Here is the fourth article in my retrospective of the TV show Lost, which I began watching back in October 2015–yes, eleven years late–and which has become an interesting exploration of narrative structure, as well as a personal journey. Here’s my article on season one, the follow-up season two, and season three, which proved to be my least favorite of the seasons so far. Now we’re on to Season 4. I’m a couple of articles behind on this project; recently I began watching Season 6, though I haven’t gotten to the end yet. The fourth book of Lost provides us with some interesting food for thought, and some fascinating storytelling conventions that were new for the show. It’s also rather a mixed bag.
Season 4 is the shortest Lost season, only fourteen episodes, its production having been curtailed by a writer’s strike in Hollywood in 2007-08. The previous season ended with the Oceanic Flight 815 survivors finally having a chance to get off the island, as crew members from the ocean freighter Kahana arrive, ostensibly to rescue the castaways. Season 4 complicates this narrative. It’s not clear that the Kahana crew really are there to save the survivors. Among the new arrivals are a twitchy scientist, Daniel Faraday (Jeremy Davies), who seems to know something about time travel; Charlotte (Rebecca Mader), an anthropologist; and Miles (Ken Leung), who can evidently talk to the dead. It appears that the freighter has been sent by powerful industrialist Charles Widmore (Alan Dale), who for reasons unknown has gone to the trouble to crash a plane at the bottom of the Marianas Trench filled with bodies dug up from a cemetery in order to double for the wreckage of Oceanic Flight 815. Among the survivors, a rift develops between those who want to leave the island, principally headed by Jack, and those who want to stay, who gravitate toward the leadership of Locke (Terry O’Quinn).
For me, the most interesting part of Season 4 involves the technique of flash-forwards, which finally begins to place the whole series in a broader time context. In the last season finale we saw a flash-forward where Jack tells Kate, apparently after they’ve been rescued, that they must return to the island. Season 4 fills in what happens between their rescue and this event, while simultaneously explaining the story of the rescue itself. To be honest the conflict between the Kahana crew and the Flight 815 survivors, like that in Season 3 between the Flight 815 people and the Others, wasn’t that interesting to me. What interested me in Season 4 was how the characters begin to discover bonds that tie them, not merely to each other, but to the island itself and the disaster they all collectively shared. The fact that it’s left undefined precisely why some of the characters, most notably Jack, want to go back highlights this effect. For some, like Ben and Sun (Yunjin Kim), their reasons for wanting to return seem clear enough, but the ones who can’t define their need for the island so clearly–like Jack, Locke, and Widmore–are the neediest and most deeply wounded of the characters. Lost is less about conflict between people as it is about unfulfilled need. That’s what I find fascinating about it. The hijinx with bombs about to go off and people attacking each other in the jungle is, honestly, the kind of thing I tend to tune out.
My favorite aspects of Season 4 deal with these collective connections, and how they stem from the characters’ profound sense of need. In the season finale, a two-parter, the “Oceanic Six” return to civilization, are reunited with their families and give a press conference with worldwide attention. Yet clearly all of them are uncomfortable, not merely with the lie they’ve agreed to tell in order to save those who didn’t make it off the island, but because there’s something missing from themselves. They exist in a kind of collective shock that the real world can’t quite penetrate. In Season 4 Lost ceases to tell the standard castaway narrative, in which the conflict is how our heroes will get back to civilization. In this season they are back to civilization, but it’s not the redemption they think it is. This concept, though imperfectly executed in the show, is a bold leap beyond the series’s original confines.
Here is the opening scene of Season 4 of Lost, which establishes many of the themes, especially questionable reality, that underlie the season.
I also like the way Season 4 plays with our sense of reality–a notion that will be much more developed in Seasons 5 and 6. In Season 4 I stopped trying to take what was happening on the screen as the literal truth of the story. Each character is defined by their own flashbacks, which are not mutually consistent; indeed, particularly with Hurley (Jorge Garcia), who is identified as insane in this season, there are strong hints that the way he sees the world isn’t literal. The Flight 815 crash therefore has shattered not only the characters’ lives, but their ability to perceive reality. The island and what they think happened there has become their self-contained reality. The viewer’s role in Lost, especially in this season, is to read between the literal events of the story and try to perceive a greater truth behind it. What that truth is will differ depending on the viewer. One of the things about Lost that I love is that it’s not afraid to do something like this.
At the end of Season 4 I’m beginning to suspect that very little of what we’ve seen on the show is actually “real,” and that the whole series may be a delusion in one character’s head (Hurley? Locke?), or perhaps a collective delusion. If the show’s finale hints in this direction, a la Tommy Westphal’s snow-globe from St. Elsewhere, I can definitely see how some viewers would feel let down. But that’s a risk you take when you tell a story like this. In a way the uncertainty of Lost’s universe is the show’s greatest strength. I doubt a lot of people who have seen the show and read this article will agree with me, but that’s where I stand.