With a show as complicated and multi-faceted as Lost, it’s easy to lose track of which aspects and themes are important and which are just present as a Profundity Place-Holder. For instance FlashForward is littered with conversations about fate and destiny but makes very little of that, choosing instead to play fast-and-loose with its own rules in order to keep the plot moving. See also Heroes, which pretends to wrestle with the themes of good and evil, or responsibility and duty, all while never really understanding what those themes mean. The result is an utterly hollow shell made up of time-wasting guff. For a lot of Lost fans – including myself at times – “faith” seemed to be something the characters talked about without ever being really important to the flow of the show, which was as much about science and logic as it was religious interpretation.
When Locke argued with Eko or Jack or Ben about faith, it was a great way to dramatise their essential differences, but perhaps it was more than that. Before disappearing from our radars, Cuse and Lindelof hinted that faith was crucially important to the show (I can’t find the article I read that in, sadly. I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it. The aptness of this is not lost on me). Certainly it was important for Locke’s sense of self-worth, but it also creates the world around him. Jacob makes the island a trap because he believes it already is thanks to what his mother told him. He has no proof that the island is a trap, but he takes what she says on faith, just as he takes the deadly nature of his brother on face value. Who’s to say that his departure from the island would really be that bad? Is this just a myth on the island borne of fear and insecurity, and then distorted into something more over time?
What about pressing the button in Swan Station? We see what happens when it doesn’t get pressed, but what is the purpose of the Skinner box Pearl Station, which monitored the Swan, with the instruction to the observers that the pressing of the button every 108 minutes was not important? Was that just a way to stop the Pearl Station workers telling everyone on the island that the island was on the brink of calamity? Or were they the ones initially keeping the island in check? For all we know, the Incident was not actually that dangerous. Jughead explodes in the Swan Station, but it can’t have had that much of an effect as the Swan Station is still built. If the Omnium (or whatever) absorbed that energy, perhaps the dangerous properties in that section of the island were a consequence of people believing it to be dangerous. (N.B. I always thought the moment Sawyer tried and failed to use a Dharma taser in The Glass Ballerina to be a telling moment. Why did it not work? Was his belief in its efficacy overriden by the Others’ belief that it wouldn’t?) In that case, there are two ways to defuse the dangerous instability of the island acting on this belief: give those who believe in this danger a way to shut the danger down, or add in another level of deception, and have people watch this fiction unfold, dispassionately recording the events while subconsciously saying to the island, “this doesn’t matter. It’s nothing. A game. You are harmless.”
So why does it all go wrong? With the Purge, the Pearl Station is shut down, and all that can save the island is the belief of the Swan Station staff. They have their own doubts, but in the end they keep the island safe, until Desmond is not there to push the button. His psychic trauma over killing Kelvin and not being there to defuse the island’s energy is enough to trigger a temporary eruption from the island, which acts on his belief. This causes the crash of Oceanic 815, and sets the rest of the story in motion. It might even have been a coincidence, or caused by the appearance of a plane that holds so many people who have been touched by Jacob, and who have been summoned to the island by him over a period of time. There’s a sense that this magical key – be it an electromagnetic resonance or mystical calling thanks to the intervention of Jacob – is what allows you onto the island, and so for all we know the magnetic burst during Desmond’s mad moment might not be the trigger for Oceanic’s crash, or might only be part of it. Or maybe I’m overthinking it.
I’m sure there’s more to the “faith” angle than just a poorly-thought-through theory on this here blog. Throughout the show we’ve seen endless deceptions, with a number of characters (including Sawyer, Ben, Kate, Nikki and Paulo) being con artists, not to mention Tom Friendly and his box of beards, numerous mystifying obfuscations from many characters, and even the island hiding its true self from everyone (the mysterious hidden Cave of Thing). It’s crucial to the running of the island that the characters don’t know everything about what is going on for fear of distorting reality more than they already do, or perhaps even making reality stop working together, and so the island “programs” the world into being secretive and deceptive (a key part of the relationship between Mother and her two surrogate sons), and making faith a crucial factor in how the world works. If events and intentions become transparent would the influx of faith dry up, and would that make the engine at the heart of the island just stop? Is this what will happen when the light that is within all of us (as mentioned by Mother) goes out, that we would all just stop/die? Faith is the fuel of the world, with the Omnium Pit being the engine being run. That’s a neat analogy, but what is the waste product?
Stories. Myths. This is what we have left over. “There is nothing outside the island.” “The button isn’t important.” “Jesus died for your sins.” “Prometheus is chained to a rock for giving the secret of fire to the mortals.” “Luke, I am your father.” So the show is about how we need to blindly trust in something to ensure that the world keeps turning, which has the side-effect of creating a number of interpretations of events that codify the events, while at the same time being a show that relies on faith to keep its narrative plates spinning while generating countless alternate interpretations of what is really going on. Just as the island will always need to remain mysterious to keep working, so does the show. It could never end with answers, not even with a final coda mini-episode with Ben showing the final Dharma initiation video to a couple of miserable workmen. We’re still in the dark, and all the better for it.
