If You Don’t Have Something Nice To Say…
On May 23, 2010, Lost signed off with The End. Finally, the finale, after years of mystery. A few days later, one of my local libraries hosted a discussion. Someone there told of how she thought the last season’s Sideways world was real, the result of the series’ characters having successfully changed history by thwarting the Oceanic plane crash that began the series and changed their lives. Then it was my turn. After I shared my take on the final episode, this other person said she could not stay. She got up and left.
I hadn’t started watching the series until after the fourth season ended, catching up on the entire series-to-date in about a month. After that, I decided to blog episode by episode. With so much ground to cover once again and a fairly busy life, time wasn’t on my side, and I gave up on it indefinitely. Toward the end of the series, I wrote a few more posts and intended to write about the finale, in the service of at least getting to some of my bigger ideas.
Between the finale itself and various things show-runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse said over the years, in particular in a New York Times article run 10 days before the finale aired, I felt that most of the real substance of my take on the show was, well, substantiated. With so much else written about the show and the finale, in particular the great coverage by Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen, I felt that there wasn’t much to be said, or understood, that hadn’t already been taken care of. So why should I say anything at all? Plus, pressed for time from other things, I let some time slip by and grew to feel that it might be pointless for me to write anything.
Several weeks after the episode aired, a friend asked for my take. When I gave it, he felt my thoughts would be worth sharing, that there was no “too late” for a show that would probably be discussed for years. I didn’t get to it right away. Now it appears it was just as well that I waited for this anniversary, because since that first airing I’ve gained some additional support and perspective on my thoughts about the series and its finale, and from a very relevant source, which I’ll get to later. So now, finally, the finale post.
Heaven on Earth
Flashback, whooosh, to the library.
Someone is giving her reasons for thinking the Sideways world real, the plane crash timeline averted. She acknowledges that all are dead by the end of the Sideways story and poses that each characters’ moment of illumination is their moment of death. I don’t remember other details, only that there were holes in her reasoning. After pointing some of them out, I got to have a turn saying what I thought.
When I first posed my MacGuffin Theory nearly two years before the finale, I said that the truth about the island was not likely to ever be fully revealed and was in any case beside the point. Rather, as I said, “In the end, I think the point is to revel in the mystery, to participate in it, and thereby to learn to do the same for the mystery of our own lives… It’s a mystery that is answered somewhere along the way, by every individual who is inspired by the show to engage in the questions of their own lives and seek harmony.”
Now, having the seen the finale, I naturally think about it in this light. What I said at the library was along the following lines.
What good, I wondered, would the show possibly be doing anyone if it were to present a story about people who went back in time and found a way to stop undesired events from happening? What would that offer us? We can’t go back to right what we later perceive to be wrong turns in our lives. The series had all along been, in effect, about this very conundrum, grappling with how flawed characters could break from their past and find redemption. Surely, I felt, the answer the show would provide to this question would have to be consistent, rather than in conflict, with the truth that real people simply cannot go back. Anything else would render the show fundamentally useless beyond escapist entertainment. This seemed impossible for a show as rich as Lost.
Even before the finale aired, the writers said that the ending would be open to interpretation. Any number of things could be somewhat open. But Sideways world as a real and alternative history, when it ends the way it ends? Its various moments of illuminating remembrance as the characters’ respective moments of death? Locke and Jack touch after the surgery, Locke is illuminated but Jack is not. Can this mean that Locke is dead while Jack lives on? What in that situation would cause Locke to die, and how could a dead Locke still be there interacting with a still living Jack? Same goes for any character’s illumination and the others around them at the time.
Before the finale, I’d predicted that, rather than actually being sideways from the island timeline, the Sideways world was instead a followup to it. In some sense, I was right. Sideways world showed what happened to everyone after their deaths in the real world, including but not limited to all the events of the series’ main timeline. Is it Heaven? This seems entirely unlikely. The Sideways story is one of characters literally not having yet gone into the light, a light they can only even approach after coming to an important realization, so that they are “in the dark,” so to speak, even after their realization, and all the moreso beforehand. Sideways seems to be some kind of purgatory, a place where souls must stay until they are ready to move on. We will only even see some of the characters, not all, reach that point of readiness. But what is it that actually gets them ready to move on?
