Aaron Smith’s Response Journal

Sep18th

Lost and Manipulating Assumptions

In his essay “Film and Narrative Television”, Mittell writes “narrative deceptions use viewer tendencies to fill in narrative gaps with the most likely assumptions and follow typical schemata.” What’s amazing about Lost is that we never learn how to make a valid assumption.  The show understands how we insert missing story information with seemingly reasonable and obvious situations and then plays off that, toying with our assumptions for a desired effect.

When I first saw Walkabout, I was of course fooled by Locke’s “condition”. But the episode cued me to make another assumption, one that I struggled to validate as a viable solution to one particular story gap.

The assumption begins when Kate hears a strange noise and ruffling through the trees; the monster is heading right for Locke. Indeed, the monster appears to be face to face with him. We even get a point of view from the monster as Locke looks directly at it. But this is all we see. So the assumption before the commercial break is that Locke is going to have a confrontation with the monster.

Of course, that never happens. All we get is Kate telling Jack that the monster was heading in Locke’s direction and that it probably got to him. But we know Locke isn’t dead; after all, he hasn’t finished his flashback yet.

This assumption is confirmed when Locke comes out of the forest dragging a boar. And here is where I inserted my own reasonable scenario. I thought: “That wasn’t a monster Locke saw, it was probably just a herd of boars, one of which he killed.” For if it was actually the monster that he saw, we would have either seen it or Locke would have talked about it immediately when he got back.

Other cues set me up to make that assumption. Subconsciously, I must have remembered the first sequence. In the episode’s opening, the castaways hear strange noises coming from the fuselage. They approach it slowly, when suddenly they see two eyes. Jack yells “Run!” and then there’s chaos as everyone flees frantically. We see the terror in Charlie as the beasts zoom past him. After the dust clears and Charlie asks, “What was that?” Locke responds, “Boars.”

When I first saw the episode, the sequenced functioned as a “head fake.”  I thought there would be something important or startling in the fuselage, perhaps the monster or a survivor, but alas, it was only some boars. So later when Locke drags a boar out of the forest, I thought: “they did it to me again…what I thought was something really terrible was actually a group of boars.”

There were other signals that cued me to believe Locke saw a boar(s), not a monster. In the episode, (and throughout the show) the characters within the diegesis rethink what happens to them. They challenge their assumptions as we do. Jack thinks he sees someone following him but there’s actually no one there. Charlie thinks Shannon is interested in friendship but she’s actually using him for fish. There are countless examples of this as the show progresses. Thus, I think on some level I was trained by the characters’ experiences to rethink what I thought was true. Not to rethink the big twist of  Locke’s condition, that would go completely against my sensibilities, but rather to rethink something more obvious and simple-whether Locke actually saw the monster. Thus, my cognitive energy was spent uncovering what happened in the forest, not looking for clues about why Locke kept looking at his feet.

Furthermore, Lost’s flashbacks always have some thematic significance to their corresponding episodes. In Walkabout, Locke is finally able to find himself, do what everyone thought he couldn’t, and fulfill his destiny. It would make sense, then, that the point of the episode is not him confronting the monster, but killing the boar and finding his purpose on the island. So another factor contributing to my assumption that Locke didn’t actually see the monster was that such a confrontation would not fit with my thematic expectations for the episode.

Thus, while many clues told me Locke had seen the monster, (its signature noise, Kate’s dialogue, a high camera angle POV from it, and Locke’s resounding look of wonder) other narrative cues led me to think differently (the opening scene, the other characters’ experiences, Locke’s lack of a reaction when he returned, and my expectations of what would be consistent with the theme)

After learning Locke withheld information as a narrator, I questioned his response to Michael about not seeing the monster. Could he be withholding information again? Why? By the end, I didn’t know what to think anymore.

Admittedly, this may all be very confusing. Some people may have never doubted whether Locke saw the monster or not.  The point is this though: just when you think you know how the show is operating and just when you think you’ve made the right assumption, Lost turns in a much different direction. The writers do this, not by presenting false information, but by letting the viewers fool themselves. For me, I have stopped trying to do detective work in the episodes. Now I just let the storytelling manipulate my assumptions as I sit back and see where the narrative takes me. As I attempt to mentally fill in story gaps, I often rule out seemingly implausible scenarios, thinking “that can’t happen because I saw this.” It’s as if the show responds by saying: “Don’t tell me what I can’t do.”

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