Good and Evil and In Between
The third from the last episode, and we start to see, literally and figuratively, a light at the end of the tunnel. And I believe more than ever in what I’ve said about Lost providing a complicated, atypical look at “good” vs. “evil.”
A Woman kills the twins’ Mother, apologizing to her right before smashing her face. She raises the kids as her own and lies to them about their origins, telling them they are from the island, that there is no place else in the world, that there are no other people in the world. Later, she’ll smash her “son’s” head with an apology as well, to prevent him from leaving the island, even though she needs only one successor to protect the island. She then kills all of the people in the Man in Black’s settlement after learning of their plans to leave the island.
The Man in Black sees his dead Mother — sees a truth Jacob cannot. He hears what she has to say and wants to honor it. If the other people on the island are his people, he wants to be with them instead of the Woman who killed his mother and lied to him all along. If the island is not his home, he doesn’t want to stay, he wants to find a way to leave. When the Woman subverts his goal, he kills her — an act that doesn’t really help him, but one that is understandable as something other than unadulterated evil.
As for Jacob, he smashes his brother’s face in when his brother wants to go live with the other people (the “Others,” in contrast to the Woman, even though later there will be “Others” serving Jacob himself). Instead of facing the truth, he chooses to stay with the Woman and her lies. When the Woman wants to pass the torch onto him and have him replace her as protector of the island, he does not want the job. He seems insecure and frightened. When he accepts, she says they are now the same — he is now the same as the Woman who has done all the not-so-nice things she has done. Later, when the Man in Black has killed the Woman, Jacob once again smashes his brother’s face in, and punishes him by sending him into the light in the tunnel, the place the Woman described as “Life, death, rebirth. It’s the source, the heart of the island,” right before telling him to never go down there, since a fate worse than death awaits. The fate worse than death is what Jacob wishes upon his brother.
Who is good and who is evil here? It would be too strong to say that the Woman and Jacob are “really” evil and the Man in Black really “good,” but it is equally misguided to pose it the other way around.
The Man in Black merely wants to face the truth about himself and find his way home. The Woman and Jacob are willing to lie, hurt, even kill, all in the service of a story the Woman tells about the source of the island, despite Jacob (and we, the audience) having no real idea whether the story has credence, or how she knows what she says she knows.
It seems that all these characters have elements of what we think of as “good” and of what we think of as “evil.” In other words, they are people, and the fact that they have conflicts merely means they haven’t figured out how to get what they all want collaboratively.
Procreation, Longevity and Power
The episode begins with a birth, of twins. We know that there are issues on the island with fertility, with pregnant women losing their babies. Claire was able to give birth on the island — because of the Others’ medicine, and/or because she was far enough along when she arrived. The twins’ Mother obviously received no such medicine, so her giving birth on the island can only be the result of either the fertility issue not having begun yet or of her having been far enough along.
In any case, consider that the island is known simultaneously as a place where fertility is problematic and where immortality is possible to some extent. Jacob and the Man in Black seem to live forever, even though they may have weaknesses that can cause their death. Richard receives the gift of immortality from Jacob. Even Locke’s having his paralysis cured seems to be of a piece with these phenomena. The island seems to be something of a Fountain of Youth, a place where health, vigor and longevity can be cultivated.
In the mid-1990s, I came up with an idea for a screenplay about Ponce de Leon and his quest for the Fountain of Youth. Some scientists in the modern day conducting experiments in the Bermuda Triangle would somehow discover that their actions have caused an old ship to appear, and on that ship would be Ponce de Leon. He would be grateful for having been freed from the triangle so he could resume his quest for the Fountain of Youth in Florida. Eventually, the story would make clear that the Bermuda Triangle was itself the Fountain of Youth, and that the only way to take advantage of it would be to relegate oneself to it’s parallel-universe-like existence in the middle of the ocean, a place where “real life” simply cannot be lived, since “real life” includes death.
On Lost, the island is, in addition to having these properties of longevity and health, also a place where fertility is an issue. Just as in the story I’d come up with years ago, perhaps wishing to live forever is an ultimately selfish thing that can only be done in a place cut off from the reality of the rest of the world, a place where the normal cycles of life, of generations, cease. The island’s troubles with procreation may be a necessary condition of the presence of longevity/immortality. To be cut off on the island and living forever, one can easily imagine people going mad and wanting to leave, to get back to “life” as it really is. In some sense, the island’s brand of immortality could be tantamount to death itself, a denial of life as it is.
Indeed, what to make of the Woman thanking the Man in Black as her final words, despite him having just killed her? Could she have felt trapped in a too-long life on the island herself? Is this why she killed the Mother and took the babies, grooming them to succeed her — simply to find her own escape? Perhaps she came to know that apparent immortality is more than it’s cracked up to be, and perhaps she needed a loophole to have herself killed, just as the Man in Black sought a loophole, getting someone else to kill Jacob on his behalf. Collateral damage may be necessary to escape the immortality of the island.
