Thursday, June 03, 2010

LOST: A Tale of Two Drafts

After days of conversations with everyone from internet people to people on the streets, this is where I stand on the subject of LOST.

The internet seems to have split into two camps about LOST: people who wanted to mysteries explained, and people who really liked the final message that it was the people who mattered so forget about all the mysteries. I think the camps are limited. One camp says that if you hated the end of LOST you will hate 2001 but love the Phantom Menace (because The Phantom Menace "explains" the force). But I do not think either of those are fair comparisons. I did not want the mysteries of Lost "explained" -- I wanted them unified, related to one another. Still mysterious, but connected. 2001 has some very mysterious scenes but it only asks me to accept one: the obelisk appears at moments of major cosmic evolution, and the movie shows us one from the distant past, and one from the near future. The willing suspension of disbelief works awesome for the obelisk, but when I am asked to accept many unconnected mysteries I find this harder to do, if you are claiming you are telling one story. One of the many mysteries on LOST was the ghosts, but even that "one" mystery turned out to be several: some ghosts were actual ghosts, some where a shapeshifter impersonating the dead, some were maybe psychic projections of the living or something like bi-location (Shannon seeing Walt covered in water on the island when he was captured by the others at the same time elsewhere), some were hallucinations (like Hurley seeing his friend from the institute), and some remain inscrutable ("taller Walt" meeting Locke and the end of season 3 -- can't be the Man in Black because he can only take the form of the dead, can't be a ghost because Walt is alive, it is hard to see how it could actually be Walt projecting himself psychically from far away or something, and to say it was a part of Locke's subconscious seems like a stretch).

The people who agree with the creators that the characters have to be the main thing are right; this is a principle of screenwriting. But equally important to screenwriting is the resolution of implicit promises to the audience (that, say, the statue had something to do with the weirdness elsewhere on the island). And frankly, it was actors like Terry O'Quinn and Michael Emerson that made the characters compelling. Juliet's sudden change of heart about the bomb at the end of season 5, very convenient for the writers but not especially compelling from her point of view, hardly suggests that they are taking character as seriously as they claim, though they are not without some tremendous ones. The characters are great at times, but no one is going to confuse this with The Wire, where everyone in the first four seasons is a fully realized human being, and never a device for a writer's agenda.

So how to make sense of LOST. Here is what I think happened. Not a ton of evidence, but it explains a lot of what I wanted explained.

LOST started out as a show about a plane that crashed. Everyone on the plane died. The characters on "the island" were actually in the kind of purgatory that we would later see a version of in the "Alt U" of season 6, except the island, rather than the mainland, was the purgatory. But like they said in Season 6, the dead are all connected and created this place -- the island -- in part out of their subconscious, a place where they had to work things out before they died. This is why when Walt reads about a polar bear one appears -- because the place they are in is a creation of the mind, a collective dream world. This is why children are taken by the others -- because they are innocent and have nothing to work out, they can go straight to the afterlife. This is why the others can take people like the tailies with supernatural force -- because they are supernatural in nature. This is why even though the Others kill people they keep saying they are the "good guys" -- because in the larger scheme, they are. This is why children cannot be born if they are conceived on island -- because this is a place of the dead, not a place for new life. This is why people are healed -- because it is a spiritual place of second chances, and physical limitation has no place here. This is why the island cannot be just accidentally "found," or easily left. Getting to the island is like getting to Hades. The smoke monster, like the Others, is some important force for sorting out people who need to go wherever they need to go. To destroy some, and leave others, still working things out, be (which is why it leaves Locke alone early on). This is why Christian's body is not in the casket in season 1 -- he was dead already at the time of the crash. This is why in the early seasons people "die" (read: move on) when the have worked out their issues, the issues from the past we see in flashback. This is in fact the point of the flashback structure -- to show us what they have to work through on the island. This place has been put together not only by the castaways but also by previous inhabitants. The Dharma station could be the remnant of a group of scientists who died in some kind of science disaster similar to "the incident" and have since moved on to the upper levels of the afterlife. The statue could be the remnant of some much earlier culture who died, who marked the place as the land of the dead with an Egyptian statue. They statue may simply be like the statues that mark the underworld, the products of gods or something.

