Hast thou, Black Smoke,
Perform’d to point the tempest that I bade thee?
I remember I was 14 when that show first aired and I quickly became obsessed with it, pouring inanely over ham-fisted symbolism with other fans online.
Over the course of the show’s original run, in constantly demanding itself to be “read”, with all its symbols and clues and red herrings, I ended up learning a lot of media vocabulary from LOST that I didn’t previously possess. I remember it was how I first learned about the concept of “deus ex machina“, for example — the title of the first season’s nineteenth episode, which I became particularly obsessed with.
No matter which way it went, I was totally wrapped up in what the show’s writers were trying to do, surfing a very thin line between shattering the fourth wall and their viewer’s suspension of disbelief along with it. I was totally taken in by it; by the narrative risk-taking; the WTF! twists and turns.
Looking back, as disappointing and frustrating as it was, the overall end of the series fell in line with this and all that they had explored over the preceding years. The writers retired the cast from the staged purgatory on which they had marooned them. It was only disappointing in that it had not been as surprising as every episode that had preceded it. But that is still a flaw, of course, even if a somewhat forgivable one (all these years later). The writers had written themselves into a hole with no way to tie up all those mysteries. To do so was not necessarily required but there must have been another way to provide closure…?
Maybe there wasn’t. The series had invested far too much time in its own mythology by that point, moving further and further outwards from its starting point. The finale could only ever feel like whiplash, a violent retraction, rendering everything prior to it meaningless, and it did so all too predictably.
On various occasions, from the first season onwards, various characters had posited the idea that maybe they’re all already dead. When it turned out they were right, there was no satisfaction in the confirmation. It was all too obvious a conclusion for a series that had tried so hard to be anything but.
So, along with the rest of the world, I asked myself that same question back in 2010: was it worth the one-time fanaticism? Like so many other examples of intensely adolescent obsession, my love of LOST later gave way to a cynicism in my own previously blind faith, but given the tropes that the series’ scripts had so explicitly played with, it feels now, in hindsight, like it was more informative for my own development than I’ve previously given it credit for. Not least because the season ran for almost the entirely of my teenage years.
I feel like, if you spend long enough as a teenager looking for meaning in culture where there isn’t any — and that’s certainly a hazard when getting lost in LOST forums (or any other kind of TV, film or music forum for that matter) — there’s a chance you end up giving yourself a crash course in Cultural Studies in the process. That’s what LOST‘s first season did for me. That fanaticism was deeply educational.
Even now, having started to rewatch this show and, admittedly, given up on it again halfway through the second season, I have to give it credit where due.
I’m reminded of that K-Punk post: “Fans, Vampires, Trolls, Masters“, in which Mark writes:
There’s a peculiar shame involved in admitting that one is a fan, perhaps because it involves being caught out in a fantasy-identification. ‘Maturity’ insists that we remember with hostile distaste, gentle embarrassment or sympathetic condescenscion when we were first swept up by something — when, in the first flushes of devotion, we tried to copy the style, the tone; when, that is, we are drawn into the impossible quest of trying to become what the Other is to us. This is the only kind of ‘love’ that has real philosophical implications, the passion capable of shaking us out of sensus communis. Smirking postmodernity images the fan as the sad geekish Trekkie, pathetically, fetishistically invested in what — all good sense knows — is embarrassing trivia. But this lofty, purportedly olympian perspective is nothing but the view of the Last Man. Which isn’t to make the fatuous relativist claim that devotees of Badiou are the same as Trekkies; it is to make the point that Graham has been tirelessly reiterating — that the critique from nowhere is nothing but trolling.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, not least since Twitter trolling reached its peak the other month. But also because what is particularly interesting about being a one-time fan of LOST, blessed with the gift of hindsight, is noticing how the show wants to create fans — and not just fans but fanatics — through a strangely recursive narrative mechanism whereby the show is, in itself, a challenge to the Nietzschean Last Man, the person of complacency and comfort, of “common sense”.
That person will not survive, marooned on a desert island, snatched from “civilisation”. And certainly not on an island that is plagued by such supernatural goings-on. The island requires a fanaticism. It requires the suspension of disbelief so that the mind can adapt productively to the demands — physical and supernatural — of this new environment.
In this way, it is a show that is all about fanaticism, mania, myth and belief. It is not the only show that considers these themes, of course, but it is notable for the ways in which it encourages these themes to leak out from its edges. How funny that a show effectively about obsession would itself be such an obsession of the zeitgeist.
If there’s one thing I remember vividly about watching LOST at the time of its original broadcast it is the feeling of being quite literally addicted to its internal mythology. I couldn’t get enough of its symbolism and various themes and allusions but I had not previously considered the extent to which this was a contagion spread by the show’s characters themselves.
To clarify what I mean by this, it might be interesting to first consider The X-Files.
