Tabula Rasa is possibly the most over used episode title in the history of television.  There was an episode of Buffy that used that same title where the Scooby gang suffered from temporary amnesia.  Then there was a Battlestar Galactica episode, a Law and Order episode, Criminal Minds, Justice League, Stargate, and even Heroes.  I’m sure there are even more.

Why this fondness for the title? Is it because it sounds cool?  Well, I think it is particularly apt in the case of Lost.  Tabula Rasa means ‘Blank Slate.’  As far back as the fourth century Aristotle wrote of the unscribed tablet, or blank slate with regard to the human mind in his De Anima.  However, it wasn’t until, no surprise here, John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in the 17th century, that the idea became popular in modern philosophy. Simply put, the theory states that at infancy we are a blank slate.  Our personality, behavior, and intelligence are products of the many experiences that we absorb and make part of ourselves over the course of our lives.  Basically he believed that from birth we have all the potential in the world, we just need to strive to do better and be better.

Interestingly, over on good old Wiki, I was reading about the Roman tabulas, which were made of wax.  After use, these tablets were heated and wiped clean so they could be used again and again.  Is this more applicable to our castaways?  Were they wiped clean by the fires of their ordeal?  I think they were.  Like human etch-a-sketches, their sins were shaken away by the turbulence and crash.

The focus of the flashbacks in Tabula Rasa is Kate.  Kate desperately wants a go at a new life.  She can’t have that blank slate though. There are two loose ends that tie her to her past, Agent Mars and a WANTED flyer in his pocket.  She is so close to her fresh start when Mars opens his eyes and starts talking to Jack, that it must be infuriating!

When she returns to camp, as a viewer you start to wonder which side of “Right” Kate is going to fall on.  The one man who can spoil her chance is at death’s door.

Kate goes to Jack and asks him “Can you put him out of his misery?”

Just the suggestion gets Jack’s goat!  He stomps right up in her face and taunts her.

“I saw your mug shot Kate! I’m not a murderer!”

Has Kate Lost Jack’s trust?

The episode progresses to the last few minutes, where Kate talks to Mars alone.  She wants to make sure that Ray, the man who turned her in, got his reward.  Through this moment, we see the redemptive qualities of her character.  She’s done something horrific.  Something so bad that it caused her to run all the way to Australia, and for someone to go after her!  Still, she still has the capacity for caring, love, and understanding.  She can’t be THAT bad.  Can she?

But then Mars asks if he is going to die?

Kate, tears appearing a little, replies “Yes” while nodding.

With the question “Well are you going to do it?” Mars establishes what he thinks of Kate’s capabilities.  He thinks a mercy kill should be easy based on whatever she’s done.

The climax comes when Jack realizes that Kate is in with Mars, and she has a gun.  He suddenly thinks the worst.  He thinks that she’ll do anything to protect her secret.  Running to the tent, he sees her casually exit.  Relief washes over until…. BLAM.  A shot rings out and Sawyer exits the tent declaring that he’s done what Jack couldn’t while territorially peeing all over the camp.  He claims that Mars “Wanted it, and hell, he asked me.”

What’s that?  Then they hear a gurgle from inside the tent.

Mars is still alive.

Crap!

Jack enters the tent and does what needs to be done.  He euthanizes Mars with his bare hands.  Jack once again proves that he will always do what it takes, even if it eventually leads to horrible beards and too many pills to dull the atrocities he will commit in the name of doing the right thing.

In a cathartic moment the next morning Kate offers to tell Jack what she did.  She wants to come clean.  Jack stops her, saying “I don’t want to know. It doesn’t matter Kate.  Who we were… What we did before this…Three days ago we all died.  We should all be able to start over.”  So, their tabulas are rasa’d.

I’d like to take the musical montage at the end and break down the just visuals for a moment.  The song is ‘Wash Away’ by Joe Purdy.

