Welcome back to Overthinking Lost, fifth season edition.
Last week, we had an excellent conversation in the comments section about the never-ending battle between science and faith in Lost. While we didn’t come to any consensus about whether Jack was truly a man of science, a man of faith, or a mix of the two, last week’s conversation proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the words “faith” and “science” are far more semantically complex than we once thought. Cool, guys. Keep up the good work.
This week, I want to tackle two more complex—or shall we say vague?—concepts: the concepts of fate and free will. Weeks and weeks and weeks ago, back when I was still watching season two, I made the possibly erroneous claim that “fate” and “destiny” are, by definition, religious terms. In the fifth season of Lost, however, “fate” has taken on numerous definitions, both religious and [psuedo?] scientific. I mentioned in last week’s post that the first half of season five disappointed me, and I think that’s in part because of the vague nature of these terms. What is fate, Lost? What is free will? And can a television show whose characters lack free will be entertaining?
The answers to these questions and more after the jump.
A Lo Hecho, Pecho
If you were to ask an English major what the main theme of Lost was, that English major would probably say, “fate vs. free will.” (Unless that English major went to Yale, in which case she’d probably talk about post-structuralism or third wave feminist motifs or the relationship between Lost and Ulysses. Oh wait. I’m that English major. Shit.)
It seems to me, however, that “fate vs. free will” is a false dichotomy. In reality, Lost is a show about Fate Type A vs. Fate Type B vs. Fate Type C (etc.) vs. Free Will. And some of these types of fate overlap, too, which makes things even more complicated. Let me break it down for you:
Fate Type A: Fate by Time Travel
A.K.A.: Fate, Terminator-style; The Stable Time Loop
Definition: X must happen because it already happened in the future. By which I mean the past.
Example: The entire fifth season of Lost. Eloise Hawking had to kill her son, because she already did. In episode 5.15, Richard had to save Locke’s life after Ethan shot him, because he already did in episode 5.1. In episodes 10 and 11, twelve-year-old Ben Linus physically could not die because he was already alive in the future.
Is it true within the contexts of the show?: It seems to be. So far, “Whatever happened, happened,” happened… with some very minor variations. See below under the section labeled “Fate Type E” for more info.
Fate Type B: Destiny (Relig-y)
A.K.A.: Touched by a Jacob
Definition: Something is fated to happen because a god-like figure “wrote” that it would be so.
Example: It seems the Oceanic Six (except Aaron…maybe) were chosen by Jacob for some unnamed task. By touching them, he set them apart. Likewise, when Locke says, “This is what the Island wants me to do!” he’s talking about this kind of fate.
Is it true within the context of the show?: Probably. Locke was slightly wrong about his fate; he thought the Island had chosen him for some grand purpose, but really it was Esau who chose him for some dastardly purpose. Either way, though, he was chosen. We don’t yet know what Jacob touched the Oceanic Six for, but I’d be shocked if it turned out to be for nothing. I must also assume the thread Jacob was playing with was the thread of fate, which he is using to make a fate tapestry, which he will hang above his fate credenza in his fate sitting room. Yeah, I’m going to stop this metaphor now before it overtakes this whole post.
Fate Type C: Character Is Fate
A.K.A.: Fate is Character; The Child is Father of the Man
Definition: The big events of your life are essentially predetermined by your personality, your genetics, and/or your past.
Example: Jack was “fated” to be a fixer and a hero because A) he was always that way, even as a child, and B) his father pushed him onto that track by telling him he couldn’t do it. (Christian Shephard seems like a “reverse psychology” kind of guy to me.) According to Ben Linus, Sayid was “fated” to be a killer, because he was born to be one. As Sayid says, it’s the only thing he’s ever been really good at. Dan Faraday was born a genius, but he was destined to become a physicist and go to the Island due to a mix of parental pushing and time-travel-related destiny. The character flashbacks in the show often suggest that character decisions in the present are directly affected by their past selves.
