My journey with Lost was not a six year odyssey but a two month dash. Although I had heard of the show for years, was interested, and even bought the first season DVD, I started watching the show only in late March, after conversations and two papers about Lost at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. By the final show on May 10, I was caught up and watching in real time. The speed with which I devoured the episodes indicates the impression they made on me, and watching them all in such a short time helped me see connections and keep track of events in a way I might not have otherwise.
Obviously, it would be daunting to write any review of a six season series that is clear to nonviewers; doing so for Lost is an epic undertaking. The first section, more general analysis of the show, is primarily for nonviewers; the last, a detailed discussion of the final show, is primarily for Lost fans.
A Quick Guide to Lost
Some people have joked that Lost's main prototype is the 1960s situation comedy Gilligan's Island, a comparison that is 100% correct aside from the tones, quality, acting, setting, and themes of the shows. In fact, Lost has been lauded for bringing to television thought-provoking concepts, lush production, a large international cast, and a new dimension of elaborate plot. Moreover, although issues of good and evil are central to the series, events and characters do not fall neatly into one category or the other. Growing more complex with each season, Lost begins with a relatively simple situation and adds more characters, background, conspiracies, conflicts, and mysteries.
The series begins when Oceanic Flight 815, from Sydney to Los Angeles, crashes on an unknown and seemingly unpopulated Pacific island (filmed in Oahu, Hawaii), and approximately seventy of the three hundred and twenty-four passengers survive. The two-part pilot show (September 22 and 29, 2004) introduces three anomalies, at least two of which distinguish the series from one primarily about staying alive without the benefits of civilization. Communication inexplicably ceased and the plane went one thousand miles off course, so no rescue is likely. More weirdly, a polar bear on the attack bolts out of the tropical forest, and a huge column of smoke that makes animal and mechanical noises, later called the smoke monster, threatens some survivors and kills the pilot.
The ensemble of core characters introduced in season 1 are all flawed or outsiders in some way. Many have had a violent or otherwise immoral past: Kate Austen (played by Evangeline Lilly) is quickly established as a liar and then as a fugitive, escorted on the plane by a U.S. Marshall. James Ford, who goes by Sawyer (Josh Holloway), also has a secret illegal past; Kate seems to want to escape hers, but Sawyer revels in his, conning and bilking his fellow survivors. Sayid Jarrah (Naveen Andrews), a communications officer for the Iraqi Republican Guard, is escaping his past as a torturer and is at first suspected of crashing the plane. Jin-Soo Kwon (Daniel Dae Kim) and Sun-Hwa Kwon (Yunjin Kim) are Korean, an estranged couple, alienated in part because of his work for her rich, powerful, and corrupt father. (For movie and television crime, Asians and Russians are the new Italians.)
Other major characters have secret or not-so-secret pasts with other problems. When the plane crashes, Claire Littleton (Emilie de Ravin) is close to delivery of an illegitimate baby she planned to put up for adoption; Charlie Pace (Dominic Monaghan), member of the one-hit rock band Drive Shaft, has a heroin habit. Shannon Rutherford (Maggie Grace) and Boone Carlyle (Ian Somerhalder) are step-siblings with a troubled relationship. Trouble also characterizes the relationship between Michael Dawson (Harold Perrineau), a divorced father, and Walt Lloyd (Malcolm David Kelley), the ten-year-old whom Michael does not really know but must raise after Walt's mother dies; also, in episode 14, Walt is revealed to have the psychic ability to cause accidents or death. Hugo Reyes, known as Hurley (Jorge Garcia), is a totally likeable fat character, good humored but not played only for laughs; his weight is treated like an addiction later in the series, but he also feels that he is cursed with bad luck after winning a lottery.
Two major characters may seem less flawed but are only more subtly so. John Locke (Terry O'Quinn), who thrives on the island, was in a nowhere job and, as revealed in episode 4, had with bizarre stubbornness planned to take a Walkabout tour of Australia although he was confined to a wheelchair. Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox), a surgeon, takes charge after the crash and looks like a hero, but episodes 5 and 11 show that he is driven to succeed by a need to please his perfectionist father, also a surgeon, and episode 20 reveals how a need to always fix situations doomed his marriage.
