With its super-powered island, shape-shifting smoke monster, and jungle-dwelling polar bears, the television show Lost is anything but realistic. Even so, that hasn't stopped millions of fans worldwide (me included) from spending spent six years caring about Lost's characters as if they really exist.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably been amazed at your commitment to this seemingly preposterous show. You've wondered why this particular group of fictional characters move you so much, why they resonate so deeply in your unconscious, lingering in your thoughts long after an episode ends.
Just what is it that makes us attach to Lost so strongly, as if what we're watching is real? Is it the vividness of the characters? The quality of the writing and acting? The complexity of the mythology? What is it?
I'd argue that it's all those things . . . plus something else. That "something else" is Lost’s biggest secret -- bigger than the secrets of the mysterious DHARMA Initiative, the reclusive Jacob, and, yes, bigger even than the secrets of the shape-shifting smoke monster.
The big secret
Lost's big secret is this: Lost feels real because Lost IS real.
Not real in the sense that the events on Lost really happened. Real in the sense that the events on Lost closely resemble events that really happened.
Take the crash, for instance. We all know that there was never really a plane crash on September 22 that thrust a group of castaways into a threatening world. But there was something very similar: Plane crashes on September 11 that thrust the population of America into a threatening world.
Remember the foreign-language distress call discovered after the crash, the one sent by Danielle? On Lost, there's a radical, rifle-carrying recluse known as Danielle Rousseau who, in April 1988, began sending out a call for assistance. In real-life, there was a radical, rifle-carrying, reclusive group of Islamic fundamentalists – later known as “Al Qaeda” – who, in April 1988, began sending out an ongoing call for assistance in waging a global jihad.
Think back to the castaways' journey through time at the start of Season Five. On Lost, a group of castaways travelled into the past to a place where flaming arrows rained down, tripwires detonated hidden explosives, rival communities threatened to break a fragile truce, and DHARMA began station-building. In real-life, groups of American soldiers traveled to a place trapped in the past – i.e. Iraq – where missiles rained down, tripwires detonated improvised explosive devices, rival religious factions threatened to start a civil war, and America began nation-building.
And let's not forget the cliffhanger finale to Season Five, in which the castaways try to create a new future by detonating a bomb. In that episode, castaway-leader Jack Shephard enacts a plan to release a surge of force from a US Army bomb, hoping it will counteract dangerous underground electromagnetic forces. In real-life, President George W. Bush released a surge of forces from the US Army, hoping it would counteract dangerous underground insurgent forces.
The crash on September 22 is like the attacks on September 11. Danielle's message from April 1988 is like Al Qaeda's message from April 1988. The castaways' journeying to the past is like the American troops journeying to the less-advanced nation of Iraq. Jack's surge of force from a US Army bomb is like President Bush's surge of forces from the US Army in 2007. The more you start connecting Lost to real-life events, the more you realize that the connections aren't coincidences, because a clear pattern starts to emerge. Episode by episode, scene by scene, line by line, Lost starts appearing to be a camouflaged version of a real-life story with which we are all at least somewhat familiar: The story of America after the attacks on September 11, 2001.
In other words, Lost isn't just a science-fiction drama, it's also an allegory -- an extended metaphor in which characters, objects, and events have symbolic meaning outside the story itself. When taken literally, Lost is the story of the survivors of a crash on September 11. But when viewed as a metaphor, the show becomes the story of post-9/11 America.
Every character is playing two roles
The parallels don't stop with the events on Lost. They extend to Lost's characters too. As it turns out, every character on Lost has a real-world counterpart, either a political figure, group, or concept.
Take the castaways' leader, Jack Shephard. The fictional character "Jack" started his leadership with a crash on September 22. He's haunted by his father’s ghost. He famously proclaimed, “We live together or we die alone.” In real-life, there was a very similar figure: a man named President George W. Bush who started his leadership just before the attacks on September 11, was haunted by his father's legacy, and famously proclaimed, "I'm a uniter, not a divider."
Now take a look at Sayid. The character "Sayid" conducts interrogations and covert operations, keeps a suspected enemy in a secret prison (in the Swan), and engages in torture. In real-life, an organization called The CIA (which sounds quite a bit like "Sayid") conducts interrogations and covert operations, keeps suspected terrorists in secret prisons, and engages in torture.
Even good old Hurley has a real-world counterpart. The character "Hurley" is large, wealthy, manages the community's emergency supplies, worries about the community's safety, was accused of instituting his own Patriot Act, and wears blue, green, yellow, orange, and red shirts. In real-life, Homeland Security -- a government department with the letters H-U-R-L-E-Y in its name -- is large, well-funded, manages the government's emergency supplies, worries about the nation's safety, has powers under the Patriot Act, and displays the colours blue, green, yellow, orange, and red in its threat advisory warnings. (Really, it's true -- Hurley's shirts reflect the colours of the Threat Advisory System. watch a few episodes and you'll see what I mean.)
