I open my eye.
I lay on the beach, deaf to the clang and clamor around me, confusion and chaos. I don’t know where I am or how I got here. My foot. My toe is — how?— moving. My lips part, but there’d nothing to say. No words for what couldn’t have happened, but just has.
Who here could I tell? And how could I ever make them understand?
* * *
I’ve just finished my rewatch of Lost, the entire series, and this scene still blazes in my mind. It’s powerful, revelatory. There are few, if any, moments like it in television history, and that probably hasn’t changed much, if at all. Yes, there are still moments in Lost that I have trouble with, or feel a complicated mixture of bitter and sweet about. But this one will always stand bright and clear in my memory.
John Locke has always been my favorite character. Perhaps in any television show, ever. I can feel his sense of wonder, his joy in the face of the miraculous. I’ve felt that before. I can feel, too, how he must have felt about the Island. I know what it is to love a place, to be attached to it fiercely, in a way that many of those around me are not.
It was in the middle of the move to my current home, the Lowcountry of South Carolina, that I saw the premiere episode of Lost on television. In a way, the show represents to me a particular time in my life. I’d just lost a job, and had moved here from four states away, to a city I had never set foot in before. I had nothing I could count on here. No living to be made, no friends, nothing I could hold onto. It’s probably an exaggeration to say I was upended as much as the survivors of Flight 815 were, but not a terribly huge one. I was forced to figure out how to live in a new place with people I didn’t know at all. And, as with Locke, I grew to love this place more than anywhere else I’d ever known.
I don’t want to put too much weight on that point. Obviously, moving from one city to another is not the same as losing civilization altogether — having literally no idea where in the world you are. But the story of Lost had applicability. It’s something I could, and can, relate to.
I watched the two-hour pilot in the family room of my cousins-in-law (most of whom I had only met once before) during one of the first nights I spent in South Carolina. I had been drawn to the show by Dominic Monaghan (Charlie), who I knew from the Lord of the Rings films. As I watched the story unfold, though, that quickly became one of the lesser pulls that Lost had on me.
Six years later, I was well-settled in my new home, and well-settled in the story of the Island. When the series finale aired, I cried a little. It had been an amazing journey, one I suspected then (correctly, it turns out) I was unlikely to take ever again.
Until this summer, though, I never went back to that well. I never bothered watching Lost straight through, from beginning to end. Why not? I’d watched each of the first five seasons multiple times over. Why would I stop there?
* * *
As are most things relating to Lost, it’s complicated. I said I was satisfied with the ending, right? Yeah, it’s true. I’m aware of the controversy over it, but I never really had any part in that.
To me, there are two major aspects of the show: mysteries and characters. I never watched Lost to get answers to its questions. I understood, and loved, what the show was always about from the very beginning: the mystery itself, not the solution.
Obviously the show had to give some answers, and it definitely did. As for the questions left open? Well, I never felt like I needed detailed, delineated answers anyway. It’s fun to fill in the gaps with your own interpretations, or just bask in the strangeness and eeriness of the whole thing. At the end of the pilot, Charlie asks, “Guys…where are we?” To me, that question was more thrilling than any conceivable way they could answer it.
What I needed from Lost is a bit harder to pin down. Let’s call it a framework of understanding: one that makes sense to me, something I can hold in my mind and say, “That makes sense. That’s how this could have happened, even if we don’t know for sure.”
More important than the mysteries were the character arcs, and that’s something that Lost delivered in spades, especially in its series finale. One could say “The End” focused almost entirely on character resolutions, having already answered the most important questions, or at very least, having given us a framework in which to understand them. And I loved it. That ending is probably as close to flawless as we had a right to expect.
To me, this is where it gets tricky, though. It wasn’t for any unanswered question that I eventually soured on Lost. It was precisely the character arcs where I began to feel, looking back, that the show had lost itself. One particular arc, to be exact — that of John Locke.
The Problem of John Locke.
I don’t feel this way anymore. John Locke and his story are not problems in my book. To explain why I wrote off the show as a loss, though — as well as what drew me back in — I have to get into the issues I had with his character arc in the wake of the final season. Again, Locke is probably my favorite character in any television show. What they did to him, to retcon his story in a single revelation, always rankled in the back of my mind.
Like me, Locke is a man of faith. He doesn’t have all the answers, and though he wants to know them, he doesn’t have to. He’s content, for the time being, in proceeding with trust in the Island, believing that everything has happened for a reason, and that destiny — sooner or later — will be fulfilled.
That’s the story I fell in love with. That’s where I related so much to Locke.
But then, there was “No Place Like Home.” We watched, in the final moments of season 4, as the camera panned over to reveal the occupant of the coffin in the flash-forward: John Locke. He was dead, and he was off the Island. I remember the heartbreak and bafflement I felt when I saw that scene for the first time.
I recovered quickly. Sad, right? But not devastating in a permanent way. Characters die all the time in stories, and sometimes their final acts and moments are so meaningful and moving that they entirely redeem the fact of their death. Sometimes a character dying is such a great moment that you wouldn’t want it to be any other way. We didn’t know yet how Locke died, or why. For all we knew, it would surely be just this sort of noble end when it finally came.
Then we got “The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham,” in which Locke is talked out of despair and suicide only to be murdered by Ben. Definitely not what I’d expected — a sad and pitiful moment. But even that wasn’t enough to make me lose hope.