Lost became a huge hit, a bigger hit than anyone could have predicted. And the fans were obsessive and rabid, and loved to theorize. And the "purgatory" explanation was the explanation that a lot of people landed on. And it was rejected by a lot of other fans as super-lame, because it is frankly, just a notch away from "it was all a dream." And at the end of season 2 or the beginning of season 3 the writers freaked out. They did not want to disappoint this awesome fan base. And they changed the story -- the overall story of the show as a whole. The writers, who said the cages were a metaphor for their lack of direction, worked out, at that point in the show, the deal with ABC for the exact number of episodes till THE END. And that is when they cemented the change. The island, in this new draft, was no longer any kind of purgatory. It was a real island with a lot of weird magic stuff. This invigorated the story hugely, because things that were off the table were suddenly on. And as fans we could feel the new energy. People could find the island without being dead themselves, like the people on the freighter, and the castaways could return to LA for 3 years, then have to come back. Jacob was introduced in the back half of season 3, and became a focus, and the smoke monster became the Man in Black. Some elements of the earlier draft stayed in, like John Locke confronting his father in season 3. In retrospect the Others just went off island and kidnapped him, but I feel like in the first incarnation, he had to confront his father before moving on, just as Jack has to reconcile with his at the end. And notice how JJ Abrams distances himself from the project after it gets started -- the island as purgatory idea was his, I think, and as they moved away from it, he moved away from it.

The creators always said they knew the end at the beginning and after the finale aired they said that was the ending they always had in mind. And I believe them. I think they always envisioned the show ending with Jack's dad taking them all into the upper levels of the afterlife. I just think they initially envisioned this happening from the purgatory of the island, not some Alt U that looked like it was created as the result of the atomic bomb. Two things to notice here.

First, the nuclear bomb they were all standing next to when it went off effectively did nothing, except safely transport everyone into the present day (Juliet was already dying at the time she hit the bomb). Of all the crazy things on the island this is one of the most crazy. I had a hard time understanding what the point of everyone being transported to the 70s was at all. Sawyer and Hurley and that group got stuck there. I assume Jacob sent Jack and Kate etc to join them. But then it seemed like he knew they were all coming back with the bomb together. It fits the idea of the castaways needing to be together for travel that comes up more than once in the show, I guess, but this does not seem like enough. It seemed like the point of the 70s bit was it could have been at the origin on Ben's knowledge of the candidates (THEY were the ones who wrote detailed files on THEMSELVES that the Others had), it seemed important that the group Ben kidnapped at the end of season 2 was the group he knew as a kid (but no -- he forgot all about them), it seemed like we would learn some Dharma secrets, about its origins or something -- but again, no, nothing. It turned out the real reason for everyone to be in the 70s was to create the red herring of the Alt U with the bomb. We start Season 6 thinking we know what the Alt U is, which means we don't question it as people questioned the nature of the island in the first two seasons. And because we don't question its basic nature we don't anticipate, as we did back in the early days of the island, the rug-pull reveal at the end that it is purgatory. The same purgatory the the island was supposed to be in the first draft. This is why season 5 was the weakest LOST season (though I did really like Sawyer and Juliet) -- because, for all their talk about character, it existed solely as a device to wrangle back in the ending that had been abandoned years ago.

Second, and I feel like I have not heard explanation of this one at all -- isn't it strange that the purgatory of the "Alt U" is pretty much heaven? Why does anyone need to remember the island if they are all doing to well, living so happily? Why would anyone need to move on from the already happy lives they have? It is very strange that the Alt U gives us a character arc that takes our heroes on a journey from very happy to blissfully happy. In a big story we expect more change (e.g. Jack goes from being a man of science to a man of faith). It is also very strange that Sayid kills people in this purgatorial realm and still gets to move on with the others. It is very strange that Keamey is there. And it is very strange that Jack so unceremoniously leaves behind a son that was just an illusion. This seems to me to be a remnant of a draft where characters would have gone various directions, after having been tested -- on the island. Some people complained that too much time was spent in the "Alt U," especially before the Desmond episode, but the real problem may have been that it was a years long idea compressed into the subplot of a single season. It was why the final minutes felt a bit clunky -- like the first few episodes of Dollhouse, it is the clunkiness of the writer who is starting a story and does not quite have a handle on everything yet. Because that is exactly what it is. It was written long before they figured out what works and what does not work on this show.

