.

Then he runs instinctively to scoop up the sleeping Claire.

Talk about your Superman!

Faster than a speeding bullet!

More powerful than a bulletproof barbeque!

Redshirts were going splat right

and left

all around him, but even playsets were watching over Sawyer.

Either the Island doesn't want him to die, or this guy has Kevlar skin.

Which is awesome, but pales next to the fact that Claire is apparently made of Adamantium Steel.

Heck, Wicked Witch of the East couldn't survive a house falling on her,

but Claire's house got incinerated all the way down to particulate matter and her makeup didn't even smudge.

Sawyer and Hurley obviously never learned about game theory,

because the whole self interest thing never reared its ugly head with either of them. Refusing to behave in one's own self interest is the primary fubar of all game theories. So that makes Sawyer and Hurley the irrational forces here, the wild cards. Nothing fraks up a formula worse than an irrational force like friendship.

Sawyer's line about killing Locke if he hurt a hair on Hugo's curly head hearkened back to the words he used in prior episodes

to threaten those who would injure Kate.

Sawyer's learning things about love that don't come connected to self interested triangles at all.

There is one group on Lost that can generally be excluded from heroics. Gentlemen's Clubs may not have much gentleness in them, but they are full of dicks.


Women don't get to play The Hero on Lost. They get to be dear little Moms.

They get to be helpless victims.

And they get to wash their boobies in public

and grin madly about how excited they are to go home and face those eight felony counts.

(gif courtesy of susan14509)

But they don't get to be Hero. There's a No Girls Allowed sign hung on that club door.

But don't be sad. It's not as if women have no important role to play in the world of Lost. They do get to die quite often.

In this episode, in the darkest moment they've ever filmed, it was a teenage girl who got to suffer the consequences of the gentlemen's game. Not only did she get a bullet in the head, but she got to hear the only father she's ever known disown her before she took it.

Alex joined the long line of shocking female murder victims.

And like most of the others, her death wasn't about her at all. Like Ana's and Libby's deaths were about Michael, and Shannon's and Nadia's deaths are about Sayid, Alex's death was all about Ben,

and the ways this tragic rule change affects his primary objective. Which, for all his tears, is not and has never been loving the child he "stole from an insane woman."

When children play games, they aren't so much into the objectives. They're more about the fun. Like getting to play Pretend.

A good place to start pretending is Tunisia, which is not only useful to our story as one of the possible Vile Vortices, but which was also the setting George Lucas chose for both his Star Wars and his Indiana Jones series. And from the hotel in downtown Mos Eisley

to the swashbuckling Bedouin in the desert,

Michael Emerson got to fulfill about as many dreams as one actor could possibly hope for.

In fact, Michael Emerson has popped out as maybe the central leading actor on Lost this year. Who knew?

Do you like him in a coat?

Do you like him covered in smoke?

Do you like him playing tunes?

Do you like him reading runes?

Do you like him with big eyes?

Do you like him playing spy?

Do you like him picking locks?

Do you like him in Iraq?

Is it time to rename this show yet? How about this?

Now that Ben is carrying the show, deciphering the mysteries has become almost one stop shopping. First of all, he landed in the desert,

in pretty much the same pose Jack originally landed in the jungle.

And he was wearing a big furry jacket. Was that because it gets cold at night in the desert? Or because he thought he was headed someplace entirely different? Someplace cold? Like Siberia, where polar bears come from, which Sawyer attacked in the game of Risk...which meant they lost Australia to Locke, giving him "the key to the whole game".

The most interesting thing about Ben's overdressed arrival in the Sahara was the name on the coat. Halliwax. One of the aliases of Dr. Marvin Candle, a/k/a Mark Wickmund, a/k/a Edgar Halliwax.

That guy (or guys?) with various candle related names who made the video about the doubling rabbits that popped out of nowhere in the Orchid Station. The guy with the weird left arm...just like Ben was having some kind of brief trouble with his arm.

What do they do? Rip a twin out of your arm when they dupli-transport you through the outer limits? I have dibs on this twin dealio being the ultimate Gotcha! WTF! Sucka! tricky dicky device that they end the season with. (Bonus points if it's Sawyer that they duplicate.)

Whatever trick is used to get Ben from here to there, it must be a pretty rough trip.

Once transplanted to the sands of Tunisia, our little doughy pantsed nerd

was transformed magically into superhero badass Indiana Jones had to have been the desert air, because in the tropics, Ben gets his ass kicked by everyone.

Then he slipped into ultra hip Dean Moriarity mode, going on the road on his magical mystery tour

as a Preferred Customer, of course.

The question of time travel is bandied about here.

The team insignia on Ben's coat, from the Orchid Station, echoed the old Time Tunnel from the vintage days of sci fi tv.

And, in fact, looks a great deal like CERN's Large Hadron Collider which some think will be capable of time travel experiments.

So, when Ben confirmed the date as October 21, 2005, this naturally sent a thousand Lostaholics all diving en masse into wikipedia...However, sadly, this appears so far to be an entirely inconsequential date. Not even like the 108th day of the year or anything. Nada. Watch out for the red herrings around here. It's easy to slip and fall on them. They're everywhere.

Ben got to dress up all Hunter Thompsonesque

and to play tv's most ordinary looking international spy.

And lastly,

he got to have one of those high caliber confrontations where gentlemen adversaries discuss how cleanly they will disembowel one another while sharing inside jokes about bottles of Scotch.

It's not as if the fate of the world is at stake. Or that innocent people's brains are being blown out right and left. It's more like they're fighting over the rowing cup that Oxford stole from Cambridge and who they're going to have to kneecap in order to steal it back. It's a very refined kind of game these gentlemen are playing.

