The Woo of Lost
Reviewed by Adam Roberts
05 July 2010
A transfer is "lossy" if the amount of information encoded in an original becomes markedly depleted in the process of copying it. This might happen for many reasons. So, for example: transferring a six-season, 120-hour TV drama (including dozens of main and scores of minor characters, a welter of interlacing plotlines, complex internal mythology, and huge fan paranarrative) into a short review article for an online venue. That's going to be lossy.
That said, now that the show is over this process has become markedly less lossy. That's because whilst Lost was ongoing, there was no way of knowing which of the blizzard of details, plotlines, characters, and so on had a bearing on the central mystery of the show. Now the finale has aired, a lot of those earlier data—all of it at the time earnestly pawed over by fans, held up to the light, microscopically interpreted for possible meanings—have simply dropped out of the picture. Was it all about the numbers? About the Dharma Initiative? About time travel? About polar bears? Well, now, we know the answer. If ever a spoiler warning were needful, it's here and now. For this review, like Caesar's Gaul, is divided into four parts. Part 2 attempts to summarise the show's tangled storylines; part 3 offers some general observations; and in part 4 I discuss the show's finale. At that point I spoil without compunction. Be warned.
But perhaps there is a danger in attempting to respond to a series like Lost after the end. The main motor of the show, the hook upon which were painfully suspended so many millions of fans, myself included, was "What's it all about?" (alloyed with a little "What's going to happen next?"). The last few episodes of season 6 provided the definitive answer to the first of these questions, and that answer will now inevitably colour memories of the show. More: that answer will tend to diminish the show—as we all knew it would, even before we had an inkling of what it was—not only in the sense that it closes down the other avenues of possible interpretation, but because it involves a kind of optical illusion of coherence. We need to hold in mind just how wonderfully streaked, freaked, spattered, and dribbled this show used to be. How superbly it resisted the stare-eyed hermeneutic obsessions of its fanbase (myself included), not with mere opacity but by a sort of glorious promiscuity of more "meaning" than even we could stomach.
A point of comparison might be The X-Files, a similarly multiseason show about the search for meaning in a world in which conventional, scientific reality is interpenetrated in various dramatic ways by the supernatural and superscientific. But to make the comparison is straight away to be struck by the tonal difference between the two shows: The X-Files was low-lit, nocturne-coloured, over-focussed, earnest to the point of po-facedness, and in the final analysis risible. Lost, on the other hand, lives in the memory as luminous, inventive, effortlessly surprising and compelling; stupid but in a creative, engaging sense.
The X-Files started out with a neat conceptual reversal: a man and a woman investigate strange goings-on, but it's the man who's all intuitive and emotional and credulous, and the woman who's all skeptical and scientific and rigorous. But The X-Files couldn't sustain its integrity, perhaps because it was focussed too tightly on just two main characters—but more probably, I think, because the longer it went on the more fatally diffuse its mythology became. In individual episodes, The X-Files treated many various aspects of supernatural folklore, but as the series went on these aggregated to a point where the show was committed to a view of the world in which everything was true, no matter how absurdly boneheaded: UFOs, ghosts, Bigfoot, ESP, government conspiracy, anything and everything.
Lost has worked the other way, turning and turning in a tightening gyre as the aggregating revelations channelled viewers along towards a conclusion rather than simply an ending. But it also managed to be an inclusive text, welcoming and beguiling where The X-Files became increasingly rebarbative. It was, at its best, less a show about finding answers to puzzling questions and more about coping with extraordinary, supernatural circumstances—coping as a group, being-in-the-world with friends. Although it seems a strange thing to say, given how violent and extreme much of the drama was, it was this friendliness that underpinned the show's enormous commercial success.
Whether you've followed the series or not, you'll have some sense of the general ambit. We start with the crash of a passenger airplane (Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 from Sydney—a nice injoke about-turn one-upping of one of Tintin's better adventures, Vol 714 pour Sydney) upon a tropical Pacific island. This island is a place with some very unusual features: a strange poltergeist force that kills people; apparitions of the dead; polar bears. There are, we discover, others on the island, a secretive and dangerous bunch. There is a radio transmitter broadcasting a sequence of numbers—4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42—that as the series progresses appear in various guises, possessing (it is implied) a mystic significance.