Is it true within the context of the show?: Yes for now, but I’m betting, ultimately, that the show will change its mind. I would be shocked, shocked, if Sayid died before coming to the conclusion that his life was determined by his choices, not by his fate or character. And, as I said in an earlier post, I would be shocked if the show didn’t end with Jack screaming (possibly at his Esau-controlled ghost dad) “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” I’m also expecting at least one character (crossing my fingers for Ben Linus) to make a completely out-of-character sacrifice to save the world. Like:
ESAU: Ben, you HAVE to be evil and manipulative. It’s part of your character. You don’t have it in you to make a heroic sacrifice.
BEN: Yeah, don’t tell me what I can’t do, Esau. Thanks. [Ben Linus saves the Universe.]
Fate Type D: Human Nature
A.K.A.: The “Hobbes Was Right” Reading; Lost of the Flies
Definition: This is a “big picture” kind of fate, the kind of fate it seems Jacob’s enemy espouses. It’s this: ultimately, humanity will destroy itself, because humans are naturally evil, violent, and selfish. In a state of nature, their lives will be solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.
Example: From the Jacob-Esau conversation at the start of the season five finale, it seems that different groups have been coming to the Island for years and years and years. And each group’s story ends the same way: they fight, they kill, they destroy, they die. Then the cycle starts again.
Is it true in Lost?: So far, yes, but I’m guessing, ultimately, it won’t be. Jacob claims that each cycle of death is really a revolution in the great wheel of progress. Progress might be slow, but it’ll lead somewhere good, eventually. Since Jacob’s being set up as the ultimate good to Esau’s ultimate evil, it seems this is where Lost’s writers stand, barring any major plot twists. (OMG Jacob is evil! Esau’s good! Claire was the Big Bad all along!) Also, the show’s other big moral seems to be “it’s better to live together than die alone,” a moral that suggests that human life doesn’t necessarily have to be solitary or brutish.
Fate Type E: A Mix of Fate and Free Will
A.K.A.: The Course Adjustment Model
Definition: Under this model, the big events in history are fated, but minor things can be nudged and altered slightly along the way.
Example: For instance, Charlie was supposed to die saving Claire’s life, but he didn’t. Desmond was able to change that. However, he wasn’t able to prevent Charlie from dying. The universe course-corrected for that. Claire and Aaron were fated to get on the helicopter, but only Aaron did. (Apparently, Aaron was the important part of that vision, not Claire.) The Oceanic Six weren’t “supposed to” leave the Island, possibly because they were supposed to be around for the time flashes so they could end up in 1977 to cause the Incident. Nevertheless, they got to 1977 anyway. Under this model, most events are fated, but humans can nudge the course little by little along the way. And this might be enough. This might be the “progress” Jacob was referring to.
Is it true?: Unclear. The first episode of season six may clear that up a bit. If the nuclear explosion WAS the Incident, then the universe did course correct. If the nuclear explosion PREVENTED the Incident, then this theory flies out the window.
Fate Type F: A Mix of Fate and Free Will 2.0
A.K.A.: The Big Rock/Small Pebble Model; The Inverse Course Correction Model
Definition: Under this model, time is a river. If you change a little event, it’s like throwing a small pebble into the river. The pebble might feel different, but the river keeps on its regularly-scheduled course. But if you throw a mountain-sized rock in it…
Example: What if, when Ben killed Jacob, that was tantamount to him throwing a mountain-sized rock into the river of time? And what if Juliet’s exploding Jughead was another such rock? It could mean that, from here on out, fate is off the table. Everything that happens in season six, therefore, would not be predetermined by anyone but the writers.