The Sideways world took the form of a sort of wishful thinking on the part of everyone, but a wishful thinking in which nobody was inclined to make terribly big wishes. The suggestion is clear. They hope beyond hope to erase the past because they think their lives will be so much better. The past, though, includes events prior to those that led to the Oceanic crash. That crash was never the sole cause of pain for any of these characters. In the absence of the crash, some things are a bit better for some characters, some things merely different. Life is not a grand paradise but the usual grab-bag of good and bad. Troubles remain, and characters must grope their way past those troubles to small victories.
Take Jack, for example. He still had a fairly poor relationship with his father, Christian. It led him to have a strained relationship with his own son David. The sins of the father (Christian) became the sins of the son (Jack), who himself was now the father. The old pattern was in danger of perpetuation. In the end, though, he found a way to get on a positive track. David pursues his own authenticity, even if he must do it in secret. When Jack learns the truth, he wants to encourage rather than stop David, and David realizes he need not keep things secret. Better than things went with Christian? Certainly. Still, some fairly modest wishful thinking when it comes down to it. But such modest good things are perhaps all any of us really need when it comes down to it.
The enlightenments led each character to realize the truth of their Sideways wishful thinking, to realize that it was only wishful thinking after all, that none of it had ever happened, that everything from the main timeline, every last bit of it, is what really happened, including their own death. In those moments of realization, they could finally acknowledge, I’m dead, and so be it. Death isn’t horror, it’s nothing to fear. Fearing it all along is what had me so messed up, what had me messing up others. I had some bad experiences long ago when I wasn’t ready to cope with them, and from then on I’d lived my life informed by those experiences, doing all I could to avoid ever having to remember the fear I felt when they were occurring, no matter how much pain I’d bring to myself and others as a result. Now I can face that it all happened, embracing the totality of my past, the good, the bad, the things I couldn’t help, and my own role in the things I could have helped but didn’t. I can finally be content and stop wishing that the past was different. The past is all there, it’s all real, and I can be at peace with it, even my own death. I don’t need the past to have turned out differently.
Those enlightenments could only come through connection with another, with someone who proved a fateful force for them in the “real world,” in their actual lives. These characters needed each other to get beyond who they thought they were, because they obviously were unable to do so on their own. Had they been, they would have done it already.
In the real timeline, then, all there was to do was take the present moment as a new opportunity to change gears and let go of whatever was preserving an undesirable status quo. That would seldom mean completely abandoning who one believed oneself to be. More likely, it would mean a new perspective, carrying certain things forward but in new ways to achieve new results.
This is just what Jack seems to have done. Fixing everything had always been based on some dysfunctional agenda he had, one that would never satisfy him. With the island, he had to completely let go of that agenda and give himself over to the island. The island that was far more supernatural than his Man of Science ever would have liked. The island that for a long time he wanted nothing more than to leave, only then to want nothing more than to get back, only then to question why he bothered. The island that clearly had its own agenda.
In the end, Jack did let go of his agenda, but he didn’t let go of his capacities. He applied his strengths toward a new agenda. What better is there to do than take the best of the past and carry it forward into the future, but a new future that isn’t burdened by the worst of the past? Jack may have “repeated the same pattern” by remaining a fixer, but he did it in a completely new way. He broke the Hypocratic oath by finishing off the Man in Black in order to contribute to a larger healing. He completed that larger healing through his culminating fixes, his climactic doctoring — rescuing the near-dead Desmond, and replacing the island’s stone plug just as if suturing an open wound. Soon after, having fulfilled his purpose and become the hero, the one who genuinely saved everyone in the way that counted most, he dies, and he does so with peace of mind.
But if Jack dies in the main timeline with such fulfillment, why in the Sideways world is his still conflicted, resistant to learning the truth and moving on? Well, it’s one thing to come to accept what is and what you don’t feel you could ever have changed. It’s another thing entirely to come to a similar realization even after having had the opportunity to change things. The Sideways world story is there for the audience, to reinforce the point about acceptance and embracing life in this absolutely crucial way. It tells us not only that it’s possible to accept things as they have already turned out but that there is no point in doing otherwise, that there is no point in wishing for things to have turned out differently. Yes, wish all you like, but if you want change, the only place it will come from is where you are. That is the only place you can move forward from. This is what Jack had to do in the wishful thinking Sideways world just the same as he had to in the main timeline.
