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The Narratology of LOST: Loops and Privileged Positions
Posted By Brian Chappell On June 8, 2011 @ 3:44 am In Fiction,Film and TV | No Comments
For fans, the six years spent with LOST, one of the most ambitious and transformative shows in the history of television, are hard to replace. Especially disconcerting are the number of network simulacra that have tried to fill its shoes. (witness FastForward and The Event). In many ways LOST aired during what we might call the Golden Age of Television, alongside The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Dexter, the list goes on. Many of these shows have concluded their runs, and while AMC picks up the slack with the stellar Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the pay channels continue to attempt high budget shows that always seem doomed to cancellation – see The Borgias and Game of Thrones, who run the risk of going the way of Rome, Deadwood, and Carnivale. So, for the nostalgic, and as an anniversary of sorts, I want to share with you a conference paper I wrote about LOST‘s narrative structure. Critical literature on the show is slowly but surely surfacing, especially now that it’s finished. Randy Laist’s Looking for Lost: Critical Essays on the Enigmatic Series is a fine start. My analysis takes on the show’s narrative specifically, focusing on a few particular elements. It goes without saying that a major spoiler alert accompanies this paper.
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With its achronous storytelling and depictions of literal time travel, its supernatural mysteries and cliffhanger endings, LOST is ripe for narratological analysis. Now that we have access to the entire series, it is especially appropriate and necessary to engage the narrative arc in its entirety. Despite the disappointment among loyal fans in the relatively solution-free and borderline mawkish finale, “The End” (the title turned out to be quite literal) did continue the show’s acute tendency to allow a season finale to dramatically shift how we read the near two-dozen episodes that preceded it. In this case, however, a necessary re-reading is enacted on a local and a global scale. “The End” not only requires us to re-view Season 6 through a new lens, but the entire trajectory of the characters’ adventures over all six seasons. Regardless of our feelings about the (again, quite literal) afterlife of these characters, “The End” leaves us feeling much like John Locke upon watching the Orientation video in season two, muttering “We’re going to have to watch that again.” Or, for more disgruntled fans, we may be left feeling like Jack at the end of Season 3, desperately moaning “We have to go back!” either to recapture the show’s purer ethos, or, as I plan to do here, to make sense of some of the formal moves this narrative made.
“The End” is not a terrible place to begin. If we rely on Peter Rabinowitz’s theory of privileged positions in fictional texts, we see the type of retroactivity an ending can enact. He writes, “Our attention during the act of reading [endings and other privileged positions such as titles and first sentences] will in part be concentrated on what we have found in these positions, and our sense of the text’s meaning will be influenced by our assumption that the author expected us to end up with an interpretation that could account more fully for these details than for details elsewhere.” This phenomenon is no more clear than in “The End,” an uncharacteristically unambiguous conclusion to what was perhaps the most ambiguous of LOST‘s narrative arcs. Namely, the alternate reality, in which the stranded characters were never stranded but nonetheless come together by other and perhaps equally mysterious means, turns out to be some sort of collective intermediary afterlife, a purgatory of sorts. Their interactions within this universe were, we now realize, actually steps toward a mass apotheosis into what we are led to believe is heaven in the final scenes. This revelation not only serves the primary purpose of having one tear-jerker of an ending, but also the not-so-distantly secondary purpose of causing the viewer to re-read these afterlife story lines in a new light.
It is, indeed, a character dominant conclusion. But something very interesting happens to Season 6′s narrative structure as a result of the final scene. In it, we have returned to the Island, where Jack has just defeated the smoke monster and prepares to die from the wounds suffered during the battle. The final frame mirrors the first frame of the Pilot episode, which begins with a close-up on Jack’s opening eye, having regained consciousness from the plane crash. Here, Jack returns to what we are led to believe is the same spot, lies down in roughly the same pose, and closes his eyes in another closeup. This provides neat formal closure, in the looping style characteristic of many of the show’s story arcs.
