LOST’s Blast Door Map: On Medieval Cartography, the Forensic Fandom, and Truth in the Universe
In the fifth century AD, as the Roman Empire was disintegrating from within and without, an exodus was taking place. Following the example of those like Saint Benedict, Christians across Europe turned inward, devoting themselves to ascetic lives of labor and prayer, isolated from the chaos of a tumultuous world. Over time, their monasteries became centers of literacy and repositories of knowledge. Books and manuscripts were revered, copied, preserved, and beautified with lavish devotion, so that their knowledge could be preserved. These institutions became a fleet of cultural arks.
In the 1992 of LOST’s timeline, another empire was coming to an end. The DHARMA Initiative’s long decline of cut funding and calamitous experiments ended in the massacre of its remaining membership in a “Purge” by its longtime enemy: the “Hostiles” upon whose island home the Initiative had intruded. The victors co-opted those facilities and research stations that they could find a use for- the rest were left to rot among the jungle foliage. All save one, sheltering the last two survivors of the Purge within its depths. Insulated from the collapse of their empire-in-miniature, these two can do nothing but continue their work- entering a mysterious code on an antiquated computer every 108 minutes, to save the world from annihilation. A constant prayer to a power that gave no response but the fluttering click of a timer resetting.
The work of the Swan’s inhabitants is of cosmic, world-saving significance, yet they labor in isolation and obscurity; in the absence of glory or reward; knowing that when their duty ends, others will take their place. Day by day, they labor in humble servitude to a higher cause, isolated from the wider world, and yet making an effort to put it in the context of their faith in a greater plan, a grand design. They begin to create a map. A record. A literally-illuminated sacred text. An ark to commemorate, record, and perhaps one day revive the DHARMA Initiative and to unravel the great mysteries at last.
The Blast Door Map (as it became known) was a brief image (it only appears once, to a single character, and is on-screen for a combined total of 10 seconds), but it seemed like a synecdoche for the show as a whole: obsessive theories and observations pointing toward a single, central mystery. It’s essentially a grab-bag of coordinates, equations, cryptic Latin verse, and fevered, scattered timeline notes- an attempt to unravel the workings of the vanished Dharma Initiative by one of its final members, slowly losing his mind.
“The episode treats it as something to pore over,” wrote Myles McNutt at the AV Club. “It’s a scene built for the age of the DVR, the pause button a necessity to break down the information we presume is contained within.” Within hours of the episode airing, high-resolution screen-grabs were being feverishly deciphered online and pored over in Entertainment Weekly. It’s become a mainstay of posters, puzzles, and was prominently included in the LOST: Via Domus video game, promising new secrets and clues.
It’s fitting that the only character to witness the map in LOST’s present-day is John Locke, who, thanks to his determination in uncovering the Island’s mystical secrets, was almost something of a fandom stand-in, the only character as devoted as they were to unraveling the mysteries. The map’s primary significance in the narrative is in Locke trying to locate the “?” that dominates its layout. It’s one of the few aspects he’s able to remember after his brief glimpse; he never gets another look- the map is blown up along with the rest of the station by season’s end without ever reappearing on-screen.
Today, with the benefit of a decade-and-a-half’s worth of hindsight, it’s easy to view the map as little more than a roster of Easter eggs and red herrings, most of which would have been unveiled before the end of the following season. In his contribution to the book “LOST in Media,” Benjamin Beil writes that, “the transmedia versions of the map detach it from Locke’s character motivations and the core island narrative events, making it a potentially fun puzzle to play, but offering little storytelling payoff despite the promise of hidden mysteries and revelations.” But LOST always found a way to use its documents- maps and books- as a means of emphasizing its themes and revealing insight about its characters. There is much that the map signifies about the mapmaker, and the world it is trying to chart.
After all, the Blast Door Map doesn’t seem to function all that well as a map- bound within the Bagua of the DHARMA Initiative’s logo, it does little to chart the spatial relationships of the stations in terms of actual position and distance. In this way, it invokes the mappae mundi of the Middle Ages.
“[Their] primary purpose… was to instruct the faithful about the significant events in Christian history, rather than to record their precise locations,” notes scholar David Woodward. In contrast to more cartographically-conscientious charts of the time (e.g. portolan charts), mappae mundi lacked scales, coordinates, and graticules. They layered history into the geography, creating highly geometric maps (usually bound by circles or ovals) that depict the nature of a particular place within the Christian framework.
Along these lines, the Blast Door Map reflects the framework through which its troubled, intelligent creator viewed the history of the Island, his world entire: through the lens of the DHARMA Initiative. The whole project is an inventory of significant locales, arranged in a sort of pantheon that only vaguely coheres to their geographical disposition. It is exegetic, symbolic, and geographically-tangential- less concerned with spatial accuracy than with the illustration of certain principles. Woodward goes on to say that “the mappae mundi appear to have been compiled with the assumption that there was a finite amount of information to be fitted into a predetermined bounding shape.” He refers to the purpose of the mappae mundi as being “primarily didactic and moralizing and lay not in the communication of geographical facts.”
