Recently, I was “flashing back,” if you will, to last summer, back when I first started watching Lost and writing this crazy column. Back in June and July, I asked a lot of silly questions: Who are the Others? Can science and faith ever be reconciled? How is Lost’s season two like a game of Civilization IV?
I’m not going to answer any of those questions today. No, today, the question I want to revisit is the question I asked at the tail end of Lost’s season one: What kind of show is this, anyway?
That question still hasn’t been sufficiently answered. Back in June, I wondered if Lost was science-fiction, fantasy, or some other genre. (The answer, it turns out, was “all of the above.”) Now, in February, I’m wondering something else: Is Lost a “hero’s journey” or a Shakespearean tragedy? Or is Lost’s narrative something else, entirely—something more interesting? Something more…subversive?
Here’s a not-very-controversial statement: Most pop culture today follows either the template of the “hero’s journey” or the template of the Shakespearean tragedy. The former follows a “hero” who needs to undergo trials to learn a lesson and self-actualize. The latter follows a “villain” who falls from grace after making a fatal mistake. Recent examples of the former: Avatar, Star Trek, American Idol. Recent examples of the latter: There Will Be Blood, Death Note, Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
Heroic quests and Shakespearean tragedies are polar opposites, no? Well, not really. At heart, stories about heroes and stories about villains are basically the same. Both are about Characters with a capital C—people who are in control of their own lives and their own destinies. In the hero’s story, the end comes about when the hero makes a decision and takes an action. This can have a good outcome or a tragic outcome, but, either way, the hero brings about the climax. In a villain’s story, the end comes about due to a decision and an action (usually an “incorrect” action) made by the villain early on in the story. The only major difference between the hero’s tale and the Shakespearean tragedy is the timing: The end of the tragedy is determined by a decision that occurs in the first act or before, while the end of the hero’s quest is determined by a decision made at the very end of the second act or very beginning of the third. But in both cases, the climax is determined by the actions of the main character.
This is true in most TV shows, too. Although most series seem to be ensemble stories, in the end most are really only about the actions taken by a single protagonist. House, for example, has a large-ish cast, but it is really only about House and what House does. The original version of Scrubs had a huge cast, but in the end it was really only about the heroic quest of J.D. The Simpsons is an interesting but still similar example: It has a quadrillion characters in it, but each A-story or B-story tends to be only about a single protagonist. This protagonist (usually Homer, Bart, or Lisa, although sometimes it’s Marge, Krusty, or Flanders) both creates the problem that starts the plot and solves the problem at the end of the episode. (This is the case in most scripted comedies.)
What we’re seeing in most American TV shows, movies, and books, is the continual reiteration of a single idea: Certain people are more special than others. These people are called “protagonists.” They are special because they control their plots, they wear plot armor, and they are each the smartest or strongest or most charismatic or wackiest person in their entire fictional universe. They are the ones who lessons at the end of the story. They are the ones we, the audience, should be paying attention to.
We Americans like this unspoken lesson. Most Americans—heck, maybe most humans—like to believe that each of us is special, the star of our own life stories. We also like to believe that our actions have direct consequences, good or bad, on the outcomes of our lives. This belief can be good (“I’m rich because I worked hard!”), or it can be bad (“I got cancer because I was mean to a homeless person”). Either way, it’s certainly a major component of the American Dream. A TV show that undermines this belief in our ability to control our own life stories is sure to be controversial.
You can probably see where I’m going with this. Is this true of Lost? Are certain characters—the protagonists, particularly Jack and Locke—“special”? Are they heroes in a heroic quest, who, in the last episode, will make a big decision that will save the world? Or are they tragic heroes preparing to make a noble sacrifice? Or is Lost a Shakespearean tragedy where the protagonists will meet tragic fates due to their own mistakes and fatal flaws?
Or is Lost following a different paradigm entirely? Could Lost be a show about fate, after all? Could it be a show about characters who are not proactive protagonists but passive pawns? Could it truly be a show about non-special characters whose actions have little to no effect on the ultimate outcome of the tale?
Let’s look at the evidence:
Lost’s Characters Are Special, Dammit!
- The show has been using the word “special” over and over since the first episode. That does suggest that, some characters, at least, are special in some way.
- The flashback device used in the first and second season seems appropriate for a show about “special” characters. It’s like the show is saying: Look! These individuals are each so special we have to write entire episodes of backstory for them so you can see how unique and interesting each of them is.
- Since the beginning, Lost has focused on Jack as the “main character.” If it turns out he was just on the Island randomly, that he and his father are not special or important in any way… well, that would be a huge fake out. Anyway, Jack has had some major control over his destiny over the course of the series: he did lead the Losties throughout most of the show, which did alter the course of the plot, and he was just the pivotal leader of the “let’s blow up Jughead and bring about a new timeline” plot of season five.
- If certain characters, like the perpetually shat-upon John Locke, turn out NOT to be special, that’ll be really, really disappointing.
Lost’s Characters Are Not Special, Dammit!
- If certain characters are more special than others, then the motto “Live together, die alone” doesn’t really work. Then it becomes, “If we stick together, the important characters will live at the end of the show, but the less special characters will die alone.” Wait, this is already true — remember the flaming arrow attack?