The X-Files is infamous — at least in this house — for its persistent tendency to leave individual episodes unresolved. All you are often left with, as a viewer, is a choice: Are you a Mulder or a Scully? Do you believe in what you’ve just seen, embracing the internal mythology of the show on its own merits? Or do you insist on their being a lasting proof to give the show any weight at all — a lasting proof that, even for the characters themselves, is routinely snatched away or denied? Do you, like Mulder, want to believe? Or do you, like Scully, crave the hard evidence that never comes? (These “roles”, of course, become deeply embedded in the other and the character’s later copulation only cements this.)
(t’s a running joke of mine that my girlfriend and I resemble Mulder and Scully in ourselves, with my deep and all too forgiving love of the show, even at its worst, and her view that the show’s ambiguous endings are far too irritating to persevere with.)
I feel like The X-Files‘ central and convoluted relationship between Catholic scientist Scully and secular conspiracy theorist Mulder was clearly echoed in the bubbling antagonism that develops over the initial seasons of LOST between the hero-doctor and struggling realist Jack Shepherd and the mystic survivalist and dangerous optimist John Locke.
(I remember reading once that the writers, who named various characters after Enlightenment philosophers and scientists — Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Bakunin, Faraday, Burke, Carlyle — said the characters had nothing in common with their namesakes and, indeed, it’s a headache to try to map one onto the other, but I’d still be interested to see someone try.)
With LOST, the affect on the viewer is largely the same as that experienced watching The X-Files, albeit split across so many different characters it becomes infinitely more schizophrenic. Jack and Locke are simply the most obvious focal point, particularly towards the end of season one where the antagonism building between them comes to a head as they squabble over preparing for the arrival of the mysterious “Others”, with Jack wanting to get ready for a fight and protect the other survivors whilst Locke wants to jump headlong into the unknown and follow his curiosity even in the face of imminent danger by climbing down the hatch that has been his obsession for half of the season.
What is most obvious about the development of their characters at this point is that Locke, having been the first to experience the power of the island, is the person most prepared to adapt his sense of reality — indeed, he craves it. Having previously been disabled from the waist down, Locke awakes after the first episode’s plane crash now able to walk, and if that’s just the beginning of his journey then perhaps it’s no wonder he’s keen to see what else is in store for him.
In stark contrast, Dr. Jack, despite going through various bewildering and disturbing experiences, is wholly resistant to adapting his worldview. Interestingly, in the first episode of season two, there are flashbacks — central to each episode which detail the backstory of each member of the ensemble cast — which follow Jack as he comes to terms with his own lack of a bedside manner. He’s too “realistic”, to the extent that he might be negatively affecting his patient’s recovery. He’s allergic to giving out hope, especially false hope, but when he decides to change his ways, having been criticised for his depressing demeanour, choosing to give hope to one patient in particular, he wrestles with his conscience, worrying he’s made a promise he can’t keep. He later corrects himself, giving the patient his honest prognosis, but the hope he gave her has already worked a miracle. This hopeless patient with a spinal injury Jack knows he can’t fix nonetheless wiggles her toes post-surgery, whilst Jack is in the process of telling her she’ll never walk again.
It’s layered on pretty thick but beyond its all too obvious significance there is a deeper story being told here, I think.
Jack is unlike everyone else marooned on the island in this respect, or at least he thinks he is. Everyone else is, to an extent, struggling with instances of self-belief, whether positively or negatively. Claire does not think she can be a mother whilst the reality of her present existence as a heavily-pregnant beached woman confronts her, on a daily basis, that she eventually will be. Michael, too, is struggling to be the father he always wanted to be but which previous circumstances kept him from embracing. Sawyer is struggling with the way he has literally become the con man he dedicated his life to finding and killing, and Charlie is struggling with his tandem addiction to heroin and his own rock star image. Self wars with self-image.
Charlie is a particularly unsubtle example of this dilemma. His backstory shows him to be a religious man who is led astray by the success of his band, Driveshaft, which he is in with his brother and in which he is bassist and chief songwriter. Concerned about his brother’s spiralling lifestyle choices and burgeoning heroin addiction, rather than walking away, as he’d insisted they do if things get too intense, Charlie likewise becomes an addict and struggles far more with his new tendency to self-medicate than his brother, who eventually breaks free of the drugs to start a family.
Once on the island, the other survivors help Charlie overcome his addiction, renewing his self-belief in his own will and self-discipline. However, when a smuggler’s plane is discovered containing dozens of statues of the Virgin Mary, all filled with heroin, Charlie’s new resolved is tested.
It is perhaps the most unsubtle visual metaphor to be found in this first season but it tells us something interesting about the series as a whole:
What all of these characters share is an addiction to their cloistered sense of themselves. They are, to an extent, addicted to their own belief systems, and what the island requires is that they let go of their epistemic baggage. It turns out — and it’s a good lesson to be learned — that this is far easier said than done.