Three days after the LOST finale, the smoke is beginning to clear. My own rage over the direction that the finale took us is starting to subside. While I could focus on the bits that made me most angry initially—the hackneyed, soft-focus reunions that weren’t true to some of the characters (Shannon and Sayid? Really?); the incomprehensible, slap-dash pacing and plotting (how many times does Ben Linus have to switch sides?); the small, niggling inconsistencies raised in the last ten minutes (if Unitarian-Church-Purgatory is a place without time, how can someone stay there “for awhile”?), I won’t. Other people can discuss those things, and probably more thoroughly and better than I.
Instead, what I want to focus on is what’s proven to be LOST’s overarching theme: the battle between faith and skepticism. Because, though the writers didn’t offer us many answers in the two and a half hour finale, they did offer us one: that the search for answers at all is in vain. That faith rules and science, well, drools.
The conflict between “men of science” and “men of faith” is well established in the show’s first and second season. After John Locke is miraculously healed of his need for a wheelchair in the show’s pilot episode, he becomes a dogged defender of the Island’s greater purpose, particularly after he discovers a mysterious hatch buried on the Island. His faith in this greater purpose leads him to do some pretty odd things, like inadvertently sending his buddy Boone to his death, pushing a button every hundred and eight minutes, and turning a frozen donkey wheel to transport himself off the Island. Though he sometimes has moments of doubt, once he’s told something (for example, that he needs to die to reunite the Oceanic Six), he generally accepts it unquestioningly as part of a greater plan—no matter how arbitrary it may initially seem.
Of course, this doesn’t gibe with spinal surgeon Jack Shephard, who objects strongly to the high human cost of Locke’s actions after Boone’s death; he demands answers of Desmond about the nature of the hatch, and then treats those answers (and the accompanying orientation video) with skepticism. As he says: “Don’t tell me you believe this. This is crazy. You think that makes sense — pushing a button? You’re going to take his word for it?” (“Orientation”). Through much of the series, Shephard doesn’t accept anything at face value—instead, he wants proof.
It’s difficult to discuss this theme in LOST without drawing obvious comparisons to The X-Files, which not only similarly included a seemingly-complex mythology, with mysterious happenings introduced in the show’s first episodes, but whose main characters were, likewise, a (wo)man of science and a man of faith. Mulder, like John Locke, began his series with an unwavering faith in the supernatural after experiencing it first-hand. His infamous desire to “believe,” not to mention his general lack of a spiritual faith, was contrasted against both Dana Scully’s stubbornly-skeptical regard for the paranormal and her Catholic beliefs.
Through the course of The X-files, as is the case with Jack Shephard in LOST, Dana Scully undergoes a conversion of sorts. But, as we’ll later see, this isn’t precisely the complete turn-about experienced by Jack. Rather, Scully’s exacting, scientific nature leads her to persistently explore and question the supernatural. It’s through this questioning (not to mention her own abduction), rather than through blind acceptance, that she discovers the broader alien conspiracy at work. Though by the series’ end she appears to be much like Fox Mulder, the change actually represents a tempering of her skepticism, not a complete rejection of it. In truth, Scully simply moves the goal posts of her scientific beliefs to incorporate new evidence into them, rather than eliminating the goal posts completely.
Now, I’m not going to pretend that the ending of The X-files is exemplary, or that it was satisfying for me. I think we can all safely say that the mythology of that series imploded on itself in a very real way, and it’s understandable why, in a 2005 interview with EW.com, executive producer Damon Lindelof said: ”The bigger lessons to be learned from X-Files and Twin Peaks is not to make a show about questions, but people [. . .] When you keep it about characters, the audience never gets bogged in the mire of ‘mythology.’” Still, you can look at the individual character arcs of Scully and Mulder and see how their mutual search for answers is, in fact, not in vain—even if it does have its dangers and incurs losses for both parties—but that it ultimately draws them together in a very human way; by the final scene of the movie that ends the franchise, The X-files: I Want to Believe, the two are engaged in a loving romantic relationship—even if Mulder’s unwavering pursuit of the supernatural (in short, his “faith”) has, at times and even recently, shaken the foundations of their relationship.