Then the show introduces more characters, some of whom join the core ensemble. In season 1 episode 10, a minor character named Ethan turns out to be, instead of one of the Oceanic 815 survivors, someone already on the island; also in that episode, Sayid escapes after being captured by a French researcher, Danielle Rousseau (Mira Furlan), who has been on the island for sixteen years, the only person left from an earlier research expedition. She reveals the existence of the Others, a mysterious, ominous group that stole her child and want Claire's baby when it is born. Kate assists Claire's delivery in episode 20, and Claire names the child Aaron. Then, in seasons 2 through 6, a procession of new characters are added, until the island seems downright crowded.
Locke and Boone work in season 1 to open a mysterious windowed doorway, called "the hatch," sunk into the forest floor, subsequently opened by Locke and Jack. In season 2, the exploration of the revealed underground installation adds a major piece of the mystery of the island: the installation was built in the 1970s by the Dharma Initiative, a scientific group dedicated to the enhancement of mankind. The members of the Dharma Initiative seem to be dead, but the underground installation, called the Swan, holds Desmond David Hume (Henry Ian Cusick), who was shipwrecked on the island years ago, found the Swan, and was charged with an odd task by the man in the Swan, who then ran off. The job is to enter a string of numbers in the computer every 108 minutes, apparently to avert some cataclysm.
Also in season 2, some core characters are captured by survivors from the tail section of the Oceanic flight, who crashed in the sea and settled elsewhere on the island; the story of their crash and survival is told in episode 7. Those "tailies" who become major characters, like the core survivors from the fuselage, have secret or at least violent pasts: Mr. Eko (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a former Nigerian drug lord who wants to build a church on the island; Ana Lucia Cortez (Michelle Rodriguez), an LAPD office who tracked down and shot a suspect who had shot her; and Elizabeth Smith (Cynthia Watros), known as Libby, a psychologist who may have been a patient in the mental hospital where Hurley was being treated for depression.
Another survivor from the tail of the plane is Bernard Nadler (Sam Anderson), husband of fuselage survivor Rose Henderson Nadler (L. Scott Caldwell). Both are notable exceptions to the general rule that Lost characters are outsiders, though Rose has the secret that she was dying of cancer before coming to the island, which cured her. In season 1, Rose repeatedly states that she knows Bernard survived, but that seems impossible; their reunion in season 2 is emotionally satisfying and fits the show's overall theme of fate or destiny.
In seasons 2 and 3, an additional group called the Others appear and are explained. Their manipulative and duplicitous leader, Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson), becomes a nemesis to the core characters, including capturing Jack, Sawyer, and Kate; yet in the closing episode of season 2, Ben tells Michael, "We're the good guys." The Others use buildings and installations built by the Dharma Initiative, and season 5 presents the shared background of the two groups. Juliet Burke (Elizabeth Mitchell), a gynecologist brought to the island by the Others to discover why the generally healing forces cause miscarriage of babies conceived on the island, becomes a core character.
The Others also include two characters with undoubted supernatural characteristics: Richard Alpert (Nestor Carbonell) is shown in flashbacks not to age; his history is finally revealed in season 6, episode 9. Even more mysterious, season 5 introduces Jacob (Mark Pellegrino), responsible for Alpert's youth. Jacob seems to be possibly divine or at least only half human; his origins are shown in the penultimate episode of the final season.
The final major group in the series is led by Charles Widmore (Alan Dale), an industrialist who wants the island for himself; he is also the father of Penelope, called Penny (Sonya Walger), who, against her father's wishes, loves and marries Desmond Hume. Widmore is introduced in season 2; in season 4, he sends a boat to the island, carrying people to study it and soldiers to capture Ben and kill anyone else. Some people from this expedition become core characters: Daniel Faraday (Jeremy Davies), a brilliant young physicist who turns out to be Widmore's son; Miles Straume (Ken Leung), a crew member on the ship who can read the last thoughts of dead people; Frank Lapidus (Jeff Fahey), who flies a helicopter from the ship to the island; and Charlotte Staples Lewis (Rebecca Mader), an anthropologist Widmore hires in part because she was raised on the island with the Others.
Clearly, one driving force of the show is the enigma of the island. Along with the smoke monster, mysterious whispers populate some parts of the island. Moreover, not only do characters that seem to die immediately come back to life, but dead people such as Jack's father seem to appear. In addition to healing, the island may protect itself, perhaps preventing people from finding it and preventing, or punishing, those who arrive and then choose to leave. In season 5, the island's characteristics include time travel.
As the seasons progress, these oddities are explained in both scientific and supernatural ways: the island sits on a unique pocket of geo-magnetic force; it is a force for good that must be protected; the Dharma Initiative and the Others built elaborate technological station and barriers, perhaps including the smoke monster; the island may by an entirely subjective experience or perhaps the afterlife. Along the way, enough questions are answered to whet a viewer's appetite, never to satisfy it.
