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Unraveling the Mysteries of "Lost"

Producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof reveal the show's biggest secret

April 9, 2009 11:30 AM ET

No other show on television delivers mystery in quite the same way as Lost, the ABC serial drama about people trying to escape an island that their fates seem bound to. For five seasons now (with a final one to come in 2010), the show has taken a straightforward dilemma — survivors of a plane crash in the South Pacific strive for rescue, while coping with one another, with furtive enemies and with their own hidden pasts — and infused it with uncommon themes of destiny and redemption and allusions to philosophy and literature, as well as with plot elements that are almost supernatural in the most impenetrable of ways.

Just as baffling for many, though, is how Lost's co-producers and main creative team, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, have chosen to tell this story. In its early seasons, the show moved back and forth between the strange life on the island — a place where a smoke monster (among other oddities) roams, where an indigenous population violently guards the land's strange powers — and the lives of the survivors before their plane fell from the sky, marooning them. Flashbacks, of course, are timeworn methods storytelling. But the way Cuse, Lindelof and Lost's other writers have used that mechanism — weaving intricate mosaics of how these people's histories inform the choices they make there — has amounted to something matchless and haunting. Some of these survivors have done terrible things: Kate Austen and Sawyer murdered for the sake of family members, and Sayid Jarrah tortured fellow Iraqis while in Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard. Others, such as Dr. Jack Shepard and John Locke (the show's central cipher), had their sense of purpose shattered by fathers who could never see beyond their own significance. These pasts helped bring Lost's characters to the island, and have informed their choices while there. "The real mystery about our show," says Cuse, "is not what is the island; it's who are these people? We've always approached it from that angle. That's what we are really untangling: Who are these people?"

Those answers are still coming (there's a lot of characters to keep track of — presently about 15), but in odder and more remarkable ways. In the final episode of Season Three, Cuse and Lindelof pulled off a trick that left viewers stunned and that opened up entirely different possibilities in the epic series. The background story showed Dr. Jack Shepard — the show's main character — lurching pathetically during a seriously depressed, drug and alcohol-riddled phase of his life, and contrasted that period to the present tense story, in which Shepard steers the survivors through the events of the brutal day that leads up to their long-awaited rescue. In the episode's closing moments, though, as the castaways await the helicopter that will bring them to deliverance, the scene cuts again to the background story, where we see a desolate Jack in a late night meeting with Kate at the L.A. Airport. Because Jack hadn't known Kate prior to the plane crash, it was suddenly clear that this wasn't a flashback at all, but rather from a future we didn't yet know anything about. In what may be the most powerful moment in the series so far, Jack tells Kate, in palpable agony, that they should never have left the island — that they have to go back for the sake of those they left behind.

It was a moment without equal in TV history, and it was also a crucial shift: Life on the island was now in fact the past story — three years past, it turns out. Some people made it off the island and others didn't, and misery rather than deliverance had followed for everybody. In between it all lay new mysteries, in which the true meanings of Lost remained hidden. Watching that scene, we realized we could never again imagine what might happen next. We did know, however, that we were in a realm of genius storytelling, unlike any risk that a mainstream series had taken before. While it would be nice to say that it's also the sort of transformation that opens up new potentials in TV's narrative form, no other shows have yet managed anything comparable (though some, like ABC's short-lived The Nine, have tried, and Heroes lurches every which way compellingly). It could be that Lost is a revolution unto itself, or just too radical and inventive to be easily emulated.

Even so, Damon Lindelof acknowledges a key influence on the show's storytelling. "The idea of approaching Lost in a non-linear fashion," he says, "and showing the audience bits and pieces of things out of order — especially this season — Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction was a game changer. When you went to see that movie for the first time, and you watched the narrative style of it, you see that you're starting with the story about a guy who takes a girl out for a date and she overdoses, then that guy gets shot in the next story, but is then remarkably alive again for the final act of the movie — it basically changes the entire way you perceive the story being told. By telling the story out of order, you're able to infuse it with this tremendous amount of thematic reality. You're not just doing it because it's cool."

The true turning point for Lost came in May 2007, when Cuse and Lindelof persuaded ABC to let them end the series with its sixth season. "Before that," says Cuse, "the problem was we had this mythology that we'd built but we didn't know if it had to last two seasons or nine seasons, and it was utterly paralyzing. We didn't know how fast we needed to dole out our storytelling." Actually, the problem might have been a little worse than that. "Over the course of the first three years," Lindelof adds, "the pervasive sort of thinking about the show — even if you were a fan of it — was, 'This show is going to fuck me. No offense, we love the show, but we don't trust you.' By negotiating the endpoint, and by ABC allowing us to do fewer episodes per season, it allowed us to make the storytelling a lot more intensive."

