Back when I was TV Clubbing Lost’s fourth season, I attempted to enhance my theorizing skills by re-watching Seasons One, Two and Three, in part to look for recurring thematic elements and bits of mythology, and in part to see if Lost holds together as one long story. The results on the latter point were somewhat inconclusive, perhaps because it’s not until the end of Season Three that Lost starts to pic up some serious steam. So to prepare for the sixth season—premiering one week from today!—I re-watched Seasons Four and Five, to see how they play without the stop-and-start of weekly viewing. Again, I was curious if Lost works as serialized storytelling, as opposed to a moment-to-moment thrill ride. I also wanted to focus on what Lost has been up to over these last five years—and what it has left to do.
First things first: that nagging question. Does Lost hang together? Is it like an epic fantasy novel, or is it just another episodic TV show, with all the attendant gaps and lapses?
That depends on which season you’re talking about, really. When I was making my way through the fourth season again, I could sense the strain of the 2007-08 writers’ strike more than I have in the past. Because of the shortened season, the characters who arrived on the island from Widmore’s freighter never got the full arcs that the Lost writers intended, and without more of their story, Season Four feels pretty thin. On the island, nothing really happens, outside of a lot of walking back and forth from the beach to various Dharma hangouts. The season’s real action is in the flashbacks and flash-forwards. Thanks to some thrilling, genre-hopping off-island adventures, Season Four is responsible for a handful of my favorite Losts: “Confirmed Dead,” “The Economist,” “The Shape Of Things To Come,” “Cabin Fever,” and, of course, “The Constant.” Still, when I watch it back, I don’t feel the can’t-wait-for-the-next-episode pull that I did back when I was watching week-to-week, largely because I know I’m going to have to grind my way through some patches of wheel-spinning and dead ends.
Season Five, though? Now that’s a page-turner. I watched each episode of last season twice when they originally aired, but I hadn’t tried watching them consecutively prior to last month. And once I started, I found it hard to stop. Lost’s fifth season is full of memorable standalone episodes—“Jughead,” “The Life And Death Of Jeremy Bentham,” “LaFleur”—but it really works best as one breakneck 11-hour saga. The limited island sets and minor plot nudge-alongs of Season Four are frustrating (at least in retrospect); but we see so much more in Five of the island, of its history, and of what this show is shaping up to be about. The third time through the season, I didn’t even mind so much the dopey motivations the writers keep coming up with for what the characters decide to do. (It’s love! It’s envy! It’s “I’m tired of all the lies, dude!”) I find I’m increasingly able to shrug a lot of that stuff off—though I’ll have more to say about it in a moment—because I’ve gotten caught up in my favorite thematic through-line on Lost.
I wrote about this off-and-on at The TV Club last year, but during all the time-travel business—and the paradoxes it dredged up—the most compelling questions to me derived from Daniel Faraday’s “Whatever happened, happened” theory. If the timeline is fixed and unchangeable as Faraday initially proposes, then Locke’s near-series-long insistence that we all have a “fate” is true. (Although your fate might not necessarily be all that grand; it might just be to bump into somebody at a coffee shop, or to push a button in a bunker.) But if, as Faraday later asserts, a big gesture can alter the timeline, then Jack’s near-series-long assertion of “free will” is true. (Although it’s true in a typically Jack-ian way: You have to be bull-headed to make it work.) I’m curious to know which side of the argument Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse will ultimately fall on—if any. In the meantime, I’m interested in the way the characters respond to situations that seem to favor one side of the argument or another. For example: If they find out they’re stuck in the past (literally) and can’t change anything, do they just kick back and go along for the ride? Or do they still try to maintain a modicum of self-pride and do what they believe to be right?
When Jacob runs around in the Season Five finale telling everyone, “You have a choice,” I’m not sure he’s necessarily confirming free will. Or “destiny,” for that matter. I think he’s speaking to the essential question of Lost: What does it mean to be a hero? Is it burdening yourself with the need to “fix” everything? Is it being a reliable follower? Is it carving out a more individual path? And more to the point: Even if you try to be a hero, how do you know that you’re on the right side of the fight?
Of all the questions I feel need to be answered in Season Six, the foremost one is this: Who are the good guys here? We’ve heard Ben, Widmore, The Shadow Of The Statue people and I don’t know how many others say that they’re on the side of the angels. But consider: Lost is a show that for most of its first two seasons had us spending time with a band of killers, con-men, thieves and selfish pricks, and had us siding with them over a group of natives whose motivations have yet to be explained. For all we know, we’ve been rooting for the bad guys all along. I mean: who’s to say that even Jacob is a righteous dude? He seems nice enough, but he was awfully chilly to Ben in that climactic scene in Season Five, right before Ben stabbed him. Is he just a run-of-the-mill neglectful God/father-figure (as so many are on this show), or was he intentionally vicious?
