The Scope of Lost: In Dialogue with Joe Carter

Other — By on May 27, 2010 at 6:09 pm

(Warning: This post contains spoilers for the end of Lost)

To no one’s surprise, the final episode of this cultural behemoth has sparked a flurry of dialogue and theory-sharing. One such theory was recently put forth by Joe Carter at FirstThings.com. His opinion, however, expresses a dissatisfaction with plot holes, but this overlooks the primary objective of the show. Rather than creating a plot that moves characters along, Lost is about the characters that create a story. It is the fixation on these characters that gives the show its power and popularity. So, in order to frame the dialogue appropriately, it helps to remember a few key things:

1. Lost is NOT a Christian allegory.

A Christian viewer should not expect to find one-to-one correspondence between the characters and events of the show and the Christian narrative, much less with that viewer’s doctrinal iterations of the Christian narrative. The show makes allusions to components of the Christian narrative, but because it is merely referential and not allegorical, it is under no obligation to offer a modus operandi for the Christ-figure achieving any particular atonement model (e.g. Jack does not have to be Christ in order to possess traits that are similar to those of Christ). Lost is doing something different.

2. Lost is a post-modern narrative.

The show wields a compilation of mythic components or archetypes for the creation of a message that is not achieved through any of the individual myths from whence the elements are derived. In terms of the show, this technique is seen through the simultaneous operation of Egyptian, Buddhist, Roman Catholic, and scientific paradigms.  Lost is not trying to say that Jack’s character is the savior of the world, but that the development of his character obliges him to die for the cause to which he has pledged himself. It is this fixation on character development (the stated point of the show according to producers Cuse and Lindelhoff) that lends so much force to the show’s popularity. It moves away from abstract concepts and focuses on individual lives and the choices that direct them. In short, the dramatic effect of Lost is not reliant upon the plot as a framework, but about bringing characters to their fruition, which the show does marvelously.

3. Lost is ultimately about finding the unknown beloved.

The show’s final season reveals that the arduous paths the characters follow is directed toward their finding the thing they are looking for, and that is different for each character. While Christians see this journey as ultimately leading to God made possible by the work of Christ and directed by the Holy Spirit, the show’s scope does not encompass such a claim. Rather, Lost depicts the struggle of character development as centering on the obstacles to finding what is true and the choices we make to overcome those obstacles. To argue about the sufficiency of the extent to which the show provides conclusive statements about reality is moot, because the development of the characters does not necessarily require them.

At its core, the show gives its viewers a meticulous study of the choices people make and the wide-reaching effects of those decisions. The drama of the show, the reason why so many people are drawn to it, is found in characters with whom the viewer can relate and struggle alongside. If looked at in terms of the narrative framework alone, then the show makes little sense. It is the people involved that give the show life. To watch the show well, then, we should avoid dwelling on conceptual matters and remember that Lost ventures to portray the compelling struggle of characters traversing the human journey. ‘



  • http://twitter.com/joecarter888 Joe Carter

    Thanks for the post, Hayden. I respect your attempt to make some sense of the mess that is Lost. ; )

    Before I get to the point-by-point, let me give you my overall impression of Lost: The creators were smart but not nearly as smart as everyone gave them credit for being.
    I appreciate the many defenses that people have tried to make in their defense, but it just doesn’t hold up. The show has to be judged by what was on the screen and that resulted in a complete failure.

    The creators had no idea what they were doing—at all. They kept piling up plot points that made the show intriguing yet they knew something we didn’t: that there would not be a payoff to any of them because the creators themselves didn’t create them with a purpose.

    What is really frustrating—and the reinforces just how not-smart Cuse and Lindelof are—is that they didn’t even have to know where the story went. The fans had created the necessary theories to tie it all together. All they had to do was read the internet, pick out the best theory, and then make that the way Lost ends. They would have looked like geniuses. Now, they have simply revealed themselves as posers.

    1. Lost is NOT a Christian allegory.

    I completely agree—which was why I found the use of Christian allegory in Lost both sloppy and unnecessary. The use of alleogory—like almost everything else in Lost—was a red herring thrown in because the producers wanted to create the illusion of depth to cover for the fact that they had no clue what they were doing.