In the previous episode, after all (“316”), we saw that Locke was alive, in the present day, on the Island again. And the episodes leading up to this had dropped repeated hints that his death would not last long. The phrase “dead is dead” had yet to be spoken, and the story had been playing so much with Christian imagery and rhetoric that it seemed Locke was destined to become a type and figure of Christ — resurrected as soon as he was brought back to the Island, where he belonged.
Of course, this is exactly what we were meant to think, until “The Incident” aired. It hit me hard, not just once, but twice. It wasn’t enough that this man was not Locke but the smoke monster, a figure who would become the show’s central antagonist. No, the gut punches continued as we learned this had been the monster’s plan the whole time. Locke’s journey was not that of a man of faith following the call of destiny, but that of a sad, pitiful sap who was used. Conned, manipulated, and gullible enough to take the bait. An easy mark.
Hook, line, sinker.
That devastated me. And it wasn’t till long after “The End” aired that I began to realize how much I disliked it.
* * *
The Problem of Destiny.
A similar source of disappointment to me was the way the show resolved one of its central themes, the idea of Destiny.
I don’t mean destiny, by the way. I mean Destiny. The capital is important.
The motif of Destiny and miracles has been part of Lost‘s DNA from the moment we saw Locke wake on the beach and wiggle his previously paralyzed toe. It popped up continually as the show went on, voiced most notably in one of the final scenes of “Exodus.” In that scene, a very skeptical Jack calls Locke out on his erratic behavior. Locke’s response is intriguing. It forecasts his character arc and clearly outlines his motivations:
Do you really think all this is an accident? That we, a group of strangers, survived — many of us with just superficial injuries? Do you think we crashed on this place by coincidence? Especially this place? We were brought here for a purpose, for a reason, all of us. Each one of us was brought here for a reason. . . . The Island brought us here. This is no ordinary place, you’ve seen that, I know you have. But the Island chose you, too, Jack. It’s destiny.
Regardless of how our man of faith’s personal story turned out, this theme had been a part of Lost from the beginning. Nor do we only hear such ideas from Locke. Ben and Richard speak of the Island’s will, and its miraculous healing properties speak for themselves. Even Desmond, a man who wants nothing more than to leave the Island for good, even phrases his time there (albeit ironically) as “saving the world.”
Yet in the end, the story we got in season 6 seemed little more than the final moves in a longstanding personal grudge game. Sure, Jacob wears white and his nameless brother wears black, but there seemed little of dark vs. light (a common motif in Lost, which also built toward the Destiny theme) in their conflict. Interesting though their story was — and it was extremely interesting, don’t get me wrong — it did not feel at the time to be any sort of culmination of the central theme of Destiny.
We were sold, “Let’s save the world from evil and danger, and fulfill our purpose”; what we got instead was “Let’s take sides in a philosophical family squabble.”
* * *
Like I said, I don’t feel that way anymore. Five years have passed since the show’s ending, and that time has cleared away most of my feelings about the whole thing, and allowed me to return with a fresh perspective — even while knowing what will happen, being able to hold the entire plot arc in my mind to consider as a finished work.
More importantly, thanks to the podcast Riddles in the Dark (the work of the Mythgard Institute‘s Corey Olsen), I’ve developed quite a different critical approach to thinking about stories than the one I had when I first watched Lost. Without these ideas, I doubt I would have been able to like Lost again as much as I do now, even less be able to keep an open mind as I rewatched it. I think it’s important to touch on a couple of them before going any further.
To remember, and to let go.
Mention Lost in conversation, and you’re likely to hear a variation of one complaint: They had no idea what they were doing. They were just making it up as they went along.
That suspicion was heard at countless proverbial watercoolers with each new episode, as if the mantra of some cynical cult. Those who didn’t watch the show in its heyday have no idea how much vitriol lies within these seemingly innocent words.
But there are two assumptions also hidden in them that I think are responsible for a large degree for the disappointment that colors people’s memory of Lost. Beliefs determine feelings, and how we respond to a work of art sometimes says more about us than it does about the art itself. And what these assumptions say is painfully ironic:
We missed the point (or one of them) entirely.
The first assumption is that good writers should, or often do, plan out every (or nearly every) part of a story before they start telling it, so that every plot twist is hinted at or is consistent with everything that’s happened before.
I think it’s pretty apparent anyway, but a few writers and showrunners have spoken out about how this was absolutely not the case with Lost. Their accounts are pretty consistent: the writers knew the large, broad strokes of the story and the underlying concepts (e.g., the Island as a special place where good and evil are in constant struggle). They knew a lot of the key moments that would happen along the way, though not all of them. Often they had to figure out, before writing each season, exactly how to get to those key moments, and in that sense, a lot of it was “made up as they went along.” But it doesn’t mean there was no plan.
(It’s also worth pointing out that the writers had a limited degree of creative control. As one of its most popular shows at the time, ABC wasn’t about to give them free rein to take the story wherever they wanted it to go. The finagling and deception that went into getting away with what they did do are well-documented as well.)
I’m not sure this is a legitimate complaint, though — about any story, but especially not serial television like Lost. Of course they were making it up as they went along. I think very few writers know exactly how their work will end when they first start, and if they do, they often don’t know exactly how it will get there. (As a writer myself, I’m painfully aware of this.) And serial storytelling has been around for centuries. Dickens and Dostoevsky, notably, released their greatest works chapter by chapter, week by week or month by month, in the newspapers and magazines of the time.
