My relationship with LOST was complicated. One moment I’d be at a distance, holding up my heavy textbooks of critical theory like a silver cross, putting academics between me and my TV. And then there were the other moments, the ones where no one on campus could find me because I was crouched in my homemade hatch, bingeing on seasons at a time. This paper came from the former POV. Next I’ll post a more manic (and truthful) treatise I shamefully released in the school paper.
World of Science, Leap of Faith:
The essential binaries and meta-philosophy of Lost
How is it that I got from an airplane bathroom to a suicide mission on an abandoned submarine? I was paralyzed from the waist down only a week ago and now I’m tracking boars through the jungle: what the hell? These questions and hundreds more haunt the characters of ABC’s Lost, a six-season epic chronicling the wild journey of a group of plane crash survivors who find themselves stranded somewhere metaphysically beyond the map – a strange and phenomenal island. The program blurs lines of genre, lifting tone, dialogue styles, and plot tropes from soap opera and science fiction alike. However, the many disparate narratives within Lost are unified by one central conflict – blurry at first and then, in later seasons, thrust into sharp philosophical relief. “One side is white, the other is black,” says enigmatic passenger John Locke in the pilot episode (“Pilot, Part 1”), foreshadowing this ultimate showdown between science and faith. This pair of opposing principles comes in many forms throughout the episodes – escaping versus exploring, arguing versus killing, even sailing towards freedom versus pushing a mysterious button. However, those two dogmas simmer beneath the surface of every important choice made by a character throughout the show. The merits and pitfalls of both approaches, and especially their application to our daily lived existence, are thoroughly explored through a variety of structural lenses.
One hallmark of Lost is its complex and ever-expanding web of plot developments, which tends to breed frustration and confusion in almost every character (not to mention the audience). Those earlier wide-eyed pleas for answers, however, are never heard from Lost’s two character pillars, Jack Shephard and John Locke. These two men assume leadership positions among the survivors, but more importantly they become fierce defenders of staunchly opposing principles: Jack is a doctor whose innate need to solve problems is facilitated by his firm sense of the logical and realistic, while John is a former paraplegic whose miraculous recovery produces in him a burning belief in the redemptive power of the Island. The only character who matches their devotion to clear-headed management is Ben Linus, introduced as the head of the Island dwellers (“The Others”) midway through Season 2 (“Lockdown”). Structurally, Ben serves as a mediator between Jack and Locke’s extremes, pitting them against each other with both cold precision and a fanatical eye towards the Island’s wishes. He blends science and faith, and he eventually pays for his unorthodox machinations by being “judged” by the supernatural forces of the Island (“Whatever Happened, Happened”). The Island, in fact, acts as a vacuum within which moral journeys of redemption, punishment, and love take precedence over “real-world” concerns – the possibility of a helicopter rescue has all but disappeared from the characters’ minds by the end of even the first season. As a result, the primary conflict of science versus faith is played out both through structural techniques and meta-commentary.
Primary producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelhof’s unique episode format has remained constant throughout the series. Popular fan website Lostpedia delineates character developments through “centric episodes,” which focus on the current Island timeline but frequently intersperse flashbacks focused on a particular character (Lostpedia). However, later structural developments like the flash-forward in Season 4 and the “flash-sideways” in Season 6 (to an alternate reality in which the plane never crashes) truly explicate the significance of such temporal manipulation (ABC.com). The moral struggles faced by a given episode’s centric character are mirrored in his or her past, future, or alternate life; Lost suggests that essential conflicts lie deep within one’s nature and will surface as a response to any crucial decision. On the Island while held captive, former Iraqi Republican Guard torturer Sayid reflects on his life choices and attempts to sympathize with his captors; we also learn that Sayid has previously made the choice to spare his childhood love, Nadia, at the expense of his career and despite his seemingly natural talent for cruelty (“Solitary”). A pivotal episode of the series, “Man of Science, Man of Faith,” explores how a patient’s miraculous recovery set Jack’s life on a new course and provided a valuable and haunting experience with the unknown – perhaps the divine. We are shown repeatedly that not only does each character claim a recurring inner conflict, but that they are destined to face it over and over. Each battle of the soul hearkens back to that essential question: Do I follow my mind or my heart? Must I play by the rules of the universe as I know it, or do I defy reason in favor of deeper impulses? Have I been cooked by oppressive reality, or am I ready for raw human nature?