Or is thinking in terms of good/bad the wrong way to go with Lost? Lindelof and Cuse have introduced a lot of gaming imagery throughout the past five seasons. Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in a game of Risk? Or ping-pong? Or golf? Or poker? Or Backgammon? (Did I miss any?)
Other, less esoteric questions I’d like to see answered:
-Whatever happened to the Oceanic 815 stewardess Cindy, and the kids Zach and Emma? We saw them with The Others in Season Three, and heard Zach and Emma mentioned by Ben to Juliet in Season Four, but that’s about all the screen-time they’ve gotten. I assume that at the end of Season Five they’re at The Temple. But why were they abducted by The Others in the first place?
-What is The Temple? (I’m still holding to my theory that when we see it, it won’t be ancient at all, but will be super-technologically advanced. Like a spaceship.) What did Richard do to save Ben there?
-Who are The Others, and what is their purpose? How vast is their reach into off-island affairs? How do they get on and off the island so easily? Who the hell is Richard Alpert?
-Is Locke actually special, or has he just been a pawn all this time?
-What connection do our heroes’ parents have with the island? Or grandparents? (Surely Darlton didn’t throw in a scene with Jack’s grandpa last season for no reason.) Why do people like Miles and Walt have special abilities? Will Aaron and Ji-Yeon grow up gifted?
-Why are there two islands?
-If Jacob and The Man In Black have played different versions of their “progress” game before, how long has the current version been going on? And what changed this time that allowed The Man In Black to subvert the rules?
Those are my biggies. How about you? What do you need to know from Season Six, and what would you just kind of like to know?
As for how I think this season—again, premiering next week!—will play out, it seems highly likely that after Juliet detonated the bomb at the end of Season Five, we are going to see some kind of alternate timeline where Oceanic 815 lands in Los Angeles. But what does that mean for the modern-day cliffhanger, where Ben and Not-Locke kill Jacob? That’s another thing I’m anxious to know. I’d also like to know whether the LAX bunch (if that is indeed the way the season opens, with the plane landing in LAX) will retain any memories of what they had to do to change the timeline, or if they’ll land clean and blank, as though nothing ever happened. I’m hopeful for the former, because I’d like to see the characters wrestle with their conscience a little. Also, I’m certain they’ll end up back on the island again anyway, and I dread the narrative bumps and shaky character motivations that might be required to get them there if they don’t remember.
But I’d have gone broke long ago if I’d laid money on all the directions I’ve presumed Lost was heading in the past. I didn’t see the off-island flash-forward coming at the end of Season Three. I didn’t expect the Oceanic Six (minus Aaron) to get back to the island halfway through Season Five. I didn’t predict time-travel. Now Lindelof and Cuse have said that they’re trying something radically different at the start of Season Six, and fans have all used the clues they’ve dropped (combined with the lack of preview clips) to assume that we’re in store for an alternate timeline. But what if Darlton has something even bigger planned? What if Season Six opens not just in an alternate timeline, but in the future, with Aaron and Ji-Yeon all grown up and stumbling onto the secrets of their parents (which in turn reveals the secrets of our heroes’ parents, and so on)? I wouldn’t put it past the Lost folks to come up with something that catches us completely unaware.
The one thing we do know is that Darlton have promised a season that people who’ve never watched Lost (or those who quit years ago) can jump in on without feeling too, well, lost. Granted, Lindelof and Cuse have misled their fans before on the narrative rules of the show—remember the tricky flashback/flashforward of “Ji-Yeon?”—but assuming they’re playing straight, we can reportedly anticipate a return to Season One-style storytelling in the first half of the season, followed by a complete end to flashbacks and flashforwards in the second half. (And no time-travel at all, ever.) Darlton have also predicted that some Lost fans are bound to feel disappointed in how everything wraps up and the questions that will inevitably go unanswered, though have promised to give every major character some kind of story-resolution.
I highly recommend this lengthy interview that Mo Ryan of The Chicago Tribune conducted with Lindelof and Cuse, and in particular two passages from the first part. In one, Cuse backs up a few things I wrote above, saying, “One of the central themes of the show is free will versus predetermination and that same issue was very much in play in how the show was constructed. Yes, the mythological architecture was constructed back in the first season and between the first and second season, but the actual journey of these characters is something that evolves literally episode-by-episode. We view the process of making the show as a very organic one. We watch what happens and how characters play off each other, what relationships are working, what aren’t working.” And at another point, while talking about potential fan reaction to the final episode and the final image, Lindelof marvels that “six years of their lives and over 120 hours on Lost and they’re going to pay it all off in this 30-second scene. ‘That is going to change the entire way that I feel about the show.’” To which Cuse adds, “We hope it doesn’t.”
