The Unsolved Mysteries of “Unsolved Mysteries”

Lost_title_card_sm(Part 2 of 2) I fully expect that we will get some resolution to several important plot threads in Lost’s finale tonight, particularly matters that have been developed over the last season and Season 5’s finale: what “sideways world” is, what Desmond is up to, how MIB is going to be defeated, what happens to the remaining main characters, what Jack’s nuclear bomb explosion did, and perhaps more about what the Island is/does. The head writers have said that they don’t intend a Sopranos-style fade to black. Whether the resolution is fulfilling or not is a separate issue, but my guess is that I’ll like it.

But I also expect, just because there is limited time, that several key elements of the plot from past seasons are going to be simply dropped. I don’t mean comparatively trivial items like why Libby was in Hurley’s mental institution or where the polar bears came from. I mean crucial components of the plot from one or more seasons are going to get left behind like jettisoned cargo. Here’s my top 4.

1. The Dharma Initiative. The Dharma Initiative gave the writers the opportunity to insert an off-beat set of mysteries that kept Lost from becoming too dark and depressing—a mysterious group with a somewhat fun early-’70s vibe. But in addition to being one of Lost’s signature bits, the Dharma Initiative has also played a key, if mostly unseen, role in the series: their past activities have been shaping the Lost narrative since the end of Season 1, when the Lost characters opened the “hatch.” That hatch, and the discovery of several other similar facilities around the Island, drove the plot for several seasons (Season 2 was heavily promoted with, “What’s inside the hatch?”). In fact, the DI built most of the structures around the Island that the characters have been inhabiting for years—the Swan station, Hydra Island, New Otherton, etc. It appears that the members of the Dharma Initiative know an awful lot about the Island and its properties to invest so much energy in building structures (somewhat bizarre structures, some of which appeared designed to spy on other ones) all over the Island. They knew how to use the Island for time travel. They knew how to harness the energies of the Island and dissipate it in the Swan Station. And, as far as we know, they are the only group who ever figured out how to come and go from the Island whenever they wanted.

So they’re obviously crucial to the Island’s history and to the overall plot. It’s therefore somewhat ludicrous that six Lost characters spent three years with the Dharma Initiative in the 1970s (through the magic of time travel) and apparently learned diddly-squat about what they were up to. At this point, the DI looks like one massive dead end, an excuse for 1970s production design.

2. The Numbers. Another critical unifying theme in the Lost plot in Seasons 1 and 2 was the “numbers,” six numbers (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42) that not only brought some characters to the Island but also seemed critical to the Island itself, and the Dharma Initiative: typing them into the Swan Station computer prevented, as we later found out, catastrophe from occurring at an interval that was the sum of the six numbers (108 minutes). But after Season 2, the Numbers faded in significance, and I don’t expect we will hear any more about them. The writers made a less-than-half-hearted attempt to explain them earlier this season as basically Jacob’s shorthand for some of the main characters, an explanation which makes no in-world sense, since it is flatly inconsistent with the Numbers having been broadcast for decades before the Losties showed up and with their apparent significance in determining the outcome of physical events such as, e.g., the Swan Station. If the Dharma Initiative gave us only ’70s props, the Numbers gave the show a whiff of numerology.

3. The Others. The “Others” as they’ve been known for six seasons—even among themselves, apparently—established the crucial conflict of the show once mere survival was taken care of early in Season 1. And the show introduced them with a bang. They were frightening because they were oddly primitive (wearing only rags), superhuman (see early Ethan Rom), and fanatically committed to some unknown cause. Well, scratch that—in Season 2 it was revealed that they were just ordinary scientist-types who liked to play dress-up—a plot shift that can only be explained as the writers’ change of plans. But they were still fanatically committed to something, and that has been the most terrifying thing about them over the course of five seasons or so. The Others showed no hesitation before kidnapping, murdering, or committing suicide, all in the service of some unknown objective which they claimed was in fact a higher good. Whatever it was that was motivating the Others must have been something they witnessed or came to believe themselves—zealotry like that can’t arise from hearsay.

But we’ve never seen it. It can’t have been Jacob—the Others were following Ben without question, but Ben himself seems not to have been in contact with Jacob. And although Ben is a great character, nothing in the plot suggests that others would follow him on his own merits. And literally no one in the entire series seems to have had a deep understanding of what the Island is or does (except maybe the Dharma Initiative), so some sort of independent desire to protect the Island doesn’t appear to have driven the Others either.

Not only is the primary motivation for the Others’ behavior missing, so is almost everything else about them. And again this is after several main characters have spent quite a bit of in-world time with the Others. Season 4 was rife with talk of a war between various groups connected to the Island, led by Ben and Widmore. That’s been unceremoniously dropped over the side. It’s a bit as if Star Wars had Darth Vader and various stormtroopers wandering around doing things, but it was never suggested they were part of an Empire or even on the same side.

So the DI gives us the 1970s, the Numbers give us eau de numerology, and the Others give us a foil.

4. Children. Starting in Season 1, children seemed to have an oddly frightening significance to the Island. Walt and Aaron were both portrayed as special, but not necessarily in a friendly sort of way—Walt at times gave off vibes of “It’s a Good Life“, and a psychic freaked out over Aaron in utero. And the significance of children was further boosted when it was revealed, and became the basis for a large number of plot developments, that women were apparently unable to bear children conceived on the Island. None of that has been mentioned since Season 4, and again it’s dropped by the wayside.

The DI gave us VW buses, the Numbers gave us numerology lite, the Others gave us ambiguous bad guys, and children gave us a soupcon of The Omen.

Those aren’t just minor plot points. Next to the questions of whether Losties will get off/back on/back off the Island, whether the characters will ever be happy, and what the Island is, the four issues above drove the plot for large portions of Seasons 1-5. And they’re not just unresolved, but unacknowledged as the series winds up. The danger of piling mysteries on mysteries to maintain the suspense is that the older mysteries disappear under all that weight.

There is one conflict that was a prominent feature of the first four seasons that I think might get resolved tonight: and that’s the battle between Jack Shepherd and John Locke, the man of reason vs. the man of faith (a conflict that also underlay much of the character interaction in the X-Files, interestingly enough). Locke appears to be winning. We’ll see what the writers come up with soon enough.

*(OK, the title of this post is a bit obscure; it’s David Duchovny as Fox Mulder in the Simpsons making fun of the X-Files.)

[Cross-posted at Marquette University Law Faculty Blog.]