Friday, March 5, 2010

LOST: My Defense of Season 6 and the Parallel Universe

NOTE: This is a response article, and it’s all in good, writerly fun. I enjoy analytical writing, and so I write analytically. Sometimes, I do it at people. This is one of those times.

So, here is my response to a recent post on io9, a blog I (sometimes) enjoy, but sometimes it's just...they’re missing the POINT. Especially when it's bitching about the shows I love, I do not tolerate shortsighted, half-baked analysis-lite, which is what this io9 article called “5 Reasons Lost’s Parallel Universe is a Waste of Time” is made up of almost entirely, glossing over nuance to achieve some altogether boring and misguided discussion that lacks all complexity of thought. So, you may want to look at the io9 article first, and then read this, and then I guess you can go ahead and decide for yourself whether you're going to watch "Lost" for the big pay-off in the end or whatever, or if you're going to understand it for what it truly is, which is a show that stopped being about something so simple as an answer the moment we found out what was in that hatch!

It was a man down there! (Gasp.)

Okay, so first (Part I), there is the argument that season five is the "Same Shit, Different Day." Here is why this argument is so simple and, therefore, so wrong. (I'm sorry for the length, but it had to be.)

Like much of this article, this first section completely ignores the concept of character complexity. In doing this, the writer (Meredith Woerner) has somehow managed to file away all of our Losties as happy-and-sad, good-and-evil constructs, when, in fact, they’re complex characters who act on motives that are never (ever) cut-and-dried or straight forward. My favorite example that this writer uses is that of Sayid. This is her description of Sayid: “He was a torturer, for god’s sake. We get it—he doesn’t like killing, but thinks it’s a necessary evil. That was established when he tortured Sawyer for an inhaler he didn’t have, roughed up Ben, went on a killing spree after his lover Nadia was murdered—hell, he even murdered the hell out of that chicken when he was a boy. We get it: Sayid kills to serve his own twisted reasoning, whatever that may be at the moment.” OKAY. Well! Now that we’ve got SAYID all nice and wrapped up for us here in this colossal web of black-and-white. What the writer completely neglects to understand here is that, nothing is so simple as black and white. First of all, yes, Sayid was a torturer. No, we don’t “get it,” because each time Sayid has tortured someone on the Island, it has never been for the same reason, and these “reasons” have never been so simple as “twisted.” When he tortures Sawyer toward the beginning (Confidence Man 1.8), yes, this is our first and most straightforward example of Sayid’s “moral ambiguity,” but then, when he tortures Ben in the armory—his motives here are anything but black and white. He is filled with remorse, grief, guilt, anger, vengeance... The complexity here, based in what we know about Sayid (in both the immediate and distant past) is staggering. “Lost” is a show that remembers everything about its characters so as to build a world of complexity for each one, and sometimes, this causes confusion, or it brings us to tears or drives us mad with worry. I know that, when I cry during Abandoned (2.6), it is not just because there’s a dead girl on the screen. It’s because everything I know about Shannon has just collided with everything I know about Sayid and everything I know about the two of them together in the most destructive way possible, and now that she’s dead, there’s something missing from inside of him. This is an example of an event that colors all future events involving a certain character. Woerner at io9 ignores the whole concept of resonance, emotional register based on deftly-placed exposition (which is all “Lost” really is), and in turn, she ignores the complexity of these characters and groups them into cut-and-dried types that are either happy or sad, good or evil, and she ignores the gray area in between. She ignores the concept of the pattern that repeats and that also builds on itself, that, in fiction (and in reality), a situation can look almost exactly the same as the one that precedes it (ie: Sayid tortures helpless victim), but it is not the same because we have new information now or because something has happened to color these current moments differently from moments in the past.

So, when Sayid is beating Ben in that armory (One of Them 2.14), he is not just beating Ben. He is beating himself because he could not protect Shannon, he is reaching for blame because he cannot blame Ana Lucia, because he cannot find anyone to blame. Just because Sayid is a “torturer” doesn’t mean that he’s mindless or “twisted.” It doesn’t mean that he’s all good or all evil. He is many, many things, because he is a carefully constructed character. He is not a type. He is not generic, which is what this writer misunderstands. Therefore, her argument that we’re not “learning” anything from the parallel universe is, well, just so refutable, because it’s ignoring so much information. She claims: “What about Kate? Claire makes Kate a better person?” Well, no, because what kind of a person is Kate? She’s no “kind” of person, and it’s not like, one minute she’s bad and the next she’s good. She’s a lot of things, but she’s no kind. “Kate’s still a thief and messed up, but at least Claire forces Kate to think about others.” Kate’s “messed up?” Well, that’s certainly true, but what the hell does that mean in this moment in time? Kate is messed up in the beginning of season one, for example, and still at the end of season three, and she’s still messed up now. Does that mean that Kate hasn’t changed? No. It just means that her “messed up”-ness has evolved and gained complexity. Also, Claire does not “[force]” Kate to do anything. The situation with Claire in What Kate Does (brilliant title) is presented by the writers as an opportunity for Kate’s character to grow, for her to become more complex ON TOP of everything we already know, because we now know what she’s capable of, and no, it’s not “shit” we’ve seen before.