Watch it here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmWDN9-ySyk

Lyrics here:

I got troubles oh, but not today
Cause they’re gonna wash away
They’re gonna wash away

And I have sins Lord, but not today
Cause they’re gonna wash away
They’re gonna wash away

And I had friends oh, but not today
Cause they’re done washed away
They’re done washed away

And oh, I’ve been cryin’
And oh, I’ve been cryin’
And oh, no more cryin’
No, no more cryin’ here

We get along Lord, but not today
Cause we gonna wash away
We gonna wash away

And I got troubles oh, but not today
Cause they gonna wash away
This old heart gonna take them away

The lyrics are a pretty perfect fit with the tabula rasa motif.

We start with Hurley.  He is literally washing something, pouring the sand from his shoe.  He is serving a dual purpose here.  Hurley is listening to the music in this scene which makes it diegetic, meaning that it is within the narrative and not external to the story.  So, by listening to the song, he seems to have control of the environment, like he will in the END….  really big stretch I know, but who’s to say they didn’t have the basics to the end figured out right in the beginning.

Cut to a nice tracking shot of Jin.

Jin walks up to a sleeping Sun and shows unconditional love for the first time.  Why can’t he do this in front of others, or even in front of her?  The relationship is so strained, but you see a slim chance for happiness for the first time.  Are Jin’s troubles rasa’d and washing away?

Cut to Shannon in a medium shot sitting on the beach.

Boone gives his sister a pair of sunglasses the he repaired for her.  They too have a chance at happiness.  What would make them happy? I don’t know.  But it seems that there could have been a chance.

Cut To Sayid walking.

Sayid throws Sawyer an apple as he walks past.  They might hate each other, but there is a respect that Sayid has for a person that does what needs doing.  He respects Sawyer’s willingness to act.

Cut to.

Charley changes his writing on his fingers from “Fate” to “Late.”  What is late?  His self-respect?  Him getting to California?  Is he late for a date?  I know he’ll be late for his destiny… or at least put it off for a bit.

The camera pans down to Claire.  Maybe he feels that he was meeting her too late?

Cut to:

A beautiful family reuniting.  Michael walks up with Vincent the dog on a leash.  Walt is ecstatic!   They frolic for a moment in the island sun and everyone is happy!  BUT, this is a tainted reunion.  Michael has established something about his character.  He is weak.  He has taken credit for this ‘miracle’ of finding the dog.  He is willing to live a lie as long as it gets him what he wants.  In this case, it is the love and respect of Walt, but later it will be a lot more, and it will cost other characters A LOT more….. and someone notices this.

Cut over to and track around a pensive Locke.  Locke orchestrated this beautiful family moment, and he doesn’t seem to care for it.  He seems to see what his meddling has done.  He sees that Michael might be useful to him…   He might even know at this point that Walt is special.  After all, the island talks to John.

Side note:  As I watched this episode I kept feeling Deja-Vu.  I finally figured out what it was after a bit of brainstorming…  It reminded me of the Gilligan’s Island episode “Not Guilty” when a crate washed up in the Lagoon that had old Honolulu newspapers as wrapping for coconuts.  On one of the pages was a story stating that each of the castaways is wanted for questioning in relation to a murder that took place the day that they left!  I wonder if the writers’ room talked about the parallels while they were brainstorming?  That would be funny.

So, where were we?

Oh yeah.

Buffy is queen of raising the stakes.

We were talking about stagnation, story arcs, Buffy raising the stakes season after season, and the ripples this ‘stakes raising’ made in TV production ever since.  Outrageous story-lines are fine, as long as they are not impossibly outrageous within the universe you establish your story in.  In fact, if you have good writing, the more outrageous the better…

I don’t think studio execs would have ever accepted the drastic changes Lost went through from season to season, if Buffy the Vampire Slayer hadn’t set the precedents it had.  Up to that point, TV audiences had not been exposed to a show that was willing to up the ante in such an insane way, or conduct game changing tactics that completely shift the focus of the show, say to 1977 or an alternate universe.  The major difference being, Buffy was reacting to not being cancelled each season, and was continuing from where they left off last, and Lost does in fact have a larger plan.