The alternative is to believe that Walt reading about a polar bear and a polar bear appearing is a coincidence. The alternative is to believe that the statue of Taweret (goddess of childbirth) has nothing to do with whatever causes children not to be born (as a result of "The Incident" in the 70s -- an important plot point never explained and more importantly never fixed by the castaways). The alternative is to believe that it is a concidence that someone like Walt who can project like a ghost (?) is brought to an island of ghosts, where there is also a guy who can for an unrelated reason, appear as the dead. It's not that you can't do this -- Warren Ellis's theme on Planetary was "it's a strange world, let's keep it that way." This is exactly what Lost implies the point of the mysteries have been -- these are things that just HAPPEN in the world; whatever happens, happens: psychics, and ghosts, and electromagnetic energy and shapeshifters all that. The world is a weird place. Deal with it. People who liked this theme, I can understand the appeal, but I want those people to understand why it makes me a little crazy. What bugs me is not so much that this is the theme, but that it seems clear to me that this is a much more recently tacked on theme. And the way the show is designed and structured -- because we do not realize the island in all its unconnected madness was simply REAL until a few minutes before the end -- we have no chance to decompress this theme. So it could work theoretically, but the two drafts work against each other the most right here. because they try to slam together two completely different endings into the final 15 minutes. They can sort of pull it off because they are switching between two universes, but they also just don't have time to do both justice.

I still think LOST is the single greatest collection of act breaks (go-to-commerical, go-to-credits, and end-for-the-season scenes) in the history of anything, was able to tell any story they wanted from week to week (let's fix a van, hunt boar, time travel, see ghosts, or do a version of Xena or Alfred Hitchcock presents), and had Michael Emerson and Terry O'Quinn, and stories about Desmond, and these things will make always make it one of my very favorite shows. And while I think something in the concept was fundamentally broken, I also don't wish the original vision had played itself out, because we never would have had Ben Linus become such a huge character, or have the shock of that first flash-forward, or have Desmond realize he is going to wake everyone up, any number of other kickass things. So they only way it gets to be the LOST we know and love is like this. Which means I can't really complain about it -- because if any of my complains were addressed, we would lose something that made the show great, and I would not trade the great moments for anything -- cause my god they were AWESOME.

(A lot of this post comes out of conversations with people in real life and in the comments. Thanks to everyone for helping me work all this out.)


Matt Jacobson (formerly Ultimate Matt) said...

Well said, you picked apart why the finale didn't work much better than I did. My initial reactions to it - and my explanations to people as to why it didn't work - were very much knee-jerk reactions to the suddenly very religious ending, which missed the larger point of how the whole plot sort of broke down. But I agree with almost everything you said.

James said...

"Second, and I feel like I have not heard explanation of this one at all -- isn't it strange that the purgatory of the "Alt U" is pretty much heaven?"

2-parter gets into it pretty good. Required reading, I think.

S.P.O said...

Very interesting article. I think it really put a lot of things in perspective. I liked the finale quite a bit but also understand the frustrations of some who wanted more answers (for some reason the Russian guy who wouldn't die is one of the things amidst all the bigger questions that still stands out in my mind. How did he keep coming back??), but overall I was satisfied. I like the idea that show is still so engageable. I found I couldn't stop thinking about the finale after it was done and now I'm planning to rewatch the series again. Also, as a Stephen King fan, I think the end of the Dark Tower series had mentally prepared me to deal with conclusions to epic stories that don't always end the way we think they will.

Andrew said...

