This review focuses on Episode 5.15 Follow the Leader. More Season Six reviews from Luhks will arrive in the future.
In a few short months, the network television show Lost will complete its initial run. As time passes, people will begin to look back on the series from its proper historical context. Lost might be regarded as the biggest cult television phenomenon of its era. However, even the show’s biggest fans must admit that ABC’s Lost most likely will not be remembered as the best dramatic series of its decade. (The cable-television triumvirate of The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men, will take the gold, silver, and bronze medals, in some order.) Within its own genre, though, J.J. Abrams’ Lost probably has ensured its spot on Mount Rushmore alongside Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, and Chris Carter’s The X-Files. Tracing the history of those four shows reveals a great deal about the evolution of the medium. When The X-Files was peaking in the 1990s, writers were beginning to shift away from the same creative mindset that had prevailed since the 1960s, that each episode operates as a self-contained, one-time broadcast. The ambitious X-Files team struggled mightily in their early attempts to convert their Monster-of-the-Week drama into a Grand-Mythological-Saga. Over time, technological shifts have changed fundamentally the way in which the artists are approaching the medium. After syndication, DVR playback, streaming media, and most importantly the DVD market, television programming carries a more permanent life than ever before. Today’s Lost writers operate with the understanding that their episodes will continue to exist long after their transitory time slots. Any fan would be naïve to believe that everything was planned from the beginning, but Abrams and Lindelof certainly understood that their Pilot was a Beginning that would lead to a Middle and an End. Each episode no longer needs to operate as an individual short story within a compilation, but as interconnected chapters in one great novel.
Perhaps more so than any other Lost episode, Follow the Leader represents the farthest frontier of this sci-fi television trek away from the original Leader, the Twilight Zone storytelling prototype. Episode 15 continues the trend set by its Season Five predecessors Because You Left and Namaste; it focuses on no character in particular. (Although many people will disagree with me, I would rank these three aforementioned Season Five episodes among the low points of the series.) The game pieces merely shift from one position to another in preparation for this year’s check-mate finale. As always, O’Quinn’s voice describes it best: “You and I have an errand to run, and we don’t have a lot of time.” The script from Paul Zbyszewski and Elizabeth Sarnoff can barely even be treated as a story in its own right. Each element only makes sense in relation to the episodes that it follows, and the episodes that will follow it. Its beginning, middle, and end exist only in the temporal sense, not in the functional sense. If Lost’s final season follows this lead (as well as whatever future successors who step in front of the line), then the paradigm will have shifted too far, and will require some course-correction back to a more stable equilibrium. Many months after that season’s end, almost every reader probably remembers the events of Faraday’s life story in The Variable, but I would expect that many people would need a refresher course for Follow the Leader. The human memory operates less like our home digital recorders, and more like Kirk’s Captain’s Log or Mulder’s filing cabinet. Without some unifying idea, theme, event, or character, the story will tend to fade away into nothing. The attempt to transform Lost episodes into pieces of an enduring novel has resulted in a paradoxical effect. An episode like Follow the Leader exists only to please the tastes of the plot-hungry immediate public, but it does not succeed (unlike many of its great predecessors from Serling down to Lindelof) in telling a complete story that will last forever.
BEN: So, which one are you? […] Are you the genius, or are you the guy who always feels like he's living in the shadow of a genius?
LOCKE: I was -- I was never very much into literary analysis.
While some people might regard Follow the Leader as the first Richard-centric episode, by no means does it tell a story about Richard Alpert. The ageless one, the only person present in both time periods, naturally appears in more scenes than any other character. This additional screen time barely reveals any special insight into his psyche or even his personality. Although his position on the Island hierarchy (and his status as a fan favorite) commands respect, his agency (and his appeal) remains severely limited. Alpert’s two exclusive story functions are referenced in this episode’s opening segment: to serve as a dutiful ‘advisor’ for whatever Leader the Island happens to choose for a particular decade; and then to sit back and ‘watch them all die’. Two key artifacts double as symbols for Alpert’s existence. First, Richard appears alone on the beach, arranging the sails of a replica ship inside a glass bottle, known as an Impossible Ship. The image conveys some characteristics shared by Alpert himself: an incongruous relic preserved from another time, a lonely vessel designed to travel forward but trapped inside a glass prison. Later, Richard interacts with the Compass, an object seen many times before, but whose exact nature had never been revealed. As suggested in the previous Luhks article Beyond Belief: “at no point during this chain did any person sit down and build a compass. If the compass Richard gave to Locke is the same one Locke gave to Richard, then it was never created, but it merely existed outside of time.” Like the Ship’s figurative moniker, the Compass is literally Impossible. During its fifty-year life cycle, the Compass remains completely intact, never wearing down, or 'aging' the way all physical bodies must. It is somewhat revealing that Richard shares stronger connections with these two inanimate objects rather than with other characters. The familiar face of Cane Consiglieri Carbonell has become as much a part of the scenery as the beaches and trees of Hawaii.