In that day, as with television now, there was no way to edit work already released and enjoyed by the public in order to accommodate new ideas of where a character or plotline should go. If they wanted to shift directions midstream, they had to find a way of making their new ideas fit with what they’d already told. This may not seem an ideal way of doing things, but the endurance of A Tale of Two Cities and The Brothers Karamazov — both works featured in Lost — would suggest it’s worth doing. Wendell Berry writes,
…it may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.“Marriage, Too, May Have Something to Teach Us”
You can argue that Lost did this with much lesser skill than the serial writers of past ages, and this is probably true. You might point to the current Golden Age of television, in which writing is often better and tighter, with endings are generally (not always) well-crafted, and declare that Lost doesn’t meet this newer, higher standard, and that might be true as well. However, the mere observation that they were making it up as they went along is not a valid criticism. It’s not even a criticism at all.
In fact, one might say it’s a criterion for inclusion among the truly great. So many writers I respect talk about how, even when they map a story out beforehand, it often takes on a separate will, refusing to go any way but its own. They write of how they become mere vessels of the story, or are witnessing it take shape. The master plan is subsumed by the happy accident; the story one stumbles into is greater than the story one had planned. Haruki Murakami. Paul Auster. Ernest Hemingway. Mark Twain. Stephen King. Gabriel García Márquez. Isabel Allende. Neil Gaiman. J.R.R. Tolkien. All have witnessed their work surpass their own intentions.
The second assumption is a bit trickier, since it stems from something I’m hesitant to condemn: theorizing and speculation. This approach to television is one that has only become more popular since Lost, which is arguably one of the first shows to provoke it. The writers certainly encouraged it with their alternate reality games, oblique references to philosophy, literature, and mythology, and a knowingly playful podcast. I’d be lying if I said I don’t find it fun myself, or that I didn’t engage in my own share of rampant speculation and theorizing.
Looking back, the years when Lost was on the air were a pivotal moment in Internet history. Before then, pop culture had been analyzed, scrutinized, and enjoyed in online forums, but it had mostly been a haven for nerds (a label I proudly claim), the most dedicated fans. I won’t go as far as to say that Lost was what sparked the change, but that moment in history saw the mass popularization of the Internet as a forum for television appreciation. In that regard, Lost was pure fire, and the show rewarded its following by planting more and more clues that weren’t always as significant as they seemed.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy this approach to television a lot, and I think it’s mentally and creatively stimulating. But I also take any theorizing with a grain or two of salt — with a side of self-awareness. If we’re not careful, and sometimes even if we are, it’s easy to fall into a mode of thinking where we stop enjoying a story, stop engaging with it, and start to feel cynical, and, inevitably, disappointed.
The problem isn’t with theorizing or speculating itself. The problem is when our focus shifts from the actual story we are watching unfold, to what we want the story to be, and what we think or expect it should be. When it inevitably fails to meet those expectations, it’s very hard to see a story — much less enjoy it — for what it is.
I had set this very trap for myself, and fell into it, hard.
C.S. Lewis, a writer and scholar of the mid-twentieth century (whose ideas were referenced in Lost in the character of Charlotte), wrote on a similar subject in his short book An Experiment in Criticism:
The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)
There may seem little connection between these two assumptions — that writers should have their stories well planned-out, and that one’s expectations of a story are at all a metric for its quality — but not only is there one, it also runs to the heart of one of Lost‘s major themes. And thus, the bitter irony. In both assumptions, the point is all about control. A certain regard for activity, for striving, for our attempts to delve into mystery and bring answers into the light of day. It’s understandable why we do this. It’s fundamentally human. It’s the same reason why meditation and mindfulness are so difficult for so many people. We are Jack, who even when he tries to face his destiny in season 5, still insists on doing it his way, by detonating a bomb. We have trouble getting out of our own way — getting ourselves out of the way.
Or, as Christian Shepherd might put it, “The problem is, you’re just not good at letting go.”
Lastly, it’s important to remember the freedom we have, as viewers, to analyze and interpret a work once the finished product has been put before us. Too often we have the tendency, when a creator has commented on their work as much as the writers of Lost have, to take what they say about it as gospel. As solid, unavoidable, canonical fact.
This need not be the case. Again, C.S. Lewis:
It is the author who intends; the book means. . . . Of a book’s meaning, in this sense, its author is not necessarily the best, and is never a perfect, judge.“On Criticism”
This is a similar, though inverse, idea as my point about control. Whether it’s our own attempts to control how we experience a story, or our attempts to subject ourselves to the writers’ control, both approaches severely limit our enjoyment of a work. However close to the well a creator’s ideas come from, these thoughts about their work and its meaning are entirely separate from the art itself. Art stands alone — apart from us, and apart from the artist.
Many use a work of art; few receive it.
This perspective leaves us free to engage with Lost for what it is, rather than what it was meant to be. Whether the writers’ intentions succeeded or failed, it is with Lost that we have to grapple — not with the planned plotline for Lost.
* * *
To me, these perspectives aren’t just illuminating; they’re vital. Without them, I’d be stuck interpreting Locke’s story in the context of the writers’ apparent intentions, and my own disappointments. With them, I can look at what happens on the screen and draw my own conclusions from the events I observe, and only from those events. If evidence for an idea exists, even if it was unintentional, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s there.
With that in mind, I want to look at the two aspects of Lost‘s ending that I had the most trouble with: Locke’s storyline, and the treatment of the theme of Destiny.
The eye of the Island.
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Locke is the show’s saddest character. His life before the Island is scarred by abandonment, betrayal. Loneliness and futility. His death in season 5 is tragic, perhaps ignoble from certain points of view: an abortive suicide turned murder. In his final moments he does not give up on life, but chooses to carry on his work. And that counts for something — but it’s really the most dignified thing you can say about that scene.
