When Lost Said “Both”

February 3, 2010
By | 14 Comments

As I’ve spilled many pixels on Lost on my own blog, I decided to do most of my blogging about the final season here on Antenna. So in the morning-after of the season 6 premiere, here are some quick thoughts. (Last warning for virgin eyes…)

In the pregame hype leading up to the season six premiere, producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof revealed that they were done with time travel, but they were going to introduce a storytelling technique that would be new to the series. Thus in the anticipation to the premiere, my academic side was mostly focused on imagining what this might be (while my fanboy side was obsessing over whether this would be the end for Juliet & Sawyer!). Amongst fans and critics, a frequently asked question has been whether you were pro- or anti-reboot: should Jughead have succeeded in preemptively preventing Oceanic 815′s crash, or might the bomb itself have been the incident that necessitated the Swan button-pushing (and presumably pushed our temporally displaced heroes forward in time to 2007)?

As we now see, Lost chose answer C: all of the above. This season’s narrative technique (or gimmick if you’re being uncharitable) posits parallel story threads, cross-cut with little explanation or plot-driven rationale. Another aspect of the pre-game buzz was that the producers claimed that season 6 would be a return to the first season’s tone, and hinted that there would be openings for new viewers. Personally, I was afraid this might mean a return to simpler storytelling formulas, and an abandonment of the head-on sci-fi style of season 5 – thankfully, I was wrong. Instead, we’ve gotten a much bolder and riskier approach that seems designed to appeal exclusively to hardcore fans willing to take another step into the Borgesian rabbit hole, diving into a realm of productive confusion.

I’ve long contended that one of the key appeals of a narratively complex series like Lost is its embrace of the operational aesthetic, the dual pleasures of being immersed in a storyworld and marveling at the storytelling craft on display. Season six’s premiere “LA X” delivers ample fan fodder for both the story – with character deaths and emotional repercussions, as well as partial answers & clues to key mysteries about the temple, the monster, the whispers, Man in Black, etc, – and its telling, with the mental calisthenics needed to figure out what might have happened in each timeline and how they might relate. The LA-based storyline also plays with viewer knowledge and memories in ways that seem unique to serial storytelling, drawing upon the vast array of memories we have about these characters to highlight how their lives have changed in an island-free world. Additionally, they effectively teased the audience with questions about Jack’s internal thoughts in the first few sequences, as there were enough ambiguous references to past events like recognizing Desmond to hint that he might remember island life (another popular fan theory), but in the end it seems like these were just feints to get fans to over-interpret, part of the show’s ludic appeal.  In short, this season of Lost seems designed to make us reflect on where we have been with this show, paying off long-term investments with moments of connection and callback.

There are certainly challenges to this mode of storytelling, as it would be easy to regard one of the two threads as “real” and the other as “alternate.” Yet Juliet’s message from the grave, “It worked,” suggests that they are not fully separate, and it only makes sense that for the series to payoff, we need both timelines to have interrelated dramatic stakes. Damon & Carlton urge patience, something I feel they’ve earned over the years – although I feel like we’ll need some good Faraday science expositional scenes, but poor Daniel is dead on the island and his pregnant mum presumably perished in the nuclear blast! (And how great is it that self-centered Jack managed to destroy an entire island and micro-civilization just to ease his guilt that he failed in a relationship!) If they do pull it off, it seems that the show may have raised the bar yet again for how experimental a network show can be – after all, could you have imagined in 2004 that we’d be debating whether a primetime hit should try parallel universes or stick with flash forwards?

Random favorite fanboy moment: Terry O’Quinn simply bringing it in the dual roles of sad sack 2004 Locke, and scornful dark island god. The combination of the two scenes of BadLocke lecturing Ben about those pitiful humans and the airport scene with Jack offering Locke a glimpse of spinal hope was just pure delight.

Bonus coverage: I’ve written a bit about Lost and ratings at Just TV if you want my take on the industrial side of the show.

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14 Responses to “ When Lost Said “Both” ”

  1. Myles McNutt on February 3, 2010 at 1:21 PM

    Antenna’s great for many reasons, but further pushing you to write about the show weekly is my favourite spinoff benefit thus far.

    You raise the question of the function of memory here, and it’s interesting how divisive that will be amongst viewers in terms of the new reality. Some watched the “flash-sideways” and noticed all of the little details that were different (like, for example, that Jack received one bottle of vodka instead of two when he complained of a weak drink), while others perhaps engaged with it in terms of the similarities and differences in the characters’ on-island and off-island journeys (Kate still escapes the Marshall, Jack still loses his father’s body). And then there might be those who don’t bother with memory, simply comparing Jack/Kate/etc. in 2007 to the same characters if they had never crashed on the island.

    The episode encourages fans to do all three, each demonstrating a different level of commitment to watching the series while remaining compelling and satisfying narrative for the show to follow. There’s something for everyone this time around, and I’m darn excited to see where it goes from here.

  2. Derek Kompare on February 3, 2010 at 2:01 PM

    I’ve nothing to add to this take on the continued dazzling narrative experimentation, except to point out that Damon and Carlton have also mentioned that the “no plane crash” timeline, as it unfolds, can be easily followed by newbies, i.e., as a separate and compelling narrative in its own right. Things won’t start collapsing together till late in the season, and I love how we’ve now got many answers, but enough remaining questions (and new questions) to keep us intrigued.