A key example of how they were about to step things up came that same month, in an episode entitled "The Man Behind the Curtain," when the enigmatic leader of the island's original inhabitants, Benjamin Linus, introduced Locke to Jacob — the man who holds all the island's secrets yet remains invisible to almost everybody. (Read Rolling Stone's Q&A with Michael Emerson, who plays Linus.) Unlike anything earlier in Lost, this spooky moment went beyond any naturalistic explanation. It was also a sign that, years into its life, Lost still dares to defy any easy meanings; that is, it's not afraid to give up its mysteries both slowly and suddenly, according to the creators' own designs and agenda. "We always had a plan that the sort of genre elements of the show would become more overt over time," says Cuse. "There's a sense of weirdness that existed right from the beginning of the series — a mysterious monster in the jungle, plus a polar bear on an island. We always felt we were interjecting elements that suggested that this was not a normal, real, scientifically grounded place. As you move downstream, the natural progression is for those sorts of elements to become more overt. It was just a question of when they could be revealed."

Cuse and Lindelof have said that, with the fourth and fifth seasons, they've reached a point in which the show is now answering more questions that it is raising. It doesn't always feel that way, though — in fact, anything solved only leads to more mystified territory. In recent episodes, not only have many of the events been out of proper time order, but time itself has been out of time order. The hoped-for rescue at the end of the third season turned out instead to be a killing party, meant to seize the island. In order to save it and everyone on it, Benjamin Linus (easily the most riveting and disturbing character on television in years) pulled off the wondrous coup of moving the island, hiding it almost wholly from detection. But that salvage came at a devastating cost: The effort unhinged the island not only in place but in time, and the remaining crash survivors (and a few other interlopers) found themselves hurling abruptly and painfully from one year or season to another, even to different eons that might include the future (and certainly include the ancient past), until some end up stuck in the year 1977, and others seemingly in 2007. Worse, this principal band of survivors, who were once compatriots, may now find themselves at deadly cross-purposes: The powers between them are now inverted, and their belief systems have swapped out. Even death's perpetuity has come undone — at least for some. (Benjamin Linus murdered John Locke in Los Angeles, for no seeming reason, yet now, back on the island, Locke is yet alive when Ben next meets him).

"The storytelling is now marrying the mysteries of the characters and the island," says Lindelof. "Why are these people intertwined with the island? Why them? I think the audience has always gotten a sense that Oceanic 815 did crash for a reason, and those people on that plane were brought to the island to do something. The audience has been buying that — they want to feel that this crash wasn't arbitrary. This is the shift we're moving into."

That still leaves a lot to reckon with. Whether Lost's characters ever leave the island or not, they still have to live with themselves — with the horrible things they've done, with the moral and emotional wreckage they've become, whether on an isle of miracles or not. Yet amid all the show's loss and darkness there runs a steady if uneasy current of hope: Some of these people have been looking for ways to atone, no matter the price. "The focus on redemption," says Cuse, "is something that is endlessly fascinating to both Damon and me — the fact that we are all sort of imperfect as people. Our characters are in extreme circumstances. They've confronted on the island various manifestations of the exact issues that they struggled with as people their whole lives. We feel there's an incredible universality to that. It's the human journey. Redemption is something that everyone seeks, and that's something we try to hold out in the show. If we acknowledge our imperfection, and if we ask for forgiveness for our imperfection, are we able to actually reset the clock?"

"There's a shift," Lindelof adds, "that started around the time we announced an end date, and that corresponded with the Obama campaign, towards faith. Carlton and I have made no secret of the fact that we're big Obama supporters, and we're very high on hope and change and optimism, and we hope the final seasons of the show will be infused with that idea. And we're seeing that reflected in the attitude of the viewers. People started to say, 'Maybe the show won't fuck me. Maybe if I believe in it, and change my thinking, I will get answers.'

"We have always known what the very end of this series will be," Lindelof continues. "We are going to present the audience with the empirical answers to these questions — the questions that we care about and that we feel are really important to understand in order to give the show the necessary closure. We will not be cutting to black as a Journey song plays. But as for the grander questions Lost raises — you know, does free will win out over destiny? — these sort of larger thematic questions can't be answered by a single show, and we certainly wouldn't have the hubris to try."

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