We learn a very different lesson about faith in LOST.
As the series neared the conclusion, the writers began to drop hints about the sort of message they were planning for the finale in interviews. True to their earlier stated intention of making the story about characters, and not questions, they began to be explicit about leaving threads hanging. “The ultimate mystery for us on ‘Lost’ is not, you know, what is the origin of Jacob or where is this Island in the South Pacific,” said Lindelof’s co-producer Carlton Cuse in a Washington Post interview in the week before the finale, “it’s who are these people. That’s what we feel obligated to address in the final hours of the show.”
This was made clear on the show itself, too, and in no episode was it more explicit than in “Across the Sea,” which explored the origins of Jacob, the Island’s mysterious guardian, and his nemesis, the “Man in Black.” Although we learn directly of how they came to the Island in this episode (their mother was shipwrecked there while pregnant, and then was brained to death with a rock by Allison Janney, the Island’s previous protector) and how they became immortal (Jacob was made so by his foster mother; the Man in Black was murdered by Jacob and then transformed into a monster by the unexplained energy at the “heart” of the Island), we never learn the true nature of the Island itself, or of how Allison Janney got there in the first place. We’re shown a magical, glowing cave and told that one of the boys will eventually need to protect it, but the nature of the light itself is left vague:
BOY IN BLACK: What’s down there?
MOTHER: Light. The warmest, brightest light you’ve ever seen or felt. And we must make sure that no one ever finds it.
BOY IN BLACK: It’s beautiful…
MOTHER: Yes it is. And that’s why they want it. Because a little bit of this very same light is inside of every man. But they always want more.
Is the light some sort of life force? What does it do? Why would men want more? Because it’s beautiful? What kind of answer is that? Is it a pool of souls, or an alien spacecraft, or the Fountain of Youth, or a piece of the big bang? Do men want it because they think it will make them immortal? What, precisely, are the bad things that will happen if the light is disturbed? No one ever asks. In fact, Allison Janney tells the boys’ birth mother (and, by proxy, the audience) to quit bugging her with the stupid questions and to focus on feeling wonderful about the fact that she’s still alive (though that won’t last long!) instead:
CLAUDIA: How did you get here?
MOTHER [applying medicinal substance to Claudia’s leg wounds]: The same way you got here. By accident.
CLAUDIA: How long have you–
MOTHER: Every question I answer will simply lead to another question. You should rest. Just be grateful you’re alive.
In case we weren’t sufficiently warned yet about the dangers of a curious nature, one of Allison Janney’s foster sons, the Boy/Man in Black, is determined to leave the Island and discover where he comes from. His spirit of adventure and inquiry is rewarded by his being knocked unconscious by his “mother” (who tells him he can’t leave because she “loves him”) and then being transformed into a terrifying monster by his now-immortal brother. Awesome.
By the finale, the writers decide to quit teasing us and give us answers—not about the Island, but about the wrong-headedness of asking questions—directly. They let Jack tell us (and the Man in Black) how wrong he was in the last episode of the series: “You’re not John Locke. You disrespect his memory by wearing his face, but you’re nothing like him. Turns out he was right about almost everything. I just wish I could have told him that while he was still alive.”
Like Claudia, by the finale we’re meant to stop asking questions and to let go. Instead, we were supposed to just get behind the show’s feel good message. Very little about the true nature of the Island is revealed, but we learn that the “sideways timeline” of the last season was, in fact, a kind of bardo or purgatory where the characters can reunite before ascending to a higher plane of existence, or something.
Apparently, all manner of things happen after Jack Shephard dies (Hurley and Ben become protectors of the Island, for instance), but we’re told not to worry our pretty little heads about that. No, no, Christian Shephard tells us (in a Unitarian-Church-like setting, with a stained glass window with all sorts of religious symbols; only the atheists are left out, I guess), it’s time to be happy and let go:
CHRISTIAN: This is a place that you–that you all made together–that you could find one another. The most important part of your life was the time you spent with these people. That’s why all of you are here. Nobody does it alone, Jack. You needed them and they needed you.
JACK: For what?
CHRISTIAN: To remember….and let go.
JACK: Kate–she said we were leaving.
