the zebra problem: why television may not be able to sustain long-form mysteries

My wife Elana uses the following analogy to explain what it’s like to watch Lost:

You’re talking to a small child, and you ask him what he did today, and he tells you he went to the zoo. And you ask, “What did you see at the zoo?”

“Guess!” says the child.

“Give me a hint,” you say.

“It had black and white stripes!” says the child.

“Was it a zebra?” you ask, naively thinking that the child wants you to guess correctly.

“Uhhh… no. Keep guessing!”

For a kid, conversation isn’t about conveying information — it’s about keeping your attention. A guessing game is a good way to do that, but if you guess too soon or too well, the child gets frustrated and resorts to pretending that you guessed wrong, and it wasn’t a zebra, it was something else entirely.

Lost ended its 6-season run on ABC on Sunday, as you probably know. It was one of those cult phenomena that network TV occasionally stumbles into, like Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Star Trek. But unlike those warhorses, the rules of whose universes were stable and well-understood by both the their writers and the fans, Lost derived much of its ability to hook viewers from the addictive dopamine jolts that we get from an unstable, unpredictable environment.

Scientists think these surges in the feel-good brain chemical, which are the brain’s reward to itself for seeking out and finding patterns, are responsible for gambling addiction. I think they’re also responsible for Lostomania. Gambling addicts Paranoid schizophrenics Obsessive problem-solvers are suckers for clues, and Lost, in its first three seasons, laid out thousands of little clues, suggesting a vast tapestry of interconnections that would give even the smallest details meaning.

Yet seasons 5 and 6 of the show — and most especially the final episode, show plainly that all those clues and hints were horseshit. The writers didn’t have a clue how everything was connected, but they pretended they did. And when fans actually thought up a scenario that made sense, Damon Lindelof, like the child who won’t admit that what he saw was a zebra, stubbornly insisted something else entirely was going on.

Some fans seem to have bought this, even to the end. This Metafilter post comes as close as possible to making sense of the whole mess, but when you tap at it around the edges, you realize that it’s very shaky on the specifics. A lot of lofty mumbo-jumbo is about as close as we get to answering the core question — what the hell is the Island and why should we care where it sinks into the sea?

The Island [says the valiant Metafilter poster] is an axis mundi of fundamental power, old as the world, and, like most of life’s mysteries, ambiguous and imperfectly understood. The well at its heart is the Source of all life, all value, perhaps the soul.

But what does that mean, really? In the last episode,

Both sides converge on Desmond, whose immunity to the Source’s electromagnetic power allows him to approach it. They agree to let him disturb the Source — the Monster because he wants to destroy the Island and finally escape, Jack because he believes it will render the Monster mortal.

With the Source disturbed, the light is snuffed, its powers extinguished, and the Island begins to crumble, with unknown consequences for the world at large. [Emphasis added.]

Yes. Unknown because the writers didn’t bother to tell us.

What little explanation we do get about the Island and its battling supernatural forces comes from the episode “Across The Sea,” which is third from the end of the series. It’s on Hulu here.

So what we get in this episode is something dipping down to the level of subpar Star Trek — Godlike beings in togas! Styrofoam sets! Stilted pronouncements about the mysterious energy source! The great Alison Janney has to try to sell mushy nonsense like, “It must be protected, Jacob!” and “A little bit of this very same Light is inside every man.” But the amount of actual information revealed is essentially zero. Once again we are told that the Island is SUPER-IMPORTANT, The Key To Everything Everywhere — and once again we’re not told why or in what way.

This is not a trivial problem, by the way. It ruins the show’s fundamental story mechanics. The entire moral underpinning of the show depends on the vital importance of protecting the Island and maintaining its… something… that does… something important… for the world? The importance of the Island matters, because people commit heinous, evil acts — to include not one but two mass murders — in the name of “protecting” it. John Locke, Benjamin Linus, Jack Shephard, and Hugo all voluntarily align themselves with Jacob and his supposedly sacred task, but if the stakes of protecting the Island and its secret glowy-water cave are never given their due weight, then in fact this just becomes a story about a bunch of whackos murdering people out of misguided, quasi-religious zeal. Which might be an interesting twist, but I don’t think the writers are selling us a cynical, anti-heroic story in which The Man In Black turns out to be the only sympathetic character. I think they just don’t know why the Island is important, and they don’t care enough to figure it out.

And it’s not just on the big philosophical stuff that the writers get hand-wavy and unspecific. This Lost fan claims that the question of where the polar bears came from was resolved early on:


If you’re asking this question, you weren’t really paying attention to the show. Go rent Lost season 3 on DVD and see if you can’t figure out the polar bear “mystery” when the rest of us did… back in 2006. I’ll give you a hint: Dharma Initiative experiments.

Okay, so, in season 3 Sawyer and Kate were held captive by the Others for a time and imprisoned in a pair of outdoor cages left by the long-defunct Dharma Initiative. There’s a complicated mechanism in each cage for releasing food and water, and it takes Sawyer some time to work out the contraption, which in the end produces… fish cakes. One of the Others mocks Sawyer, telling him “the bears” had figured it out much faster.

In one sense, the blogger is correct — this provides some explanation for the bears being on the Island. Apparently the Dharma Initiative’s scientists imported the bears in order to, I guess, test their ability to figure out food machines. But why? Why polar bears rather than black bears or orangutans or elephants or tigers? Simply acquiring two polar bears is obviously an enormous expense — why would you do that unless you needed polar bears specifically? And what, exactly, did they want to know about polar bears, and why? And if the Dharma Initiative was brought down by a nearly-instantaneous, island-wide chemical weapons attack by the Others, who let the bears out of the cages? Was it the Others? Why did they turn large predators loose in the woods? And even if the Others or Jacob had some special bear-taming power that made that a safe and prudent decision, how is it possible that those bears survived on a tropical island for twelve years? Was Ben Linus feeding them?

