Lost came as a surprise for the entertainment world in more ways than one. Not only did the success of J. J. Abrams’ story of survival and redemption take some initially skeptical critics aback, it also broke with expectation by introducing elements of the supernatural and the mystical, something that would soon become a crucial feature of the show. With these aspects of Lost so firmly entrenched in fandom’s collective memory, it’s easy to forget that early marketing for the show contained nary a hint of the supernatural elements that soon came to define it.
But we can leave the issue of metaphysics aside momentarily, and consider a more straightforward way in which Lost excels – characterization. From a narrative standpoint, Lost’s lineup of characters is diverse not only across boundaries of race, gender, and ethnicity, but morally and even spiritually as well. While it will take quite a few episodes for the core characters to be fleshed out and developed to their fullest, even the first few moments of the pilot episode give us an idea of some of the characters’ personalities, as they each react in their unique way to the plane crash that has brought their world to a screeching halt.
In his book The Survivors’ Club, Ben Sherwood assembles a myriad of medical, psychiatric, and other sources in support of what has been termed the 10-80-10 theory of survival. In short, the 10-80-10 theory posits that, in a traumatic scenario such as a plane crash or a terrorist attack, the reactions of the immediate survivors will break up into three rather neatly defined categories: the first group, comprising roughly 10% of the survivors, recovers quickly from the incident, collecting themselves and taking charge as best they can in the chaos that follows.
The second set, by far the largest at 80% of the total survivor group, are shocked into a state of quiet bewilderment, capable perhaps of being moved to productive damage control activities by the superior 10%, but far from self-motivating in the initial aftermath.
Third, a second group of 10% reacts by suffering a total emotional breakdown, either breaking into hysterical crying or screaming, or entering a quiet stupor, doing all they can to shut out the suddenly shattered world around them.1
Shannon, Boone’s self-absorbed and manipulative sister, neatly fits into this third category, screaming at the top of her lungs amid the wreckage when we first see her. Jack exemplifies the first category, immediately coordinating improvised medical care for the wounded. Most of the rest, predictably, fall into the 80% category, some—like Claire and Jin—either taking shelter for themselves or frantically seeking out loved ones, and others—Hurley, Locke, and Boone—joining Jack in his efforts to save whatever lives they can. Apart from Jack, the only other identifiable member of the first 10% group is Sayid, who takes the initiative to start a bonfire as the sun sets in hopes of catching the eye of a rescue plane.
Fundamental to Lost’s conception (or rather, conceptions) of its world is the distinction between two different, if not quite incompatible, worldviews. First, and most familiar to the majority of viewers, Lost will grow to embrace the long-established tradition of good-versus-evil stories. The line between the two may not always be clear, and characters like Kate and Sawyer may do a lot of fence-sitting for quite a while, but the basics, the belief in an ultimate morality of lasting significance, both cosmic and physical, will underlie much of the conflict of this and later seasons. Characters will play their parts in a zero-sum game not totally unlike the dualistic God-versus-Satan motifs of the Abrahamic religions.
It is certainly an unspoken assumption at most points that there is a distinction between good and evil, but the fact that it is present in the show at all becomes significant when viewed in light of the second worldview treated by Lost, namely, the non-dualistic worldview of Daoism.
In Daoism, as illustrated by the famous yin-yang symbol, the world is viewed not as a cosmic chessboard on which two opposing sides play out a millennia-long game for power, but a dynamic place of interaction between opposites, where opposites are at times complimentary to, even necessary for each other’s existence. This eastern worldview, in which events in life are understood as natural outgrowths of these interplaying forces, is not wholly unique in eschewing strict good-evil moral dichotomy, nor are western religions totally unfamiliar with the idea of a fluid boundary between good and evil. Judaism, notably, teaches the concept of the yetzer ha-ra, or the “evil” impulse, which drives human greed and lust as much as it drives thirst and procreation, becoming truly “evil” only in its unrestrained applications. 2
That said, it is useful for our purposes to break the lenses through which Lost views itself into two distinct categories, one western and dualistic, in which concerns of good and evil predominate, and one eastern and non-dualistic, in which the notion of the dao as a universal life force of interacting opposites and cause-and-effect takes precedence over moral judgements.
