Or, an English lit grad student finally catches up with the rest of the world and watches Lost. Finally.
Hi there — Emily here!
I’ve just started watching Lost for the first time — I’m halfway through the second season and have just met a suspiciously Baumian character named Henry Gale.
But Holy Tom Hanks’s Volleyball is this show fascinating! So, you know, nobody tell me what’s up with the polar bears, or whether they’ve all been dead the whole time.
As I’ve been watching, I keep being struck by just how well Lost works in conversation with Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the reason I’ve made that connection is that I was just teaching The Tempest, and there’re only so many times you can talk about people being marooned on an island before you start speculating about the possibilities of Prospero/Danielle Rousseau or Ariel/Smoke Monster crossover fics. The Lost writers’ room was famous for tucking in references to Western history and culture everywhere that they could, so it’s entirely possible that they knew exactly what they were doing. But whether or not they were intentionally setting up the parallel, the two texts echo each other in particularly resonant ways.
In both, you’ve got a shipwreck that looks like something between a freak accident and a natural disaster, but that turns out to have much more mystical overtones. After said accident, groups of survivors end up on an island, but the groups are separated and neither knows the other group survived the wreck. Each group then has to figure out how to survive in community on the island in the absence of any hope of rescue. The island, incidentally, is in a geographically vague space and is populated by spirits and arcane supernatural forces which pre-date whatever the human inhabitants are doing with magic and science and whatnot. Before the current groups got to the island, a pregnant woman arrived on the island, had her child, and then was separated from her baby. The memory of that pregnant woman now haunts the current groups as they set up their communities in contrast to the way that she had interacted with the island. The island becomes personified as a character, as the human survivors try to settle into this foreign environment. On a thematic level, of course, the island is a transformative (even liminal) space where — now separated from the social roles of their former lives — characters explore new identities and undergo character arcs. In this transformative space, then, characters become invested in issues of guilt and forgiveness, fate and human agency, identity and daddy issues, and a trifecta of fertility, reproduction, and hope for the future.
TL;DR on that last paragraph: I like Shakespeare plays lots, and I swear that Lost has a lot of the same preoccupations as The Tempest.
What’s so interesting about that intertext, though, is that The Tempest is a lot more about established power and proper social hierarchy than Lost seems to be. In The Tempest, Prospero’s the rightful duke — he’s been usurped, and now he’s screwing with people in order to manipulate them to get his dukedom back. Also, there are two parallel assassination/usurpation plots, but in both cases the rebels are shown to be morally corrupt and their threat is easily overcome. At the end of the play, the son of the rightful king marries the daughter of the rightful duke, and they promise to not have kids until they get married: the social structure is re-solidified, and they’ve got plans to have heirs and make the inheritance lines stable. While a postcolonial reading of The Tempest does trouble our reading of Prospero as a morally upright figure, the play remains really interested in how characters navigate within these relatively stable social hierarchies, even in the space of the island.
Now, I (obviously) haven’t finished Lost yet: it’s entirely possible that the show is going to wrap up with an equally stabilizing focus upon hierarchy and socio-political control and proper systems of inheritance. But regardless of where the show ends up, it seems important that Lost is spending so much time exploring the possibilities of social instability and uncertainty and power vacuums.
Yeah, Jack’s a kind of de facto leader, but his leadership is time and again contested by other morally (mostly) upright viable leaders: John Locke, Sawyer, and Sayid each look like they’ll be credible opponents to Jack’s leadership from time to time on the show. In fact, in one of the most recent episodes I’ve watched, “The Long Con,” Sawyer regains control of the guns and drawls “There’s a new sheriff in town, boys. Best get used to it.” Importantly, in the wake of that reversal, Kate’s more annoyed with Sawyer’s self-hating tendencies than she seems — or other characters seem — to be about Sawyer’s decision to undermine Jack’s authority. (It seems relevant to point out here that the writers’ room of Lost was interested in considering how the survivors would form a society in the absence of traditional authority figures: they had famously planned to kill off Jack — the educated, white, male doctor — in the pilot.)
As for other traditional figures of social hierarchy on the island, we’ve got a federal marshall, but he dies just after the pilot, and we’ve got a cop, but before we actually see that she’s a cop, we see Ana Lucia deal with traumatic stress and shoot an unarmed woman. Lost doesn’t have the kings and dukes of The Tempest: it has a group of people scrambling to put together some sort of functioning community in an unpredictable world.
It seems resonant that this is a show that was developed in a post-9/11 America. Hope for the future’s important, but everything’s a little bit more destabilized and uncertain than usual.
In a way, then, Lost has been reminding me of another famously ambitious, mythology-heavy speculative fiction show that premiered in 2004: the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. Taking place after a techno-organic attack has wiped out almost all of human civilization, Battlestar Galactica watches the remaining fragments of society try to stay alive, rebuild society, and retain their humanity all the while fighting against a seemingly omnipresent foe.
Battlestar Galactica, of course, has often been hailed as one of the great fictional meditations on the War on Terror. It’s a show about anxiety, violence, and a glimmer of hope for the future. (In addition to both having famously controversial finales, both Lost and Battlestar Galactica get very preoccupied with pregnancy, fertility, and the possibility of rebirth and renewal.)
In this early-oughts television landscape, writers found in speculative fiction a space to imagine society in the wake of horrible disaster — whether natural or human-made — and to project possibilities for its future. As Lost seems to reimagine The Tempest for the modern age, it presents a more uncertain island landscape: one in which we aren’t immediately assured (in I.ii) that Prospero’s got everything under control, but we still have to hope that things will work out for everyone.
I’m still in season two of Lost. I have no idea who the Man in Black is, or what Ben Linus has to do with anything — except for the fact that people seem to think that Michael Emerson’s a good actor. I’m fairly sure that Kate and Sawyer do hook up but don’t end up together, and I’m really not sure who manages to get off the island. But at the moment, at least, it’s a fascinating meditation on society, hope, and anxiety in the modern world.
So, if you similarly missed the boat on it, I highly recommend watching: regardless of your feelings on Shakespeare parallels, Michael Giacchino’s score is stunning, you guys, and Kate and Sawyer flirting in season two is kind of the best thing ever.