One popular response in forums that discuss LOST is that the finale was “emotionally satisfying, but not intellectually satisfying,” which is a way of saying that people love LOST’s characters and are touched by seeing them “move on” but also people were fascinated by the seemingly purposeful inclusion of intricate mysteries and riddles which, in the end, to their profound disappointment, appear to have been little more than meaningless, arbitrary “props” intended to do not much more than “get a response.” Some would say they feel betrayed precisely because they took the writers more seriously than the writers took themselves about the content that was included. Cases can be (are being) made along these lines. For now, though, I’m focusing on one aspect of the finale, namely, the state of being of the characters who reunite at the very end. Are they dead or alive?
The real genius of the show is that it does, in fact, provide us with a basis for investigating this issue without spoon-feeding an answer to us.
The most widely accepted mystical interpretation of the LOST finale is, in fact, only an interpretation and I think one saturated with the confirmation bias of audience members whose preconceptions about an afterlife enable them to take the path of least resistance to “understanding” the finale.
But enjoying LOST has never been about taking the path of least resistance. As John Locke says oh-so-many seasons ago: “it’s never been easy.”
And so, with the caveat that I am still working this theory out and still have some significant issues with the storytelling, which I’ll talk about some other time, here’s how I arrive at the conclusion that our Losties are not dead and reunited in la-la land at the end of the show.
What Happened, Happened… But What Happened?
At the end of Season 5, our characters are in dire straits. The Dharma Initiative is on the verge of disturbing the Island’s energy source in such a way as to require them to construct a countermeasure which will ultimately lead to Flight 815 crashing. It seems that the Island’s protector, Jacob, in mostly indirect ways that preserve our central characters’ free will, has put them in a position to do something about this problem. Daniel Faraday explains to Jack that they perhaps by detonating a hydrogen bomb, he can save himself and his friends from the agony they endure in the timeline in which their plane crashes. At the very end of the Season 5 finale, Juliet detonates a massive bomb, and for the first time, the screen fades to white, with the LOST logo in black. In hindsight, we have reason to believe that this is a visual cue that signifies a major new development in the story.
And then Season 6 opens with two timelines. That’s pretty major!
In the original timeline, the members of the team who set off the bomb flash forward to the year 2007. The island is still there. It seems to them that their plan has failed. Unbeknownst to most of them, their actions have in fact created a new timeline, one in which their alternate selves will never crash. We know this because Juliet, who dies in her lover Sawyer’s arms early in the Season 6 premiere, appears to be hallucinating when she tells him they should get coffee sometime (“We could go dutch.”), when in fact she is doing something we’ve seen before, namely, consciousness time-shifting. In the episode, the Constant, we see Desmond struggle through moments in which his singular consciousness shifts between two alternate timelines, which leads exactly to moments like this, in which he finishes expressing a thought in one timeline that originated in another timeline. Later in the season premiere, Miles informs Sawyer that Juliet’s last thought was, “it worked.” Sawyer is confused by this (“What worked!?”), but we know what she meant.
Now, as an aside here, this sets up a terrible conundrum for the show. If the events Faraday and Jack and Juliet and everybody who helped them detonate Jughead at the end of Season 5 have already resulted in Success, then the unmistakeable conclusion is that nothing that our characters go through on the island throughout season 6 actually matters. Even worse, there is the inescapable notion of predetermination that comes from this bit of dialogue; the characters will seem to make choices but, in fact, the ending is already written. Yikes! What about free will?!? Is it only an illusion? How boring! The complaint that I’ve heard leveled against the writers repeatedly in recent months is that LOST appears to be “going through the motions.” Fair enough. And, for my part, I had a hard time detecting what was actually at stake in Season 6. But let’s leave all of this aside for the moment.
In the second timeline, flight 815 successfully lands in LA with all of our characters aboard and we see that the island is on the bottom of the ocean. In other words, it would appear that the plan has, in fact, worked. The island is not there to suck them back in. We’re supposed to believe that this is a good thing. Meanwhile, the characters appear to be a little bit confused or unsettled every time they see themselves in mirrors. They appear to be grasping for something just beyond their reach. We know now that they all feel that there is something significant that they have forgotten about their own lives. What they’re missing, in fact, are the memories associated with what happened after they crashed on the island.
By the time we get to the finale of Season 6, in the second timeline we’ve been watching the cosmic course corrections mentioned first by Eloise Widmore (several seasons earlier), Daniel Faraday’s mother. Characters who were together on flight 815 continually bump into one another. Eventually, in key moments, they remember the amazing events of their first timeline selves. I surmise that they are reacting to one another because in some magical sense, they love one another enough in the first timeline to have become “constants” to one another in the second timeline. How is this happening?
