The Hierarchy of Mystery

As discussed in Chapter 3, narrative gaps leave room for transmedia expansion. But fans are often skeptical of endlessly deferred narratives. In his article, “Do you even know where this is going?” Ivan Askwith discusses one of the major debates surrounding Lost –whether or not the writers know where the show is going.[1] Ex-writer David Fury, in an interview with Rolling Stone, confirmed Lost fans’ worst fears when he insisted that Lost had no “master plan.”[2] In response, Lost writer Javier Grillo-Marxauch explained that television narratives are an ongoing, complex process:

The truth about all television shows – arc-dependent or otherwise, is that they are slightly amorphous living beings. They develop over time and things that work or don’t work are used or discarded accordingly…We allow ourselves the freedom to incorporate new ideas that improve and enhance our story.[3]

Grillo-Marxauch points out that the Lost writers plan a road map of the series from the very beginning, but leave many unanswered questions to be addressed later. For example, while the writers knew who the Others were early in the first season (Grillo-Marxauch claimed this was the case), they did not know who would be their leader until Michael Emerson delivered an impressive performance as Ben Linus.[4] Unlike films and novels, television is not the product of a single creative vision and thus certain elements must be left open for future development. Nevertheless, after Twin Peaks and The X-Files, fans worried that they were being duped and misled into following the show’s mysteries without any set resolutions.

Lost, fundamentally, is a show about mystery. Cuse describes Lost’s uniqueness in its ability to maintain the power of the question in the age of the Internet where answers are often readily available:

What we’ve been able to do, which I think is different than most network shows, is leave certain things ambiguous and open to interpretation. And that allows people to get on the boards and theorize about what’s meant by a given story or scene, or move in the show’s direction. It allows people to feel participatory about the process.[5]

Askwith points out that unlike Twin Peaks, Lost provides adequate satisfaction by resolving some of the many mysteries, thereby assuring viewers that there are answers to the larger mythology.[6] The promise that ‘everything happens for a reason’ propels casual viewers to tune in each week and assures hard-core fans that it is, in fact, possible to figure everything out. It is a promise based on the logic that not all questions have equal narrative weight. Lost carefully plays with a hierarchy of mysteries made up of four types: endlessly deferred, lingering, implied, and hidden. Some mysteries are meant for all TV viewers, while others can only be detected by “forensic fandom”.[7] I am suggesting that all mysteries can be applied to this hierarchy. Some fans may be more interested in the Others than the secrets of time travel. Though it is impossible to explain what types of mysteries appeal to a particular audience, these categories are useful when deciding how to present the narrative-pay off for a transmedia extension.  Before examining this further, I must first provide a description of each type of mystery. It is worth noting that mysteries can move from one category to another—as the television show’s narrative changes, some mysteries are emphasized, while others take a back seat.

The most important and tantalizing questions, as discussed in Chapter 3, are endlessly deferred mysteries, the essential mysteries of a show that are prolonged across seasons. What is the smoke monster and why is it terrorizing the island? What is the Island and why is it important? Who are the Others? Whereas Twin Peaks was tied down by one large-scale mystery, Lost incorporates multiple. Thus, in contrast to Twin Peaks, which collapsed after resolving its endlessly deferred narrative, Lost can afford to answer one or two major enigmas without hurting the show’s appeal.

Lingering mysteries are mysteries that are important and memorable for casual viewers, but do not carry the same narrative weight as endlessly deferred mysteries. Crucially, casual viewers cannot use their imagination to satisfactorily fill in the gaps of lingering mysteries. Traditional television viewers may be distracted by new mysteries and plot lines, but they still expect answers to such questions as, What are the whispers in the jungle? Why do the Others refer to Walt as “special?” Who are Adam and Eve, the two corpses in the cave who had a small bag containing a black and white stone? The producers of Lost have admitted that some lingering mysteries will be left dangling, such as why Libby, Hurley’s romantic interest, was in the same mental institution as him before they met on the island. Carleton Cuse told Lostpedia:

Everything is graded in terms of importance for us, and, as we are doing the last season of the show, it’s not going to be sort of a didactic, you know, here’s a list of a thousand questions that we’re going to answer. That would not make for a very entertaining show…We are focusing on what we consider to be the main questions of the show and the main narrative. It’s impossible to tie up every loose end…Libby’s story is incredibly tangential to the principle action on the show.[8]

Indeed, not all lingering mysteries can be answered in the television show. But transmedia storytelling can explore tangential stories and provide answers to those fans who really want them. Of course, as I will discuss in 4.3, explicitly answering a lingering mystery in a transmedia extension is risky because casual fans expect such major questions to be addressed solely on the core television show. But because Libby’s mystery is relatively trivial compared to the wealth of other enigmas, one could imagine her back-story presented in at least a web series.

