In an emotional monologue in this week’s episode of Lost, Richard Alpert bemoans the fact that he ceded control over his life to a man who “had a plan” and promised that “everything was happening for a reason.” Is he mourning Jacob’s disappearance? Is he allegorically dramatizing humankind’s loss of faith in God? Or is he voicing the anger of Jack Shafer and other impatient Lost fans?
It’s like the writers were winking at us with that line about Jacob revealing things “when the time was right.” And Jack Shephard’s response to Richard—lighting a stick of dynamite and demanding answers—seemed downright Shaferian in its fiery directness. Despite Dr. Jack’s efforts, we got few answers of the sort I’ve been looking for. We’re a third of the way through the season now, but I’m not sure we’re any closer to understanding the origins of the island or its magical powers.
Instead, this week’s show was a fable with a happy ending. Island despot Ben Linus sacrificed his daughter, Alex, in an attempt to solidify his status and power. Given an identical opportunity in a parallel world, history teacher Ben Linus instead sacrifices himself to let Alex thrive. Moral lesson: ‘Tis better to help a person succeed than to watch her take a rifle shot to the head. Lesson for Lost watchers: Perhaps the island brings out the worst in people. Teacher Ben, who left the island as a child and never went back, is a decent guy in this “normal” universe—the one in which the conflicts are over parking spaces and college applications.
There’s been a long-running debate about which genre Lost properly slots into. Fantasy? Sci-fi? A hybrid of the two? Or something entirely different?
Lost has monsters, magic, immortal beings, and an epic struggle between good and evil, all of which are hallmarks of fantasy. But with fantasy, we mostly accept the fantastical elements and don’t stop to ask questions. We don’t need to know how Gandalf got his powers or why that wardrobe leads to Narnia. We accept these premises as part of the story so we can get on with the adventure. By contrast, Lost is all about waiting for explanations.
At times, Lost can seem like it’s pretty clearly sci-fi. Time travel, mathematical equations, electromagnetism, fertility medicine. But sci-fi often grapples with questions at the frontiers of the modern world. The intriguing Caprica, for instance, is currently examining the implications of virtual avatars, machine intelligence, and the approach of “the singularity.” I’m not sure thefictional technologies in Lost are employed to tell stories in that same sci-fi tradition.
At its very worst, Lost can feel like The Da Vinci Code. A series of silly puzzles and shallow allusions strung together just skillfully enough to keep us turning the page. (Or, rather, to keep us from turning the channel.)
Was this week’s Lost any of these things? It mostly felt like a religious parable, in which our protagonist Ben Linus learns to be a better man. Or perhaps the island is like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, forcing the characters to take a long, hard look at their own weaknesses and failings. Just as Scrooge did, we viewers wonder: “Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?”
OK, time for Formula Watch, in which we note recurring Lost tricks and tropes:
1) Yet more daddy issues! Alterna-Ben is nursing his sickly dad while acting as a kindly father figure to Alex (his erstwhile adopted daughter who is now just his student). And Ilana calls Jacob “the closest thing I ever had to a father.”
2) A classic jungle walk-and-talk! How many times have we seen characters discuss some meaty matter as they stroll through undergrowth? This week it was Hurley and Jack who interrupted their sentences to swat at insects and brush aside palm fronds.
3) Brainy literary references! Next to that nudie mag Ben found on the beach, I glimpsed a copy of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and also something that appeared to be a biography of Benjamin Disraeli. I did some quick Googling, and my understanding is that the Potok book touches on several favored Lost themes such as baseball, two men locked in a head-to-head struggle, and patriarchs seeking successors. Meanwhile, Disraeli is known for engaging in a Jacob-vs.-Smokey-esque feud with his bitter rival, William Gladstone.
Feel free to contribute your own Formula Watch entries in the comments. And I’ll leave it to you, Jack and Chad, to explore the significance of the fact that Charles Widmore’s submarine has crept within torpedo distance of the beach.