I’m a Lost virgin.
Really. You’d think such a thing would be impossible in today’s world. Lost has been on for, like, fifteen years by now. You can’t watch an episode of The Supernanny Bachelorette in a Shark Tank on ABC without being interrupted by some commercial announcing that This! Week’s! Lost! Will Change! Everything! And let’s not forget about the Lost converts who have just consumed the entire show on DVD from Netflix in two weeks flat and who will not sleep until they have converted another to their strange cultish religion. They’re not as bad as The Wire’s fans, but they’re close.
But I’ve felt recently that I haven’t been ingesting enough popular culture lately, and I had to fill that hole in my diet with empty calories, and ABC.com happened to have Lost streaming online for free. It’s like if someone left a box of cookies out in the open and said, “Go ahead. Eat the whole thing.” Except that every five cookies you ate, you had to watch a VISA ad.
So I have officially popped my Lost cherry and am here to overthink the series for you, in order, over the course of the next however many weeks. In case you’re curious, I included this overly long preface in this first of what will hopefully be a long and exciting series in order to emphasize that I have never seen an episode of Lost before this week. The only things I knew going into it were
1. There was an island.
2. One of the characters was named John Locke, which is not heavy-handed at all.
3. For some reason, polar bears.
Let me reiterate. Before this week, I had never seen an episode of Lost before. As of now, I have only watched eight episodes of Lost, all of them from the first season. Therefore, the Overthinking done herein will ONLY be about the first season, episodes 0 through 7, and I will thank you very kindly if, in the comments, you stick to talking about episodes 0 through 7. If you have something to say about a later episode, either keep it to yourself until I get to said episode, or, if you must, refer to it as vaguely as possible in the comments. For instance, saying, “That reminds of me of when Character X dies!” will not fly. Saying, “that reminds me of the last episode of season 4” is fine, because I will have no idea what you’re talking about. Likewise, if I say something stupid in this post, like, “Doesn’t Mr. Locke seem like a nice person?”, please do not jump in to correct me based on your knowledge of later episodes. Because I know where many of you live. We asked for your longitudes and latitudes in the podcast for a reason.
Thanks. Now, without further ado, we will start overthinking episodes 0-7. To refresh your memory, here are some quick synopses of the episodes:
Episode 0 (“Pilot”): They crash on the island. Locke does that “put the orange peel in your mouth” gag from The Godfather. Some French woman says scary shit over the transceiver.
Episode 1 (“Tabula Rasa”): The U.S. Marshal almost dies, but doesn’t. Then he almost dies again, but doesn’t. Then he does. In flashbacks, Kate goes to Australia for some tabula rasa but her past follows her. Back on the island, her past continues to follow her, but Jack for some reason doesn’t care. For some reason, I don’t really care, either.
Episode 2 (“Walkabout”): In the present, they set the airplane on fire and try to triangulate the whereabouts of creepy French lady. In Flashback Land, Locke is a sad and yet creepy mofo.
Episode 3 (“White Rabbit”): In the past, Jack’s dad died. In the present, Jack finds some caves.
Episode 4 (“House of the Rising Sun”): In the past, the Korean couple were involved in some John Woo-type gangster fun. In the present, the clan splits up into two groups: Group Beach and Group Cave.
Episode 5 (“The Moth”): In the past, Charlie wasn’t a drug addict and then he was. In the present, Charlie was a drug addict and then he wasn’t. Also Jack got buried but is ok.
Episode 6 (“Confidence Man”): In the past, Sawyer was conned by a con man and then became a con man but then gave it up. In the present, Sawyer is a dickhead. Sayid and Jack decide they’ve been on the island for a week and it’s time to start torturing people.
Episode 7 (“Solitary”): In the past, Sayid saved a childhood friend from execution at the hands of the Republican Guard. In the present, he runs into French lady (Rousseau, lol), who is crazy. Everyone else plays golf.
Abrams and Hobbes
All right, first eight episodes. Let’s talk intertextuality. The writers of Lost seem to love dropping references to classic works of literature and philosophy, much like the writers of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Whether they do this to get at some deep meaning or, like the Matrix writers, merely to seem important remains to be seen. I’m going to give Lost the benefit of the doubt for now and assume its writers knew what they were doing when they named two of their characters Locke and Rousseahu, had one of their villains read Watership Down, and rip their entire premise off The Lord of the Flies.
Actually, let’s talk about The Lord of the Flies first. The parallels are so blatant it would be a waste to spend a whole post picking them apart. Let’s just say that the plot is the same (everyone crash lands on an island), the symbols are the same (boars, monsters, and flies), the themes seem to be the same (human nature and the social contract), and the characters overlap somewhat (I’ll get to that later). Shannon even has asthma (or assmar, as the kids in LotF would say), for god’s sake. I’m just shocked there’s no conch around yet.