In contrast, what do we know of life as it really is, off the island? From most characters’ backstories, we know that they’ve got issues. Problems they struggle with. Violence and heartache and confusion and tragedy. And also good things, too. It’s a mixed bag — just as the Woman, Jacob and the Man in Black appear to be. And, crucially, this is true not only in the original timeline but also in Sideways world. Whatever created Sideways world, it did not “make everything better” in any simplistic sense, as the lostaways had hoped would happen as a result of blowing up Jughead.
Perhaps this all adds up to the very simple message that life must be lived, with its ups and downs, for better and for worse, including the fact of its ending in death, and that any attempt to do otherwise is bound to lead to undesired results.
This is not a lesson learned only through experiences with the island — it is seen even in characters’ regular lives separate from their island experiences. Christian drives his son too hard with expectation. Jack is a compulsive fixer. Anthony Cooper conned people to ensure his own “ups.” Kate killed for the sake of her and her mom’s “ups.” Jin is willing to obey the whims of Mr. Paik for a shot at a decent life. The list could go on and on. At least so far in the story, essentially everyone has failed to find redemption, and this failure appears to be to the very extent that they fail to confront the things deep in their past that have saddled them with a too-strong desire to strive for ups and a too-weak ability to accept life’s downs. If only they could embrace both sides — the ups and downs, the “good” and the “evil” — and let go of the striving, the attachment to only the pleasant at the expense of the unpleasant, then maybe they’d actually get more of what they want.
Long ago, when first writing here about Lost, I talked about the show as a critique of civilization. Civilization is, most basically, a social structure in which power is unevenly distributed, with some having much and most having little. Now consider the island and the light hiding beneath/inside it. It is a place where a special kind of power has been consolidated, with much of the rest of the world lacking it. Originally I’d thought the island to stand in distinction to civilization. While in some ways it clearly does, in its own way it also now seems to just be one more place where the same old things play out.
In civilization off the island — and in various civilization-inspired social structures on the island — the unequal distribution of power leaves many people wanting, searching, striving to find more “ups” to make up for their experience of too many “downs,” while also giving a few people more “ups” than they deserve and leaving them exceedingly protective of their status against the masses who aren’t so lucky.
On the island, the light is a power that is warned against, to be left alone. Somehow on the island, extreme longevity — a surfeit of “ups” — is made possible, surely through something having to do with that light. And yet direct contact with the light can release a Smoke Monster — the inevitable extremity of “downs” that must go hand in hand with ever bigger “ups.” That, too, is true of civilization, where psychological, social and ecological ills increase right alongside — and often because of — the so-called “advances” of civilization.
Jacob described the island to Richard as the cork which keeps evil from being released out into the world. But we already see plenty of evil in the world, and we are starting to get enough information to doubt just how unassailably good and right Jacob may be. Further, if the island needed protection prior to the Man in Black becoming the Smoke Monster, then the Smoke Monster can’t be the evil being corked up.
Was there another monster, which gave the Woman her knowledge of what happens when someone goes into the light? Perhaps it was the Woman herself. Trapped by accident on the island, she stumbles upon the light cave. Drawn in by its beauty, she finds her fate worse than death: she is granted immortality and turned into a Smoke Monster. Unlike the Man in Black, she has no desire to go home — that is not something that must go along with being a Smoke Monster. She perhaps understands the nature of the island’s power and realizes that, rather than it needing protection from people, people may need protection from the island. She resolves to stay, but time grows long, and she wants to be freed from the endless prison of her life. Perhaps this explains why she steals the babies, how she can grant them their own near-immortality, and why she needs a loophole and thanks the Man in Black for killing her. That we never see her turn into a Smoke Monster in last night’s episode may be incidental, since we know the Man in Black only takes that form in particular circumstances. But even if she can grant immortality without Smoke-Monsterhood, wouldn’t she just be setting others up for the same too-long-life? Yes — hence the need for Jacob to find a successor — and the Man in Black’s own long-held frustrations.
Is there some way in which that light itself could somehow be evil as opposed to good, the evil needing to be corked up? Of course, we’ve witnessed two “disasters” on the island, under the hatch at two separate times, where massive explosions caused that Dharma station’s pocket of energy to be released — and in neither case was the world destroyed, as some said it would be in those circumstances. If the light is life and death and rebirth, then it surely must be good and evil wrapped together — pure power, not yet applied. Perhaps, then, rather than seeing the island’s light energy as either something to exploit — as perhaps Widmore and the Dharma Initiative might — or as something to protect — as the Woman and Jacob would — it should instead be understood as something to be released, once and for all, and thereby dissipated. Power corrupts and absolutely power corrupts absolutely — therefore enormous sources of power in some sense “should” be dissipated, to reduce the potential for corruption and therefore to bring more balance to the world.
