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It's about time.
ABC re-aired the finale to Season 5 of Lost last night. The final season begins next Tuesday with a two-hour episode starting at 9 p.m. ET, following the traditional series-recap clip show. You probably either know this already or just don't care; while casual viewers of the program are rumored to still exist, at this point it's hard to imagine they outnumber the Oceanic 6.
Lost was one of the first things I wrote about on this blog. I'd thought it would become one of the things I wrote about most, aside from comics, but a few things happened to belie that expectation — chiefly lapses in 'Net accessibility, problems with Blogger, and so much great discussion over on Nik at Nite that the week between episodes flew by before I could cobble together a stand-alone post of my own insights. Maybe I'll be able to cover Lost regularly this season, maybe not, but I would like to throw out some ideas on the show's past, present, and future before the end begins, starting with a theory I formulated shortly after last season's finale first aired. If you're unfamiliar with the show, from here on in you'll unfortunately be... well, you know.
The white flash that we saw at the end of Season 5 pushed my — and millions of others' — mental mandibles into overdrive. Lost already had us chewing over the twisted time-travel taffy of whether the castaways who ventured into the past had always been there, if the lives they had lived in the (more-or-less) present of the show before the time "bloops" occurred were immutable, and how everyone would get back to the future.
Was that flash simply the result of Juliet's successful detonation of the hydrogen bomb in 1977?
Could the fact that the white flash resembled the previous effects signaling the turning of the Frozen Donkey Wheel, the time-skipping of those left behind, and, earlier, Desmond's fail-safe destruction of the electromagnetic lode in 2004 — despite the characters' description of the latter as resulting in a purple sky — mean that the bomb served as the catalyst that Jack hoped it might, based on Daniel's theories, destroying the lode and thus resulting in a timeline wherein there was no EM pulse to bring down Oceanic Flight 815 in the first place? (Whew.)
Was that flash instead either the Island or Jacob recalling our protagonists to his side at the moment of his apparent death, just as other passengers on Ajira Flight 316 saw Jack, Kate, Hurley, and Sayid disappear in blinding light before it crashed in 2007, sending the four thirty years back in time to reunite with Sawyer, Juliet, Miles, Jin, and Daniel?
I don't know if the answer to any of the above is yes. The characters themselves may not even have seen the white flash at all; perhaps it was merely the producers' way of telling viewers used to having episodes end with a pitch-black screen that things have fundamentally changed: Lost's ongoing juxtaposition of black and white, which dates back to Season 1 (and is but one of its many dichotomies) was, after all, reflected again when the Season 5 finale showed us both the oft-mentioned Jacob, fair-skinned and dressed in white, and his apparent opposite number — unnamed in the story but dark-haired and popularly referred to as the Man in Black, whom I took to calling Esau even though he and Jacob aren't likely meant to represent the Biblical brothers exactly. Until now the balance of power might have been in Esau's favor and, despite appearances, it could have just shifted to Jacob's. Of course, setting our cultural bias aside, we also don't know which color and therefore which man represents good and which evil, if those are even valid concepts to apply. The one thing of which I am fairly certain is that we've been set up for yet another expansion of a playing field that's grown season by season and that's about to get seriously vast.
What follows is not meant as a series recap, but it may help remind you of some of the show's more significant developments as I build a case for the tableau upon which Season 6 might well unfold.
Season 1 began with the crash of 815 on the Island in 2004 — in fact, on the very date the pilot episode aired. Jack's eye, in close-up, was the first thing we saw. The castaways lived on the beach and some explored their new home, which most hoped was temporary. The caves were discovered, Sayid met Rousseau during his self-exile, and Locke went hunting, finding both the airplane that we'd later learn was connected to Mr. Eko and a buried steel hatch that would soon give its name to the bunker below. We were also introduced to the Whispers, to the sounds of the Smoke Monster, and to the Numbers. Claire brought new life to the Island amidst much death when she delivered a baby boy.
At the end of the Season 1 finale, we finally got a glimpse of the Monster's wispy tendrils around Locke's ankles and made two surprising leaps of geography: off the Island, if not far, and under it. Michael's raft actually set sail with Walt, Jin, and Sawyer aboard, only to bring us face-to-face with the Others for the first time as they took "the boy"; meanwhile, Jack, Kate, and Locke peered down into darkness after successfully opening the Hatch (on which were printed those "cursed" Numbers, much to Hurley's dismay) — a major expansion of setting for Season 2.
