Live together, die alone.
Something strange happened on our way to the oughties. Hollywood, always a broker in dreams and happy endings, began to pander ceaselessly to an audience that didn’t like to think, hated working to understand. Television had almost always been a place where audiences could tune out and enjoy, but film started to take the same approach. Features became blockbuster amusement park rides — CGI-driven events with characters who serviced the plot and where more emphasis was placed on spectacle than commentary on the human condition. Film became about watching aliens destroy the White House, where dinosaurs walked and roared, and where people could live vicariously through an on-screen serial killer while he tortured and murdered his victims. Although there are exceptions, cinema is nearly as far from the fertile creative period of the late 1960’s and 1970’s as humanity is from the primordial soup.
It’s strange, now, to find that television has become a refuge for classical storytelling. Of subtext and character and questions about life’s meaning, the choices we make, our mistakes and flaws. The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, the Wire, Sons of Anarchy, and so many others take the material that infused the early films of Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese, Woody Allen (actually, middle-period Woody Allen, but who’s counting), Altman and their contemporaries and transplant it into a longer serialized format. Instead of spending just two hours with characters, the television medium offered a chance to tell long, engaging epic stories about the human condition. Unbound by the rules that every episode is someone’s first, arc-driven television took off and transcended the episodic reset button of a million forgotten cop shows, of Captain Picard and his planet of the week, the Dukes of Hazzard, and their eternal fight against Boss Hogg. The way was opened with the storytelling potential first glimpsed in Twin Peaks, where the soap opera form was merged with art film, and television was transformed forever.
There were, of course, experiments along the road, half-successful attempts to wed the serialized format to the older, episodic model. The twin space station shows of the early mid-1990’s, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5; the X-Files where Scully only remembered what she saw in the mythology episodes,and forgot her encounters with the paranormal in the stand-alone shows; Millennium, where one moment Frank Black is talking to the dead and fighting a secret society bent on starting Armageddon, and the next he’s back to investigating the lastest serial killer. There were the Joss Whedon shows — Buffy, Angel and Firefly, where an arc was successfully married to the episodic format in way that exceeded all their forebears. And Battlestar Galactica, which began as an episodic show about a rag tag fleet running from genocidal machines and turned into a mishmash of mythology, mommy issues and ultimately, deus ex machina.
And then there’s Lost, the greatest experiment of them all, where an ill-fated flight from Sydney to Los Angeles crashes on a mysterious island in the middle of the pacific. Where characters — all haunted and flawed, just as we are in the real world — are forced to learn to live together or die alone. And as flashbacks allow us to understand how they got to the island, the show slowly unravels what the island is, opening mysteries that lead to existential questions of fate versus free will, faith versus reason, love versus selfishness and the potential of redemption. What began as an unconventional character-driven drama slowly evolved into the realm of fantasy and science fiction, pulling a largely mainstream audience along with it.
Of course, the audience complained — they stomped their feet. They wanted answers now — and as the show answered questions with more questions, they became frustrated. Finally, in season six we learned that no one has all the answers — no one really knows what the island is. There’s a power, a well of light at the center, that allows some people to live forever. It heals wounds quickly and even seems to be able to resurrect the newly dead. What that power is is never explained, nor do we ever learn its true purpose. But we do know if that power is uncorked that everyone on earth could die. Not that they will die, but that it’s possible. It becomes, therefore, a question of faith — in belief over reason. And just as no one on earth knows why we’re here or how we really came to be, no one on Lost knows, either. We find that those who pretend to know — Ben, Richard, the Others, the Dharma Initiative — really know nothing at all. Ultimately, they’re as clueless as the survivors of Oceanic 815. And even Jacob, the centuries-old being charged with defending the power at the heart of the island, and his nameless brother, the man in black, know almost as little as everyone else.
