“You must intercede with Oscar. Only you can save me.”
So here’s the lost secret of Lost: They had no idea.
ABC made Lost for six dazzling, frustrating, mind-boggling years, weaving a web of mystery and misdirection and nonsense, one baffling hour at a time. I don’t know if it did anything for you, but I loved it. I was one of the sad cases who rewatched the episodes in slow motion, looked up all the references on Lostpedia, and listened to the weekly cry for help that they called The Official Lost Podcast.
Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, the show’s producers and head writers, used the podcasts, Comic-Con appearances and magazine interviews to present an intricate paratextual metafiction about two make-believe people named “Damon Lindelof” and “Carlton Cuse” who totally, totally knew all the answers to every single question that a viewer might have about the show’s rich mythology.
According to this ongoing behind-the-scenes fairy tale, Damon and Carlton could totally explain everything to you right now, but they won’t, because a) it’s very complicated, b) it would spoil the surprise, and c) It’s Not Really About the Mythology, It’s About the Characters.
In reality, after a while, it wasn’t even about the characters. It was about whether Damon and Carlton actually knew what they were doing, or were they just lying this whole time, because they needed to keep the plates spinning for another day.
That’s the question that Lost fans were dying to learn. We didn’t watch season six because we wanted to know if Jack, Kate and Sawyer would survive. We watched because we wanted to know if Damon and Carlton would survive.
After it was all over, Damon and Carlton slowly let it slip that no, obviously, they didn’t have the whole show planned out from day one, because that’s a completely insane thing to even think of doing for a network television show.
For one thing, all that planning would be a colossal waste of time. Even if your show is picked up for a full season, you could be yanked off the air if the ratings aren’t high enough. You don’t even know if you’re going to get to six episodes, much less six seasons.
Also, you can’t predict who the audience is going to respond to. If one of the characters in the ensemble just irritates and bores the audience, then you dial back their screen time. If the actor you cast in a minor role really nails the part and gets the audience intrigued, then you build that role up.
That’s what happened with Ben Linus — a one-shot infiltrator from the Others, who was only supposed to appear in three episodes. But Michael Emerson was so good that they kept asking him to come back, and by the next season, he’d become a crucial part of the show’s mythology.
And then there’s the other side of that story. If you’ve got a specific character scheduled to make a pivotal choice halfway through season five, then what happens if he gets into a car accident, or wants to leave the show because he’s been cast in a Lord of the Rings movie? Even if you’d bothered to plan everything in advance, you’re still producing the show in real time, and you need to be flexible.
That means that every minute that you spend constructing a vast, detailed map of your mythology and long-term character arcs is a minute that you could be doing something productive, like oh my god, the network says that the script for episode seven feels “mushy”, what the hell does that even mean?
But on Lost, the eerie conspiracy theory aesthetic of the show relied on creating the appearance of a vast secret plan that links all of the characters together in a complex network of mysterious connections, because otherwise you’re just making a version of Survivor where nobody wins any money and they never go home.
So what do you do when you’re starting a show that’s supposed to look like you have an amazing long-range plan, when actually making any plan at all would be a counter-productive waste of time?
Answer: You fake it. You toss crazy, surprising ideas at the screen, and hope that some of them tickle the audience’s curiosity.
So in the pilot, you include a plane crash, an invisible monster, a radio tower broadcasting a repeating message in French, and a polar bear. And if the pilot gets picked up, then that means you did something right, so you keep throwing surprises at the audience, until they cancel the show and you have to stop.
On Lost, the most exciting mystery of the first season was the hatch in the jungle. It’s a wonderfully discordant image — a deserted tropical island, with an unexplained man-made door leading to an underground treasure box of secrets. The hatch doesn’t even have to do anything, except sit there and look important. Is it a military base, a mad science lab, a portal to another dimension, evidence of an alien incursion?
All season long, people asked Damon and Carlton, what’s with the hatch? And Damon and Carlton chuckled, and looked thoughtful, and said, oh ho ho, you’ll have to tune in to find out.
But they didn’t know. They hadn’t the tiniest scrap of a bit of a clue. They made twenty-five episodes in the first season. Think about writing twenty-five hour-long episodes of Lost, when nobody even knows what Lost is yet. They must have been going out of their minds.
That’s why the first season ended with the characters opening the hatch and looking down into darkness, so Damon and Carlton had the summer to figure out what’s down there.
Which brings us to December 1968, and yesterday’s seance.
Here’s what we know so far: A Collins family ancestor named Quentin is talking to the children through a disconnected telephone. When Professor Stokes arranges a seance to contact Vicki’s missing husband, a spirit named Magda speaks through Carolyn, delivering a warning: “You must stop them! He must stay where he is!”
Then Magda mentions her curse — or her currrrrrse! if you prefer — and the curse talk makes Chris twitchy, on account of he’s under one.
I think there’s also a polar bear and a hatch, and a female character gets kidnapped every 108 minutes, assuming Ron Sproat’s writing the episode.
Now, Dark Shadows fans know what’s coming next, because we are time travellers; we come from the future, with a DVD box set full of spoilers. We know that we’re going to see Quentin and Magda three months from now, and we know what Magda’s curse is, and we know how it’s connected to Chris.