A more interesting topic to pursue is how Lost differs from The Lord of the Flies. The discrepancies between the two texts suggest that Lost’s writers were not simply ripping off Arthur Golding’s original source, but speaking to the 1950 novel. To put it another way, Lost may not be a simple reimagining or reinterpretation of Lord of the Flies but a commentary upon it, or, better yet, a modern-day critique of it.
First, let’s refresh our memories. Think back to high school English, and you’ll remember that the kids stranded in The Lord of the Flies split themselves into two parties. One group, led by hero Ralph, decides to put its energy into keeping the fire going to signal any passing adults of their whereabouts. Ralph’s group values the law (symbolized by the conch) and returning to civilized society (represented by the fire and Piggy’s glasses). The other group, led by villain Jack, puts its energy into sexualized hunting (symbolized by the killed mother boar) and generally acting like jerkasses (symbolized by their acting like jerkasses… plus they kill Jesus—er, I mean, Simon). Jack’s team wins by killing everyone except for Ralph, who only escapes when the British ship, the S.S. Deus Ex Machina, happens to find them and save them all.
Okay, OTI readers. Return to ninth grade. What is Lord of the Flies about? Underneath all the allegory, what does the thing mean? (And to those of you who in ninth grade said, “Why does it have to mean anything?” you get detention.)
If you said, “Golding’s novel seems to espouse a simultaneously Hobbesian and Christian view of human nature,” you get an A! As Thomas Hobbes expected, the little boys, when placed back in their natural environment, reverted to their natural state of assholery. Without society, their lives were doomed to be solitary, brutish, and short. Oh, if only they signed a social contract and placed their autonomy in the hands of some noble, Christian leader, they would have escaped this sad fate! If only they hadn’t killed Jesus—er, I mean, Simon—they would have erased their original sin and escaped to heaven—I mean, London! If only they had kept looking up at the sky for God—I mean, an airplane—and kept the Holy Spirit—I mean, bonfire—burning, they would have been okay. But, as it was, they failed at their task, leaving the adult (a.k.a. God) who finally found them at the end of the book to look down on them and shake His head in shame. Why, humanity? Why?!
Now, let’s look at the differences between that symbolic plot and the plot of Lost. In Lost, the characters are neither children nor blank slates to be written on by their environment. The constant flashbacks show us that most of them were pretty brutish back in the civilized world; living on the island has even made some of them, like Kate and Charlie, into better people than they were back home. In fact, the whole relationship between the characters and “back home” in Lost is the complete opposite of that of Lord of the Flies. In LotF, the “good” characters, led by Ralph, cherish the hope of returning home and thus keep the fire going while the “bad” characters, led by Jack, dig in and start hunting boar. In Lost, the “good” characters, led by Jack (interesting name switch, huh?), decide to make a home in what they call the heart of darkness and start hunting boar, while the “bad” characters, led by Sawyer, stay on the beach, hoping to return back to civilization.
Why the difference? Why does Lost’s Jack quickly give up on the hope of being rescued? Let’s go to the text:
“It’s been six days, and we’re all still waiting. Waiting for someone to come. Well, what if they don’t? We have to stop waiting. We need to start figuring things out. A woman died this morning just going for a swim, and he tried to save her, and now you’re about you crucify him? We can’t do this. Every man for himself is not gonna work. It’s time to start organizing. We need to figure out how we’re gonna survive here. Now I found water. Fresh water up in the valley. I’ll take a group in at first light. If you don’t want to come, then find another way to contribute! Last week most of us were strangers. But we’re all here now, and God knows how long we’re gonna be here. But if we can’t live together, we’re gonna die alone.”
Jack’s speech gets at the crux of the difference between Lost and Lord of the Flies at this stage in the series. In LotF, humanity is by nature evil and savage and can only rise above that savagery with a mix of British law and Christian morality. Thus the only “good” characters in LotF are the ones who constantly look toward the sea (for British ships, and therefore British law and order) and the sky (for God). In Lost, on the other hand, the only major characters who stay on the beach are criminals (Sawyer and Kate) and those who don’t want to accept reality (Shannon, Boone, Claire, and Rose). These characters talk a lot about faith, but in the context of the show so far, faith hasn’t brought them anything. And, interestingly, by Episode 7, Shannon, Boone, and Claire have, for various reasons, accepted the reality of their situation and followed Jack to the caves in the interior of the island.
Jack, meanwhile, is presented as the moral center and realist of the group. Jack is clearly not only the main character of the show, but the mouthpiece of its writers. So far, whatever Jack has said or done has been proven right. He’s the hero. So when Jack says, in so many words, “Sitting on the beach with your faith is stupid; we need to rely on ourselves, not some imaginary savior in the sky,” it’s easy to assume the writers agree with him. For now.