The show has a large ensemble cast, but certain characters came quickly to the fore: Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox), a spinal surgeon; Sawyer (Josh Holloway; we later learn this character's real name is "James Ford"), a louche Texan con-artist; Kate Austen (Evangeline Lilly), a prisoner wanted for murder; and wheelchair-bound John Locke (Terry O'Quinn). Other characters include Charlie Pace (played by hobbit-actor Dominic Monaghan) a drug-addicted British rockstar; Claire (Emilie de Ravin), a heavily pregnant Australian with whom Charlie falls in love; Michael Dawson (Harold Perrineau), an American separated from his wife and his young son Walt (Malcolm David Kelley); Sayid Jarrah (Naveen Andrews), a former Iraqi National Guard torturer; Sun-Hwa Kwon (Yunjin Kim), a wealthy Korean woman and her husband Jin-Soo (Daniel Dae Kim), who speaks no English; and Hugo "Hurley" Reyes (Jorge Garcia), a laid-back dude from California. We learn about these characters, and others, in great detail, in part through their interactions with one another on the island, but more because the show is built upon a lamination of on-island narrative interspersed with flashbacks to characters' pre-island lives.
Much of the first season is given over to the day-to-day business of surviving—building shelters, hunting and gathering food and so on—with the flashbacks, though sometimes crudely handled, on balance adding impressive roundedness to the ensemble. Folded into this are various inexplicable developments. John Locke's incurable spinal injury is miraculously cured. The survivors spot an incongruous polar bear. Jack Shephard sees the ghost of his father. A terrifying worm-shaped cloud of black smoke occasionally flies out of the jungle and kills people. Locke discovers a strange hatch-door embedded in the ground, and becomes convinced not only that the island is magical (and he and the other survivors "special") but that if he can only open the hatch, all his questions will be answered. The hatch, however, resists his efforts.
Indeed, the "hatch" storyline was drawn out to the point where it became actively annoying. It was the writers' way of parsing what they evidently took to be a core theme of the show: faith. Locke's groundless belief that the hatch would provide him with answers, and his faith in the island more generally, functioned as a figure for "religious faith" more generally; and was opposed to Jack's empirical scepticism. Jack, the de facto leader of the survivors, doesn't think the island is special; he just wants to get everybody away and home. Rescue, though, doesn't arrive, and the writers' thumbs were in the balance from the get-go. Locke's "faith," though without rational basis, gifts him a luminous surety and existential focus; Jack's faithless practical goal only emphasises how hollow and miserable his existence is—unsatisfied in his job, separated from his wife, bereft at the loss of his remote father.
Once the premise was established, watching Lost became mostly a matter of attending to the narrative moves made by the writers, each of which took us closer to or further away from the "solution" to the island's mystery, which viewers in effect marked, as with a kind of mental chess notation, "?" or "!," or occasionally as "?!" The slow revelation that there were others living on the island, called, logically enough, "The Others," merited !. The decision to draw out the Locke/hatch storyline for so long, on the other hand, was "?"—although the final opening of the hatch, which turns out to be marked with the mystic 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 numbers, was one of the highlights of the series. (In Hurley's flashback we discovered that he had been propelled from happy poverty to a miserable, indeed cursed wealth by winning the lottery with these exact numbers. "The numbers are bad!" is his succinct judgment upon them.) At the bottom of the hatch is a 1980s bunker, furnished with supplies by its builders, the mysterious "Dharma Initiative," and inside is Desmond (played by Henry Ian Cusick). Desmond must type "the numbers" (that is, 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42) into an antique computer terminal every 108 minutes. If he doesn't, he has been told that he island will explode. Will it? Who knows? The excellence of this narrative conceit is in its neat embodiment of ontological arbitrariness; that point where unfounded faith and unfounded doubt bite hard into life—having to adjust the whole of one's existence to adapt to an inflexible 108-minute cycle, all the time wondering whether you are simply wasting your time. At any rate the Flight 815 survivors move into this bunker and take shifts at the button. This has the unfortunate consequence that Desmond's character can be moved into a much less dramatically fruitful star-crossed lovers' storyline.
