LOST: Refracting the War on Terror

In the month or so away from blogging that I took while dealing with mental illness, I have been distracting myself by re-watching the ABC show LOST on Netflix. Not only did it help keep me sane, but it also provided some interesting material to mull over politically.

LOST interests me politically because there are, at least on the surface, some definite progressive aspects. Its ensemble cast is not dominated by white Americans as are nearly all casts on TV. There are at least three black characters who get considerable facetime, along with Asians, Arabs and two Chicanos. Two characters, the couple Jin Soo-Kwon and Sun Paik (Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim), stand out because for the first couple seasons, their dialogue and flashbacks are almost exclusively in Korean, with English subtitles. I don’t know of any other TV show in the US that has done this. Even characters who would have no business knowing it seem to speak in English on American television.

Of course, watching it the second time did not reproduce the aura of mystery and psychological depth I believed the show had when it was on the air – forgive me, but I was in high school at the time. Nor could I stop myself from remembering the crushing disappointment of the show’s final season as I made my way through the others, which are pretty decent as American TV goes, anyway.

An actually somewhat accurate portrayal of LOST’s last three seasons.

But the problem with the sixth and final season of LOST, I believe, has its origins in the earlier seasons. The writers had conjured up so many storylines including time travel, pseudo-Catholic mysticism, and so on that they were unable to piece them together coherently. Some of these storylines were enticing, but others, such as the story of Jacob and the Man in Black which occupies most of the last season, are just kind of weird and fall flat. I think this is an opinion which would match that of the average, non-obsessed viewer.

While we’re on the subject, I don’t plan to deal with any of LOST’s considerable mythology including the Numbers, Alvar Hanso, etc. These for the most part don’t interest me. I doubt that they serve any real role in advancing the plot besides giving the world a bit more depth – a worthy goal, but it becomes a liability when the inevitable questions about, for example, the huge stature of the Egyptian god Tawaret, go unanswered.

So we face the question of why the earlier seasons of the show are so compelling. I believe the answer lies in the realm of politics. I have written earlier about Homeland and 24, two American TV shows which reproduce the politics of the war on terror in a fairly straightforward manner. I propose that LOST, like these shows, reflects the ideology of empire, but in a refracted manner. How this is the case, I will attempt to demonstrate – though readers who haven’t seen the show might want to be careful, as this will involve the spoiling of most of the plot.

LOST begins with the crash of a plane traveling from Sydney to Los Angeles on September 18, 2004. The date is significant: it is likely that all Americans of about my age or older will form a more or less automatic association between plane crashes and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Hence, LOST begins by recalling the national trauma of 9/11 – and, as we will see, proceeds on the path set by the American state afterwards.

The first three seasons of LOST detail the conflict between the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815 and the natives of the island, a group consistently referred to as “the Others.” The show is at its best in these seasons when it taps into the existential dread the survivors feel. Having crashed on an unfamiliar island, they are faced with a native population that chooses to conceal itself except when they raid the survivors’ camps to take prisoners. They are superior to the survivors in skills, knowledge and resources, and do not particularly care for others taking over even a part of their island.

If you haven’t seen the show, imagine this guy giving the speech. Pretty scary, right?

One of the best scenes in the show is a rare face-to-face encounter with Tom, a representative of the Others. “Tell me, when you go into a man’s house for the first time, do you take off your shoes, do you put your feet up on his coffee table, eat food that doesn’t belong to you, open the door to rooms you have no business opening?” he says to a party of survivors who have trespassed on the Others’ territory. “This is not your island. This is our island. And the only reason you’re living on it is because we let you live on it” (2.11, “The Hunting Party.”)

It would probably be banal to point out that LOST was made during, and takes place during the occupation of Iraq. But this background is one the show cannot escape from. The survivors have crashed in the midst of a land and people they do not understand, nor do they particularly care to understand them. The dread they feel about the Others is a reflection of the dread of the American people in the years immediately following 9/11. We were told that America was indisputably in charge and that our country could never be threatened, but we suddenly found ourselves in a world become strange and frightening, where America is threatened by terror at home and bogged down and humiliated in never-ending wars and occupations overseas. The very designation of the island’s native people as “Others” captures very well the insanely paranoid, us-versus-them mentality of the early Bush years in the U.S.

