the zebra problem, part 2: two kinds of mystery

Rhaomi, a MetaFilter contributor whose helpful summary of the Lost mythos I quoted in my previous post, commented that

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.

I respect this point of view, which was voiced slightly differently in Stephen King’s 1987 survey of the horror field, Danse Macabre:

Nothing is so frightening as what’s behind the closed door. The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she/he (more often she) approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open, and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. “A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible”, the audience thinks, “but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall.”

The artistic work of horror is almost always a disappointment. It is the classic no-win situation. You can scare people with the unknown for a long, long time but sooner or later, as in poker, you have to turn your cards up. You have to open the door and show the audience what’s behind it.

Of course, as my wife points out, nobody would accept this argument in other genres (“Comedy is SOOOO much better when you don’t hear the punchline”), and I think even in fantasy it depends greatly on the expectations that the author sets up from the outset. Many post-apocalyptic tales don’t bother to tell you exactly what the catastrophe was that brought down human civilization, even though that would appear to be a major part of the story, because writers tend to be more interested in — and expect their audiences to be more interested in — the effects of the disaster on human relationships than the technical details of the supervirus/atomic death cloud/whatever. The gloriously weird Peter Greenaway film The Falls pokes conspicuous fun at this tendency, calling its apocalypse simply “The Violent Unknown Event,” or “V.U.E.”:

All of that is fine with me, and if the producers of Lost had decided from the beginning that their story was about how being trapped on a mysterious island caused their characters to reflect on their weird/sinful/dramatic lives and come to some sort of peace with those lives, I’d have been totally on board. I still consider Mr. Eko’s defiant death the high point of the series, and we don’t need to know anything about how the Island works, or what its ultimate purpose is, to find it stirring and resonant:

But that is not what we were sold. We were repeatedly encouraged, by the writing itself and by the way the show was promoted on ABC, to think of Lost as having tangible mysteries whose resolution would be revealed in time. “Tune in next week to find out what Dr. Chang had for lunch!” And then next week comes, and it turns out the answer is that Dr. Chang had been born in 1542 and was actually Locke’s grandfather!!!! So then of course the tease becomes, “Tune in next week to find out how Dr. Chang and his grandson are connected to Sun’s dad’s corporation!” And you tune in next week and the answer is that Sun’s dad’s corporation is an energy anomaly created by an exploding submarine!!!! And so on, and so on. And you never find out what Dr. Chang ate for lunch, until five seasons later, when it turns out that he skipped lunch that day to go tanning. “So it was kind of stupid of you to have invested so much in that question, man. We’re about characters here, not lunches.” (Direct quote from Damon Lindelof.)

The problem with Lost, I think, is that it failed to distinguish, from the outset, between mysteries of fact — who did what when and with what implement — and mysteries of character — the human heart in conflict with itself, etc. And as a consequence, it didn’t tell either kind of story well. It resolved matters of fact in too vague and mealy-mouthed a fashion to satisfy our interest in the facts, and it was too chock-a-block with hints and startling coincidences to give its characters and themes the space they needed to develop.


AMC’s Mad Men, of course, famously begins with a mystery of fact — what is Don Draper’s real identity? But the series answers that question rather quickly — we find out before the end of the first season that he is actually an unhappy man named Dick Whitman who traded papers with a dead Army lieutenant named Draper. (It’s a bit of a steal from Antonioni’s Antonioni’s The Passenger, and a good one.) More details about Dick Whitman are revealed in later seasons (the first scene of the Season 3 premiere is a sort of shaggy-dog story about how his mother came to name him “Dick”), but it quickly becomes apparent that if there’s a central mystery in Mad Men, it’s not “Who is Dick Whitman?” Other questions take on much greater significance; in particular, this series shares with The Sopranos an over-arching question about the sexes: “Why does this smart woman stay with this jerkwad of a man?” (Except in Mad Men the question is more subtle, because Don is less of a brute than Tony Soprano, and you get the sense that he’s suffering as much as Betty in their marriage.)