After a sluggish, "?"-heavy second season—which, it seems, helped shed quite a proportion of the show's audience—Lost picked up again for the third. There were further mysteries: an ancient sailing galleon marooned far from the sea in the middle of the island; the Dharma Initiative's extensive spread of now-mysteriously-abandoned hatches and buildings contained further clues, not least an "orientation film" for new members of the Initiative (!). A second set of survivors, who were in the tail section of the plane when it crashed, are discovered, rather needlessly complicating the ensemble (?). Amongst the survivors, a love triangle is clunkingly elaborated: Jack and bad-boy conman Sawyer both fall for pert Kate, despite (or perhaps because of) her murderously dark past. She in turn loves one, or other, or both; the writers spin it out. I found this all very ??, but I know fans for whom the whole Jack/Sawyer/Kate thing was thoroughly !!. It is revealed that Yemi, the brother of Flight 815 passenger and Nigerian drug-lord "Mr Eko" (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), crashed on the island (in a short-range propeller aircraft that has somehow made it all the way from Africa to the mid-Pacific) and died. Mr Eko's flashbacks make it clear that, like many characters, he has done very bad things in his life. Now that he's on the island he builds a chapel, to point up the writers' interest in religious faith and atonement, and then is randomly killed by the black-smoke monster (??). Indeed, throughout all six seasons the writers demonstrate an almost psychotically cavalier attitude to killing off characters, something undertaken in the first instance in the interest of dramatic intensity and what Aristotle called peripeteia.
The "Others" send an individual called Ben Linus (played by the excellent Michael Emerson) to infiltrate the survivors' camp, but they rumble him, lock him in a cell, and torture him. There's a good deal of torture in the show, actually, and it is handled with pretty much the same moral idiocy found in—say—24: ethical scruples are simply overridden by a spurious urgency that is actually only the formal motor of serial TV entertainment (that the plot move on, that viewers not be bored). Nevertheless, the introduction of Ben was a "!!!" move by the writers. For we discover that Ben is actually the leader of the Others, and his ruthless yet queerly heartbroken Machiavellian manoeuvrings, which range from manipulating people and emotional blackmail all the way up the scale to murder and indeed mass-murder, illuminate not only the rationale of the "Dharma Initiative" (of which he used to be a part, but which he himself brought to an end via the expedience of murdering all the staff with poison gas) and the island itself. Everything Ben does, he does "for" the island, about which he has a faith even more fundamentalist than John Locke.
Ben, though, describes himself as only a deputy. He works for the guy really in charge, a mysterious individual nobody has met called "Jacob" ("a great man," according to Ben). In one splendidly oddball scene, Ben takes various people to Jacob's house, a ramshackle hut ringed by a trail of grey dust on the ground. When they go inside the place seems empty, but then the furniture starts flying about, a shadowy figure is very fleetingly glimpsed moaning (was it?) "Help me," and everything goes quiet. The "Who is Jacob?" question was a perfectly pitched narrative chess move.
We eventually discover what happens if the numbers are not entered in the Dharma Initiative's machine—a huge explosion and bright light in the sky that wreaks some kind of nonspecific havoc. Jack is still focussed on getting the survivors off the island, and Ben is focussed on keeping them there. An obstetrics-themed plot is introduced: the island has magical healing powers, but by the same token it rebuts birth, and pregnant women spontaneously abort. Ben's "people'—the "Others"—have attempted to overcome this in various ways, not least by shipping in a pregnancy specialist called Juliet Burke (played by Elizabeth Mitchell). But two of the survivors—Australian Claire and Korean Sun-Hwa Kwon—give birth to babies (?!). An Australian billionaire called Charles Widmore, played by Alan Dale ("Jim from Neighbours" to millions of Oz and UK fans) is looking for the island, for his own reasons, and sends in a team of mercenaries, one of whom kills Ben's daughter. We're at the end of season 3 now, and as the plotlines began to become impacted, like a bad tooth, the writers played one of their intermittently brilliant moves. Against a creakily melodramatic plotline of bombs in freighters, fights and flights, and the culmination of Jack's efforts to get his people home, Ben moves the island. He does this by descending into an icy subterranean chamber and turning a giant wheel set horizontally into the wall. This makes the island vanish; and incidentally ejects Ben Linus through space/time into the Sahara desert. For sheer bravura unexpectedness, I annotate this "!!!."
