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How Lost’s Structure Expresses Its Themes

Introduction

The structure of Lost is one of flashbacks, flash-forwards, flash-sideways, and more. It’s a show that from the beginning tried something new every episode. Sometimes these things worked and other times, not so much. However, I believe that the various structures are key to the show’s themes.

I’ve always loved television episodes with flashbacks. They were always my favorite episodes because usually something big got revealed. With Lost, right away, every episode felt like a big one. I love Lost quite a bit. The reason for this has less to do with the story, characters, or even Michael Giacchino’s score, though those are certainly things worth admiring. No, the reason I love Lost so much concerns the way the series’s episodes are structured.

Beginning in the “Pilot,” the writers established the use of flashbacks as a tool for exposition. The audience is able to see the characters prior to the crash, as well as some of the crash itself. By the third episode (or the second, depending on whether you count the “Pilot” as two separate episodes, which I do because IMDb does, as do the DVD and Blu-ray releases), the flashbacks started to tie in with the first major theme of the show: letting go.

The flashbacks are more than simple exposition, though. They reveal that the characters all had baggage before arriving on the Island, and that baggage weighs on them as they confront or run from themselves and their past mistakes. The exposition then becomes character-driven, thanks to the flashback structure of the show. In essence, the flashback structure is about how the characters’ past defined who they were, but in the present, the characters, now on a strange island far from home, have the ability to become someone new.

It doesn’t stop there, though. The flash-forwards from the end of Season 3 to the end of Season 4 have their own relationship to Lost, the theme being whatever happened, happened. Once we get into the flash-sideways of Season 6, we enter into the final major theme of the show, moving on.

The central tenet of the series seems to be this idea of moving on and that one cannot get there without letting go and understanding that whatever happened in the past happened, and nothing can change that. It’s a powerful statement.

Part One: Letting Go

The wreckage of the plane is on the beach in the pilot episode of Lost

LOCKE: It’s time for you to let go of some things.

(Season 1, Episode 13: “Hearts and Minds”)

For most of the first three seasons, the flashback structure was ever-present, but for the purposes of clarity, I’m going to narrow it down to Jack Shephard. All told, Jack had seven episodes devoted to his backstory in the first three seasons, and with each the conclusion was twofold: 1) Jack always had to fix things, and 2) he couldn’t let things go. On the Island, like his fellow castaways, he was forced to confront this.

In Episode 4, “White Rabbit,” his first flashback episode, Jack has the first of many conversations with Locke regarding the island. More importantly, though, Locke gets Jack to look beyond his own reasoning in why he is seeing his dead father on the island.

JACK: He’s not there.

LOCKE: But you see him.

JACK: Yes. But he’s not there.

LOCKE: And if I came to you, said the same thing, what would your explanation be? As a doctor?

JACK: I’d call it a hallucination. Result of dehydration. Post Traumatic Stress. Not getting more than two hours a night for the past week. All of the above.

LOCKE: All right, then. You’re hallucinating. But what if you’re not?

It’ll take quite some time for Jack to fully come around to Locke’s way of seeing the Island and everything connected to it. The Jack from pre-flight 815 would most certainly believe and follow his own instincts, rather than some strange man who travels with a box full of knives. I mean, as we see many times in flashbacks, he has trouble following the advice of his own father. Jack was a stubborn man and continued to be one until the final season of the show. This moment with Locke, though, is where logical, man-of-science Jack begins his change from the man he was before the crash to the man he will one day become, someone open enough to let reason go and follow what could be the ghost of his father.

And just who was Jack? Well, he was a doctor who had a troubled relationship with his father. And as for his father, he has recently passed, something to which Jack seems to have guilt. As we end up finding out, Jack’s stubborn refusal to let go pretty much destroyed his relationship with his father, as we literally see in the Season 3 premiere “A Tale of Two Cities,” when Jack confronts Christian at an AA meeting and outright loses it when his father tells him to “let it go.”

As I said before, Lost is filled with exposition. The thing is, the exposition on this show is visual. This is important because instead of Jack explaining to someone his backstory, we get to see it, and because it’s from Jack’s point of view, we also get to experience it.