When a major question is resolved, the pacing is excellent. Throughout season 2, Locke believes Desmond's warning that not entering the numbers in the computer would be catastrophic, but Jack is skeptical. The show offers evidence on both sides, including an old instruction film in another Dharma Initiative installation that may imply the task is only part of a behavioral experiment. Finally even Locke is convinced, as most viewers must be, and lets the timer run out. The Swan explodes, with results including but going beyond mere catastrophe.
As that incident shows, important themes also drive the action. Locke's faith in the island—its powers and the importance of protecting it—is repeatedly opposed by Jack's practical skepticism. Some events support one view and some the other; characters dispute what a given event means. Once the island is shown to be a resource that needs protecting, characters argue and align over the questions of how best to protect it and who, if anyone, should be the island's guardian. The show similarly examines issues of fate versus chance, choice versus destiny, the weight of personal and social history versus second chances and new starts. (Season 1, episode 3 is called "Tabula Rasa," a reference to both John Locke's name and the new start the island may provide its inhabitants.) These various concerns never line up predictably with each other and are left complexly open-ended.
Besides the characters, enigmas, and themes, what kept Lost going for six seasons is a great variety of fighting and romance. In various episodes, Sayid tortures Sawyer, Rosseau tortures Sayid, Ben is held captive by Locke, and various core characters are held captive by the Others. Widmore attempts to capture Ben in season 4 and holds Jack and others on his submarine in season 6. The show features shooting deaths, deaths by smoke-monster, deaths due to explosions, and the death of the entire Dharma Initiative en masse. The violence is not the core of the series, as it sometimes is in shows such as 24, but comes out of conflicts between individuals and between groups that may represent larger conspiracies.
Kate, Jack, and Sawyer form a love triangle for most of the show; when the Others are introduced, Juliet is added to make a rectangle. Claire and Charlie form a bond with elements of companionship, family love, and romance as he helps raise the baby. Sayid and Shannon love deeply albeit briefly; Hurley and Libby do the same. Daniel Faraday, even less lucky, confesses his love to Charlotte shortly before she dies. The show also depicts troubled love of many sorts: marital, between Sun and Jin; father/son, between Michael and Walt; sibling, between Boone and Shannon. Rose and Ben, once reunited, bicker but have the most stable relationship. Locke is given no love interest and seems to need none; overall, his true love is the island, which he feels destined to explore and protect.
The format of each episode provides consistency. In the first three seasons, each is divided into island scenes and those providing background, primarily of the major characters: first the fuselage survivors, then the tailies, and finally the Others. In season 4, some of the core characters do leave the island, and the structure is kept intact with the experiences of those who escaped opposed to experiences of those who did not. In season 5, the escapees return, only to find that many core characters have traveled in time to 1977, and so present and past scenes alternate. Finally, in season 6, along with continued events on the island, an alternate universe is presented, featuring major characters from the show in mysteriously different lives.
Lost also gives a sense of unity throughout the seasons by an unusual, if not unique, repetition of details in various contexts. Often this repetition can almost be dismissed as coincidence but perhaps indicates some organizing principle such as fate or transcendent control, or even that the islanders are mentally creating the island and their experiences. One obvious element that works this way is the number 4 8 15 16 23 42, which is Hurley's winning lottery number, the number on the hatch of the Swan, and the number that must regularly be typed into the computer inside that installation. The number 23 is the two-digit number most repeated in the show, including Gate 23 of Flight 815 (never called "eight one five" or "eight hundred fifteen"; add 8 and 15). Both 23 and 42 are references to fantastic fiction. Forty-two is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything in Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; and twenty-three is used in ways similar to those on Lost in the gigantic novel of conspiracy and enlightenment, Illuminatus! by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (1975), acknowledged as an influence on Lost. For readers who recognize these references, the effect is a kind of post-modern irony added to the sense of wonder.
This combination of complexity and unity made the show famous and controversial, much loved and often complained about. The creativity and artistry involved is undeniable, but the success of the result is highly debatable. I feel that the show does cohere as a meaningful six year narrative. In fact, the following model is proposed to show that Lost succeeds precisely by offering a wealth of possible meanings while denying authority to any one interpretation.
A Game of Go
Although the creators of Lost have said that they had the ending of the series in mind from the beginning, they seem to mean a very specific image: the series began with a shot of Jack opening his eyes in the jungle, and it ended with a shot of Jack closing his eyes. In the years between, how was the show organized and to what purposes?
