Lost: Tramping through the Jungle toward the Glowy Light

Anthologies of world literature aimed at the college textbook market tend to include most or all of Dante’s Inferno, and only a few, if any, cantos from Purgatorio or Paradiso. Perhaps the reasoning behind this is that undergraduates find sin altogether fascinating and redemption rather dull. Maybe we all do. Typical primetime TV offerings would seem to confirm this point. The titillation, the murders, the explosions–why tune in unless something violent or scandalous is happening? The producers of the justconcluded TV drama series Lost certainly delivered the goods in the shocking drama department, but the show offered something beyond typical TV fare: an extended, thoughtful, utterly absorbing treatment of redemption.

Created by J. J. Abrams (Alias, the 2009 Star Trek), Lost begins with a standard trope: a plane crash lands a few dozen characters on an unmapped island. The usual questions initially drive the drama of the series: How will they survive? Will they get back home? But even in the first few episodes it becomes clear that the show is more interested in what turns out to be far more important and intriguing: Who are these people? And who might they become?

One of Lost‘s primary strengths is in deep character study. The show’s producers, David Lindelof and Carleton Cuse, created a strong ensemble cast and then deployed innovative techniques for character development throughout the series. In early seasons, scenes of survival drama on the island are intercut with flashback scenes from each character’s life “off island.” Viewers soon perceive that a character’s tenderness or stupidity or impulsiveness or rage on the island is part of a continuous pattern derived from experiences in their pre-island life.

For example, Jack Shepherd–who is usually considered the show’s primary protagonist– is a spinal surgeon who compulsively tries to fix situations, and we learn that this is part of a lifelong quest to prove himself to his surgeon father, now dead. Jungle Jack John Locke was in a wheelchair before the crash, but discovers that he can walk again on the island, which deepens his interest in mystery and intensifies his need to discover his life’s purpose. Kate, on the run for murdering her abusive stepfather, continually runs from her problems. Hugo won the lottery, but believes he is cursed. Sun and Jin are trying to overcome their class difference and conservative gender expectations and keep their marriage alive. Sawyer, perpetually scowling and angry, has spent his life as a con man seeking revenge for his parents’ murder. And so on. Each of these people is stuck in the patterns of an outrageous past. Granted, they are not exactly ordinary folk, but their exaggerated stories compel our interest and also get us invested in the key question: can these people–can anybody–change?

Equally compelling is the show’s mystery element. Abrams perceived early in the show’s development that the island itself ought to be a character, and sure enough it’s the cagiest rascal of all. The island’s bizarre factor quickly goes exponential: chilling whispers, looped radio signals, mysterious healings, a polar bear?!, visions of dead relatives, and worst of all, a column of black smoke that zings through the jungle on apparently murderous vendettas. By the end of the second season, we learn that the island has “unusual electromagnetic properties” and a complicated past that includes a 1970sera research commune and a group of “Others” who are–uh oh–still here!

Over six seasons, Lost consistently manages to keep that mystery element fresh. Character development continues, shifting from flashbacks to flash forwards, and then, in season six, a flash sideways technique. Each season, meanwhile, opens up new layers of the island’s past through masterful use of the setup and reveal. Week after week, my family and I chewed our nails while waiting for the next “freak-bomb” to drop–our term for the big, gasp-worthy surprises. This might have begun to feel tiresome and manipulative except that Lindelof and Cuse have done what all great fiction writers do: created a convincingly rich, intriguing world. The careful detail creates the impression that the entire “Lostverse” was there for the discovery from the pilot episode on, so that the big reveals seem like inevitabilities rather than clumsy attempts at ratings-mongering. The interconnections among characters’ off-island lives, the moving back and forth among time frames, the visual motifs (how many times does Locke fall from a height? or Desmond get stuck in a pit?), and the abundant references and allusions all speak to writers in control of their material–and having a good time, too. The complexities, both in terms of mystery and detail, have given viewers plenty to talk and blog about (and parody) since the show began airing in the U.S. in the fall of 2004.

