The purpose of this blog is to propose a theoretical framework in which a discussion of Lost's mysteries can be embedded, in order that future students of Lost may better understand its workings, and how it has achieved its literary and dramatic purposes. I was inspired to do this after reading @Dretzle’s response to an earlier blog, and I have leaned heavily on his insights.
I do not suggest for one minute that what I propose below is definitive; indeed, the entire purpose of creating the blog is to invite comment, and to improve the categorisations. I fully understand that some people may think that such an activity is far too cerebral, too academic, and think such a venture completely insane. However, my personal take on this is that collectively, we are the most knowledgeable group of individuals (with respect to Lost) that there will ever be. If Lost turns out to have any value to future generations, then Lostpedia will be an invaluable resource for Academics and Scholars of early 21st Century dramatic fiction, and as such we owe it to posterity to leave them with more than just our ramblings, rants and ravings.
The Different ‘’Types’’ of Mystery
In what follows, the term ‘’mystery” is applied to any event, character quirk, behaviour or other phenomenon, which, on its first, and possibly subsequent appearances is ‘unexplained’ . No distinction has been made between mysteries which have already been solved, and those mysteries which may yet be solved, and mysteries which will be unsolved at the end of the show. Clearly there are going to be mysteries of different degrees; no one would rate the mystery about why Eloise Hawking appears in the photograph with the Abbot at Desmond’s monastery in the same league as the mystery about what the island is, or how it originated. Also, mysteries can be sustained for different lengths of time: some mysteries are cleared up during the next visitation of the scene (Jin in the fridge in the Flash-Sideways), while some, introduced early in Season 1 (such as The Numbers) are still unsolved in Season 6.
Mysteries used to create ‘atmosphere’
These are mysteries of many different types, such as the sudden appearance of rain, the whispers in the jungle, the appearance of the ‘others’ in rags, the menacing first appearance of Mr. Eko. These mysteries are ‘scene’ or ‘character’ enhancers, and are used specifically so that particular scenes, settings or characters appear either more meaningful or more mysterious than they actually are. Every episode is saturated with such mysteries, and some are unique to particular episodes (such as the meteor which killed Tricia Tanaka), and some are recurrent (such as the whispers)
If this type of mystery did not exist, there would be no overall change to the storyline or to the characters involved; however, it can be argued that without the constant use of this type of mystery, the whole notion of Lost would be different.
Mysteries concerning characters
These are mysteries about the origin of characters, what they know, and their relationship to other characters and their relevance to the overall storyline and its various subplots. These range from some pretty fundamental questions, such as when we first meet Eloise Hawking in Flashes Before Your Eyes, “Who exactly is Eloise, and how does she know what she appears to know?”, to questions such as “What are the rules that govern the Widmore/Linus relationship, and why do they exist?”, to the more trivial: “Has Hurley ‘’ever’’ had a girlfriend?”
If this type of mystery did not exist, then certainly character development would need to change considerably. One feature of the way that Lost presents its characters, is that they have what might be described as “curtailed inquisitiveness”. That is, when faced with mysteries, they do not seem to share the same kind of curiosity that hallmarks other human beings. For example, when Kate in Tabula Rasa offers to tell Jack about her background, we are all champing at the bit, to know exactly what Kate has done and why. However, Jack is satisfied to tell her that on the island, everyone gets a fresh start. The only way that these mysteries can be sustained is if the characters themselves do not share our voyeuristic tendencies, and as a result their personalities can sometimes seem ‘aloof’, ‘other worldly, ‘indifferent’ or ‘morally superior’ to normal humans.
These are mysteries which have served to drive the plot forward, and are responsible for key events occurring. To give two related examples here:
- The mechanics of, and the purpose behind the button-pressing is a mystery; however, when Desmond ‘’failed’’ to press the button in the Swan Hatch, Oceanic 815 Crashed.
- The ‘Incident’ described in the Swan Orientation video. This incident was the reason that the button-pressing regime was adopted in the first place.
These mysteries are essential to the plot, and they serve to drive the plot forward. This can be seen in the two examples above; without the ‘button pressing regime’, there would have been no button to ‘not press’, and so O815 would not have crashed. Likewise the existence of the button, depended upon the incident occurring.
These are overarching mysteries which set up the premises for specific scenes, groups of characters and entire sections (or even seasons) of the show. Examples of such mysteries are the finding of the Hatch in Season 1; the first appearance of the ‘tail end survivors’ in Season 2, and the nature and origin of the Flash-Sideways Timeline in Season 6.