My reproduction of the series in review-summary form is growing lossier and lossier, I'm afraid. Season 4, broadly, concerned the fates of those Losties who followed Jack off the island. In a nutshell, they were not happy. A bizarre-even-for-Lost conspiracy by Charles Widmore's people sunk a fake Flight 815 at sea (??), from which the returned Losties are presented to the world's media as the only survivors—a fiction they acceded in to keep the island secret and their friends still there safe. But Jack is miserable, despite living an outwardly happy L.A. life with Kate raising Claire's baby as their own. He becomes convinced they must all return to the island. John Locke has similar ambitions, and has been travelling around trying to persuade the returnees to reband and go back. Suicidally demoralised by his failure to do so, he decides to hang himself. Ben Linus turns up, talks him out of self-murder, extracts some information from him, and then throttles him with the cord (!!!). Not for the first time waning viewer interest in a too-messy tangle of plotlines is redeemed by a strikingly pitched surprise development. At any rate, with an improbable series of contrivances, the off-island Losties are returned to the island, John Locke's corpse included. Once there the dead Locke apparently comes back to life.
Season 5, broadly, manoeuvred the show in an explicitly SFnal direction with a dose of time travel. A handful of key characters, including Sawyer, Juliet, Sayyid, Hurley, and a new guy with the ability to commune, spirit-medium like, with dead people (Miles Straume, played by Ken Leung), are all thrown back in time to the 1970s, and the height of the Dharma Initiative's presence on the island. They assume false identities and become, improbably enough, key members of the initiative; Sawyer and Juliet fall in love and live idyllically together for several years. But their true identities are eventually revealed. The season ends with a farrago of nonsensical plotting about schlepping a 1950s atomic bomb (miraculously portable) to an energy rift in the island that the Dharma Initiative is excavating. Jack believes that detonating the former in the latter would cancel out the initial crash of Flight 815 and permit everybody to get on with their lives. Narrative obstacles are placed in the way of this move, but in a fairly desultory way, since we never doubt the Chekhovian dramatic principle by which an atom bomb, once introduced into the narrative, must be used. And so it goes: the bomb goes off; Juliet is killed; Sawyer is heartbroken; and the Losties are blown back to the present day, although not (as Jack believed they would be) into a timeline in which the plane never crashed.
Like the unopened hatch in the first two seasons, the time-travel storyline in season 5 feels in retrospect like a massive piece of narrative padding. But—to repeat myself—that probably says more about the problem of hindsight than anything else. In the moment, and despite myriad cheesinesses, it was superbly absorbing stuff. More, the writers announced that season 6 would be the last, winning over at least some of those fans who had become disillusioned with the thought that a solution to the show's core mysteries would be endlessly deferred. On the other hand, season 6 made plain a shift away from the basically science-fictional narrative logic of season 5. We moved into rather self-consciously mythic, supernatural imaginative topographies; and the "Big Themes" of "faith" and "atonement" with which the writers had flirted in the earlier seasons came galumphing back in to stamp all over the finale with hobnailed boots. Discussing these will entail spoilers, so before I get to that let me put down a few more general observations.