One repeated detail in Lost is that of black and white game pieces. In season 1, episode 2, Locke teaches Walt to play backgammon; Locke holds up one piece of each colour, implying some deeper dichotomy, perhaps between good and evil. In season 1, episode 6, the survivors discover skeletons in a cave, including a male and female pair they call Adam and Eve, accompanied by a pouch with one black and one white pebble. In the penultimate episode of season 6, the skeletons are revealed as Jacob's brother and step-mother; in that episode, Jacob's brother teaches Jacob a game using the pebbles as markers.
Lost, it seems to me, proceeded like a game of Go, which also uses black and white markers. These markers, placed on the interstices of a board like a checkerboard but much larger, capture territory, block the moves of the opponent, and capture the opponent's markers by surrounding them. When you place a stone in Go, you know almost nothing about how the final board will look. However, you know that each move will make some future moves possible and other future moves impossible. Thus, your choices narrow as the board fills; strategy involves making the moves that you think will allow the best future moves and will rule out only moves you don't care about. You may plan several moves ahead, or you may make generally adventitious moves and work with what arrangements develop. Resulting from this process, the final board is beautiful and can look almost like a totally planned artwork.
Similarly, I imagine that the Lost creators began with a relatively blank board and a few definitive decisions: the plane crash, the island setting, the survivors from Oceanic 815's fuselage, the importance of backstory, a few evocative oddities such as of the smoke monster and the polar bear. Then, each episode played more pieces—maybe with some overall goals, as a Go player has certain strategies, but with very few choices seen as definitive except that what the move allows must be interesting, and any possibilities it rules out must not be vital.
For instance, through most of the show, the smoke monster could have been an automatic defense, created by the Dharma Initiative, the Others, or whoever built a temple that is discovered in season 6. Then the smoke monster is shown to have purpose, but could be mechanical; it appears in a human form and states that it once was human; and finally, it is revealed as an entity with a specific history. I don't think the creators sat around in season one and thought, "We'll finally reveal this and this and this about the smoke monster." Rather, possibilities are established and further narrowed as the show develops; and once a piece has been played—a fact or explanation established—it cannot be reversed, except within the rules of narrative, such as revelation of a hoax or lie. Some developments may have been decided several episodes ahead; likely, the idea of the smoke monster having been human came along with some idea of who that person had been.
On the other hand, Charlie's baptism of Claire's baby, in season 2 episode 12, produced fruitful potential for future moves: is the baptism urgent because the baby dies soon? Must the baby or Claire be protected spiritually from temptation or other danger? Part of any game of strategy is creating a maximum of useful moves, yet not all of the moves can be made, and inevitably some potential goes unrealized. Another example of this kind of move is the discovery, in the Dharma Initiative installation the Swan, of albums by a mysterious '70s psychedelic performer, Geronimo Jackson. That Charlie, a rock star, had never heard of them might have indicated that the island is in an alternative universe, that the Dharma Initiative was from or had access to such a universe, or that the album was special material produced by and for initiates of some secret organization. In fact, the artist became not a part of a major explanation of the island and events on it, but a recurrent motif like the numbers or the black and white game pieces.
Some elements seem difficult to integrate with what comes later—perhaps impossible, although the reputation of the show ensures that many viewers keep searching for elements they missed that would make everything fit or for better interpretations that could encompass the seeming anomaly. For instance, Richard Alpert visits a young Locke, a move that establishes that Alpert does not age and furthers the core issue of whether Locke is chosen by the island or not. However, is the fact that Alpert is off the island consistent with the rest of Lost, including the clear statement that Jacob does not want people to leave the island? Jacob repeatedly appears off the island, but Alpert is not directly supernatural as Jacob is. (Since he can confer eternal youth by his touch, perhaps he can bilocate.) Did the Others have a submarine to travel off the island even then? Or was this appearance by Alpert deemed a bad move in terms of later strategy and finessed in the hope that any contradictions would not be noticed?
However, this model for Lost provides a way of understanding what, for many, was a frustrating final episode, which did not emphasize explanation of what had already been revealed, instead concentrating on placing the last pieces—that is, making some final choices—so that the whole board would be filled. The most obvious choice to be made was who leaves the island and who can't or won't, which was revealed. When mysteries would have been nice to find out about but concerned moves that had already been made—such as where Jacob's foster-mother came from or what precisely Whitmore's role was—they were not be explored in any more depth, unless they were immediately connected to issues that have not yet been settled in terms of plot. For instance, since we know that the polar bears were not tulpas but had a material reason for showing up on the island, the writers did not give the viewers more information about what that reason is—as much as many of us would have liked to see what answer the show would come up with for "Why polar bears?" (After all, in real life, the government turned out to have a specific reason for dosing an elephant with LSD.)
