Man Out of Time: Lost Season 3 Finale

Curator's Note

It opens, of course, in medias res. We are thrown into the scene – thrown forwards, it turns out – and have to play catch-up from the clues. It’s a puzzle-scene. The dialogue is deliberately oblique, full of gaps. Its job is to set up a mystery that will last us until next season. The writers know we have months to debate the identity of the guy who, Kate says, is “gonna be wondering where I am”, and the man who was laid to rest with Jack as the only witness. The actors know each awkward shuffle, nervous smile and quick glance is going to be endlessly replayed and analysed. For once, the producers hold the cards, and they play them sparingly. For once, they can keep us waiting. Lost isn’t just a show. It’s become a game. Even its more casual viewers aren’t watching it alone, but as part of an online community. Every puzzle it sets is seized on and shared by a collective intelligence, a network of detectives – and solved almost immediately. Jack’s mobile, a Motorola RAZR, was instantly sourced as a 2006 model. The sign above the funeral parlor, Hoffs/Drawlar, was photoshopped into “Flash forward” by the end of the episode. The scrap of newspaper clipping discussing the death, glimpsed by a shaky camera at an angle for a few seconds, was grabbed, rotated, cleaned up and transcribed. But the producers asked for this; they constructed Lost, the show, as just the central text in a cross-platform experience, encouraging shared research and textual analysis. The Lost ARG in particular led to a host of resources dedicated to solving its mysteries – as I write this, my download window is just part of a mosaic, an intertextual patchwork, surrounded by the Lostpedia, Lost timelines and Lost location guides – and after completing an ARG, any little twists thrown up by the show itself are chickenfeed. They’re a time trial. Fans clocked the flashforward in seconds. Each episode has become a challenge between the creators and the gamers, starting... now. But when is “now”? Jack’s scenes in the finale have been universally described as flashforwards, although they take place in 2007. For us, of course, this date is now in the past; but more tellingly, they imply a more fundamental time-shift than most fans seem to have realised, or wanted to acknowledge. From Sun’s childhood in “The Glass Ballerina” and Ben’s birth in “The Man Behind the Curtain”, through Hurley’s 1980s upbringing and the 1990s “Purge” to the scenes at Sydney airport and the events on the Island – everything we’ve seen in Lost is a flashback from the “present day” we encounter in these scenes, for the first time.


Will is correct to point out the temporal anomalies that characterise Lost flashbacks and provide another example of the show’s built-in and studied incoherence. In dramatic terms, though, the season three finale is structurally satisfying. Jack’s dialogue - “I actually close my eyes and I pray that I can get back” - inverts the very first shot of the pilot episode of season one (where Jack opens his eyes and sees the island for the first time), thus reinforcing the sense that the show is preoccupied with presenting and exploring “islands of the mind”. Perhaps there is also a sly nod towards the different viewing habits of casual or regular viewers versus the obsessed? In much the same way that a committed viewer may tune in to the show on a weekly basis, Jack tells Kate that he gets on to aeroplanes “every Friday night” in an attempt to “go back”. Yet Jack’s tortured appearance and frustrated concentration in this scene also suggests the price to be paid for spending too much time worrying over every little detail of Lost - he’s becoming fixated, much as Will notes and as ABC may wish… Space is just as important as time though. Jack flies on a plane every Friday night from “L.A. to Tokyo or Singapore to Sydney…Because I want it to crash.” If Jack were to crash while flying between Singapore and Sydney he may very well end up completely lost. However, if he were to crash while flying between L.A. and Tokyo, he may end up…in Oahu, Hawaii – the “Lost location”. Like the hero of James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, Jack is a white man eager to return to utopia. The finale of season three thus compels viewers to want to return to the Lost island just as much as it encourages them to expect the characters to leave it behind forever in season four.

I forgot to mention in my initial post that contributors to the current Lost week on In Media Res are also all contributors to my forthcoming edited book, Reading Lost (IB Tauris) which will be available in the autumn (I hope). I'm given a chance at viral marketing and I blow it! Talk about not being suited to the internet age! So now I'm trying to correct my mistake through individual posts. Will come back later and say something less self-serving about Will's post.

My piece above is actually a "mobisode" trailing my chapter in Roberta's book. It features analysis of scenes not mentioned in that chapter, and entirely new sentences. I hope it fills in the gaps between any previous work of mine you might have read, and provides various entry points for newcomers. I have information that you NEED. Text me for a cryptic voicemail.

Will raises some key points, but I'm mostly struck by his last comment - clearly the way to address the challenges of academic publishing today is to emulate the media industries. We should embrace "transmedia scholarship": placing easter eggs for careful readers, create online puzzles to figure out what the devil we're talking about, market paratextual extensions tying into our scholarship, etc.. In fact, you might argue that our field has embraced the aesthetic of "structured inchorenece" for years!

Will raises a really interesting perspective about the Lost experience and I was particularly struck by his point that the creators have deliberatedly structured the show to encourage 'shared research and textual analysis'. This seems to be building upon the manner in which earlier cult shows, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and others I'm sure), fostered a community of fans who discuss the show passionately and in detail. Creators of these shows often engaged directly with the fan interpretation of plot events and character development. What Lost seems to be bringing to the mix is that focus upon research, textual analysis and puzzle solving (foreshadowed I suspect by Abrams' earlier show Alias which also fostered a degree of online puzzle solving). This engagement with analysis on the part of the fans raises the question of the blurred distinction between TV scholars and fans - a line that has been increasingly blurred over recent years as scholars openly declare their fandom as part of their scholarly approach. Are we scholar fans or fan scholars? If the fans are doing all of this close analysis, where do we fit in? Should we be doing something else?