Any potted account of Lost's main storylines, such as the above, must tend to make one thing clear: that it was at root a ludicrous show. Daft, implausible, hyperactive, given to lurching shifts of focus and scale of positively Van Vogtian proportions. To say so is not to dismiss it, of course. Ludicrous is not the same thing as risible. The show's genius was in the way it fully inhabited its ludicrousness, the way it turned the clunky paraphernalia of TV melodrama into a near-perfect simulacrum-fable of profundity. It did this by playing with the grain of its daftness; always ingenuously in tune with its own absurdity, neither too archly knowing nor embarrassed by it. Narrative contrivances a first-year screenwriting student would dismiss as too hokey were deployed not once but many times—the literal ticking bomb, for instance; the Mexican standoff; the run-and-chase. The scriptwriters enjoyed the metaphorical narrative sugar-rush of killing off major characters (or in one variant of this: of introducing a new character in such a way as to make it plain s/he will be a new major player, only to kill him/her before they even get going). In small doses this can be joltingly effective, textually speaking; but it became so totally a feature of the Lost universe that it ended up creating a weirdly parodic version of humanity. Everybody on the island, it seemed—no matter what other traits their characters displayed—everybody was only ever a moment away from punching somebody, torturing somebody for information, or shooting somebody else dead. I think only Hurley and Charlie, amongst the major characters, abstained from the social performance of murderous violence. For everybody else it was a mundane business; the pistol whipping, the rifle shot to the chest, the thrown knife into somebody's back. Cumulatively this created the vibe that pretty much all the people on the island were terrible terrible people. Picture a world as a tropical island paradise wholly populated by conscience-free, violently disposed supermodels. Et—violà.
Nor was the show helped by its codes of representation. The opening episode (in its day the most expensive TV pilot ever made) set the bar high: a wham-bam launch with properly cinematic production values. But as the show went on, the cracks increasingly began to show. A half dozen Hawaiian locations had to serve for the whole island, and several of these became debilitatingly over-familiar with reuse, however cleverly the set-dressers attempted to disguise them as new. Budgets were pared as the overall viewing figures declined. The plane in the first episode looked like (because it was) a real smashed-up airliner; the plane in the last episode looked like (because it was) CGI, and cheap CGI at that.
Then there's the acting. With only two exceptions, the acting was awful throughout. This was, I think, because most of the players were cast for their looks rather than their acting chops. Matthew Fox, for instance, is a very handsome if slightly squirrel-eyed man, but as Jack his performance was staggeringly one-note—a sort of strangulated, doe-eyed miserable intensity all the time, regardless of situation. Evangeline Lilly is very comely, but her "Kate" completely failed to communicate the conflicted depths of an abuse-survivor and murderer, achieving instead only a sort of simpering tangle-haired prettiness. Josh Holloway is also very comely—better looking than Jack, actually—but his performance as Sawyer consisted wholly of scowling. No matter what his character was supposed to be feeling or doing, Holloway buckled his handsome brow in to a scowl and bit off his dialogue. One need not be Stanislavski to see that "acting" and "scowling" are not the same thing.
Yunjin Kim's comeliness is of a more soulful sort, although her role, especially her scenes off-island, required much more than she could give, acting-wise. Daniel Dae Kim, another good looking man, may or may not be a proper actor; his role didn't give him the chance to show us. Naveen Andrews' Sayyid was little more than a fake "foreign" accent and a lot of moody positioning of his handsome mug and sculpted body. And worst of all was Claire. Her part needed an actress who could convincingly portray a young woman robbed of her child passing through murderous insanity and back into the light. Emilie de Ravin could do nothing more than stand there angling her undeniably pretty face at the camera and blinking slowly. The principle at work was that of U.S. daytime soaps, viz: "When you look as good as I do, who needs acting?" There will be fans who disagree with this assessment, and champion the acting ability evident in the portrayal of one or other of the characters. This is because they fancy the actor in question.
There were two exceptions, but even they struggled with the scripts they were given. First off, Michael Emerson did something very memorable with Ben Linus; a wonderfully nuanced balance of needy weediness and a steel-tough resilience. When, as he often did, he resorted to murderous violence, we believed it completely, but Emerson's acting was such that even the most brutal behaviour did not alienate us from him. And this was a problem in the long run, because the writers didn't know what to do with him, whether to spin him as hateable or loveable. They plumped for the latter, and it tangled foolishly with the fact that Ben was responsible for more murder on the island than anybody else.
And secondly, in Terry O'Quinn's John Locke the show found an actor with a remarkable screen-presence. That said, Locke only really came into his own in the final season, where he played not Locke but the evil alt-Locke. Here O'Quinn's effortlessly carried, slightly sinister charisma, his ability to combine charm and menace, worked superbly. But this in turn brought out the problem in the earlier seasons. In life Locke was fundamentally a pitiable character—a loser—and O'Quinn struggled to fit his larger-than-loser presence into the role.
