One of my favorite American novels of the last 30 years is John Crowley's Little, Big, a book that straddles the line between realistic fiction and genre fiction, between the mundane and the miraculous. Briefly, it's the tale of a large, rambling family in upstate New York who seem curiously devoted to a strange belief system that they refuse to spell out in its entirety for either their baffled new son-in-law or his son (the two point-of-view characters). The reader gradually grows aware of just what's going on inside the giant home, Edgewood (a house with its own secrets), but everything fantastical is kept just off the page, as it were, until the climax, which seems more like a post-apocalyptic phantasmagoria than anything else. It is, above all else, a story about faith. About people in thrall to a force beyond their power that they're not even sure they can understand or control. It contains some of the most beautiful writing I've ever encountered. And it reminds me a lot of Lost.
I suppose the same could be said of a lot of genre fiction. Fans turn to a lot of it with a sort of religious fervor, I think, because it provides that sense of being overwhelmed by mystery that we lack so often in our less spiritual age. When, 500 years ago, our ancestors needed to explain the world around them, they had science and the like, yes, but they also had folk wisdom. Mythology. Religion. Methods of explanation that did not rely on a cold, clinical universe, but, rather, on one that was inexplicable, yes, but guided by personalities, not physical forces. Now, we live in an age when religion is the sort of thing you adhere to out of modern convenience or because you always have. Actual religious experience—Saul on the road to Damascus, Mohammed moving mountains, the Buddha under the tree—seems a foreign country to us, like something out of science fiction. What religious experiences we have are small, personal, not easily hyped. We understand the world better, but we feel less connection to it too often. Modern life is somewhat designed to be isolating, and the sorts of spiritual communities that, say, the church provided in colonial America just don't exist at that same level of prominence.
Genre fiction rose to its current level of consumption in the mid-point of the 20th century, at roughly the same time these disconnecting influences were being felt throughout the Western world. Write a book where God swoops in and saves the day at the end, and you're laughed off the stage, but write a book where aliens or wizards or, I don't know, vampires do the same thing and you're catering to a niche market (or you're writing Childhood's End, and doing a good job of it). There is a sense of inevitability in all of the best religious stories—Judas' kiss or the great Greek tragedies, where no one can avoid their fates—and that same sense of inevitability pervades a lot of genre fiction, even the really good stuff.
The characters in Little, Big are swept along by a force they barely understand until they get to the destination and then, enveloped by that force, they change in ways so alien to the reader (without spoiling) that the reader, like the point-of-view characters, is finally left apart from the story, having grasped at a glimpse of the fantastical without ever actually attaining it. A lot of people read (or write) genre fiction because they long for that glimpse of the fantastical, keep chasing it, without ever really understanding that all we can get is a snapshot of people in thrall to things beyond their control.
I think you see where I'm going with all of this. The characters on Lost (whose writers, so far as I know, have never read Little, Big but have cited the vaguely similar The Stand—more characters trying to avoid a metaphysical destiny they simply can't—as a touchstone) have always tried to assert their free will in the face of a seemingly sentient Island that can control whether they live or die and various powerful players who keep maneuvering them into place on the big chessboard that is the show's masterplot, but they've found themselves stopped, time and again, by the destiny that sweeps them along. Lost has suggested, from time to time, that there may be ways around this, but it seems to always come back to the notion that things are going to happen as they always have because that's the way they happened. You can't change the past, because it already happened, basically.
"The Variable," written by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz and directed by Paul Edwards, is the show's 100th episode and its most direct in asserting that we humans are merely pawns in the Island's game. At the same time, though, it suggests that we have come to a point where free will could hold sway again, that determinism only works so far in the Lost universe.
"The Variable" is the condensed story of the troubled physicist Daniel Faraday (Jeremy Davies in another deeply empathetic performance), who has returned to the Island after three years away, researching at DHARMA headquarters in Ann Arbor. He's come back because Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly) and Hurley (Jorge Garcia) have all returned and signed up with DHARMA, and he wants to know exactly how they got back. He seems to have an alternate mission, though. He wants to stop The Incident, something that's been bandied about since Lost's second season that finally gets a concrete definition here. In six hours, something is going to happen to release a great burst of electromagnetic energy at the future site of the Swan Station (better known as "The Hatch"), killing many people.
Faraday thinks he can stop it, but he's going to need the hydrogen bomb he asked Richard Alpert (Nestor Carbonell) to bury way back in "Jughead" (the season's third episode). When he can't get Pierre Chang to evacuate the Island, he apparently jumps to this plan B and brings Jack and Kate along when he goes to meet the Hostiles. In the course of his research, he's come to believe that he can change things, that the forces he claimed held the Losties in place (time being a straight line that can't diverge) aren't constant, necessarily, not with the right people in place as variables. It's a heady idea, but almost immediately upon stepping into the Others' camp, he's shot and killed by none other than his mother, Eloise Hawking (played here, variously, by Alice Evans and Fionnula Flanagan).
It's here that Lost reveals itself to be in league with everything from Oedipus Rex to the story of Christ's crucifixion to, yes, Little, Big. When Eloise shoots him, she has no idea who she is, but when she leaves the Island and raises the child (in a rather confusing chronology, all things considered - just how old IS Faraday?), she knows that at some point, he will go back to the Island she spent much of her life, travel through time and be shot by her. Every action she takes in his life, getting him to give up the piano, trying to get him to ditch his girlfriend, asking him to take the new assignment Widmore (Alan Dale) has given him, is about maneuvering him into a place where the younger version of herself can shoot and kill him.