I disagree with the idea that the 5th Season was the weakest. I think it worked great as the final season. At the end of season 5, they denote the bomb and prevent the plane from ever crashing. None of the mysteries are explained because none of the characters had any real investment in uncovering them (in my opinion, this is what would really happen in most "it's about the characters" situations, which is why shows with mysteries need characters who want to solve mysteries, not just characters who want to live). They were a group of strangers who crashed on an island and wanted to get on with their lives.

Dylan said...

I think you pretty much nailed it with the script-flipping somewhere in the back half of season 2, with the first half of season 3 (up to the dreadful "Stranger In A Strange Land," which is when that season really turns around and comes into focus) being the wheel-spinning while the plans got redrawn. In fact, I'd say the introduction of Dickens' Our Mutual Friend as Desmond's novel of choice is sort of a wink toward the "making it up as we go along from here on out," point.

And I'm perfectly okay with that.

TV is a messy medium, especially network TV. I mean, the messier parts of season 2: Walt having to leave because the actor playing him hit puberty and Ana Lucia/Libby being dispatched so offhandedly because of DUI charges were both story changes due to reality colliding with the plans of fiction. And the wheel-spinning in season 3 is very much indicative of ABC wanting to milk the hit for all that they can.

If this had been a novel or a film (or even a comic book) and this kind of on-the-fly storytelling had occurred, I'd be less permissive, but as it stands, "Forget it Jake, it's TV." I'm pretty satisfied with Lost as a whole, but then again, I've never seen Lost as a mystery as some others have.

Would I have liked another season to wrap things up a little cleaner? Sure, but I think when all is said and done, this one will read better as a trade, to borrow a phrase.

Doug said...

I would go as far to say that not only did the nuclear bomb do nothing, it did not go off as they thought it did. The hatch still exists in the future and there is no sign of a nuclear blast.

Dylan said...

The nuke did something. It caused "the Incident" and required the EM energy to be vented every 108 minutes. Which means that in a way, they are to blame for Oceanic 815 crashing.

Patrick said...

I love this theory, and I think it makes a lot of sense with the way the show developed. But, I do have a few issues, most notably your characterization of the fifth season.

To me, the fifth season is by far the show's strongest because it's the only one that doesn't have a structure designed to make a third of every episode feel irrelevant to everything else that's happening. The fact that forward momentum is being made in both the present day and the time travel eras makes the show so much more exciting and dense.

The thing about the flashbacks or alt-verse story that I rarely see discussed is that even if those stories worked really well on their own terms, they very rarely gained anything from their juxtaposition with the island story. So, you wound up with two stories fighting against each other in each episode, killing the momentum of the other.

I think that reaches an apex in the series finale, where we're on the one hand told that everything that happened on the island is real and expected to engage with the end of a six season journey even as all the emotional weight of the episode is placed in the newly created alt-verse, turning the resolution of the actual island story into an afterthought.

But, I do think the 70s storyline was fantastic, the series' high point, not because of a larger cosmological significance, but because it was just such an exciting environment and so fun to explore. I also think that contrary to what the creators say, character development and plot development can co-exist, and that's best expressed through the Juliet/Sawyer relationship, or the subtle growth of Miles and Jin. "La Fleur" has so much skillful character work, it makes the sledgehammer approach of the finale look like a total failure.

But, I do agree that the atom bomb stuff wasn't really followed up, and the interaction with young Ben is a perfect opportunity to create a loop that explains some of the stranger things in his character, like why he got captured in the first place, and even play in an interesting way with destiny. If he knows he'll grow up to be bad, how does that affect his behavior in the present.

Ultimately, I think the great omission of the recent publicity campaign to declare that the show was "always about the characters" is that, as you say, it ignores basic writing rules. It's perhaps best summed up in the character of Eloise Hawking, who exists as an exposition delivery machine traveling across space and time. The mysteries of genre writing don't excuse deus ex machina, and that seems to the creators' approach. Why should you care about plot holes when everybody ends up in heaven anyway?

Teebore said...

Great analysis! We're definitely sharing some of the same feelings and frustrations.

I did not want the mysteries of Lost "explained" -- I wanted them unified, related to one another. Still mysterious, but connected.