Me, I’m with the creators here. I’ve had a blast watching Lost, and I trust that the final season will be entertaining at times and frustrating at others. (Such is the appeal of the show; it’s fun to get mad at it sometimes.) I’ve never been one to get overly dismayed by the notion that the Lost writers have improvised a lot of the show on the fly. There’s a place on TV for the kind of pre-planned, tightly controlled narrative (as seen on The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, etc.), but the trade-off is that those kinds of shows are often slow-paced and largely uneventful on any given week. I like that the Lost writers think about what will entertain and surprise an audience from episode to episode, even if that means introducing elements that that prove to be dead-ends. As a pastime, I certainly have no complaints about Lost.
But as a piece of art? Well, I’ll be honest: I look forward to Lost as much as any show on TV, but I don’t think that it rises to the lofty literary level of a Wire or Mad Men or Breaking Bad. The acting’s up-and-down, the writing’s often overheated and/or slipshod, and I tend to be on the side of the fans who think that Lindelof and Cuse are kidding themselves when they downplay the mythology and say that character development is the heart of Lost.
On the other hand, I’m not sure that the mythology is the heart of the show either—at least not for me. I dig the mythology more than the Sawyer/Kate/Jack/Juliet love quadrangle (and I do have questions I want answered), but I primarily love Lost for its thematic concerns and ambitious genre-play. I’ve already talked about how much I get out of the predetermination/freedom business, but I also like that Lost has always been a celebration of storytelling, from the arcane to the archetypal. It’s a genre-hopping story that pays direct homage to nearly every text that’s ever influenced its creators. It’s one long story, made up of a bunch of little stories. It’s a story about how backstories encroach and affect the main narrative, whether it be via time-travel or flashbacks (which are a kind of time travel). And, finally, it’s a story about the repetition of stories, and about which elements can be altered and which can’t.
If I’m ultimately not too bothered by the parts of Lost that don’t make a lot of sense, it’s because I do think of it—and not in a bad way—as “just a story.” (Or maybe The Story, if that seems more appropriately reverent.) I do find Lost moving at times, and I do root for the characters, but I really care more about what they represent, as pieces on the writers’ narrative chessboard. What do the choices they make say about their various types? Can they break free of their own writers, who put them through their paces mercilessly.
In a throwaway scene in last season’s stellar episode “Jughead,” Desmond tells a story to his son Charlie (a kid who, tellingly, shares a name with two other major Lost characters) about where their boat is headed, and then Penny chastises him for skipping over the part about the men who want to kill them all. It’s a clever scene on a lot of levels, not least of which being what it reveals about Desmond: a man who skips through time in his head, and a man who doesn’t like the concept of destiny. A man who tries to avoid hard truths whenever possible. Desmond’s a character in a story who’d just as soon we all stopped turning pages (because there might just be a Monster At The End Of This Book). But the story, damn it all, demands something else.
And now, because it wouldn’t a Lost post without some Stray Observations, here goes:
-I hope by now you’ve all seen the series recap video:
Very interesting to see the story of the show retold in chronological order (sans flashbacks), and also very interesting to see how complicated and crowded Lost starts to get right around the end of Season Three.
-Speaking of reordering, I’m sure some of you have already done this, but one thing I’m looking forward to trying when the series ends is watching all the characters’ off-island stories consecutively, in chronological order. It’d be cool if some future Complete Lost box set offered that as a viewing option.
-I received a CD in the mail recently from the nice folks in the Lost tribute band Sonic Weapon Fence. They’re a talented bunch, who play a variety of bright pop-rock styles, while singing lyrics that approach the show from an intense fan perspective. They sing songs about the guy who got chewed up by 815’s jet engine in the pilot (“That Sucks, Gary”), and about Widmore’s evil commandoes (“Quite Unseemly, Keamy”) and about the dangers faced by the island wildlife (“Subject: Rabbit”). To check them out for yourself, you can go to Sonic Weapon Fence website. The CD’s a lot of fun; definitely recommended for Lost fans.
-Has someone else used the Monster At The End Of This Book analogy for Lost before? After I wrote that, I began to worry that I was stealing someone else’s idea, but a Google search turned up nothing. Anyway, if it turns out that I’ve actually read that somewhere else, please let me know and I’ll cite appropriately.
-There’s been a lot of talk in the past about the best Lost finales, but what about the best Lost premieres? The first three seasons all had great openers (though Two and Three quickly stumbled after the premiere, and took a while to find their footing again), while Seasons Four and Five had fairly weak starts, in my opinion, then improved considerably. All of which is my way of saying that if the Season Six opener—one week from today, have I mentioned that?—doesn’t crush, I won’t be too worried. In fact, it’s fair to say that I’m not going to worry much about any rough stretches this season. Don’t expect any “Has Lost lost it?” pieces coming from me. This is our last go-‘round. I’m planning to enjoy it; whatever it may be.
-I scribbled down some notes on old episodes during my 4 & 5 re-watch, but I’ll save those for the regular TV Club posts. Look for them in the “Flashbackin’” section, when pertinent.
-I’m actually at Sundance right now, so I won’t be able to participate in any discussion until I get back, bu I do I look forward to knocking all this about with my TV Club regulars (as well as anyone who’d like to become one).