Is it true?: I’m hoping it is, because, let me tell you, watching a show where everything is predetermined is bor-ring. While it was interesting at first to see Action Jack Shephard become a depressive fatalist throughout season four and most of season five, I thanked the TV gods when he finally got back his motivation and decided to blow up the Swan. Watching people allow predetermined events to unfold is boring. Watching people try to fight fate but constantly fail is less boring but more frustrating. Watching people work toward their own goals to change their own destinies makes for exciting television, which is why the second half of season five was much more interesting to me than the first. The plot went from “people get manipulated by time skips and walk around the Island in a time-induced daze” and “people get manipulated by Ben Linus and Eloise Hawking” to “the characters are actually motivated to get off their asses and DO something.”
The loose guidelines* to good dramatic writing usually insist that characters have concrete, believable goals and that they proactively attempt to achieve these goals. Knowing that, let’s consider the following character arcs throughout season five:
Jack, 1st half: Wants to get back to the Island but we don’t know why (vague motivation), and he doesn’t know what he’s doing, so he just trusts Ben for no reason (unbelievable motivation, not very proactive).
Jack, 2nd half: Wants to blow up the Swan (proactive) to prevent the Incident to save all the dead people (a good motivation) and win Kate back (a dumb motivation, but concrete and somewhat believable).
Locke, 1st half: Wants to convince the Oceanic Six to come back to the Island (an okay motivation, although I usually prefer characters to be motivated for personal reasons, not just because the ghost of Jack’s dad told them to do something). He fails… but that’s not the problem. The problem is that we knew back in season four that he was going to fail. We already knew he was going to die, so any scene about his ordeal trying to get back to the mainland and convince the Oceanic Six was already predetermined in the eyes of the viewers. It therefore seemed like the writers were just going through the motions.
Locke, 2nd half: Wants to kill Jacob, because he’s an evil god-like being in disguise (cool, intriguing motivation). He succeeds (proactive).
Kate, 1st half: Wants to keep Aaron (good motivation), but doesn’t really anything to accomplish this goal (not proactive enough).
Kate, 2nd half: Wants to bring Claire home for Aaron’s sake (good motivation), returns to the Island to do so (proactive).
Sawyer, 1st half: Wants the time skips to stop (good, if vague, motivation), but has no idea how to do it. So he just leads people around the Island randomly (not very proactive). Miles even points that out in a later episode when he says, “Walk to the Orchid or the beach? Are those the only two plans you people ever come up with?”
Sawyer, 2nd half: Wants to make a good life for himself and Juliet (good and noble motivation) by stopping Jack from blowing up the Swan, Sayid from killing Ben, etc. (concrete, proactive).
Sayid, 1st half: Wants to help his friends on the Island (a noble, if sort of meaningless, motivation) and avenge his wife’s death (good motivation). So he blindly follows Ben’s advice (dumb, just dumb).
Sayid, 2nd half: Wants to DESTROY BEN LINUS (a very good motivation). So he shoots Ben in the chest (proactive).
Any writing teacher will tell you that a story will be more compelling if the characters have firm, obvious, concrete, believable goals that the audience believes they MAY be able to achieve. It doesn’t really matter if they do achieve the goals or not. Without motivation and without free will, a story becomes rambling, frustrating, and, ultimately, meaningless. Here’s hoping the Lost writers figured that out before writing season six.
So? Fate, free will, or a mix of both? Sound off in the comments!
A note: Starting this week, I’ll be going back to writing posts once every two weeks rather than weekly. I also might start overthinking–gasp!–another series. But don’t worry! I’ll be back to writing about Lost on a weekly basis when the show returns in 2010. Until then, does anyone have any Lost-related topics you want me to cover?
Also: If you haven’t seen this before, watch it:
*I say “loose guidelines to good dramatic writing” because A) I’m not fond of rules for writing, and B) I want to allow for great works of art that feature characters without free will or good motivation. Waiting for Godot, for instance, is a favorite of mine, and Slaughterhouse-Five is clearly a work of genius, as well. However, Waiting for Godot was only two hours long, not five seasons. I don’t think anyone would have sat through that shit for five seasons.