CHRISTIAN: Not leaving, no. Moving on.
If you suspect that this message didn’t sit well with me, then you’re right.
Part of my problem is that this attitude seems to be an anti-scientific one, which is supported in the lives of certain characters in purgatory. Daniel Faraday, named for physicist Michael Faraday and unarguably the show’s most important scientist, is no longer a neurotic physicist at all in the purgatory world. Instead, as we learn in the appropriately named “Happily Ever After,” he is an easy-going musician. When he experiences flashes of his life on the Island, they confound him:
DANIEL: First time I saw her was walking through this museum, few weeks ago. She, she works here. She was on her lunch break. She was eating a chocolate bar. She has these incredible blue, blue eyes, red hair. And, as soon as I saw her, right, right in that moment, it was like, it was like I already loved her. And that’s when things got weird. [Takes a notebook from his bag.] That same night after I saw that woman, I woke up and I wrote this.
DESMOND: So what is it?
DANIEL: I’m a musician. I have no idea. So I took it to a friend of mine at Caltech. He’s a math whiz. He said this is quantum mechanics. He said these equations are so advanced that only someone who’d been studying physics their entire life could have come up with them.
Tellingly, in his rosy afterlife, Daniel no longer retains the scientifically-themed last name of Faraday. His mother Eloise, who likewise had a nod to physicist Stephen Hawking in her on-Island surname, also loses this reference, as she’s now married to Charles Widmore.
I wouldn’t be quite so unsettled by this message had the writers chosen, instead, to end with the debate between skepticism and logic unresolved, or (like is the case with Dana Scully) suggested that a temperance of the extremity of one’s attitudes is probably the way to go. After all, the debate between faith and rationality is not, in life, one that can really ever be won. And yet, in an interview with WIRED, Cuse and Lindelof imply, in one breath, that the question is actually unanswerable—and then state that they’re going to answer it:
Lindelof: That’s right. It’s order versus chaos, which is what it always was. But first it had to start as science versus faith, because Jack is a doctor and Locke is a guy who got up from his wheelchair and walked. Now the question has been boiled down to its essential root—is there a God or is there nothingness?
Carroll [a theoretical physicist]: Presumably, if it is order versus chaos or purpose versus randomness, there is no right answer. It’s not as if in the finale you’re going to say, “Yup, it was order.”
Cuse: I don’t think there’s a right answer.
Lindelof: But the show can’t have its cake and eat it, too. At the end of the day, if Locke and Jack were to sit down and say, “Well, we were kind of both right,” that would not be satisfying. It has to come down one way or another.
Does it, Lindelof? Does it really? You really think you can provide us with an answer to this, and not tell us what was up with the golden-vagina-stream-pool-light thing?
I can’t help but feel like Cuse and Lindelof decided to come down on the side of faith because it deflects questions, not just about life, but about LOST itself. Already, criticisms about the finale—from what was wrong with the writing, to all those threads left dangling—are beginning to be deflected by truisms grokked from the show’s last season. “Questions will only lead to more questions!” those who loved the finale say, as if fans whose curiosity lingers are five-year-olds with no knowledge of the outside world who are demanding to know why the sky is blue. “What matters was the time we spent with the characters!” they insist, making us seem heartless for having concerns besides seeing Shannon* and Boone again. They tell us that we watched for the wrong reasons—never mind that a good many viewers tuned in because there were polar bears on a tropical island, not to mention a giant smoke monster, and a bunch of Egyptian iconography, and a shark with a DHARMA sign on its tail, and it seemed like a reasonable expectation that, once the writers created these mysteries for us, they would answer them for us, too.
I, for one, want to go on the record as feeling fine with the fact that life’s bigger questions—questions about the afterlife, for example—are unanswerable, at least by network television. I was never looking at LOST to comfort me about life after death, or affirm for me that one’s interpersonal relationships actually, you know, matter. Instead, I watched because I wanted to know what was up with the polar bears, with Walt’s super powers, and with the time travel stuff—answers that surely they could have provided by the writers with more authority than answers about the afterlife. They were the ones who raised those questions for us, after all.
*Shannon and Sayid? Really??!!