Season 2's opener seemed to start with a flashback, but it was actually our introduction to the long-suffering Desmond, stuck in a time capsule. The so-called Hatch, a.k.a. the Dharma Initiative's Swan station, became central to the action; it let the castaways do laundry, stock food from the mysterious pallet drops, and, oh yeah, push a button every 108 minutes to purportedly save the world. As the very revelation of the DI and those fascinating videos offered a whole new dimension to the show's mythology, the cast of characters also grew to include not just Desmond but another group of Oceanic 815 survivors — the Tailies, including Eko, Ana Lucia, Libby, and Rose's husband Bernard — and the man ultimately revealed as Ben, leader of the Others. Season 2 ended with more new locations in the form of the Others' camp and, astoundingly, our first contemporary (i.e., non-flashback) glimpse beyond the Island as Penny was notified of the blip caused by the spike in electromagnetic energy that occurred when Desmond turned his fail-safe key.
Season 3 spent considerable time, to many viewers' and even producers' chagrin, with the Others and their captive castaways on the Next Island Over, home of the Hydra station. Perhaps its biggest expansion was in Desmond's consciousness, as the detonation of the EM lode seemed to give him limited clairvoyance after he experienced, rather literally, the flashback of his life. We also got the much-maligned introduction of Nikki and Paulo, shoehorned-in background characters who, like the Tailies, were supposed to add another perspective to day-to-day existence on the Island; the less charitable explanation is that, as with the time Jack, Kate, and Sawyer spent in New Otherton, the showrunners were treading water with the grand arc of the series since there was no indication of how much longer it would have to sustain itself on the air.
Once the Lost brain trust and network executives had worked out a plan to wrap the series up after three more seasons, the Season 3 finale delivered yet another game-changing reframing of the playing field: Just as we were taken down the Hatch in the closing moments of Season 1 and off the Island to Penny's monitoring station at the end of Season 2, what we thought was an increasingly puzzling flashback was revealed in Season 3's last lines of dialogue to be a flashforward.
Flashforwards became common in Season 4, which began the show's not-quite-symmetrical mirroring of itself. Juliet, Ben, and Richard of the enigmatic Others (each inducted into that society in a very different way, with Richard's origins still untold) were made major players in Season 3, and Season 4 brought new antagonists to the Island in the form of the Freighter Folk. It also revealed the Oceanic 6's off-Island lives after their return to the outside world — selectively, of course, much as their pasts had been revealed via meaningful if sometimes cryptic flashbacks — and its finale brought us right to where we'd been a year earlier, with Kate meeting a distraught, bearded Jack at the airport in 2007. While that episode aired in 2008, only about three months of on-Island action had transpired during the series' previous three seasons, so the baseline "present day" of the series was still 2004, making the flashforwards windows into the narrative if not the actual "future".
Viewers by now expected not just surprises but mind-bending twists from season finales, and Season 4's didn't let them down. Dharma stations had played significant roles in each since the Swan's destruction in the Season 2 finale — if not since the opening of its hatch door at the end of Season 1; the heartbreaking Season 3 capper had Charlie sacrificing his life to contact the outside world in the underwater Looking Glass station, and come the last hour of Season 4 Ben traveled far below the Orchid to turn the Frozen Donkey Wheel. Jack, Sun, Hurley, Sayid, Desmond, Frank, and Kate, with Claire's infant son Aaron, watched from a life-raft, having already been flown by Frank to the freighter that was "not Penny's boat" only to see it destroyed with Michael and apparently Jin still aboard, as the Island vanished in a flood of bright light. Luckily for them, Penny's boat showed up in short order, but Ben's actions, we learned in Season 5, set the castaways who were left behind — now including the misfit special-ops team of Miles, Daniel, and Charlotte — adrift in time.
Season 5's opener seemed to start with a flashback, and it did turn out to be set roughly three decades in the past, complete with the eerie sight of the Dharma Initiative at work filming an orientation video and constructing the Orchid, but the appearance of Daniel threw everything into question. Flashbacks and flashforwards took on new meaning as the "present-day" storyline bifurcated: One track followed the slow re-assemblage of the Oceanic 6 and their return to the Island, culminating in the crash of Ajira 316 at the Hydra facility in 2007; another followed those left behind as they jumped wildly through time until Locke set the Frozen Donkey Wheel right and settled Sawyer, Juliet, Miles, Daniel, and, separately, Jin, Rose, and Bernard in 1974 during the early days of the DI's Island occupation. The groups were partially reunited when a quartet from 316 was transported to 1977 as the Left Behind group's narrative in Dharmaville jumped ahead three years to intersect with theirs (somewhat controversially, it must be said; viewers had been clamoring to see the gang back together, but it was hard to process the bonds that had been formed among Sawyer's posse from 1974 to 1977 given that the three years elapsed in a blink for us, while as noted the previous three-plus years of the series had covered only that many months). Sun, Ben, Frank, and Locke's body remained in 2007, along with a new group led by the largely unknown Ilana. Richard, of course, was "everywhen" — although not, apparently, as some had theorized earlier, all at the same time. In another symmetrical bond, Season 5 climaxed with Juliet attempting to release the Island's electromagnetic energy by setting off that hydrogen-bomb core at the Swan's construction site in 1977, mirroring Desmond's actions at the Swan in 2004 in the finale of Season 2.