Once you know what to look for, you discover that everyone on Lost is playing both themselves and someone or something related to post-9/11 American politics. Everyone major player is there, from American figures and institutions like President Bush (Jack), Dick Cheney (Richard), Colin Powell (Locke), and Congress (Kate), to international organizations like the United Nations (Naomi), and the governments of Iraq (Mr. Paik) and Iran (Charles Widmore).
DHARMA-cracies and democracies
The DHARMA Initiative has connections to reality as well. It may sound strange at first, but if you think of DHARMA in symbolic terms the real-world parallels start to become clear, particularly when you start thinking of the word "DHARMA-cracy" as a pun on the word "democracy."
Take DHARMA's origins, for instance. DHARMA was founded by a group of scientists who embarked on a grand experiment to create a DHARMA-cratic society. Those scientists are reminiscent of a real-life group of political scientists – known as America’s “Founding Fathers” – who embarked on a grand experiment experimented to create a democratic society.
DHARMA built a swan-emblemmed round room with a domed ceiling, in which the duties of the DHARMA Orientation Video were executed. In the real-world, America built an eagle-emblemmed Oval Office and Capitol Dome, under which the duties of the American Constitution were performed.
The DHARMA Orientation instructs participants that, to keep the DHARMA-cratic system functioning, they must press a button marked "Execute." The US Constitution instructs members of the government that, to keep America's democratic system functioning, they must "execute" certain duties.
And, of course, we mustn't forget DHARMA's mysterious numbers. On Lost, there's set of numerical values (4 8 15 16 23 42) that must be maintained to prevent the DHARMA system from imploding. In real-life, there are constitutional values that must be maintained to prevent America’s democratic system from collapsing.
Lindelof, Cuse, and Abrams are sneaky fellows
I've been watching Lost this way for the past four years, and over that time I've only become more convinced that the show is indeed a political allegory. But you don't have to take just my word for it -- you can take the word of the show-runners themselves: Damon Lindelof, Carlton Cuse, and J.J. Abrams. That trio is forever dropping hints about Lost's underlying political meaning, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to prove they knew what they were doing all along.
Listen to Lindelof and Cuse's podcasts and DVD commentaries and you'll see what I mean. You'll notice how the pair "accidentally" lapses into politics-related tangents, like when, in the podcastfrom May 11, 2007, a discussion of the DHARMA "purge" suddenly turns into a retelling of the American Revolution:
LINDELOF: Like, for example, when the Redcoats sort of came over and started trying to keep the Colonists in line, the Colonists started attacking and attacking and attacking and attacking and gradually they began to sort of build up a militia and the next thing you know there was a full on revolution. So we sort of showed you a key… Wake up, Carlton.
CUSE: I didn’t realize we were doing American History here. By the way, when you get to like the Civil War, I’d like you to wake me back up.
That "wake me up" bit -- that's play-acting, that is. Don't for a second believe that Carlton Cuse isn't interested in American history. He majored in American History at Harvard. Trust me, he's interested. That little exchange wasn't accidental -- it was a calculated and deliberate hint to the listener that the events of Lost have parallels in American history.
They pair get up to it again in the Season Four DVD extra "The World of the Others," when they have this conversation:
CUSE: Alpert is the consigliere to the leader and as such, plays a very important role in influencing the events of the Others lives.
LINDELOF: He's sort of the Dick Cheney of the island. That is to say he was kind of in power over Bush Senior and now instead he has no aspirations to be the president of island himself.
Again, the crafty duo of Cuse and Lindelof is hinting that American politics is relevant to Lost. But this time they must have been feeling pretty confident, because they just came right out and gave away a character's symbolism. Because Richard Alpert isn't just "sort of" the Dick Cheney of the island -- he's exactly the Dick Cheney of the island.
Executive Producer and show-creator J.J. Abrams drops his fair share of hints, too. In a recent interview about his hit film Star Trek, Abrams -- a big fan of magicians -- performs a little sleight of hand of his own. Read the following quote and, now that you know what you're listening for, you'll realize that Abrams isn't just talking about a sequel to Star Trek, he's also talking about the "hidden machinery" driving Lost's allegory.
ABRAMS: It needs to do what [the late 'Trek' creator Gene] Roddenberry did so well, which is allegory. It needs to tell a story that has connection to what is familiar and what is relevant. It also needs to tell it in a spectacular way that hides the machinery and in a primarily entertaining and hopefully moving story. There needs to be relevance, yes, and that doesn't mean it should be pretentious. If there are simple truths -- truths connected to what we live -- that elevates any story -- that's true with any story."
More recently, the show-runners put a great big hint on the news-board of their "Lost University" website. Look at how this article directly compares fictional events in Lost's world to events in the real-world (in this case, the Boston Tea Party and, indirectly, the current "Tea Party" movement).