As such, the fundamental structure of Lost’s first three seasons (and a few episodes from the back half of the series) is a form of visual rhetoric that allows the audience to witness a character’s dilemma in confronting who they were pre-crash to who they can become post-crash. As Jack tells Kate in her first episode “Tabula Rasa”:

It doesn’t matter, Kate, who we were, what we did before this. Before the crash. It doesn’t really. Three days ago, we all died. We should all be able to start over.

Aside from an episode like “White Rabbit,” Jack doesn’t really practice what he preaches all that much in the show’s early seasons, but as the de facto main character of the series, he can say things the writers might want to tell viewers, such as in this case, the theme of the first three seasons of Lost—shown through the use of flashbacks—which is that whatever baggage everyone came to Island with, none of it has to be held on to. They can let it all go.

With that, they can become better people. Not different people, per se. After all, we can all grow to become better people when we learn how to confront our pasts and understand that forgetting isn’t necessarily possible or the healthiest thing to do but letting go of things that weigh us down will probably do us some good. As Jack begins his journey in doing that very thing, he, too, begins to grow.

By the Season 3 finale, “Through the Looking Glass,” Jack has managed to slightly let go enough to trust in others to help save the day. He’s still very much in a leadership position, having a plan of his own and essentially calling the shots, but I don’t see Season 1 Jack being willing to allow so many to have so much responsibility (something we’ll get into soon).

Like life, though, the events of Lost seem to always throw wrenches into everyone’s plans, and that includes growth. Even as Jack seemingly sets out to help save the castaways (and a few others) in “Through the Looking Glass,” a new kind of structure arrives to explain to the audience that as time moves forward, the present becomes the past, and therefore, there is always new baggage one has to confront in order to let go. The best way to do this is to accept that whatever happened, happened.

Part Two: Whatever Happened, Happened

"We have to go back", Jack and Kate in Lost's first flashforward
“We have to go back Kate”

FARADAY: Doesn’t matter what we do. Whatever happened, happened.

(Season 5, Episode 8: “LaFleur”)

In Season 5, a deterministic view of life is presented by Daniel Faraday, a relatively new character (he entered the show early in Season 4) who brings a scientific perspective toward all the magical and mysterious happenings on the Island. He seems to know what he’s talking about, and the layman viewer (like me) certainly gives him the benefit of the doubt whenever he speaks. That’s why when he tells the majority of the main characters the quote that begins this section, the audience goes along with it.

I mean, it does make sense. The view of time travel initially presented in Lost is one of determinism, rather than free will. In the Season 3 episode “Flashes Before Your Eyes,” Eloise Hawking (Faraday’s mother, no less) tells Desmond that even if he changes something in the past, the universe will course correct. When the majority of the main characters find themselves 30 years in the past, Faraday reiterates this thesis. They can try to change things. Heck, they can actually do something different in the past that didn’t originally happen. However, the universe will course correct, and things will turn out the way they always did.

Thematically, this is reinforced with the flash-forwards, introduced in the Season 3 finale “Through the Looking Glass.” In the show’s “new” structure, we find two ways to view Lost. Either “the present” is some time in 2007 and everything else is a flashback, or “the present” is 2004 and everything else is a flash-forward. Either way, we have the same notion of letting go of past baggage.

However, “the present” being 2004 establishes the whatever happened, happened theme, because now, it’s possible for viewers to not just experience backstory on a character like Jack, but also his future—a future that is, and not one that is simply possible. In essence, one cannot change the past and one cannot change the future. What’s left is a present where one must come to terms with both past and future, as well as the very real possibility that life is lived in circles. We start one place, grow, and sometimes find ourselves back at a place (similar to) where we first started. Pretty deterministic stuff.

However, there’s hope. In recognizing that the future is as familiar as the past, one can take what has been learned in letting go of past baggage to prepare for what is to come. Of course, unlike the audience, 2004-Jack does not have knowledge of 2007-Jack and his actions. Neither do we in our lives. But being able to watch someone else’s life in the structure of a flash-forward allows viewers to comprehend the idea that determinism is actually freeing.

