A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode nine “Protocol”

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of “Serial Experiments Lain,” a cult anime that is still boggling minds decades later. Famous for its abstract narrative and obscure references, each episode (or “layer”) of “Lain” sports a one-word title, which provides a handy entry point for analysis. So, each week this summer, we’ll post an analysis of each episode using its title as a kind of guide to the series as a whole.

The ninth episode of “Lain” is entitled “Protocol,” a word that usually brings to mind a set of rules, especially those that govern data in an electronic communication system, which seems wholly appropriate given Lain’s electronic leanings. And yet, after the narration, this episode breaks protocol. This is the infamous info dump episode, where all characters are seemingly tossed out the door in favor of documentary style explanations of conspiracy theories.

Beginning with some grainy footage of a desert, a new narrator casually starts detailing the Roswell, N.M., UFO landing. The identity of the UFO has never been proven, the narrator assures us: “Conjecture has become fact, and rumor has become history.” Another definition for rumor, perhaps, but also perhaps a suggestion for caution when considering “Lain.”

Those images cut to the ubiquitous phone lines, then to Lain herself depressed and in her room, alone yet surrounded by the Max Fleischer-esque steaming and green tubed machines that keep her connected to the Wired. The association with the previous images might suggest that Lain is a kind of alien invader–a point further reinforced when Lain sees an alien at her door, the same alien that has been seen earlier in the series and the same alien that might very well be Lain herself.

This all before we return to the narrative of Lain in the Wired, grilling a group of beings who seem to be purely sensual–their bodies are static, television white noise, except for a pair of eyes on one, a pair of ears on another, an arm on a third–which stand in stark contrast to the purely informational dump we are shuffled back into a moment later.

This breaking of narrative rank is not senseless. The entire episode is not a study of protocol, of rules, but rather, it’s a subversion of it. Note that, as fascinating as these sudden dumps of random information are, they are conspiracy theories at best. Theorizing on conspiracy is a breaking of protocol–it’s a breaking down of the rules of society, the background that keeps us all culturally in check. Conspiracy theorists, for better or for worse, are societal rebels.

The episode continues to break its narrative protocol, bouncing back and forth between Lain’s experiences in her room, in the Wired and the disconnected realm of conspiracy documentary. And yet, the conspiracy dump seems to tie to the main narrative–alien technology, courtesy of Vannevar Bush, along with John C. Lily and his sensory deprivation tanks, leads us toward the creation of the Wired. Even the narrative order is skewed. Mystically speaking, we’ve been here before.

Taro, Lain’s child informer from the club Cyberia, gets his date with Lain in what is certainly a break from the protocol of romantic norms. Taro says he doesn’t want to go out with her; he wants the other, wilder, Lain. “We’re the same,” Lain responds. “I’m me. I’m the only me.” And yet, as she says it, the top of her head is cut off and we see her huge, black eyes. The kids in Cyberia recoil in response. This is an unsettling start to a date.

Ultimately, the date is an opportunity for Lain to grill Taro about microchips and for Taro to see Lain’s hacker lair and comment on truth. The Knights, he assures her, are only interested in ultimate truth, the truth that has power because it is true and just. Then, he kisses her. “Hey, this is a date, you know?” he tells her. “I’m a guy. I had to do that.” In other words, he’s just following the rules.

Next, the rules of time and memory are broken. Lain suddenly remembers being shoved into her house, her family being no more than actors standing out from an overbearing white background. Even the rules of individual identity are in question, as she sees this happen to herself and quizzes herself about it.

At the end of the episode, we finally see the psychic form of Masami Eiri, the Tachibana labs employee who killed himself and assumed godhead in the Wired. Before Eiri appears, Lain suggests that there is only one truth: God. This bookends the narration from the beginning of the episode: “If you want to be free of suffering, you should believe in God. Whether or not you believe in Him, God is always by your side.” Perhaps the definition of God in “Lain” is the one who follows the rules even when you don’t.

There is another definition for the word protocol, an older definition than digitized regulations: the first draft of a document. When Lain encounters the sensual beings on the Wired, creatures that are obsessed with record, one states: “Since the moment of the Wired’s creation, you have always been here.” Is Lain the first draft of the Wired? If so, she is the first draft of an effort to link all of humanity into a communicative whole. The information dumps of this episode, if nothing else, indicate how that could be a conscious raising experience or an oppressive, confusing weapon.

2 thoughts on “A critical analysis of “Serial Experiments Lain” – Episode nine “Protocol”

  1. Honestly, I was stumped on how this episode connected to its title, but once you explained that it was the episode itself that wasn’t following protocol, it all made perfect sense. That said, I enjoyed how all the conspiracy was basically treated as history, which really makes you think about how in our modern times it’s so easy to distribute information in a way that makes sense in line with history. For example, although an older theory from 1991, the phantom time hypothesis has come back stronger than ever through the internet. In a way, you can say both the episode and this tactic break protocol, going a step further from just conspiracy that the more gullible eat up, and into a combination with history that could make it indistinguishable to even the more cautious.

    Also, I missed earlier references to the alien, would you be able to point them out?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One of the interesting byproducts of analyzing the series this way was it forced me to learn what a few of these words originally/alternatively mean, as well as explore a treasure trove of fringe science, philosophy and conspiracy theory.

      As for the earlier reference to the alien, there is no physical manifestion of the critter outside of episode nine that I can recall. However, in the middle of episode three there is a montage of audio messages detailing various “Lain” elements that either have already or will happen in the series: Psyche and Accela, how dying feels, the Knights, surveillance, illicit love affairs being uncovered and revealed on the Wired (in my analysis, I erroneously stated the only image accompanying this audio was telephone poles; in truth, it’s poles, a psychedelic representation of the Wired, Lain’s room and computer, and Lain herself). One of the audio messages is an alarmed young woman saying she sees someone in her room: “a little person like a kid in a red and green striped shirt…standing by [her] door.” She doesn’t call it an alien gray, but it sounds like Alice seeing the striped shirt clad alien-Lain hybrid. It’s fuel for anyone who wants to see the flow of time convoluted in “Lain”; or Lain’s unstable psychology absorbing this info and later recasting it as an alien encounter between herself and Alice; or just heightening the weird and conspiratorial atmosphere of the show. That was a cool little dive; thanks for making me clarify that.

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