By practical necessity, history records only the names of its Leaders. As the Island’s foremost student of history, Ben Linus understands that only “a great man, a brilliant man” will be remembered beyond his years. No matter how much power he might attain during his regime, Ben’s legacy ultimately would be judged against that of his successor. For Linus, it was not enough for his cause to succeed, but he alone needed to receive the most credit. Despite his head start, no degree of effort and manipulation could account for the difference in their natural gifts. The Island gave dictation directly through John as its instrument, while it forced Benjamin to listen to second-hand accounts with an empty longing. To borrow from Amadeus, perhaps the greatest screen depiction of jealousy: “God was singing through this little man to all the world, unstoppable, making my defeat more bitter with each passing bar.” Although he retained the upper hand throughout their relationship, the existence of a genuine replacement cast a shadow over his entire life’s work. The brief career of Locke, the Island’s Mozart, would live forever, while Ben’s entire body of work would vanish along with the music of Salieri. Even after murdering his rival, Ben continues to be haunted by Locke’s image in its new form, a constant reminder of his ultimate failure. In Follow the Leader, the New Locke exposes the embarrassing secret that Ben was a false prophet: the Island never spoke to him, Jacob never appeared to him, and even a martyred John could take people farther in a single day than during decades of Linus' leadership. History may be written by the victors, but no degree of Linus’ revisions, with his weapons or his words, could erase the name and face of John Locke from Island annals.
HURLEY: Are we gonna get there soon?
LOCKE: How long?
BEN: I don't know. I've been following him.
LOCKE: What? What do you mean, you've been following him?
HURLEY: I'm not even in front!
Follow the Leader borrows its name from an activity played by children in those dark ages before television and Internet. The game requires the players to file behind the chosen person at the head of the line, and to mimic the Leader’s actions as they walk in his path, until everyone is eliminated except for the new Leader. This episode offers numerous suggestions that the true nature of the once-mysterious organization known as the Others might be a more elaborate version of that time-killer for schoolchildren. By all indications, the Followers, both during the 1970s and the 2000s, live a mindless and fruitless existence: they do whatever the Leader tells them to do, until a new Leader is chosen; then they continue playing the game until they end up with a gunshot, like the disposable Erik. (Not coincidentally, few readers are likely to remember Erik; he briefly distinguished himself with his spectacular roundhouse kick, before Sayid eliminated him for poor sportsmanship.) Our story now spans four rounds of the game, with the reveal that Widmore once served under Hawking, long before Linus seized control. Tragically and comically, Locke’s entire tenure as Leader involved about two seconds of introduction, a one-second flash in which he disappeared, followed by three years of sitting around a campsite and waiting for his corpse to return. As pointless as the role of Follower might be, the position of Leader seems to be share an equally thankless job description: sacrifice your autonomy, sacrifice your children, and accomplish nothing, until you end up banished. For how many decades did this pointless game continue before someone grew enough backbone to question its purpose? (In a cynical touch, the final moments of The Incident reveal that this particular someone was not even human.) The New Locke shifts the herd mentality as effortlessly as a shepherd prods his flock in a new direction.
