The flip-floppers of ‘Lost’

John Locke at his most obsessed. Trust him, or not?

If you’ve never watched “Lost,” and intend to someday, don’t read this, because I’m going to give some stuff away.

I didn’t watch it when it was on, maybe because I had seen bits of it, and it made no sense, or so I inferred.

Now, I have almost finished watching all six seasons on Netflix, and I know for sure — without having to infer — that it makes no sense. I would have finished watching all of it by now, except that I turn it off and look for something else when my wife enters the room. Not because I’m sensitive to what she wants to see, but because I don’t want to be scoffed at. Because I know it’s silly, but I’m determined to see it to the end. NOT because I have any expectation of the ending being satisfying, but because I can’t help myself.

I thought it was a flawed show before I watched it, and now I know just how flawed it is, in great detail. And the greatest flaw, the greatest sin against storytelling, is its inconsistency.

I’m reminded of this by something Kathryn shared with me via email. It’s this piece, on a subject I addressed last week (“Let’s hear it for the flip-floppers — compared to the rigid ideologues, they are a breath of fresh air,” Feb. 28). It from NPR, and it says in part:

But we have lots of brain circuits that are making predictions about all kinds of things, every second of every day. And the brain pays special attention to other people, Linden says.

“We’re extremely attuned to the veracity, and the predictability, and the group spirit and the motivations of those around us,” he says

That’s probably from thousands of years living in groups. To stay alive, we had to know if the person who helped us yesterday might hurt us tomorrow.

Prediction is so important that our brains actually give us a chemical reward when we do it well, Linden says.

“We are intrinsically wired to take pleasure from our predictions that come true,” he says.

Get it right and you get a burst of pleasure-inducing dopamine or a related brain chemical. Get it wrong and dopamine levels dip, Linden says.

All that training makes us extremely sensitive to the consistency and predictability of people we depend on, Linden says.

“If we have a sense that there is a mismatch between our prediction and their actions, that is something that sets off neural alarm bells,” he says. And if we think they have been inconsistent about something fundamental, he says, we will feel betrayed.

“When we feel deeply betrayed, either by a leader, or by someone in our social circle, or by our beloved, that pain really is similar to physical pain,” Linden says.

In other words, we’re hard-wired to suffer from the inconsistency of flip-floppers. No wonder we don’t like them.

Well, maybe. And that would help to explain why I don’t like the central flaw in “Lost:” You can’t rely on the characters to be consistent.

Take John Locke, for instance:

  • First, you like him. You’re cheering for him because you’re glad he can walk again. And you like that his knowledge of outdoor lore (which I guess he got from books or something) — tracking, knife-throwing, boar-killing, etc. — can be useful to the castaways. He’s a reassuring presence, an avuncular figure who befriends the boy with the dog and makes a cradle for Clair’s baby.
  • Then, you start to wonder about him, as he starts talking about what “the island” wants and demands, and obsessing about “the Hatch.”
  • Then, you’re SURE he’s nuts, as he makes a religion out of pushing the button.
  • Then, you find out he was RIGHT, because not pushing the button was what crashed their plane to begin with. And leads to a catastrophic mess when it happens again.
  • Then, you find out about his miserable life before the island, and you really sympathize with him.
  • Then, he dies.
  • Then, he turns up alive after his body is brought back to the island.
  • Then, it turns out he’s dead after all, and the “Locke” we see is really the Smoke Monster.
  • Then, character A trusts him anyway, and tries to do his bidding, while Character B fights him as hard as possible.
  • Then, Character B trusts him completely, and Character A strives to frustrate him.

And… well that’s as far as I’ve gotten.

There are a couple of character arcs that are a little more consistent, but still jarring. Such as the steady degradation of Jack from Boy Scout Everyone Can Rely On to nervous, neurotic wreck who might do anything. Meanwhile, Sawyer goes from the guy you can’t trust to a fairly heroic figure, more or less.

Other characters will switch back and forth, sometimes more than once in an episode, from bad to good, trustworthy to untrustworthy. Note how many times we are led to believe that it’s a good idea to trust Ben Linus, only to find out, yet again, that it is not?

Beyond the characters, there’s the fact that the Explanation of What is Going On keeps changing. Something is revealed, then we learn that that is an illusion, and it’s deeper than that, on and on down the rabbit hole. (Speaking of rabbits, the occasional allusion is fun. Such as when a lab rabbit is referred to by name as “Angstrom.” Or the characters named for philosophers.)

“Lost” isn’t the worst in this regard. The worst case of this I’ve ever seen in a TV series was another cultish series, “24.” Within the bounds of a single episode, a character who we are led to believe we can all trust our lives to turns out to be the incarnation of evil, and then switches back. Which is made even more outrageous when we consider that this is all supposedly happening within one hour’s time.

I felt so manipulated and abused by that series that I gave up after two seasons.

So why am I still watching “Lost”? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the scenery. In any case, I don’t have far to go now…

11 thoughts on “The flip-floppers of ‘Lost’

  1. Andrew

    I want hours of my life back from watching that show.

    I was hooked via seasons 1 & 2, stuck with it, hoping there would be some kind of grand unifying theme to tie it all together.

    It was an interesting premise – mysterious island, misfit castaway’s, deep, puzzling secrets.

    The last season felt like the producers just pulled the rug out form underneath and gave us all a big raspberry. I’m so anti – Lost now, because I used to be so into it.

  2. Scout

    I was extremely let down by it too. All of the allusions gave it such resonance. You just knew something was going to tie it all together, but….no. Like a bad dream that wants to makes sense but just never does. I think Desmond was the best character though.

  3. Ryan

    LOST was brilliant, by far my favorite show of all time. Give the writers credit, if you watched the first few episodes, you had to keep watching, it was just too intriguing to let it go, you had to find out what happens. I was OK with the ending, better than the Sopranos.

  4. Brad

    OK, so last night, I finished watching the third-to-last episode. It was entirely devoted to the story, thousands of years ago, of the origins of Jacob and his brother (whom I’m going to call Esau, since he’s not provided with a name). Not one second devoted to wrapping up the many conflicts involving our characters. I’m starting to get testy…

  5. Greg Jones

    This sounds my wife’s dismissing of “Fringe”, and now Alcatraz (all from the same production company). When I talk of Fringe’s “alternate realities”, I get a “that’s stupid” head shake.
    Of course, she watches a lot of reality TV. I prefer my “realities” to her’s.

  6. Scout

    Huh! just wait. Actually I don’t remember the details of the final episodes very much at all….because that is what happens to things that don’t make sense to me. They don’t stick around in my brain. The Jacob episodes were the last interesting bits I remember.

  7. Brad

    Actually… I saw the ending night before last, and loved it. I was really surprised that it turned out to be so satisfying to me.

    I’m going to write about it when have an hour to blow on doing so. Explaining why I liked it will take some doing.

    In any case, I was completely unprepared to like the ending as much as I did, seeing that I had felt jerked around so many times before by the series. But I did. Like it, that is.

    Now I’m not saying that every problem with the series up until that time was dealt with, or every loose end tied up. But if the writers had tried at other times during the series to please me as hard as they did in that one, last episode, I would have enjoyed the six seasons a lot more…

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