    You say, “The show makes allusions to components of the Christian narrative, but because it is merely referential and not allegorical, it is under no obligation to offer a modus operandi for the Christ-figure achieving any particular atonement model.” I completely disagree. When an artist includes an archetype in a narrative they are creating certain expectations and constraints on a character. An uninteresting artist may try to be transgressive by using those expectations and constraints to subvert the idea of the archetype. Those are usually silly but at least they are something.

    The creators of Lost didn’t even do that. They used the archetype of the Christ-figure to create the illusion of depth in a boring character but instead of taking it to its natural conclusion, they completely disconnect it at the end. It was like they decided in the last few minutes to say, “Remember all that archetype stuff we used to create this character? Yeah, well . . . none of that matters.”

    That’s just lazy storytelling.

    Lost is a post-modern narrative.

    You say, “The show wields a compilation of mythic components or archetypes for the creation of a message that is not achieved through any of the individual myths from whence the elements are derived.” But that’s not post-modern (not really). That’s pre-modern. That’s just a form of ancient syncretism that existed for thousands of years and left us with very few interesting stories. The creators can’t just throw up a bunch of archetypes and slices of myths and pretend that just because they are thrown in one pile, that there is some greater meaning.

    It is this fixation on character development (the stated point of the show according to producers Cuse and Lindelhoff) that lends so much force to the show’s popularity.

    The character development angle was the lamest excuse that Cuse and Lindelhof gave for their big steaming mess. The show was well-acted, I’ll say that. But the characters were little more than caricatures. Heck, they didn’t even have unique names. The show’s creators gave them famous monikers (Locke, Rousseau, C.S. Lewis) just so we’d be able to keep them straight (though we were fooled into thinking the names of the characters had some connection to the person whose names they stole).

    Strip Lost of its mythology and you have Flash Forward, V, or some other show where we don’t care about the characters.

    In short, the dramatic effect of Lost is not reliant upon the plot as a framework, but about bringing characters to their fruition, which the show does marvelously.

    We’re we watching the same show? ; )

    What character was brought to fruition? Seriously, one of the best things about the show was that it didn’t pretend that people could change from what they really were.
    Imagine if each character in Lost was given a character alignment from D&D. Sayid the Tortured Torturer, for example, was basically lawful evil. By the end of the show. . .he was still lawful evil. Ben was chaotic evil. Just when we think he’s changed, he murders a man. Still lawful evil.

    The characters were pawns for the plot. Take away the plot—as the creators did—and you’re left with nothing.

    Here’s how you can tell the difference in a real character-driven show and one in which they are mere caricatures. Imagine the people of Lost transferred from the Island to Dillon, TX. If they were on Friday Night Lights they’d be completely boring (as most of them were in the purgatory flash sideways). But take someone from FNL and put them on the Island? They’d still be incredibly interesting.

    3. Lost is ultimately about finding the unknown beloved.

    I can rebut that entire argument with one word: Sayid.

    The entire series they showed him, from childhood to the flash sideways, motivated to act because of his one-true-love, Nadia.

    Yet what happens in The End? He spends eternity in heaven with his summer fling Shannon. Again, this is Exhibit #3,754 in the Case of the Clueless Creators. Rather than following the internal logic of their own show, they thought “We really need to bring that Shannon chick back for the finale.”

    At its core, the show gives its viewers a meticulous study of the choices people make and the wide-reaching effects of those decisions

    This is exactly backwards. The entire point of the finale is that nothing—no action any of them took in life—would have eternal consequences. They only think that needed to do was “Remember and let go.” Nothing that happened on the Island had any consequences . . . with one exception: If you hooked up on the Island then you go to spend eternity with your paramour. Or, if you are Sawyer, Jake, Kate, Juliet, etc., one of your “true loves.”

  • Jonathan Wright

    Okay, but what about time travel? Lets hook that up to the unknown beloved real quick.

  • Hayden Butler

    Jon,

    Could you say more about the issue you're bringing up here? I'm not sure exactly what you're asking.

  • Hayden Butler

    Joe,

    Thanks for the thorough reply. I had hoped that the post would spark some meaningful dialogue–something the show, despite its flaws, continues to do.