In the end, the claims of Lost's writers that the show would provide resolution were justified on the level of plot and character, regarding everyone's final actions and who did or did not get off the island, as well as on a thematic level, in that the show did leave a sense of who was on what side in allegiances and ethics, although those sides were nicely muddled instead of being immaculately virtuous and pointlessly evil.
Unresolved, even unresolvable, but coherent fantastic narratives can be divided into two categories: those in which no explanation is possible, because something from one explanation is always contradicted by at least one element of other explanations, and those in which multiple explanations are possible, but none is any better than any of the others. Some of Robert Aickman's dreamlike short stories are examples of the former, while Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw" is an excellent example of the latter. Lost is of the latter type as well. Like human motivation and real-life explanations of events, Lost fails at set explanations by being, in the technical term, over-determined. That is, there is no one explanation, but many explanations that interact with, compete with, and augment each other.
From the first explorations of the island's anomalies, the audience was offered both supernatural and scientifictional explanations. Are the healing properties of the island due to spiritual goodness as seen in the glowing grotto, electromagnetic power as seen in the creation and destruction of the Swan installation, or some combination? Viewers can pick one explanation or any combination. This fact increases the range of people whom the show appealed to and gives it a genre-bending atmosphere, neither science fiction nor supernatural, similar to but more elaborate than that of a previous TV hit, The X-Files. On another level, the combination of materialistic and spiritual explanations may invite the reader to question any dichotomy between the two, deeply engrained as that dichotomy has been in Western thought since at least the 17th century.
The creators of Lost clearly made a decision to black-box the science: that is, not to explain the technological nature of accomplishments such as the geo-magnetism dispersal caused by entering the number into the computer, or the explosion caused by putting metal into the cubicle in the Swan. This was an excellent decision in four ways. First, this approach is how most of us interact with technology anyway, hence more realistic; exceptions such as Faraday obviously understand something of the processes, but realistically do not lecture those who would neither understand nor care. Second, explanations of scientifictional devices either succeed totally or fail spectacularly, as shown on any television show or movie that has tried. ("Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.") Third, the island is better as a wild card that cannot fully be explained: while some view this as a cop-out, it is at the core of the concept of the series and its emotional appeal. We might not want to go to the island, but the world is a stranger, more wonderful place with it than without it. Finally, this black-box approach is also necessary for the show's characteristic mixing of supernatural and scientific explanations.
Additionally, the ensemble cast allowed the creators to offer different paradigms without elevating one above another and to let viewers choose which character's view to endorse. Many of the show's most famous and favorite scenes include Locke and Jack debating whether fate was involved in the crash or whether the decision to leave the island (or to return) has transcendent implications. By the time Locke is killed, Jack has taken on the advocacy of faith, though no one has really taken over the skeptical role—perhaps another reason that the show became unsatisfying to some viewers.
More subtly, once the unusual powers of the island were established, the viewer could side with Hurley's matter-of-fact acceptance, the reverence of Locke, or even the exploitative view of Widmore and his people. Moreover, some characters change stances as the show continues; examples include Jack's major conversion and Ben's journey from semi-skepticism and a desire for selfish power to a final call to stewardship of the island.
The time travel in season 5 provides excellent opportunities for different characters to voice different interpretations without the show's overall endorsement of any one. The initial time shifting is both a mechanism to protect the spiritual wealth of the island and a phenomenon of physics, the latter lent credibility by the character Daniel Faraday. Then, different opinions develop as to whether the past can be changed or not, including a striking discussion between Miles and Hurley.
Besides allowing various viewers to identify with various characters, Lost allowed various interpretations because characters are shown to be mistaken, lie, or (rare in television but not in real life), both. This device not only adds a level of sophistication to the show but also allows the creators, when necessary, to take back moves that may have started to prevent interesting developments. For instance, in season 3 episode 22, when the communications station is found to be operable despite what Ben has said, he easily answers, "I lied." Juliet lies about her initial presence among the survivors of the Oceanic flight and is herself mistaken about when the Others will come for the women in the camp.