Lindelof and Cuse no more propose redemption after death than they propose going back in time to alter the course of events. They don’t want us to think redemption is possible only by going back in time, as the characters hoped to do through their Jughead plan, or only in death, as the Sideways world was revealed to be in the end. What they propose is, in effect, Heaven on Earth, the possibility of a life lived without the burden of terrors past, even if those terrors actually happened. They propose that one cannot deny one’s past but that it is possible to keep it in the past, where it actually is, instead of dragging it continually into every new present moment. You can come to a point, as you live your life, where you can stop fearing death. Indeed you must, because only then can you actually live your life.
Truth in Fiction
I didn’t say all of this in exactly this way to that person at the library talk, but this is more or less what I said. And as soon as I did, she excused herself and left.
Was I judgmental, offensive? Was I self-righteous in poking holes in her reasoning and supporting my own stance? She seemed to think so. More likely, I imagine something else. It will at first sound judgmental, but I mean it in just the opposite way. I say this from a place of compassion. More likely, she herself had things in her own life that she wished she could have changed and was not yet ready to accept their unchangeability in order to move on from them.
I say this as someone who knows all too well how this can be true. I’ve worked hard for some time to face such things for myself, and who knows how much I may still have left to face for myself. It’s likely true of most of us and most everyone we know. Some people simply have a harder time than others facing such things, and some people simply have a harder time than others even acknowledging that there may be anything to face in the first place. Again, this itself was depicted in the show, with not all the characters capable of readying themselves for a Sideways world illumination.
These are not just issues for individuals, either, as I’ve come to understand far more deeply as a result of something that Lost itself led me to.
Months after the finale, I was watching the extras on the final season’s DVD set. One was called “A Hero’s Journey,” exploring how several of the characters played out the archetypal hero’s story, particularly as it has been described by comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell. I’d been a Campbell fan but had only scratched the surface with his work years ago. This Lost featurette combined with a number of other things on my mind over these last years to inspire me to study Campbell more. I’ve read quite a lot of his work over the last several months.
One of Campbell’s key points is that mythology is of central value to people, providing symbols and metaphors that are supposed to guide people and societies spiritually and psychologically by putting us in touch with the insoluble mystery of existence itself. Since we are part of that existence, we ourselves are part of that mystery along with everything else. In this sense there is little distinction between ourselves and others, even non-human or non-living others, and in this sense there is little distinction between life and death. The great mystery of existence transcends all of it.
Campbell also continually discusses how much ill comes from failing to understand mythology’s purpose. Some people write myth off by equating it with lie and falsehood. Others concretize their myths, believing them to be historically or cosmologically true. In either case, people fail to recognize myth’s identity as metaphor and its purpose as pointing toward spiritual and psychological truths. In either case, people end up failing to connect with any experience of spiritual awe or psychological health. As a result, instead of abiding in our common humanity, those who misinterpret myth as either history or lie end up just fostering enmity, willing to dehumanize and even to kill and die for their “truths.”
And here I was arguing about the primacy of the meaning of Lost over the theories about the island, suggesting that people who spent so much time engaged in debating the “truth” of the series were actually missing the point. My MacGuffin theory was, all along, a mythological theory, the theory that Lost was intended to function as mythology, to point its viewers toward profound mysteries and truths that could make a difference in their lives, just as mythology has always intended to do. Instead, ironically, so many fans reveled in the “mysteries” of the series, but only as mysteries to be solved, puzzles to be completed, various solutions competing until one might prove itself to be “the one.” Just like so many religions, philosophies and ideologies have done throughout the history of civilization.
Why would they do so, missing out on the real mystery that the show tried to put them in touch with, the core that lies deep inside each and every one of them? Because that core is not all that is inside. Something happens to us, and we become afraid. The fear stands in the way between us, between our conscious minds, and that core. When those things happen to us, we cannot cope with that fear, so something yet else stands in the way, protecting our conscious minds from the fear. It was useful to protect us for a time, but the protection ends up outliving its usefulness. What was true is no longer true, but we hold onto it as if it were — a concretized myth. Then there is flaw, neurosis, dysfunction. The layers within recognize what is offered by something like Lost, the possibility of reconnecting, to something beyond the fear, to what the myth is actually pointing to. Those inner layers cannot give up their interest in such a thing. They keep us watching. But the protector continues to mediate, reinterpreting our interest for the conscious mind, deflecting it away from ourselves, from the core, making it about the entertainment, the puzzle.