It would have been easy for the show’s creators, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, to concoct easy answers for everything. It would certainly satisfy a large chunk of the audience if Lost was just an elaborate puzzle, mechanically assembled, its pieces revealed to the viewer by the end. Most wanted to believe that this, in fact, was what the show was about. They obsessed over the long-dead Dharma initiative, the statue’s foot, the window dressing to the existential questions at the center of the show, the identity of the Others. They hunted for clues and easter eggs in every frame. And they knew that the end would give them all the answers, and that they would ultimately have what they wanted.
But, as Joss Whedon famously said, it’s the writer’s job to give the audience what they need, not what they want. And trained by years of big-budget blockbusters with neat and tidy happy endings, the audience was unprepared for what Lost would ultimately provide — a look into a mirror at their own mortality, an experience more akin to great films such as Kubrick’s 2001, Tarkovsky’s original Solaris, Krystof Kieslowsky’s musings on fate and coincidence,and Copolla’s beautiful look at a deeply flawed character, the Conversation, than to the pat adventure stories of today. Not answers to the great questions of life, but a reflection on those questions. Questions we all must face. Why am I here? Is there a purpose? Can I be redeemed for my mistakes? Will I be alone when I die?
The plot of the finale brings some degree of closure to the central conflicts of the show — Desmond disables the well of light, making both Jack, who has taken Jacob’s place as protector of the island, and the Man in Black, mortal. The island begins to crumble, just as the Man in Black intended, allowing him to finally leave. Jack believes that letting the island be destroyed will possibly kill everyone on earth. Which brings the argument that has driven Lost from the beginning to full circle — faith versus reason. Jack, the former man of reason is now a man of faith, believing that the Man in Black is destroying the world. The Man in Black, despite all evidence to the contrary, sees the island and its power as an arbitrary prison. A thing of randomness and cruel indifference to his long suffering. Jack, Locke, Jacob and the woman who raised him, he believes, were all fools.
The final fight between the two is epic and results in the Man in Black mortally wounding Jack. However, Kate is able to intervene and finish off the Man in Black before he leaves. Jack may be dying, but the monster won’t leave the island.
In this moment, Kate finally realizes that she loves Jack — something Jack has always acknowledged that he feels for her. And as she loses him, the weight of that reality — constantly pushed aside by her own selfishness and immaturity — is clear to the audience. Kate must choose between what she promised she would do before coming back to the island — return Claire to her son and staying with Jack. A sacrifice she must make, just as Jack must sacrifice himself to the island to save everyone. At this moment the love triangle that obsessed fans for so many years is pointless — Kate is not defined by the men in her life, but what she must do for Claire and Aaron. And Jack, the healer, must give himself up for the greater good. It is a natural, and agonizingly tragic end to their arcs. But it makes deep emotional sense.
With Hurley and Ben to help him, Jack returns to the well where he must restore the island. He passes his job as protector to Hurley, the most humane of all Lost’s characters. It makes perfect sense that Hurley should protect the island — he was the one the cabin appeared to, who Jacob spoke to and guided after his murder. Hurley, who talks to the spirits of the dead and loves people, all people, is the right man for the job. And Ben, guided for so long by his need for love and approval, is finally called upon to do good. Hurley’s request that Ben stay and help him protect the island is so natural and necessary to both characters. It’s a wonderful moment further augmented by Desmond’s return to the surface. Hurley suggests that there’s no way to return him to Penny and his son, but Ben doesn’t think so. That’s the way Jacob ran things, he says. You don’t have to do that. Ben is voicing the central conceit of the show: there’s always a choice to be made — and always a chance to correct the mistakes of the past. Desmond will get his happy ending, and Hurley and Ben will facilitate it because they choose to. They have the power, and they choose Desmond over their own selfishness.
At the bottom of the well, Jack puts the cork back in the bottle, restoring the island. Sobbing with joy, he is enveloped in light — his task is done, and now he can finally be at rest. Yet, he finds himself waking above ground. As he stumbles dying through the forest, he flashes between the present and the sideways universe where all the characters have been converging all season.