    I also want to mention that I reviewed the entire run over the past couple of months (including in my car via iPod!), and saw most of Season 5 for the first time over the past week. I saw “The Incident” for the first time (unspoiled as well) on Monday, and it was amazing to be able to jump right in to the new season the next night.

    And yep, Terry O’Quinn is particularly amazing. As for theories, I think a lot hinges on this question: Was Desmond actually on the plane?

    • Jeffrey Jones on February 4, 2010 at 12:05 PM

      Does a lot also hinge on Jack’s “missing” dad?

  3. Derek Johnson on February 3, 2010 at 2:05 PM

    Maybe Lost has lost its shine for me, but I’m honestly completely underwhelmed by this alternate (or as you point out, maybe-not-quite-alternate) reality storytelling approach. First off, given that Cuse and Lindelof tipped their hat that flashbacks and flashforwards were gone, this seemed like the most obvious and most logical next step. Without any spoilers whatsoever, I knew this would be the storytelling structure for the season. Or perhaps it only seems predictable because the Lindelof/Cuse/Orci/Kurtzman/Abrams crew seem so unable to do anything BUT alternate realities (see Felicity, Star Trek, Fringe). I realize that each of these producers has varying degrees of involvement in all these productions, and they’re not all coming from the exact same place, but given all the extra-textual connections, NOT having an alternate reality (or even the suggestion of alternate realities, if there is a swerve in store) would be refreshing to me at this point. Instead of “C”, why not “D”: none of the above.

    • Jason Mittell on February 3, 2010 at 4:58 PM

      Derek – I think “D: none of the above” is the plan for season 7…

  4. Daynah on February 3, 2010 at 5:19 PM

    great piece, Jason. i, too, am thinking that Lindlehoff & co are deserving of a little patience at this point.

    one point you make: “Additionally, they effectively teased the audience with questions about Jack’s internal thoughts in the first few sequences, as there were enough ambiguous references to past events like recognizing Desmond to hint that he might remember island life…” is interesting. i immediately thought this was simply reference to the pre-oceanic 815 meeting in the stadium where desmond was training and jack was running up the stairs. sort of assuring us that some things changed (like the single serving of vodka) and some things didn’t (their brief encounter). thoughts?

    • Jason Mittell on February 3, 2010 at 10:44 PM

      I agree that Jack was probably remembering that – although some critics have pointed out that if the island blew up in 1977, then Charles Widmore died, so Desmond wouldn’t be training for his race, and thus wouldn’t have met Jack! What I found interesting is that in the first few segments of Jack on the plane, every glance and reaction seemed full of potential meaning and possible memories. They all had rationale explanations, but I was grasping at anything that suggested the option that the bombers would remember their past/future.

  5. uberVU - social comments on February 4, 2010 at 3:15 AM

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by jmittell: My 2 day-after #Lost posts: at @AntennaBlog about narrative issues http://bit.ly/8XqMNF & my blog about ratings http://bit.ly/aIwPBh

  6. Tom Phillips on February 4, 2010 at 6:36 AM

    Jason, watching the scenes of the 2004 alt-timeline reminded me of your blog piece about the Sopranos ending and narrative context. I know I’ve read somewhere that Cuse and Lindelof have said that audiences new to Lost could conceivably start watching s6 as an entry point, and for me, the scenes on the plane would highlight the way in which context and knowledge come into play.

    As the plane landed, the background music seemed to be almost triumphant – that Jack has succeeded in his mission and everything would turn out okay. To the uninformed viewers, the narrative signals going on within this timeline would certainly signal this. Though watching it myself I couldn’t get rid of the feeling of unease, that what I was watching wasn’t supposed to happen, and I was far more comfortable with the 2007 scenes featuring “my” characters. The plane landing scene subsequently became a sequence of melancholy – no one knows each other and five seasons of character development is eradicated. I think ultimately this will be resolved, but it will interesting to see if any other moments will be open to interpretation based on narrative context.

  7. Jonathan Gray on February 5, 2010 at 8:51 AM

    The alt lines also allowed them to be monumental turds re: the Jin/Sun storyline. For all the banging and clattering about Sawyer/Kate/Jack, all of which I don’t care about, it’s been Jin and Sun’s relationship that’s seemed to propel a lot affectively for me as a fan.

    … and then they get back together, but as estranged, distant partners. So even though Sun and Jin now seem to be in the same timeline in both alt worlds, ensuring they’ll get back together in the crashed timeline, Cuse and Lindelof have no doubt undercut that reunion. While this makes me wanna shake my fist as a fan, it’s also pretty masterful storytelling gamesmanship.

    • Tom Phillips on February 5, 2010 at 9:44 AM

      According to the blog Televisionary, Sun and Jin aren’t even married in the alt-timeline, as the airport personnel addresses her as “Ms Paik”. Does this resolve your fan anger or make it worse?!
      (http://www.televisionaryblog.com/2010/02/nothing-is-irreversible-season-premiere.html)

      • Jonathan Gray on February 5, 2010 at 2:38 PM

        Not really anger, Tom — it’s more like heartbreak. And it doesn’t change it either way. The point was that I was looking forward to their no doubt sappy — but hey, can’t a dude love him some melodrama? :-) — reunion, yet now it’ll be tinged with the alt world scenario … regardless of whether they’re married or not. Thanks for the clarification, though: I didn’t pick up on that

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