In “Through the Looking Glass,” as Jack begins to let go, he trusts more, a la Juliet (a former Other), Rousseau (someone seen as a legitimate threat in Season 1), and several at the beach camp. The result is the very real possibility of rescue. That in and of itself proves to not be so easy, but Jack and several others do make it off the Island and onto Penny’s boat. However, as the flash-forwards show us that, despite trying to, Jack (and company) just can’t let go of the past (leaving everyone behind on the Island).

It appears that letting go is constant work.

This is a major reason why the Season 3 finale is a great episode of television. Yes, the twist is awesome. That one was watching a flash-forward the entire time is kind of mind-blowing the first time one sees the episode, but it’s the use of this new structure to visually explain a new theme of the show that endures. 2004-Jack is on a roll, letting go and very nearly getting everyone off the Island. However, this is contrasted with 2007-Jack, who is a bearded, depressed mess. From when he and the others board Penny’s boat to him shouting the now infamous, “We have to go back!” Jack is a man who struggles in accepting that letting go isn’t enough.

Even when he and the others return to the Island and Jack lets go of being the leader and allows Sawyer to do his thing in Season 5, he ends up making a mistake that causes Juliet’s death. He makes this mistake because even though he’s let go of having to be a leader or having left so many behind, he hasn’t let go of Kate and he hasn’t let go of his need to fix things, something that setting Jughead off could very well do, according to Daniel Faraday.

Season 6, though, sees Jack let go of his need to fix things, which in turn allows him to let go of his guilt. He knows he messed up by getting Juliet killed, but he also knows he can’t do anything to fix it. He has grown from the guy who just couldn’t get past his need to fix things and be a hero. As he tells Hurley in “Everybody Loves Hugo:”

Ever since Juliet died—ever since I got her killed—all I’ve wanted was to fix it. But I can’t. I can’t ever fix it. You’ve no idea how hard it is for me to sit back and listen to other people tell me what I should do…but I think maybe that’s the point…maybe I’m supposed to let go.

Jack can finally, truly let go when he understands that whatever happened, happened. This is not as simple as confronting the past and letting go, because there’s always something new to confront. It’s work. But one cannot move on unless acceptance occurs.

Part Three: Moving On

Vincent lays with dying Jack

JACK: Kate. She said we were leaving.

CHRISTIAN: Not leaving. Moving on.

(Season 6, Episode 17: “The End”)

Lost’s final season incorporates a form of structure that doesn’t coalesce until about midway through the series finale. The flash-sideways is essentially a form of the afterlife in which the majority of the castaways find their constant and awaken to the knowledge that not only are they dead, they will be reunited with the ones they lost, only to move on to whatever comes next.

We follow most of them, as they begin their journeys alone, meeting old friends throughout the season, some of whom are clearly already awake, like Rose and Boone in “LA X.” I mean, just look at the way Rose looks at Jack and says, “Yeah. We sure did,” after he’s told her, “Looks like we made it.” She knows what’s going on. As for Boone, he has the same expression when he’s speaking to Locke. As everyone we follow in the flash-sideways wakes up, they all have this same expression of love and calm.

Jack is the last one to wake up, which is ultimately fitting because his relationship with his father seems to be the biggest through-line of the entire series, lasting all the way from “White Rabbit” to the series finale.

Now, what of these journeys the characters take in the flash-sideways? As I said, they begin alone—for the most part. Even though Jack and Juliet have a son in the flash-sideways, they clearly aren’t one another’s constants, because they interact and are still asleep. Each has to confront, not simply their pasts, but their entire lives in order to fully move on.

It’s a metaphor. Most of us don’t get the time to look back on our whole existence before we die. The idea, though, is that, yes, letting go of past mistakes/choices is healthy. Living a life where one works at continually letting go is healthy. The goal is always to be able to move on, though, because if one is simply letting go, they are stuck. Letting go and accepting that whatever happened, happened is the only way to move on.

Everyone who is not awake in the flash-sideways must find their constant in order to wake up. However, this isn’t enough. Ben wakes up, but he understands that he’s not ready to move on. At least not yet. Kate seems to wake up Jack, but Jack being Jack, he won’t allow himself to be ready. It’s not until he truly confronts his past, and in this case, he literally does so in that scene in the church in “The End,” that he is able to let go and move on. And he is able to do this because in life, before his death, he had already (very nearly) completed his journey.