Ben and Widmore have a history. Ben knows that Widmore didn't used to sleep with a bottle of Scotch next to his bed, for one thing. (Actually, that implies a rather more intimate history than we really ever want to know.)

Was young Ben shipped off by Richard for some finishing school education in Europe, by any chance?

And did he perhaps encounter an older man there, a professor perhaps, or some kind of mentor, who told him about his Shangri La - the mythical, magical Island told of in the Tale of the Black Rock? Why does Widmore think the Island belongs to him? Where was he all those years Ben was making himself the boy king of paradise? And why can't he find it any longer? We got some clues at least that either that freighter never did belong to Widmore or that this coming rescue of the O6 has not yet resulted in Widmore reaching his objective.

There are two different kinds of games.

There is a Zero Sum game, where anything you gain is something your opponent loses. Chess is a Zero Sum game. If I win, my king lives and yours dies. If I win poker chips, someone else loses poker chips. If I attack Siberia, I lose Australia.

Most simple games are Zero Sum.

But Ben and Widmore aren't playing a Zero Sum game. They're trapped in a different kind of game, described best by the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Without all the prologue, this puzzle offers two prisoners the choice to each gain a small advantage by ratting out the other guy. However, since self interest rules, both inevitably choose to rat out the other and both end up, quite hilariously, more screwed than they were before.

That ever reliable force of self interest ends up having exactly the opposite effect.

If you want to see how this works, drive your car into midtown Manhattan around five o'clock on a Friday afternoon. Gridlock is the perfect example of how well the Prisoner's Dilemma predicts human behavior. And so, Alex is dead. Penny is next. But the gentlemen elite in their penthouse suites still want to win the game.

It has been theorized, by the Beautiful Mind of John Nash, that when the Prisoner's Dilemma is played over and over, eventually the prisoners amend their decisions and begin to realize that in order to truly benefit from their own choices, they must begin to act against their own self interest and start to cooperate. Even, sometimes, with their enemy. Otherwise, all those Friday afternoon drivers on 42nd Street would be sitting there for all eternity. Is that what will end up happening with Ben and Widmore? In the end, maybe one of them will get back the prize they want - the Island.

But neither one will win anything.

In this case, it's not whether you win or lose.

It's how you play the game.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant synopsis, as usual.

Anonymous said...

Really interesting read Fish! Very telling the similarity between the Orchid Station logo and the 'time travel' machines. And you're right they need to duplicate Sawyer. Heck eeven triple and quadruple him. I don't mind at all :D


memphish said...

Fantastic recap! Great stuff about game theory.

Anonymous said...

Great recap, Fish! I love the three men and a baby mention, and the part about alliances, and the comparison between Hero Sawyer and "hero" Jack. LOL! Interesting about the time machine and Orchid logo similarities. Duplicate Sawyer's would be awesome! :)

Anonymous said...

Brilliant review Fish! I love your focus on Heroes Hurley and Sawyer - they so deserve to be called heroes here. Interesting to note the females on the show have totally different roles to play compared to the men too. That's a pity sometimes. Excellent game theory - I'll be waiting to see what happens next and to see if Ben and Widmore play the game to win the way you point out. Excellent manips as always too and I love Susan's gifs - very appropriate for your musings.


maven said...

Fantastic analysis, Fishbiscuit! That this is all a big game in which rules are being broken puts the whole thing in perspective. So Ben is the new Jack!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant analysis, really interesting! These posts are getting more important to me trying to understand the story... there seem to have been many... "Oh come on... WTF?" moments this season so far. :)

Anonymous said...

As always, great recap of this episode that was a real joy to watch. The alliances people form in times of crisis, and the one aspect of alliances that can't be predicted...altruism was a fantastic point. Hugo and James were true heros of the non seeking glory types. As was Bernard.



D. J. said...

I think this is the saddest episode commentary I've ever read. I can't quibble with any of it. Especially about it "not being a show about a group of crash survivors anymore." And, you really hit home about the "No girls allowed." I've become very bitter about the way women are used on this show. Especially after watching a 16 year old girl get executed with a gun shot to the back of her head. What the flying F are these show runners trying to say with s*** like that?

And, yeah, just rename this program the Ben Hour and be done with it. I thought it was bad enough being the Jack Show...

losterandloster said...

I absolutely agree with DJ. The way that women are moved around the chess board by the writers is pretty ugly. I hadn't put it into those terms in my own mind, but it was bothering me . . .Thanks for your take Fishbiscuit, it gives me a new way to look at the action.

Anonymous said...

I am not liking the Ben Show. Don't care about Widmore either. Lost is turning out to be one of those shows that has changed so much since its beginning that there's almost nothing left for the original fans. Good job making the best of this episode, but I'm reaching the breaking point. Between the dead women and the ugly old men carrying the plot, there just isn't enough entertainment here for me anymoer.

Amused2bHere said...

Wow, FB, excellent recap and insights. I too hate the underuse of the women on Lost. I was shocked at Alex's execution, I really thought TPTB wouldn't go there.

Keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

Oh, Fish, one thing...the date was October 24, 2005. You have the 21st in your review.


Anonymous said...

Fish, you never fail to stun me with your insite into LOST. You know every character inside and out and never miss a beat. You are the voice of truth in a world full of JIFJEXJISSJUG lovers.

I think you understand whats going on in this show better then the writer. Amazing job... as usual!

Anonymous said...

Only women recapers even mentioned Alex's brutal murder. I was so shocked by it. She was betrayed by her "father", had to witness the brutal murders of her mother and lover. The writers torture the women on Lost but this was really brutal. As much as I love some parts of the show the treatment of women is really appalling.

Anonymous said...

I must share. Bendiana Jones and the Lost Crusade.
Enjoy, as I have been enjoying your commentary this evening!