When Season 3 of Lost came to its justifiably-lauded conclusion, after I’d processed what had just happened, I turned to my then-girlfriend and asked: “How the heck did we not see that coming??”
Among its strengths, Lost is masterful when it comes to the art of slight-of-hand misdirection. While you and I are staring in one direction (“Why is Jack all emo and Grizzly-Adams-y? When did this happen in the flashbacks?”), the show’s writers are quietly, busily working in another direction, setting up twists that seem obvious after the fact. It’s the mark of a great magician, and it’s precisely what the writers pulled off during that finale. The Season 3 reveal that Jack and Kate had somehow left the Island represented the writers’ biggest and most brazen bit of slight-of-hand to date. It was such a shocking bit of business that the show's writers gave it a nickname: "the rattlesnake in the mailbox."
Arguably, it shouldn't have worked as well as it did. Giving Jack a previously-unseen beard and showing him slumped in a room with a giant map plastered to the wall ought to have given most of us a giant clue that something was up here - but most of us were too busy watching the magician rolling up his sleeves to notice his assistant loading doves into his jacket. To torture the metaphor a little further: if it'd been a (rattle)snake it would have bit us.
The question that I found myself pondering this weekend, after a long day and a cold beer, was whether there’s a new snake and a new mailbox, so to speak.
Despite Lost’s wonderfully weird ‘mythology,’ it’s tendency to mix polar bears and inhospitable environments, it’s love of ‘ghosts’ and Whispers and apparent-gods, the show’s writers have always claimed that “character comes first.” For the most part, I agree. The show has fairly consistently emphasized the characters and their relationships over and above the Island’s mysteries. The off-Island “flashes” featured in the Season 6 premiere do just that. While there are a bunch of “coincidental” path-crossings, there’s close to zero mythology in the off-Island segments (the main exceptions being the shots of the underwater Island, and the disappearance of Christian’s coffin - which may be mythology-related, and may not be). All the Island’s weirdness is so far largely confined to the “on-Island” flashes. And I’d like to suggest, with absolutely no evidence at all to back me up, that this is both intentional and a potential clue.
Lost’s Season 6 premiere featured two separate storylines – one in which the Jughead group was pushed ‘forward’ into the ‘present day’ on-Island, and one in which it appears that the crash never happened, that Oceanic 815 and its passengers landed safely at Los Angeles International Airport. Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have both stated that the question of how these two storylines match up is a “slow burn” question that will be answered as the season progresses.
Are the castaways "split" into alternate versions of themselves, the way an atom is split to create a nuclear explosion? That’s certainly very possible, and the “quantum worlds” theory fits in well with much of what we’ve seen hinted at and explored on Lost in terms of scientific theories.
Are the castaways simultaneously experiencing "dual time-lines"? Have they created a separate "stream" in the river of time? That’s also a good, solid possibility, given everything we learned about the show’s conception of time in Season 5.
Those are the two most popular solutions to this particular question, as far as I’m able to tell. It’s likely that one of them will be proven correct over the course of the season. But there’s a third option here, and it’s one that I personally haven’t seen discussed. This is the figurative “second snake,” and if I'm right, Season 6 is the mailbox.
My nutty theory:
What if these off-Island segments are not an alternate universe, not an alternate timeline, not an alternate anything? What if, instead, these off-Island segments are actually the “second half” of Season 6, playing concurrently alongside the "first half" for the audience? What if all that we saw “off-Island” in the premiere comes about, not because of the Jughead detonation (which, as we’ve seen, has moved the castaways forward to the present on-Island), but as a result of everything we’re seeing play out now on the Island? What if Jack and Company need to see their Island destiny through before they can "go back" to the beginning and try again?
In other words: Maybe Season 6 itself a kind of giant version of the Season 3 finale. Maybe the off-Island segments in the premiere are the effective equivalent of Jack’s “flashbacks” from that finale, taking place "after" the events on-Island that we're also watching.
Why this isn't (totally) the ravings of an insane person:
At its heart, Lost has always been a show about human connection, about the value of community, of seeing things from another’s (an Others’) point of view, of the importance of reaching out to sustain each other in life.
What better way to emphasize this character-driven philosophy while still holding the audience’s interest with Smoke Monsters and kooky Temples and ash-barriers and whatnot, than to simultaneously show both the final act (on-Island) and the denouement (off-Island) at the same time? And what better way to emphasize the primacy of the human spirit and individual choice over warring pseudo-gods and mythical Islands than to give these characters the opportunity to truly heal each other, away from ooky-spooky Hatches and jungle-dwelling Others – back in the real world where that kind of healing and connection is so genuinely important?
Structurally, doing this ‘mirrors’ their past Season 3 finale and, more than that, it mirrors the season itself, with each “half” of the season mirroring the other half. In this way the show itself becomes a kind of metaphorical “spiral,” like the Orchid Station symbol, in which the Seasons reflect each other from opposing, increasingly-close sides.
While the journey of the characters is the focus of this show, this is the final season and, realistically, once you’ve told people about the nature of the Island, the identity of the Monster, and answered many of their burning questions, are people going to want to sit around and watch a few episodes worth of off-Island interactions which end up emphasizing the show’s themes? Would those stories really “matter” as much to the audience once the thrill-ride portion of the season was finished?
I suspect that the answer, realistically, is no. And that’s pretty reasonable, really. Think of Stephen King’s “The Stand” – a novel that Lost’s writers have cited as inspiration. I can only speak for myself but, as enjoyable as those final wrap-up chapters were, they felt like an inevitable let-down after the showdown in Vegas. Structuring the final season so that the audience watches both the “exciting conclusion to the mystery” at the same time that they’re watching character-based resolutions to individual story arcs solves this problem, and it adds potential “value” to the season. If I’m right (and again, that’s a HUGE if – this whole theory might end up disproved by tonight’s episode), then structuring the season this way encourages people to immediately go back and rewatch it once it’s concluded, so that they can experience the “ending”again.
What do you think? Should I be locked up? And are you as amped for tonight's episode as I am?