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`Lost' in the eyes of the law

Castaway chaos makes for great TV, but at the core is a cry for rules and restraint.

May 21, 2006|Judy Coleman | Special to The Times

"IF we can't live together, we're going to die alone." With these words, Jack became the leader of the castaways in "Lost's" first season. And yet it's Jack who has had the greatest difficulty cooperating with the other castaways, especially his second in command, Locke. The tension between Jack, cast as "the man of science," and Locke, "the man of faith," often escalates to the breaking point. Meanwhile, the castaways live in a constant state of fear and chaos.

Could the problem be that neither would-be leader is a man of law?

Here on the mainland, people come together to make law that enshrines our values, resolves our disputes and helps us, we think, come closer to discovering truth. Law can do this work because it comes from group consent.

No one ever expected the castaways to write a coconut skin Constitution. But after all this time on the island, they've failed to devise the most basic guidelines for communal life.

Instead, they're governed by a primitive ethical code, where the right thing to do occurs to them like a reflex. Everyone mobilizes to help the sick or gather food. But in situations that demand rules to deal with moral complexity, they come up empty-handed.

On "Lost," law is a villainous shackle of the outside world, a morally hollow set of constraints. In flashback, we've learned that law has deprived parents of their custody rights and has kept lovers apart. Law enforcement officials are either brutal persecutors of charismatic fugitives, such as Kate and Sawyer, or they are clumsy officials, like the CIA agents who unwittingly engineered the death of Sayid's best friend. The former cop Ana Lucia has a flair for cold-blooded revenge and was finally killed.

But law could help things. For one thing, it could provide neutral rules for dispute resolution. Why are Jin and Michael fighting? Sawyer doesn't know but arbitrarily handcuffs Jin. Is Locke responsible for Boone's death? Jack has no idea, but he goes, literally, for Locke's jugular on a hunch.

Law could also help solve at least some of the island's mysteries -- not all of them are generated by the Others, after all. When the castaways' bamboo raft goes up in flames, Locke simply intuits that Walt is responsible. When Michael comes down with a nasty stomach bug, Jack discovers, by sheer luck, that Sun had something to do with it. There's little to no interrogation or investigation. Answers are divined or simply asserted.

Perhaps it's too much to expect rules and procedures from these Robinson Crusoes. The castaways face an enemy who defies prediction. The Others seem to hate them for no apparent reason.

It's a situation that recalls, of course, our own. "Lost" may speak to our primitive fears and fantasies, but it also speaks to our political moment. In an environment of perpetual fear, leadership, not law, is in high demand. Our president has argued that strengthening executive power is necessary for national security. For several years after Sept. 11, most Americans tended to agree. Only recently has Congress developed new rules against torture and required greater transparency when the president uses his war powers. With perspective, we see that crisis and consent aren't mutually exclusive.

Meanwhile, with the mirror it holds to our own situation, "Lost" might be a natural successor to "The West Wing." The castaways have let Jack make every important decision on the spot and, as the season draws to a close, they prepare to battle the Others, who slavishly follow a dictator who keeps them in huts, dressed in rags. For all we know, the Others were just another group of castaways who let their need for leadership spin way out of control.

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