I would argue that this applies to everyone who took a while to wake up in the flash-sideways. Rose probably had completely let go by the time she died, because not only is she so clearly awake in that opening scene in “LA X,” she says this to Bernard:

ROSE: I missed you

She says this as someone who hasn’t seen a loved one in ages.

As stated before, Boone looks like he’s awake, and that makes sense because in “Do No Harm,” this exchange happens shortly before his death:

JACK: I’m not going to let you give up.

BOONE: I know you made a promise. I’m letting you off the hook. Let me go, Jack.

JACK: I’m sorry.

BOONE: Don’t be.

Letting go and accepting that things cannot change gets one ready to move on. Yes, he still loved Shannon, but he had let go of her and his feelings toward her prior to his death.

It’s a tough thing to lose someone you love. I imagine that the castaways needed to confront the loss of their constants in order to wake up, whether those constants were romantic in nature, friendships, or familial. Jack had Kate and his father. He most likely let go of Kate before his death (that smile as he sees the plane leave the Island, just as the series ends). However, he most likely never let go of his past with his father; hence, that scene in the church.

In “The End,” Jack is a man nearly at peace. By accepting Jacob’s proposal, he’s found his purpose in life, and he’s willing to let go and accept whatever is going to happen. In the flash-sideways, Jack has a son, who seems to exist as a means of getting Jack to where he needs to be in order to move on. In the Season 6 episode “Lighthouse,” Jack is able to reconcile some of the resentment and guilt he had with Christian growing up. However, it’s not enough. Although he begins a great relationship with his son, David is obviously no substitute for his father.

This is why that scene in the church is so necessary for Jack to move on. He needs closure with the one relationship he could never find any with. Once that happens, well, just look how calm and loving Jack looks as he meets up with old friends. Look how at peace he is sitting next to his constant.

As the final sequence of the series cuts back and forth between the church and Jack on the Island, we see a Jack at peace with dying and a Jack at peace with having existed in the first place.

The structure of flash-sideways is about moving on. After all, they take place in some form of the afterlife, or at least the bridge to it. Whether one believes in the afterlife or not, it doesn’t matter. Again, it’s all metaphor; it’s all theme.

Conclusion

JACK: Desmond, I tried that once. There are no shortcuts, no do-overs. What happened, happened. Trust me, I know. All of this matters.

(Season 6, Episode 17: “The End”)

It’s fitting that the character of Jack Shephard is the one to speak the words above. Like in “Tabula Rasa,” the writers seem to be speaking through Jack, telling the audience two things: 1) everything that happened in Lost really happened and it all mattered (further supporting the fact that, no, they were not dead the entire time), and 2) in life, even if there is an afterlife, everything matters. Every choice, mistake, and both cowardly and heroic thing we do matters. At this point in the timeline of the show, Jack knows this now because he’s learned to truly let go. I mean, Jack Shephard of all people says the words “whatever happened, happened.”

The writers of Lost did something remarkable with this series. They took a structure that could’ve just been an avenue for exposition and turned it into a visual theme. As the show went on and evolved, so, too, did the structure and theme. Everyone involved deserves more praise than they get. While a vocal minority tries to refer to Lost as a show with an ending no one liked, they fail to see that Lost was an outlier in network television.

Why can’t anyone seem to replicate what it managed to pull off? It’s because they take the structure and fail to tie it in with what they want their show to say. Ultimately, entertainment can be a lot of fun, but it can become great when it means something. We let go. We understand that whatever happened, happened. And then we move on. As Jack and Christian say in the series finale:

JACK: “Where are we going?”

CHRISTIAN: “Let’s go find out.”

Once we move on, the future isn’t written anymore.

Written by Michael Suarez

I write and occasionally teach English classes. When I'm not doing either, I'm watching something awesome, reading something awesome, listening to something awesome, eating something awesome, or resting. Actually, not everything I do is awesome, but I'm okay with that. My loves include Lost, cinema from the '90s and aughts, U2, David Bowie, most of Star Wars, and - you know what? I love a lot of things. More things than I hate.

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