Releasing the island’s energy, then, could be what causes the island to end up at the bottom of the ocean, neutralized, as we saw at the beginning of the final season. Metaphorically, it would show the way for people elsewhere, out in the “real” world, in whatever timeline, to lead better lives. Release power, the need to control. Let power be distributed to all rather than bottled up in small pockets where it can become volatile, corruptible, dangerous. Accept that we all live and we all will die — no immortality for us. Accept that we must do well by future generations — fertility for us, backed up with good parenting, unlike what we’ve seen so often throughout the series and especially in this episode by the Woman. Raise our kids so that they will know from the start that they should do their best but within the context of accepting both good and bad in their lives. Struggle to free ourselves from the resistance we’ve come to have about this very acceptance, so that we will be able to do all these things for ourselves, our kids and others, instead of striving for more and more control and power. Through all this, through this balance, there can be redemption — for the characters in the show, and for anyone who chooses this path.
The End of the Tunnel
I’ve so far avoided making any concrete predictions about the plot. So far, mostly abstract analysis and suggestions about the basic shape of things to come — about the show becoming much more nuanced in its depiction of good and evil and vaguely what a resolution of that dichotomy may look like as opposed to one side simply winning somehow. With last night’s episode having seemed to corroborate my perspective to some extent, and with so little of the series left, this may be a good time to pose some more concrete possibilities.
With Jacob having been killed, the conflict between “good” and “evil” seems difficult to resolve. With his project of finding a successor, though, that becomes more viable. Will a lostaway step in and duel with the Smoke Monster? In light of the nuanced handling of good and evil, this seems doubtful, or at least not genuinely climactic. Perhaps other oppositions will come into play. Most notable seem to be Jack’s man of science vs. Locke’s man of faith, and Jack’s “selfless leader” vs. Sawyer’s “island unto himself.” The former, though, has shown Locke’s faith to have made him a sucker, leading to his death and the ascension of UnLocke, while Jack has himself seemed to give up some of his compulsion while embracing the less “scientific” truths of the island — not quite a resolution, but certainly that conflict is not what it was. As for Jack vs. Sawyer, likewise, Jack spent a fair amount of time very concerned about himself getting off the island, and it only led to the massive guilt he experienced during the flash-forwards, while Sawyer did a lot of growing up during that same time. Jack and Sawyer, though, do remain among the few remaining lostaways/candidates.
In the end, could two lostaways, Jack and Sawyer or otherwise, end up replacing both Jacob and the Man in Black? Perhaps on some level this could happen willingly, mutually, without real conflict, both replacements somehow believing in a need to serve those roles and stay on the island. Perhaps there would not be willingness, no more than Jacob and the Man in Black had themselves shown. However it goes, the show has proved time and again what it’s willing to do to characters we care about — kill them, maim them, torture them. And we have seen that the Smoke Monster we’ve come to know and hate was, as UnLocke had said, once just a man, and not only that but a man who just wanted to be loved and find his way home. Don’t put it past the show’s creators to turn someone we really like into another Smoke Monster.
Given that the island ends up on the ocean floor at some point, I’d guess we’re in for a followup to Jack’s Jughead plan, something to bring closure to “getting a fresh start.” The series, so much about free will vs. determinism, so much about our inability to change the past, seems poised to affirm our ability to affect our future, to change. Juliet had said that the Jughead plan worked — and we have seen the Sideways world which may prove that it did. But we have obviously not seen enough to know the real relationship between the original timeline and Sideways world. The Sideways experiences of Desmond, Charlie, Hurley and Libby suggest it is not mere conjecture, a storytelling “what if,” but something real. Perhaps, and especially if there has been any taking over the roles of protector and Smoke Monster, someone may deliberately cause the destruction of the island. Once and for all, its energy could be released, bringing to an end the dichotomy of protector vs. Smoke Monster, leaving the original timeline behind to somehow cause the Sideways timeline.
The slight hints we have in the Sideways world timeline that things are maybe working out a little bit better for people may be all we get. Jack having a son and making an effort. Kate seeming to be on her way to another chance with a more understanding law enforcement officer holding her custody. Hurley’s success with money and with Libby. Claire and Jack finding family in each other. Locke getting Helen and accepting his limitations. Ben having sacrificed an administrative career for the sake of the success of the “daughter” he mistreated in the original timeline. Jin and Sun finding their way together. And so on. Here in the Sideways world, life is still a mixed bag, full of ups and downs. Sideways world underscores how this cannot be avoided. Accepting this leads not to some trite, pat, happily-after-ever good-triumphs-over-evil ending but, instead, to small, one day at a time improvements. Therein would lie the hope that, whatever else may not be working out in Sideways world, change may be possible. The glimpses the Sideways characters are getting of the original timeline may end up being no more than a reason for them to appreciate what they now have, the proof that any path would be a mixed bag and that there is far more a point in just doing one’s best rather than in always wondering, with regret, “what if.”
Obviously these aren’t totally concrete, specific predictions. Obviously much remains to be addressed — the origins of the temple, statue and lighthouse; the role of Desmond’s parallel-worlds mission; countless other things, many of which are sure never to be fully resolved because they just aren’t core to the main throughline of the story. In any case, these are least some suggestive notions about what may lie ahead.