Famously, the “Follow the Leader” game served as a key plot element in J.M. Barrie’s classic story Peter Pan, which takes place on its own fantasy island of Neverland, home of the orphaned Lost Boys who never grow older. The so-called Peter Pan syndrome refers to emotionally immature adults who ‘never grow up’ in the figurative sense, a common affliction among our Lost Men and Lost Women. Childhood became perhaps the prevailing motif throughout Season Five, with nearly every main character either visualized as, or at least analogized to, a child. (This script even adds one more name to the list of minors, with a throwaway line that confirms that Eloise, just like Charles, was only 17 years old during her appearance in Jughead.) Whether applied to the unnamed Others or the main characters, this episode’s prominent Peter Pan allusion makes for quite an unflattering comparison. The Island serves as a inverse Neverland for the ancient Alpert, trapped in his perpetual adulthood, watching each generation of children repeat the same mistakes. He offers this resigned summary of his years of experience as referee: “Let’s just say that love can be complicated.” From the convoluted efforts of Hawking and Widmore to sacrifice their love child for his salvation, to the unloved children Locke and Linus whose rivalry for the affections for a mound of dirt continues from beyond the grave, the advisor speaks the truth.
JACK: Every little bump we hit or turbulence, I mean I, I actually close my eyes and I pray that I can get back.
KATE: This is not gonna change.
Although Richard is the only Lost boy that never grows older, this episode’s core debate revolves around a one-time opportunity to become three years younger. Jack the Apostle seeks to convert followers into true believers of the martyred Daniel’s promise of resurrection. A safe 2004 landing at LAX is not exactly equivalent to the eternal life mentioned in John 3:16, but Shephard now views that urban airport as a paradise, relative to his Island adventures. Jack’s notion of "putting things back the way they’re supposed to be" begins with completing his own deeply personal mission, to rescue his father from the hellish Down Under, and return him safely to the City of Angels. The chance to reset time holds particular appeal to him as a doctor, as he can fix hundreds of his lost patients from Flight 815, with the push of a button. “All the misery we’ve been through, we’d just wipe it clean. Never happened.” Ever the practical thinker, Sayid puts his own spin on the notion of misery: “If this works, you might just save us all. And if it doesn’t, at least you’ll put us out of our misery”. As always, they walk Lost’s fine line between being a hero, and simply wanting to die. Their shared desire to detonate the bomb indicates a deeper impulse toward self-destruction. They even might desire the atomic explosion as an end in itself. Consciously or not, Jack probably wanted to nuke this infernal Island since he first landed. Each miserable man projects his internal frustrations onto some outside entity: Jarrah sent a bullet through little Benjamin’s chest. (Linus later plunges his knife into the heart of his father figure Jacob.) Dr. Shephard selects a plutonium thermonuclear core as his Occam’s scalpel, to euthanize his Island patient. He would regain control over his universe, by vanquishing the same incomprehensible landmass that had vanished without his permission last season.
This episode’s triumphant reunion of Jack and Sayid revives an annual Lost tradition. Even though the surgeon and the soldier might have a few disagreements during the early episodes of each season, the two men always manage to collaborate on some common master plan in the finale. Sayid tends to decide most of the war room details, while Jack tends to handle the public relations (and then to receive most of the credit or blame). The usual power dynamics of Leader and Follower do not apply to the Jarrah-Shephard partnership. Sayid’s rational assessments of the available options, and Jack’s intuitive judgments about what should happen, lead them to arrive eventually to the same conclusions. With an unspoken synergy, these two men alone agreed that it was okay to shoot kids and blow up hydrogen bombs. Kate serves as the emotional counterpoint against these mad efforts to rewrite the history books. The shared past of Shephard and Austen, of course, is much more complicated than Jack’s friendship with Sayid. The preferred Tabula Rasa moment of her life already occurred, with the crash of Oceanic 815. Kate desperately attempts to rescue her most cherished memories from incineration in the atomic fire. Either decision effectively results in genocide, either from the active annihilation of the Island’s 1977 population or from the passive indifference to the lives of hundreds of Oceanic passengers in 2004. Ultimately, this universal decision rests in the hands of flawed, self-loathing individuals each coming to terms with his or her own past. (Despite its shortcomings in other areas, I think Follow the Leader manages to suggest stronger, multi-dimensional motivations for the show’s male and female leads than the season-ending Incident.)
BEN: Not so long ago, Jack, I made a decision that took the lives of over forty people in a single day. I'm telling you this, because history is about to repeat itself, right here, right now.