Mysteries of character and human motivation abound on Mad Men. For example, what is Don Draper’s moral code? He clearly has one, and it involves holding your family together, not cheating a client unless he really wants you to, and not making rude jokes in mixed company. He also quietly champions the careers of both Sal, whom he knows to be gay, and Peggy Olsen, but no one would call Don a feminist or a progressive. Don’s moral code is, after three full seasons, still a mystery, still an onion to be peeled. I enjoy the glimpses of where Don came from and how he re-invented himself, but if I never saw anything more on Don’s past, I would still watch each episode eager to piece together who he is in the present. That’s a much greater mystery, and it yields the kind of “dynamic knowledge” that John Cassavetes scholar Ray Carney mentioned in his famous “lumpy oatmeal” interview:

[Art] is much more complex [than science]. It offers sensorily thick experience in place of abstract intellectual analysis. Art gives us dense, lumpy oatmeal experiences–not a thin gruel of rules and formulas… it replaces static with dynamic knowledge. It provides examples of knowledge in motion that resists codification. It asks us to enter into continuously shifting states of awareness that won’t stand still for analysis.

Revelations about the past deeds of the characters on Lost did indeed engage us on this “dynamic” level for a while. But eventually the characterizations came to a standstill, offering no new information about these people and, indeed, turning them into empty vessels of plot convenience. Which would have been fine, I suppose, if the writers had managed to make even the analytical, factual mysteries of the show worth following.


The third season Mad Men episode “The Arrangements” is, itself, a neat, single-episode mystery whose resolution is both ambiguous and deeply thought-provoking. In it, PepsiCo hires Don and the gang to produce an ad for Patio, a new diet cola, based on a highly abstract shot of Ann-Margaret singing against a blue background in Bye-Bye Birdie:

The client asks for an exact recreation of the Ann-Margaret shot, except with lyrics about Patio. Don & the gang go for it, except Peggy, who quietly complains to Don that this concept has nothing to do with their target market — dieting women. Don listens but ignores her counsel, possibly because he knows the client’s mind is made up.

At the last-ish minute, the director hired to make the commercial backs out, and Sal is given the opportunity to take the helm. In a creepy-sad-sweet scene, Sal acts out his vision for the ad to his wife, playing the Ann-Margaret role to the hilt (and distracting her, in an unhealthy way, from the sex she had initially wanted).

We don’t see the ad being shot, but we do see the result — as promised, it’s a perfect recreation of the Ann-Margaret number, but the client is dissatisfied. He’s unable to put his finger on the problem — and Don reminds him that this is “exactly — and I do mean exactly” what he asked for — but something about it rings false. He decides to be “magnanimous” and call his concept a bad one. He rises to go. Peggy is smug. Roger Sterling hypothesizes that the problem was with the actress — “She’s not Ann-Margaret.” Sal attempts to throw himself on his sword until Don tells him not to ruin “the only good thing that came out of all this,” suggesting that he’ll be hiring Sal to direct again.

What’s curious about the whole incident is how blank this high-concept ad becomes. A brassy singer on a blank background works in the original ad because the lyrics tell a story. Replace them with inane ad copy about diet cola and the whole thing turns into a weird work of meditative neoplasticism, empty of anything as mundane as a cogent, overt meaning. Maybe it’s this uncanny hollowness the client senses.

Or is that right? Does the problem somehow subtly lie with Sal? Does his use of Ann-Margaret as a stalking-horse for Secret Sal’s Gay Fabulousness end up tainting the whole project?

Or is Peggy right that a bunch of middle-aged men made arrogant and faulty presumptions about how an average woman wants to see herself?

The show doesn’t answer this question overtly, and although the attentive viewer knows what happened, he’s left to puzzle over what it means and whether even the characters really understand it. It’s a fundamental mystery about art and how we react to it, not a factual whodunit, and although I’ve seen the episode twice now I’m still disturbed and puzzled by it — and still grateful to the writing staff of Mad Men for leaving exactly the right things unsaid.

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One Response to the zebra problem, part 2: two kinds of mystery

  1. barrymanana says:

    Inferred is so much classier than conferred.

    Shoeless writer gripes http://wp.me/pVoc5-1o

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