Putting all these beautiful people (Ben, Charlie, and Hurley excepted) through the over-caffeinated bounceabout contortions of plot also meant that the show as a whole kept losing its focus. It toyed with Robinson Crusoe, or Tempest, allusions, but they sputtered into nothing. It picked up the notion that everything might be an SFnal material novum, and then entirely Lost interest in that. It seemed to be saying something obliquely about 9-11—from the world being changed by a catastrophic plane-crash at the start of season 1, to the sight in season 6 of Iraqi Sayyid's death by suicide-bombing (he grabs an about-to-explode bomb and runs off down a corridor, blowing himself up for the greater good of his friends). But no ideological coherence emerges from that sort of reading. Characters are named after famous philosophers (Locke, Bentham, Rousseau, Hume) but without any actual philosophical content behind the gesture.
A fan who even dipped a toe into the para-material generated by fans could see that part of the appeal of the show was in its tantalising detail, any one of which could be the key that explained everything. In an important sense, the point of the show was the elevation of this kind of detail to a new aesthetic prominence. When its big reveal finally came, as it must, part of it would be to dissolve much of this beautiful tracery. And so it was. Bye-bye mystic numbers, Dharma Initiative, polar bears, big-wheel-for-moving-the-island and wholly-unresolved-why-can't-people-give-birth-on-the-island storyline. Hello Jacob, smoke monster, and mystical fable of faith and atonement. Boo.
This review has been lossy; but the series's finale was lossier still. Almost everything that made the show compelling was filtered away. Instead we were left to chew on the ship's biscuit of one dry, stodgy fabulation: Jacob brought the Flight 815 survivors to the islands as "candidates." He had been surveilling their lives remotely for decades so as to select them. The revivified John Locke is revealed as the smoke monster in human form. The monster has a murderous animus against Jacob, and a desire to get off the island; but an unspecified rule or charm prevents him killing Jacob directly. So he persuades Ben Linus to kill him instead. There's a weird narrative cul-de-sac concerning a temple staffed by various quasi-religious types, hitherto unmentioned in the series; but Smoke Monster Locke, unfettered now that Jacob is dead, kills most of the occupants of this, and persuades most of the Losties that they must all leave together.
It's a ruse, though. Smoke Monster Locke actually wants to destroy the island and everybody on it. There are vague but dire warnings that if he escapes from the island it will be the end of the world. Meanwhile, interspersed in almost every episode, are what the scriptwriters rather wincingly call "flash-sideways," glimpses of a timeline in which Flight 815 never crashed, and all the main characters, living notably improved lives, interact with one another in L.A.
The antepenultimate episode, "Across the Sea," finally and rather disappointingly revealed the kernel of the series mythology. We go back to the island, in A.D. 44. A Latin-speaking unnamed character (played by The West Wing's Allison Janney) rescues a heavily pregnant shipwrecked woman, delivers her twin baby boys, and kills her. She raises the children as her own: one—Jacob—dressed in a conveniently allegorical white tunic, the other, unnamed, in a black one. Her business is guarding the island, or more specifically guarding a particular magical cave full of magical light. This, we're told, is "the source, the heart of the island." Her intention is for the son-in-black to take over her guardianship when the time comes; but he instead becomes obsessed with leaving the island, and collaborates with the tribe that inhabits the place to that end. For some reason, though we're not told what, he must not leave the island. So mother knocks him out, kills the entire tribe (yet another unremarked, casual, small-scale genocide) and instead gives the job of guarding the source to a reluctant Jacob. Angry, the son-in-black stabs his mother to death, and in retaliation Jacob throws him into the magic cave, killing him but transforming his spirit into the smoke monster.
