ALICE: "What sort of things do YOU remember best?"
WHITE QUEEN: "Oh, things that happened the week after next. For instance, now, there's the King's Messenger. He's in prison now, being punished: and the trial doesn't even begin till next Wednesday: and of course the crime comes last of all."
WHITE QUEEN: "The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday — but never jam to-day."
There is no easy entrance into "Through the Looking Glass" except through the past episodes. The author of the episode's namesake, Lewis Carroll, was a mathematician and logician whose own Through the Looking Glass is an exercise in mind-bending logic. All assumptions are turned inside-out, as if mirror-twins of their presumed originals, and the season three finale demonstrates how some of our own assumptions of the narrative are turned inside-out. Even time works wrong.
Many episodes of Lost seem to have an iconic image, one scene that encapsulates a particularly important theme or motif from that episode. "Through the Looking Glass" has a number of them — which would you choose as iconic? Drug-addled Jack getting ready to jump from a bridge? The line of Lostaways in exodus off the beach to the radio tower, moving up a mountain as opposed to down into a hatch the last time the Others came? The vicious Passover theme of the tent attack? The dedicated soldier Bonnie beating the face of Charlie? Jack getting kissed by Juliet, then telling Kate he loves her? The unknown coffin? Locke crawling through the horror of the mass grave, ready to top himself, and being visited by Walt? Ben getting hammered to meat by Jack, then introducing Alex to Rousseau? The indestructible Mikhail with a harpoon in his chest pulling a seeming-suicide bombing to destroy the Looking Glass? Hurley ramming the VW bus into the middle of the beach action? Sawyer killing Tom in cold blood? Charlie with his palm against the porthole window, "NOT PENNY'S BOAT"? Or the moment we get confirmation that Jack's backstory is an entirely new narrative device for the series, a flashforward?
There's probably more. But since the best way into this episode is through previous episodes, some of the mirror-twinned moments are worth exploring. But this mirror is inside out. Take the notion of heroes: Jack is the presumed, outward hero to the group, the Moses leading his people to safety. Yet it's Charlie who, as we saw from "Greatest Hits," is truly heroic, while Hurley is mock-heroic, performing his act more out of a desire to be accepted rather than some larger pressing need (and Sawyer gets on him for that, "Stay in the bus, hero"). Charlie was the drug addict who recovers and outstares his own death with a samurai-like sense of purpose, while Jack becomes the formerly purposeful man who becomes a drug addict and accidental hero and can't face his fate. In a way, Jack is like Moses; Moses was not allowed into the Promised Land, and when Jack gets there (off the island), he finds it's not what it promised to be. For him, the Promised Land is hell.
Biblically, "Greatest Hits" pointed in the direction of Shiloh in the Book of Judges, where the Israelites take women from Shiloh in order to replenish the Tribe of Benjamin. But marking the tents with white coral also recalls the biblical Passover, when the Israelites marked their doors with the blood of a sacrifice in order to be avoided by the plague-dealing Angel of Death — yet here the mark works conversely. If the Others were the Israelite Tribe of Benjamin in previous episodes, the mantel of Old Testament holy wanderers now goes to the Lostaways.
Even the black/white theme has shifted: the white of the coral paralleled with the red blood marking of the sacrifice echoes the geographically huge game of chess played in Through the Looking Glass, where one side is white and the other side is red. (Although Alice's kittens in the normal world are black and white.) In Carroll's book, Alice takes part in the chess game on request of the Red Queen, but as a pawn on the side of the White Queen. Ben sends his pawns to the beach and the Lostaways send their knights out to the Looking Glass station, while Juliet and Naomi play more sinister versions of Alice, agents provocateurs operating on hidden agendas.
Secret agendas often lead to torture in Lost, another past theme played with in different ways. Sayid was a torturer, and he was tortured by Rousseau. He later tortured Ben in "One of Them" — which is what Bonnie keeps calling Charlie while she busts up his head. Again, we have a mirror-twin reversal of fortune, with the Lostaway now being the infiltrating Other. What's interesting here is what Bonnie's character represents, the faithful servant soldier who implicitly trusts Ben, trusts Jacob, and declares, "The minute I start questioning orders this whole thing, everything that we're doing here, falls apart." Ben, the autocratic leader who maintains power through a cult of personality and by convincing people that they actually share some power, is beginning to lose his grip. His people begin to question him, his decisions become more rash, and little pieces of information he withheld, lies that he told for what he — not his people — determined was the greater good, are damagingly disclosed. In Bonnie's last minutes, knowing that she was in the Looking Glass for a lie and it cost Bonnie her life, even she turns on her leader. When Bonnie thought Ben told her the truth, she was fiercely loyal and aggressive to Ben's enemies, but when she learns Ben wasn't straight with her and Charlie was, that loyalty switches. Clearly a woman of certain principles, she makes sure she dies for something that she knows she can believe in.
