Friday, February 20, 2009


I am a huge fan of ABC's Lost. In certain respects, it is utterly conventional television: nearly every character is white (the only black or Latino cast members have been either killed or exiled from the island), every single female character is played by a stunning perfect-10 type, and the only female character without ludicrous pulchritude, Rose, is also the only non-white character who's still alive, although this is mostly a by-product of her being saddled with another American pop-culture trope, the Magical Negro. So it goes.

On one level, I think the writers are simply playing a game amongst themselves to see how much complexity can be revealed gradually over time. The X-Files broke new ground because it made clear from the outset that it was going to have a broad scope -- a story that affects the fate of the entire world. Lost is breaking new ground because, although it, too, tells a story that affects the fate of the entire world, that fact was not at all made clear from the outset. At the outset it looked like it was going to be a tropical version of Alive.

Around the end of the second season and the beginning of the third season (we are now about 7 or 8 episodes into the fifth season) I began to think about a possible explanation for what was going on in Lost. There are entire web sites devoted to fans presenting such theories and interactively critiquing them. I never published mine on one of these boards, but I did mention it to a few people.

I began to wonder if the point of the show was to put us, the American audience, in the role of reviled foreign terrorists. In this arrangement, "The Others" -- who live on "their island" with an orderly, courteous, regimented, productive social structure, yet at the same time seem perfectly content to be left alone on "their island" and exhibit no curiosity about anything off the island -- represent us, the American audience. And the substance of the plot consists of these "Others" systematically imprisoning, torturing, murdering, abducting, seducing, manipulating, and deceiving this ragtag band of protagonists. There were even shades of 9/11 in the fact that the way the Others are first made aware of the protagonists is by their arrival on a crashing plane. Over time we learn that the most frightening thing about the Others is their righteousness; their certainty that their cause is of such transcendentally greater purpose than you mere non-Others could ever imagine.

My confidence in this theory began to wane when the show introduced "the flash-forward of doom" at the end of Season 3, which established that some of the characters would in fact be able to leave the island. It seemed to me like the entirety of the action would have to play out on the island if my conjecture were to be strengthened.

Then the most recent episode aired, and my faith in the "we're the terrorists" hypothesis was renewed:

At this point in the story, a subset of the original plane crash's survivors -- the "Oceanic Six" -- have managed to get off the island, leaving some of their compatriots behind. They have been persuaded by "the Others" to return to the island. A mysterious woman somehow affiliated with "the Others" tells them that the only way to get back to the island is to get on another plane, this one going from L.A. to Guam, and for reasons having to do with "strong electromagnetic currents flowing throughout the earth" or something, this plane will also crash on the island. So they have to do the whole plane-crash thing over again, except this time they'll know what's going to happen.

This leads us to an extraordinary sequence in which, one by one, the "Oceanic Six" board this commercial airliner, and each gets this look on his or her face of rapturous anticipation, complete with lingering camera pans underscored with lush strings. These people are finally doing something they've thought about for a long time. They are united in purpose and conviction. They know they are going to crash, but are unafraid because they view the crash simply as a gateway to something wonderful beyond. A brief exchange of dialogue even makes it clear that they are aware, and simply don't care, that non-good things are going to happen to the other passengers on the plane.

These are the people that we have come to identify with over the last four seasons, yet they are shown boarding a commercial jet in the exact same emotional frame of mind that the nineteen Al Qaeda hijackers presumably were in on the morning of 9/11. The whole show has been leading up to a moment in which we are given a glimpse into what it must have felt like to be one of those suicide operatives. It's a profoundly creepy experience.

It's worth noting that, even if my conjecture is totally wrong, Lost could probably never have been made without 9/11 having happened first. Before 9/11, plane crashes were among the worst things people could think of. After 9/11, having a jet crash merely by accident into something that wasn't a crowded urban building seemed positively quaint. Before 9/11, pitching the Lost story would have been like pitching a prime-time sitcom about child molestation.

The other thing I'm loving about Lost is that the writers seem to have been profoundly influenced by one of my favorite books, Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco. The idea that the island can continuously move from one "pocket of strong electromagnetic energy" to another seems very similar to Eco's notion of "telluric currents" that, when properly harnessed and controlled, can remake the geography of the earth, and do in a few seconds what would take natural forces millions of years to do.


Anonymous said...

Ohhhhh shit!! You da man, brother!

Anonymous said...

Put on the chicken and strike up the radio! You hit the jackpot!

Anonymous said...

Man, you know what? This is some highly perceptive shit!