The parallel universe in “Lost” is all about fate, that these people would have met anyway under different circumstances, many of which have similar, although oblique ramifications for our Losties. For example, Jack the father is something that’s never been addressed (aside from Sarah’s negative pregnancy test in The Hunting Party 2.11), but his own daddy issues are. Lighthouse (6.5) is a fascinating inverse, not a rehashing, of familiar themes. It’s also shortsighted to describe Jack as a generic “bad dad.” Is Jack a bad dad? I don’t get that impression, although it would be an easy mistake to make if you’re not really paying attention to what’s going on. Jack is divorced, and Jack does not get a ton of time with his kid, but this only makes him a bad father if we’re imposing our personal opinions or accepted stereotypes of what it means to be a bad father (or a “torturer,” if we’re talking about Sayid) onto a nuanced character like Jack, who exists in a world that is not our own. If his son fears him, it is not for the same reasons that Jack feared his own father. Remember, Jack is a “great man.” If his father is a great man, David may fear that he, one day, will not be a great man. We can see this in that he is driven, that he is like his father (A musician and a spinal surgeon? What parallels! What complexities!) in that they both need to succeed, but that great men (and women, for that matter) cannot succeed without missing a few notes, or watching a few people die on the table in the process. This all would, of course, require one to read into character complexities that are far beyond face value, or the generic, so I can see why it’s misunderstood at io9.

So, to this: “We’ve learned nothing new or interesting about these characters we’ve known for years”—I say, “Construct an argument that takes into account all the character complexity you’ve ignored, or the existance of complexity at all, because otherwise, you’re just molding the material into a shape that fits your agenda, and so your argument is not credible.” If you’re mad at “Lost,” you’re mad at “Lost,” but if you want to make a legitimate argument, then you’ve got to consider all the information, and not just the information, or the personal inferences that you care about.

HOLY CRAP. I’ll try not to make all my responses so long. But the thing is, if you’re doing actual analysis, which I know that io9 isn’t really attempting to do on any real level and so it is not satisfying, then it takes time. Watch me go, I guess, if you’re still interested.

Part II: Woerner claims, “Who are These New People? Oh, Wait. It doesn’t Matter.” She writes, “Who are these hippie Others and why should we care? Well, we shouldn’t, because they were all killed off this week by the smoke monster.”

I claim: Well, it’s interesting to me that this writer assumes we care about these people at all, OR that we’re meant to. She asks, “[W]ere we sad when [Dogen] and his nerd sidekick were brutally cut down by Sayid?” and she doesn’t have an answer, but I do: NO. No, we don’t care. And does that then absolve these characters of their purpose on the show? Absolutely not! I want to ask this writer: “What would you rather have happen? Who would you rather our Losties interract with this late in the game?” More on that in a second, but first, a bit about what’s at stake.

Okay, while I agree with Woerner and her irritable sensibility toward these “hippie Others,” one thing that this aspect of the show has always done (introducing ancillaries who go on to die a hot minute later) is remind us of who and what is really at stake here. Woerner is right in that we care about the people we’ve just spent five seasons getting to know, but I question her invocation of the “We’re running out of time” card, because a) Stop groping for answers when you should be watching closely, and b) Whatever ending Abrams has in store for us will never be good enough if we’re so damn worried about how quickly he’s getting us there. Keep in mind that the writers aren’t fumbling here. They know the answers. We’re not going to get all of the answers because “Lost” is not a show about answers. Nor do its writers and producers care that you want answers. To watch “Lost” merely for answers is like watching “Mad Men” because you like commercials. Seriously, what’s at stake in “Lost” is not anything so simple as “What do the numbers mean?” or “What’s in that hatch?” or “Who are the Others?” et cetera, et cetera. Is it not a much more powerful moment when Sayid loses the woman he loves again than the moment when we learn that Hurley’s numbers correspond to a bunch of coordinates that point to pretty pictures in a mirror that gets smashed anyway? If you’re going to watch “Lost” just for its answers, then you’re missing the point, and you’re always disappointed, and you probably shouldn’t be writing articles about it. “Lost” sure is an entertaining show, but it’s also layered, intelligent, complex. People watch it for its unique complexity in a world of bland procedural shows and gauzy doctor operas, not for cut-and-dried answers.