In season 3’s “Further Instructions,” we’re told that Locke is “amenable to coercion.” This phrase suggests he is particularly gullible, that it is possibly his greatest weakness. Coercion, often in the form of cons, is a motif in Lost from the very first season, so it’s tempting to conclude that Locke is ultimately wrong to believe. His faith is a liability, not an asset. He was not chosen, or special, but the victim of a long con by the Man in Black, who saw in him a vessel for the loophole he’d been planning for centuries.
But this is a shallow reading of the show, at best. And there is evidence against it. For one, it’s not true that the Man in Black was behind everything that inspired Locke’s faith. He is healed (as is Rose) by the Island’s own virtue.
Nor is the Man in Black the only figure to guide Locke’s journey. Like the other Candidates, he is brought to the Island by Jacob, who touches him, and therefore chooses him.
There is also a moment, early in the show, that is baffling yet suggestive. In “Walkabout,” Locke seems to survive a run-in with the smoke monster, a scene we see from the monster’s own point of view as it peers down at him from the foliage.
Is this the monster, though? Everything in this episode supports that conclusion. But attention to the story as a whole, to what it tells us and shows us, begins to allow ideas perhaps unintended by the writers.
The first time Locke describes this experience aloud, he says, “I looked into the eye of the Island, and what I saw…was beautiful.”
This hardly fits the image of the monster we eventually see in “Exodus” — a column of roiling, rage-filled black smoke — and indeed, Locke’s look of joy-turned-fear in that scene suggests that it isn’t what he had expected, either. When Locke again mentions his original encounter to Eko, he calls it,
…a very bright light. It was beautiful.“The Cost of Living”
“That is not what I saw,” Mr. Eko spits back in reply.
We see the monster at many points in Lost, and it never takes the form of a bright light. Nor does it take any form (aside from the dead) besides black smoke. It isn’t as if he sees it differently from everyone else, either: in “Man of Science, Man of Faith,” referring to that same scene in “Exodus” when the monster tries to pull him into a hole, he, too, describes it as black smoke.
So what does Locke see in “Walkabout”? I think it’s clear that the writers intended it to be the monster. But again, we have to deal with what’s actually in the story, not with what its creators intended.
What’s actually in the story suggests an encounter with something other than the monster. Perhaps Jacob? We never see him in any form other than his own, and there’s no reason to believe he can change his shape, especially since his brother’s ability to do so stems from his death in the Island’s heart. What, then?
A manifestation of the Island, maybe? Of its power? Bright light is intimately associated with the Island, both in the outpouring of energy we see at the Swan and the Orchid, as well as in the Heart of the Island in the final episodes.
Soon after this exchange, the monster kills Mr. Eko. And yet, in “Further Instructions,” Locke’s vision tells him to save Eko. Locke understands this as instructions from the Island itself. Wherever these instructions do come from, they seem directly opposed to the monster’s goals, to judge and kill.
* * *
There are other glimpses, too, of a will at work besides the monster’s. I say “a will” because it’s not always clear whose. The most obvious answer is Jacob’s, but the show hints strongly at times that the Island has its own plan. It’s hard to tell where Jacob’s work ends and the Island’s begin; assuming they’re distinct at all.
We know Jacob chooses the people who come to the Island, and brings them there, but he does not simply sit back and let things take their course, as it might appear. He works indirectly through Richard, and, I would argue, through subtler ways as well (though again, some of these may be the Island).
A few examples:
At the end of “The Incident,” the monster seems displeased by Jacob’s whispered claim that “they” (i.e., the people stuck in 1977) are coming back to the present. This would suggest that having them around for its final work of destroying and leaving the Island is not a part of its plan. Is it part of Jacob’s? Or is it the Island’s doing, the logically necessary endpoint of the time loop caused when it was moved?
One might argue that the Man in Black does want them back so he can kill the rest of Jacob’s Candidates. But Walt’s absence from the Island seems to disqualify him from preventing the monster’s departure, so it seems more probable that he’d rather them stay away.
In the final scenes of “Cabin Fever,” having found Jacob’s cabin, Locke unknowingly meets the monster in the guise of Christian Shepherd, who bids him ask the one question that really matters. From a season 6 vantage point, it seems clear he is trying to trap or manipulate Locke. And knowing Locke, the monster might well expect to be asked what his destiny is. To it, Locke’s purpose is to die, giving it access to his form, and influence over those who can kill Jacob. With this in mind, had Locke acted predictably here, there’s a good chance he would have been killed on the spot. But Locke doesn’t ask this. Instead, he asks how to save the Island.
And this is where the scene gets really interesting. Note the expression on Christian’s face: he looks surprised, almost disappointed. Yet he answers, and his answer works — it ends up saving the Island, precisely the opposite of the monster’s endgame. Is it possible he answers because he has no choice in the matter? The ash around the cabin, the system the Others have to summon it, as well as its own plea of “Help me,” all stand as evidence that the monster is, or can be, constrained in certain ways. Is it possible that Locke’s selflessness here saved lives, including (for the moment) his own?
This moment speaks to the agency not of Jacob, nor the Island, but of Locke himself, and in that sense, though a short and quick scene, it stands as perhaps the strongest evidence against the view that the monster was always in control and Locke always its pawn.
Sure, there’s a good bit of interpretation in all of this; but neither is it all purely subjective. Whatever may have been intended by these scenes, my reading of them rests on evidence that is present in the show itself, so it deserves consideration.
