Spoiler Alert! Do not read if you don't want to know what happened in last night's episode of Lost!
After watching last night’s episode of Lost, I started to wonder what, specifically, I love about the show. I’m not a freaky fanatic who gets all the allusions and references, and I can’t quote lines from the show. I have no plans to buy Lost on DVD or to spend that much time thinking about it after the series finale. In fact, I’m sort of looking forward to getting my life back. I have, however, watched every episode and puzzled over the weirdness and become emotionally invested in the characters and story.
One answer is obvious: it’s well done. The acting, the writing, the character development, the cliff-hanger plotting, the attention to detail, and the visual appeal…all the elements of a good serial television story are there.
Another answer seems pretty fundamental as well: it’s a huge mystery, and we want to solve it. We all want to know the truth. What is the island? Who are Jacob and Smokey, and why are they at odds? What sort of cosmic/religious/moral dilemma are we even dealing with here? Redemption? Salvation? Penance? Sacrifice? Who is good and who is not? What, in fact, are good and evil and how do we distinguish between the two? Why are so many characters blown up with dynamite or C4? What is the significance of being a candidate? Candidate for what, exactly? What does failure mean? Who are these people? Why are the dead people so alive? Who is the blonde kid who keeps popping out of the forest and laughing at Smokey? What is the meaning of time in all this? The list of questions grows with each episode.
If we don’t get at least most of these questions answers in the series finale, I’m likely to throw something at my television.
The show appeals to those who appreciate good stories told well, but the emotional and intellectual investments so many of us have put into Lost run deeper than these more superficial explanations.
I think the characters are what have drawn us in so deep. Most of them have been delightfully rounded out in surprising ways that make them seem more like real people than characters in a television drama, especially for such a large, ensemble cast. Have you ever tried explaining the series to someone who's never watched it? Hmm. It's tough. A movie like Avatar is easy to explain: "Dances with Wolves with big blue natives." But Lost defies summary.
No character in Lost really fits a stereotype, and they all do and say things that surprise us and yet leave us saying things like, “Yes, Sawyer, you really should be wearing nerdy glasses and reading classic novels.” When Sawyer, a con-man motivated by revenge, turned out to be a cop in the parallel time line this season, was anyone surprised? Not really, because the message in Lost seems to be that we all have a con-man and a cop in us. We are all drug addicts and brilliant spinal surgeons; abusive-stepfather murderers and loving surrogate mothers; scared, insecure fat men and big-hearted benefactors; sadistic torturers and tender lovers.
In other words, we have a choice, not only in how we live our lives but also—and this is critical as television viewers, I think—in how we judge the lives of others. The push of the series, at least in my opinion, has been to teach us as an audience of the show (and as lost human beings ourselves) that our moral judgment of others is based on too little information and is too often wrong. Characters we love to hate, like Benjamin Linus, turn out to be far more complex and sympathetic than we could have imagined early on. And did anyone want Sayid to become Smokey’s zombie? I mean, we all wanted the sexy Republican Guard torturer to turn out good. As sad as his death was last night (and oh it was sad!), it redeemed him. And there is a tragic satisfaction in seeing his redemption and knowing we were right about him all along.
Given our brief preview of next week’s episode, I can’t help but wonder if we’ll see a good side to Smokey and a bad side to Jacob. The Biblical Jacob was God’s chosen, yes, but he was also a liar and a cheat. Part of me wants the show to keep the distinction between good and evil in these two characters very clear, but another part of me wants the ambiguity to play out even with them. Making Jacob and Smokey subject to the same moral ambiguity all the other characters suffer keeps them from being simplistic characterizations of God and the Devil, which, after all they've put the survivors through, would seem a bit like cheating, don’t you think?
When you look at the characters’ lives in the alternate time line this season, the common denominator has been love, not just in the romantic sense, but in the larger sense of compassion and social connection, a love that gives us a purpose and a sense of belonging or duty. My favorite moment in last night’s episode was when Jack offered to have Claire stay at his house because she was family. Locke and his father got along before (surprise!) a plane crash rendered his father a mindless idiot. Benjamin and his father are together, and Benjamin is able to help his “daughter” grow in her life rather than watch her be executed. Desmond has Whitmore’s approval. Jin and Sun fall in love and make a baby. But all of these characters show a growing awareness of something weird going on, which signals us that this seemingly better world is being manipulated and may be nothing more than an illusion, a mere fantasy of what might have been rather than what truly is.
But what is? What is real?
We’ve willingly submitted to this blatant manipulation of our emotions and judgment by the show’s creators with the faith that we’ll get our answers in the end because Lost is a television series, and a highly entertaining one at that. As the end approaches, we’re getting some answers, but a lot more questions are cropping up, too.
I think our desire for answers to the complex issues in the story is reflected in our real lives. We're often tempted to an us-against-them mentality, whether it's by political rhetoric or religious factionalism. But as with the Others and the Dharma Initiative, or the Others and the survivors of the Oceanic crash, who, really, is the enemy? Where is the truth and how do we figure it out if our basic assumptions about us and them are fundamentally wrong? Or what if we're all just pawns in a sick game of good and evil?
Deep stuff. And it’s so much easier to think about when it’s a television show and not the evening news. Fiction, when done well, often gives us a chance to learn something and make a better ending for ourselves. I wonder what sort of ending the wacky passengers of Oceanic Flight 815 are going to get.
For my television's sake, I hope it's a good one.