Exactly! It's not that EVERYTHING needs to be answered, it's that everything at least needs to come together as part of one cohesive story.

But equally important to screenwriting is the resolution of implicit promises to the audience (that, say, the statue had something to do with the weirdness elsewhere on the island).


People who liked this theme, I can understand the appeal, but I want those people to understand why it makes me a little crazy. What bugs me is not so much that this is the theme, but that it seems clear to me that this is a much more recently tacked on theme.

While I don't begrudge anyone there opinions, I share the desire to make them understand WHY I'm frustrated.

And this whole "character first", "the mysteries aren't important" rhetoric feels VERY tacked on, like they suddenly realized they were writing checks they couldn't cash and started damage control. And that irks me to no end as well, since I believed them when they said "it'll all fit together in the end."

I also don't wish the original vision had played itself out, because we never would have had Ben Linus become such a huge character, or have the shock of that first flash-forward, or have Desmond realize he is going to wake everyone up, any number of other kickass things.

Agreed, again.

And thank YOU for helping me work some of this out.

neilshyminsky said...

I'm surprised by all the season five love. While it definitely picked up speed with the Locke-centric episode and got a whole lot better after that, I felt the entire time like I was just waiting for them to get back to the present. An entire season of waiting for them to escape the 70s.

And I'm still not clear on why they ended up there in the first place. (Aside from 'The Incident!') For a show that tried to convince us it was character-driven, they sure went to a lot of trouble to do a mythology-driven season. (And still manage to not provide us with a whole lot of the mythology, strangely...)

Teebore said...

@neilsyminsky: I'm surprised by all the season five love.

For me, what I liked about season five was the time travel stuff and the development of Sawyer's relationships, with both Juliet, Miles and Jin.

That said, it definitely bogs down a bit for me between the time Jack, Kate etc. arrive in the 70s and Daniel returns.

And I'll definitely agree that it remains unclear why they were sent to the 70s in the first place (but that just joins a frustratingly long list of unresolved, unconnected storylines) and that the show ignored a HUGE opportunity to more thoroughly explore the mythology, which was frustrating then and even more frustrating now.

So it's by no means a perfect season (but then, sadly, what is?), but one that, in a vacuum, I personally enjoy.

Bluecode13 said...

The only problem i have with the purgatory theme is, how could john Locke be on the flight in the first place if Jacob had not brought him back to life. John was killed by his father when he was thrown out the window. Jacob revived him but he was paralyzed afterword. If the island wasn't real and was just a Purgatory before moving on to heaven then Johns 4 years of paralyzed life before the island was all a Purgatory as well that he had to suffer through before he even reached the island. This leads me to believe the island was a real place and not just a purgatory because John would never have been on flight 815 if Jacob had not revived him

indy42 said...

This article was written by a man who cannot let go of his dear Purgatory theory.

1) JJ Abrams left the show early in Season 1, and returned to write the premiere of Season 3, which, according to this article, is when the switch was made from purgatory. JJ Abrams was part of the destroying of his own concept?

2) This article has circular logic: Because the author himself believes that it was always purgatory, then he basically assumes a bunch of plot points were hints to purgatory when they could just as easily been hints towards something completely different. The Island where Good and Evil battle, maybe?

3) Penny finds the Island at the end of Season 2. So it couldn't have changed any later than then.

4) Walt reads about a bird and then it crashes into his window. In Flashback. That wasn't the magical dream island, that was Walt. Point moot.

James said...

Bluecode13: It wasn't established that Jacob revived Locke until very late in the show.

indy42: Well, no. It was written by a man who (if I may) is looking for answers to his dissatisfaction with how the series ended up.

re 3) One of the compelling things about the "purgatory" theory (and remember that's just shorthand - we're not really talking about Purgatory in the theoretical abandoned ending OR the actual epilogue to the show) to me is that it might have been an actual, physical place. Like the Asgard of Norse Myth, it is a place where magic/sci-fi happens, but it's in this dimension, over there, just over the rainbow bridge.

James said...

Jeff "Doc" Jensen has part one of more piping-hot Lost theories for your face and brains.