I recently read a post on The TV Addict by Tiffany Vogt entitled, "Is Romance Dead on Television?" which argued that there were only very few actual romances on contemporary television. Vogt defined a proper romance as, "a hint of a soft whisper, the briefest of caress, or a stolen look of desire," and noted Castle, Merlin and The Vampire Diaries as a few examples of shows with such romances. And while I can't speak for Castle (it's on my next to watch list), I just want to say... the Vampire Diaries, really?! In my opinion, the so-called romances in that show are as arbitrary and flaky, if not more so, than the ones found in 90210 or Gossip Girl. And those have some horrific romantic continuities. But I want to argue for another, major romance, which is very controversial (and thus, all the more fun)...
JACK AND KATE, LOST
Yes. I'm going there!
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The kind of romance that was argued for in the aforementioned article was the Jane Austen type, the pure, eternal romance that wasn't about which random characters were going to hook up any given week, but about something "much more delicate and elusive." What I think happened in Lost, with the central love triangle which aggravated the viewers for years, was exactly the juxtaposition of these two types of love stories - which is why the majority of the audience did not necessarily pick up on it, or were fully supportive of the ultimate sway of the triangle.
I myself was one of the people who couldn't for the life of me decipher whether we were meant to root for Jack or Sawyer to get "the girl" (which was obviously Kate, despite the other female characters on the show) - but then, at that time I'd never read Jane Austen, and I am after all a big fan of television series, with their occasionally crappy romances and all. Maybe I just wasn't used to the type of romantic storytelling, and didn't see the careful construction of both pairings as archetypes. Certainly, in retrospect it is much clearer to see that the writers were intending to do something new with romance, something subtler and more artistic rather than in your face and sensational. But equally certain was the fact that the viewers, myself included, weren't ready for it, hence the negative backlash that the triangle and Kate's character received.
But let's take a look at how the relationships of Jack and Kate and Sawyer and Kate could be said to respectively represent the two different types of romance - the sensational and modern versus the subtle and classic.
Sawyer and Kate: the SENSATIONAL
I want to start with talking about Sawyer and Kate because I believe that this relationship was arguably the more apparent of the two, definitely the more active and perhaps even the more popular choice for indifferent/casual viewers. Why? Because Sawyer and Kate together was the obvious choice, the easy choice, and the in many ways expected direction for the characters to head in.
While the Kate and Jack relationship was highlighted at the very beginning of the show and thus often referred to as the "original" pairing, a possible Kate/Sawyer connection was hinted at already in the second half of the Pilot, and it was set in clear and purposeful juxtaposition to the sweet, quiet, instinctual connection Kate formed with Jack by being unexpected, dangerous and "wrong" in all the right ways. Sawyer and Kate's attraction blossomed and was fed by Kate and Sawyer's similar, dark pasts, the former's ironically the main factor in separating Kate and Jack and eclipsing the initial connection between them.
Kate and Sawyer were loved by scores of fans calling themselves "Skaters," who enjoyed their sizzling chemistry, their similar dark natures and the scandalous trouble they got into together. Kate and Sawyer were the first couple in the triangle to kiss, the first to sleep together, the first to - arguably - say "I love you," and it was all very, very physical, visual, and obvious. In other words, a typical television romance. Not to simplify a complex relationship, because as we know the best "typical" TV relationships are layered like an onion and more complicated than post-structuralism. There was plenty of reason for the Skaters to argue that their couple, as opposed to Jack and Kate, was the "right" one, the "best" one and the one which would ultimately, obviously be confirmed in canon at the end of the show.
Jack and Kate: the SUBTLE
On the flip side we had the slow and steady development of the Jack and Kate relationship, and if watching the two of them struggle with their emotions without a pre-existing wish to support the couple, it must have been harder to understand than the feelings of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet the first time you watch the Pride and Prejudice BBC miniseries. In that case, I know that I sure didn't get all the subtleties of the pair's growing and conflicted emotions before I'd read the novel, and then watched the series again. And well, Lost isn't even based on a book, so all the emotions have to come across in the performance. So if you don't already see it on your own, there's no reason that you'd bother to spend hours trying to work out what Kate and Jack could possibly be thinking to make them behave in the weird ways they seem to be behaving in. Especially in a trash TV culture where it's much more viable to suppose it is merely a case of bad writing and that the writers, actors and directors had no idea what the characters were thinking and were just trying to stave off the eventual romantic "choice" Kate allegedly had to make.
But taking into account Tiffany Vogt's article about true romances being so rare on television, I think it is not a far cry to suggest that the relationship between Jack and Kate, the subtleness, the uncertainty, the ambiguity, after all was said and done painted a much richer, much different and truly consistent picture of a romance than the usual, simplified and amplified TV show relationship.