Sawyer may not ever get that luxury. He wore his Sawyer mask for so long, it's unclear if there's anything behind that mask, or if that's what he has become. When he killed Cooper, he also seemingly killed that which drove his life, and may have left him at a loose end when it comes to his own humanity. He can now kill with very little compunction, and may be just as dangerous as he claimed Juliet was. And given the time weirdness, is anyone else looking back on the second season's "What Kate Did" and seeing Sawyer's delirious cry "Why did you kill me?" in a different light?
The killing in "Through the Looking Glass" and the third season has grown colder and more detached than a season ago (and a timeslot ago). When Michael went into a station and shot two women of his own group, it tore him apart. When Mikhail went into a station and killed two women of his own group, he was just following orders, and almost seemed to smile. (Props to faramir for writing with that mirror-twin moment.) The cyclopean soldier with the anarchist's namesake is still a conundrum; he seems to be questioning his leadership, but then again he's also seemed to die, more than once.
Death also keeps nearly finding Locke. As Locke lay in the mass grave — an obscene parallel to the Adam and Eve in the caves — he goes through the opposite of what he found when he first landed on the island. When he comes to and his eye opens, he finds his legs fail him, and the first thing he wants is to die; like the flashforward Jack, Locke's despair leads him to want to give up. But just as Locke nurtured Walt in the first season, Walt (is it Walt?) helps Locke tap a deeper potential. He even manages to walk, and throw a knife like he hasn't since the pilot episode. After "The Brig," though, it seemed Locke wasn't a killer, so we have to ask why he was able to shiv Naomi, but couldn't bring himself to maim Jack when it counted.
Those are some of the mirror-twinned moments, and there are doubtless plenty more that it takes a blog to find. But the clearly weird thing going on in "Through the Looking Glass" is the way time is being played with. The narrative itself twists inside-out, with the locus still on the island yet the flashes happening in the opposite direction. Like the White Queen of Carroll's text explains, we're seeing the future and its impact on the present. The big reveal here is when Jack tells Dr. Hamil: "You get my father down here, get him down here right now, and if I'm drunker than he is, you can fire me." Christian Shepherd was pretty dead in Sydney, and was missing from the coffin on the island — although it's never been clear if the body was actually in the coffin in the first place. Some amazing healing has occurred on the island, but no real Lazarus moments have happened. So is Jack just psychotic, or is Christian there on another floor of the future hospital, drunker than Jack? And if he's there, is this another one of the subtle changes that occurred from Des saving Charlie?
I'm planting a flag here — when Des saved Charlie, he changed that past and present as well as the future. Charlie couldn't swim in the first season, and he's all of a sudden a swimming champion who makes an impressive dive in "Greatest Hits," a dive that Mikhail needed scuba gear for. Like Charlie's newfound innate swimming ability, perhaps in the re-made past/present/future, Christian Shepherd didn't die. And maybe that's why Kate seems to be conspicuously lacking her trademark freckles. Go back and look, and try to find her freckles; they're non-existent (except for the scene when Jack tells Kate that Jin, Sayid and Bernard are dead, where the shadow of a couple nose freckles can be barely seen when the light hits right). If you watch the third season again, the last time Sawyer calls her "freckles" is in "Catch-22" when he barges into her tent while she's changing. From that episode on, Kate's freckles are pretty hard to pick out. She even seems to call attention to this when she asks Sawyer, "And since when did you start calling me Kate?"
Entertainment Weekly's own Lost columnist Doc Jensen published an idea I've been kicking around for a few weeks about how this past/present/future thing works. The idea is that time is another dimension of space, not separate from it. A mathematician named Hermann Minkowski came up with the idea in an attempt to provide a mathematical setting for Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity. If time is connected to space, then all time is occurring at once, just as all space is occurring at once. That means that there really is no past or future; we just experience it in a mediated way because our brains have enough trouble wrapping around time-bending in narratives, let alone in our walking-around lives. (Hence jam yester-day and jam to-morrow, but no jam to-day, because to-day is all that really is.) If spacetime is indeed the case (and Minkowski spacetime is accepted), then when Des alters the seeming future, he's also altering the seeming past and the entire present. Save Charlie from lightning, and Christian Shepherd didn't die because it's no longer the same world. Save Charlie from drowning, and Charlie becomes a swim champion. Save Charlie from an arrow in the throat, and Kate's freckles disappear.
