Since October of last year (2015), I’ve slowly been working my way through the old TV series Lost, which ran from 2004 to 2010 on ABC. I didn’t watch it when it first aired, but for a number of personal reasons I picked it up last fall on Netflix, and I have to say that in this show I’ve discovered a work of fiction that really speaks to me in a way I didn’t expect at all. While realizing that I’m 12 years late to the party, I thought I’d do a multi-part retrospective on Lost here on this blog, with each post being about one of the show’s six seasons. But instead of being merely a summary or review of each season, instead I thought I would focus on my personal feelings about the show, what it means to me and how it connects to various other of my interests. Lost really is a curious artifact in recent storytelling, and I think has a lot of interesting implications for narrative, science fiction, fantasy and environmental fiction. Naturally, Spoilers are ahead (but come on, the show is more than a decade old!)
In case you’re not familiar with it, Lost is a show conceived and originally produced by J.J. Abrams, who went on to direct the most recent Star Wars film. Its original episode aired September 22, 2004. The story begins with the dramatic crash of a jumbo jet, Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 which was traveling from Sydney, Australia to Los Angeles. Off course for some unknown reason, the ship crashes on a South Pacific island that its survivors, about 40 of them (initially), believe is deserted. Now thrown together in this extreme situation, the survivors must work together to survive and hopefully be rescued. Among them are Jack (Matthew Fox), a doctor with a troubled personal life; Kate (Evangeline Lilly), a former fugitive on the run; Sawyer (Josh Hollway), a cynical con man; Charlie (Dominic Monaghan), a drug-addicted rock star; Hurley (Jorge Garcia), a fast food employee who recently won the lottery; John Locke (Terry O’Quinn), a paraplegic; and various others. As the survivors soon discover, the island they’ve crashed on is very unusual. Weird monsters, ghostly apparitions and anomalies involving time confound their sense of reality. As the show depicts their lives on the island, each episode flashes back to fill in the characters’ complicated back-stories, some of which take several seasons to complete.
Lost was recommended to me years ago by a friend of mine, a rather mysterious fellow I’ll refer to as J. We’ve been corresponding over email for years–never met in person–but J is one of the most unusual people I’ve ever been acquainted with. Much of our multi-year conversation has focused on spirituality, philosophy, the nature of time and various other Borgesian concepts that form the major base of inspiration for a lot of my writing. Until the last few years I’ve not been a big watcher of TV shows. Then about 2010 I started to watch Mad Men, but that went off the air last spring. A few months later my husband got a new job which would require him to work evenings–traditionally our time to have dinner and be together. I knew shifting our schedule would be difficult for me. Even before his new schedule started I resolved I was going to invest in Lost and watch a couple of episodes each week before my husband came home from work. Thus, even before I watched it Lost was heavily associated with both my friend J and my husband, so the stakes were already pretty high the moment I turned on the pilot episode.
The first episode was stunning. The depiction of the crash was raw and wrenching, just as it was intended to be. Lost established its spooky quality early on, and in the first few episodes, in addition to learning about the characters, I found myself growing into the narrative style of revisiting the characters’ back-stories. It was refreshing that a “desert island” story was primarily backward-focused, as opposed to being just a plain survival or Lord of the Flies story, although there was a bit of that. The island’s various peccadilloes introduced in the first season were all fascinating: the monster (later to become the “smoke monster”), the wrecked sailing ship Black Rock, Rousseau’s 16-year repeating radio signal, the hint of hostile “Others” somewhere on the island, and the curious healing powers that give Locke back the use of his legs. The themes of redemption and renewal, especially shown through the storylines of Charlie, Sawyer and Claire, were compelling. I thought the show was especially well-written.
Much of Season 1 of Lost sets up a power struggle between Jack (Matthew Fox) and Locke (Terry O’Quinn) as the spiritual leader of the Flight 815 survivors.
As the first season wore on I became particularly interested in two characters: Locke and Hurley. Of all of the crash survivors, Locke seems the most needy and emotionally wounded. A very smart man who’s lived a life of frustration–he dreams, even in a wheelchair, of being a survivalist hero while working a dead-end job at a cardboard box company–the island represents rebirth, as its healing powers restore the use of his legs and also cast him as the “hunter” responsible for providing food (wild boar) for the crash survivors. Late in the season he discovers a mysterious hatch in the jungle and becomes obsessed with opening it. Hurley, also known as Hugo Reyes, has a similar dead-end life. Plagued with mental problems including an eating disorder–he’s quite obese–Hurley can barely hold down a job at a fast food chicken restaurant. He feels haunted by a mysterious string of numbers (4 8 15 16 23 42) that keep recurring in his life. When he picks the Numbers for a lottery ticket, he wins $156 million but is suddenly plagued with bad luck. On the island, one of the most jaw-dropping scenes occurs at the very end of the episode “The Numbers,” where we see these mysterious digits engraved on the hatch that Locke is trying to open.
The Season 1 finale really cemented my emotional relationship with Lost. A three-parter called “Exodus,” the ostensible plot focuses on a group of survivors’ attempt to get off the island on a homemade raft. In the meantime the flashbacks center on the main characters’ convergence at the Sydney airport as they board doomed Flight 815. Locke, his wheelchair temporarily missing, is helpless and humiliated as he has to be carried aboard by an airline employee. Hurley also reaches the gate not on his own feet, having made it to the plane–he’s the very last passenger to board–only by riding a motor scooter across the airport, making it to the gate just in the nick of time. The implication is that Hurley’s bad luck “causes” the crash (note it’s flight 815, two of the numbers), but this same event establishes Locke’s rebirth. There’s also a religious subtext to this finale, specifically a Jewish one. The Exodus was, of course, the migration of the Jews from Egypt to Canaan under the spiritual leadership of Moses. The Exodus story has always resonated with me since I was a child, even though I formally converted to Judaism in 2015. (J.J. Abrams, the show’s creator, is Jewish too). But what is the real Exodus in Lost? The survivors on the raft don’t make it far from the island, so their journey fails. Are the survivors of 815 the “chosen” people, who enjoy a special covenant with God? If so, much of Lost’s first season is about the search for the Moses figure. Is it Jack, the de facto leader of the survivors? Is it Locke? Is it Hurley, for that matter? There’s a lot of food for thought here.
The show’s famous tagline “Live together, die alone” comes from this Season 1 episode.
I’m not yet done with Lost. I just started season five, ironically on the same day my husband found out his job is changing again in May which means we may have our evenings back. I have until then to finish the show. I’ll present more of my thoughts in this blog series over the next few weeks. To be continued!