The show, after all, doesn’t tell us how to understand these scenes. (Nor should it.) Agree with me or not, some level of interpretation is needed to make sense of these events.
* * *
In the end, Locke’s story is a complex one — perhaps the most complex story shown on television in quite a while. Its subtlety isn’t in moral ambiguity or shades of good and evil, but in its structure: in the fact that we are left uncertain how to feel about his life and death till very late in the show, long after he as a character leaves the stage for good.
Unlike Charlie’s death, a turning point that is its own emotional peak, the payoff of Locke’s story is a slow burn, eluding clarity, always twisting, turning, wavering till the final moments of the show.
His end may not be sacrificial, but it does accomplish something. It spurs Jack forward on his journey toward faith, convincing him to return to the Island and face their calling there. No, Locke’s sacrifice comes much earlier, when he chooses to leave the Island and save his people, knowing that he may well be leaving it for good, and that leaving will mean his death.
It’s a choice he makes with the full knowledge of its cost, and the nobility of that cannot be lessened by how others exploit his faith.
‘…From which its beauty chiefly came.’
Locke’s story is a sad story, but that may be the very source of its power. There’s a reason we tell sad stories, why tragedy, as a genre, endures through human history.
Sorrow is unique because it is so painfully, immediately real, but universal as well. It connects us all to each other whether we realize it or not. And pain expressed — catharsis — is one of the healthiest, strongest, most transcendent feelings we can have. It is, paradoxically, a wellspring of hope.
Sorrow frees us, when we meet it at the safe distance of fiction. In its wake we are vulnerable, and at peace with our vulnerability. We are loosed from the fetters of mean circumstance that so often choke our lives. And in our suffering, we find meaning. In meaning, comfort.
Locke himself — the real Locke — seems to hold this view after his death, when we again meet him in the flash-sideways. He is wiser, more contented, less scarred by being left behind.
In “The Last Recruit,” the Man in Black contends that Locke was not a man of faith, but a sucker. Is he, though? Sure, he falls victim to the monster’s plan, providing its long-desired loophole. But this view misses everything that is rich and profound in the fabric of Lost.
Reflecting on Locke’s story, writer Pearson Moore asks a revealing question:
What is gullibility? In what meaningful way do we distinguish it from the virtue we call trust? If trust is a virtue, isn’t it a virtue regardless of what others may choose to do with this trust? If Locke trusts openly, isn’t he freely exercising virtue, to an extent most of us would find unthinkable?“Impartial Risk: Cultural Musings on the Resurrection of John Locke”
Locke is ultimately vindicated, after all — both by Lost as a story, and by Jack, his ideological opposite. In the series finale, Jack calls out the Man in Black for presuming to act and talk like 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’ve told him that while he was still alive.” Even Ben, Locke’s own killer, reasserts his status as a man of faith, and “a better man than I’ll ever be.”
I contend it doesn’t matter whether the monster uses Locke, or whether he is conned. It’s never the unknown circumstances of our choices that define who we are, or the meaning our stories have; it’s the choices themselves, and our knowledge and frame of mind when we make them.
Locke chooses the Island, and does so continually as the story unfolds — because it has chosen him, apart from any designs the monster may have for him.
* * *
We put a lot of stock in the idea of the very first time. We crave the freshness of the new, the unique thrill of discovery. And those things are great — but they’re also incomplete.
You can’t really understand, or even appreciate, a good story if you’ve only read, or watched, or in some way experienced it, only once. As much as it captivates and enchants, the first time only delves a layer or two deep. We have no idea how a story will end, how characters will develop. The not-knowing, the anticipation, are exactly what make this so exciting. The incompleteness is just what we love — but the knowing, too, is a key to a different kind of pleasure, in many ways a richer one, that those who don’t re-read or re-watch will never know.
Once you know a story’s plot, its ending, its character arcs, then the story really opens for you. Seeds planted early on will quicken with life, and hidden things shine with a special glow. Before you had missed them, or missed their significance. Now you see them for what they are. Motifs and themes take on body and dimension, and even structure becomes a thing of beauty.
A story — a good story — is a different beast entirely the second time around.
Hence my worry, when I first started my re-watch of Lost. As deep an experience as the second time can be, it is also a winnow, dividing good stories from the rest. Knowing the whole story, the reasons why Flight 815 was brought to the Island, the part they would play in Jacob’s endgame, would my favorite moments still hold up? Would things I had liked before seem hollow, less meaningful, now that I knew what they really were?
To my relief, the opposite was true. Approaching Lost now on its own terms, and not mine, I found myself enjoying it as much as, and at times more so, than before.
I found myself noticing things I’d missed. About fourteen pages of notes later (only a small fraction of which have made it into this essay), I found that earlier moments in the show were given new significance in retrospect, sometimes dramatically so. One of the clearest places this is seen is in one of the two major plotlines of season 2.
The nonlinear story of the Swan.
The hatch is one of Lost‘s earliest mysteries. Before the statue, before the button, before we even see the monster, there is the hatch. It’s impossible to guess what’s really inside of it, and when we finally find out, the revelation asks more questions than it answers — a typical storytelling technique for Lost.
Among these questions:
- Who were the Dharma Initiative?
- Why were they gone now?
- What was the “incident” that made the button necessary?
- Was the button even necessary after all?
- What would happen if it wasn’t pushed every 108 minutes?
