Zap2It reader "Marino" posted the following query over the weekend:
"How can Ben’s story be so integral to the overall story of Lost when his character was originally cast for 3 episodes at most? Was your hypothesis originally intended for another character that they ended up building around Ben because of Michael Emerson’s brilliant acting? I find this troubling as I would like to believe that the writers of Lost had the story already written in stone."
I’m not sure I’d categorize this as "troubling" as much as "fortuitous." The writers and producers realized they stumbled upon gold when they started filming Emerson’s scenes, and wisely sought ways to graft existing storylines in their head onto his character, expanding him rapidly from what you accurately state was originally a short-term arc at best.
Now, as far as my hypothesis goes, there’s no way it existed when J.J. Abrams crafted the pilot’s script with Damon Lindelof. No way, no how. But clearly, they had sketched out a long-form narrative with certain "signposts," as they called them, to guide them along the way. But they essentially had the barest of maps guiding them along the way towards those signposts. I’m not suggesting it was controlled chaos that brought them to this point, but clearly some elements of the show were discovered not unlike the way Locke and Boone discovered the Swan: by pure happenstance. And such happenstance can work wonders in a creative environment: it’s allowed Lost to remain inspired while adhering to a carefully-wrought arc. To not allow the show to organically grow would be a disservice to both the show and its audience. The trick, of course, is to introduce fresh ideas organically into the giant puzzle that is Lost.
I think the show should be commended in surprising itself along the way from signpost to signpost. Clearly, not all of these unexpected additions have paid off (The Tailies come to mind), but in the case of Ben Linus, they found an insanely interesting way to tell the story they want to tell. Which brings us all back to Marino’s essential question: What do the Lost writers know, and how long have they known it?
I’ve broken up my answer in two parts. The first details what I think the writing staff knew going into the pilot episode, and the second part deals with what the writing staff knew as they crafted Season 3. Season 3 clearly exploded the show’s narrative possibilities, and each episode of the season can be seen as slowly paving the way for the hugely shocking season finale. As such, it stands to reason that they had answers/knowledge that they may not have had in Season 1. This doesn’t mean that the signposts themselves have radically changed in the interim so much as the ways to traverse the narrative way towards those signposts have been illuminated.
We’ll go through the first part today, and finish up tomorrow. Deal? Deal.
What They Knew When They Wrote the Pilot
They knew the reason the plane crashed. Yes, the end of Season 2 showed the cause of the crash, but we still don’t know the reason. There’s a difference there. Something about one or more people on that plane is vital to the overall story of Lost. The writers knew that essential reason from the outset of the show. We’ll all catch up in about three years, but they knew it from the beginning.
They knew what the monster was. I’m not suggesting they had a fully prepared backstory that involved the Dharma Initiative, the Black Rock, or the four-toed statue, but they knew what the Monster was, why it looks like a cloud of smoke, and what its function on the Island was. Subsequent seasons have only confirmed that they knew from Day One what Smokey was, even while keeping it largely clouded in secrecy. And, you know, smoke.
They knew who Adam and Eve were. In crafting the story for the long haul, they saw the need to insert these skeletons early in the show to establish a major piece of the puzzle down the road. If you want to know my thoughts on Adam and Eve, by all means, read up on them. In short, these two more than likely established the time-bending nature of the show without us even knowing it. And this isn’t the only instance.
They knew Walt would leave the Island at some point and come back much older. Think about it: they attempted to compress the narrative into a "one episode per one Island day" structure. This doesn’t pose a problem for the adult actors of the show, but poses a major problem for a child actor. Clearly, if a 10-year old boy starts to hit puberty after fifty days on the Island, that breaks the "realism," for lack of a better word, of the show’s structure. Thus, a major plot of Season 1 revolved around the raft, and the show kept him hidden for much of Season 2. With the show’s narrative possibilities unbounded now, Walt can appear older without us having to suspend our disbelief.
They knew the nature of the Island. The word "nature" is a bit of a cop-out, I realize, but what I mean is that they had a sense of the wonder, purpose, and danger of the Island from the get-go. More importantly, they knew why the Island was so well-hidden. They knew this not only from a quasi-scientific perspective, but a psychological one as well. Yes, psychological, meaning they knew that the Island wanted to remain hidden. Writers recognized early on that the Island itself was very much a character, and treated it as such from Moment One. They didn’t know who wanted to FIND the Island just yet: all they knew was that crashing on it violated sacrosanct property.
But hey, that’s why we have writers, right? Filling in the gaps those pesky survivors refuse to ponder. Come back tomorrow to find out what those scribes have figured out since Jack Shepard stumbled from the jungle onto the beach in a black Armani suit.
I want to hear what you think about the list. What did I get right? What did I get wrong? What did I omit? And you may ask yourself, how did I get here? And you may ask yourself, how do I work this?
Ryan also posts every 108 minutes over at Boob Tube Dude.