The whole thing raises more questions than it answers. I could let a lot of these questions slide, of course, if some or all of it seemed consistent with what I know about the Dharma Initiative. But of course I don’t know anything about the Dharma Initiative. Clues have been left to dangle in front of me, but they do not add up to knowledge. The Dharma Initiative is one of the central mysteries of the first few seasons — the prospect of finding out more about this odd scientific venture that ended in ruin is one of the chief thrills offered by the show. But by the end we’ve learned next to nothing about it — its aims, its philosophy, its experiments, even its conflict with the Others are not much more explicated by season 6 than they were in season 2 when Desmond watched his orientation film.

The obsessive Lost fan, of course, doesn’t see it this way. For him, the carefully constructed mosaic of revealed “information” is not a lot of teasing with no resolution — it’s evidence of a grand design. But that design is constructed by his mind, by the neurological pattern-seeking structures that are rewarded by those consistent dopamine splashes. The Lost Island is not a well-thought-out world mapped out by an artful writing team, but to the fan it feels like one.

Sometimes the pattern we’ve drawn onto a meaningless stream of noise is more compelling than the inescapable, mathematical reality that it’s just noise. Which is why many, many people who were initially rabid fans of the show (I count myself one) have found themselves increasingly outraged in the past couple of seasons, as it’s become clear that we were sold a bill of goods, and that the end of the show was going to be a violation of our implicit agreement with the writers. It’s not just that the show ended on an unremarkable note, like Seinfeld, or that it frustrated expectations, like The Sopranos. The last two seasons of Lost were a slap in the face to everyone who put in the time following the clues and investing valuable mental energy in wondering about the Dharma Initiative, the Others, the intertwined lives of the survivors, and all the rest. It was all a big joke — all those clues were basically the equivalent of set dressing, and the series turns out to have been about revolting people doing evil things to one another with no clear motivation. Awesome.

I once wrote a long and worried inquiry into whether television could ever support the kind of narrative and technical experimentation that serious cinema can. I made a list of great, ambitious television shows, and, based on the strength of the first few seasons, I included Lost on that list for its narrative complexity and its moral reach. If I were to make that list today, I would leave both Lost and its sci-fi sister Battlestar Galactica off the list. I say this with sadness and disappointment, because the failure of either of those shows to come to a satisfying resolution doesn’t bode well for the future of complexly-plotted, novelistic shows that start off with great mysteries and then explore those mysteries fully.

Complexly-plotted, novelistic fiction on television seems increasingly possible, and it’s even possible for TV writers, given sufficient lead time, to bring a series to an ending that, if it doesn’t satisfy all fans, at least presents a consistent and compelling universe. The Sopranos and The Wire and The West Wing and Northern Exposure and even the awkwardly-interrupted Deadwood have proved it. But mysteries may be inherently limiting to open-ended drama. You only get so many guesses, after all, before somebody figures out it’s a zebra. And once they do, you have two choices — abandon the mystery, or lie and and alter it and claim it never was a zebra anyhow.

There’s a hybrid form, of course — the Veronica Mars/Desperate Housewives structure in which each season gets a fresh mystery arc that is neatly resolved in 23 episodes. I kind of admire this format for its unsentimental narrative efficiency. But it will never inspire the grandiosity of a Lost or a BSG. Maybe that’s for the best — maybe it’s simply beyond human creativity to write an open-ended story with a compelling mystery. Maybe we can only have one or the other. I’ll not complain as long as networks keep bringing us new and fascinating open-ended dramas (ah, Southland, queen of my heart!). But it saddens me a little that they may not be these operatic, nail-biting mysteries. There’s nothing more thrilling than wondering what’s down there in the hatch.

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One Response to the zebra problem: why television may not be able to sustain long-form mysteries

  1. Rhaomi says:

    Hi there, I’m the Mefite that posted the explanation you referred to. The questions you raised about the consequences of the Island’s destruction were actually just discussed today on Metafilter in a different Lost thread — I’ll repost my thoughts and see how they hold up to scrutiny:

    * * *

    The Source at the heart of the Island is the mythical axis mundi, the crossroads between hell, heaven, and earth, the origin of “life, death, rebirth.” Its light is found within every person, and its power can be controlled and directed by the Island’s protector.

    After being tossed into the Source, the Man in Black was irreversibly fused with the power of the Island and bound by Jacob’s rules (no leaving the Island, no killing the Candidates, etc.). The only way he can escape is if he breaks that bond. And the only way to break it is by disturbing the Source and snuffing out its primeval light. That’s why he becomes mortal after Desmond “pulls the plug” — the Island no longer has power, he’s no longer an immortal cloud of smoke, Jack is no longer protected by the rules, and anyone is free to leave.

    Of course, since the Source is the spiritual underpinning of the world, disturbing it has dire consequences for humanity. As the Mother said in “Across the Sea,” “if the light goes out here… it goes out everywhere.” Exactly what that means is left to the imagination. Perhaps the world will crumble just like the Island. Perhaps all life will die out. Perhaps the dead will no longer be able to move on — that white light in the final church scene looked familiar, didn’t it? Whatever it is, it is Very Very Bad, on a cosmic level.

    * * *

    Ultimately, some things are best left to the imagination. The bogeyman’s always scariest when he’s in the shadows, right? I think that worked well for Lost’s apocalypse scenario — enough clues about the nature of the Island to guess at its importance + oblique warnings of universal destruction are more effective than a matter-of-fact explanation, IMHO.

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