More than ten years since it began and more than five years since it ended, I have begun a grand revisitation of Lost. When I first began the show, I had just married and was still in school. I wasn’t much of a reader during my first encounter. I understood that many of the characters were named after philosophers, though I knew nothing of what those philosophers taught. I thought Lost a wholly remarkable show.
Seven years after watching my first episode, I have children and a career and a few of the troubles which come with age. I’ve read most of the philosophers whose names are borrowed by the characters in the show. I’ve also seen the fruit of Lost— shows that emerged in the new Golden Age of television, like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the latter of which certainly has a few claims on the title of Greatest Television Show of All Time. After all this, I’m finding Lost a far more intriguing affair the second time around.
I don’t watch TV shows the way that most people do, and I say that not as a point of pride, because in truth, I never have any idea what’s going on in the plot. I am lousy at finding themes and motifs, and when parallel story lines open up, I’m the last person to notice. The beauty and pathos of The Americans sometimes brings me to tears, and yet I am regularly asking my wife, “Who’s that guy? What’s going on? Where are they going?” I’m like a child walking in on the middle of a conversation. I really only ever notice two things in a television show. First, whether the writer likes the characters. Second, whether the writer thinks the audience is supposed to like the characters. The dynamics of character likableness are pretty much all I notice. I blame and credit my first viewing of Lost for this. Lost is a show about metaphysics and metaphysics is the search for the corner pieces of God’s puzzling love for man.
Knowing the end from the beginning, you’ll have to forgive Lost for a few things, though not so many as were commonly claimed after the season six finale. Most of Lost’s sins were committed in the first season, though the show was in its infancy then, and the sins of youth are the easiest to pardon. The first season is, to be honest, simply too unfocused and haphazard. Walt is not actually special. The love bestowed on Michael Dawson by Lindelof and Cuse in the first fifty episodes proves unfaithful. The secret of the show was guessed by viewers too early and then treacherously denied. These are, in my mind, rather tame flaws for a show with such ambition. I would argue that The Divine Comedy is the greatest moral theory of the last thousand years, not to mention my favorite work of poetry, and I say that even though after four reads, the Inferno has come to seem a nearly arbitrary and intolerable bore. Beside first season sins, there is also the matter of the final three episodes of the series, which are positively daffy, but like human bodies, most television shows fall apart in the end. A movie tends to follow the same arc as a short story, but a television show is more like a man’s entire life. It will be most vigorous towards the beginning, most accomplished in the middle, and often become quite difficult toward the end. Few artists endlessly improve with age. Even fine theologians and philosophers tend to falter after sixty. Perhaps God bestows the greatest intellectual brilliance on the body when it is most physically fit to enjoy it, for to be feted at seventy isn’t as much fun, I don’t imagine, as being feted at forty.
While some enjoyment of suspense is absent in a second viewing, I’ve found the first season makes far more sense with the whole matter of the island shored up. Regardless of the creator’s contrary insistence, by the conclusion of the series, it is obvious Lost is simply about a bunch of people stuck in Purgatory. It is Dante’s Purgatory they are stuck in, though, and Dante’s Purgatory is not so much the anteroom of heaven as it is a manner of interpreting the penitential, cruciform nature of all life on earth. The Lost island, like Mt. Purgatory, has a geographical location and its’ residents are continually confronted by their own vices while being given fresh opportunities to show forth virtue instead. In a certain sense, the island changes nothing. The same trials which beset the heroes while living beset them in death. But while the island changes nothing, it clarifies the nature of the struggle to be holy. The flashbacks which ground the episodes of the first several seasons don’t exist merely to develop the characters, for often enough the situations in the flashbacks restate what happens on the island. Rather, the flashbacks reveal the thought life of the characters while on the island. Shannon and Hurley might not seem like particularly self-reflective in their previous lives, but once they arrive on the island they begin pouring over their past sins. It is this self-reflectiveness which enables them to begin besting their vices. Slowly Jack’s pride is slowly polished away, as is Sawyer’s avarice and Charlie’s gluttony.
Of course, there is also the matter of the smoke monster, the hatch, Locke’s miraculous healing, the numbers, the appearance of the dead in visions and dreams, the Others, not to mention the fact that anyone survived the initial plane crash. Depending on how you look at it, all of these things or none of them is actually unpacked by the end of the show. While Lost probably hooked more than a few viewers into the second season on promises of a big reveal, I’d wager the audience would have stuck around even if they had been told, right after the season one finale, “Most of the mysterious stuff in the show is still going to be a mystery by the time the series is over.” In the same way, there’s not really an explanation for The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, any late Kubrick, really, or anything by Tarkovsky come to think of it. There are interpretations, to be sure, but interpretations rely upon intuitive and poetic knowledge, while explanations are reasonable. This side of paradise, no explanation of the smoke monster could possibly satisfy. The most rational, material explanation for the thing is that it’s some kind of machine. Or, on the other hand, it might be a demon. Neither of the extreme explanations is satisfying, though both are possible. I prefer the shadowy, sliding, slanted Jungian jungle between those bookends, though, and so does the mythmaking Lindelof. You can feel his frustration in the latter half of the series as he weakly attempts to satisfy audience demands for certainty. Early on, though, he’s a rich kid in a haunted, electromagnetic candy shop.
As I recall, the show climaxes toward the end of the third season, and while I’m burning through season two at a rate of three episodes a night, I’m not anxious to get anywhere in particular. I’m a little like Kate. I’ve got nothing waiting for me outside the island that I’m itching to get to.