LOST: UPPING THE ANTE –

When you start a story with 40 or so people surviving a midair catastrophe that ripped a plane in two, your work is going to be an uphill battle.  How do you top that in terms of excitement?  For starters, you establish that the plane was hundreds of miles off course.  Then you introduce strange ominous ghost-like whispers emanating from the jungle.  If you toss in a strange smoke monster that drags castaways to their apparent doom, then you are almost there.  The last two elements immediately established which elevated the stakes were the mysterious Others and the hatch.  Season one culminated with the first attempt to escape the island being thwarted by the others face-to-face on the open water.  They destroy the castaway’s raft, and kidnap Walt, a child.  Meanwhile, on the island, Locke blows open the hatch.  There is no Denouement.  This is a cliffhanger in every sense of the word.

"The boy is coming with us"

Season two offers a game change.  Every season is a game change actually.  The Losties have a hatch now.  They have food, laundry facilities, a shower, beds, of, and a button that needs to be pressed every 108 minutes or the world will come to an end.  I have some crazy thoughts on that here if you are interested.  This season introduces wonderful pseudo-sciences that the majority of the losties have no chance of understanding.  Faith and science collide as characters come to terms with personal reason as to the “Why” the button needs to be pressed every 108 minutes.  The explosive finale leads to the loss of the hatch, the deaths of two castaways, and the capture of three castaways by the Others.

Season three does the only thing it can do to continue upping the stakes.

Fate is a jerk sometimes

It gets crazier.  Desmond can ‘see’ a constantly changing future that he constantly attempts to thwart.  Locke is told the strange analogy of the island having a room that is a box… and whatever he wants can be in that box.  A boat is on its way to the island, and it might be there to rescue them.  Charlie needs to press another button, or switch, or something in an underwater base that is worthy of a Bond Villain in order to open communications with a freighter that is looking for the island and might provide rescue, all the while avoiding a possible future in which Desmond saw Charlie dying in said underwater base.  Whew!  That is crazy!  Crazy Awwwwwesome!

Season four.  The freighter has arrived with new cast members, and lots of new dangers! These new characters force every character on the island to choose what side of a line hastily drawn in the sand they want to be on.  The ‘B’ storyline takes place three years in the future where we discover that Jack. Kate, Sayid, Hurley, Sun, and Aaron got off the island!  A writers’ strike causes an abbreaviated season, but not before we see a freighter explode, a raft adrift, Desmond re-uniting with Penny in the middle of the ocean, and a magic wheel… in a frozen cave… that moves the island?    Okay.  I buy it.  I’m cool.

Season five.  Time travel.  Quantum Physics. Wormholes. 1977. Mythology. Hydrogen Bombs. Murdered by your mom before you were born!  Un-aging Lackeys.  Jack discovers Faith.  A really big explosion…. And here we are in the very metaphysical, super-science, theoretical and hopefully comprehensive Final Season.  And hopefully the denouement won’t be too heavy handed; I like to be left with something to think about.

It has been a great ride.  Lost, Buffy, Twin Peaks, Carnivale, all the shows I’ve ever loved have come to an end.  Some ended before their time, some ended right on time, and some stumbled into cancellation.  I’d make my own show, but I like to be surprised.  (I actually did do a TV pilot about a year and a half ago…  maybe I’ll share it one day.)

More Buffy / Lost Connections:

  • Sunnydale is destroyed in the finale, swallowed by the Hell-mouth
  • It looks like the Island is going to sink/ be destroyed…
  • Buffy’s mom – Joyce Summers – A fan of the occasional whiskey on the rocks, more than once throws a glass at the wall when upset with her daughter’s demon fighting career choice.
  • Jack’s dad – Christian Shepherd – heavvvvvvy drinker.  Operates drunk.  Lost license
  • Joyce and Christian Die suddenly, alone, and without closure with their children.
  • Both shows feature elaborate alternate reality storylines – Buffy has the ‘Willow became a vamp’ universe, and Lost has sideways.

In two parts, lets look at how both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost were able to consistently raise the stakes for their characters, storyline, and viewers over the course of their respective TV runs.