But now, back to my first point: It’s important to recognize conflict. Anytime we’re dealing with fiction (or TV or whatever), it’s important to recognize conflict. We’ve watched “our guys” struggle to escape from, fight, kill, torture these Others for a long time, and it would be silly to think that this should all just…disappear in the final season. Live together, die alone, right? What’s that matter if there’s nothing to unite against? No cause to die for? Great literature, and yes, I’ll refer to “Lost” as such for the sake of this discussion, is loyal and possessive, and it gives itself entirely to one specific stock of characters; however, extras (like the Others) and villains (like Keamy) are often necessary to order a credible world, and also to further the plot, to create conflict and tension, and to give our loyal band of adventurers a reason to unite. Isn’t it powerful when, after five seasons of time/space travel and struggles of both an internal and physical nature, Jack and Sayid trust each other so fully—that Sayid will do anything that Jack says and Jack will swallow a mysterious pill to get the truth (What Kate Does 6.3)? How can we get that trust and that powerful, powerful moment if there’s nobody that they CAN’T trust and no situations in which such unequivocal trust is necessary? So, I ask: What would you rather have happen, Meredith Woerner, contributing writer at io9? I really do wonder, because there’s so much complaining in here (“Who are these hippie Others and why should we care?”) but no qualification in terms of what you’d rather see, or what would have worked better, or what you’d like to have happened in the first six episodes of “Lost”’s final season. IT MAKES SENSE that the Others are there. This is a world that exists in three (sometimes four) dimensions, and there are people living in it other than Jack, Kate, Sayid, et al. The Others are a credible force to unite against, and when many of them are killed by the Smoke Monster, it’s not because they served no purpose, or because the writers just got sick of them or whatever, it’s because they’re purpose has come, presented itself, and now it’s gone. They’ve put the plot where it needs to be (and yes, the “magical dagger” was an important part of that) and now, we can all move forward into the evening because they’re out of the way. Sometimes, writing is about problem-solving. That’s what I teach my students here at UCI, and if all of this shit with the Others and Dogen and the dagger is necessary to up the ante on Sayid one notch, then I’ll take it. Because again, “Lost” serves its characters. It doesn’t serve you or me or the answers we sometimes desire.

Part III: Woerner claims, “The Shock and Awe of Parallel Whaaaaat??? Moments Have Lost Their Luster.” I claim, “You’re missing the point.”

I guess, first, in terms of her claim that the continual reappearances of Losties and Lostie-Extras in the parallel universe “[cheapens] some of the past awesomeness these characters went through,” I have to say this: Your tenses are screwed up. None of that happened in this world. It’s not in the past. YES, it is in the past for us, and so we can suffuse these new encounters (with Rose, Keamy, Jin, etc.) with characterizing factors that we’ve learned from the universe in which the Island still exists, the universe we’ve been living in for the past five seasons. But again, I make the argument that the parallel universe, which assumes that everything we’ve seen so far has not actually happened, is not recycling old themes or, as Woerner puts it, merely “pandering to fans”—it is putting our characters into situations that seem familiar (like Jack and fatherhood), but that are, in fact, an inverse on the familiar (Jack is now the father, not the son), and/or they’re approached obliquely so as to enlighten us with a new perspective on, not only who these characters are (Jack and his daddy issues), but also, how fate works in the world of “Lost” (Jack has a kid in this universe, and so he is forced to work the same things out differently than he does in the universe where he doesn’t have a kid, and this new approach gives us new insight on Jack and Jack’s potential.). All of this is important. We’re learning as much about these characters as we can. We’re even getting hypothetical information, and we’re getting all this in lieu of a universe that Woerner would prefer to be something so simple and boring as “a question-answering aid.” My response to that is this: If you prefer a show that gives straight answers to straight questions, you may want to try “Fringe” or “Bones” or or any one of the thousands of police procedurals on TV. Clearly, and I’ve got lots and lots more proof if you want it, “Lost” is a character-driven show, and sometimes, in character-driven shows (like “Mad Men” or “Friday Night Lights”), the real question is not, “Will Don Draper continue to cheat?” It’s “Why does Don Draper continue to cheat?” In “Lost,” the real question is not, “What does it all mean?” It’s, “How does it all mean?” How does the fact that the smoke monster is John Locke (simple reveal) affect Sawyer, who is grieving and vulnerable (complicated unfurling)? Do you see what I mean? Stop demanding the what and start reveling in the how, because it’s much more beautiful, and it’s much more satisfying that way, I assure you.