Lost, and life, are a flowchart with no start box, and with most of the arrows returning to the same boxes in loops, with only bits of new information added with each iteration of the island experience. While that alters the experience a bit, most of the time there is no escape from this infinite regress. This being a story, however, we should be able to escape this trap and find a way out of this loop, while still keeping the characters alive in our minds. I’ve already established that the show has done a great job of keeping some mysteries alive so we can mull over them (mimicking the oblivious characters of the show), but could it also give us a way out of the loop? Showing our heroes escaping from the island is one thing, but as the Oceanic Six (and Frank and Desmond) already escaped and got back, would that be enough? Even if we see Jack die and the new Oceanic Six escape, would that be enough, especially as the DVD epilogue showed even Walt didn’t get out (though he seems happy about going back)?
For the survivors’ actions – and Jack’s Christ-like sacrifice – to mean something, the loop has to be broken, and we have to see it. Before season six death is a dead end, something that can be thwarted by the use of the Temple Pool, or a miserable afterlife hassling people who are trying to get on with their lives. The show could have ended in some frustrating place where we don’t even get the closure that other stories provide, where the main characters end up dead or definitively in a situation where they will not just keep getting into scrapes. It’s a relief that they came up with a way to escape the loop, cheekily giving us an ending where the characters’ stories end, but the story of the island carries on.
Nevertheless, the problem with the Bardo ending is that it seems to come from nowhere — as Daisyhellcakes and Cat Vincent have both said to me — and talking about Arthurian myth is not going to cut it on its own. There is the argument that the Bardo is connected to the island adventures in a chronological sense. When Desmond is thrown into Charles Widmore’s Disco Shed of Death he is unmoored from reality and sent into the Bardo, which seemed — at that point, and quite intentionally — to be another universe, one created by Jack when he threw Jughead into the pit. Speculation was made that he had managed to break out of our universe thanks to this new, devastating burst of electromagnetic energy, but all that really happened was that his consciousness was once again hurled through time, forward into the period of timelessness that exists after he has died.
His body is gone but the essence of Desmond’s mind exists on a continuum between reality and Hurley’s waiting room. We thought we saw a leap sideways, but it was merely a huge leap forwards, larger than the skips he made after turning the failsafe key – a key that wasn’t removed from the lock in the ground until he symbolically does so again by removing the plug in the cave, leading us to believe his consciousness exists in normal time for the rest of his life (i.e. by completing the action he started at the end of season two’s Live Together, Die Alone, the island is finally done with him). Desmond’s story exists very clearly in both the living world and the post-death Bardo, and with this link he becomes the Constant that connects them.
Even more clear than this chronological connection is Jack’s arc, which has Monomyth written all over it. He follows the Hero’s Journey pretty much to the letter, and even if we think there are other characters who are on this same path, they never follow it as closely. There is an amusing confidence in Cuse and Lindelof’s decision to kill off Locke well before the end of the series and then hint that he has risen and reached Apotheosis, where he has in fact merely died an ugly and pointless death. Even funnier is how we fall for this mostly because the show’s characters act much as we do, imbuing the sight of Locke walking around as if it is a great sign, when in fact it’s one more con trick. It is Jack who must cross over into death and then reach a point of acceptance and peace upon reconciling with his father, curing his enemy, and proving that he can prevent the terrible anger inside him from ruining the life of his child. Bear in mind his sacrifice on the island allows him to achieve what he mistakenly thinks is his main goal in life — i.e. saving others — but his real salvation – the one he has subconsciously been trying to avoid – is the reconciliation with his father and his final profound understanding of that relationship. Jack cannot accomplish that on Earth: we need to see Jack die and then become cured on a spiritual level. Without that we don’t get the satisfaction of seeing the journey completed: a special pleasure as this is one of the most thorough explorations of the Monomyth that I can recall. I can imagine that is no comfort to some who disliked the Bardo-ending or the flash-”sideways”, but it was necessary to tie up numerous loose ends.
As for the Gods ‘R Us Room of Religious Symbology, though it’s galling to this atheist to see the show so readily embrace a religious aspect, at least it’s an inclusive one. We see symbols of six major religions in the stained-glass window, and this seems logical with many people picking and taking from a number of different belief systems, rewriting or reinterpreting religious parables and myths to make up stories about our life and death that comfort us. In the final step of our heroes’ journey, they have come to a place where they can leave these things behind. For fans who think of this as some woolly-headed acceptance of some greater truth than our experience, the scene was a great betrayal, but to me it looked like those religions — those attempts at describing the indescribable — were being left behind with their mortal selves, finally revealed to be little more than trinkets on shelves.
