Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Lost" Flashbacks #1

DVD from the collection

Doc Jensen's ongoing insider coverage/highly speculative philosophy section on "Lost" at Entertainment Weekly's website is something you absolutely have to have bookmarked, if you watch the show at all. Jensen is if anything a little too good; no one as accredited is attempting anything similar. The amateur, hobbyist "Lost" stuff on the web is a rabbit hole I've barely even poked with a stick. Most of that stuff tends to make my eyes roll back in my head. But Jensen is a lucid writer who's getting paid to research this stuff thoroughly, and the cell phone numbers of Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof. If there was going to be an authorized guide like they have for "Buffy" and "TNG," he would be the only guy to write it.

The most exciting thing I've read in a Jensen column of late is that Cuse and Lindelof, having self-consciously structured the fifth season to parallel the second, are going to follow through and have the sixth and final year of "Lost" act as spiritual companion to the first. That's all very Moebius and Kerberos, and very "Lost." But it also means that the sixth season will focus anew on character after two very densely plotted years, and it means that during the long wait for new episodes there's a fine excuse for revisiting the first season. I think it's been topped since (by the gung-ho, shock-a-minute fourth season and the utterly fascinating fifth season, which rewrote the rules and possibilities for the show on a commercial break-to-commercial break basis) but the first season remains the sentimental favorite for most fans. The bulk of those fans got to experience the first season on DVD, racing through in as close to real time as their sleep and work schedules would allow. That made it the most visceral experience, and it wasn't for a long time that the show managed to get that feel back, as I've written during the fifth season.

So I'm watching season one episodes again, both in linear fashion with some friends who are new to the world, and randomly and out of context by myself. Here's a fascinating illustration of how the richness of the "Lost" universe builds upon itself and makes the old episodes resonate differently with the added experience and information of the new ones. In "Whatever the Case May Be," the B-plot concerns Sayid enlisting Shannon's help to translate some French documents he stole from Rousseau. Shannon is more interested in tanning, but Sayid persuades her: "You're the only person on this island who speaks French."

Well, this is obviously wrong on the face of it. Even Sayid knows that: Rousseau at this point is still quite alive. He doesn't mean it literally, he's just trying to appeal to the dense Shannon's sense of survivor camaraderie. Probably not the right tack for her character, by the by. And ultimately the only good that comes of the project is getting to hear Maggie Grace's lovely singing voice. But I've seen the episode already, so after that line I spent the whole of it thinking about what the literal answer to Sayid's implied question is. Day and date (it would be October 13, 2004), how many people on the island were present and alive who were at least high school-level French speakers?

We know two for sure: Shannon and Rousseau. We also know that a certain number cannot be determined from the information we have from all of the episodes aired in the five seasons to date. Sayid knows that Shannon speaks a little French because they were together in the group that went to take the radio transmitter to higher ground, in the second part of the pilot. So the only people Sayid knows for sure aren't Francophones are the rest of the group with whom he and Shannon made that expedition: Charlie, Boone, Sawyer, and Kate. I think it is fairly safe to assume that Sayid made his rounds before approaching Shannon, asking everyone he could find around the camp that wasn't on the radio expedition. That eliminates some of the more educated types who might be likely suspects: Jack, Rose, maybe Michael. Let's just assume that among the main body of the Oceanic 815 survivors, the group on the beach and Jack's group at the caves, Sayid checked with everybody and indeed Shannon was the only French speaker.

That does leave one living exception however: Claire. At this point she had been kidnapped by the Others (curious about her pregnancy, later episodes revealed she was having medical tests performed by Juliet, Ethan, and others). Another, later episode still revealed definitively that the station where these experiments were performed was indeed the same island (and not the Hydra Island of Season 3). As an Australian, Claire was slightly more likely than the average American to have taken French in high school as opposed to Spanish. So she's a possibility, although not a very strong one. So are her captors -- Juliet might speak French, for all we know. Ethan claimed at one point to be a Canadian, which could be in a sense true. We know now he was born on the island, but he would have to have left before Ben's purge and returned later, not all that uncommon a phenomenon. Maybe he and his parents lived in Canada after leaving Dharma. If so, he would be a likely candidate to have taken some French classes.

Then there's the main body of Others, as of this time living in the Dharma barracks. I think the most obvious third person on the island past Shannon and Rousseau would be Ben, who has a genius intellect and a drawer full of fake international passports. Then you've got Mr. Friendly, Karl, Ms. Klugh, Alex (wouldn't it be just like Ben to kidnap Rousseau's daughter and then teach her her mother's language), the wife of the guy Juliet was having the affair with, and at least a dozen others. No way of knowing really if some of those Others killed by Eko, or Sayid's trap at the end of season three, were French speakers or even native Frenchmen. The indestructible Russian guy (Bakunin) would have been at his post near the sonic fence -- that's a possibility. Another Other was infiltrating Bernard and Ana Lucia's group, the Tailies. That's the biggest group of unknowns for our purposes. A whole bunch of Tailies were wiped out without us ever having gotten to know a thing about them, but at this point, 22 days after the crash, their numbers were stronger than they would later be.

Mr. Eko would be another possibility -- if he were a Catholic priest. However, English is the colonial language of Nigeria, and some research reveals that among the Yoruba (the tribe of both Eko and the actor who portrayed him, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) most Christian converts are Anglicans. This would scan with Eko's serving as a priest in both England and Australia. So it's pretty unlikely. Probably not Ana Lucia, either. Maybe Bernard -- he was a dentist, so he went to college. A stronger candidate possibly is Goodwin, the Other who was embedded with the tail section survivors (and Juliet's onetime lover). We don't know very much about him, but in his two appearances he's seemed like a cultured guy.

So we've gone through the three major groups on the island, even if all we've really learned is how much still we don't know. Any individuals we are forgetting? Well, there's Desmond, pressing the button in the hatch still at this point. A Scot, he may well have taken French lessons in high school or in the service. That leaves Jacob. Was he technically alive? Well, he can be killed, so he must have been. But is he entirely beyond concepts like language? It hurts my head to think about. Oh, and musn't forget Dr. Pierre Chang. No doubt he speaks French! But was he alive on the island in 2004? We don't know 100% for certain that he wasn't, and we've seen him on film so many times in the "present" timeline that he sure seems alive then.

So I don't how useful an exercise that was really, vis a vis improving our understanding of "Lost." But look at all the browser windows I have open now. Episode summaries and cast lists for episodes from the first, second, and fourth seasons. IMDb credits summaries for Maggie Grace, AAA, and "Goodwin." Wikipedia pages about Nigerian language and religion. And the stuff I learned! The lyrics from "Le Mer" are different from the lyrics to "Beyond the Sea," not just a translation. And this bit, from the Lostpedia Goodwin Stanhope page, simply needs to be replicated in full, just to give a little bit of the insane, Kafka-like depths of the "Lost" obsession:
In 1969, a woman named Mrs. Goodwin called famous disc jockey Wolfman Jack's radio program. As he had her on the line, Wolfman Jack jokingly accused Mrs. Goodwin of making strange noises. She blamed the television, saying it was the program "The New People", a short-lived ABC series about a group of young people who crash-land on a mysterious, uninhabited Pacific island.

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