'Lost': Wish lists

Tailslist In yesterday's entry, I tried to look at the various forms of lists on Lost as a way in which the show examines a particular modern anxiety: namely, that we don't often know who is pulling the strings around us. We wake up, shower (usually), eat some breakfast, commute, work, commute back, sleep, and start again. And all the while the world works in a similar fashion, usually in a lockstep pattern that we take for granted, until something happens that pulls the veneer of normalcy back and what we take as given we suddenly question.

When I was around eight or so, I was in the car with my dad. Can't remember where we were going, but I know that we were on the highway. I turned to my dad and asked, "Who's winning?" He wasn't sure what I meant at first, so he asked for clarification. "The race, Dad," I replied. And what I eventually conveyed was my intensely held belief that somewhere, on that road, there was a car that had no other cars in front of it. And that car? That car was winning.

I'm not sure why, in that particular moment, I had such clarity as to the existence of this first-place car, but I did, and moreover, I wanted to know the identity of the person in that particular automobile. I associated that car with power, with ruling that road, and I wanted to meet that leader. I didn't want to BE that leader, mind you: I just wanted to know who I was dealing with. That's all.

In Lost, we're seeing an incredibly dramatized version of that car ride, in many ways. What the Island seemingly provides for the Lostaways---a chance for an autonomy not possible in the civilized world---is in fact a fallacy. In no other place in the world (or other worlds, depending on your interpretation of the Island's location) is one more susceptible to unseen forces set upon controlling the actions, even emotions, of the inhabitants. A place in which reinvention seems not only possible but imminent is in fact a place in which autonomy turns into unwilling heteronomy.

And that's the tension at the heart of the show: nearly everyone on the Island answers to someone else, but here's the rub: they almost NEVER know who that someone is. Last week ago I offered up my "Who Watches the Widmores?" Theory of Lost, and I could an an addendum to that entitled "Who Lists the Listmakers?" Central to the mystery of the various lists in Lost stems from not knowing the identity of the person making said lists. We know these lists exist. We know these lists are executed. But we very rarely know the person, or even purpose, to these lists.

That lack of knowledge extends both throughout and beyond the Island, whether they concern lists derived from Jacob, Ben, or Abaddon. We have a vague sense of purpose as an outside viewer to the show, but for those involved in the fictional action of this drama, the situation is infinitely more muddled. What does it say about Jacob's list that it doesn't contain Jack? Did having Kate and Sawyer on Ben's list serve a greater purpose than simply leveraging Jack to perform spinal surgery? And what about those four particular people suited Abaddon's needs so perfectly?

All questions yet to be answered, and given what we've seen from flash forwards in Season 4, these questions still haunt the Oceanic 6. But let's look at this another way, if we can. The fact that these purposes are so hidden makes, on a purely practical level, dramatic television; it creates mystery in a show that would have none should people always answer questions directly upon first being asked. We'd all have laughed had Ben Linus strolled up to Lostaway Beach in Season 1 and shouted, "Hey, by any chance, is somebody here a spinal surgeon?"

But maybe, just maybe, such secrecy holds a greater purpose. Perhaps the list-makers have an end-goal in mind that could not be achieved through disclosure. Now, the various factions on the show all have various end-goals in mind, and these differing end-goals provide the "war," for lack of a better word, over the Island. On that Island, it's easier to achieve a heteronomous society: it's far simpler to control a small, contained population cut off from the rest of the world than it would be to affect control in, say, Cleveland. Not that there's anything wrong with Cleveland: but should you want to pull the strings necessary to affect the changes you want, you're better off doing so on an island in which you control pallet drops.

To try and illustrate the point I'm trying to make here about secrecy as crucial to the listmakers' plans, let me quote a little scene from Season 3's "The Cost Of Living". (Emphasis added.)

BEN: I'm telling you this, Jack, because my wonderful plan... got shot to sunshine when you saw my damned x-rays and figured out I was dying.

JACK: All of this... you brought me here to operate on you. You... you want me to save your life?

BEN: No, I want you to want to save my life. But we're beyond that now, so... all I can ask is that you think about it.

It's not about Jack simply performing surgery, in Ben's view. It's as much to do with the desire to do such action, in combination with the action itself, that will produce the desired results. As such, one can look at the lists as ways of moving chess pieces around the board, without the pieces knowing they are being moved. Those who make these lists have a sense (or perhaps even knowledge) that once there, these pieces will act in a certain way beneficial towards achieving the end goal.

Now, how could these listmakers possibly know all this? I understand if you read the previous paragraph and scoffed. But in the figure of Ms. Hawking, the show has introduced the notion that some form of future history has already been written in the world of Lost, not unlike the prophetic paintings of the late, sorta semi-great Isaac Mendez on Heroes. Telling Desmond WHY it's so important for him to push the button would render the very act of pushing the button moot, in that such knowledge would create a butterfly effect in which the achievement of the end-goal would be simply impossible.

A presupposition of future knowledge in the show is also inherent in The Valenzetti Equation, a formula that purports to know with scientific accuracy the end of days for mankind. The actions of many parties on the show (seen as well as unseen) can be understood simply as those taken by people seeking to introduce new variables to the equation. That these variables happen to be human beings is interesting but ultimately unimportant: what's important is to alter the pre-established narrative and create their own. Or, as a favorite song of Desmond's might suggest, what's important it to make their own kind of music.

But in order to complete this symphony, they need the proper instruments, but even more than that, they need properly tuned instruments. And that's what these lists ultimately achieve: the finest harmony possible in order to achieve the various end-goals sought. Both Walt and Christian insist that Locke and Jack, respectively, have "work to do." And that work can seemingly ONLY be done by them. But the Lostaways don't know what instrument they are, or in what social symphony for which they are being conscripted...and well, isn't that just like a lot of us here in the real world? Just as lost as Locke, or as headstrong as Jack, constantly thinking we're in charge, when in fact we're the furthest thing from "in charge" as possible?

Those who make the lists are in charge on Lost. And as long as they remain hidden, they remain in control. Unmasking these forces will make up the bulk of the show between now and Season 6. Only in this unmasking can our heroes truly be free, once and for all.

Ryan also posts every 108 minutes over at Boob Tube Dude.