The variety of interpretations Lost presents is further expanded because the creators took advantage of new high-tech media to offer supplementary materials and encourage online discussions in which viewers could share and dispute various hypotheses about the show. Supplementary materials include Lost: Missing Pieces, a series of short videos released between November 2007 and February 2008 on Verizon mobile phones and then abc.com online. Most of the thirteen vignettes present moments that further illuminate the personalities of characters, but in one, the viewer finds out why Walt was allowed to leave the island: his abilities scared even the Others holding him. Also, in 2009 the Lost web site presented a supposed 1980s show about the mysterious Dharma Initiative, an episode of Mysteries of the Universe, a perfect parody of the real show Unsolved Mysteries (also available on the Season 3 DVD set).
In this way, both official and fan discussions throughout the six years provide an exegesis unlike that for any other show. Some sites kept a list of questions, updated after each episode to provide answers and add new questions. This dispersed narrative enticed and teased, provoking the feeling that one more bit of evidence in the DVD collection, or one more online article or argument, might reveal the true solution to a given mystery.
In a way, Lost can be called the first postmodern series on network television. The series itself presented a fascinating dance between the hard facts presented within the show or ancillary materials and the free play of interpretation that text encourages.
The Final Episode
One of the pieces to be played in the final episode was the nature of a sideverse, an alternate universe in which the Oceanic flight did not crash. The lives of the island survivors still became intertwined, by chance or fate, but also perhaps due to some attraction based on a history they did not know they shared. Many sideverse lives are better, including that of Locke, who found love, is cured by surgery on his spine, and gets a better job; some are worse, including that of Charlie, even further ruined by his drug addiction. Throughout season 6, characters in the sideverse become aware of some other life: that of the island.
In the final episode, the sideverse culminates in a benefit concert, sponsored by Charles Widmore and featuring Daniel Faraday playing with Charlie's band, Drive Shaft, at which the sideverse characters meet. Finally, many core characters convene at a chapel where the sideverse Jack expects his father's funeral. Instead, the sideverse is revealed as a waystation to the afterlife, created by the friends, many of whom died during the course of Lost, so that they could be together one last time.
This revelation of the nature of the sideverse tended to dominate immediate discussions of the final episode. Many viewers were disappointed by what they saw as a monolithic religious explanation, or even a kind of dismissing of events as unreal. What follows is my more satisfied, even enthusiastic intepretation.
In keeping with the show's general approach, the sideverse is open to many kinds of explanations, including scientific paradigms consistent with the final show's ending. From the introduction of the sideverse, one possible explanation was that the combination of the atomic explosion and the powerful pocket of electromagnetic force had propelled some characters into an alternate universe, just as it displaced others in time. Alternate histories and even travel among parallel universes are familiar tropes in science fiction; the Wikipedia article on parallel universes mentions the Lost sideverse, but primarily traces the idea in classic science fiction such as Murray Leinster's short story "Sideways in Time" (Astounding Stories, June 1934) and Fritz Leiber's novel The Big Time (1957).
However, in part because Faraday ended up in the past and was not a major figure in the sideverse, the viewer saw interesting and nuanced discussions of time travel and paradoxes but not of the physics of alternative universes. For instance, the show might have referred to the Everett-Wheeler-Graham many-worlds model, which suggests that each time a choice is made, different universes split off, each characterized by a different choice and its results.
Looking at some antecedents of the sideverse reveals how the scientifictional and spiritual explanations can be integrated. The most likely literary models for the sideverse come not from Leinster or Leiber but from Philip K. Dick. In Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962), a writer in an alternate reality in which the Axis won World War II is vaguely aware of our world. Even more specifically, the sideverse recalls Ubik, Dick's 1969 novel in which our universe intersects with the inner lives of people who are preserved in a kind of suspended animation called half-life. The reality of the novel shifts, including messages to the protagonist, Joe Chip, appearing impossibly in writing and on television. The novel also links alternate worlds and time-travel, as the characters find themselves in a world resembling 1939.
The most specific similarity of the sideverse to Ubik is in the way that the realities increasingly intermingle. In both works, this momentum creates a sense of both importance and suspense. Moreover, in Lost it creates a suggestion that all human minds might be connected, because events show that the number of people who remember accelerates the process of remembering in others—rather like Lyall Watson and Rupert Sheldrake's inspiring but not well-founded idea that the 100th monkey to learn a new behavior can cause the entire group to share the knowledge.