Each new season has brought substantial expansion of Lost's mythology, with bolder introduction of critical characters than is usually seen in series television. And it might have been enough that the cast expanded to include the Tailies in Season 2, the Others in Season 3, the Freighter Folk in Season 4, and the actual Dharma Initiative in Season 5. What I've tried to show neither too subtly nor with a sledgehammer, though, is how each new season annexed a new location and even a new dimension — with the final, thrilling moments of each finale often hinting at the wider vista of the season to come.
Season 1's exploration of the Island was largely topographical, but it went subterranean in Season 2 with its focus on the Hatch. Season 3 took us offshore to the neighboring Hydra station and eventually underwater to the Looking Glass, not to mention through Desmond's consciousness. Season 4 brought a new group of outsiders to the Island, but more importantly shifted from flashbacks to flashforwards, showing us not only what had happened in our castaways' lives but what would happen. Season 5 went one better and, with the ground softened by not just those authorial conceits but brief looks at some characters' nonlinear perceptions, brought us out-and-out time travel, plus simultaneous (or what passed for it, all things considered) action both on and off the Island. Now that Lost has progressed from roaming the length and width of the Island to exploring its depths and its surroundings to, finally, piercing the temporal veil, there's only one place left to go — and when I say the fifth dimension, I'm not talking about musical competition for Mama Cass, Geronimo Jackson, or Three Dog Night; I'm talking about alternate timelines.
Plenty of mysteries still exist that may be explained within the confines of the narrative to date; for real uncharted territory, however, we have to go beyond the world we've seen to what might have been or, in the hopes if not the beliefs of some characters, what should have been and could yet be. The introduction of Jacob in the flesh or something like it at the outset of Season 5's finale and the later revelation that the Man in Black has been masquerading as Locke were stunners, but that white flash is what was placed in the finale's very last moment, the spot occupied in previous seasons by our long look down into the darkness through the hatch, Penny on the telephone with her monitoring station, the shock of Jack's "back to the island" exhortation, and the camera pan to Locke in the coffin, each of which directly propelled the central plot of the season to come. Yet the flash frustratingly gave us the least information out of any of those scenes; it was a split-second showpiece with no indication even of whether it was a cause or merely an effect.
The time-tossed castaways have accepted death as an option given just the possibility that the bomb's detonation will result in a future with no electromagnetic lode on the Island to be regulated by the pushing of the button, and thus no failure to do so on Desmond's part that would result in the crash of Oceanic 815. Jack wants to save the passengers who died during or after that crash and perhaps even moreso to never have met Kate; Juliet is determined to similarly never have met and thus never have lost Sawyer, who with the reappearance of Kate is in her eyes no longer the James with whom she had built a life.
Why their projection of how an event in 1977 might change history is so narrowly focused on a single day in 2004 requires intervention from either film buff Hurley, common-sense Miles, or theoretical physicist Daniel (who admittedly got this ball rolling in the first place); Lost being Lost, with its strong theme of destiny and interconnectedness, it's entirely possible that Season 6 will indeed open with those same passengers on that same plane thirty years hence, regardless of what has transpired on the Island or in their own private lives in that time, but I'd like to see a third path rather than one of the two usually debated as the likely possibilities since that finale. Whether the castaways have caused the very Incident that led to 815's crash, and thus are playing out some ironic endless loop, or have pre-empted it and somehow changed the course of their lives merely from the moment of 815's flyby of the Island onward — instituting one heck of a paradox in doing so, by the way, since if they don't crash they won't end up in the position of detonating the bomb — is less interesting to me by far than the possibility that the detonation has ripped open the fabric of the multiverse so that various realities become visible to us and perhaps even intersect. Some fans have theorized that we've already seen alternate timelines in play, their evidence including but not necessarily limited to differences in dialogue and set dressing when flashbacks are revisited from different perspectives; frankly, we've seen continuity errors so egregious for a show that asks its viewers to pay such close attention to detail that the more nitpick-oriented might appreciate this being the case if only to explain such errors away.
Chances are good that much better ramblings on this topic than the above have popped up often and independently across the Interwebs, but I've been on hiatus from Lost lore for the past eight months outside of trying to keep up with Nikki Stafford's Rewatch. For all I know, spoilers have leaked that would shape, dispute, or even invalidate much of my observations, but part of the fun of this phenomenon is overthinking things, the only danger in doing so being that the paths chosen by the storytellers won't live up to one's own imagination.
Lost resumes next Tuesday, and it's about time. Actually, it's about time and space and maybe parallel dimensions too. Jacob told us that they're coming, and there might be more of them than we ever imagined.