We are asked to believe that all the shenanigans of the previous seasons have actually been the circuitous process by which Jacob chooses to recruit his replacement—after two thousand years, and for unstated reasons. He has narrowed this down to six: Kate, Hugo, Sawyer, Jack, and the Kwons. He manages to explain the state of affairs to these six, despite being dead. After hearing his explanation, Jack volunteers to replace him. In the final episode the characters all converge on the heart of the island; Desmond descends into the cave of light to discover an antique temple, a pool of glowing water, and in the middle a large stone bung. Removing this makes all the magic water drain down the plughole, causing the island to start to sink into the sea. It also robs Smoke Monster Locke of his invulnerability, which means that Jack is able to kill him, although he himself suffers a fatal wound in the process. Jack drags himself back to the magic cave, reinserts the bung, and restores the island's magic before finally expiring. Hurley, it seems, must take over Jacob's role. The startled viewer mentally pencils in a "??" to annotate this plot-move before the nature of the flash-sideways is revealed—it is a timeless space created by all the characters, who are all dead, so that they can "find themselves" before moving on—and "??" becomes "???"
The initial objection to this denouement is that it's shit. A more nuanced response is that it is anticlimactic, underpowered, and doesn't make sense. Pugatory here is all the main characters flying into an early-twenty-first century L.A. knowing neither that they are dead, nor that they ever knew one another or ever went to the island in life. They did go to the island; the narrative conceit is the island was "real" and this flash-sideways not. But they must "find one another" by coincidentally bumping into the others until some significant contact triggers a memory of their time on the island, and with it the knowledge that they are dead. As to why some characters are present in this purgatory and some not, or why some are present but (like Locke's father) in a vegetative state, or why dying entails temporary amnesia of life until you meet some but not other dead people, or why Desmond has been given the job of orchestrating a final grand get-together at a church—which job he undertakes in part by running Locke down in his car—none of this is clear. At the church, Jack is the last to understand the true state of affairs. Only when he discovers his father's coffin to be empty, and has a chinwag with his old man's revivified person, does he realise. He comes into the main body of the church where, teary-eyed and grinning, the entire main cast is assembled. The series then ends on a gag-reflex-tickling group hug. Indeed, as a couple of reviewers noted, the final scene looks much more like a Hollywood wrap party than anything that belonged in the show itself.
The point of this ending is not religious, actually; or not specifically doctrinally religious. That is to say, the show went out of its way to present its notionally purgatorial afterlife as inclusively non-denominational. Jack's Dad may be called "Christian Shephard" ("Really?" Kate asks, with a knowing smirk); but when he appears to his son he stands before a stained glass window devoted upon which we see the Muslim Crescent, Jewish Star, Hindu Wheel—and for all I know the Scientological volcano and Flying Squid Monster's noodly appendage—as well as the Christian cross. The same rather superstitious ecumenicalism was presumably behind the decision to set the death/rebirth/atonement "Across the Sea" episode not in A.D. 33 but in A.D. 44.
This is important, actually. The show's lurch into the post-mortem existences of its cast was not so much a religious move as it was a laying the writers' cards on the table. Whilst the show ran I, like many fans, believed the ultimate resolution would be science-fictional—material, pseudo-scientific. I was wrong. The finale makes plain that the idiom of the show all along was magic.
This, in the absence of any more specific explanations, covers the "answer" to the many unexplained loose ends. Why was Miles able to commune with dead people? It was magic. How could it be that the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 cropped up so significantly, coincidentally and ubiquitously? It was magic. How was Ben Linus able to spin a wheel and make an entire Pacific island (all the stuff below the waterline, we assume, as well as all the stuff above) vanish and reappear somewhere else? Magic. How were the brothers' lives (and the lives of some other characters) so lengthily extended? Magic. What, in the final analysis, was Lost about? The finale makes the answer to this question plain: it was about magical thinking.
Perhaps that looks dismissive, but I don't mean it to be. "Magic" here is not a catch-all or non-specific term. In fact, understanding that the show is about magical thinking enables us to be more specific about the emotional focus of the show. Lost was about magic in a general sense, but more specifically it was about bereavement as magical thinking.
I'll conclude this review by expanding upon this last point a little, and I'll do that by quoting from Roger Luckhurst's excellent New Formations review-essay "Reflections on Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking" [pdf].