When I picked up again talking about Lost toward the end of its run, I wondered if the show was going to disappoint me as other works of art had, promising something profound but then betraying itself. I don’t think it did. It boded well that Lindelof and Cuse decided to bring the show to an end on their terms, at a specific time, rather than let it go on indefinitely on the basis of ratings. When they ended it their way, it brought things to a mythologically satisfying close.
Unfortunately, even when artists get it right, it’s still up to audiences to get it at all. Obviously, all too often, audiences are fairly likely to miss the point. Just as all too many people in all corners of the world have, throughout history, failed to get the point of their own mythologies.
Maybe that person’s walking out on me at the library demoralized me. Maybe that’s why I didn’t bother to write about the finale in its immediate aftermath. Maybe what I had to say was worth saying after all, but maybe I didn’t like that such things all too often fall on deaf ears. So why bother saying anything? Here’s why. Because not saying anything definitely can’t accomplish a thing. Saying something at least has a chance, however small.
I could talk more about any number of details from the finale in terms of analyzing the text of the story, but I just don’t think there’s much point. This would all just be the trees, and it’s the forest that’s important here. I think I’ve said enough about that myself, so I’d like to start to wrap this up by including some things that Lindelof and Cuse themselves said in the New York Times article I mentioned earlier, all pretty a propos to everything I’ve been saying here:
LINDELOF: If there’s one word that we keep coming back to, it’s redemption. It is that idea of everybody has something to be redeemed for and the idea that that redemption doesn’t necessarily come from anywhere else other than internally. But in order to redeem yourself, you can only do it through a community. So the redemption theme started to kind of connect into “live together, die alone,” which is that these people were all lone wolves who were complete strangers on an aircraft, even the ones who were flying together like Sun and Jin. Then let’s bring them together and through their experiences together allow themselves to be redeemed. When the show is firing on all pistons, that’s the kind of storytelling that we’re doing.
I think we’ve always said that the characters of “Lost” are deeply flawed, but when you look at their flashback stories, they’re all victims. Kate was a victim before she killed her stepfather. Sawyer’s parents killed themselves as he was hiding under the bed. Jack’s dad was a drunk who berated him as a child. Sayid was manipulated by the American government into torturing somebody else. John Locke had his kidney stolen. This idea of saying this bad thing happened to me and I’m a victim and it created some bad behavior and now I’m going to take responsibility for that and allow myself to be redeemed by community with other people, that seems to be the theme that we keep coming back to.
CUSE: It’s far more about the character relationships that resonate. The thing is that people talk a lot about the mythology of “Lost,” but we probably spent 85 percent of our time in the writers’ room talking about the characters, and I think that’s why the show was a broad audience show as opposed to a genre show. While the mythology was important, first and foremost the show was about the characters. I think that a lot of people care much more about what’s going to happen to Kate. Is she going to end up with Jack, is she going to end up with Sawyer? That’s why we feel like a lot of shows that have tried to imitate “Lost” make the fundamental mistake of having the characters just focus on the mythology. If you watch certain shows like that, you’ll see all the characters are talking about is, “What’s that dinosaur in my bathtub?”
LINDELOF: The thing about that episode is it’s very simple storytelling, but very, very complicated storytelling at the same time. The simple part is that this episode is called “The Constant,” and the whole point of it is, is that there is somebody else out there that is your other half. And again, it plugged into, in this very sort of obvious way, this theme that we were discussing earlier, which is: Nobody can do it alone. Desmond was unhooked or lost, he was a castaway bopping around through time, and his only possible salvation was finding the woman that he loved and telling her so and saying, “I need you to rescue me because I’m lost.” This fundamentally tapped into every single theme of the show. You’re basically saying emotion trumps mythology.
Of course, what Lindelof means in that last sentence is that the transcendent connotation that myth as metaphor points to, myth as something fostering of spiritual and psychological growth, trumps concretized mythology, trumps the literal denotation that the myth seems to be about on the surface, which is of course not mythology at all.
Finally, to really put a bow on this, another quote, this time from the lyrics to a rather famous song. I can only hope that more and more of us wretches make an effort to save ourselves and others by finding a bit of Amazing Grace:
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.