Religion – and that includes the religion of Lost worship – is a story told to make sense of our journey from birth to death in the face of mystifying complexity, just as all of the lies and misconceptions and obfuscations on the island were ways to tell the story of some magical place where the rules of nature didn’t apply. For our heroes, the questions and theories fade away. Once they’re through the door, they get all the answers they have ever asked for. Across The Sea angered fans greatly for not answering questions, and the moment with Mother saying “Every answer I give you will just lead to more questions,” was seen as a fuck you to the audience, but this is the key to the whole show: it’s about the journey, not the details of the road you take, both in the fictional world and the life we really lead. As much as obsessing about the details is fun and brings you together with others who feel the same way, it’s all just a distraction. There’s a world out there to discover.
Cuse and Lindelof are telling us to log off from The Fuselage and go live our lives, because they are more meaningful than we could possibly imagine. Funnily enough, I wasn’t even aware of this when I first saw the finale, but I did notice that the final scenes of our heroes hugging – which I first thought were hopelessly sentimental and dopey – worked some magic on me without my conscious knowledge. After a day or two of tearfulness I polled some Twitter acquaintances about their experience of the finale, and it seemed they felt the same way: the show made me value my friends and family more after seeing it, made me want to get in touch with people I had fallen out of contact with. It even made this atheist hope that there would be a waiting room for me as well, where I could see my loved ones one last time before travelling into the next level of transcendental reality. This nudge, this reassuring pat on the back and whisper in our ear, was an extra little gift from the showrunners.
And so ends a fictional journey that many have mocked as being a silly action show with pretensions to profundity, a waste of time, a failed experiment. As shown by the amount of time I have spent mulling this series over, you can tell I thought it was much more than that. It’s not for everyone, obviously. As I suspected towards the end of the sixth season, it’s not even a show I can recommend to anyone: much of the joy of watching it came with the experience of watching it unfold, and anyone coming to it now would miss much of the speculative joy, especially now the critics of the show have seemingly succeeded in perpetuating the utterly false “they were dead all along” meme which will corrupt anyone’s experience of the show. You had to be there, watching the story unfold in multiple directions, the showrunners convincing you to choose one theory and then revealing they had hoodwinked you, revealing with perfectly judged flourishes that they had been planting false seeds in your mind all along. It was a story told by people who love telling stories, a story about story. We were lucky enough to be a part of this journey of discovery, as the cast, crew, and writing staff told this unique tale with a playfulness you don’t get to experience very often, taking our speculation and expectation into consideration and using it to enrich their storytelling.
For those of us who were lucky enough to experience it at the time, it was an incredible mental exercise and a thrilling adventure. There were moments in the series that will stay in my head forever: Ben’s murder of Keamy and one-word response to Locke’s panicked question in There’s No Place Like Home; the summoning of the Smoke Monster in The Shape Of Things To Come; Desmond and Penny reconnecting across time and space in The Constant; Kate’s badass revenge on the Man in Black in The End; the camera rising over the raft as it leaves the island, Vincent splashing through the sea behind it, in Exodus; Daniel Faraday walking through the Orchid Station 30 years too early in Because You Left; Michael’s shocking betrayal in Two For The Road; Richard’s “reunion” with his wife, as facilitated by Hurley, in Ab Aeterno; the first inkling of what the Dharma Initiative is in Orientation; Sawyer and Juliet’s happy home in LaFleur, and Juliet’s final terrifying moments in The Incident; Mr. Eko facing off against the Smoke Monster in The 23rd Psalm; Locke’s reaction to his paralysis in The Man From Tallahassee, and the first time we see his predicament in Walkabout; “We have to go back!”; “Son of a bitch…”; “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”; “See you in the next life, brutha”; “WAAAAAAAAAAAAALT!!!” … Too many to count.
So I thank Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, Jack Bender and Stephen Williams and Tucker Gates, Elizabeth Sarnoff and Drew Goddard and Brian K. Vaughan, Stephen Semel and Mark Goldman, J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk and Jean Higgins and Ra’uf Glasgow, Melinda Hsu and Greggory Nations, Cort Fey and John S. Bartley and Michael Bonvillain, Zack Grobler and Tim Beach and especially Michael Giacchino: in fact every incredibly talented person on this page, for making a TV show that transcended mere narrative to become the father and son and spirit of all stories, and a meta-level dissection of what stories are and why they affect us the way they do, all while keeping us fans riveted with tales of derring-do and courage filled with distinct and unique characters that will live on in our minds forever. There will never be anything like it again.
So what now? Well, we can do one of two things. Walk through the doors with Christian or hang out with Hurley and Ben and Walt on the island, attempting to decode that place even more. This is why the finale was the perfect end. For those who have made their peace with the show, it can be dropped now. For those who still want the feeling to carry on, there is always more speculation, further rewatches to catch details missed before now that we see the show in a new light, where once more we mimic the structure of the show by adding our own concentric circles. And whenever we feel like it, we can just get up, walk through the doors into the church, and say hello to our friends and loved ones again. Perhaps this final unburdening of speculation and enthusiasm is a sign I should do just that.
After I’ve rewatched it one more time, of course. (Cue trumpet noise and then… boom.)