Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Lost and Found: Final Reflections on a show that changed television

There are plenty of spoilers here, as there were in my last two pieces on LOST (here and here).  For those of you catching up with the series, read on, forewarned.

Patrick McGoohan, star and creator of the hit 1970s show The Prisoner, left England for a few weeks following the airing of the final episode of the show. The buildup to the final episode had been enormous, and people were so unhappy with the ending that he received death threats and angry calls. David Chase experienced much of the same thing because of how he ended The Sopranos. (Perhaps the only person who hasn’t had to deal with those levels of vitriol is David Simon, but that’s because of how perfectly planned out The Wire was, but I digress.)

In interviews over the years, McGoohan often commented in reflection about the final episode, when it is revealed who the ever elusive “#1” was, that he felt he should have had subtitles and a blinking sign to indicate exactly what “it” meant. He was being facetious, of course, but he was expressing the contradiction of meaningful television and seemingly meaningless endings: that perhaps an audience not fundamentally literate will not accept anything other than a straightforward “tell-me-what-it-means” ending. One of my old professors remarked to me that the reason that many thought LOST was “the best thing ever” was because it had, in some ways, treated them to the feeling of reading a long, thoughtful novel, and some (maybe many) had never experienced that.

The shortcomings of the LOST finale aside, perhaps the illiteracy of the audience can explain the outrage about the finale. LOST was never a great show for a coherent narrative, but it was groundbreaking and perhaps ranks among the greatest shows ever in its depth of character development. LOST made us care deeply about these characters not just because we saw them in the present, but because we saw, in fits and starts, their pasts, and alternative presents.

LOST was fundamentally about friendship, redemption, and time. The show was about many other things, to be sure, but I’d like to focus on these things as we examine the finale.


The Sideways allowed us to grasp the possibilities of three things: 1) what if the Island had never been able to draw Oceanic 815 in and what the fantasy lives of those onboard might have been; 2) what if, even in this fantasy world, friends managed to find each other, and 3) what if they could have had all their experiences connect them in this other world so that they could “move on” to whatever was next?

When Josh Holloway’s Sawyer irritatedly tells Jacob in the final episode that they didn’t need/want to come to the Island because they were “just fine” Jacob quickly answers, “No, you weren’t.” He knew that each of them were broken and in need of “fixing” in some way. As we see the creed of “Live together or die alone” lived out in the finale among these friends we understand that despite being haphazardly thrown together, every single person had an opportunity to deal with their brokenness. Some succeeded, some failed, but everyone was given the chance.

Their bonds of friendship and love, forged in the furnace of an Island with supernatural powers, inhabited by Others, and even before them, by an ancient race that must have built the demonic statue that guarded the Island, from the present to the past and to the future, were everlasting. Despite the disappointment of the ecumenical chapel where apparently all faiths are really one, we can accept that friendship is eternal, because of the three cardinal virtues, Scripture says that only one remains at the end: Charity.


St. Anselm famously stated, “credo ut intelligam” in an explanation of what theology is. Indeed, we “believe so that we may understand.” John Locke, our crippled man of reason, is forced to become a man of faith when he realizes that, whether or not he understands it, the Island has cured him. He didn’t choose faith. Faith was foisted on him. As he accepts and grasps this faith he becomes more and more suited for his role in saving and preserving the island (As an aside here it should be noted that Terry Quinn's "Locke-Ness Monster" of the final season is also a commentary that those who could have been protectors of the Island could have been its worst enemies as well.  Locke could have chosen evil, but he chose good.  Just as the "Man in Black" could have accepted his fate as well).

Locke is set in opposition to Jack. Jack, a doctor, is also a man of reason, but we could say he is an incorrigible man of reason. Dedicated to “fixing” things we often find that his quests to “fix” often break. This single-minded devotion to fixing comes from a good heart and that is perhaps the reason why we, as the audience, never fault him for it. Yet, he is constantly confronted with the prospect of faith, until the death of Locke – the death of faith “embodied” – is the grain of wheat that is crushed in order for the leaven to rise in Jack. Locke’s death gifts faith to Jack, and he helps to lead the Oceanic 6 back to the Island.

The Island is par excellence a green world (both literally and figuratively) where our characters can, in the parlance of the first season, be new “Adams” and “Eves” in a place where their old lives don’t count. They can put on the “new man” if they choose. They can choose to live for others…or for themselves. It is faith that saves Jack in the end, but it is not the blind faith in his ability fix things despite a daddy complex, it is the faith that understands the fallenness of man and bravely sallies forth in light of that. It is Plato’s knowledge that courage is not simply the absence of fear, but the comprehension of it.


In the Consolation of Philosophy Boethius explains the problem of Divine foreknowledge by explaining the concept of the “eternal present.” God sees all things that ever happened and that ever will happen in one vision of now. The Island, in its now present, now past, now future iterations reminds us that throughout time the choices of man have always been the same. Yes, we have cycles of choices, tragedy, and hope recurring, but we are not prisoners to that cycle. It is free will that enables us to write our fate/destiny/salvation, not simply manage it in the simplistic karmic wheel to nowhere.

Thus, if as some say, the Island and all the episodes of six seasons were simply a dying dream of Jack in the bamboo forest as he expired on the day of the original crash, we are not forsaken, for now we have time to remember our friendships, to contemplate our fallenness, and to do what is best with the time that has been given us.

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