The events that cause the intermingling of Lost's island and sideverse realities are more consistent with Dick's later novel,
In Lost, many of the loving moments that cause anamnesis are romantic, but not all are. Kate's moment is helping Claire give birth, an echo of helping her do so on the island. Clearly, Kate's great love is neither Jack nor Sawyer, but both Aaron, whom she took off the island when the Oceanic six escaped and whom she raised for six years, and Claire, to whom she is willing to give Aaron back. As an alternative version of romance and a widening of the definition of love, this is a spectacular moment that could please feminists and Quiverfull members alike.
Jack's great love is not Kate but his father, whose approval, as well as perhaps love, Jack has sorely missed throughout the series. The greatest flow of Jack's memories, leading to his memory of dying, comes to him after he sees that the casket in the chapel is empty, turns to see his father apparently alive, and embraces him. After each says he loves the other, acceptance by his father leads Jack to abandon his skeptical resistance and accept the reality of the afterlife.
Each moment of anamnesis not only is related to love, but also is a moment of self-realization: in a literal sense, realizing they lived another life, but also in the sense of gaining what they have been searching for throughout the series. Romantic love makes perfect sense for Desmond and Penny and Sun and Jin, two couples who have been searching for each other, the first literally and the second metaphorically. Hurley's memories when he meets Libby also fit, especially insofar as Libby has been symbolically contrasted to food, the other love that Hurley must give up enjoying quite so much. Charlie died on the island in the finale of season 3, and his reunion with Claire within the sideverse has been long awaited; each character means a kind of home and family for the other, as well as romance. For Sawyer and Juliet, and especially Sayid and Shannon, the fit of true love and purpose in life is less satisfying. However, Boone arranges for Shannon to meet Sayid in the finale, an act that nicely represents freedom and growth on Boone's part.
The one explicit exclusion from the group inside the chapel is Ben, the eternal outsider, who throughout the series is depicted as changing groups but always playing his own angles. Clearly, a character is able to enter the chapel as a result of self-acceptance, and entering is a sign of final self-fulfillment; Ben stays outside because, despite Locke's forgiveness and Hurley's invitation, he feels that he has not yet sufficiently atoned for his cruelty and selfish designs on and off the island.
The core concept of the sideverse finale is difficult but exciting: that eternity is not a series of separate moments stretching out infinitely, but the coexistence of all moments at once. As Jack's father says, "Well, there is no 'now' here"—or, rather, "now" is all there is and contains all other time within it. This idea is not new to either science fiction or supernatural fiction, though it is more rare on television. For instance, the concept is developed well in the metaphysical novels of Charles Williams, one of the Inklings. Especially, in All Hallows Eve (1945), a servant sent by magic into eternity learns that she is not bound by traditional space or time unless she thinks she is. In Lost, characters' appearances in the chapel gives no clue as to when or how they died, unless we have seen that death in the show, in which case the character often relives it during anamnesis.
In previous episodes, Lost has prepared the viewer for this unconventional and challenging view of time. For instance, in season 4, episode 11, Alpert tells a very young Locke to pick items, not that he will own, but that he does own. Moreover, Desmond, who has seemed to know more than other characters and be special from the first scene in which he meets Jack in Los Angeles, has thoroughly been prepared as a character beyond linear time. Thus, Desmond makes the perfect psychopomp in the sideverse, leading characters to anamnesis and finally to whatever lies beyond. As Desmond says on various occasions, "See you in another life, brother."
Like most events in Lost, with many possible explanations, the end of the sideverse is over-determined, linked to many worldviews rather than avoiding identification as or with any one. The chapel is noteworthy for its multi-faith stained-glass window—and what does the wheel signify? Is it a reference to a neopaganesque sense of natural cycles, to a Nietzschean concept of eternal return, or even the EWG many-worlds model of science? What exactly does Jack's father mean when he says that the characters "all made" the reality "together"? Despite the strongly spiritual flavor of the church with its pews, different viewers can conclude that the characters have nudged their reality to an alternate universe, have created everything in their minds, or are functioning within a spiritual realm overseen by some kind of God or gods or oversoul. Interpretations of the end can be consistent with theoretical physics, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, solipsism, gnosticism, mostly materialistic psychology—or entirely materialistic neurology, if the entire event is seen as a comforting fantasy in Jack's mind.
The sideverse ending does convey two core ideas. One is that the island itself—despite what Richard Alpert and others say—is not a spiritual afterlife, since shows throughout the season have drawn a distinction between the island and the sideverse, and the sideverse obviously has the better claim to being the afterlife.
