Lost, Alternate Histories, and Fan Literacies

My colleague-to-be, Jason Mittell, posted at Antenna on the mixed reaction to this week’s Lost (the third episode in the final season)… After reading his post, I was surprised to look around and find mild disappointment a theme among some reviewers, when I had found the episode quite engrossing. I’ve been thinking a little bit about why that is, and why this particular episode (and the whole season at this early stage) has spoken to me in the way it has.

[Warning: Spoilers for aired episodes below…]

I haven’t really written on Lost before; I came to the game very late. Despite showing the pilot in one of my intro classes (and admiring it each time), I only really mainlined the show a couple of summers ago. For some reason, something about season 1 had really repelled me, with its emphasis on Kate/Sawyer banter and Jack’s heroism. It wasn’t until I raced through the DVDs that I became drawn into the mysteries and narrative hooks, and recognized the show’s ambiguous portrayal of its many characters (including Jack and Kate) went beyond pure celebration. But I still had trouble getting a hold of Kate’s character, even though some of my friends adore her. I felt like I was always on the surface with Kate, and never really wanted to go further. As my husband put it, how many times can we see Kate desperately on the lam?

So this past episode was the first that really drew me into Kate, and this is what I think is going on: seeing Kate end up at Claire’s side even when the plane *hadn’t* crashed fleshed her character out for me. She was no longer simply defined by the extreme situations she’d been thrown into. Something within her has driven her to seek out Claire and Aaron. And yes, maybe the show took some narrative short cuts with it, but that’s the thrill–the way the episode conveyed that sense that even though it doesn’t quite make sense (yet, at least), even so Claire and Kate end up together.

And I think that this is part of a larger appeal to me for this season. Yes, the flashes forwards and backwards have been immense fun. But the flash sideways structure, the playing with the trope of Alternate Universes (or, I suppose in this case it’s two interwoven and possibly interrelated Alternate Histories) offers us the opportunity to locate what’s different and what has stayed the same. This is a game I adore, and one I’ve been well primed for by not only other TV programs or genre preferences but also through fan fiction and fan authorship.

Fan fiction loves to play with the tropes of the AU; indeed, Kristina Busse and I have written about how the larger fantext is at some level a community-agreed-upon massive set of Alternate Universes (and that this is the case even of fan fiction that strives to be canonical, since all of these different creative works coexist within the larger, shifting, contradictory fantext). The pleasure is in finding those core attributes of our favored characters, seeing them come together or be driven apart over and over again. So where the first two episodes of Lost this season offered us the search for difference as a game, (what’s different about who is on the plane and why?) the third episode asked us what might stay true about these characters and their relationships with each other despite their differing circumstances.

I wonder if watching the show live (rather than mainlining the DVDs after the fact) enhances this type of engagement, since we have time to consider all the possibilities before having it all explained for us. So while the third episode’s significance may be more apparent once we understand it in sequence, right now I have the freedom to imagine all the sideways possibilities and to relish the seeming continunities…

[For related reading, check out Tim Goodman’s discussion of Lost’s invocation of Many Worlds Theories.]

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