Jack and Kate moments were sparse throughout the series. They were ambiguous, they were often silent, and viewed on their own, the answer to whether they indicated any romantic feelings between the characters was highly subjective. Take an early scene in the first season, where Kate approaches Jack on the beach, tells him that she wants him to know what she did, only for him to refuse her, saying that "We should all be able to start over." They look at each other, and share a melancholy silence as they sit on the beach side by side. That's it. Or another moment, where Kate catches Jack looking at her while she is collecting seeds, and they share the infamous, but ultimately arbitrary, "guava seed" moment. Their first kiss was about desperation, confusion, and anger - but not necessarily romantic passion. When they get together for a brief period of time it is more symbolic to portray the characters in a certain way, rather than graphic and fulfilling for their long-suffering fans. Jack and Kate's scenes are tender, they are underplayed, there is more going on in the characters' heads than their actions portray - which is very in tune with Vogt's description of the "hint of a soft whisper, the briefest of caress, or a stolen look of desire" type of romance. These scenes stand in sharp contrast to heavily suggestive Sawyer/Kate scenes, which are all very sexually charged, and often times include intimate physical interaction - for example one of their first scenes together where Sawyer grabs Kate's arm and pulls her close, when they strip down and swim in the jungle spring, their subsequent game of I Never and of course their later passionate kisses and graphic sex scenes.
Scenes between Jack and Kate did not seem to exist to point out that "look, there's a possibility for romance between the two, and look, sexual tension." They existed to form a bond between the characters of a deeper nature than romantic attraction (deeper, as it turns out, than life itself), and to "plant the seeds", if you will, both for romance and conflict. Jack and Kate - or "Jate", as fans dubbed their relationship, was never simple and their feelings for each other were never straightforward - though feelings between them were always heavy, for better or worse. Their relationship was never about whether or not they were going to hook up, whatever battling shippers would proclaim. Their relationship was about their relationship - not just the romantic aspect. And this confused a lot of people, who did not tune in to the biggest mystery show on television to analyse feelings and relationships, and who were not used to these old-fashioned subtle romances because, as Vogt states, they are so few and far between.
Once the series finale rolled around, and Kate kissed Jack and declared that she loved him - and subsequently sought him out in Second Life and sat by him in the church of eternity - the long-awaited choice was clear. Some were elated cause they had thought it all along, while others were confused, angry and upset because they believed they had been misled to believe that Kate and Sawyer was the "true" pairing.
But ultimately, neither pairing was wrong, they were just different. Lost was confusing everybody because it was telling two love stories simultaneously: the classic romance, and the sensational, epic love story. Of course, the additional twist was that the show was telling these stories with the same female character - thus in a way symbolising the conflict in contemporary society between the old and the new, between the beautiful and the amplified. There is a general fear of losing the "high culture" in an over-saturated, media crazed society, and postmodernist television is (while brilliant in a lot of ways) dissolving the barrier the low and the high culture. Lost is taking this to a whole new level, by literally staging a battle for dominance between these two types of storytelling, these two different approaches to romance - using the characters Jack and Sawyer as champions for the two sides. Whether Jack and Kate ending up together signals a return to romance as it used to be, or whether it just shows it to be more eternal, lasting and memorable, is up for debate.
Good ship bad ship?
Perhaps one of the reasons why the Jaters and Skaters were infamous on the Internet for their childish fights, and detested by the Lost fanbase as a whole, was because their battle for that all important confirmation, or "endgame" status, became about more than just the dominance of their preferred male, but also for their respective preferred type of romance. And why the outcome was so hard to call, why each side would swear on all their families and friends that they were supporting the "right" side, was because neither side was decidedly wrong. Because who is to decide which art is more valid, the classic or the popular? Who can say what type of romance is more relevant in the 21st century, the traditional or the sensational?
As it was, Jack and Kate turned out to be the literal endgame, their souls for all intents and purposes uniting in death and moving into the light entwined, while Sawyer and Kate - important enough to each other to be in the church together but otherwise not shown to interact significantly - did not have as strong a romantic connection, each finding their ultimate companion in another.
What I think this means, in light of the TV Addict article about romance on television, is that in the case of Lost, traditional, "slow burning flame" type romance in the style of Darcy and Elizabeth and now Jack and Kate ultimately outlasts seasonal, "roaring fire" type love like Sawyer and Kate's. Still, one type of relationship is absolutely not more valid than another and I don't think the show was trying to make it appear so. Kate and Sawyer's love was real, and everything it was meant to be: passionate, intense, and short-lived. Jack and Kate's love was equally real. But subtler, slower, and eternal. And therefore, less popular in a 2-second attention span consumer society.
The shame is of course that this juxtaposition and message - intentional or not - was lost in a sea of pop culture and postmodernism, forgotten amongst the four-toed statues, hatches, smoke monsters and other in-your-face, larger than life objects of attention. The subtle characteristics and feelings of Kate not-a-coincidental-last-name Austen were overlooked in favour of far more interesting, big action characters like John Locke, Ben Linus and Jacob.
Still, I hope that the shipper war has died down enough and the mythology fans have tempered down enough that we can begin to debate the relationships of Lost, their validity and their relevance to society at large, because I always felt that it was a sadly overlooked aspect of the incredibly deep, layered TV show, something which, if you took it seriously, it was impossible for others to take you seriously for.