Great shows these days, though, need to provoke week-to-week suspense as well as reward repeated viewing. I expect that Lost will continue to sustain a fan base because it balances the holy-cow factor with a philosophical heft unmatched by other character dramas and suspense shows. How many other shows name characters after philosophers, literary figures, and authors (Locke, Hume, Penelope, Charlotte Lewis)? And what about all those books slipping onto the set for cameo appearances? Works of science fiction, existentialism, political philosophy, and fantasy fiction appear, and Christianity is a hardly a bit player, either. Significant allusions to Walker Percy, C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky–along with many instances of obviously Christian visual imagery–make Lost perhaps the smartest drama on TV in the category of actual religious thought.

Whether or not the show offers “answers” to significant philosophical or theological questions is a matter of debate. Some viewers have disliked the show’s proliferating mysteries and ambiguities; after all, we generally depend on TV to deliver pat formulas and reassuring resolutions. However, many others have appreciated the challenge of a show that does not hand everything to us on a platter. I found myself in this camp, enjoying the lingering question marks, geeking out on the sci-fi twists, and watching the show with the same kind of attention I might give a classic novel– including availing myself of the real-time scholarship blooming on the web.1

Riding the excitement of Lost‘s broadcast arc was great fun, but now that all 121 hours of the show are unveiled to the world, I find myself sitting back from the edge of my seat and reflecting. What might this show, as soaking with religious reference as it is with salt water and stage blood, reveal about contemporary spiritual concerns?

Live together, die alone becomes a catch phrase for the show beginning with Jack’s famous speech at the end of the pilot episode. But that hackneyed postmodern theme–Can’t we all just get along?–is hardly where the matter ends. Instead, by the end of season one, “diversity” has little to do with gender or ethnicity and everything to do with what we might call worldview. For instance, opposite positions in the old faith/science debate, represented by Locke and Jack, come to a point by the end of season 1. The two characters argue over whether or not the island has some sort of destiny in mind for them, whether there even is such a thing as purpose or destiny. “Why do you find it so hard to believe?” demands Locke. “Why do you find it so easy?” Jack snaps. “It’s never been easy,” Locke avers.

Curiously, Lost subsumes its concern both with community and with the faith/science debate into a larger thematic obsession with the ways people get trapped by their experiences and choices into selfdefeating patterns, and what it takes to break them free. It’s not much of a stretch to apply terms like sin and redemption to this drama. By the middle of season 2, once I had become familiar with each character’s “issues” and watched them get shot up, blasted, frightened out of their minds, and otherwise mangled physically and psychologically by numerous island dangers, I couldn’t help but think about Dante. This island sure feels a lot like hell, I thought. Or wait–maybe purgatory. I wondered if each character’s “issue” could just as well be thought of as a Dante-style besetting sin. Bloggers were also noticing that the island–or something–seems from the beginning of the Lost story to be working on these characters, getting them to endure experiences that force them to face fears, resolve conflicts, get slammed with their own hypocrisies.

By the end of season 3, questions of escaping the island turn moot. Through flash-forwards, we watch six characters get off the island, and we follow their lives back home for a while, throwing up our hands in exasperation as they drop back into selfdefeating patterns. In season 5 the escapees manage to come back, compelled by the irresistible sense that “the island isn’t through with us yet.” By this point, the redemptive process settles firmly into place as the primary dramatic arc of the show.

Curiously, Lost‘s treatment of human nature is more realistic and psychologically interesting than much of what we witness either in pop culture or–I’m sorry to say this–in many churches. Lost takes a dimmer view of the human soul,   Jacob is not Jesus; he is Jacob. The fiction stands on its own, and resonances with Christian story and symbol, however prominent, serve the purpose of foregrounding and dramatizing abidingly difficult spiritual issues.   for instance, than the cheerful optimism of Oprah or your average Disney-channel sitcom. There’s no hope for self-help-style personal improvement here; it’s not about “thinking positive” or “looking within” or “following your dreams.” The characters cling fiercely to their worst qualities in the name of survival or just because they don’t know what else to do. There’s little sentimentality about community, either. These people do not get along. They fight fiercely. They grind down one another’s rough edges. They offer some compassion and they gradually forge loyalties, but mostly they rely on each other out of complete desperation. “I trust you” becomes one of the rarest and most crucial lines in the show.

