This is the second article in my retrospective on the TV series Lost, which, although it’s been off the air for some years, I’m discovering for the first time. The first article is here. I began watching the show on Netflix last fall (October 2015) when my husband went on a new work schedule that required him to be gone during the evenings, which had been our traditional together-time. The show was recommended to be my a good friend who thought it would mesh well with my rather Borgesian style of storytelling, which incidentally is currently on display in my podcast, The Valley of Forever. I responded to the show in ways I didn’t expect, and I find it a fascinating riff on the ideas of story, character, science fiction, philosophy and the environment. (Spoilers, of course).
Season 2 of Lost (2005-06) went in a totally different direction than I expected. It focuses mostly on the “Hatch,” the strange metal gateway into the ground that some of the Oceanic Flight 815 survivors, principally John Locke, become obsessed with opening in the last few Season 1 episodes. The Season 1 cliffhanger was an explosion that opened the hatch, and Locke descending into it. Season 2 opens with a mysterious man–later revealed to be Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick)–going about his tasks in what appears to be a retro late-1970s-furnished apartment, with a record player, kitchen and various modern conveniences. He hears a strange boom–the explosion–and his underground world is suddenly invaded by the Flight 815 survivors. The key feature of the Hatch, actually called the “Swan Station,” is an antique computer, which looks like an Apple II, into which the operator must type the mystic numbers (4 8 15 16 23 42) every 108 minutes, or else…something happens, rumored to be so terrible that no one wants to find out what it is. As Desmond, who’s been underground doing this every 108 minutes for three years, runs off into the jungle, the “Button” becomes the responsibility of Jack, Locke and the Flight 815 gang, who have differing ideas over its meaning or whether the something terrible even exists at all.
Anyone familiar with literature will recognize this situation as a psychological and philosophical dilemma, torn from the pages of Kafka but with a semi-modern (hey, it’s an Apple II!) computerized twist. What if you told someone that they hold the fate of the world in their hands, but they can only save it by enslaving themselves to an apparently meaningless and mundane routine? What’s interesting about the “Button” dilemma is that the terrible consequence of not entering the numbers is never really made clear–rather, it’s implied through a series of clues, chiefly incomplete movies left behind at the Swan Station by its long-vanished builders, a mysterious research organization called the DHARMA Initiative. Indeed the DHARMA people, whoever they were (the show doesn’t really explain them), evidently built an entire infrastructure on the island, and there seems to have been some kind of war between DHARMA and the island’s indigenous inhabitants, called the Others, who the Flight 815 characters increasingly believe are trying to destroy them. At the end of the season a purported tail section survivor, “Henry Gale” (Michael Emerson) is revealed to be one of the Others, thus setting up the conflict for the next season.
The Season 2 setup is curiously reminiscent of more classic science fiction. Numerous SF stories posit the scenario of near-mythical, awesomely powerful aliens, usually never seen directly, who built some sort of immense infrastructure and then vanished, perhaps to return, perhaps not. 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact both deal with this theme. In Lost, the DHARMA Initiative are the “builders.” Although human, their reach is omniscient–in addition to the Swan Station they created various other stations, some with the sole purpose of spying on the other stations–but they, like alien races in SF stories, have been wiped out by some long-ago cataclysm that’s poorly understood. Faith is also a key theme. The title of the premiere episode this season is “Man of Science, Man of Faith,” which encapsulates the conflict between Jack Shepherd (Matthew Fox), the ostensible leader of the 815 survivors, and John Locke (Terry O’Quinn), himself named for a philosopher, who believes in the island’s mystical powers and is convinced the plane brought them there to fulfill some destiny. Faith is a key theme in the story arc of Mr. Eko (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a Nigerian warlord who, posing as a priest, wound up on the same island where his brother died in an earlier plane crash. Eko is one of my favorite characters in Lost, although his character was killed off in the next season.
Season 2 of Lost begins with this fascinating conundrum. Kafka could have written it…if he lived in our time!
One episode of Season 2 that I think is among Lost‘s best is episode 14, “One of Them,” which partly takes place, in flashback, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. This establishes the back story of Sayeed Farah (Naveen Andrews), a former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard whose specialty was torture–and whose background in Iraq has morally consumed him. He’s on the island, but as he flashes back to the war, where a U.S. officer (Clancy Brown) employs his talents to gain needed information on a U.S. prisoner of war, the mythic quality of Sayeed’s character arc becomes clear. The war itself is sort of mythic to begin with, especially the Hell-like details of the flaming oil wells (which Saddam lit on fire as he retreated from Kuwait), and the curious moral conundrums that were endemic to this war. I know a lot about this, as I’m researching the Persian Gulf War for my next novel. The fact that the Clancy Brown character later shows up on the island–and in fact is Desmond’s predecessor at pressing “the Button” at the Swan Station–brings another dimension to this story. It’s really great writing and demonstrates the deep dimensions in which Lost is not afraid to push its story.
Lost is really great stuff. It’s easy to see why the show has such a dedicated fan base, and why people still talk about it years after it’s gone off the air. There’s a lot that writers and storytellers can learn from the show, and, as always, it leaves you a lot to think about.