>We should embrace “transmedia scholarship”: placing easter eggs for careful readers, create online puzzles to figure out what the devil we’re talking about, market paratextual extensions tying into our scholarship, etc.. I think we do that to an extent, when we quote our own work with a teasing "as I have argued at length elsewhere", or give a contributor's biog listing our related (spin-off) publications. This week on IMR could be seen as a cross-platform "overflow" (to use a term I develop at length in an earlier article) of Roberta's forthcoming book. If fans and producers are playing these intertextual puzzle-games together, with TV shows becoming increasingly part of ARGs, and the boundaries between both fans and academics, and producers and academics, are blurring (regular evidence of the latter can be found on Henry Jenkins' blog and The Extratextuals' site, for instance), then maybe we should be doing the same thing... doing it more than we are already. This week, it seems to me, represents a rare example of academics teaser-trailing a book through cross-platform convergence and interactive media. Maybe we don't have enough fans to play those kinds of games with -- we seem to end up mostly commenting on each others' work, producers talking to producers. (Maybe we are fans of each other).

And as much as I would love to contribute to this fascinating exchange - especially as the collection is part of our series - I can't as I don't have Sky. Yes, I can get the series on DVD but will constantly be out of the loop. I'm sure that there are many illegal ways to catch episodes as they screen (on the internet) but .. ah me.... for the moment I will have to content myself with teasers such as this week's mobisode snatch of what I am missing. In any case, the discussions coming out of this Lost themed week are compelling, even if I have to content myself with merely watching the extracts you are all using. But I'm not bitter! Kim Akass

With no offense intended to Will, I find it interesting that we didn't think to put a spoiler alert on this post, which means -- despite Kim's comment, which offers evidence to the contrary -- that we're assuming a safe period of time has passed, and that all "serious" viewers of Lost have already seen the last episode of the show's third season, and are aware of the temporal twist in place. As Roberta has pointed out, those of us contributing clips this week are doing so, in part, as a teaser for the longer work which will be released later this year. And from that angle, I should note that what interests me about this clip -- at least in relation to my own angle on Lost in the forthcoming collection -- is the role it plays in asserting that Lost has a master narrative, and that the events of past, present and future (whatever those terms now refer to) are all part of a coherent, premeditated arc which gives them meaning and resonance. It makes sense, then, that this twist on Lost's narrative -- which the producers claim to have been holding in reserve since the series debuted -- could not be introduced until after a key non-narrative event: ABC's announcement, about two months before this episode aired in America, that Lost would work toward a clear series end date in 2010. That is, until the showrunners could know with confidence how many more installments Lost would need to have, it would have been dangerous -- and maybe fatal -- to risk meddling with the show's temporal and chronological formulas like this. (P.S. I have a bad head cold right now, so apologies if this is a little incoherent. I can't quite tell.)

Oh, one more note: Somehow, even while watching this episode, I fell into that uber-geek group that knew it was a flashforward rather than flashback. The RAZR clinched it, but I remember thinking, even in the opening shot: I know Jack's pre-island timeline rather well, and given how tired he looks, and how long the beard is, and the fact that he's on an Oceanic flight... there's nowhere in his previous timeline that this makes logical sense. But what I found most interesting while watching this episode, since I suspected that it was a flash-forward, was the deliberate feint the writers use to misdirect viewers: when Jack is in the hospital, he challenges another doctor to go upstairs and find his father, who -- he guarantees -- will be far more drunk than Jack himself. Now, since even most casual viewers will recall that Jack's father died before the series began, this must be a flashback. Right? At least, that's what we're supposed to conclude. Well, maybe. In recent interviews, Fox told reporters he interpreted the line as a symptom of Jack's drug-addled mental state -- he doesn't remember, in this moment, that his father is dead. Possible, and I'd bet that's how he was advised to play the line by the showrunners. But the last possibility, of course, is that his statement will be even more significant, and that Christian Shephard WILL turn out to be alive again. (After all, the show has given sufficient evidence to suggest that this is possible.) What intrigues me about this moment, then -- and about this entire episode, really -- is the way that it plays with viewer expectations and assumptions on at least three different levels simultaneously. I think moments like this represent Lost at its best, and most successful.

I think Kim and Ivan raise some interesting points which is that many viewers are watching Lost on different timelines. While Will is talking about certain viewers watching Lost right away on download and interacting in these analytical ways, many others are watching it on TV and on DVD. I myself watched season three well after its original air date as I, like Kim, lost Sky 1 from Virgin cable so had to wait until I was lent copies from a friend. As such, I had already heard about the flashforwards before watching the finale and was equally transfixed by the techniques used to create a double reading of the episode. It could go either way. But the pleasure in this case was in actually spotting those double bluff moments - ie .it is still inviting reviewing and analysis.

Stacey asks "If the fans are doing all of this close analysis, where do we fit in? Should we be doing something else?" In part, we study the fans that do the close analysis. To further promote the book, in my essay I explore how one of the show's notable aspects is how it promotes "forensic fandom," a mode of active research-based engagement rare to big hits of popular culture. If our scholarship were aimed at solving the show's diegetic mysteries, I'd say we're aiming in the wrong direction. Instead, we should (and I believe do) focus on how the show matters in contemporary culture, how people engage with it, and what it tells us about the state of media industries and creative possibilities.

Stacey and Kim raise the interesting point that here (and in my book chapter) I'm basing my study of "fans" do on what *I* do. Of course, I offer evidence that a lot of fans do the same as me in terms of watching in the context of internet communities and as-it-happens detection -- and that many of them they do more, more extensively and more obsessively -- but I don't consider the implications of watching Lost on DVD, months after its broadcast. On the other hand, that's exactly how I watch The Wire.

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