Is the second timeline a kind of purgatory, an afterlife waiting station? Are they remembering their lives from beyond the grave? Or, are they suddenly gaining awareness of the most significant experiences they shared together in an alternate timeline?
Back on the island in 2007 of LOST’s original timeline, Desmond uncorks the island, Jack and Kate kill the “evil” presence that resides in John Locke’s body, who I’ll call Smocke (Smoke monster plus Locke) borrowing the nickname from David Augustyn (a fierce critic of this show) and then Jack recorks the island, saving it from being destroyed. In the midst of his struggles with Smocke, Jack sustains a cut to his neck. The cut actually appears as a wound to Jack in the second timeline, which is ostensibly set in 2004, throughout the entire season. (I’ll have to rewatch the show to see if any other characters experience similar cross-timeline effects.) Apparently, what is happening in the first timeline is extremely important to outcomes in the second timeline. By what mechanism? The wounds appear when the Island’s light has been extinguished. The implication here is that Smocke’s destructive actions in one timeline span other timelines if the island ceases to be “functional.” Suddenly it’s not such a great thing that the island is underwater. If the island ceases to exist, flight 815 may not crash, but all life everywhere (in any and all timelines) will be subject to the whims of Smocke.
There is no entirely rational explanation of LOST. The show involves an Island which is some kind of magical entity. But there is an internal logic to this show, just as there is to Lord of the Rings. The ring has to be thrust into the fires of Mt. Doom. Those are the rules in that universe. In the LOST universe, some rules apply. The Island’s light has to be protected in order for humanity to have an opportunity to prove itself.
Sadly, this is simply not a very dramatic premise, which is to say it’s as dramatic as any deus ex machina device. But, it’s a premise nonetheless.
Why do the characters who detonate Jughead flash forward to 2007? If they’ve destroyed the island in the 1970s, how can they exist on it in 2007? The answer is given in Faraday’s explanation to Jack and Kate in Season 5′s episode 14 (and in even more detail in the deleted scene specific to this episode in which Faraday talks about diverting a stream). It’s not an exact and full answer, but it’s also not some idle speculation. Taken together with the consciousness-timeshifting, it is, in fact, a theoretical foundation that makes sense of Season 6. Faraday states that the past can’t be altered within a given timeline, but he also indicates that human action (free will, reasoning) still can make a difference. And so what happens when they blow up the bomb? In the original timeline, they are flashed forward to the post-crash timeframe of the island. They can’t escape their own timeline and their presence in the seventies was a function of “island” magic, so this simply has to be accepted as a brute fact— the island put them in the seventies and it can take them out of the seventies.
The other result is far more impressive, a brand new timeline is formed. It’s not one the Losties who created it are in or can detect except Juliet, before she dies, and Jack, before he dies. Here’s my take on that: At the very end, after the Island transports him out of the cave, when he’s dying in the same place where he woke up after the flight 815 crash in the first timeline, Jack looks up into the sky and sees the second timeline flight 815 flying overhead (the one that lands successfully in LA). He is not seeing Lapidus escape. That plane would be long gone. No, what he’s seeing is one side of his reward for saving the island. Poetic, right? In the second timeline, he experiences the other side of that reward, which is that he and some of his fellow crash survivors gain all of their memories of the experiences they shared on the island. Consciousness-shifting! Jack’s triumph over Smocke may not be the only thing that makes this possible. The fact that the most compassionate character on the show, Hurley, gains the ability to put his own Island powered rules in place probably plays a role in this mushy outcome, too. If Jack hadn’t killed Smocke and recorked the island and generally engaged in some self-sacrificial behavior (hey, I didn’t write this show!), then the reunion of the characters wouldn’t have been possible. Locke’s incredibly rapid post-spinal surgery healing is a function of the island being saved and the timelines converging through the heroic efforts of the Losties, mainly Jack.
Yes, the final scenes of LOST are set in a church featuring every religious symbol ever conceived (slight exaggeration) and what sounds like a hokus-pokus, soft-sell of death as “moving on” for righteous folks, complete with “Christian” opening a door at night and flooding a church with a white light for crying out loud. But do the final moments of LOST represent a tremendous dramatic opportunity squandered in favor of after-school-special sophomoric platitudes (“we all die sometime, kiddo.”) and an overdose of syrupy, slow-motion celebrity hugging, quite possibly B-roll footage shot after the ink dried on the actors’ lucrative contracts for Season 6? Too easy. And maybe the writers can be taken to task for leaving this ending open to such a simplistic conclusion, though many have and will continue to praise them for it.