JACK: Let me guess, you've got us surrounded, and if I don't do what you say you're going to kill all my people.
BEN: No, Jack, you are.
Although Follow the Leader emphasizes its defined hierarchies, the title also suggests the transitory and cyclical nature of power struggles. The Dharma Initiative, the more scientific counterpart to the faith-based organization of Alpert and his Lost Boys, follows its own set of laws. Despite vague references to the bosses in Ann Arbor, four power players dominate the Island decision-making. LaFleur, Head of Security, ceded all his legitimate authority the moment he crossed over the perimeter fence into the jungle. The friend who appointed him, Horace Goodspeed, loses his standing in the fallout. The voice of the eminent Dr. Chang might have carried more resonance under the old regime, but now he limits his role to damage control. Radzinsky emerges from the crisis as dictator, tacitly appointing the sycophantic Phil as his right-hand man. Dharma’s Head of Research views himself as another Great Man, the rare Black Swan of this Island pond, whose achievements will be recorded alongside those of Edison. His infant duckling, the Swan research site, must be protected at all costs. It might be easy for the viewer to condemn the methods of Radzinsky and Phil, because we watch these scenes through the eyes of Jim and Juliet. This violent reaction is hardly unique. The past decade of Lost’s history (as well as American history) more frequently places us in the position of captor. As the cycle of history has proven many times over, fear of the other will cause otherwise civilized people to corrupt their principles behind closed doors.
If there is one theme underlying Follow the Leader, it might be history’s natural tendency to repeat itself. Richard’s torch lights his path through the tunnels, just as he marches through the jungle thirty years later, still completely in the dark. The Hostiles capture Jack and Kate as Dharma insurgents; while the Dharma Initiative holds James and Juliet as suspected Hostiles. Miles relives a formative experience from the perspective of innocent child and omniscient adult observer simultaneously. Jack embraces his destiny as the reborn version of John, his old nemesis. James follows the footsteps of his old rival Jack, prepared to enter the submarine with Juliet and never look back. The New Locke establishes himself as the man who “always has a plan,” while the Ben now searches blindly for answers. (Hurley even echoes those exact words here, spoken by Ben one season earlier.) The episode even includes one entirely literal repetition of an earlier scene, by closing the season-opening loop of Alpert's Compass. Human nature guarantees that people will respond in the same destructive ways to similar situations. Lovers will quarrel, victims will victimize, new leaders will overthrow old predecessors, and groups will escalate misunderstandings into full-scale war. Any number of iconic Lost images convey the same core theme: Pierre’s skipping Willie Nelson record, the impossibly circular compass, the eight-fold wheel of the Dharma logo, the Swan timer that resets every 108 minutes, the spirals of the Oceanic corporate logo, even the iterations on Rousseau’s distress call from the Pilot episode. Eastern religions spoke of samsara, the cycle of rebirth, thousands of years before Western science-fiction writers delivered these time-travel causality loops.
Personally, my favorite commentary on this concept comes from the Greek author Thucydides, arguably the West’s first genuine historian. One of the most forward-thinking individuals ever to live, Thucydides broke free from his culture’s subjective re-tellings of past events. In his seminal text, a record the fifth-century Peloponnesian War, between the Athenians and their polar opposites from Sparta, he prefaced the work with this legendary disclaimer:
"And it may well be that my history will seem less appealing to read because of the absence of a romantic element. It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.”
His work indeed will last forever, because people continue to make the same mistakes twenty-five centuries later. Every subsequent historian has followed his lead, studying the past in the hopes of understanding the future. His argument, of course, depends upon his basic premise that human nature will remain constant, rather than progress over time. The poet Santayana famously claimed: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A cynical historian might argue that even those who do remember the past must suffer that same cycle. Thucydides might help us understand the causes of suffering, just as a cinematic serial novel like Lost might dramatize our enslavement to time and space. Even if we learn to predict tragedy, we would be powerless to prevent it. Our historians and artists can only offer some level of catharsis by describing the big picture. Regardless, one thing is certain. After failing his pop quiz from Dr. Chang, Hugo is one person who will need to repeat a few history courses.
This review focuses on Episode 5.15 Follow the Leader. More Season Six reviews from Luhks will arrive in the future.