The Island is wholly representative of that rawness, forcing slick con men like Sawyer or reserved couples like Sun and Jin to abandon the signifiers of the real world and start hacking through vines in the pouring rain. It is posited as not only a great equalizer, an isolated stage upon which to better showcase human interaction, but also as a cognizant force. As Locke (the one most in tune with the supernatural) often explains it, the Island gives individuals a chance to prove themselves and grapple with their own spirit; if that individual does not accept the challenge, they will meet an appropriate fate. Wealthy playboy Boone dies as a result of carelessness in the jungle – Locke calls him “a sacrifice the Island demanded” (“Do No Harm”). Mystery permanently shrouds the Island’s true motives, but we are sure of one thing: those who willfully turn a blind eye to either the “white” or the “black” within themselves will be swiftly eliminated, as they are failing to live up to the privilege of living as a thoughtful, unavoidably contradictory human being.
Although faith ostensibly seems to win out more often than not, especially within narratives situated on the Island, it is important to note that Lost mythologizes the main cast of characters as modern-day Odysseuses – regular people who venture into the otherwordly mist and emerge with new insight thanks only to their hidden wellsprings of strength. The plane crash survivors are everyday individuals, a concept which is reinforced by frequent references to popular culture (while time-traveling to the 1970s, the character Hurley attempts to write The Empire Strikes Back before George Lucas comes up with the idea [“Some Like it Hoth”]). All of the survivors, even Locke, come from a “cooked” world of science, and the drama of the show manifests itself in the journey each character takes towards reconciling their impulses with the new spiritual/philosophical rules of the Island. In contrast, the Others (indigenous inhabitants of the Island) seem to have all the answers but are unable to access the passion, dynamism, and cunning exhibited by the survivors. Ben is the sole exception; however, his devotion to survivor-esque manipulation rather than instinct results in myriad punishments, most notably the death of his daughter (“The Shape of Things to Come”). The outside explorers, the survivors, are consistently privileged as unlikely heroes who blossom as a result of being thrust directly into the grip of their deepest fears.
Many fans have speculated that the Island is an allegory for Purgatory, but it simply provides a stage upon which to play out this essential message: we do not fall on either side of a binary opposition. Each human is the sum total of his or her own contradictions, and events inevitably add up to one battle which we must constantly replay in order to understand ourselves. Not only does Lost summarize and capitalize upon a slew of familiar TV narrative tropes, but it goes a step further in excavating the nature of various rivalries and, indeed, the concept of rivalry in narrative itself. Oppositions are revealed to be unresolvable, perhaps making a meta-commentary on “good versus evil” in the popular TV fare of “the real world.” It remains to be seen how Lost’s final season will bring the schools of science and faith to an amicable (or forever turbulent) co-existence, but uncertainty and never-ending questions has always defined the universe within the show. As Ben’s fate indicates, there is no successful mediation between the opposing sides of one’s character; such attempts will yield distinctly negative results. Instead, there can be only constant vacillation, ebbing and waning between two essential extremes.
“Centric Tally.” Lostpedia. http://lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/Centric. Updated 10 February 2010 by user Buffyfan123. Unknown original author and date.
“Do No Harm.” Lost. Season 1, Episode 20. Dir. Stephen Williams. ABC. WABC, 6 April 2005.
“Flash Sideways.” Lost: The Final Season, ABC. http://abc.go.com/shows/lost/flash-sideways. Author and date unknown.
“Lockdown.” Lost. Season 2, Episode 17. Dir. Stephen Williams. ABC. WABC, 29 March 2006.
“Man of Science, Man of Faith.” Lost. Season 2, Episode 1. Dir. Jack Bender. ABC. WABC, 21 September 2005.
“Pilot, Part 1.” Lost. Season 1, Episode 1. Dir. J.J. Abrams. ABC. WABC, 22 Sept. 2004.
“Solitary.” Lost. Season 1, Episode 9. Dir. Greg Yaitanes. ABC. WABC, 17 November 2004.
“Some Like it Hoth.” Lost, Season 5, Episode 13. Dir. Jack Bender. ABC. WABC, 15 April 2009.
“The Shape of Things to Come.” Lost. Season 4, Episode 9. Dir. Jack Bender. ABC. WABC, 24 April 2008.
“Whatever Happened, Happened.” Lost. Season 5, Episode 11. Dir. Bobby Roth. ABC. WABC, 1 April 2009.