by Nicholas Jahr
Lost was a travesty. It was always a story of characters haunted and driven by their pasts, of absent fathers and shrewish mothers, of moral ambiguity in the guise of righteous conviction, of the struggle for free will in a universe in which your every action might be predetermined. And in the end, the writers went to extraordinary lengths to dispense with these complications.
In its early days, the one question I wanted answered more than any other was: “How did all these fucked up people end up on the same plane?” In an overly odd coincidence, most of the show’s main characters were convinced they were responsible for killing someone. Each conviction was, more or less, justified. And yet, the castaways, feeling terrified and besieged, went on to kill far more of the â€˜Others’ on the Island than the Others killed castaways (at least twice as many, by my count).
The essential question the series asked in episode after episode was: you find yourself on a deserted island with a bunch of strangers. You can be anyone you want. Can you reinvent yourself? Can you leave your past behind? Again and again, the answer the show returned was a resounding: No. When a character made peace with their demons, his days were numbered. It was hard to tell if this was a matter of dramatic convenience or part of a grand design, but the body count rose at an impressive clip.
The women got the worst of it. Generally they were gunned down (off the top of my head, I count at least five), although one had her throat slit and another died of a brain hemorrhage. One character, introduced as cannon fodder late in the game, actually insisted on her competence just before she ineptly threw down a bag o’ dynamite and was promptly blown to smithereens. Only one of the women to buy it was granted a heroic death. Of the three left standing at the end of the series, one was sidelined throughout the last season (Penny); one was at best deeply unstable (Claire); and the last, once one of the show’s major characters, had been damn near reduced to a supporting role (while Kate was granted a part in taking down the story’s Final Boss Character, she was also required to suddenly profess her devotion to the corner of her love triangle she’d been ignoring all season). All of them were mothers. No doubt bound to nag, berate, and renounce their children.
After all, that’s what the mother of every single character did when we encountered them in flashback after flashback. Mothers on Lost were not to be trusted, and the show had an obsession for women’s ovaries along with a number of other pop cult totems. In hindsight, it looks like writer Brian K. Vaughan (whose graphic novel, Y: The Last Man , which ran from 2002 to 2008, notably addressed reproductive issues in a similar fashion to the now better-known 1992 book Children of Men) might have injected this motif into Lost. And concurrently with much of Lost, wombs and reproduction were also a topic of great interest to the remakers of Battlestar Galactica. This sense of crisis, of the need for control over the survival of the species, and of its dangers, haunts the culture.
Claire, the story’s teenage mother-who’d been doing her damnedest to give her child up for adoption before she was stranded on the island-was repeatedly schooled in motherhood by several male characters. They even seized control of the plot. The original plan had been to have a more motherly Kate become the leader of the castaways; instead the writers went with Dr. Jack. Even when they weren’t killed, the women were shoved to the margins.
Characters who weren’t white didn’t fare much better. The show’s Angry Young Black Man (a single dad, no less) was written out a third of the way in, only to be written back in later on, only to be killed off in a doomed, heroic effort to defuse a bomb. His son-set up as your standard Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter type-seemingly fell victim to puberty and was summarily exiled (but at least not executed). Lt. Daniels showed up in a bit part for no particular reason other than to get popped.
They even got in both a Magic Black Lady and a Magic Black Man, a rare twofer; when the actor who played the latter decided he wanted out, his character was brutally beaten to death. As for the aforementioned Magic Black Lady, she managed to make it over the finish line. But she was married to a white man, which always improves one’s odds.
Which brings us to Sayid. Granted, fine-he was a former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard, and a torturer no less. Gotta be topical. He felt bad about it. He was tortured and smoldering and aggressive and competent, as good with a radio as a rifle, a richly realized character in an important role. It was a shock to see him on TV while Iraq was still reeling from shock and awe, as we denied the humanity of the â€˜terrorists’ and â€˜hajis.’
Then, in the final season, Sayid was inexplicably and meaninglessly declared â€˜evil’ and then did his best to live up to the title-until in the end, to save his friends, he grabbed a ticking bomb, raced off, and blew himself up. This was a heroic death. A martyr’s death. It is somewhat tarnished by the image.
Thus began the great Minority Massacre of May 2010, in which the show’s beloved Korean couple also went down with the sub. Despite the fact that they had a daughter the husband had never met, he refused to leave his wife’s side, and the writers drowned them both. As the water level crept over them, they spoke most of their final words in English. Assimilation will only get you so far.
Just in case anyone missed the point, the only semi-significant white character who seemingly bought it on the sub turned up alive in the final episode, despite having been knocked unconscious and presumably gone with it to the bottom. Of the characters left standing at the show’s end, almost all of them are white. Sure, Hurley is Hispanic, but the sort of Hispanic who listens to Willie Nelson, not the sort who flies the Puerto Rican flag and blasts reggaeton out the back of his SUV. And then there’s Miles, whose parents were Chinese, but somewhere along the way he picked up the surname Straume. Strand the bomber crew on a tropical island, and in the fight for survival the White Folks still come out on top.
Of course, Lost complicated the usual hierarchy of survival that too often serves as a scaffold for genre work by resurrecting nearly all of its dead. Despite repeated hints throughout the series that its entire cast might have died in the plane crash with which the story began, and that the Island might be nothing more than Purgatory, the writers established, through a device too inane to waste time explaining to those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with it, an alternate timeline, or, wait, maybe it was just another Purgatory-watching it seemed like Purgatory-the waiting room before you get to Heaven, in which all the characters arrive when they die… even though they die years apart… Um…. Okay. It’s impossible to explain because it doesn’t make any sense. It was â€˜the Other Show’ that kept interrupting Lost all season.
As the story drew to a close amidst a spasm of empty and largely Christian religious iconography, what this breathtaking stupidity, this profoundly cheap and lazy device, allowed the writers to do was to avoid the central challenge they’d posed: the question of forgiveness, of the past that’s always present. It’s easy to forgive yourself for strangling someone to death if that someone comes back to life and tells you you’re forgiven. It’s easy to live with the loss of someone you loved if you get to meet cute at the snack machine in Limbo. It’s easy to sacrifice yourself if you’ll be rewarded in the afterlife. We’ve had some trouble with this logic recently. It’s easy to leave the past behind if you get to wake up in an entirely different universe.
Genuine forgiveness is much harder to come by. In the spectacular pivot Lost pulled off during its fourth season, when the present suddenly became the past, there was a hint of one way we might find it. A taste of absolution in the dissolution of the past. For a while there, it seemed like the show might have something to say about the subject, or at least that it might offer, through the lives of its characters, a vicarious dose. Instead, it needlessly regurgitated some of the worst of what we’d like to leave behind. It comes as a shock, after all those episodes, that now we’re left still waiting for the show where a seat on the last plane out isn’t determined by the color of a person’s skin and the women are in the cockpit.
Nicholas Jahr is a freelance writer born and raised in Brooklyn and a founding editor of the Crumpled Press.