A Lost Week of Questioning Answers
by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
May 18, 2010 – 11:06
This past week was exam week for students, which means limbo for faculty waiting for final assignments to flood in, but few scheduled obligations for my time. Alas instead of focusing on my growing to-do list of projects, I’ve spent a huge amount of time obsessing about the concluding chapters of Lost.
My last post on Antenna generated a robust discussion thread, in large part because last week’s episode “Across the Sea” defined divisive and thus demanded conversation. Additionally, a number of must-read articles and interviews have come out – most notably, see Alan Sepinwall’s interview with Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, and James Poniewozik’s subsequent defense of arrogance in storytellers. In reading these and many other articles, listening to a number of podcasts, and watching the episode a second time, I have more to say about what type of answers I’m looking for, how Lost‘s genre identification is shifting, and why I still have faith going into the final pair of episodes. But don’t click through if you’re not caught up.
Prior to “Across the Sea,” I too had a laundry list of questions that I hoped to have answered much like Todd VanDerWerff’s list. But both the episode and a conversation in Sepinwall’s interview have redefined my expectations. In the interview, Sepinwall asks about the outrigger from season 5, hoping that they would “close the time loop” and reveal who was shooting at our heroes. Lindelof & Cuse say that they couldn’t get the narrative lined up sufficiently to provide that reveal without making it feel forced, even though they know the answer to this ultimately unimportant question. And when Sepinwall notes that there have been a number of outriggers this season that might suggest a bit of audience taunting, Lindelof replies, “We can’t entirely deny that we’re taunting you,” a phrase I’d love to get on a t-shirt.
This exchange is crucial to my rethinking about how Lost‘s endgame is playing out. There are different types of questions posed by the series, and as Mother says, “Every question I answer will simply lead to another question.” Some we might consider Outrigger Mysteries: dangling narrative threads that could be explained, but do not really impact our understanding of the characters, their core arcs, or the island. What would really be learned by knowing who the shooters were? It would be cool to close the loop, but ultimately it’s a form of fan service, providing a moment of enjoyable but inessential meta-glee (not that I don’t love the meta-glee). Additionally, I can fill that gap just fine myself – without any contradicting info, I assume that Sawyer was leading the shooting party. You can presume something different, and it ultimately doesn’t make a difference to our relative understanding or enjoyment of the show. And the narrative taunting is another form of pleasure that I’m happy to have in lieu of a cool (but likely disappointing and hollow) reveal.
A second category might be considered Mechanical Mysteries, focused on how things work. While some of these might be interesting to understand, they are ultimately less than necessary and might be disappointing upon reveal (as with the Michael/Hurley conversation about the whispers). In “Across the Sea,” we saw the origins of the donkey wheel, as a plot of MiB and the Roman villagers to channel the Source (that glowy light) and escape the island. While Mother intervened before the design could be installed, we know that it eventually was put in place and that it both moved the island in time & space, and relocated the operator to Tunisia. For some reason, I’ve seen commenters complain that they want to know how this works and who actually built it. Really? We need an episode dedicated to the engineering marvel of the Frozen Donkey Wheel? Lost is a show featuring time travel, smoke monsters, and clairvoyance – do we really need to understand how everything works enough to recreate the island in our basement?
Such mechanical mysteries speak to a larger genre issue – my friend Ted Friedman posted the following to Twitter last week: “My take on the Lost backlash: SF fans have finally realized they’re watching a fantasy story. SF demands answers, fantasy accepts mystery.” This has always been a key straddling act for the show, with sci-fi and fantasy elements (and fans) coexisting, and I agree that season 6 has veered more toward the mystical and mythological – a shift embodied by the reincarnation of physicist Faraday as a musician in the sideways world. Fantasy does accept mystery, especially about mechanics and causality – the much derided “a wizard did it!” explanation doesn’t fly for sci-fi fans. But I don’t think that fantasy accepts all mystery – we want the magical to be grounded in the internal logic of the storyworld, striving for consistency and continuity over rationality.
A third type of question might be called Mythology Mysteries – in the long history of the island, how did particular things unfold? For instance, we know that the island had a very large statue of Egyptian God Taweret and a lot of hieroglyphics. Given that “Across the Sea” seemingly took place in Roman times, we must assume that these pre-date Jacob and MiB – and I also assume that we’ll never be told that tale. I’m fine with that, just as I’m happy to not know how Mother arrived on the island, nor who created the glowy light, etc. Leaving such mythological mysteries open-ended facilitates ongoing fan speculation and theorizing, and there’s no way to create a rich mythology without leaving such openings. The show has clearly crafted a world with numerous cycles, callbacks and repetitions – we need to accept that even when we only see part of the story, there are previous (or future) iterations that are part of the storyworld but are left untold.