LotF conceives of humans as beings who quickly and naturally fall to original sin and savage brutality if they lack the structure of Western law and Christian order. Lost’s Jack seems to be conceiving of humans as beings who can turn savage but can also rise above their animal instincts, not through a Christian savior, but through government and community. In other words, Jack is Hobbes without all the God talk mixed in. We’ll have to watch more to see how that works out for him.
Simon, Jesus, Locke
We can’t talk about Lost’s political philosophy without talking about John Locke, who is clearly being set up as the main villain, though I can’t yet see why. Almost every time he’s on-screen, the show goes “dun dun dun!” as if that’s enough to make me scared of the guy. All right, yes, he did happen to bring a box of knives on the plane, and he talks a little too much about “the dark and the light” for my tastes, but, overall, I don’t see why he’s being played up as the Worst and Creepiest Guy in the World. He just seems like a lonely and alienated amputee who lived in a depressing version of Office Space before undergoing some crazy miracle.
But, but, but. His name is John Locke. Like the political philosopher John Locke. Mr. Tabula Rasa John Locke. Mr. All Men Are Created Equal and Are Generally Good John Locke. It’s clear to me that something Important is going on here.
I’m not going to yet weigh in on whether Lost’s Locke and the 17th century’s Locke have the same ideas on human nature, though I’d bet they don’t. Instead, I’d rather continue our analysis of Lord of the Flies and figure out where John Locke fits into that schema.
You’d think that Locke, as the supposed villain of Lost, would be the analog of LotF’s Lord of the Flies, Beelzebub. I think that’s too simplistic and not backed up by either text. No, I think Locke is supposed to be Lost’s Simon. Simon, you’ll remember from ninth grade, was the weird, slightly creepy sickly kid who used to go out into the woods to hallucinate that the head of the mother sow was actually the Devil, and that the Devil spoke to him. This was the kid who would go up to Ralph at various times in the book and say mysterious things like, “You’ll get out of this okay,” but never explain how he could know that. He also was the first kid killed by Jack and his bad boys, and every teacher from here to Zanzibar will tell you he’s the book’s Jesus figure.
Compare Simon to Locke. Locke wasn’t sickly, but he was an amputee, which to me is close enough. Like Simon, he regularly goes off into the woods (the heart of darkness) to stare directly into the face of the monster/Devil. Like Simon, Locke goes around saying mysterious things like, “Can I tell you a secret?” and “I’ve looked into the eye of this island, and what I saw was beautiful.” And when he gets his legs back, you can see he saw it as a rebirth, a resurrection. I wouldn’t be surprised if Locke thinks of himself as a Jesus figure.
But is Locke a Jesus figure, after all? It’s hard to say just yet, mostly because I haven’t seen him die. But the fact that Locke also looks and acts like Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in Apocalypse Now adds to that suspicion. Am I crazy? Maybe. But recall that the first time we see Locke in the show, he’s doing the orange peel bit from The Godfather. Look at his bald head. The fact that he’s already going native. Kurtz talked in strange metaphors about snails and razors edges. Locke talks in strange metaphors about moths and backgammon pieces.
And consider this. In Lord of the Flies, Simon’s death is juxtaposed with the death of the mother sow. Both are metaphors for the loss of innocence; Simon’s death is the death of Christ, and the mother sow’s death is the death of Mary. Simon’s death is also part of a ritual; Jack’s crew kills him during a tribal dance. In Apocalypse Now, Kurtz, who like Simon regularly looks into the heart of darkness, a.k.a. the “eye of the island,” is murdered by Martin Sheen, who loses his innocence. Apocalypse Now’s final murder is also juxtaposed with the ritual death of an animal—in this case, a water buffalo cow. In both cases, the murders are shown as acts that are both ceremonial (meaning they happen over and over again, and meaning they are part of society) and brutally animalistic. The idea in both texts is that civilization is just a way to mask the true beast within humanity. In both cases, even the death of Christ or a Christ-figure is not enough to redeem evil Man.
So, if I’m right, and Locke is Lost’s version of both Simon and Kurtz, Lost will have to end with Jack killing Locke. The death will be brutal and juxtaposed with the death of some animal—I’m going to guess the island’s monster, but it could also be a mother polar bear for all I know. The death scene will also be ritualistic and a replaying of the crucifixion of Christ. And Locke will be happy about it because it will prove that Jack was wrong. The social contract was not enough to stop the beast of humanity, and the fall of humankind from grace will continue to replay itself forever.
Next time on Overthinking Lost (maybe): Rousseau, theories of law, property rights, or survival of the fittest. Or whatever else I think of when I watch more episodes.
I’d love to hear your comments. But remember, no spoilers!