Part IV: Woerner claims, “It’s Undoing All the Hard Work From Previous Seasons.”

Well, now, there are moments in here where I agree (like, I do agree that Sun has been “reduced to standing around uselessly for too long now,” and I’d like to see her taking a bit more agency and getting a bit angrier) but I also think that this, right here, is a gross exagerration propelled, yet again, by this writer’s shortsighted anger at the current lack of answers. Answers Answers Answers! Wow, the constant disappointment that the answers-only-oriented viewer must endure. Now, the only example we get here of this incredible “undoing” is of the Sun and Jin plot, the star-crossed lovers who haven’t seen each other in three years, and I guess…I’m just willing to wait. I’m not going to get all crabby and excited about Jin in the freezer, because I don’t have all the information yet. Their episode is coming up on March 30th, and since “Lost” has never failed to deliver a helluva reunion, I’m trusting that it’ll play out, and that it will be impactful and beautiful. Or, perhaps it will be gravely sad. I don’t know. Because like I said, we don’t have all the information. We don’t know what’s going to continue to happen to keep them apart, and while I do agree that these two characters have fallen a bit by the wayside, I think that this relationship is so dynamic that it’s earned a little bit of time on the backburner. 

I also do not believe that Woerner has “forgotten about all the hard work the writers did building up the tension between these two wonderful characters.” First of all, this writing again confuses complication (Sun and Jin have been apart for a while, separated not only by space and time, but by the anomolous factor space/time jumping) for a cut-and-dried lack of answers. Second of all, I simply do not understand this argument at all. This season is undoing “hard work from previous seasons” because…Sun and Jin have not reunited yet? Woerner claims, “in reality all we want is to watch these two strive to be together again.” Um, are they not striving? Every damn day? And is this really “all we really want?” Perhaps we could get a little more face time with each of them, but isn’t this just one writer’s opinion attempting to stand in for a multitude of other’s, angry that Sun and Jin have not yet been reunited, and somehow, inexplicably blaming this anger on the parallel universe device? I guess the idea of this argument is fine and intelligent, but it’s not executed very well. Meaning: There are no real examples here, no real analysis to prove this point. And also, I think that part of the purpose of the parallel universe is to, yes, undo some of what’s been done in order to prove a point that, yes, remains to be seen. And it remains to be seen because…we don’t have all the information yet! And so we cannot apply it to the characterization of Sun and Jin.

Part V: And this is my favorite, because I’ve already done all the backlashing I can do on the matter. Woerner claims, “Where are My Answers, Lost?”, effectively inserting herself into the equation, as if the quest for answers were the only thing this show has to offer, and that it is a failure if it does not make good on every damn mystery that’s been introduced, and that it is a failure because, well, some angry fan said so. Oh, that’s just so boring. It’s missing the point. Who cares? Who cares what questions were answered in Sundown? I’ve seen a whole new facet of Sayid and now Shannon’s back on the table and…I’m willing to wait for all the information. This desperate fear that “we’re running out of time” is tired and painfully premature. Patience, and allow the information to present itself. Then, when it does, although not to your liking and surely not fast enough (which is the outcome any such viewer should expect), you can complain or do whatever you want, but that’s only because you’re missing the point.

Again, I ask, is it more powerful to learn that John Locke is the smoke monster or to watch how this information affects our players and the strange, sometimes terrifying things it might cause them to do? Perhaps watch the entire series again and ask yourself, “Why am I really enjoying this? Is it because of all this new information I have now? Or is it because of the painstaking development of these vast and intricate characters, and that it is how they’re affected by that information, or by (gasp!) less stimulating information, that truly makes this great?”


Woerner, Meredith. "5 Reasons Lost's Parallel Universe is a Waste of Time." io9. 4 Mar 2010.
     5 Mar 2010.

Lost. ABC: Television. (2004-2010)

1 comment:

Jason said...

Glad I found this -- a terrific analysis.

I don't have much to add. I agree that those who complain that LOST is taking too long to give us the answers are missing the point of the show (or really any serial fiction). Yes, I want to be blown away by how it ends and find out if my ideas about the show are right or wrong.

However, I prefer to have the layers peeled away (and added and peeled away again). I know it's a cliché, but it's the journey that's important, not the destination.

The show has been about its specific characters and the relationships between them... and what they do when faced with an unfathomable array of situations. I think it's amazing, and I am going to miss it when it's over.