Viewers with Reformed sensibilities might muster a glum little cheer for primetime depiction of total depravity. And indeed, the show continually, even gleefully, frustrates our expectations that characters will drop neatly into good guy/bad guy, dark side/light side categories. Sayid, for example, is a former torturer for the Iraqi Republican Guard, but we witness how appalling circumstances and well-meaning choices sent him into a nightmarish spiral. We glimpse his tenderness, admire his strengths; we watch him struggle to overcome his past and we groan as his old reflexes take over. Even more fascinating is Ben, brilliantly played by Michael Emerson. Ben is a consummate liar with a CV of heinous offenses that would give any James Bond villain the chills. Yet we are not allowed to write him off and hate him with complete relish: we are kept perplexed about the state of his soul until the final thirty minutes of the series.

So are people hopelessly awful? Or can they somehow manage to be good? That question lingers behind the island’s “mythology,” woven together–well, partially–in episodes featuring the quasi-deity character and his nameless nemesis, usually called the Man in Black. In many ways, Lost does present human nature as depraved or entrapped–lost. Most of the crash survivors furiously resist the growing sense that they might be “chosen” and there might be some purpose to their island ordeal. They did not exactly sign on to sanctification; with the exception of Locke and sometimes Hurley, they simply want to escape. But gradually, they are forced to acknowledge that the island is a thin place where the living and the dead, the present and other time frames, seem to intersect. We see how growth, in different ways for different personalities, is essentially a complex interplay of surrender and moral choice. Jack needs to surrender his will, choose not to act, risk the failure he fears. Hurley surrenders too easily and needs to choose deliberately and stand against authority. Ben has surrendered to Jacob for all the wrong reasons, causing him to eschew moral courage for expediency.

Surrendering to the “island’s” will and protecting the island from exploiters eventually motivates some of the characters to break out of their old patterns and begin a process of genuine change. For a while, the island’s will is focused in the figure of Jacob, and the writers lead us far down the road toward allegorizing Jacob as Jesus–healing powers, supernatural knowledge, a betrayal, a shocking murder, after-death appearances. And the Man in Black works pretty well as the Tempter, too (I won’t say more here to avoid spoilers). Yet, fortunately, Lost never flattens into simple allegory. In the third-to-last episode (“Across the Sea”), we discover that “protecting the island” may or may not be a ruse, ultimately. Even Jacob’s understanding of its energies, in other words, is not exactly infallible. Jacob is not Jesus; he is Jacob. The fiction stands on its own, and resonances with Christian story and symbol, however prominent, serve the purpose of foregrounding and dramatizing abidingly difficult spiritual issues.

For instance, that vexed issue of community. I especially appreciate how Lost presents the redemptive process as both particular to each person and simultaneously communal. It’s as if, for the twentyfirst century, Dante must march through his adventures not with Virgil but with a troop of random medieval companions: Commedia meets Canterbury Tales. Further, the redemptive process dramatized in Lost is hardly Dante’s carefully guided, neatly organized, steady progress. Instead, it is full of resistances, setbacks, and bewilderment.   Perhaps all the mysteries and ambiguities of the show add up to a kind of principled humility about ultimate things: the universe is mysterious, right down to the “glowy cave” at the island’s heart, and we will never know everything.   The characters stumble along by hints and guesses; every revelation raises new questions. Our desire for some final decoder key is constantly frustrated. And we watch in anguish as those who were most sure of things–the opposed true believers Locke and Ben–each have their “faith” blasted away. (Just wait till you see where actor Terry O’Quinn gets to take Locke after this point!) Perhaps all the mysteries and ambiguities of the show add up to a kind of principled humility about ultimate things: the universe is mysterious, right down to the “glowy cave” at the island’s heart, and we will never know everything.2

Finally–and this is an insight we could hear more of in church–Lost reminds us that genuine transformation hurts. Granted, this is literalized on the island with a weekly dose of gun shots, fist fights, impalings, drops from dizzying heights, dynamite explosions, and occasional visits from that billow of vindictive smoke (fondly dubbed “Smokey” by bloggers). But there’s more subtle interpersonal pain, too, ably written and acted. Our island citizens have suffered much at the hands of horrendous people, even more because of their own choices; but many of them eventually learn to suffer for purposes and loyalties more important than their own immediate well-being. Lost presents a drama of sanctification that takes a long time and involves a great deal of backtracking–not to mention time travel, heavy doses of electromagnetism, and countless sweaty tramps through the jungle.

