The thirteenth episode of the third season, "The Man from Tallahassee" — the unlucky episode for Locke — gathers more narrative threads together than it introduces. This episode shows us why Jack seemed comfortable with the Others (he was promised passage off the island), raises the point of why some people are rapidly healed on the island while others aren't (Ben's surgery isn't healing too quickly), let us in on both Locke and Ben's motivations, and we now know how Locke ended up in that wheelchair. Every moment in that chair must have been a reminder of being rejected by his father three times, each more violently than the previous. And this episode is fraught with narrative mirror twinning and audience manipulation (and I mean that in the best sense possible).
The literary/philosophical references of this episode occur mainly in the names. Ben's room is littered with books, but almost none of them can be made out (although Lostpedia claims Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time can be seen, which brings us back to "Flashes Before Your Eyes" and the ideas of time warps and wormholes on the island). The most significant play of names is between John Locke and Anthony Cooper. John Locke the 17th C. empirical philosopher was retained by Anthony Cooper, the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, and was mentor to Anthony Cooper, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, who became a somewhat prominent philosopher in his own right. As echoed in Lost, Locke the philosopher was retained by the elder Cooper when he helped Cooper with a surgery on his liver (something which the poet John Dryden teased Cooper about in his writings; apparently Cooper had to wear a silver tap to drain his liver, and since Dryden didn't approve of Cooper's politics, he teased Cooper about his tap). Cooper the philosopher was also a deist and Neoplatonist who believed, much as Locke, that people were not born bad, and the natural state of man was not warfare (contra Hobbes). He understood the person to be a mess of competing appetites which had to be brought into balance. His ideas were really only collected in his book Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (which Powell's has an early edition of for $450); this book influenced thinkers like Immanuel Kant, who in turn was strongly rejected by last week's Ayn Rand. The 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury is very much a kind of mirror-twin to the Anthony Cooper of Lost; Shaftesbury pushed the idea of an innate moral sense imbued in every person, and argued that morality could be calculated in an almost mathematical sense. The Cooper of Lost calculates his immorality in an almost mathematical sense; he enters relationships only when there is profit to be had, nothing more. Whereas the Cooper of history worked towards social harmony, the Cooper of Lost manipulates for self-benefit.
And manipulation is the key to this episode: Ben, the seeming leader of the tribe, is a master manipulator. But as I argue in the book, the audience is as much a part of this narrative as the characters, so when a character is being manipulated, we can watch our own backs too. When Locke visits the disability case worker in his flashback, we assume he's in the wheelchair, partly because he's sitting and we can't see if the chair is there or not. It's a bit of a reversal of what we saw in Locke's outback flashback when we first find he was in a wheelchair — a narrative mirror twin. But this time, we learn his disability is severe depression after being rooked of his kidney. That's the first clue that this episode is going to play with our expectations and predetermined assumptions. There are the little manipulations — Jack playing the piano (Charlie's domain), Richard Alpert first hinted at in the noir scene through the closet slats and showing up at the end (Ram Dass will be back), Kate being told by Jack, "I'm not with anyone, Kate," (so much for the relationships). Where things get interesting are the scenes that play with audience attention. Locke at the disability official's desk and its mirror-twinned scene from "Walkabout" are both moments where Locke was at his weakest in front of people of authority. Cooper pours Locke some MacCutcheon whisky, which we saw in "Flashes Before Your Eyes" was named for Admiral MacCutcheon. Admiral MacCutcheon was also a character from ABC's television version of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Bear with this one: Verne also wrote Around the World in 80 Days, a travel tale that employs a Henry Gale-like hot air balloon. This is their 80th day on the island, and Locke comes around full circle (around the world) in facing his fate on the island, deciding to destroy the submarine in order to remain on the island, and whole. Locke entering the submarine recalls Locke going down the Swan hatch at the end of the first season episode "Exodus," but this time he's controlling the destiny of the machine, rather than having his destiny controlled by the machine. When Locke looks down at his feet after being dropped into the wheelchair, the scene is a mirror twin to the pilot episode, where Locke looks at his feet after the crash and realizes he can feel them. Locke strung up in the boiler room at Otherville is a mirror-twinned image of Ben being strung up in the Swan station armory. Ben in the wheelchair is a mirror-twinned image of Locke off the island, and in many ways Ben is also a man of science while Locke is the man of faith. But Ben is manipulating Locke better than Anthony Cooper could have, and as such is a kind of mirror-twin figure of Cooper to Locke. The final scene of this episode, when Ben explains his gambit of using Locke to keep Jack on the island in order to not look weak to his people, is chess-like in its strategy, and the way Ben predicted Locke's reactions and moves was Desmond-like in its prescience. Locke won the chess match in the Flame station, but lost the one against Ben.