The show, in my view, taps into this collective neurosis best when it does not approach the Others too closely. Once we get to Season 3 and see them up close, and begin to get some idea about their origins, the air of mystery is dispelled. This takes away precisely what is most terrifying about them: the unknown, which, I believe, is what made the first two seasons so compelling. Jacob, the smoke monster, the lists of survivors they kidnap, Richard Alpert, the man who doesn’t age, and so on, are terrifying because we don’t know anything about them except for a hint here and there. They point at something important about the native society that, we suspect, is much more powerful than anything the survivors (representing we Americans) have going for them. When we know Jacob only as the hidden leader-deity of the Others, only referred to as “a great man… but not a merciful man” (Ben Linus in 2.18, “Dave,”) a menacing presence never fully revealed, we are enticed and terrified. But once we know that Jacob is a spirit who has kept his brother, the smoke monster, from leaving the island and destroying the human race, well – it just ain’t that scary anymore.

Apparently the closest they could get to a menacing Iraqi Muslim torturer was Naveen Andrews, an Anglo-Indian?

Interestingly, the show has at least one character whose presence alludes to the show’s political context. I mean Sayid Jarrah (Naveen Andrews), who is a former soldier in the Iraqi Republican Guard. Sayid is interesting because he may be the first Arab and Muslim character on American TV portrayed sympathetically after 9/11. One can detect a definite political ambivalence in his personal history: though he serves as a torturer in Sadaam Hussein’s Iraq, he only learned this skill from Americans while in captivity during the First Gulf War. Once on the island, he uses his expertise to great success in the war against the Others, becoming perhaps the main hawk of the survivors in contrast to doves like John Locke (Terry O’Quinn). Though he is dealt with gently for the most part, however, his status as the survivors’ torturer and war hawk in my mind reinforce the prevailing stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims as savages, fanatics, terrorists.

The show’s treatment of torture is an interesting facet of LOST – it seems that the question of torture is the third rail of American TV, since all shows that have anything to do with politics try to deal with it and all of them that I have seen have failed to say anything remotely insightful about its use. LOST takes the approach of many liberal imperialists – that torture is nasty and regrettable, but may be necessary since the Others/terrorists/brown people are shifty, dishonest and only understand the use of force. One of the important aspects of Sayid as a character is that since he is the group’s designated torturer, it happens at a step removed from the more rational and civilized Anglos who make up the bulk of the survivors.

Season 5 extends the ambivalence shown earlier in the show to the American imperial project. In this season, a group of survivors including Jin, the con man Sawyer (Josh Holloway) and the unlucky lottery winner and comic relief Hurley (Jorge Garcia) have ended up by a confusing chain of events on the same island in 1973. The season fleshes out the history of the Dharma Initiative, which is best understood as sort of a clearinghouse for scientific research on the unique properties of the island combined with an experiment in communal living. The Dharma Initiative had previously been hinted at, but only as an obscure part of the island’s past, an idealized folksy community of researchers living happily together and sharing everything in common in Buddhist principles.

I still think the orientation video is one of the coolest parts of the early seasons.

Seeing them up close takes the veneer away. Though the leaders of the Initiative on the island cling tight to the hippie-style ideology, which apparently involves saying “Namaste” a lot and wearing flower necklaces, this does not extend to their relations with the Island’s native inhabitants, here referred to as “Hostiles.” The Dharma Initiative is perfectly ready to deal with the Hostiles in typical colonial fashion, which includes all the classics: taking their land, killing them, torturing them for information and conducting scientific experiments on them. Just like the survivors of the first season, they arrive on an island that is not theirs, they do not understand the native inhabitants and don’t care to. Their brutal demise at the hands of a disaffected Initiative member, Ben Linus (Michael Emerson) using poison gas on his father and friends, serves as a terrifying warning to Americans who are in the business of occupying others’ land.

For all this, however, the show’s political message is one of imperialist reconstruction and consolation. No matter what the Others, the sinister businessman Charles Widmore, or the Man in Black throw at the survivors, they maintain. They are clever, strong and resourceful despite their few numbers. Some of the methods they use are questionable, they are affected as much as anyone by hubris and arrogance, and more than a few of them die along the way. But we understand them and we relate to them – there would hardly be a point to the extensive use of individual character flashbacks if they didn’t serve to establish this connection. We know that in the end, we can count on them to prevail – and that is something I think we should question.

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