    I appreciate your push-backs, and it seems that our dialogue has at its heart a debate about authorial intent. You're accusing the producers of making a bunch of either inconsistent or ad hoc inclusions to the narrative to try and tie off an overflowing bag of garbage, I'm giving them a bit more credit.
    It still comes down to whether the show is about plot or character. You're essentially calling the producers liars when they say it's about character, claiming that they are covering over their mistakes. Assuming they are NOT liars, the show has actual merit as it stands in attempting to represent the development of people.

    Beyond that debate, too, is the fact that we're both making conclusive statements about a story with a large volume of content that has only been complete for less than a week. I get it, it's part of being a critic. It's likely, though, that more time and more consideration will temper both of our opinions.

    But this is good: a TV show has sparked a conversation with substance, something shows like Flash Forward and V have decidedly NOT done. And interestingly enough, that's something Cuse and Lindelhoff–again, assuming they aren't lying to us :) –were seeking to do with Lost.

    Thanks again for replying.

    Hayden

  • http://twitter.com/joecarter888 Joe Carter

    It still comes down to whether the show is about plot or character.

    Until a few weeks ago, I don't even think this was a question that people would even consider to ask about the show. I simply do not know anyone (though you may be the first) who thought the plot was unimportant and that it was the character arc that mattered.

    Look at some of the massive commentary on the internet about the show and almost all of it was about plot points and questions raised about the plot. The flashback sequences were interesting but they were not really what the show was about. If I wanted to watch a show about soap-opera type characters, I would have watched “Gray's Anatomy.”

    You're essentially calling the producers liars when they say it's about character, claiming that they are covering over their mistakes.

    I don't want to be so direct as to call them liars. But I think there explanation is a post hoc rationalization. If you look at their previous interviews, they never say this is a show about characters and that fans should just forget all that mythology stuff because its not really that important. They played up the mythology because that was the reason 99% of the viewers stuck with the show. If they had told us after season one that the questions we had were never going to be answered but it didn't matter because the show was “really about the characters” I would have stopped watching. So would most everyone else.

  • http://dillieodigital.net/blog Dillie-O

    Without trying to sound like the “wishy washy make everybody happy” type, it seems to me like to story was really about both. Would the story about a mysterious island that holds the core of mankind's souls in jeopardy be successful for 6 years? I think with all the twists in the storyline that was made, it wouldn't. I'll admit I almost dropped out of the series around season three until I began to make the connections between plot and character.

    As the plot unfolded about the island, the flashbacks provided insights to the backgrounds of the characters, and also to how their current situation was challenging them to do bigger (and sometimes better) things. This really comes to a head with the repeated debate between Jack (the man of Science) and Locke (the man of Faith).

    An island of souls in need of rescue seems a bit too “out there” to be watched for too long. A character development plot while stuck on a mysterious island seems too only last so long (too much Gilligan in my head). However, the combination, and reliance upon the two made for a great story.

    Whether or not the island needed a “redeemed” guardian or not is another debate. 8^D

  • Andrew

    It seems like after reading both Hayden’s and Joe’s original posts and their follow up dialogues that Hayden puts more emphasis on the development of the characters, and that Joe puts more emphasis on the plot. I would tend to agree that the plot is less important than the character development and would agree with all points that Hayden has put forth. I’m not going to address everything point by point.

    Other than Jack not fitting perfectly into the Jesus archetype (which I do not think he was meant to be) I am curious as to which points in the plot you, Joe, do not think were answered. I will agree that the writers do not spoon feed the viewer with every answer, however you can find many of the answers through the motivations of the characters, which have been given through character development. For instance the meaning of the existence of the Others can be given through dialogue with Jacob and his brother. Jacob is trying to show his brother that people, with guidance (Richard), are good, and that with the smoke monster interfering, they are bad. This gives explanation as to why Jacob’s brother is not permitted to leave the island. Of course you may not agree with my interpretation of this aspect of the show, but that has always been the beauty of Lost, individual interpretations that you and your friends would reach. This is pure genius by the writers. You get to use the motives of the characters, known to the viewers by their full development throughout the scope of the show, to create the best explanation of the plot, thus filling in the “holes” in the plot that were not spoon fed to you.