Clearly, these mysteries are crucial and form huge plot elements. Their presentation ‘’as’’ mysteries however, need not have happened that way. It could have been revealed early on in Season 1 that there was a hatch, and that there was a man inside, and that he appeared to be alone, and what he was doing. The presentation ‘’as a mystery’’ here is simply to increase dramatic impact, when the reveal or partial reveal occurs.
These are mysteries which are fundamental to the entire structure and overarching narrative of Lost. The main one in this category is the Island, its properties, function and origin. However, there are others, such as why ‘daddy issues’ seem to pervade the character set, and what is the relationship between Jacob and MiB?
Without these mysteries, or at least without the elements which the mysteries are concerned, the show itself would either have not existed or have been radically different. If the island or the plane crash did not exist, then there would have been no show. If Jacob did not exist, then there would have been no plotline involving candidates, and no need to bring jack et al. To the island.
The Different Levels of Mystery
The level of a mystery is a reference to its ‘depth’ in terms of the complexity of explanation required, and/or the degree to which it underpins of the whole narrative structure of Lost.
Level 1 : Easily Explained Mysteries
These are mysteries which can be explained by “common sense”, “reflection on the story line” or simple coincidence, or an appeal to one of the show’s premises (e.g. fate). Examples of such mysteries are “What happened to the Outrigger stolen by the time-travelling Losties when they jumped from 2007 back to 1988?”; “How did MiB know exactly where and when to take Richard to meet the ‘time travelling’ Locke to give him the compass?” ; “How is it that Desmond met Libby at exactly the point at which he required a boat, when she had one to spare?”
Level 2: Explicable Mysteries
These are mysteries which on the surface defy an obvious common sense explanation, but nonetheless, within the constraints of Lost, appear to have an underlying cause. It is useful here to distinguish between three types of mystery:
- Level 2a: Mysteries for which characters appear to have knowledge and understanding, but which has not been imparted to the viewers. Examples of such mysteries are the workings of the machine used by Dogen, the functioning of the Lighthouse, and the nature of the Black Smoke.
- Level 2b: Mysteries which are recognised as such by characters in the storyline, as a feature of their world, and for which they acknowledge that they have no understanding. An example of this would be the pregnancy issue; the recovery of John Locke from paraplegia, and how the Smoke Monster can take the form of John Locke.
- Level 2c: Mysteries which are present in the storyline, but which appear on the surface to be accepted by the characters as “normal”; nonetheless, we as viewers are led to believe that an underlying reason must exist. A good example of this is the Flash-Sideways Timeline. The FS characters initially all believe that their world is “normal”. However, we as viewers know that this is not the case.
Level 3: Inexplicable Mysteries
These are Mysteries which are an essential part of ‘buying in’ to the story, have no real explanation, and do not pretend that such an explanation ever exists. Characters will not question the hows and the whys of such mysteries, and they will usually never be probed within the show. It is useful here to provide parallels such as the existence of ‘magic’ in Harry Potter, or the ‘Force’ as described in the first three Star Wars episodes. In Lost, we take some things ‘on trust’. The existence of pockets of “exotic matter” or “electromagnetic energy” on the island, which appear to be the source of all power, would seem here to be unanswerable questions.
There are however, less fundamental questions, which are also meant to go unanswered. When polar bears first appear, the main question that is asked is “What are bears doing on a tropical island?”; however, when it is revealed that the bears had been part of the Dharma experiments in the 1970s, no one bothers to query how is it that already adult polar bears could have survived in such apparent good health on a tropic island for 20 years, when their natural lifespan is 20-30 years , and their normal diet is ringed and bearded seals, and they need vast quantities of blubber to remain healthy. If an explanation were given for this, it would require the setting up of scenarios to explain where the bears lived, what were their sources of food, or the fact that their metabolism may have been changed during the DI Experiments. The point is here, that to answer this would require a complex and intricate set of explanations; we are asked to take on trust the fact that such an explanation can be provided, however within the confines of the show, it would be neither appropriate nor interesting to provide such an explanation.
The types and levels of mystery can cut sometimes across each other. For example, I see it being possible to have a universal mystery which is easily explainable: For example, if we are to accept the premise that the show concerns the twin themes of 'choice' versus 'fate' then this easily explains why there are two planes, one in each timeline which have an almost, but not exactly, identical set of passengers.
I am not proposing in this blog to discuss whether or not any or all of the above mysteries have been, will be, should be, or should not be, answered. My purpose here is to create distinct categories, which encompass all the mysteries, and which are clear and unambiguous. If you have any comments at all on this, please contribute.