The producers of Lost promised that season five would have quite a bit of revelation about the nature of the island central to its plot. But while many of the smaller questions that were posed in the first season still remain unanswered, the new season has offered some surprising character developments. Many recent episodes have riffed on stock character issues (Locke’s crisis of faith, Jack’s pill problem, Kate’s man issues), but some of the show’s most compelling characters have seen their fair share of action.
Sayid (Naveen Andrews), for example, has gained an almost entirely new life and set of experiences since getting off the island. One explanation for his new developments is that his storyline is meant to compensate for the sudden loss of Mr. Eko in season three—a move which, according to producers, was not part of the original plan (actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje asked to be written out of the show after the death of his parents). This might account for the almost identical childhood experiences of Eko and Sayid. Eko, however, was always a mix between the anxieties of Sayid and Locke (Terry O’Quinn), sharing the former’s violent impulses and the latter’s anxieties of faith. Sayid lacks the qualities of faith, but perhaps he’ll develop some spiritual angst by the end of the season.
Inasmuch as the success of Lost is dependent on two factors (compelling characters and a compelling mystery), the most successful episodes do not sacrifice one element for the other. Still, the show has always suffered from lurching between these two aspects. Sometimes the series favors stock characterizations for the sake of overcoming difficult narrative shifts such as Jack’s (Matthew Fox) pill problem, which is supposed to be shorthand for his crisis of conscience—and probably masculinity. Sometimes it spends a whole episode on a particular character flaw while barely mentioning the island, such as Charlie’s (Dominic Monaghan) drug episodes back in season two.
Despite this, the show’s flashback/forward structure has provided an interesting commentary on the relationship between time and narrative, but it also struggles against its 40-minute playing time and the expectations of a weekly network audience. In this sense, I have always admired Lost, because the creators have managed to construct a relatively successful series despite network limitations. While cable networks have gotten a lot of mileage out of simply putting things on television that haven’t been there before, or have benefited from an audience that is typically willing to sit through more complex storylines and issues, as well as the ability to work from a wider tonal palette (in terms of more graphic language, sex, and violence), shows on network television have struggled with remaining relevant and compelling while still working within primetime restrictions. Networks can do quite well within FCC borders, as shows like Friday Night Lights and Kings, which has shown similar promise, can attest.
The constantly dilating timeline of Lost continually forces the viewer to recalibrate what they’ve already experienced. Rather than leading us deeper down a rabbit hole in the shape of a linear narrative, the show’s writers prefer to peel off the layers of what is happening in crucial moments. For example, when Flight 815 originally crashed on the island in the pilot episode, we experienced it through the godlike stability of the camera. As the show continues, however, we see the plane crash from the perspectives of the various central characters. New points of view resonate with what we have learned about those characters—a recent episode revolving around what happened to Locke when he left the island being the best example. Add to this the perspective of some of the Others during the moment of the plane crash, Desmond’s point of view from the hatch, and even a few scientists somewhere in the Arctic, and it becomes clear that Lost is more interested in a multi-perspectival understanding of mystery: Each blind man holds a different part of the elephant.