meta-apophenia: how my estimation of Lost has fallen
So it occurs to me, at the end of season 2, episode 3 (“orientation:” in which Desmond tells the gang about punching in the numbers every 108 minutes to “save the world”), that perhaps the theme of Lost is apophenia – the insistence on finding patterns and meaning in random data. Hurley has it with The Numbers (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42); Jack has it with Desmond (whom he’d met before, briefly), Rousseau is swimming in it (it might explain “the whispering voices” – which could actually just be wind on leaves), and so’s Locke, who is especially vulnerable because he’s looking for meaning in his life: he’s apt to latch onto it anywhere he can.
And so the writers, knowing that apophenia is the theme, play with the boundaries of what’s accepted or rejected from the realm of the reasonable. Again and again they ask, is all this just a coincidence?
Fine. And the business of punching in the numbers now makes sense: it’s an essay on apophenia. And the pressure to obey instructions. The “saving the world” shtick is catnip to Locke – he can sit (ha! legs!) and Be Meaningful every hour and a half, babysitting some lunatic cult’s dead man’s switch.* But some bit of him is too smart, or insecure, for that: he needs Jack’s scepticism (not itself all that strong) like Hegel’s slave needs a master. And it’s perfect that he’s doing the bidding of some long dead weird cult from the hippie era. So we’ve got the key to the episode.
Unless my bit of interpretation here is itself apophenia, and they’re up to no such thing.
Because outside that interpretation, it’s also totally crap. It pretty much destroys Lost as any sort of credible, self-consistent world. It’s Olympic-class shark jumping. What you say? What about everything else? Yes and no: nothing else rubs your face in it like this does. Halfway through this episode my wife turned to me and said, “are they all dead? Is that what’s going on here?” And from one side I can see the writers doing unmentionable things in excitement at having prompted that sort of reaction, and on the other it strikes me that it’s really not a good thing if your audience is asking that. It means you’ve pushed them right up to the edge of their viewing attention, and they’re not going to stay there. They’re either going to have a revelation or fall off.
* One other possible explanation occurs to me: that Lost is an extended meditation on the stupidity and madness of institutional paranoia, and particularly of the Cold War. Why would you set up this ludicrous dead man’s switch over R’lyeh? Well, why would you load nuclear bombs onto a long-range bomber and fit it with an altitude-triggered dead man’s switch, thereby turning it potentially into a remote-control airburster capable of reaching anywhere on the planet’s surface? What could possibly go wrong?