So we’ve been looking at fate and free will for the past few weeks here, since when it comes to “Lost,” it’s a fairly inexhaustible topic. So far, we’ve focused on how these two often opposing forces work when applies to the various characters in the show. But today, I was to flip it around a bit and look at one of the predominant actions in the first half of Season 5: those fun time flashes that made Charlotte and Co. all bleedy.
Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse address the time flashes in their audio commentary for “Because You Left” on the Season 5 DVD thusly:
“It might feel like it’s a little ciffhanger-y that every time one of our characters is in mortal peril, the sky lights up. But in fact, that’s the Island’s design: the idea that our characters are not supposed to die. They are being brought to these periods in time to accomplish very specific goals…We tried to design each one of these scenes with great purpose.”
Now, you can look at that statement as after-the-fact justification for lazy writing. But I don’t think you can doubt the veracity of the above statement. You might not LIKE the statement, but they certainly seem to be telling the truth about their intentions with the flashes. So, assuming this is all true, then the Island acts as both guide and safeguard as these characters move through time. But what the heck does that mean, exactly?
Since the introduction of Jacob and The Man in Black on the scene, it’s increasingly difficult for us to understand what it means for “The Island” to exist as an independent agent. Do Jacob and TMIB sit below “The Island” in terms of power? Are they manifestations of it? How do we rectify a man making thread under Tawaret with a pocket of energy deep in the Island’s core?
Moreover, we have to rectify The Island’s apparently unseen eye watching over the Losties traveling through time with the fact that the very reason they are moving through time seems part of an elaborate long con. The purpose of turning the donkey wheel is to allow The Man in Black to find a loophole to kill Jacob. If The Island can stop Ethan Rom from killing John Locke in the aftermath of the Nigerian plane crash, why can’t it stop Ben from turning the donkey wheel in the first place?
As this point, we need to introduce something called “the observer effect” into the equation. The observer effect applies to a host of disciplines: technological, psychological, and physics-based. Essentially, it boils down to the idea that merely observing an effect inherently changes the object being observed. Even if you’re passively involved, removed entirely from the actions in front of you except for your eyeballs watching it, you have somehow changed the event you’re watching.
So, applying this to “Lost”: We have an independently thinking entity referred to by Darlton as “The Island” in their audio commentary observing the survivors of Oceanic 815 in the wake of their plane crash. In psychological terms, the observer effect notes that people behave differently if they know they are being watched. If you’ve ever seen a toddler seek out a cookie, you know this to be true.
Here’s the fun “Lost” relation to this phenomenon: Back in 1785, the real-life Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea of a prison called the “Panopticon,” a prison that would work on the basis that those inside would have no idea if they were under surveillance or not at any given time. The architectural structure would be such that all guards would be out of sight from the prisoner’s perspective, but the prisoner could never be sure when a guard was actually watching them.
The Island-as-Panopticon is a pretty cool theory, but I’d certainly not advocate anyone thinking it’s a one-to-one relationship. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to apply the psychology of Bentham’s ideal prison in terms of the Island’s unseen eye. It’s clear that some invisible hand is guiding events on the Island: Locke’s and Rose’s healing, the time flashes, the whispers, the satisfying deaths of Nikki and Paulo. (I kid. Sorta.) But there are just as many senseless things as well: the massive red-shirt death toll, the ability of The Oceanic 6 to leave the Island, and John Locke’s life arc.
The latter to me is particularly fascinating, and it brings us around full circle to the scene with Locke/Rom mentioned above. OK, it’s all well and good to say, “The Island didn’t want John Locke to die at the hands of Ethan Rom.” But … why not? Why does it actually matter? It only really matters to The Man in Black, since he needs Locke to go off-Island, die, and return in a casket in order to fulfill the loophole. So did The Man in Black cause the flash? Or did The Island know that The Man in Black wanted Locke to live, but then sent Jack and Co. to 1977 to fix things via the Incident?
Head spinning? Nose bleeding? I feel your pain. Before the year ends, we’ll look at just how far out you can go when trying to find a starting point from which this all started to spin. It’s a long, long way down. But we’ve got company. In the form of turtles. Don’t worry. It’ll all make sense. And if it doesn’t, well, our brains will all go bloop together. After all, if we can’t bloop together, we’re gonna die alone.
But coming next week: the “Six in Six” series makes its triumphant return! I’ll be dropping a week’s worth of prognostications about the final season for you. Should be a lively time.
In the meantime: what’s your take on the influence of the unseen eyes in “Lost” affecting the actions of those who find themselves upon its shores?
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Photo credit: ABC