A flagship for the new species of primetime drama that fuses the big budget, high action intrigue of a medium-tier blockbuster with cliffhanger hooks and soap opera theatrics, much of the first season of Lost was spent chasing high octane thrills. There was the superb opening in the aftermath of the plane wreck: Our characters come to on a tropical beach, the sound of failing jet engines ringing dully in the background, bodies and flaming pieces of plane strewn casually across the gorgeous landscape. There were music-driven interludes and one-off shots of the statuesque Evangeline Lilly posing like a Maxim cover girl in tight-fitting survivor-wear. There were pulse-pounding chases to evade the island’s clunking, sputtering, tree-crushing “monster thing.” There were boar attacks, exploding science teachers, and most of all, the obscenely far-fetched season-ending twist. With millions of helplessly addicted fans at their beg and call, the series ended with the revelation that somewhere, on the other side of the island, there are pirates with access to a modern fishing boat, and that the mysterious hatch we had all pondered throughout the season, led only to an even more mysterious hole in the ground.
Miraculously, the second season of the show has stepped up to the Herculean task of making sense of these bombshells, but more importantly the ensuing two subplots it introduced have become the reason why Lost is something more than high-thrills boob tube feed. The mysterious “Others,” who thwarted the group’s escape by raft and kidnapped Walt, have put a human face on the malicious force behind the island’s secrets—or at least some of those secrets. And the ensuing mysterious hole, in turn leads to the revelation that all of this could be one enormous corporate-sponsored mind-fuck. But season two digs deeper yet, fleshing out its core characters with increasingly fascinating flashbacks, shifting the focus away from the show’s primary question of “What the fuck is going on here?” to one that raises a more troubling psychological dimension: “Who the fuck are these people…really?”
While I don’t doubt that the flashbacks also serve to draw out the show’s more bankable mysteries until the creators are ready to reveal them, the consequence of focusing narrowly on the characters as opposed to broadly on their situation and group dynamic has delivered some surprising twists. Namely, that the show has become much deeper, and much more immediate. As a portrait of deeply fucked up individuals with no certain future and very questionable pasts, the show comes frighteningly close to mirroring our country’s current state. It also serves as a testament to the more universal claim that the human condition is certainly the most brilliant psychological experiment ever conceived.
That this immensely popular television show seems to be channeling the zeitgeist more convincingly than any cineplex fare these days shouldn’t be that surprising. This is the year that E.R. went to Darfur, for God’s sake. And without having personally seen any of the new season of 24, it’s safe to say that Jack Bauer’s trademark unconstitutional shenanigans continue to come uncomfortably close to the real life transgressions of numerous government organizations. The writers and producers of these shows seem to realize that serving up hot-button issues in dramatic fashion makes for good ratings. But it’s also good for us. Sometimes the only way out is through, and like in the best genre exercises, this escape-hatch leads us right back to the front line.
For these reasons, the most important Lost episode of this season is “One of Them,” which aired on February 14. Sayid (Naveen Andrews) is led by Rousseau (Mira Furlan) to a man that she’s captured in a net trap. “For a very long time, he will lie to you,” she tells them and then disappears into the jungle. This man identifies himself as Henry Gale and insists that he’s just another survivor (he was marooned here after his hot air balloon crashes), but Rousseau contends that he’s one of the Others, the seemingly omniscient group responsible for blowing up Michael’s raft and kidnapping or murdering a number of survivors from the tail section of the plane.
Then a flashback: Iraq, 1991. Sayid is an officer in Saddam’s Republican Guard taken into custody by the U.S. and employed first as a translator and then later as a torturer. Now torture is hardly new to primetime; 24 has been practicing its particular blend of nasty business in a way that makes the “anything for the cause” rhetoric both nauseating and exceedingly fascinating. But it’s also not new to Lost. In season one, Sayid was first a victim of torture (bound and then shocked with a crude generator-driven device) and then a perpetrator of it (shoving bamboo-chutes underneath Sawyer’s fingernails). In the later incident Sayid refers to his past life as an Iraqi soldier as an explanation as to why he has this particular talent, but that information only serves as basis for the brash assumption that because Sayid was a member of a ruthless, lawless regime, that he’s proficient in this horrible practice, even inclined to do it.
However, in this flashback we learn that Sayid had never tortured a soul before he was coerced into it by a shifty U.S. officer. After Sayid is forced to torture one of his superiors, he returns to the U.S. officer, who wanted to know the location of a captured helicopter pilot who had already been executed. The information was useless, as was the torture. What resonates from this scene is this feeling of waste. There’s also a deep sense of loss built upon the fact that we’ve come to love Sayid as a rational, delicate and compassionate man. It’s hard to imagine him as torturer. It’s devastating to see how he has been dehumanized. With this context it becomes impossible to take the easy way out and view Sayid as a monster or even as an Other. On this show, he’s one of the heroes.
Flashing back to the present, Sayid convinces Locke to assist him in getting some face time with the new prisoner. After securing a private audience inside the group’s vault, Sayid delivers this shocking monologue to the prisoner: “I was 23 years old when the American came to my country. I was a good man. I was a soldier. And when they left I was something different. Over the next six years I did things I wish I could erase from my memory. Things I never thought myself capable of. But I did come to learn this: There was a part of me that was always capable…You want to know who I am? My name is Sayid Jarrah, and I am a torturer.”
His interrogation escalates as the terrified man sputters out confused answers, then Sayid viciously beats him until Jack intervenes. This scene, besides blowing away the idea that torture is just a desperate measure for desperate times, cuts through the smoke screen that cloaks the U.S. as a higher moral authority. It suggests our culpability in spreading acts of torture and violence throughout the world. Under the auspices of spreading democracy, we spread vicious practices like torture through leading by example.
However, Sayid’s admission that he was always capable of torture is also extremely important: As intimate as we are with this rag-tag bunch of misfits, there’s a lot we don’t know about them, and by the end of the second season we learn that at least five of them are cold-blooded killers. Obviously, this raises a serious moral problem. If we’re to side with the survivors and against the Others, don’t we need to believe that the survivors are morally superior? Don’t we need to believe that that the Others are inferior somehow, that their intentions are evil? “They’re animals” is a phrase that’s been spoken over and over as a rallying cry as the group moves toward the idea of “Taking them out.” Over and over they’ve been described as crude, somehow less advanced, less human than the other survivors. However, do their crimes—murder, kidnapping, deception—outweigh those of the skeletons in our survivors’ closets? Kate killed her father. Sawyer killed a man who he thought had driven his father to kill his mother. Ana-Lucia refused to testify against the man who killed her unborn child in order to corner him in a parking garage and shoot him down. Charlie was—and maybe still is—a heroine addict. Worst of all, this season’s most unexpected revelation finds Michael doing the unthinkable in service of getting his son back. With all this fervor about the mysterious villains, we really need to ask ourselves: Are they really any worse than the survivors? Are they really any worse than us?