This is also similar to how another character from another oft-alluded book, Alan Moore's Watchmen, experiences the world. Doctor Manhattan was caught inside the test lab during a nuclear physics experiment and was physically altered at the quantum level. Seemingly vaporized after the accident, his atoms slowly reformed themselves into a semblance of who the man once was. Only he now experiences physical reality at its most fundamental level, including the way all time is occurring at once. This engenders a deep degree of deterministic fatalism in the man, because he knows when and how all people will die, and does nothing to stop it (he could have saved JFK). Furthermore, the more powerful he becomes, the less interested he is in helping anyone. His altered perspective fundamentally changes his relationship to the social whole. He declares at one point that we're all puppets, but he's a puppet that can see the strings — which is nearly echoed by Locke in the second season finale, when he tries to keep Eko from the computer: "No — it's not real! We're only puppets — puppets on strings!" There are no better metaphors for this than a novel or film or television narrative, as the plot contains all the events — all time and all space — at once, yet we the audience experience it in a mediated way. But as we know, Lost has much but not all of its narrative apparatus in place, which is where the audience helps play a part. As such, it escapes Doctor Manhattan-like or White Queen determinism.
Where does this come back around to "Through the Looking Glass"? When Jack gets on Naomi's satellite phone and contacts the freighter, the man who answers says, "Minkowski."
That satellite phone was meant to contact the boat, and this is where we get some recuperation of The Lost Experience. Although it wasn't necessary to play the alternate reality game in order to get everything that's happened this season, The Lost Experience provided a good deal of ancillary narrative material and extra understanding. In it, we learned about Thomas Mittelwerk, an Austrian biogeneticist who was hand-picked by Alvar Hanso to work for the Hanso Foundation. (His last name is also the name of an underground rocket facility built by the Nazis with slave concentration camp labor.) Mittelwerk eventually overthrew Alvar Hanso and used the enterprise for his own purposes, which are still unclear. However, he was hell-bent on finding the island, and in order to get there, he ordered a special freighter called to be developed, a boat that could handle the rigors of the voyage to the unfindable island. And he hired Mr. Paik of Paik Heavy Industries — Sun's father — to build the ship, the Helgus Antonius. Is Naomi's boat the Helgus Antonius?
Finally, another recuperation seems to be the director Stanley Kubrick. He was first alluded to when Karl was locked down in the overstimulation chamber, a la Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick was also a director of exquisite use of symbolism, and the Looking Glass station itself points to a few of Kubrick's stylistic and symbolic moves. When Charlie is tied down to the chair watching Bonnie and Greta in the communications room, the point of view from the outside looking in makes a kind of double-eye image. It also recalls the scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey when Dave and Frank go inside a pod to be away from HAL, as the camera moves back and forth from within the pod to HAL's point of view.
This suggests the Looking Glass is something more powerful than just another hatch, and given the time connotations with its name (the watch on the rabbit symbol) and the way this hatch controls all communication, maybe that suggestion isn't just an echo. The Looking Glass doesn't have its own will like HAL, but it controls and cuts off outside communication like HAL. Indeed, another echo occurs when Des looks through the grate of the locker; if the Looking Glass is a kind of underwater HAL, Des would be looking into it, just as Dave looks into HAL at the end of 2001:
Of course we've had no end of symbolism throughout the third season, especially the eight-pointed cross-star symbol. And that comes up in yet another permutation in the Looking Glass hatch, complete with its eight spires, around the communication room's porthole window:
The Lost audience has been scrambling to find meaning for these symbols all season. This may not add any insight into their meaning, but Stanley Kubrick also included such an eight-spired symbol in the background of the ballroom scene in Eyes Wide Shut:
Finally, there's the more clearly delineated echo of the 2001 hatch and the Dharma Initiative hatch logos:
Is Stanley Kubrick an informing presence in Lost? In what ways? It's something to think about between now and next February.
And not to be outdone as far as symbols go, the numbers aren't gone — there were 15 people killed in this mirror-twin to the Dharma Initiative purge.
This is probably enough to reflect on for now and the next nine months. Would that we could flashforward and find out about that boat and who's coming to the island, how Walt helped Locke and if he's back, whether Michael and Walt made it out or were they picked up by the Helgus Antonius, if Sawyer will continue to be a cold killer and what that bodes for the rest of the island inhabitants, what the temples are for, and just what are those more atavistic secrets of the island.
And why does Jacob need help?
Guys, where are we?
*I'd like to offer my deepest thanks to Chris, Dave and Powell's Books for offering me this space to spill my guts and organize my thinking about this incredible show. This really has been an opportunity of a lifetime, and you've been very generous. Thanks to my publisher GK Darby for getting me the gig in the first place; that was a stroke of genius. And most especially, I want to thank the readers and those who've commented on this blog. I had no idea how this would turn out, what the level of discourse would be, and what my role would be. My somewhat vague expectations were exceeded from the start. You've been a particularly perceptive, intelligent and forgiving audience, you've pushed my thinking and each other's, and like hjortron flicka said in the "Greatest Hits" comments, this kind of interaction is a very real experiment that crosses the lines of pop culture, literature, philosophy, art, and democracy.*
Books mentioned in this post
J. Wood is the author of Living Lost: Why We're All Stuck on the Island