The more troublesome mythology mysteries are the backstories that we’ve seen glimpses of, but haven’t gotten full explanations. For instance, we know that an incident occurred in constructing the Swan Station in 1977 (whether it always involved a nuclear bomb or if that was a forked timeline is still unclear), and that by 1980 the station was built with the safety mechanism of the button-pushing computer. What happened in that gap that led to this unusual contraption? How did Radinsky get sentenced to a captive life of button-pushing and map-making? We don’t know, and I expect we never will. But I can spin a fairly consistent account of that story that doesn’t require additional producerly intervention, and ultimately won’t impact my appreciation of the show – and my own explanation is probably more satisfying than a half-assed answer revealed in clunky expository dialog.
The final category is Plot Mysteries, gaps that are crucial to understanding how the storyworld works and that we cannot fully fill-in on our own without some additional narrative explication. The reality status of the sideways stories are the core example, but I’d also include an explanation of Widmore and Eloise’s roles in the island and time travel narrative, what Jacob and MiB were doing with their duel lists of candidates on the cave and lighthouse, what really happened in the incident, and what Desmond is up to. If these aren’t explained, I’ll be pissed, because the narrative has framed them as key enigmas that need answering to piece together the action, especially in season 6 – and they are sufficiently obscured that I cannot simply craft my own answers that make consistent sense.
The challenge for figuring out where things stand on my list of questions is that some issues could function as either plot or mythology mysteries. For instance, why can’t women have children on the island post 1977? My personal explanation is that it was an after-effect of Jughead’s triggering the electromagnetic & temporal instability (in other words, a nuclear wizard did it). But since we’re still not sure how the bomb fits into the main island timeline, this might not be coherent. If the explanation of the incident allows this explanation to make sense, I’m fine filling in the gap myself. But if there’s not a clear trigger for this condition, it seems to ignore a major plot engine for the first 3/4 of the series. Other similar borderline mysteries that I’d like to see categorically clarified, if not fully explained, by next week include Sayid’s resurrection, Ilana’s role in Jacob’s army, the function of the temple and Others’ dedication to Jacob, and why Jacob could leave the island in “The Incident.” Again, I’m fine if these issues are not spelled out specifically, but I feel like I need more gaps filled in before I can craft a coherent explanation that makes internal sense, even within the fantasy genre realm.
In his excellent review of “Across the Sea,” Myles McNutt asks “do metaphors count as answers?” I think it depends on the type of question. For mythology questions, definitely. I’m fine with allegorical figures of parents and bad twins, glowing caves and enchanted wine serving as the backstory for our contemporary drama. But Eloise and Widmore are not metaphors – they are named characters whose histories, offspring, and actions matter in the present day, and I expect more than metaphors to explain what they’ve been doing over the past forty years. In their countless interviews, the producers have said that they see the story as the tale of the core characters, with the mythology of the island as a backdrop. Since the actions of the manipulative parent figures – from Eloise and Widmore to Jacob and MiB – bear much more directly on our core characters and the choices they’ve made, I have faith that these questions will be answered. And I’ll be back on Antenna on Wednesday and Monday to check-in on my faith or air my gripes.
And now a few random thoughts culled from my rewatch of “Across the Sea”:
- “Across the Sea” is clearly a key phrase, as it is what Claudia tells Boy in Black is his home. Thus it represents his motivation driving forward to leave Mother & Jacob, and eventually try to leave the island in our present day. On first viewing, I didn’t like the title choice, but now I think it will come to matter quite a bit in his endgame and our final narrative thrust.
- Much griping has been aimed at the choice to not reveal the names of Mother and MiB. I noticed that in the opening sequence, Mother asks Claudia “What are you called?” in the subtitled Latin. Assuming that it’s not a weak Latin translation (and since the writers obviously wrote the subtitles, it must be intentional), I think it’s relevant that she doesn’t use the word “name.” I assume that in her cosmos, the concept of naming is foreign, or perhaps forbidden, and thus the fact that neither she nor Jacob’s brother is named is mythologically motivated, not just an omission. Whether this matters or is just an explanation, I cannot say as of yet.
- When Jacob whines to his Mother that she loved his Brother more, he sounds just like Ben, suggesting a nice parallel to the scene when Ben complains to Jacob that he was not chosen in season five’s finale, “The Incident.” Throughout the episode, I love how Jacob comes across as the dim bulb of the brothers, making him an almost Forest Gump-like accidental participant in major historical arcs rather than a man of great destiny – much like poor John Locke. Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, but on Lost they have greatness thrust upon them.
- According to the Sepinwall interview, the choice to embed the clips from first season’s “House of the Rising Sun” at the end of the episode was not to remind viewers of Adam and Eve – and I buy that, given that Hurley and Jack had revisited the caves in “Lighthouse” and thus already refreshed our memories this season (although it does serve as a rare example of “objective replays” that I discuss in my memory essay). Instead, Cuse & Lindelof suggest that they were trying to focus our attention on how connected this ancient drama was with our contemporary heroes, and reminds us how much the core trio of Jack, Kate and Locke have changed over the years. As Noel Murray suggests on this week’s excellent Orientation: Ryan Station podcast, it also highlights a case of mythic misinterpretation – Locke calls them Adam & Eve in a way that mistakenly makes them a romantic rather than parental pair, and clearly makes the type of incorrect interpretive assumption about the island past that we all have made for the past six years. And I’m probably making another one somewhere in this post…