At times, Locke’s frustration with the hatch mirrors the viewer’s. “This isn’t what was supposed to happen!” Locke tells Jack in “Orientation.” Later, after Jack leaves, he pleads aloud to the Island: “Why is this happening like this? What do you want? What do you — What am I supposed to do?“
As is typical with stories about John Locke, the answer to his question is complex and not easily apparent. Knowing all that was to happen in season 5, it dawned on me, as I re-watched these episodes, that this storyline’s significance is much greater than I’d previously thought. Unsatisfied (so far) with the way the Destiny storyline had resolved in season 6, I began to think of the Swan and its story as that theme’s real culmination.
How appropriate would it be for Lost that its climax would come not near the end of its story, but near the beginning. After all, Lost has always had a nonlinear plot structure, having played with time ever since the pilot episode when the flashback device was first used. Time is further warped in “Through the Looking Glass” when the flash-forward is unveiled, and even more in season 5 when actual time travel occurs. It becomes hopelessly, ultimately raveled when causality loops like Richard’s compass start to pop up.
The biggest causality loop of all is Flight 815’s own arrival on the Island, an event intimately tied up with the Swan Station, whose story begins in season 2. Locke enters the hatch, finds Desmond inside, along with a button that must be pushed every 108 minutes in order to save the world. Desmond leaves, Locke takes over, yet his faith in the Island is tested by the arrival of Ben, and the discovery of the Pearl Station, both of which seem to suggest the button is merely a psychological experiment.
Inside the Pearl, as if to underscore the importance of the Swan in the wider story of Lost, Mr. Eko points out the circuitous path of coincidences that have led both him and his brother, separately, not only to the Island but to the very place where Locke’s disillusion reaches its highest point.
And I took this cross from around Yemi’s neck and put it back on mine, just as it was on the day I first took another man’s life. So let me ask you — how can you say this is meaningless? I believe the work being done in the hatch is more important than anything.“?”
It’s easier to appreciate this significance now, with the entire plot of Lost in mind, than when the show first aired in the mid-late aughts. Even after season 2’s finale, we only knew part of the story: the hatch is a Fisher King-like wound in the Island’s side, the site of a unstable rupture of energy that is only patched over, not healed; a short-term solution at best. It’s not till seasons 5 and 6 that the rest is filled in. It was not just any wound, but a wound Jack and the other time-stranded survivors had themselves directly caused in 1977, through their hubris and ignorance. When Locke, Eko, Charlie, and Desmond play their roles in sealing off the breach, they are healing a wound that their own people have caused, and thus closing another time loop. Even Locke’s temporary loss of faith is a part of that story. Were it not for him being there, the failsafe key may never have been turned, and the rupture never healed.
As I re-watched this story, I realized how compelling it is. This was a story about Destiny, with that capital D.
In it there is transgression and redemption (perhaps one of the deepest and most mythic story structures), and the preservation of a sacred, mysterious, immensely important place. Perhaps, I thought at that point, Lost fulfills its Destiny theme after all, in the last place anyone would have looked for it — not near the end, but the beginning.
With this in mind, I began to enjoy the show more openly, confidently, happy now that it might be possible to like Lost again after so many years. But as I neared the end of the show, something else began to happen. The final season itself began to take on a new light.
Perhaps due to my disappointment with Locke’s story, I had blinded myself to just how important the struggle between Jacob and his brother really is. I had thought that their story was merely a personal squabble writ large. A petty thing, when all was said and done.
But, in the words of John Locke:
* * *
‘If the light goes out here…’
The Island is a vitally important place.
I might have said a uniquely special place, which would be true as well. It is numinous ground, where light doesn’t scatter right, where cause and effect are entangled. A gravity well for fate, to which castaways of many lands and ages build their monuments and temples. It is a place so special some would do anything to find it, and Others leave their old lives behind to guard it. A place, as Locke tells Jack, “where miracles happen.”
One of the things that makes it special is its role as a chessboard of sorts, a setting where good and evil are in constant struggle.
But it’s a place of power as well. Its energy is enough to override the destructive force of a nuclear explosion — at least long enough to send the time travelers back to the present, unharmed. It’s enough to end the world, should that energy be released uncontrolled.
Somehow, I had lost sight of all that. No matter. Season 6 goes out of its way to remind us, if we keep ourselves open to what the story is doing.
The episodes “Ab Aeterno” and “Across the Sea” give two metaphors for the Island’s central importance in the world. First, it is a cork, keeping a vast amount of darkness and evil out of the world. Second, it is a light, perhaps a source of the light (or at least its physical components) that gives life to the entire world.
The two images work quite well together. Darkness, after all, can only be defined as the absence of light. So light is the only thing that can drive away darkness. When we finally see the Heart of the Island, we see the light is not just figurative, but literal as well.
What is the Island’s Heart? What is it that makes this place so special? In “Across the Sea,” the series’ antepenultimate episode, we are finally told:
Life. Death. Rebirth. It’s the source.
The source of what? Whatever it is,
…a little bit of this very same light is inside of every man. But they always want more.
More of what? What is it that every person has but wants more of?
Life. Because the Island is not just one of many special places in the world, as the season 2 episode “S.O.S.” hints. If the light goes out here, it goes out everywhere. And the fact that the Man in Black needs to destroy the Island in order to leave is a very big deal. It’s hard to imagine higher stakes. If Jack and his people don’t prevent him from leaving, potentially all life on Earth could be destroyed. Both in the abstract and in the particular — in Jacob’s long senet game with his brother — the Island is a place where good and evil are in constant struggle, and Flight 815 is there to tip that balance.