The way the map conforms to the Dharma Bagua shape, and the equidistance of the pantheon of stations to the central question mark, indicates the map-maker’s mentality toward creating a chart that is as much symbolized as surveyed. Though the Blast Door Map contains certain geographic and navigational referents (rivers, elevations, bearings, coordinates, etc.), they are secondary to the chronicle of the Initiative’s purpose and history: a mixture of observation, supposition, and guesswork- of symbolism that melds the historical with the geographical, encased within a grand unifying theory, mapping the rise and fall of an entire society. The map and its annotations detail collapsed tunnels; stations that have been abandoned, or were never built; the failure of their communications; the breakdown in their infrastructure; and the gradual decline of a utopian vision that set out to do nothing less than save the world.
Just as Medieval map-makers accounted for strange creatures and monstrous beings on their fringes, so too must the inhabitants of the Swan contend with strange and unknown forces. From enigmatic Hostiles, to the supposed sickness that is the cause of the Swan’s “quarantine,” to the monstrous column of black smoke which Radzinsky dubs “Cerberus.” Just as in the Medieval world, on the Island, there be dragons.
In the post-Crusades period of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, it became a trend for mappae mundi to place Jerusalem at the center. It was certainly the center of Christianity’s world, a spiritual and political lynchpin. It’s no surprise that the Blast Door Map has its own central pillar around which the rest of its minutiae revolves: the imposing “?” at the center, to which all roads seem to lead.
The mapmaker, of course, has no real idea what it is he is looking for. It’s as if h’s searching for the very concept of J.J. Abrams’ “mystery box.” “Designation unknown,” he scrawls. “Purpose unknown.” He knows only that something must lie at the center of it all, some culmination of the Initiative’s doomed efforts, some final revelation of the Island’s nature, the ultimate variable that will solve the equation.
The Latin just below the “?” translates roughly to “Consider nothing done if anything remains to be done.” The giant, mystery-shaped hole in the middle of the map seems to inform, and override, every other scrawled detail. So too did the very idea of a central, all-connected mystery take primacy in the minds of the audience, and that of John Locke, the moment that question mark appeared, blazing under UV light.
Finding the center leads, predictably, to a schism-in-miniature. Locke and his fellow man of faith, Mr. Eko they find a literal question mark, sown into the bare earth, and beneath it, another hatch. This one leads to yet another bunker, more cramped, more decayed. They are informed via videotape that the Swan is seemingly nothing more than a psychological experiment, fodder for the observers to endlessly record, passing these logs along to their shadowy overseers. In a closed loop, John seeks a higher truth and comes face to face with himself, a “rat in a maze, with no cheese.” Mr. Eko sees it closer to what it is- a false trail, a test, just another excuse to deprive yourself of meaning, and of responsibility. The question of “the button” was ever one of faith, wrapped up in science (or perhaps, vice versa)- the idea that someone had created itwith purpose, that someone cared. The Blast Door Map was an artifact of the journey itself.
In the words of author Jeff Vandermeer: “A map is just another story we tell — what we put on the map is the plot, the characters. What we leave off is what we don’t want in our story… Can you build a profile of the mapmaker from the map?” Radzinsky, the map’s principle creator, is Locke’s spiritual predecessor. Just as the map is bound and defined by the Dharma logo, Radzinsky’s obsessive view is limited, attempting to decipher the universe using a paradigm that has already failed, obsessively chasing clues (or inventing his own) that lead to a hole in the ground, filled with screens. The question mark is the tortured curiosity of a previous explorer. He never knew it led to a panopticon.
In-universe, Radzinsky and his cohorts were trying to “solve” their world, a mystery whose grand centrality ends up being a joke, a bank of camera monitors watched by a pair of nine-to-fivers, filling notebook after notebook with frivolous observations, all of which end up dumped, unread, in the middle of nowhere.
In bonus materials, frequent reference is made to the Valenzetti Equation- a sort of quasi-mythical mathematical doomsday proof- that the DHARMA Initiative is attempting to solve or alter via their efforts on the Island. Radzinsky shares this obsession, but it leaves him myopic. Take, for instance, the Orchid, a station devoted to time travel, disguised as a greenhouse, which plays a prominent role in LOST’s later seasons. It certainly seems to be alluded to on the map, but ultimately disregarded. It’s dismissed as a site for “above-ground study of flora/fauna” with “low relevance to Valenzetti-related research activity.” Elsewhere, reference is made to an aborted station located near a “large number of underwater springs/heavy water table”, a veiled reference to the Source, the epicenter of the Island’s electromagnetic mojo, the distributory of the other pockets of energy upon which the Swan, the Orchid, and the Others’ temple sit. That which so many have tried to find, and failed.