This is where controversy will rage within Lost fandom until the show is forgotten. As the final season began, we saw a parallel timeline where Oceanic 815 never crashed and the survivors were all seemingly set-up for happy endings. Locke comes to terms with his disability and is given the opportunity to walk again. Jack resolves issues with his son in such a way that he puts to rest his own lingering problems with his father. Claire is given the opportunity to keep her baby, while Kate is able to help that happen. Benjamin Linus is reunited with Alex and can atone for allowing her to die. Hurley is reunited with Libby. Faraday becomes a musician instead of a scientist. Sawyer becomes a lawman instead of a criminal and finds Juliet, once more. Miles grows up with his father. Charlie realizes that he has to find his one true love, Claire. Desmond searches for Penny. Sun and Jin are brought together with their unborn child, free of her father’s influence.
But as the final moments of the show tick down, it becomes clear that the sideways universe isn’t real. It’s certainly emotionally real, but what it represents — an afterlife, the collective hopes and dreams of all the characters of the show, a fantasy that Jack experiences in his final moments, the audience’s own wishes — is uncertain. Christian Shepherd, meeting his son for one last time, tells Jack that it’s the place they all created where they can meet each other when it’s time to move on. They all died at different times and now are all dead at last and together again. As Chris Piers said after the show was over, Juliet’s dying words at the beginning of the season — saying that she and James should go out for coffee — indicated that the sideways universe was in fact real. But my own interpretation is that it represents the closure that all of the characters wanted, but never got — the wishes they experienced at the moment of death. To be reunited with their friends and loved ones one last time before moving on into oblivion.
When Jack lays in the bamboo forest just as he did in the pilot, looking up into the sky to see the others escaping the island by plane, satisfied to have saved them and resolved in his dying, the show is truly at peace with itself. He was a flawed man who always aspired to help others, but was hindered by his own feelings of inadequacy and his father’s disapproval. Yet, he was able to protect the island in a way that Jacob never could, and he was successful in freeing his friends. It was fitting, then, that his final reward was to die in the company of Vincent, the yellow Labrador retriever, who woke him at the start of the series. Laying next to Jack as he passed away, Vincent provided one last act of comfort and love. And as Jack’s eye closed a final time, finishing the story, we know that he did not die alone, nor did he die in vain.
As some of my readers probably know, a year and a half ago I was stricken with congestive heart failure and told by doctors that I would likely die. There was a moment when I lay in bed, convinced that my time was up. I thought about the events of my life, the choices I made, and how things might have gone had I done things differently. To me, I experienced my own version of the sideways universe — ultimately deciding that I would not have changed anything. To me, the sidways universe and Jack’s final moments represent the hope we all feel for redemption and closure, emotional answers to the questions that drive our lives. That it wasn’t real in the literal sense doesn’t make it any less emotionally real to the characters. It was, I believe, a collective longing for closure that they — and we the audience — all feel at the moment of death. But that is my interpretation — you are, of course, free to decide anything you like. Successful art gives you the tools to make your own decisions — and as unaccustomed as contemporary audiences are to such complexity, it is the mark of great art.
Death is something Lost did right throughout its run — characters died heroically (Charlie, Jack, Sayid), accidentally (Shannon, Boone, Michael), suddenly (Ilana, Arzt), because of their own acts of evil (Keemey, Michael), through illness (Charlotte) and were murdered (Locke, Ana Lucia, Libby and Jacob). Sometimes the audience knew it was coming, others it was a complete surprise. The deaths of major and beloved characters such as Farraday and Charlie seemed gratuitous and unnecessary to the audience, but just as no one gets to choose when they die, characters in the show often died just as randomly as in real life and often without closure.
In the end, the point of Lost is that the mysteries of life, the warring ideologies of existence, are ultimately unanswerable. What we have, instead, is the love we feel for each other. Our friends and families. Our good deeds and bad deeds and our struggle for hope and redemption. We can’t say why we are here, but we can control what we do when we’re here. For some, this kind of nuanced ending rich with subtext and open for interpretation will fall short and feel deeply unsatisfying. But for me, having glimpsed my own death firsthand, it is enough.
(Crossposted at http://www.jeffzombie.com)