That is the call of Destiny.
Ironically, my dissatisfaction with this season’s arc was not due to any faults in the story itself, but rather in giving too much weight to the Man in Black’s words.
It is he who belittles the Island and its importance, who insists that none of the story meant anything. That none of the survivors ever had any real purpose or destiny there.
I had enjoyed Lost immensely as it had been on the air, especially the finale. How, then, did I ever let his words infect my love of the show?
In any case, a willingness to let the story do its work on me, as well as the knowledge of everything that happens, all the thematic and character payoffs that come, made season 6 even more enjoyable in my re-watch than the first time around.
* * *
Tipping Jacob’s scale.
Is Lost a good show?
For all that I’ve written here, I still haven’t answered that question. However good certain parts of a story are, the story as a whole may or may not reflect that quality. And that was the entire point of re-watching it now, five years later, with fresh eyes, a refocused critical lens, and all of my old expectations (hopefully) cleared away. Not to see if the parts I hadn’t liked were any better; but to see if the show itself, as a whole, was as good as I’d always wanted it to be.
Now that I’ve resolved my issues with Locke’s character arc and the Destiny theme, I want to look at the question in a slightly different form: Does Lost have any flaws?
Of course it does. Like anything made by human hands and minds, it isn’t perfect. Sometimes these flaws are big, like Walt’s absence from the later seasons, or the contradiction between how Michael explains the whispers in season 6 and how they’re presented for the entirety of the show before that point. Much more often they are smaller, niggling points that we forget about after an episode or two. Such things aren’t really worth mentioning.
But I do think there a few problems, at least, that deserve attention. In order of ascending importance:
4. The Cage Episodes
This early season 3 arc, called a “mini-season” by the writers, drew widespread complaint because of its slower movement. I personally feel this owes a lot to watching these episodes week to week; I find binging them a much more interesting experience.
Ultimately, I think these episodes matter. They develop Kate and Sawyer’s resistance to the Others, and build a scenario where Jack can allow himself to save Ben’s life. Their escape, and his agreement to help his enemy, could not have worked but for the storytelling done in this arc.
Yes, the mini-season does lag, even when viewed as a whole. But looking at each episode, I can’t point to any one that feels slow in and of itself, except possibly for “A Tale of Two Cities,” the season 3 opener. Even that episode has an amazing, jaw-dropping first scene (in the grand tradition of Lost season premieres), and an interesting moment where Jack finally lets go of an element of his past. Even when the flashbacks are dull, the Island story fascinates.
3. The Nature of Evil
From the very beginning, philosophy is a motif in Lost. I won’t call it a theme, since very few philosophical ideas are explored in major storylines, if at all.
(Of course, you could argue that the nature of humanity is a major philosophical theme, since the removal of our characters from civilization puts certain ideas to the test in a visceral way; but the treatment of this question is inconsistent, and never takes central stage. It remains on the periphery, just out of conscious sight.)
I don’t consider this a flaw. Lost tends to value the personal over the cerebral, which is true of philosophy as well as mystery. And that’s fine. But a show that name-drops Locke, Rousseau, Hume, and Burke (for a start) should at least have its most central themes well thought-out, and yet some of them are a bit shaky.
(Interestingly, the most problematic ideas almost never touch the practical or emotional level, but remain on grand, overarching, mythological ground.)
In few places is this clearer than the way evil is conceptualized in later seasons. In the episode “Ab Aeterno,” Jacob presents the metaphor of a cork in a wine bottle to describe the Island’s importance. While interesting both visually and conceptually, as a metaphor for evil, wine is a very weak choice. In this scenario, evil, like wine, is substantial, a thing in and of itself that can be contained.
The problem here is that evil is negative, not positive — in the philosophical sense of these terms, meaning that it has no real being in and of itself, but is derived from a lack of something else. A better metaphor would be darkness or coldness. Neither exist on their own, or have being in and of themselves; they are only the absences of light and heat. Light and heat, like goodness, have a real existence of their own, and can be measured. Dark and cold cannot be measured, nor can evil. Evil is only an absence: the negation, the ruination, of something good.
It’s only when the Heart of the Island is introduced, later in “Across the Sea,” that the conception of the Island and its role become lucid. On its own, the wine imagery falls apart.
(There is one possible interpretation that would save the wine metaphor: that the wine represents not evil in general, as Jacob’s words in “Ab Aeterno” seem to imply, but the smoke monster specifically. The Island is both the thing that needs protection against it, and the thing that protects the rest of the world from it. In this reading, the metaphor works quite well, but it’s not immediately obvious.)
2. Eko’s Story
Slow subplots and flawed philosophy aren’t great, but neither are as bad, or painfully obvious, as a broken character arc. I’m not talking about one I find unsatisfying from a personal perspective, but one that is objectively and jarringly uneven. That, sadly, is the case with another of my favorite characters, Mr. Eko.
There’s something special about Eko from the first time we see him onscreen, in the scene where he appears to be an Other. The more we learn about him, the more interesting he is: his vow of silence for forty days after killing two men, his use of a scripture-carved stick for a weapon, his quiet, thoughtful, intense mannerism.
“The 23rd Psalm,” his first flashback, is still one of my favorite episodes. It adds so much depth to an already intriguing figure. Not only is he a man of faith, like Locke, but a man of violence as well, with death on his hands: a secret burden of guilt that drives who he is. Eko has been shown the worst parts of himself by a tragedy of his own making, and has done his best to repent and be a good man, worthy of his brother. He does good things (feeding Nathan when he’s wrongly suspected, or carrying a dying Sawyer to the only known doctor on the Island) not for the benefits they can earn him, but because they are the right things to do.