I’m supposed to believe that Locke (who died in Season 5) and Jack, Juliet, Sayid, Sun, and Jin (who died in Season 6, and Boone (who died in Season 1) and Shannon…. and then Kate and Sawyer who presumably died long after leaving the island… their spirits are in an after-life that involves Jack performing surgery on Locke and Claire giving up her baby for adoption and Sun and Jin being pregnant but her being shot …
C’mon. Give me a break. If this interpretation were true, none of what happened to these characters in the Season 6 flash sideways mattered. I refuse to accept that.
No, I don’t think so. They are not all dead. Think about how macabre it would be if Sun and Jin had an exuberant response to Juliet telling them that their child is healthy after becoming aware that they were, in fact, in some kind of afterlife. I don’t believe it. But Adam, Jack’s talking to his dead father? No, Jack’s talking to the Island, which has animated his father for just this moment, the moment in which his original timeline consciousness inhabits his second timeline consciousness. Jack remembers dying, but he hasn’t died. Not in this timeline.
The opening scene of the LOST finale involves the delivery of a casket containing the body of Jack’s father. When the coffin is empty and Jack turns to face Christian, is he looking at his father’s ghost? No way. We’ve seen this before. The island is able to occupy the bodies of the dead. It has animated Jack’s father in order to help Jack let go. The hug they share is what was part of what was missing for Jack (closure with his dad) and part of what he needed in order to “move on.” With his LIFE. Not into some kind of afterlife.
And the dialogue between Christian and Jack supports this notion. Christian is very clear about everything being “real.” And he corrects Kate’s use of the word “leaving,” substituting instead the language, “moving on.” The second timeline versions of the characters, in many key respects, are still struggling in many ways. The Island/Hurley gives them memories which ought to serve them well as they “move on” with their lives reunited with the friends they made in the original timeline. It is Christian who returns to the Island/Light. Our Losties will live out the rest of their lives together. In the real world. Of this particular timeline.
The writers give us conventions within the show’s paradigm that enable us to reasonably conclude that the second timeline is of this Earth (as close as you can get to this in a show with a Smoke Monster). That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Juliet wasn’t hallucinating about “the afterlife” or “purgatory.” She was glimpsing a moment in the second timeline, the one, as Christian/Island states, “they made so they could find each other.” They made it with Jughead— “made” in the sense of rendering something possible, not in the sense of designing a solution to a problem.
Okay, they meet in a church. But they’re there to be supportive of Jack, to whom they are indebted for making this entire second timeline possible, during his father’s funeral. The Losties saved the island; the island reciprocates by facilitating a consciousness-shift that restores their connections with one another.
Does a non-afterlife conclusion make up for the strangeness of Sayid’s response to Shannon? Maybe, a little. Maybe the only way to trigger Sayid’s awareness of his original timeline experiences was through Shannon. Nadia was never on the island in the original timeline, and in the second timeline, his relationship with Nadia was clearly something that he needed to “move on” from.
What about Locke waking up from surgery and saying to Jacke, “you don’t have a son”? This could just be Locke, I’ll get back to you on that one. Why is it so important that “only Claire” raise her son? Ummm…. Smocke is desperate to get off the island. What would have happened if he had escaped? How would his escape have affected the lives of other people? Why did he decide to fight Jack instead of make his getaway? That’s a strange choice for somebody whose raison d’etre is escape. Again, what was really at stake here? If he’d escaped, waouldn’t Smocke have just been another bad person in a world full of bad people? Because he is super-ultimate Evil? Even though the act which makes it possible for him to leave the Island (turning off the light) also appears to make him mortal? And Widmore? What the hell was his motivation?
Why does Eloise not want Desmond to take Daniel to the church to be with the others? Perhaps because she fears that the course-correcting would be accelerated and she wants him to have as much life as possible. Remember, in the second timeline, Ben and his father remember being on the island and leaving it (which they did right before Juliet set off the bomb). Eloise would then remember killing her own son. So, for obvious reasons, she’s protective of him. Why doesn’t Daniel “remember” when he interacts with Charlotte? Good question. Next!
People cite Ben not entering the church as an indication that he’s staying behind in purgatory while the rest of the Losties move on to something like heaven. I don’t read it that way. Ben has remembered what he did in the original timeline and I can think of several compelling reasons he would have to believe that he did not belong with these people.
Does a non-afterlife explanation of the finale make up for the fact that watching LOST often hurt throughout Season 6? Probably not. The redundancy of the actions and behaviors of the central characters was wearing me thin. And the revelations in the final season of LOST do not compensate for being led to believe that the mysterious riddles the LOST writers employed over the course of the show were meaningful and would be demonstrably linked to bonafide storytelling purposes. How do I feel about an ending that religious audience members are celebrating as an affirmation of faith-based interpretations of the show and its significance? Am I just striving to confirm my own biases? Hmm.
I loved this show more than most. I’m sad to see it go. And I’m secretly planning to give it a second viewing, start to finish, in a year or so.
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