Before its fifth season, Lost was always a bit compromised. An unforgiving ABC schedule broke the momentum of earlier seasons with mid-year hiatuses lasting several months. Also, the problem of not knowing when the series would ultimately end resulted in an aimless narrative trajectory, most notoriously with a subplot involving Jack (Matthew Fox) getting a tattoo from Bai Ling in Phuket. And no sooner than ABC agreed to an end date with showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, instantly giving Lost a new sense of direction, the writers’ strike hit, cutting season four down to a mere 13 episodes. Without any of these hindrances, season five is the first year in which Lost is able to live up to its full, glorious potential.
In its fifth year, Lost has become that rarest of television pleasures: a series where the framing of every shot seems to matter. Bemoaning the post-Studio Era decline of scrupulous shot composition in American cinema, Richard T. Jameson once said, “It’s hard to maintain faith that a given movie had to look the way it does, because it could just as well have looked, well, a little different.” The same could easily be said for the vast majority of television past and present, but not so in the case of Lost. This has always been a show that primarily communicates its plot and mythology through cryptic bits of visual information—like the map fleetingly projected on the wall of the Swan Station—that demand you keep hitting that rewind button on your DVR for further scrutiny.
In season five, with its plot toggling between at least two timeframes, and usually more, in any given episode, the visual nature of the series became more important than ever. Although the character of Daniel Faraday (Jeremy Davies) exists to fill in certain pseudo-scientific expository holes, the writers mostly abandoned the attempt to explain the big what’s-going-on questions through dialogue. It’s as if they finally realized that they must write a show for their devoted fans, who already have their own ideas of what’s going on, and abandon any previous attempts to attract newcomers now that a definitive end date for the series is in sight. Likewise, the absence (for the most part) of the routine flashback or flashforward structures of previous seasons means that the show’s characters are spared the incessant psychologizing that plagued them (and us) in previous years, and allows more time for the mythology to breathe.
Season five is neatly halved. As if inspired by the heroic character arc of Robert Conway in Lost Horizon, the first half of the season involves Jack leading his fellow members of the Oceanic 6 back to the island after having risked everything to escape from it in the past. Cleverly inverting Locke’s (Terry O’Quinn) earlier journey from Man of Faith to Man of Doubt, Jack the Skeptic becomes Jack the Believer and apparently resigns the mantle of leadership he’s always worn once returning to the island. The show begins lacking for dramatic urgency after the return of the Oceanic 6 and their assimilation into the hippie scientific commune the Dharma Initiative, until the plot of the second half of the season, which involves the possibility of changing the future, kicks into gear.
Even with its missteps, each season of Lost adds a new, larger perspective on the show’s ongoing drama, and with hindsight it’s obvious that the overall narrative is more circular than linear, an ongoing accretion of understanding, adding more depth each time it passes once again over an earlier plot element, theme, or motif. The foot of an ancient statue first seen in ruin appears in its full, undiminished glory three years later. The enigmatic Ms. Hawking (Fionnula Flanagan), popping up only briefly in season three as a proponent of predestination, returns as a fully realized character two seasons later. And, most importantly, after gleaning fragments about the Dharma Initiative for years from their abandoned research stations, possibly unreliable orientation videos, and the even more unreliable recollections of Dharma traitor Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson), we finally see the Initiative as it was at its height through the time-travel plot of season five. But structured as it is, the show actually presented us with the downfall and extermination of Dharma long before seeing it at its peak.
With the last key pieces of island history in place in season five, it becomes apparent that its history is a mirror reflection of our own. In particular, the conflict between the indigenous people of the island, called the “Others” or the “Hostiles,” and the Dharma Initiative evolves into a powerful metaphor for the Jihad-versus-McWorld dialectic of globalization. The Others first fend off the military imperialism of the U.S. Army, which seeks to turn the island into a nuclear weapons testing site, then the cultural imperialism of Dharma, itself a metaphor for New Age-inflected liberalism corroded into militant orthodoxy. The Others launch a terrorist campaign against Dharma, including driving flaming buses—island car bombs—into their compound. They first fight with simple bows and arrows, then cannibalize what they can from the invaders in order to retain their cultural independence, perhaps undermining its integrity in the process, as suggested in Locke’s criticism of the Others’ commandeering of the Dharma barracks, the island equivalent of a middle-class gated community. Finally, the Others either triumph, or lose themselves completely, in founding, or at least taking control of, their own offshore megacorporation.
By choosing to operate within subtle allegory, rather than the more obvious topical references to terrorism or the Iraq War of, say, Battlestar Galactica, the writers of Lost have not limited their series’s enduring relevance. They’ve never even hammered home their allegory for globalization by giving the Others a specific racial identification, presenting them instead as multi-ethnic. All the better, for Lost doesn’t run the risk of dating itself. As the final episodes draw nigh, it’s become clear that, like all great mythology, this is a series that will endure well beyond the moment of its own creation.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track allows the exquisitely detailed sound design to become an immersive environment. Sound effects like the smoke monster’s percussive metallic click-track are served particularly well, along with Michael Giacchino’s wallpaper score. Dialogue is always clear and comprehensible, even lines spoken by Jeremy Davies in his trademark mumbling delivery. Lost consistently features the best night cinematography on television, and low-key, high-contrast images shot with low lighting, like torchlight, look even richer on DVD than on their initial broadcast. Black levels are strong throughout, and only the slightest artifacting occurs with the darkest shadows. Skin tones always look natural even in low lighting or overcast situations. The major blight on the image quality of the set remains the poor rendering of the smoke monster during its confrontation with Ben Linus in the episode "Dead Is Dead." It does not improve on DVD and would surely look even worse on Blu-ray.
Lost DVDs have always been disappointing in their special features, and the season five set is no exception. Out of 16 episodes, only two ("Because You Left," and "He’s Our You") feature writers’ audio commentaries, neither of which are particularly revelatory aside from Lindelof and Cuse confirming that Sawyer (Josh Holloway) was shirtless for much of the early part of the season to provide the audience a consistent reference point for whatever shifting time period he and his compatriots inhabited. The "Lost on Location" production featurettes, a Lost DVD staple, remain as unilluminating as ever. Two other featurettes focus on Michael Emerson and Nestor Carbonell, respectively: Emerson as he tours the production offices in Burbank and meets with the writers and assistants, and Carbonell as he rushes around shooting his last day of pickups on the Lost set. Both are sustained by the actors’ personalities alone, especially that of the droll Emerson. And at last it’s revealed that Carbonell does not indeed wear eyeliner. "Making Up for Lost Time" is a mildly amusing segment in which Cuse and Lindelof offer up a user-friendly guide to the season five time-jumps, while members of the cast try to puzzle it all out for themselves. The most creative bonus feature by far is an episode of Mysteries of the Universe, a fictional 1982 ABC television series patterned on Unsolved Mysteries, about the Dharma Initiative. It plays like an unearthed VHS tape: grainy, with fuzzy sound and breaks for supposed commercials. Rounding out the lot are the requisite deleted scenes and blooper reel.
Although possessing far less than a hatchful of extra features, this is still a DVD set you’d want to take with you to that proverbial desert isle.