So fans watching this week’s episodes tend to get kind of excited about how amazing it is that the writers suddenly evolved the ability to plan ahead farther than the end of the scene. This is not actually the case. It’s polar bears, all the way down.
Here, I’ll show you. Roger’s in the drawing room fussing with his briefcase, when an old book suddenly jumps off the piano and onto the floor. He picks it up, and finds an old letter folded up between the pages.
Roger: That’s odd.
Carolyn: What is?
Roger: This letter. I just found it, addressed to my father, Jamison Collins. It’s dated 1887. He must have been a boy when this was sent to him.
Carolyn: What does the letter say?
Roger: “Dear Jamison, You must return to Collinwood. I need your help. You must intercede with Oscar. Only you can save me.” It’s signed Quentin.
Roger: Yes. We have a Quentin Collins, as an ancestor. Actually, I don’t know very much about him; I think he spent most of his time abroad.
So let’s look at that purported backstory, through the lens of our spoiler-filled time travel.
On the credit side: Roger’s father is Jamison Collins; Jamison has a close relationship with Quentin, which Quentin tries to use to his own advantage; Quentin spends a lot of time abroad. Check, check and check — that tallies up with what we see in March.
On the debit side: 1887, and Oscar. Now, obviously, it’s fairly trivial to say that they simply decided to change that to 1897 and Edward; that’s not necessarily evidence that they didn’t have the story worked out.
But the actual content of the letter — Jamison must return to Collinwood, to intercede with Oscar — does not match up with the storyline as the time travellers know it. When we get to 1897, it’s Quentin who’s returning home, not Jamison. He doesn’t need the boy to intercede with Oscar or anyone else, except in the most abstract way, and “Only you can save me” means nothing at all. That doesn’t even sound like the Quentin we know.
Also, the story about Quentin, Magda and Oscar is not about werewolves, and Chris reacting to the word “curse” is not a clue.
Chris freaked out in yesterday’s seance for two reasons. Number one: Somebody needed to interrupt the seance before Magda said anything useful that would derail the storyline. Number two: They have two major storylines running right now — The Wolf Man and The Turn of the Screw — and if rubbing them together for a minute makes for an interesting scene, then that makes the episode better, and Sam Hall gets a lollipop.
It’s hard for the time travellers to see things the way that the Dark Shadows writers did, because we think of the show as a finished saga that stretches from episode 1 to 1245, split into chapters called 1795, 1897, Leviathan and Parallel Time.
But for the producers, here in December 1968, it’s just Dark Shadows, one continuous round-robin narrative that runs for as long as they have blood in their bodies and breath in their lungs. “1795” was an anomaly, a crazy thing that they still can’t believe they got away with. They have no idea right now that the time travel stories are going to define the structure of the show.
They’re not on the road to 1897, or 1887, or anywhere else. There’s no road, never has been.
Consider this: in episode 622, Angelique spent the whole episode forging an uneasy alliance with Eve, which led to nothing at all. They didn’t even have any scenes together after that. Less than a week later, in episode 626, Eve was killed. In 627, Angelique spent the episode forging a new alliance with Adam, which led to nothing at all. Angelique went to Hell the next day, to complain to Diabolos about Nicholas. Then she dropped out of the storyline completely, and had nothing more to do with Adam and Eve.
In other words, this is a television show where — just three weeks ago — they literally did not have the ability to plan ahead from one day to the next.
Now, if you want to believe that this writing team spontaneously developed the time, patience and foresight to set up interweaving plot points nine months ahead, then that can be the thing you believe. But it isn’t true.
They’re doing the same thing that Damon and Carlton did on Lost — throwing random clues into the pot, with the vague intention of explaining them later, probably, if anybody remembers what they were.
So by the beginning of next week, we’ll have the following pieces in play: the west wing, Quentin, Beth, Oscar, Jamison, Magda, the skeleton, the phonograph, the crib, the curse, the polar bear, the numbers, the hatch, the Others, the Smoking Man, the Rambaldi artifacts, the Torchwood Institute, Parseltongue, black oil, the Log Lady, and Claude North. Nobody knows what they mean yet. That’s the fun of it.
The fact that, on the whole, most of the clues do actually end up being meaningful is not evidence of the Dark Shadows writers’ awesome long-range planning skills. It’s evidence of their awesome seat-of-the-pants cleverness, connecting up all the relevant loose ends as they stumble headlong through 1969.
They are actually brilliant, and this really is a brilliant story. But right now, they’re just throwing stuff at the screen. The brilliant part happens down at the other end.
Tomorrow: Phoning It In.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
As David gets out of bed, there’s a banging in the studio.
I edited one of Roger’s quotes above for clarity — “It’s dated 1887.” What he actually says is, “It’s post-dated 1887,” which doesn’t mean anything.
When David gets the flashlight from his desk, someone in the studio coughs.
David’s tells Amy that there’s a secret way into the west wing: “So you — keep it a promise that you won’t tell anyone, right?”
David and Amy wait until everyone in the house is asleep before they venture into the west wing — but then we see Roger and Carolyn sitting in the drawing room at 4am.
The credits play over a shot of David’s room, but the camera is pulled back much farther than usual. You can see the edge of the set on the right, and the desk is just in the middle of an open space — we’re essentially looking at the place where the “fourth wall” is supposed to be.
Tomorrow: Phoning It In.
— Danny Horn