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LOST: 15 Years Later – We have to look back at the island

We have to look back! ...at the biggest network television show of the past two decades.

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On September 22, 2004, Oceanic Flight 815 disappeared between Sydney and LAX. Here at Stately Beat Manor, we’re also celebrating our 15th anniversary, and maybe that coincidence is what has us so nostalgic (we aren’t mistaking coincidence for fate). In the decade and a half since the pilot episode of LOST aired in 2004, the world may have changed – and frankly, we’re more ready to scream “we have to go back” than ever.

LOST
LOST

But we’re the survivors of Flight 815! 

The 108 characters that survived the crash of Oceanic 815 were not in for an easy ride. In LOST’s first season, the survivors encountered a mysterious monster, visions of dead relatives, and enough difficulties building society to fill a philosophy textbook. Each episode was presented from the perspective of a single character and structured around flashbacks to an event in that character’s personal history that took place before the plane crashed. As the island storyline unfolded in September 2004, a secondary character-based subplot, concerning the lives of the characters before the crash, unfolded concurrently over the course of each episode.

While the events that took place on the island were often fantastic or supernatural in nature, frequently involving the characters’ experiences as they encountered uncanny and inexplicable phenomena, the flashbacks of the first season frequently concerned more grounded stories.

The combination of island mystery and juicy character drama was irresistible, and it was all launched with a double-length pilot episode centering on the crash (at the time the most expensive pilot ever to be produced, thanks in part to the actual Lockheed L-1011 that was purchased and destroyed for the unforgettable scene that opens the series). Plus, each and every episode was accompanied by a full orchestral score by Michael Giacchino (who even integrated wreckage from the aforementioned plane into the orchestra’s percussion section) and the breathtaking natural beauty of the filming locations on Oahu.

Hurley's Golf Course on LOST
Hurley’s Golf Course

LOST arrived just as the era of online television discourse reached critical mass. The serialized narrative structure, cliffhanger episode endings, and mysterious subject matter sent viewers scurrying online to message boards in the wake of each episode, sharing clues and theories in an attempt to parse an ever-growing stack of question about the strange and fantastic island.

Part of what made the mysterious elements work so well was the amount of interconnection woven into the series, both inter- and intra-textually. While there were plenty of references to in-universe elements, such as characters making cameos in the background of other characters’ flashbacks and the omnipresent “numbers” (4 8 15 16 23 42), there were plenty of allusions to outside texts, as well.

In fact, the closer you looked, the more clues there seemed to be – and LOST didn’t discriminate when it came to the subjects for its allusions: fiction or history, comics or prose, fine art or film, The Brothers Karamazov or Carrie… anything was fair game. In a season two episode, for example, Sayid fixes a radio and picks up an FM transmission he says could be coming from anywhere (or any time, Hurley jokes): “Moonlight Serenade” by the Glen Miller Band. Glen Miller was a popular musician in the early 1940s who disappeared in a plane crash on December 15, 1944.

Ask me more questions about time travel

Pass the plate of Dharma-brand “special” brownies, because at the heart of the plot of LOST is a story about a time travel paradox.

In many instances of time travel in popular culture, traveling back in time affords the characters an opportunity to “change the past.” Whether it’s a single timeline (where the “present” can be altered by taking action and literally rewriting history, like Back to the Future) or travel to parallel timelines (where the characters can effectively travel to previous points in time without affecting the “present,” like Avengers: Endgame), most time travel stories allow the characters the agency to exert free will when they have managed to jump backward in history.

The LOST crew in season 4
The Oceanic survivors and the freighter folks in season 4.

 

Not so with LOST. While the characters didn’t experience 1977 until season five, the single-timeline of LOST means that they had already been on the island in the past when they “first arrived” on the island in 2004 in season one. Likewise, “the Incident” that made it necessary to press a button every 108 minutes to contain the electromagnetic energy under the Swan station had always been caused by Jack, Juliet, and the other 815 survivors. A failure to press this button is what resulted in the crash of Flight 815.

So who was responsible for the crash of Flight 815? The survivors of Flight 815, because of the actions they undertook thirty years in the past – but because the story is presented from the perspective of the survivors, the timeline of the events unfold as the characters perceive them, rather than chronologically (in other words, scenes set in 2004 are seen before scenes that take place in 1977).

Through the Looking Glass

One aspect of LOST that was only fully visible after the show had ended was the structure of the series. Reflected across the episode that concluded season three — “Through the Looking Glass,” the midpoint of the series – LOST‘s structure is a mirrored image (Get it? A looking glass is a mirror). While season three was about the survivors dealing with the people who were already on the island, season four is a reflection of this theme: the survivors become the people who were already on the island, and they must deal with the new arrivals from the freighter.

LOST survivors

The rest of the series is based on this mirrored structure, too: while season two was about the survivors dealing with the consequences left behind by the Dharma Initiative, in season five, they become members of the Dharma Initiative (and are responsible for the events that left those consequences). Finally, while season one was about who the survivors had been before their lives on the island, season six is about who the survivors were after their lives on the island – because the flash-sideways stories took place in a purgatory-world, it allows the characters to look back at their lives from the afterlife in the same way season one allowed them to look back at their lives before the crash from the vantage point of the island.

Once the mirrored structure of the series has been identified, it’s easy to pick out instances of reflection between the first three seasons and the last. Among many other possible examples: the implosion of the Swan station at the end of season two aligns with the detonation of the hydrogen bomb (named Jughead) at the conclusion of season five; the discovery of Shannon’s inhaler in the middle of season six reflects the season one episode where they survivors were thrown into chaos because they thought it had been stolen; the opening shot of the series is a reflection of the final shot.

The Legacy of LOST 

The series was not free from turbulence, both external and internal. External forces included family deaths forcing actors to leave the show and, during the fourth season, a writer’s strike that pushed the show into hiatus. And while the series generally took an ambitious approach to perspective, the last three seasons seemed unsure of how to deal with certain previously prominent characters like Kate Austin (Evangeline Lily) and Danielle Rousseau (Mira Furlan).

Reaction to the series finale was mixed, at best. Many assumed that a mind-bending twist would take place in the final episode, calling everything that had come before into question. Instead, the series affirmed that Jack’s attempt to change history by detonating Jughead was a failure since history dictated that he was supposed to cause the hydrogen bomb to explode, causing “the Incident” that necessitated the construction of the energy diffuser in the Swan station. The finale also revealed that the “flash-sideways” storyline that had been unfolding over the course of season six took place in the afterlife, which confused some viewers, who mistakenly believed that the entire narrative of the series had taken place after death.

But while LOST was far from perfect, its cultural footprint was large. After years of referencing the works of the master of horror, LOST was mentioned by two Stephen King novels: Duma Key and Under the Dome. The cover of Weezer’s album “Hurley” featured a photograph of Jorge Garcia, who played the eponymous character on the series. Tickets for Oceanic Airline flights (the variables filled with Hurley’s cursed numbers) have appeared in public demonstrations of Apple products and the Dharma Initiative logo appeared in the opening scenes of the J.J. Abrams-directed Cloverfield.

Charlie in LOST
NOT PENNY’S BOAT

Although some viewers abandoned the series along the way (many apparently giving up when fan-favorite Charlie, played by Dominic Monaghan, died at the end of season three), at the peak of its popularity, LOST was the ultimate water-cooler show. With a boat full of twists and a world so detailed you can get, well, lost in it, now might be the perfect time to leave the world behind and escape to the island once again.

LOST seasons one through six are currently available for streaming on Hulu.

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