Buffy: Raising the Stakes

WARNING: IF YOU’VE NEVER WATCHED BUFFY, I PRETTY MUCH GIVE IT ALL AWAY.

One of the most challenging hurdles that a television show faces in this day and age is stagnation. As audiences become more intelligent, more tech savvy, and are editing their own you-tube videos, the magic of actually making TV is leaking to the masses. The only thing that can keeps viewers coming back week after week, month after month, and season after season, is by presenting stories that are so well conceived, performed, and executed, that we NEED to come back next week to see what happens. TV needs to evolve. The laws of evolution state that when faced with a shift in environment you have three options, Leave, Change, or Die. Good TV should apply that mentality as they change their fictional landscapes. Characters and stories should evolve.

Any story, be it fiction, non-fiction, long form, short form, or, well, even a joke, follows a commonly known ‘story arc’ structure. You, as the writer begin with the exposition portion, where characters, locations, and necessary info is introduced and more or less spoon-fed to the audience. Through interactions, actions and situations the primary conflict is introduced. Something must be accomplished or overcome by the main character(s). At the climax/ apex of your arc, it is good to pull together the plot threads that you have running as the characters face their obstacles. Then there is the falling action, or back end of the arc, as the resolution and consequences become apparent. Not all stories have a clear resolution, also called the denouement, though. Some leave it open to interpretation for the audience. And, some audiences don’t sit well with ‘the true meaning’ being shoved down their throats.

(I couldn’t find the Denouement conversation from Adaptation, but this is a wonderful moment to watch as a writer)

In TV, application of the story arc gets complicated. Every episode needs its clear beginning, middle, end, conflict, climax, falling action, and possibly denouement. In addition, a show like Buffy has another larger arc, which spans the entire season of 18 to 20 or so episodes. And, because of continuity junkies like myself, creators feel compelled to tie things up by looking at an entire series as an arc, and bring their opus to a clear end when the time comes and the curtain falls.

So, how does this relate to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and more importantly how does this relate to Lost which is currently reaching its season climax, but is also in the series denouement? Easy. Buffy was a show that was in constant danger of being cancelled. Even though it was an underground sensation, the studios didn’t know what to do with it. As a result Joss Whedon, creator of BTVS, was constantly prepared to end the show at each consecutive season finale. This created a wonderful precedent in television. The stakes were raised at the finale to such a degree that, when asked to give Fox another Season I’m rather certain Joss must have scratched his head and wondered “Where do we go from here?….”

In order to not stagnate, and offer a conflict that was equal in horribleness to the prior season, it became necessary to raise the stakes to a near ludicrous level so he could go out on a high note. Although, it wasn’t ever really ludicrous because of the laws set forth by the ‘Buffy Universe.’

Buffy’s Season 1 Finale, Prophecy Girl: There was a clear plan here. The story arc built to this episode where a prophecy stated that the Slayer would die so that the Master, an ancient Vampire living under Sunnydale, could rise again. Buffy’s friends were keeping this information from her for her own good. People were planning to go fight in her stead, until…. In a very Three’s Company moment, she overheard them talking about it. She goes through normal reactions a sixteen-year-old girl would until deciding to go and face the big evil vampire. She faces him, and dies, rather quickly. But, she doesn’t die bloody in a violent fight. It all happens rather pathetically. He bites her and drops her unconscious and face down in a small pool of water. Buffy drowns.

Prophecy Girl - Season One Finale

Minutes later, her friends revive her using CPR. I guess millennia-old prophecies don’t consider modern medical techniques. Then, yadda yadda yadda, Buffy saves the day.

That finale would have been a satisfactory end. The Master was supposed to end the world, and Buffy stopped him. It would have been a very western-like way to end it. The hero walks off to fight again.

The second season had its work cut out for it. Of course the world needed saving again. This time it was the nature of the villain that upped the stakes. The world ending baddie was Buffy’s vampire ex-boyfriend Angel, who goes by the name Angelus when evil. Buffy, stood up to the man that she still loves, saves the world, and at the moment when all of the plot threads collide, Angel reverts back to being a good guy… But it’s just too darn late. Buffy needs to kill him in order to save the world. She does the bloody deed, and sneaks out the back door, avoiding any discussion or denouement.