The other is that experience is real apart from any explanation, or all explanations, and interior experience is not less real than external experience. As Illuminatus! indicates, the thought of a unicorn is real: it is a real thought. Jack's father tells Jack, "Yeah, I'm real. You're real. Everything that's ever happened to you is real." Unlike the iconic "it was all a dream" ending, the finale does not undermine the reality of the sideverse. Instead, it argues for the reality of all experience. As Jack states in an island scene in the finale, "There are no shortcuts, no do overs. Whatever happened, happened. All of this matters." If a viewer feels cheated, thinking that the sideverse is revealed as "not real," she or he has missed one major message of the show.
While the ending of the island story evokes less speculation, and perhaps less frustration, than the ending of the sideverse, it is outstanding in its ability to imply a future the series does not directly flesh out. Given the trends in Hollywood—which has made major movies of The X-Files, Sex and the City, and even The Simpsons—a Lost movie realizing some of this potential may well follow.
On the plane that safely leaves the island as Jack dies, Kate holds hands with Claire, while Sawyer sits by himself. In keeping with the moment between Claire and Kate in the sideverse, this action suggests that Kate and Claire may share raising Aaron, Kate teaching Claire to be a mother as she has promised and Claire helping Kate overcome her fear of commitment and become a better person. This moment on the plane also symbolizes, as we see in the sideverse, that Sawyer is not Kate's soul mate but Juliet's. Will Kate and Sawyer realize that fact, preventing the heartache that Kate and Jack endured in their years off the island, or not? Meanwhile, Richard Alpert, now aging, must learn to live in a new century, in some culture that he has at best visited briefly during his greatly extended life.
Back on the island, Back on the island, Rose and Bernard remain, at home on the island and perhaps occasionally helping others as they help Desmond in the final episode, but apart from any factions and conspiracies to use its power—comparable, as a friend suggested to me, to Tom Bombadil and Goldberry in The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955). Rose and Bernard's love, solid and resilient despite their frequent mutual critique, provided a stable counterpart to all the troubled loves and would-be loves on the island; similarly, their home on the island provides a needed, though perhaps less fascinating, alternative to the uncertainties and machinations of the other characters.
In the finale, Jack sacrifices himself, the culmination of a life spent trying to justify his existence by saving others. Hurley is the natural guardian for the island—"everyone loves Hurley"—but he would never have agreed to the stewardship in any other circumstances. As it is, he is too rushed to think and is able to tell himself that his agreement is only temporary. As Ben says to Hurley, Jacob ran the island one way, but Hurley may find "another way, a better way." The combination of Hurley and Ben as guardians of the island is delicious: Hurley, the one person whom no one could betray, and Ben, so driven by a desire for power that he seems almost destined to betray anyone who trusts him. In the sideverse, Hurley says that Ben was "a real good number two," but nothing on the island has gone smoothly all the time.
Finally, at least some of the metaphysical issues of the series are resolved, not by one definitive answer—a result that would be incompatible with everything else in the show, were it even possible—but with a firm basis for some interpretation of past events and for more discussion. We can only speculate about what combination of physical and spiritual forces is represented by the light in the grotto; however, we know that removing the stone and stopping the light, which almost kills Desmond (and, we are told, would have killed anyone else), allows Jacob's now-monstrous brother to be killed, and that putting the stone back in and restarting the light, which does kill Jack, returns the island's precious, unique nature. Thus, good does triumph, but only with sacrifice, a satisfying theme in literature and a common characteristic of real life.
Overall, the finale seems to suggest, the island is inherently good, but it is, as Charles Williams says of God in his novel Descent into Hell (1937) a "terrible good": a good larger and fiercer than we can comprehend, that makes us or breaks us or both. Throughout the series, the island has tested the characters, offering Charlie heroin and Hurley too much junk food, Sawyer opportunities to take advantage of people and Ben machinations and opportunities to double-cross, situations that call for Sayid's violence or called on Jack to fix everything. Yet such are the complexities of human nature that the series presents an ongoing collection of defeats and victories, virtue and vice, falls and restitution. Even Jacob was capable of violence against his brother, but even Ben can become "a real good number two" to Hurley.
The episodes have ended, but not the diverse, post-modern narrative that the series Lost has engendered. It is a field of play, with loose ends and apparent contradictions, subject to endless arguments over competing explanations—less like most television shows and more like what we call real life.
Bernadette Bosky, a teacher and writer, lives in the New York City area with her two husbands, Kevin Maroney and Arthur Hlavaty, and ten pet rats. Mainly known for criticism of fantasy and horror fiction, she has been published on topics from seventeenth-century alchemy to self-esteem or serial killers.
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