On the face of it, the television show “Lost” is about a group of plane crash survivors who live on a mysterious island.
Below the surface, like a forgotten Dharma hatch, exists a show that’s about so much more. There’s a monster made of smoke that slithers its way around the island. There’s a hostile war between the survivors and a group of “others.” There are mysterious underground and underwater stations that hold answers to the island’s secrets. The survivors trek across the island and even make it back home before they have to go back to the island. There’s a battle between light and dark, good and evil.
And yes, there are numbers.
“Lost” is one of the defining television shows of the modern age. Experts pinpoint it as one of the first times a major television program embraced the serialized model, meaning that viewers needed to watch every episode to understand what the show was about. This is a familiar concept in 2020 where nearly every noteworthy show comes with somewhere between seven and 16 episodes per season that all tell one, cohesive story.
But “Lost” — like so many other game-changing epics — faced a fair share of criticism for its ending. No ending will satisfy everyone. We know that. Just look to “Game of Thrones” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” as examples of how critics and fans feel about endings. “Lost” tends to be mentioned among the programs that got its ending wrong.
The show, for the most part, was considered a show of questions. Mystery boxes galore, questions abound. The show asked so many questions that, in the end, many say were never answered.
Over the last month — since social distancing began amid the coronavirus pandemic — I’ve rewatched every single episode of “Lost.” For me, “Lost” is a comfort show, which is something experts suggest we embrace during this troubling time. But “Lost” is also a story with a lot of questions, a lot of unknowns and — maybe more importantly — a lack of answers.
So does a show like “Lost” help us understand and cope with pandemics?
‘Lost’ was a show of questions — just like 2020
Since its inception, “Lost” was always a show of questions. How did characters like Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Sawyer (Josh Holloway) and Hurley (Jorge Garcia) survive a plane crash? How did an ancient sailboat wash up to the middle of the island? Why is there a polar bear on an island in the South Pacific? What is the smoke monster? Will survivors ever get off the island? What will the world look like?
Slowly, more mysteries began to unfurl in the show. Numbers — 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42 — popped up everywhere and immediately began another round of questions. What do the numbers mean? Why do they show up everywhere? What are the numbers about?
All this happened as questions about purpose and destiny rose up, too. The philosophical core of the show, John Locke (Terry O’Quinn), promoted the idea of fate and destiny. The survivors landed there for a reason, he said. They were supposed to be there to fulfill their destiny.
These questions are the same ones we’re asking today. How did we end up in a pandemic? What does our future hold? What will the world look like when we’re done? Will social distancing end? What does coronavirus feel like? What does COVID-19 look like? How did a virus travel around the world?
And, like Locke, we wonder about our destiny. What does our future look like after social distancing ends? Will we have the same job? Will the purposes we had still exist?
Science fiction shows are good examples of this.
Science fiction films and television shows offer an escape, but sometimes it’s limited in how helpful it can be, according to Don Schechter, professor of the practice in film and media studies at Tufts University.
Science fiction can dive into issues “like pandemics and global catastrophes and things like that in a much more scary way than what’s going on in real life,” he said. We can see moments played out on screen that mirror our own lives.
That’s why there’s been an uptick in viewing of movies like “Contagion,” which saw a viral surge after the pandemic began to spread.
However, television shows and movies often solve the answers within an hour or two. The answers to the scientific problems continue on. Life goes on, Schechter said. And sometimes there are still questions we can’t answer, unlike heroes in a science fiction show.
“When in the situation we’re at now, which is sort of like an unclear and a much longer time frame, maybe it’s not so comforting,” Schechter said.
“Lost” — unlike those shows and movies — never really solved all the questions.
The ending of ‘Lost’
As the final season neared, fans of “Lost” wanted answers. Six seasons of time travel, gun fights and beach sunset stares needed to end, and the fans wanted to know everything they could.
To its credit, “Lost” did its best to answer many of the lingering questions. For example, the show revealed the identities of two skeletons on the island — deemed “Adam and Eve” on the show, the two skeletons were revealed to be the Man in Black and his mother — and the location of Shannon’s missing inhaler (it was near the cave where they lived in the first season).
Many of the answered questions were moments of fan service. Little nods to those who stuck it out along the way. These smaller questions weren’t answers to bigger mysteries, but they were answers regardless.
But it was the bigger answers that didn’t come. Fans still bemoan that the show never revealed the truth about the numbers. No one knew what the purpose of those numbers were. You could argue that they were used to identify each of the candidates to replace Jacob, the protector of the island, but that’s not a strong argument.
Like “Lost,” we may receive the smaller answers in our world, but we’ll lack the bigger ones. For example, we might learn when we’ll return to our jobs. Yet we don’t exactly know what it’ll look like. Sure, we may get answers about Disneyland reopening in 2021. But we won’t know about the temperature check plan.
No matter what we learn, we may never learn what the ultimate outcome will be until we experience it. We don’t know if we’ll get coronavirus at Disneyland until we got to Disneyland and see.
“Lost” was a search for answers. It was a show that raised plenty of questions, several of which went unanswered. But it’s an example of what we’re going through right now. We’re going through a time of unanswered questions and high mysteries. We don’t know what our future holds.
But like many of the characters on the show, all we can do is take a leap of faith and see where it brings us.