"Magical thinking," Luckhurst points out, "is in fact an incredibly hot topic in empirical psychological research." However rationally scientific and material we might think our lives to be, "magical thinking" is a palpable and very significant social-cultural fact. Research into this aspect of our lives
retains much of the intellectual framework set up by J. G. Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890), in which sympathetic magic works through the laws of similarity and contiguity ("things which have been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed"). Beliefs about who can and cannot catch AIDS and from what objects, for instance, differ around the world but consistently privilege magical and moral pollutions over the facts of viral transmission. . . . Research has also targeted how stressful situations reduce the ability to control cognitive operations and thus amplify magical thinking, a process in which "individuals may generate solutions that increase their control over the sources of stress."
Luckhurst notes that "Modernity" (we might particularly include "science fiction" here) "has defined its rationality through the suppression of magical thought."
This is what Weberian rationality means: "the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourse to magical means." Belief in magical agencies becomes aligned to the primitive and the child. Edward Tylor, one of the first professional anthropologists in England, argued in 1871 that the function of anthropology was to seek out and eliminate "survivals" of primitive thought, the "pernicious delusions" such as magic that could only be associated with "the lowest known stages of civilisation." Frazer's study of magic was conceived within the same evolutionary framework. Magic was the most primitive set of human beliefs, "a spurious system of natural law" that hadn't yet advanced to the more conceptually sophisticated delusion of religious belief, which was in turn finally overthrown by a rational understanding of causation. Freud propped himself on Tylor and Frazer's model for his discussion of animism, magic and the omnipotence of thought in Totem and Taboo.
Luckhurst goes on to note that "every one of these theorists, however, was perplexed by the brute persistence of magical thinking into the heart of modernity." He cites a number of subsequent writers who have addressed this. Simon During, for instance, has examined the rise of "secular magic" in modernity, the imperfect stamping out of superstition creating instead "a fuzzy and variegated vernacular modern magic" that is a strange mix of superstition, religious sentiment, and a knowing suspension of disbelief. This describes the milieu of Lost pretty well; and I'd say it makes more sense to read the show's fascination with "belief" as being about "enchantment" rather than adumbrating a specifically religious agenda.
The key context for all this, as Luckhurst notes, is bereavement. Confronting death's radical discontinuity "prompts all kinds of magical evasion and beliefs in forms of posthumous survival." Grief plays "magic tricks" on our subjectivity and cognition. "In Charles Taylor's terms, the modern self is 'buffered, ' yet traumatic events puncture that protective sphere and return us instantly to the pre-modern self which is 'porous, ' and thus open to all kinds of belief in occult transmissions and sympathetic magic . . . the psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi believed the same thing. 'In the moment of trauma, ' Ferenczi said in the early 1930s, 'some sort of omniscience about the world . . . makes the person . . . more or less clairvoyant.'"
Lost, as a show, begins with a massive dramatic externalisation of the traumatic event—the plane crash—which is in turn the symbolic articulation of a specific bereavement: Jack is on Flight 815 carrying back the dead body of his father. The key players have similar paternal bereavement experiences: Sawyer became a con-man himself because of a traumatic childhood experience in which a con-man (whose name Sawyer adopts) resulted in the death of his father. Kate is herself responsible for the traumatic death of her abusive father. This triad is at the emotional heart of the show, flanked by Locke—whose own abusive father abandoned him, tricked him into giving up his organs, and tried to kill him—and Ben Linus, whose father was a sadsack alcoholic whom he eventually killed. All these father-oriented storylines find their nexus in the symbolic father of the island, the man with the Biblically patriarchal name "Jacob" (who himself, significantly enough, is revealed to be fatherless). The murder of this father-figure, and his replacement, is where the show reveals itself as having been going all along.
Lost is not about "fathers" in a general sense, then. It is more specifically about the death of fathers; about how we live when our father has passed away. Fathers are what is Lost in Lost; and negotiating the process of bereavement is what orchestrates the various sorts of magical thinking on display in the narratives. The nice irony is that the show, by staging its own finale, has enacted its theme. What's Lost for fans of the show now is precisely Lost; we are bereaved of our weekly fix of island magic. This is what gives the Onion skit at the end of this link its force.
That's how this deeply addictive, daft, yet sadly missed show worked.