On one level, it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense just yet (if you knew you were going to shoot your son someday, wouldn't you try to stop him from being in that place at that time?). On another level, it speaks to just how deeply being cast out of the Island has bruised people like Eloise. On yet another level, it's deeply sad. When Eloise sends her son, his mind shredded by his time travel experiments, to the Island, she knows it will heal him, make him the genius he was again. And she knows it will kill him. She knows she will kill him. From the almost fetishistic way Edwards' camera took in Faraday's journal throughout the episode, it almost seems as though Faraday is nothing but the person who will deliver the book to the Island, to get it in the hands of the people who will use it, for good or ill, in the way it needs to be used. Faraday needs to go to the Island, so she keeps her distance, maneuvering him to a place where she can eventually destroy him.
As in Little, Big, the more we get to know the people who are behind the scenes on Lost, the more we realize just how much our point-of-view characters are looking in on a battle they will never really understand. When Eloise finds the distraught Penny (Sonya Walger) in the hospital she has brought her husband, Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick), to after he was shot by Ben (Michael Emerson), she apologizes, somewhat tearfully, for Desmond becoming just another casualty in this long, long battle (before we discover that Des survived the shooting), she's both sad over her sacrifice and over the fact that the war continues and now she doesn't know what will happen.
Much of the Island's history, it now seems, has been some sort of elaborate loop, culminating in 2007, when Eloise places the Oceanic Six on board Ajira 316. She's been working, with Widmore and Ben and Richard and all the others to be in the right places at the right times to ensure that everything works out just so, and now, she's at the end of that process, hoping that everything will work out in the right way, casting her lot with an uncertain faith in the Island. It's starting to seem as though the first five seasons of Lost have been about offscreen players moving the characters into the places they need to be to make sure that everything will be where it needs to be in 2007, motivated both by a desire to possess the Island and by the place's inscrutable wishes. The sixth season, then, may end up being about what happens when our characters are put in a position to seize their own destinies. There's a growing sense of this, of apocalypse coming, of paradise in the process of being lost (perhaps that's what the title has meant all along). No one can know what comes after this moment. It is the point where we realize that anything that is to come is too different from what has come before to be comprehended.
In some ways, this is all a little high-minded for a show where a major plot point involved a guy tied up in a closet, but at its best (as "The Variable" was), Lost is an elegant puzzle box mystery with bigger-than-life characters who may have their own concerns but often see those concerns get kicked around by the Island (seen in this light, the flashbacks of the first three seasons are less about how these people came to be who they are and more about a series of lives interrupted by a crisis, similar to the flashbacks in the Battlestar Galactica series finale). When Faraday suggests that by stopping The Incident, by changing this one bit of history, the Losties can erase all of the heartache and problems that merely crashing on the Island caused in all of their lives, it's a vision of some unattainable Utopia. Charlotte may never meet him and he never meet her, but she'll be alive, at least.
Similarly, when he meets the child Charlotte and decides, despite all he knows, to issue the warning to her to not return to the Island, it's a quiet, subdued moment. The camera pulls back, not allowing us an ear into this conversation, expressing a certain reverence for the privacy of the moment.
"The Variable" was very much a spiritual sequel to season four's marvelous "The Constant," but it also had a lot of this season's earlier "The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham" in it. Both episodes had that religious fervor to them, the sense of the pilgrim completing his journey, rewarded at the end with death (though I do not think Faraday will be resurrected). It was an oddly ruminative episode of TV, shot through with a sense of all that these people have lost by manipulating those who would possess the Island or by being manipulated by others. More and more, one gets the sense that Lost is about people whose lives were disrupted by a series of seismic events and, now, are finally reaching a place where they might be able to do something about that. Just not with Faraday, the latest casualty.
Some other thoughts:
1. Much as I can see where it makes story sense (even if I'm a bit shaky on Eloise's motives for raising her son the way she did), I'm sad to have to say goodbye to Faraday. Davies' performance was one of the better ones in the show's history, and I hope they find a way to stick him in in guest spots next season.
2. As the spiritual sequel to "The Constant," the episode somewhat clumsily shoehorned in that Desmond/Penny subplot, but I didn't mind too much, since I like the characters so much. I didn't really believe that the show would kill Des, but it was a relief to discover that he was still alive, all the same. My current theory is that his return into the main narrative will come from the guilt he feels at leaving everyone on the Island. I do hope he keeps his promise to Penny and brings her along, though.
3. Man, now it sounds like all I'm doing is criticizing the episode, because I'm not sure I totally bought that Faraday would just stumble into the camp, waving a gun around like that. If I try hard enough, I can fan wank it away, but that could have been more elegantly written.
4. That said, Michael Giacchino's cello-driven theme for the Faraday scenes was really a beautiful piece of music. I hope it turns up on the eventual soundtrack.
5. Again, the Sawyer (Josh Holloway) and Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) plot takes a bit of a backseat, but it seems likely that their exposure as not being who they say they are is going to play a big part heading into the finale. That said, I'm not sure I think Sawyer's anger at Jack and all for returning and wrecking their cool little life is placed terribly well. I understand it in a character sense, obviously.
6. We're looking at just two more episodes this season, though the finale will be another two-hour blockbuster. And after that, just 17 episodes of the show left ever.
7. Regardless of your feelings on Lost as a series or even as a collection of episodes, I think a moment of appreciation to the show for simply REACHING 100 episodes is useful, I think. When the show was announced, when the pilot was sent to critics, when the series was being promoted, I don't think anyone thought something this daringly serialized would MAKE IT to 100 episodes. The show is not the hit it once was, but the fact that it still commands such respect and such rampant fan appreciation is really something. Congrats, Lost. Now stick the landing.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark and co-host of the podcast TV on the Internet. His writing also appears at The A.V. Club.