Lost offers a realistic dose of pessimism about human nature and the possibility of self-transformation. After all, even the Dharma Initiative–a rough representation of scientific humanism–sputters and ends in disaster. Nevertheless, Season 6 reveals the hopeful heart of the series, and any doubts that Lost intentionally addresses spiritual themes are fully dispelled. As Entertainment Weekly blogger Doc Jensen reports in his May 7, 2010, post:

Both [Cuse and Lindelof] describe themselves as “men of faith,” tempered with a streak of reasonable man-of-science. Cuse, a Catholic and married father of three, says Lost is not about advocating a specific religion, but rather exploring issues central to all faiths: Community. Redemption. Damnation. For Lindelof, the creative journey of Lost has paralleled a period of time in which he has wrestled with the death of his father, married, and become a father himself.
“If season 5 was the season where we said we had no shame in admitting we are a science-fiction show,” says Lindelof, “season 6 is the season where we said we have no shame in admitting that we’re intensely spiritual people, and that Lost is ultimately a deeply spiritual show.”3

Through the most innovative and controversial story-telling technique of the series–bloggers dubbed it the “sideways world”–island drama is intercut with scenes from an alternative reality in which the plane never crashed. Here we explore yet another permutation of each character. What if Jack had a son through whom he could resolve his own father issues? What if Ben were a high school teacher who made self-sacrificial choices? What if Sawyer became a cop instead of a con man? Although the sideways world seems distinct from the island world, we at last see characters making what we might call progress on the path to self-awareness, compassion, selflessness, and loving community.

The relationship between the sideways world and the island world gets explained–sort of–in the final episode. To avoid spoiling the ending for new viewers, I will simply point out that each character’s task in the sideways world is to “remember” and “let go”–and they need people significant to them to trigger this process. Remember and let go: a fairenough sketch of confession and absolution. In the final moments of the Purgatorio, Dante sees his life fully and truly; he chokes out his deepest confession before his beloved Beatrice, then she lets him bathe in the healing waters of the river Lethe, where all pain is forgotten. Suffice to say, this is not far off from the way the Lost saga concludes.

In the end, we come back to that communal emphasis as well, as the final scene features what one blog reader dubbed a “soul cluster.”4 Most of our favorite characters are there, but some are not. Apparently it is possible to refuse the redemptive path completely–at least one of our main characters, we know, remains stuck on the island. A key scene earlier in the final episode confirms that moral choices do have consequences in Lost: everything is real, everything matters. Yet there are indications that some benevolent, though fearsome, conscious power guides the process. And as long as people are on the path, there’s patience with individual pace. Some characters, we are led to understand, are simply not ready to “let go”–not yet. And some, we just don’t know. What happened to Charles Widmore? Or Dogen? Lapidus? Richard? Or all the nameless extras? The finale seems to say: you can’t know that. This isn’t their story.

At the conclusion of the Lost saga, plenty of mysteries remain, and the show will continue to generate reflection and lively commentary. I think what Lost has done well is foreground certain key features in the redemptive process–familiar in all major religions and central in Christianity–giving these features an instructive, twenty-first-century spin: There are mysteries at work on us beyond our understanding and outside our own will, and the ways we understand those mysteries are at best inexact. People can change; but any kind of redemption requires surrender, a moving beyond the self and its short-sighted obsessions. In this process, every choice matters; yet, as Desmond claims, “none of this matters” in the sense that a patient mercy prevails. The path is difficult–far more than we ever expect–and to tramp through this jungle and survive, we need each other.