But this is not, technically, a loop, rather a parallelism. That doesn’t mean, however, that a smaller loop has not been established. Season 5 ends when an atomic bomb explodes at The Swan construction site with the hopes of returning the characters to their previous lives, thus ensuring that they’d never have to go through their turmoil on the Island. Season 6 begins with Jack looking out the window of an airplane, which we quickly learn is Oceanic Flight 815. He’s wearing his same clothes, sitting near the same people, and experiencing the same turbulence (only this time the plane doesn’t split in two). After landing, we learn that his father has just died and he is flying from Australia with the coffin in tow. In short, many of the details for Jack and others correspond to those of Season 1. Each episode of Season 6 focuses on a different character’s experience in this alternate universe, inviting the viewer to read the differences in situation and personality closely, without real indication of what is going on. Not until the re-introduction of Desmond in the latter quarter of the season does any semblance of a plot arise, one in which he is on a mission to unite these characters and remind them of another existence together, on the Island.
But, after “The End,” and only after “The End,” do we have the necessary tools for reading this sequence. In addition to the shocking revelation within the sphere of the alternate reality, the closing of Jack’s eye at The Very End completes the loop. That is, at the moment he dies on the Island, he wakes up on the plane, in this strange new reality. He even bears the not completely healed scars of his battle with the smoke monster, though the nature of these wounds are of course not revealed until the finale. So, while Jack’s experience in this universe eventually is teleological (he reunites, finally, with his father, who leads him and his friends through some sort of pantheistic pearly gates), Season 6′s existence as a narrative, thanks to this final image, is a moebius strip that cycles continually through Jack’s demise and re-awakening.
But how might we classify this ending in Rabinowitz’s terms? He asserts that according to the second metarule of configuration, readers “expect that the ending will somehow be prefigured in the beginning,” that there will be overarching textual balance. Moreover, there is with readers a “tendency…to find what they expect and want in a text,” and they “assume that authors put their best thoughts last, and thus assign a special value to the final [elements] of a text.” LOST is most polarizing in this regard. There are so many mysteries, unresolved plot threads, and open endings, and so many of them piled up over the seasons, that “The End’s” overt focus on character left the LOST literati reeling over the lack of precious “answers.” So much so that executive producers and head writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse shot a coda in which some mysteries were addressed. In short, “The End” has the feel of needing to appeal to a broader audience, at the expense of the science fiction element that had drawn so much popularity to begin with. It is in this sense, in addition to the They’re All Dead revelation, that “The End” was such a surprise.
But most interesting here is how “The End” corresponds to the two major ways Rabinowitz sees endings potentially defying the rules of balance, either by violation with a deceptive cadence, or exaggeration, with an excessive cadence. In both cases “the undermining of a conventional ending tends to stress the conventionality of that closure, and hence makes us aware of the gap between authorial and narrative audiences.” Such flouting of conventions can critique either the form itself or “question the ideological assumptions behind the convention.” LOST does all of the above.
I’ll begin with exaggeration. Rabinowitz writes, “Thematizing a text’s conclusion is more complex still when a convention is undermined not by overthrowing it, but rather by following it in such an ostentatious way that it looks absurd.” With LOST, we are dealing with one of the most massive ensembles of characters in television history. That nearly each of them is granted the most ultimate of happy endings – entrance into heaven – directly flouts the convention of the happy ending to an extreme degree. This mass apotheosis brings everyone together in remembrance of good times (almost like a reunion episode before the show is even over), but it consequently renders whatever happened to them over the course of their life-changing adventures seemingly irrelevant. No matter what you did or what happened to you – alcoholic, abusive father or husband, torturer, thief, murderer, liar – everything is going to be ok if you gain a certain sense of spiritual self-awareness. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs about the afterlife, this move is unusual, and it draws keen attention to both the formal convention of the happy and utterly conclusive ending and the ideological assumptions about the cosmic consequences of our actions.
For Rabinowitz, this is problematic: “many realistic writers prefer endings in which the full consequences of the events portrayed – even the consequences immediately pertinent to the narrative at hand – are neither worked out nor clearly implied.” Consequences are completely ignored in this case. Namely, the shocking deaths of and vexing grief over some of our favorite characters, some as recently as two episodes prior, are suddenly assuaged and anesthetized. But “The End” tells us that how and when you died, or even how and when you lived, doesn’t matter. That, in The End, it’s all about the personal connections we made.