Season three culminates at Buffy’s High School Graduation. The Mayor is the big evil this time (Joss have a problem with local politics?). He plans to achieve ascension, which means that he will become pure demon. Pure demon is ominously described by the character Anya in the finale.

“All the demons that walk the Earth, are tainted, are human hybrids, like vampires. The Ascension means that a human becomes pure demon. They’re different.”

“Different?”

“Well, for one thing, they’re bigger.”

To make matters worse, the ascension is scheduled to occur at graduation and the mayor is the commencement speaker. As you imagine, Buffy and the gang survive, save the day, and beat the baddie. They survive High School and Evil and demons.

Season four is a bit of a toss away. It creates a ‘who can you trust’ problem for Buffy, as the US government gets into the demon hunting and dissecting business.

Season five introduces Glory, an actual goddess from a higher dimension. She is slumming it in our universe looking for the ‘key.’ She find’s it. The universe gets re-written and Buffy’s spontaneously created sister, Dawn, is revealed to be a hide-a-key in human form. This finale ups the stakes as much as you really can. Buffy sacrifices herself to close a door between dimensions. She dies. You think she’s going to wake up, and she doesn’t. It ends with her friends crowded around her lifeless body as they cry.

Dead is DEAD

Dead is Dead, unless you are Buffy Summers

So where do you go from there? Really? Joss was asked if he has one more in him.

“Buffy is dead.”

“Well, you have to fix that, right?”

Her friends resurrect her with a spell. When Buffy returns something is different. She is distant and detached from her friends. It is revealed, in one of the best hours ever of television, (“Once More With Feeling” the musical episode) that Buffy was not rescued from a hell dimension at all. She was ripped from what she described as pure bliss. She thinks she was in heaven. Even after all of the violence, she was in heaven. As Buffy comes to terms with her reincarnation, this season raises the stakes so far as the brutality it depicts. A would-be super villain utilizes something rarely seen on this show, a gun. He kills one of the Buffy gang, which sets off a series of events leading to Willow, Buffy’s best friend who just happens to be a powerful witch in training, going completely nuts and attempting to end the world. Again…. But this time it is her friend.

Season Seven: The Final Season – Buffy faces an evil, that is in fact THE evil. He/She/it refers to itself at “The first.” The first true evil. It is the inspiration for all that is bad in the world. Buffy has always fought her enemies one way, with her fists. How do you hit something this big, both metaphysically and physically? She raises a slayer army. She recruits for the big showdown.

Slayer Army Stand at the ready to kick Vampire ass!

They win of course. Some of her friends die. Some escape. In the end, the status is not quo. Buffy has become something more. She is now a warrior teacher that has the remnants of a slayer army looking to her for guidance. She is no longer a cog in a machine; she is now controlling the machine.

The universe in which Buffy takes place allowed this story to take place. These conflicts and finales could not have taken place in the Law and Order universe of NBC. Many shows are generally afraid of change. Studio execs like when they discover a formula, and they like to stick to it. The majority of half-hour comedies return to status quo by the end of an episode. Buffy defied status quo, as does Lost.

A quick series of coincidental similarities between the villain of BTVS Season 7, The First, and MIB/ Flocke:

  1. Both are really old. The First is, if you believe it, the origin of evil, soooo I guess it was there pretty much at the beginning. MIB is old. We’re not quite sure how old yet, but old.
  2. Both have the ability to shape shift, and they use that to their manipulative advantage to mess with their opponents’ minds.
  3. They both seem to be able to travel pretty much at the speed of thought.
  4. They are both trapped, and they want out so they can play with the world again.

That is it for now. Tribeca Film Fest is this week! I saw Zonad last night. It is the next film by the folks that did Once. It was really funny. Check it out if you get the chance. Also, Tribeca Film Fest Films are available On Demand on a lot of cable systems this week, and one of the films, Timer, stars Buffy alum Emma Caulfield.

Look for Part 2 Tuesday as we examine at how Lost consistently raised the stakes!