Thursday, May 14, 2009

I think I get it: My take on Lost’s Season Five Finale, "The Incident"

As a somewhat obsessive Lost fan and random blogger, one would think I would make like everyone else and blog ad nauseum about the show. But up to this point, I have not. I think that's because I'm usually too brain-boggled to form coherent sentences about it. To that end, I deeply admire EW's Doc Jensen, who not only manages to conjure coherent sentences in late hours, he also throws in tons of literary analysis, philosophy, religion and mythology while he's doing it.

So the fact that the season-five finale has motivated me to put my thoughts down and post them is surprising. Turns out, though, I finally have some things to say and no one to say them to. Thus this blog.

All along, my predominant theory about Lost has been that it's a show about redemption, and the island is some kind of underworld that helps people find that redemption. Not hell, but maybe purgatory.

Along those lines, at the center of most sci-fi stories is a Christ figure, who volunteers to sacrifice himself for the salvation of all mankind. This is true of Lord of the Rings, which has Frodo ultimately sacrificing himself to take the ring to Mordor and Mt. Doom; the Chronicles of Narnia, which takes the much more obvious route and has Aslan allow himself to be sacrificed on the Stone Table by the White Witch; Star Wars, except that Luke really only has to sacrifice a hand, but he's still the chosen one; The Matrix, in which Neo, which descrambles into One and also means New, gives up his identity to be reborn into what he is destined to be; and finally, Harry Potter, which was always my fear with that series, and which Darlton are vocally a fan of.

We also know that Darlton are heavily influenced by C. S. Lewis and Narnia – with references to the Lamppost (the Dharma station that houses Eloise Hawking and an actual lamppost that serves as a guide for young Lucy and her siblings in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe) and Lewis himself in the character of Charlotte, whose initials were C.S. Lewis. And Damon Lindelof at least is a huge Star Wars fan. I believe Damon has said that he's seen the trilogy about 70 times. Earlier this season, we had Hurley trying to rewrite Empire Strikes Back and deliver a perfected version of the script to the future in one of Lost's funnier moments.

While the show is chock full of symbols – from the red herring that Jacob was cooking up to the Egyptian hieroglyphics to those mysterious numbers (which now we know are the fictional Valenzetti equation) to the statue -- I've given up trying to assign a specific symbology to any one character in Lost. If anything, I've decided the show is way top-heavy and overly layered with symbols, to the degree that what they are pointing out becomes repetitive. I think many of the characters – particularly the more murky, seemingly immortal ones – blend many religions and mythologies to take on a mythology all their own. And often I think the characters are given deeply loaded names – Richard Alpert or John Locke or Daniel Faraday – in order to make you go hmmmm. Those names cast a shade of meaning over these characters, but they don't define who he or she is. I also think it amuses the hell out of Lost's producers to throw in some reference and watch the audience go nuts trying to figure it out for weeks.

I've interviewed Darlton several times and they don't make their plans any clearer to me than to anyone else, but I remember one specific interview where I asked them if they were ever going to answer all these questions they kept opening up. That seemed to particularly annoy them. I don't remember Damon's word-for-word answer, but it was something to the effect of "many of the answers to these questions are right in front of your face. Don't read more into them than you need to."

I started watching the show like that – not reading into everything but just sort of taking things as they were presented – and it's made the whole process a lot easier and clearer. I feel like the show itself often includes hints to stop looking for all the deeper meanings and just watch – for example, when Sayid told Jack to "hide in plain sight."

Finally, I've realized that Lost is never going to explain it all to me, and much of the interpretation is up to me. I think that's how it's going to end too, so people who are expecting a big complete, total reveal where everything is cleaned up and tied off at the end of next season are going to be sorely disappointed. This is a show that requires you not only to think for yourself but also to rely on yourself. To some extent, the show is what you think it's about. If you think the island is a spaceship and the events that unspool after next year's finale allow you to keep thinking that, then it's a spaceship as far as you're concerned and the producers are fine with that. I don't think they are particularly possessive about interpretations.

So, after last night's finale, here are mine:

Jacob and the guy everyone is calling Esau, which has a certain symmetry to it, are two entities – perhaps deities – fighting for control, kind of like how angels wrestled over good and evil back at the beginning of time or how God made a bet with Satan on how Job would handle every crappy thing that Satan could throw at him. Our little Losties, and the Dharma Initiative and the Hostiles, are just pawns in this endless game, which is essentially what the two deity-like guys agree to in the opening beach scene. There are lots of examples of Gods playing with humans like pawns – or black and white backgammon pieces – throughout mythology and religion. The Old Testament is one big story in which Jehovah endlessly messes with his chosen people. In the end, however, the good deity believes humans can pull it out, while the bad deity believes humans are doomed, and he's psyched about that and ready to speed up the process already.