Yet Ben says two particular things that bring the audience right back into play. In these two instances, what he says has direct relevance to both Locke and the way the audience interacts with the narrative. The first occurs in Ben's kitchen, when he explains to Locke that if Locke blows up the submarine, he'll have a problem with his people. As much as his people love the island, he explains, they need to know they can leave it, and the sub "maintains that illusion" (which suggests they can't really leave the island). Ben's people — much as the audience itself — are there on the island because they want to be, but haven't necessarily made a full commitment yet. One of the major topics on websites like LOSTCasts, The Fuselage and Lostpedia is Lost's ratings, and how the thirty-some million audience members dropped by about half in the third season. Many of the grumpier responses to the complexities of the mythology reflected a desire for more traditional television faire, where an episode was self-contained and the threads were tied up more neatly than we were getting. Others complained that there wasn't enough focus on the relationships, while still others complained there was too much focus on the relationships. The scheduling issues didn't help matters. But Lost isn't like any other television narrative we've experienced, and as I've argued all along, it should be read more like a hybrid novel/game than a standard television show. That takes some effort; ask your friends who are familiar with the show, but found that when they missed an episode or two, the work it takes to catch up is almost prohibitive. If they get back into it, they have to wait for the DVDs to come out so they can spend a weekend crashing through the past episodes. Furthermore, the demographic where Lost still wins is in the 18-40-somethings; this is the generation who grew up with computers, video games, and their participatory narratives, and they're a much smaller population than the baby boomers (who make up the majority of the television-watching demographic). The attention the first season garnered could be likened to the attention a car wreck or side show gets; it was a strange phenomenon that caused many people to rubberneck over to ABC on Wednesdays to see what was going on. When more was asked of those people than they were willing to give, the audience thinned some, and even split into camps — those who devoured the complexity, and those who wanted little to do with it. That's not unlike what happened with modernist literature like William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying or James Joyce's Ulysses (and certainly Finnegans Wake, and possibly with their experimental inheritor David Foster Wallace), a phenomenon noted in the post for "Stranger in a Strange Land". But as Ben says, for those who stay (like Locke, who's made the commitment), he can show you "things you want to see very badly."
The other such double-meta-moment came with Ben's box metaphor. There's the link back to Hurley's flashback in the first season episode "Numbers"; when Hurley told Leonard Simms he played the lottery with the numbers, Leonard tells him he shouldn't have done that because he "opened the box." The box idea recalls the notion of the Skinner box experiments that were the Swan and Pearl stations (at least to an extent). Ben describes his box as a thing that contains imagination. In the second season episode "Man of Science, Man of Faith," Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman is shown on Desmond's bunk (another one of those narratively complex modernist novels). In that book, the protagonist opens a box he thinks contains money, but instead contains something called omnium, a substance that's at the root of everything and can be anything one desires. This sounds very similar to Ben's box, and omnium operates in a similar way to the stomping smoke that manifests as Yemi, horses, Christian Shephard, and possibly Anthony Cooper on the island (unless you think Ben really has Locke's father). But what other boxes would the audience be familiar with that contain imagination? The boxes we use to engage this narrative — television sets and computers. The television is the box that contains just about anything we could imagine, and in many cases shapes the contours of our collective imagination. It certainly has with Lost. The computer is the box where the audience goes to imagine theories about the show, and stray into the matrix of links and information that drive the audience's collective imagination about the show. Ben's box metaphor, like his talk of commitment to the island, breaks that fourth dramatic wall and steps into the world of the audience.
Of course this isn't the first time that's happened. Whenever the writers acknowledge audience response in the narrative, the fourth wall is busted. The alternate reality game was all about breaking down that wall, which was marked by a television commercial for the Hanso Foundation that appeared during station breaks. When that fourth dramatic wall is dropped, the audience becomes a character — we're literally scripted into a show that's structured like a game, invited to actively participate in solving its mystery. The mirror-twin shot looking down the hatch of the submarine/the Swan station is an homage to the game Myst, letting us know that this is more than just television. As a game, as a narrative that the audience actively participates in by using these boxes that contain imagination, Lost may very well be the most massive video game ever played.
Books mentioned in this post
J. Wood is the author of Living Lost: Why We're All Stuck on the Island