But Rabinowitz delivered the above quote about realistic writers in reference to the other form of deviation, violation. Endings violate when they “flagrantly defy what has come before” for the sake of shock and surprise. This establishes what Rabinowitz calls a “deceptive cadence.” Previous season finales of LOST engage in just this type of conclusion. At the end of Season 3, when the castaways on The Island are on the verge of rescue, the “flashback” off-Island sequence is inverted in its final scene, when a distraught Jack meets with Kate and utters the famous line “We have to go back!” indicating to the audience that this is not a flashback of the type they had grown so accustomed to over three seasons, but a flash forward, into life after rescue. Nothing in the narrative to this point (except for the general arc of potential rescue) indicates that this move was going to occur. Similarly, the finale of Season 4 builds up to the long anticipated (since the finale of Season 3) revelation of who is in the coffin. The outcome, John Locke, bears no contingency to any possibilities so far established (he was not, after all, one of the Oceanic 6 who escaped the Island). In the case of each example, a sense of the ending is delayed to later points, when new developments can aid a re-mapping of previous occurrences. Only at the end of Season 4 do we learn how and why the Oceanic 6 were able to leave the Island, and only in the early parts of Season 5 do we learn about Locke’s journey off the Island and adoption of the alias Jeremy Bentham that was thrown about during the Season 4 finale.
But there are no such opportunities with “The End.” And there are no analogous models upon which to build expectation. Even though the sheer ambiguity of the off-Island situation throughout the season warrants enough speculation that one may actually guess the ending, that this alternate reality is indeed the afterlife is in no way prefigured (Lindelof and Cuse even frequently directed attention away from the Island-is-purgatory theory, perhaps in order not to give away the real endgame of the show). Even the most conspicuous supernatural element of the show, the cosmic duel between Jacob and the Man in Black over the fate of the Island and of the world, is downplayed if not rendered completely irrelevant by the cosmology of this afterlife.
Rabinowitz’s conclusion may indicate a larger problem. He asserts that in cases like these, “the process of interpretation involves treating the [text] primarily as a popular [piece] (stressing the solution) rather than as a serious one (stressing the indecisive conclusion).” The relevant question here may be, How seriously did LOST take itself, ultimately? Is the excessive conventionality of this happy ending indeed a “serious” flouting, or an appeal to popularity? Are we engaging a more “popular” mode of interpretation when we yearn for a smooth solution to all of the show’s myteries?
Regardless, Rabinowitz reminds us that “there is a general tendency in most reading to apply rules of coherence in such a way that disjunctures are smoothed over so that texts are turned into unified wholes.” Readers bring to a reading their own socially, intellectually and ideologically determined interpretive strategies, which they can employ to adapt the complicated text to their desires. Hence, in this case, the innumerable blogs, chat rooms, and theories, not the least of which came from Entertainment Weekly’s Doc Jensen, continuing months after the finale. But what must we do, in light of “The End,” to make the rest of LOST feel coherent (if that’s in fact what we really want to do)? Further analysis in the vein of Rabinowitz’s treatment of privileged positions (namely, season finales and premiers) will reveal a consistent devotion, as we’ve partially seen already, to the type of deviation Rabinowitz outlines. The formal effect in turn mirrors the content-based aim of the show – to challenge, if not subvert, prevailing ideological assumptions about the relationship between the natural and the supernatural, science and spirituality, and interpersonal relationships.
We’ve seen already how LOST‘s other finales enact a necessary retroactivity. They resolve mysteries and pose new ones in ways that are not prefigured. Thus, with this new and surprising information, we have no choice but to re-read. Just this occurs, for example, at the end of Season 3, when we have to re-view Jack’s off-Island narrative as a flash-forward rather than a flashback. But season finales have the luxury of being directly followed (however many months later, unless you own the DVD’s) by a season premier that begins to smooth over the gaps opened by the finale. Thus the beginning of Season 2 begins where Season 1 left off. Jack and Locke were left staring into into the abyss of the hatch before the screen fades to black. Season 2 opens in the hatch, with Desmond inside. Similarly, Season 4 ends with the disappearance of the Island, and Season 5 begins on the Island, having moved in time. Season 5 ends with the ultimate cliffhanger (and perhaps another excessive violation) an atomic explosion and a fade to white. Season 6 begins as the white fades into picture again, of Jack in an alternate universe (this is not a linear progression, but a deceptive one, that, we have seen, is resolved only at the end of Season 6). In each case the finale and the subsequent premier are in dialogue with each other in a way that assuages audience anxiety.
But I submit that LOST generates the final thrust of its narrative through even more privileged positions, at least here. And they are located in almost the exact middle of the arc.