And for now, Lost skews heavily in the direction of moral ambiguity. The pilot episode provides little in the way of deep character development, instead establishing the basic concept of the show, leaving it to future episodes to introduce viewers to the characters, and the characters to each other.
The religious and mythological motifs utilized in Lost do not stop at the big picture, but are apparent even in small, apparently insignificant moments. About halfway through the pilot, Kate salvages a pair of shoes from the feet of a nearby corpse. This scene, while on the surface emphasizing the visceral ttragedy of the survivors’ situation, alsodraws on a mythological motif that Joseph Campbell called the “universal round”—from life to death and back to life. This is a theme that will later become much more significant, especially with the character of Locke, who himself experiences a rebirth that borders on a resurrection.
As the pilot wears on, we are introduced to the fantastical aspects of the island, from the polar bear Sawyer kills to a transmission loop that seems to tell the survivors that others have found themselves stranded on the island, nearly two decades ago with rescue still forthcoming.
As a whole, this first episode does a good job of setting the tone for what is to come. There are a few awkward moments, scenes where it seems the creators didn’t think through the implications for later episodes. Kate’s character, otherwise brilliantly portrayed by first-time actress Evangeline Lilly, suffers from an unfortunate case of genre stereotype when she begins sobbing following the smoke monster’s deadly attack on the plane’s captain after becoming separated from Jack and Charlie. The scene has the obvious intent of hearkening back to Jack’s “count to five” pep talk to Kate earlier in the episode, but here it comes at the expense of a well-rounded character of the sort Kate will soon become.
Two more characters, arguably the most important thematically for the first season, are slower to be introduced. As the two meet for the first time, Walt and Locke sit down over a Backgammon board. Explaining the game, Locke shows Walt two pieces: one white, the other black. On the surface, we have a droll reference to the two characters’ races, and perhaps a wink and a nod to the fact that this difference, which may have been of significance in their home country, means nothing in the situation they now find themselves. Deeper than that, though, black and white are also yin and yang, two halves of dao, constituents of dharma, the opposites that exist in one another without contradiction or conflict.
In this short scene, we are introduced to one of the central themes of the series—dualism versus dao. In a sense, the central story of Lost is not that of good versus evil, but a conflict over the idea of good and evil itself.
“East is east and west is west,” Rudyard Kipling said, “and never the ‘twain shall meet.” But in Lost, the two meet in a very real way. Inside the oblivious viewers’ minds, the first shots are fired in an invisible battle between western dualism and eastern mysticism, destined to loom larger as the story unfolds. And that’s one of the things that makes Lost so cool: stealth philosophy, a coherent exploration of philosophy that is simultaneously an engaging work of entertainment genius.
And things only get weirder from there. Locke leans in close to Walt, asks, “Do you want to know a secret?”
It will be a few episodes yet before we learn what Locke’s secret is, but when we do it will take the emotional resonance of Lost layers deeper, encapsulating another major theme of the show—second chances; life born anew out of the most morbid of circumstances—in a character who will come to serve as Lost’s thematic barometer for seasons to come.
- The classical Greek philosopher Heraclitus proposed a similar theory vis a vis the different types of men suitable for warfare: “Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.” ↩
- This might provide an intriguing answer to a question frequently asked of Star Wars, another long-running saga tinged with eastern spirituality: Why does “bringing balance to the Force” consist in totally annihilating the Sith, seen as the representatives of one side of the scale? Answer: The Dark Side, like the yetzer ha-ra, is not evil per se; it simply skews more toward selfish desires than the Jedi’s Light Side. It is the Sith’s radical implementation of their own desire for power that has thrown the Force out of balance; the Dark Side exists apart from them just as the Light Side exists apart from the Jedi. It’s interesting to consider that under this interpretation, a radical implementation of Jedi philosophy may be just as dangerous. ↩