So it’s frustrating, and disappointing, to come to “The Cost of Living” in season 3. Eko’s penitence and humility, the forces that drive his character up till now, seem to vanish into thin air in this episode, replaced by an oddly bitter defiance — the monster’s pretext to judge and kill him.
This character shift comes out of nowhere, and is completely at odds with the Eko we’ve come to know. He feels more like the man he left behind in Nigeria, who justified his greed as helping his people. There is no hint as to why he seems to have shrugged off his new self, nor any evidence up to this point that he has been slipping back toward his old self. There’s no in-story logic to it at all.
The logic comes from outside the story. As Damon Lindelof, one of the two showrunners, explains in an interview:
Adewale [Akinnuoye-Agbaje], who played Mr. Eko, is another actor who basically forced the storytelling. We had like a four-season arc planned for that character. He’s an awesome character, we totally loved writing him. He was gonna have a whole thing with Locke, and essentially, Adewale said, ‘I don’t want to live in Hawaii anymore. I want to leave the show.’
The writers accommodated. This, to me, is one of the show’s biggest gaps, one of its biggest disappointments. To this day, I still wonder what that Eko story would have looked like. How it might have changed and complemented (and complicated) Locke’s story. I wouldn’t say it haunts me, but it does something very close.
Oh, Sayid. From season 5 until maybe halfway through 6, it feels as if the writers ran out of ideas for what to do with him. His pained partnership with Ben is compelling, as is the role his attempt at pre-emptive revenge in 1977, but after that his character seemed to fall by the wayside as Nadia is casually killed off. As if they couldn’t think of anything more for him to do.
True, he has a noble, satisfying, redeeming death in “The Candidate,” but as one of the Oceanic Six and a core character, he deserves a sight better than what he got.
* * *
I don’t consider these problems damning. They’re unfortunate, but again I would say most shows, even the great ones, have at least one problem of this magnitude and scale. More importantly, these flaws are isolated, not systemic.
Lost consistently explores daring and relevant themes, features deeply human characters, and tells dramatic and cathartic stories. Sometimes these stories are simple, sometimes complex.
Lost is full of suspense and mystery, and continual surprises, not the least of which are the way these stories subvert tropes and expectations.
Lost‘s music is scored entirely by Michael Giacchino, whose unusual methods of producing different sounds gives it a feel unlike many other soundtracks out there, capable of eerie and creepy as well as heart-swelling moments.
Lost has an unparalleled ability to reinvent itself each season, expanding and re-contextualizing everything that has come before, while still remaining true to its past.
Even the structure of the show as a whole takes the form of a ring cycle, one of my favorite storytelling devices.
Some of these things are true about some shows, but there’s something extra about Lost. It’s more than the mere sum of its parts. To borrow a word from podcaster Dan Pashman, it has toothsinkability.
And ultimately, while all of these things contribute to Lost‘s inimitable flavor, they are not its essential core. The best measure of a good story is how it treats its ideas, its themes, and most importantly its characters. Lost always puts its characters and their stories first. Even the most extreme mythological moments, the most mind-warping revelations, always play service to what these moments mean to the survivors, and often in a deep and affecting way.
The best example I can give circles back to the beginning of this essay — to Locke, the figure I always think of and speak of when I try to describe why Lost is so great. At the end of “Walkabout,” Locke argues with the man from the travel agency in Sydney as his bus pulls away from the curb, leaving him behind. The camera pans out to show…no. Wait. That doesn’t…
Locke was in a wheelchair!?
I remember seeing this for the first time, my thoughts tripping and stumbling over each other as I tried to grasp just what it meant that he could walk now, but not then. Again the episode shows Locke waking up on the beach, wiggling his toe, and we feel a rush of cold understanding fall over us, and it makes sense. A dizzying, astonishing sort of sense: Locke was healed.
This is huge. To me, this is probably the most shocking moment in the entire show.
Yes, there are certainly crazier, more bizarre moments than this one. Yet by the time they come around, crazy and bizarre are what we expect, and the new twists are delicious, compelling new riffs on a theme we’ve already been hearing. Before this episode, though, we have no way of knowing that something like this is even possible. In this moment, Lost becomes the kind of show where anything can happen.
This moment is mythologically defining — but that doesn’t take away its emotional power. We aren’t hit over the head with the weirdness of it, but are drawn instead into the wonder, the awe, the joy in Locke’s reaction. The contrast between what the crash means to him, and what it means to everyone else, is piercing. Overwhelming joy, hope, ecstasy; but set against a sea of sorrow and chaos and fear.
This moment isn’t great for what it reveals, but for what it means to Locke. How it defines his character arc, and shapes his viewpoint of everything that will happen in the story.
* * *
So yes, I reject the sour and cynical disappointment so many viewers cling to even now, all these years after “The End.” These people weren’t approaching the story on its own terms, but on theirs. They wanted something that the show had never even attempted in the first place.
Lost has never been about the answers. It’s about the mystery. It’s never been about mythology, but character. It may be the only television show in existence where the setting itself is a character — in more than the merely figurative way people speak in when they say things like that. The Island doesn’t just have its own mood and atmosphere as a setting. It has, on some level or another, a will and agency of its own.
This is why the Island is so important. And this is why Lost is so important. The best stories are the ones that make us see the world through eyes other than our own — whether through people like Jack or Locke or Juliet, or through the eye of the Island itself.