With the happy ending of “The End,” the odd man out is John Locke. The heroic man of faith was murdered as he was preparing to commit suicide, never to see the fruits of his mission to bring the Ocean 6 back to the Island to save it. He dies desperate and deceived. But his mission is the fulcrum by which the endgame of the show is enacted. It begins in the Season 4 episode “Cabin Fever.” The Island is under siege, and Locke sets off to find the mysterious cabin to discern from the Island-deity Jacob what to do. The off-Island flashback focuses on Locke, and how throughout his life he just missed being recruited by Jacob and becoming the special person he always wanted to be. One such scene occurs when Jacob’s right-hand Richard Alpert visits Locke as a child. He lays a series of items on a table, including a knife, compass, baseball glove, and comic book, asking Locke to choose the items that “belong to him already.” When young John chooses incorrectly, Alpert storms out. At the end of the on-Island arc of the episode, Locke’s desire for heroism seems to be fulfilled, as he encounters the ghost of Christian Shephard (Jack’s father), who is not Jacob, but “speaks on his behalf.” From Shephard Locke learns that he must move the Island in order to save it.
These two examples are crucial mysteries in the trajectory of Locke. In the Season 5 episode “Jughead,” amid the Island’s chaotic shifts through time, Richard gives Locke the same compass we saw in “Cabin Fever,” instructing him to give it back to him as a sign of recognition at a later meeting. When Locke shows up in the 40′s (the Island has shifted to this point in time), he gives Richard (who is over 150 years old but doesn’t age) the compass. Richard is dumbfounded. He doesn’t know John. But Locke instructs him to pay him a visit a few years later, when he’s a child, to validate what he is saying. Richard does just this, as seen in the “Cabin Fever.” That the young Locke doesn’t recognize Richard is one of the great disappointments of LOST, as it signals Locke’s future of always coming up just short, which turns out, sadly, to be his defining characteristic. But we can only read that disappointment through a re-vision equipped with necessary information that is impossible to prefigure.
The mystery of Christian Shephard takes considerably longer to answer. Locke succeeds in moving the Island, but amid the deadly time traveling, Alpert instructs him to leave the Island and convince those who left to come back. This was the only way to stop the shifts in time and save everyone. Locke leaves the Island, but when he can’t convince anyone to return, he tries to kill himself, and is murdered by Ben Linus before he gets a chance to. Hence Locke ends up in the coffin, as we see at the end of Season 4. But the episode in which we learn of Locke’s murder begins with an alive-and-well Locke, walking around on the Island, seemingly back from the dead. Only through flashbacks do we learn how he died. This seemingly improved Locke has a new mission: to kill Jacob. He succeeds, at the very end of Season 5.
It is only in the finale of Season 5 and the premiere of Season 6 (another example of the smoothing over of finale-anxiety) that we learn the mysterious truth of Locke’s return from the dead. Namely, the Locke that we think we know is in fact Jacob’s ancient rival, the Smoke Monster, having assumed Locke’s corpse as his own body. As the season progresses, we learn that it was the monster, who, as Locke, coerced Richard to give Locke the compass and instruct him to bring the Oceanic 6 to back to the Island, not to save everyone, but to kill them, and thus be free of his curse. To top it all off, by the end of Season 6 we learn that the monster also posed as Christian Shephard, and was thus the man whom Locke spoke to in the cabin and convinced him to move The Island, setting this entire arc in motion.
All this, especially if you’re not familiar with the show, is very confusing. But the point is this: what was once the turning point of Locke’s heroic adventure turned out, through a series of retroactive revelations, to be, as we have just seen, a painfully intricate plot on the part of the smoke monster to lead Locke to his death so he could assume his body, kill Jacob, and finally leave the Island (he doesn’t succeed in this final endeavor). In other words the audience expectation for Locke, embodied in a long arc, was disrupted piecemeal along strategic points (what we might label, therefore, as the most privileged positions) of that very arc. This move, in my opinion, was masterful, however tragic. It emphasizes LOST‘s most valuable attribute, namely its keen interest in narrative deviation in a way unprecedented in television.
These deviations, as may be clear now, are perception-altering. Because of all these twists and turns, the central themes of the show are even more foregrounded. What we think we know about the supernatural, the scientific, the cosmic, the afterlife, the trajectory of our own lives, etc., is never what we think it is, and occurs in ways more spatial than linear. Moreover, the necessary deja vu enacted through this textual retroactivity signals a need to look more closely at the intricate workings of our own lives, and their unexpected privileged positions along the way.
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