Radical Protest Reminiscent of Another TimeDozens of people donning Polar Bear costumes descended upon Lake Jughead at the center of campus last night and dumped over 40 cases of Dharma beer in a scene straight out of 1773. Although instead of protesting unfair taxation, this group calling themselves 'Polar Bears for Justice' wanted to speak out against what they considered unfair business practices. "We just couldn't stand by while a single corporation provided all food and beverages on campus," said Melony Pendel, the group's spokesperson. "Having the Dharma Initiative as LU's exclusive vendor is driving up prices for students who can barely afford to eat in the first place!" University faculty has scheduled an emergency meeting to discuss this situation.
And of course, the show-runners have hidden allegory-related clues within the show itself. For example, think back to the second hour of the pilot episode, to the scene in in which Sawyer argues with Sayid. Listen how Sawyer, a conman, reveals the nature of the con that Lost has been running on us.
SAWYER: Fine! I'm the criminal. You're the terrorist. We can all play a part. [He turns to Shannon] Who do you want to be?
Way back then, in the second hour of our six-year journey, Sawyer came right out and told us how Lost really works. Everyone on the show IS playing a part -- a part in a metaphorical recreation of American politics.
There are literary clues as well, hinting at the literary techniques Lost is using to tell its allegorical tale. Think back to the opening moments of Season Three, to Juliet's book club. Arguing over the merits of the book Juliet selected, Adam and Amelia have the following exchange.
ADAM: It's not even literature. It's popcorn.
AMELIA: And why isn't it literature, Adam? I'm dying to know.
ADAM: There's no metaphor. It's by-the-numbers religious hocum-pocum.
AMELIA: No metaphor?
ADAM: It's science-fiction -- now I know why Ben isn't here.
Here, the show-runners are tipping us off the the fact that Lost isn't just science-fiction or by-the-numbers religious hocum-pocum, it's something that Adam would enjoy: an extended metaphor.
The literary works highlighted on the show are clues too. Like Lost, many of them are allegories. The books Watership Down, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, and Animal Farm are all political allegories. The Chronicles of Narnia and A Wrinkle in Time are religious allegories. Lord of the Flies is a political, religious, and psychological allegory.
There are hints everywhere, and the show-runners want us to find them. Lindelof, Cuse, and Abrams are renowned for the secrecy they've applied to Lost. But if you listen closely, you realize the trio aren't the locked-boxes they pretend to be. They're more like excited magicians whispering to the audience, "Don't tell anyone, but I've got a rabbit hidden in my hat."
The Dorothy Gale experience
There are many, many more clues I could tell you about, but the best way for me to make my case is to explain the metaphors and let you experience the allegory for yourself. But before I start telling you who-represents-who and what-represents-what, permit me to mention my favourite clue of all.
It comes at the end of Season Three, hidden in the titles of the three-part finale. The episode titles -- "There's No Place Like Home," parts one, two, and three -- are a reference to a pivotal line from The Wizard of Oz. Its the line that, when repeated over and over -- "There's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home" -- whisks Dorothy Gale from Oz and back to her home in Kansas. Once home, Dorothy opens her eyes, sees her loved ones at her bedside, and suddenly realizes what should have been obvious all along: the people she met in the fantasy world of Oz look just like her friends and neighbours from the real-world.
That's the experience that the makers of Lost want us to have, too. Like Dorothy repeating the words "There's no place like home," we can say the titles of those three episodes -- "There's No Place Like Home (Part One)","There's No Place Like Home (Part Two)", "There's No Place Like Home (Part Three)" -- and have our eyes opened to the similarities between the fantasy world of Lost and the real-world in which we live. One day, in the hopes of the makers of Lost, we viewers will have a Dorothy-Gale-experience of our own.
Of cours, I have no knowledge of why the makers of Lost would want us to have this experience. I don't know just what it is they hope will happen once we start experiencing the show as a political allegory. But what I do know is how I've been personally affected by this experience. I've gone from someone almost wholly disinterested in politics to someone who can't get enough of it. I've gone from having a bookshelf full of fiction to a bookshelf overflowing with political biographies, history books, and psychological texts. I've gone from someone who started watching Lost thinking he was watching a gripping but frivolous piece of entertainment to someone who now feels more intensely engaged with current events, with issues of geopolitics, with matters of psychology, and with my own political views. And, over the past four years of running this site, I've built up a small but committed group of readers who keep me enthusiastic and on my toes. Much to my surprise, this seemingly unrealistic show has ended up enriching my real life, and for that I'm very grateful.
While I don't have any grand ambitions for this site, I'm hoping that, in my small way, I can repay the debt I owe to the makers of Lost. If I can assist you, the viewer, in having your own Dorothy-Gale-experience, if I can be that kind of catalyst, then I'll feel I've done my part.
But enough about me. Let's talk about Lost. First, let's take a look at the characters and who they might represent ...