By all rights, the Source is essentially the “question mark,” the central purpose of the Island’s existence, the source of its magic. It also seems to be a kind of proto-station, a literalization of the cork metaphor- the Swan’s dam-plugging protocol writ large. How ironic that “?” should be a false prize, a distraction from the “real” epicenter, vaguely noted off to one side and forgotten. Not for nothing is it located adjacent to the bamboo forest where Jack wakes up in the first shot of the series.
Placing their faith in the false promise of the Dharma Initiative, just as many viewers did. The DHARMA Initiative was a utopian dream- formed by fringe scientists and hippy academics, its very existence was an experiment, steeped in the counterculture of the time. Their goals may have been noble, but there is a dissonance to their rhetoric. They preach harmony, understanding, “Namaste and good luck,” but their utopian commune is more of a fortified compound, stashed with weapons and monitored constantly via surveillance cameras. For all its talk of the “betterment of mankind”, the Initiative is a warmongering entity, armed to the teeth and brewing poison gas. The orientation videos are obfuscatory, revisionist, and propagandistic, deceptive even to its own members.
The nature of leadership, authority, and the secret-keeping that comes with it is a constant theme in LOST. Particularly in the early seasons, the leaders among the Oceanic Flight 815’s survivors constantly struggle with what information they should and should not reveal to their fellow castaways. Meanwhile, in the Others’ camp, Ben Linus controls his people with secrets and lies, and even he himself is kept in the dark by Jacob, the Island’s local godhead. Misdirection and misinformation is commonplace, whether in the petty con-man tricks that Sawyer employs, or the complex smokescreens generated by such manipulators as Ben and his rival, Charles Widmore, willing to create a fake plane crash and hoodwink the world in order to further his designs.
Everywhere in the show, we see faith placed in fallible authorities and higher plans that turn out only to be a series of disastrous mistakes and hasty repairs. Jacob admits as much during his palaver with the last remaining candidates in the penultimate episode, reflecting on the transformation of his brother into the smoke monster, almost 2,000 years ago, a small-scale, Biblical quarrel that turned into a cycle of violence going down the centuries.
Though the DHARMA Initiative certainly left its octagonal stamp on the Island, they were but one of a parade of visitors, castaways, and colonizers throughout its history: Romans and Egyptians; French expeditions and Spanish slavers; drug-runners from Nigeria and balloonists from Minnesota. “They come, they fight, they destroy, they corrupt,” Jacob’s nameless brother declares. “It always ends the same.”
Speaking as a guest on The Hatch podcast, Professor Jason Mittell cites what he feels as being a “design at play” from the very beginning. He refers to Unity of Purpose being among the four aesthetic norms that make LOST a truly great story. “It defined its own unity as it went.” The Blast Door Map is not just visual shorthand for this unity, but an expression of the viewers’ instinct to recognize that unity. The first show that tapped into the internet’s capacity for active engagement, a participatory online culture that hooked an entire mainstream viewing audience. The theorizing, the puzzle-solving, what Mittell calls a “forensic impulse.” “[Viewers],” he says, “weren’t just trying to make sense of the story world, but also the story-telling.”
LOST’s significance is acting as though there were a plan. Infamously, it was J.J. Abrams who conceived the striking image of a metal hatch in the middle of a jungle, with no idea what would be inside; Michael Emerson’s role was initially conceived as a three-episode guest-spot before he was reimagined as Benjamin Linus; the “Black Rock” was named long before the writers settled on its depiction as a 19th-century slave ship, dropped in the middle of the jungle.
It goes beyond worldbuilding- calling it a “mythology” does service to the way in which the characters inside of that world attempt to make sense of it, whether through vision-quests or mathematics. And it was this drive on the part of the players that lay at the heart of the series. As Rachel Paige noted in her recent article for Forbes, “the show took the giant question mark of the island and turned it into more of a feeling that a specific place that needed to be solved.” LOST co-showrunner Damon Lindelof would bring this to greater effect in The Leftovers, which offered an unflinching look at faith in the face of the unfathomable.
Though it has a human rationale, the Blast Door Map once seemed inexplicable in and of itself, providence-under-blacklight, as incongruous as a metal hatch in the middle of a jungle, on a strange island filled with ghosts and monsters- an entire world in which each of its visitors and inhabitants attempted to graft their own understanding, their own sense of order. The map upon the door is, itself, a door- a passage into our sense connection and our understanding, the tools we use to navigate and make sense of the world. What we place their faith in may not necessarily save us, but our fellow pilgrims just might.