Sunday, December 25, 2011

Lost 1-17: ...In Translation

This was totally not planned, but somehow the gods of have assigned me to cover specifically the Korean episodes of Lost as I go through it in my attempts to cover the gaping holes in my TV-viewing experience.  I'm a little worried about avoiding redundancy here, which shows you just how poor I'd be at covering anything week-to-week.  But I think it's also interesting because "...In Translation" acts as a counterpart to "House of the Rising Sun" in more intereting ways than being a direct sequel.  The two episodes are interlocking pieces of a small puzzle within the larger puzzle of the series.

Usually the flashback plotlines in Lost involve discovering new information about a character's backstory, information which (ideally) helps the viewer make sense of the choices the character makes in that episode.  This formula is more than a little contrived, but it basically reflects the inherent difficulties and contrivances of ensemble television -- characters have to fade in and out of importance, with a secondary character getting a "showcase episode" where they're really important and then being back in the background next week [1].  But "...In Translation" breaks the mold just a bit.  Essentially we don't learn anything new about Sun and Jin.  We see Jin's criminal activities in new detail, but everything we really needed to know was implied in "House of the Rising Sun".  Instead the flashbacks show a shift in perspective, looking at the events of the couple's past through Jin's perspective.

There's a bold element to this in that it demands memory from the audience, something television shows are famously loathe to do.  To fully appreciate this episode you need to remember the details of a B-plot from 11 episodes ago (four months during the original airing[2]), being able to recognize where the two perspectives interlock and where they differ.  But what's really interesting is how different a change of perspective makes the story become.  This isn't a Rashomon episode where the basic facts of what happened are in dispute -- Sun and Jin's flashbacks mesh completely.  Instead, it's what we take away from the stories that changes.

In "House of the Rising Sun", Jin is an initially romantic husband who becomes distant and cold.  Sun's desire to leave him seems reasonable -- this is essentially a story of a disillusioned woman in danger.  In "...In Translation", Sun is an ignorant wife whose innocence has to be maintained, and is ungrateful for this.  She's basically the Lois Lane character.  From both characters' perspectives they're the victims and their spouse is, if not a villain, at least a burden.  This is actually a quite clever use of a flashback structure that is usually sadly conventional.

Jin's story is a quintessentially noir-ish one, concerning his attempt to maintain his morals (e.g. not killing the safety inspector) in the face of a corrupt world, and inevitably becoming half-corrupt himself in the process.  Lost returns again and again to the world of crime fiction, a genre it weaves into its tapestry of science fiction, survival narrative, and human drama.  The backstories of characters like Kate, Sawyer, and to a lesser extent Shannon and Boone all seem to be lifted out of pulp crime novels.  This is why the "outside world" that exists only in flashbacks usually seems less real than the world of the island.  The direction of "...In Translation" cements this tone, with most scenes taking place in almost unreasonable amounts of shadow.

(This government bureaucrat doesn't keep his house very well lit.  Maybe he's conserving energy?)

Jin's flashback then traces his evolution (or devolution) from the doe-eyed suitor we see at the start of "House of the Rising Sun" to the violent, stand-offish man we see on the island.  The flashback is more interesting than his plot on the island this week, which rests on the same problematic aspects that I've previously mentioned about the Koreans as characters.  Jin's patriarchy remains essentially racialized, with all of the white characters trying to protect Sun and her right to speech (essentially identified here with her right to speak English).  At the same time there's a tolerance plot where Jin is unfairly suspected for sabotaging Michael's raft.  The result is a kind of contradiction: Lost condemns prejudice while engaging in it itself.

All of this speaks to the vulnerability of the liberal humanist ideology that Lost bases itself upon.  In its most positive aspects, liberal humanism is anti-discriminatory, viewing all human beings as deserving equal rights.  However, issues arise when oppressions intersect, and at this point liberalism can become an ideological justification for the very discrimination it situates itself against.  This is how well-meaning left-of-centre types end up signing on to imperial adventures in the Middle East to protect the rights of women in burqas.

Of course, I'm not genuinely comparing an episode of Lost to the Iraq war, but the same ideological constructs are at play.  Early on in the episode we see Sun in a bikini, and Jin frantically tries to cover her up, invoking a conflict between Sun, more Westernized and liberated (being able to speak English), and Jin, patriarchal, prudish, and unapologetically foreign.  (Funny, isn't it, how Americans seem to view womens' most important right as the ability to dress scantily.)  This is a conflict within liberal humanism, between respect for other cultures and respect for women, although at the same time it's engaging in the racist depiction of foreign cultures as backwards and less liberated[3].  The way in which Jin is both the perpetrator of and victim of prejudice could show a key example of intersectionality, but in the end the show is unsure of itself and falls back on the same narrative of the foreign brute and the beautiful foreign woman who just wants to be an American -- and who saves the day by speaking English.