These two – one clothed in white, the other in black – may be Jesus and the Devil or they may be the Egyptian Gods Ra and Apep or they may be some other gods, but I think it's clear that they represent good and evil. Or perhaps more accurately: faith in humankind and no faith in humankind. Lost gives us endless symbols to lead us in this direction. But who they are exactly doesn't really matter – likely they are two creations original to the show but influenced by all of these other mythologies I've already mentioned. What matters is what they represent, which is humanity's constant battle between its baser and better instincts: good vs. evil, free will vs. predestination, and most importantly, love v. hate. Jacob is betting the better instincts will win, while Esau is betting on baser.

That's why Rose and Bernard didn't need to join Dharma or The Hostiles. They'd already figured that one out. That's why smart Vincent decided to follow the love and hang with them. The rest of the Losties have a ways to go, however.

Our Losties are the latest to take the island stage in this battle. The stakes appear higher this time around: Esau seems to have taken over John Locke's dead body, which grants him some sort of loophole that allows him, through Ben, to kill Jacob, something he's been longing to do and apparently has been a long time coming.

But I don't believe Jacob is dead for one minute. Jacob chose to sacrifice himself to save the world. He's the one that lives in the shadow of the statue or "the one who will save us all," as so many avid viewers have now translated from the Latin. He's The One. In all things science fiction, being the one means sacrificing yourself to save the world. (Another thing that points to this: the flight on which everyone returned was Ajira 3:16. John 3:16 is the key verse of the New Testament: "For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life." Ajira, by the way, means island in Hindi.)

In that final scenario, Benjamin Linus, always the dedicated slave who allowed himself to be used for a cause in which he believed blindly, became Judas, the betrayer, and completed the act for which he had been set up, for which he was destined. Someone pointed out that they found that scene to be like the one in Star Wars where Obi Wan Kenobi allows himself to be killed by Darth Vader but tells Darth before he dies that he'll be back stronger than ever. I'm sure that's what's going on here. Entities like Jacob aren't easily felled by the knife of one Benjamin. "And who are you?" Jacob asked Benjamin, before willingly allowing Ben to stab him.

Ok, enough about what was happening in 2007. Back in 1977, the Losties finally decide to go with Jack's plan to explode the nuke and stop (or cause – Darlton is definitely allowing us to spend the next six months wondering about that one) The Incident. I agree that the degree to which Juliet and Kate wavered on whether they supported Jack in this endeavor seemed silly and distracting, and I don't think I believe Jack that the reason he's back at the Island is to win Kate back. He might not really know why he's back though – I suspect it has something to do with his long-lost sister Claire and his nephew, Aaron. In any case, we finally got to the scene we've all been primed for – The Actual Incident – and once we got there the key factor was Juliet.

When Kate returned to the island, Juliet was suddenly faced with doubt about whether Sawyer loved her. That doubt made her act erratically – from taking over the sub and bringing the trio back to the island, to deciding she would go with Jack's plan. While it would be a serious overreaction, I think that irrational behavior was due to her interpreting and overdramatizing Sawyer's reaction to Kate's return.

In the end, however, she learned that Sawyer did really love her. Once she felt certain of that, she was literally able to let go.

Juliet then, and not the bomb, was Daniel Faraday's variable. She was the one that had a choice—and not one but many -- and her choices led to what finally happened. She exercised her free will and sacrificed herself to redeem Sawyer. That's what will change the future. I don't think Juliet will be back -- she was not touched by Jacob – I think she's fulfilled her destiny. This show is a big believer in self-sacrifice for love: it's what Charlie did for Claire; what Sayid would have done for Nadia – and did in a way; what Faraday did for Charlotte; and what Sun and Jin have now both done for each other.

When last I chatted with Darlton, I asked if next season was a return to season one and if we would find find the core Losties all back on the island, finally figuring out what their destinies are. Carlton Cuse said yes. So that's where I expect we'll start, but I've watched and written about this show long enough to know that will be but a tiny part of the picture. I do think this theme of The One and self-sacrifice for redemption – whether yours or everyone else's -- will be a big part of next season. I wonder if one or all of the Losties will find themselves in some way to be The One -- in fact, maybe one of them needs to step up and take Jacob's place. I know Jack annoys everyone, but if this theory materializes, my money's on him. In his scene with Jacob, he buys an Apollo bar and that struck me. Apollo, like Ra, is the sun god. He's also the god of medicine -- If Jacob represents Ra, an older god than Apollo, is Jack the heir apparent?

Biblical, Egyptian and Roman references aside, I think this show is really a sappy soap opera cloaked in sci-fi geekiness. Sun and Jin, Jack and Kate, Juliet and Sawyer, Desmond and Penelope – the ultimate reward is always love, always The Constant. In fact, that Constant – pure, unconditional love for which you are willing to sacrifice everything – is what people must have to survive a place like the island, a tropical gladiators' colliseum where everything you think about yourself is put to the ultimate test.

Lost is really like love itself: completely simple, and yet completely complicated.