Thursday, December 24, 2009

In prepartion for S6: The Question of LOST.

For me, as a writer, and as a viewer, LOST boils down to one question:

Are the writers attempting to subvert and dismantle weak and tired storytelling techniques in order to make the cognate (and necessary) philosophical points? (If the answer is that they are not, then they are merely replicating and perpetuating poor narrative devices and philosophic premises--and their show will prove to be popular pulp, not the art it has appeared to be thus far.)

Routinely, the character that I focus on as the answer to this question is Jack Shephard. Ayn Rand explains my point in her essay "What is Romanticism?":
This phenomenon--the fascinating villain or colorful rogue, who steals the story and the drama from the anemic hero--is prevalent in the history of Romantic literature, serious or popular, from top to bottom. It is, as if, under the dead crust of the altruist code officially adopted by mankind, an illicit subterranean were boiling chaotically and erupting once in awhile; forbidden to the hero, the fire of self-assertiveness burst forth from the apologetic ashes of a "villain."
It is important to note here that LOST has both the fascinating villain (Benjamin Linus) and the colorful rogue (James "Sawyer" Ford). Both characters have thus far been characterized by a self-assertiveness that Jack has shunned in favor of pleasing the will of others (most notably his father). Ben's weakest moment, that seemed to pull him from his pedestal of villainy on the show in favor of a yet unnamed and undefined "Mr. X" (or Smokey? But are they the same? Are the a duo? WTF, LOST?), occurred in the Season 5 finale and featured a stark lack of self-assertiveness on his part where he allowed his will to be subjugated to faux-Locke's ("Mr. X's"?). Likewise, Season 5 featured the first moment where Jack stood up for himself, as he refused to heal Harry Potter (mini-Ben). Still, though he admitted he fixed Ben the first time (Season 3) for Kate, he still subjugated his will to the island in that scene, right as we were in the middle of an arc that taught us Locke's subjugation to the island's will brought him death and the use of his visage as a pawn by "Mr. X."

That Jack has been anemic through the series run thus far is impossible to deny. He is an emotional basketcase who, when forced to accept moral responsibility for a choice he made turned to pills, alcohol, and suicide (see: "Through the Looking Glass"). I won't recite the laundry list here. Go watch the series. You'll see. However, in case you still disagree, here is the definition of anemic according to

1. Pathology. suffering from anemia.
2. lacking power, vigor, vitality, or colorfulness; listless; weak: an anemic effort; anemic tones.
Jack fans will, of course, point to his many decisions, medical procedures, and "displays of passion" (See: "Put it on me!") as examples of "power, vigor, and vitality." This incorrect definition is exactly what Rand is referring to in the above quote.

Which type of hero do you and, more importantly for our discussion here, the LOST writers prefer? Is it the self-assertive rationalist who is confident in his own mind thus making decisions on his own for himself or is it the weak-willed altruist who lacks self esteem so he turns to others for approval and indication as to how to choose?

I have tracked these themes not only through the show itself, but through its fan base. So far, I found sufficient evidence that the writers are playing with these themes intentionally (and not merely falling prey to them). In contrast, many LOST fans to this day believe that Jack is the ultimate hero of the show, and Sawyer will be "redeemed" through the altruistic act of laying his life down for others. We will all have the proof for arguments in a matters of months.


Ashley Lusk said...

I like your Ayn Rand reference here and I think your thoughts pose interesting questions as the new season starts. My biggest concern is that the ending will feel shallow (ie Sopranos and Harry Potter) or even worse, that it will become more about closing the gaping holes in the story arc and less about the denouement of the characters' individual plots.

Jayemel said...

Unfortunately, I haven't read Harry Potter or viewed the Sopranos, but I am familiar with the content of the endings you are referring to.

In regards to Harry Potter, the ending seems to be a cop out intended to satisfy Rowling's two concerns: the narrative imperative and the age of her audience. To satisfy the former, the Christ-savior-self-sacrifice arc, Harry had to die. To satisfy the latter, Harry couldn't die. His life was provided by the ultimate weakness of the series: Deus Ex Machina via magic. There are no real character arcs in Harry Potter. There are stories that just sort of happen and, not coincidentally, are destined to happen.

Likewise, the ending to the Sopranos was a load of post modern mumbo jumbo. "Our window into their life ended." A story, as art at least, is meant to highlight and exaggerate certain elements of life to say something. This purpose demands a conclusion, as an ending is a logical consequences of the causal events that the story is composed of. In other words, in order to answer the most important question ("Why is this story important?"), the end effects of the events must be shown. If not, the answer is "mere entertainment."

I'm not trying to say entertainment is a bad end in itself. Rather, I enjoy the Harry Potter movies and will surely enjoy The Sopranos when I ultimately view it (after The Wire, BSG, and other series). Hell, I own all the Stargate SG1 DVDs. However, entertainment is much more entertaining when it is more than "mere entertainment," when it is art.

What does all this explanation have to do with the ending of LOST? So far, the writers have been able to admirably appeal to both audiences: those who want "mere entertainment" and those who want art. They've largely been able to achieve this balance by putting off large reveals for later. For instance, Locke, an iconic role model for the weak and ostracized in S1, ultimately became no more than a tool, quite literally, in S5. Likewise, the ending of LOST necessitates that the writers choose a side, which also, unfortunately, necessitates the alienation of parts of their audience.

The scary thought is the easy way out that is readily available to them: "We didn't give you answers because it's up to you to decide." This ending would not only be destructive to the narrative, but hold the audience in contempt, for it ultimately translates to: "We think you're all too stupid to realize how we sat on the fence and conned you all. Thanks for the money, suckers."

Of course, with all the con men, con jobs, and twists through out the series, that may very well be the actual point.

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Jayemel said...

Thanks, anonymous. Of course, I also haven't posted much at all since last season.