What's really required is a more complex model that recognizes intersecting identities and oppressions.  It needs to consider the web of social forces instead of simply condemning individuals.  Lost makes motions towards this, but hesitates, and the Koreans are in a half-world between stereotypes and decent characters.  This kind of uncertainty goes to the roots of Lost: Jin's speech is sometimes subtitled, sometimes not; the characters are placed in a social context through their flashbacks but also ripped from that context by the premise of the show.  Ultimately this splintered, unsure approach fails.  The opening scene is telling: when we see Jin covering up Sun, the camera cuts away numerous times to the various white American characters watching on the beach and looking uncomfortable.  Even on TV, the viewer can only take on the role of a white spectator gazing on at these strange half-people and wishing they would go away.

The other plots in this episode fall more within Lost's ideological wheelhouse.  There's not much of the bizarre mythos and ongoing plots that Lost became famous for, and instead we have the characters facing dilemmas straight out of an ethics textbook.  The primary one is Michael's attempt to build a raft, and the inevitable question of who gets a seat on the raft.  Of course, this is a Gilligan plot[4] in the most literal sense -- as viewers we know (or are at least pretty sure) that Michael's raft is not going to find a nice boat of ordinary people who will rescue everyone and take them back to the States.  The series even acknowledges this.  At the end of the episode we learn that it was in fact Walt who set fire to the raft, and this is not even known, much less addressed, by any of the castaways except Locke.  His rationale is that he finds the island fun and wants to stay there.  This is our rationale as viewers as well: we like the island, we want the Lostaways to stay on the island for our amusement, and we're okay with the show going to extremes to keep it there.  What could be an annoying cop-out is turned into a kind of self-aware contract with the viewer.

The question of who should ride the raft, discarded by the catastrophe, does pose ethical questions that are never fully explored.  It's the old ethical dilemma of who to save, one that hasn't lost its power through repetition.  This is probably not new to philosophy students, but even presenting thought-provoking questions, ones that don't have a right answer that can be arrived at by the end of the episode, in the margins of a hit TV show is a bit of a revolution.  This is true especially considering the serialization-adverse network television scene that Lost hit like a tidal wave in 2004.

So who do you save in a situation like this?  The weakest and neediest?  The most deserving?  Women and children first?  In Lost it mainly goes to the ones who have done the most to contributing to the raft: Michael, Walt, and Sawyer (who provided the materials), with one seat hanging in the air and the subject of debate.  The liberal capitalist order has restored itself on the islands -- the raft becomes the property of Michael because he has put in the work to build it, with Sawyer a sub-contractor.  This may sound fair, but it seems less so when you consider people like Claire who couldn't have contributed much if they wanted to.  This debate isn't really played out in the episode, but it's batted into the laps of the audience, and Lost trusts that its audience is smart enough to consider the possibilities themselves.  The ratings rewarded them for that trust -- the TV audience is smarter than network execs usually aim for, or at least like to feel smarter.

The other plotline in this episode is a fairly trivial one about the budding relationship between Sayid and Shannon.  This one doesn't quite work in the context of the characters -- the super-serious Sayid worrying about a crush in what is still a survival situation, and the general lack of chemistry between the two -- but it's perhaps a better display of liberal non-discrimination than the Korean plotline that dominates the episode.  The show is matter-of-fact about the interracial couple, not speechifying on it but having it still present through Boone's definite but not overpowering animus.

"...In Translation" is then an episode that shows Lost's ruling political ideology more than most.  Like a lot of American TV, it takes a noisy stance against explicit discrimination, but this is less ideal than it appears beneath the surface.  But Lost presents all of this more explicitly than most, even going so far as to name characters after key liberal thinkers like Rousseau and Locke, and embodies the desert-island man-in-nature thought experiment that these thinkers were so fond of.  This is what I think makes it worth studying, besides its considerable merits as a television show: it's a banner of the ruling ideology of our age, with all that ideology's benefits, flaws, and contradictions clear to see.

Next week: Bob Newhart gets all mad and shit.

[1]Primetime Adventures, a quite witty (and fun) roleplaying game based around TV storytelling tropes, actually has a mechanic for "screentime this episode" that codifies this unwritten rule.  The Koreans don't have a lot of 3s.

[2]Of course, it's less time if you're watching it through after the fact, even on my slow schedule.  This may be why so many people like watching serial dramas on DVD better than following them week-to-week.  But I'm always trying to consider how these shows would have appeared in their original presentation first and foremost, as that's still the primary method of television consumption.

[3]Korean culture may or may not be more patriarchal than American culture -- I'm not really qualified to make a distinction either way.  Most likely it is in some ways and isn't in others.  I'm more interested in the implications of this portrayal than its accuracy.

[4]A term I may have just invented, in which characters try to challenge the premise of the show and obviously fail, because if they succeed there wouldn't be a show.  Think Gilligan trying to get off the island, or the Losties doing the same.

No comments:

Post a Comment