- The four-dimensional chess games Jacob and his black shirt-wearing amigo are playing seem to prove that the Losties AREN’T completely in control of their own destinies. The show, at this point, seems to be acting more like a myth (in which the mortal characters are controlled by immortal forces) than a fantasy/romance (in which it is narratively stipulated that the heroes must save the day on their own).
- Hey, remember how the ENTIRE last season was about how people’s lives are controlled by fate, not by individual choices? (“Whatever happened, happened!”) You can, in fact, make a good argument that the only characters who had any free will in the fifth season were Jacob, the Man in Black, Jack, and Juliet–and Jack and Juliet only used their free will in the last episode of the season.
- It’s unclear at this point, of course, but there is some suggestion that the Losties in Universe A (the regular Island world of 2007) are indirectly affecting the lives of the Losties in Universe 1 (a.k.a. Bizarro LA X Lost), and vice-versa. If this is the case (and I’m betting it is, somehow), then the characters in both universes will STILL have nearly no control over how their own stories end.
If I had to guess, I would guess the Lost IS a heroic quest story, and that free will will win the day. Jack will be the hero (as will goodLocke and Sawyer and Kate), and the end of the series will be influenced by the human characters’ own free actions. After all, this show IS American and on network TV.
But what if? What if this isn’t how the show ends? What if, by chance, it turns out that ALL of the main characters besides Jacob and the MiB were really just pawns of the gods and Lost’s writers? What if it turned out that fate was real the whole time? What if no one was special?
Well, we’d all probably be pretty disappointed, honestly. But maybe we shouldn’t be. After all, there are plenty of great TV shows, books, and movies that aren’t about proactive, effectual protagonists. For example:
Arrested Development: This satirical farce is about a hero (Michael Bluth) who is reactive, not proactive, and who rarely is able to solve his or his family’s problems. This is amusing to us.
The Wire: Although each individual character in this show is proactive, no one ever has true control over his or her own destiny. The course of characters’ lives (and deaths) are determined more by the ineffectiveness or rigidity of various institutions, such as the Baltimore police department, the government, or the local drug syndicate, than by any individual actions any individual characters take. And yet, most TV critics consider this to be one of the best shows of all time.
Friday Night Lights: Again, though many FNL characters work to change their destinies, their actions and choices aren’t as powerful as their socioeconomic classes, influential local institutions, and the inexorable (and nearly magical) gravitational pull of the sinkhole they call Dillon, TX. The most recently aired episode of this current season (episode 4.12), in fact, was so grimly fatalistic that almost none of the characters had any control over anything that occurred in the episode. Of course, everyone loved it.
So there are clearly good TV shows about ineffectual protagonists out there. Is Lost one of them?
I don’t know. Lost is not a farce, it’s not a satire, and it’s not some grim, hyper-realistic look at what it means to be poor in Baltimore or Dillon, Texas. It’s a fantasy, and fantasies should end with a big climax brought about by the stories’ heroes.
[How do you think will Lost end–with a bang or a whimper? Will Jack and the other Losties save the day, or will the end of the show be a Jacob-ex-machina? I’d like to hear your thoughts below in the comment section.]
Other random thoughts about episode 6.1: LA X
- Forget Juliet; Locke was the one who was making me want to cry this whole episode. From the way he lied (I think) about his Walkabout to the revelation that his last thought was “I don’t understand…” Oh, and his talk with Jack at the end? Sorry…I’m gonna get a tissue.
- Is “nothing’s irreversible” going to be this season’s “whatever happened, happened”?
- Can we start calling the Temple resurrection pool “the magical hot tub”? How does that thing work, anyway?
- When the MiB said that he was “very disappointed” at the end of the episode, was he talking specifically about Richard, the Others, or humanity in general?
- When did Hurley start seeing dead people, anyway? Does that mean Dave, the man who lived in Hurley’s imagination, was really a ghost all along?
- Heh, Smokey sure is smart. Way to die, Bram. Didn’t think about the third dimension, did you?
- Why was I so gleeful when I saw Arzt and Frogurt? Those two make my day. Seeing Boone was neat, too.
Obviously the “real” timeline and the “bizarro” timeline have to cross over at some point–but how will the writers do it? The way I see it, there are only four good solutions:
- “Whatever happened, happened” – This means that whatever happens in one universe will eventually happen in the other universe. That means Charlie’s gonna die (again), alive!Locke’s gonna walk, Bizarro Jack’s going to scream “We have to go back!” even though technically he’s never been to the Island before.
- “Bring balance to the Force” – In this scenario, there can only be one version of each character at any given time. Thus, one Kate (either 2007-Kate or 2003-Kate) is going to have to die somehow. Bizarro Charlie can live, because Regular Charlie’s already dead. Everything balances out in the end.
- “Two timelines enter, one timeline leaves” – In this scenario, one entire universe will sacrifice itself for the other. For example, the 2007-Losties find out that there is a paradox and that one timeline needs to die OR ELSE. Jack & co. sacrifice themselves and their timeline to save themselves in the new alternate timeline. This is sad. If I were a betting woman, I’d bet on this ending.
- “Mirror, Mirror” – In my favorite scenario, the duplicates somehow meet each other in one timeline or the other, as in the Bizarro episode of Sealab 2021, the multiple universes episode of Futurama, or the sexier, beard-ier episodes of Star Trek. The final, climactic battle sees good!Locke destroying evil!Locke/MiB.
[P.S. – Hey, no spoilers in the comments, ok? If you know anything about the rest of season six, keep it to yourself!]