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Tyler Charles

Not Too Late to Find Lost

Contemplating the cult TV sensation in the wake of its penultimate season finale.

When ABC's Lost premiered in 2004, the show's premise—that a group of plane-crash survivors found themselves stranded on a strange and apparently uninhabited island—exhibited all the trappings and clichés of an archetypal, humdrum Hollywood drama: mortal danger, a tropical island locale, and of course the requisite beautiful women and muscular men whose good looks are somehow sustained in the absence of showers, shampoo, and a clean shave. Factor in an ongoing leadership struggle and the tribal atmosphere, and it seemed the inevitable result would be an over-dramatized cross between Lord of the Flies and Survivor.

But from the pilot to the present—with season 5 just completed—Lost has rewarded sustained attention, not least by posing questions that keep viewers thinking about the show between episodes. To begin with, there's the puzzle of the island itself. An island patrolled by a seemingly sadistic smoke monster, where a paraplegic is healed completely and instantaneously. An island where the dead don't always stay silent, or still. An island with unique magnetic properties, pockets of energy, and other scientific anomalies. (In other words, the ideal environment for science-fiction plot twists.)

Still more captivating than the mysterious island are the capricious and conflicted characters stranded on it. Despite having one of the largest casts in television, and a richly diverse one at that, Lost has devoted valuable airtime to back stories and characterization, deliberately exhibiting complexities and flaws in every character—a rarity in television. But ultimately, these flaws must be revealed, because stripped down to its core, Lost is about the potential for redemption, even if some of the castaways fail to recognize the nature of their own story. For some of the castaways—the ones who've adopted the aphorism, "Live together, die alone"—redemption appears to loiter on the other side of philosophical conflicts that have emerged as ongoing themes. Dr. Jack Shephard and John Locke represent opposing sides in the "Science vs. Faith" debate, and most of the characters have pondered the merits of "Fate vs. Free Will."

John Locke? Yes, Lost employs so many allusions—incorporating history, philosophy, mythology, literature, religion, art—that each episode serves as a veritable playground for the erudite. Lost introduces, for example, a physicist named Faraday and a time-travel aficionado named Hawking. Philosophers, however, are most prevalent. There's John Locke (who temporarily uses a pseudonym, Jeremy Bentham), Mikhail Bakunin, and Edmund Burke. On the island, one can also encounter a Rousseau, a Hume, and a Carlyle. And to make things even more amusing, there's an Oxford-born woman named Charlotte Staples Lewis.

Speaking of C.S. Lewis (Clive, not Charlotte), Lost has evoked comparisons to Narnia and Lewis' Space Trilogy, as well as works by a host of other authors. As devoted fans comb each episode for clues, book titles have become fodder for conversation—and conspiracy theories. Episode titles include "There's No Place Like Home," "The White Rabbit," "Through the Looking Glass," "A Tale of Two Cities," "The Shape of Things to Come," and "Stranger in a Strange Land" (which probably references Heinlein's novel, though Books & Culture readers might associate it with a certain bi-monthly literary column).

In season 3, when viewers first suspected the possibility of time travel, one character was shown reading A Brief History of Time. More specifically, he was reading the seventh chapter, "Black Holes Ain't So Black." In spite of the deserted island setting, the castaways could compile a significant library of literary classics. Characters are shown reading everything from Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret to VALIS, Watership Down, A Wrinkle in Time, The Fountainhead, The Brothers Karamazov, and Ulysses. Most recently, the season 5 finale revealed a prominent character reading Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge. Considering the backdrop for this scene, those familiar with O'Connor's portrayals of violent revelation will find its inclusion especially poignant.

Adding to the show's intrigue, Lost's writers often communicate to their audience in winks and nudges, providing information that exists outside the narrative thread. For example, Lost often includes "Easter eggs," hidden clues that might suggest answers to one of the show's mysteries or maybe just teasingly signpost something insignificant—a mere "Did you catch that?" nudge. For example, one scene includes an advertisement for Nozz-A-La Cola, a fictional soft drink that exists in Stephen King's Dark Tower series. Other Easter eggs involve characters appearing in the background of another character's flashback.

The fifth season of Lost wasn't shy about showcasing previously shrouded science-fiction elements. In response, Popular Mechanics started blogging about the ideas in the show, enlisting experts to weigh in on Lost's representation of topics like electromagnetism, relativistic physics, wormholes, and Egyptology. And the expert reviews were largely positive; the scientific and historical depictions, though far-fetched at times, were at least rooted in plausibility—proof, it seems, that Lost has done its homework.

Despite the inclusion of science-fiction elements like time travel, Lost seldom feels like sci-fi. Perhaps this is because viewers are left to wonder whether the island's forces are scientific, supernatural, or, quite possibly, both. Take for example, the character Richard Alpert (who shares his name with Timothy Leary's former cohort, before he became Ram Dass), a man who doesn't appear to age. His immortality—if he even is immortal—is one of the unexplained elements that has baffled and intrigued viewers.

When the fifth season wasn't boggling minds with its time-jumping storyline, the plot delved deep into island history. The finale to season 5 confirmed that the castaways have staggered into a conflict that predates them by centuries, if not longer. The most telling scene included an exchange between two characters that seems to set the stage for Lost's final season:

"They come. They fight. They destroy. They corrupt. It always ends the same way."

"It only ends once. Everything that happens before that is just progress."

So what does that mean for the original castaways, the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815? Are they going to factor into an ultimate conclusion? Or will their ordeals be "just progress"? Will the story culminate in a good-versus-evil showdown with supernatural implications? Will it establish the solvency of free will? Will there be redemption? For whom?

Whatever happens, if the first five seasons are any indication, the sixth and final season will be worth watching. If nothing else, Lost's final season promises to answer some if not quite all of the island's mysteries. Most likely, those answers will be unlike anything viewers are anticipating.

But then again, that's exactly what they should expect by now.

Tyler Charles is a freelance writer and assistant editor for PreachingToday's FaithVisuals.

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