Implied mysteries are less detectable to casual viewers. They are passing references to external people, places, or events, similar to Long’s use of potential migratory cues.[9]   The casual viewer often does not think to ask these questions or they can fill in the gaps with their own imagination. Yet hard-core fans of Lost have an interest in these questions. Where did Jack get his tattoos? What do the various elements of the mural in the hatch mean? What do the hieroglyphics represent? Who were the other people on the Flight 815? The latter question exploded on the show midway through season 3. The producers decided to introduce new faces to the Losties crew by introducing the back-story of Nikki and Paulo, two characters on Flight 815 who were not seen in the previous two seasons. As Damon Lindelof said:

For Nikki and Paolo, we kept hearing fans saying, “What’s going on with the other 30 people on the island? Why don’t they go on any adventures?” And we were like, “That’s a good and legitimate gripe, and let’s see if we can figure out a way to get some of those guys into the show.” [10]

Fans were not receptive to these new, unlikable characters. They complained that Nikki and Paulo jarringly appeared with speaking roles and that they were forced into the show in order to waste time. The producers were dissatisfied with the characters as well, and decided to literally bury Nikki and Paulo alive in “Exposé.”[11]  Indeed, sometimes implied mysteries are best left up to the imagination—or, better yet, to transmedia extensions. One might imagine the story of Nikki and Paulo in a videogame or series of mobisodes. That way, Nikki and Paulo’s back-story and island story could have been explored without upsetting the flow of the show. And with the validation effect, fans could have felt rewarded by Nikki and Paulo’s brief appearance, rather than appalled by it.

Finally, hidden mysteries are only noticeable to the hard-core fan who rewinds, re-watches, and freeze frames parts of an episode. These “Easter Egg mysteries” are thus only available through DVDs, DVRs, or the Internet. Often times, they act as clues to larger mysteries, but are mysteries nonetheless in and of themselves. For example, Why does the shark have a Dharma Initiative symbol on it? Why is Henry Gale’s balloon sponsored by Widmore, Mr. Cluck’s Chicken, and Nozz-A-La-Cola? Why does Eko, an ex-drug smuggler from Nigeria, see flashes of his life within the smoke monster before he dies? One of the most notable series of hidden mysteries occurred in “Lockdown.” In the episode, Locke is trapped under the blast door of the hatch when the black lights suddenly come on, revealing an ultra violet map. The contents of the map were illegible to the naked eye, since much of it was scribbled in Latin. But before any television viewer could begin to look at the writings, the lights came back on and the map was gone. Within hours, hard-core Lost fans freeze framed the image and translated the map in its entirety on Lostpedia, revealing the names of the six hatches on the island and their various descriptions.[12] But there were also new mysteries introduced by the map like, Why are some of the writings crossed out? Why are many of the statements and locations on the map speculative? What does the station marked “unknown” do?[13] At the time of this writing, these questions have yet to be answered.

Sometimes fans interpret hidden mysteries even when they are not there. For instance, in “The Economist,” Sayid finds a metal bracelet on Naomi’s body. Many fans speculated that there was a connection between Naomi’s bracelet and the bracelet worn by a women Sayid killed. The producers stepped in, however, and announced that there was no connection: “sometimes a bracelet is just a bracelet.”[14]

This hierarchy of mystery allows different viewers to find an appropriate ‘level of difficulty’ in viewing the show. As Carleton Cuse explains:

I also think that it’s rewarding for the audience to not always be frustrated and behind. We have certain mysteries on the show that we hope the audience figures out on their own, and can have the satisfaction of saying “Aha! I knew that! I knew that the guy on the boat was going to be Michael!”…We intentionally mix up the degree of difficulty in solving the puzzle.[15]

By incorporating a hierarchy of mystery, Lost ensures that viewers can determine how deep they want to travel ‘down the rabbit hole.’ It is important, then, that transmedia extensions match the level of difficulty for their intended audience. In general, I would argue that transmedia extensions should primarily address implied and hidden mysteries, since television viewers are not as concerned with these. But transmedia extensions can also provide hints into endlessly deferred or lingering mysteries, allowing fans to construct their own theories and test them when Lost airs. In 4.3, I discuss how Lost’s transmedia extensions should address specific kinds of mysteries.

[1] Askwith, Ivan. “Do you even know where this is going?” Reading Lost.
[2] Ibid.
[3] This excerpt is from an interview with Grillo-Marxauch, who responded vehemently to David Fury’s claims that is no master plan to Lost.
[4] Thomas, Rachel. “An Interview with Michael Emerson (Ben Linus/Fake Henry Gale, Lost) <>
[5] Hoey, Matt. “All who wander are not Lost.” Written By: The Magazine of Writer’s Guild of America, West. September 2006. <>
[6] TV 2.0: Reconceptualizing Television as an Engagement Medium

[7] Jason Mittell uses this term to describe the way that Lost encourages a ‘hyper-attentive mode of spectatorship,” where hard-core fans engage with a text as detectives, seeking out clues and assembling evidence. In Mittell, Jason. “Lost in a Great Story.” Reading Lost.[8] Interview with The Ama1. Lostpedia. 17 April 2009. <>
[9] Transmedia Storytelling: Business, Aesthetics, and Production at the Jim Henson Company.
[10] Murray, Noel. “Lost‘s Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse.” A.V. Club. 22 April 2008. <,14231/>
[11] Jensen, Jeff. “Lost in Transition.” Entertainment Weekly. 13 April 2007. <,,20034817,00.html>
[12] Lostpedia is an online, collaborative encyclopedia for all things Lost.
[13] All these questions were discovered on Lostpedia. <>
[14] Jensen, Jeff. “’Lost‘: Mind-Blowing Scoop From Its Producers.”
[15] Murray, Noel. “Lost‘s Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse.”

One thought on “The Hierarchy of Mystery

  1. Pingback: is this ARG? » Blog Archive » Social Media Digest for May 10th

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *