I had high expectations for the series finale of LOST. That’s because I’m an addict – I’ve seen every episode (yes, including Season 6’s brutal What Kate Did) several times; I’m a subscriber to LOST magazine; I read Doc Jensen at EW and Doc Arzt at DocArzt.com; I had to keep myself from looking at LOST spoilers on a regular basis over at DarkUFO.
Immediately after watching the series finale, I came away angry. I wasn’t angry for all the reasons most people were. I understood that Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof couldn’t answer all the questions they had posed in the series, and that to do so would actually take away the mystery of the show. I wasn’t angry because Jack ended up with Kate, though I admit that I would have liked to see Kate plunge from a cliff in a ball of flame a la Denethor from The Return of the King (Good Lord, woman, it took you six years to make up your mind?!).
I was angry because I felt that the end of the show embodied a rather depressing underlying philosophy. At the end of the show, we find out that the alternate reality of Season 6 has in large part been a ruse. It wasn’t a different timeline created by Juliet’s nuke at the end of Season 5; it was a purgatory state created jointly by many of the Oceanic 815 survivors where they could find each other and remember their lives before passing to the next stage, presumably heaven.
The reason this was depressing is that you spend six years hoping for these characters to find happiness, only to realize that the only happiness they truly find comes after they’re dead. That may be comforting for some, but it depressed the living hell out of me.
The more I thought about the series finale, though, the more I came to accept it. Or to “let go” and accept the fate of the characters, as well as the ultimate goodness of the ending.
Let’s analyze the finale itself.
There are essentially two time-lines in the series finale. We’ll call them Island Reality and Purgatory Reality.
In Island Reality, Jack, Kate, Sawyer, and Hurley are the only non-crazy original survivors of Oceanic 815 left. They other remaining characters are Desmond, who is taken prisoner by Smokey/Locke; Ben, who is accompanying the Oceanic Four on their quest to stop Smokey/Locke; Richard, Miles, Claire and Lapidus, who are attempting to get the Ajira 316 airplane off the ground so they can escape the island.
To boil it all down, Jack accepts the mantle of “island protector” from Jacob. He then leads the Oceanic Four to the “source” in the middle of the Island, where he expects to meet Smokey Locke and Desmond. Both Jack and Smokey Locke want to use Desmond to uncork the “source.” Jack thinks that doing so will destroy Smokey Locke; Smokey Locke thinks that doing so will destroy the island, allowing him to escape; Desmond thinks that uncorking the island will shift the entire timeline to the Purgatory Reality, which he mistakenly believes is a non-dead reality in which everybody is happy.
Desmond uncorks the island, almost killing himself in the process. This begins to collapse the island, as Smokey Locke suspected, but it also makes Smokey Locke mortal again, which he didn’t suspect. Smokey Locke and Jack duke it out, with Smokey Locke plunging his knife into Jack’s side (Jesus imagery alert!) and Jack holding Smokey Locke off long enough for Kate to shoot Smokey Locke. Then Jack tosses him from a cliff, and Smokey Locke goes crunch on the rocks below.
Jack informs Kate and Sawyer that they need to get off the island before it collapses – he’s going to head back to the “source” and plug it back in. Kate tells Jack she loves him and kisses him, just in time to take off with Sawyer and get on the Ajira 316 plane along with Richard, Miles, Claire and Lapidus.
Jack is joined on this final journey by Ben and Hurley. Before descending into the “source,” Jack transfers island protectorship to Hurley; Ben becomes Hurley’s number two. Jack goes down to the source, helps Desmond get back to the surface, then plugs the source back in, saving the island and the source.
Then he staggers through the jungle to the first place we ever saw him – the bamboo grove where he landed after the Oceanic 815 crash. He lies down, dying, and smiles as he sees Ajira 316 flying overhead. Vincent (the long-lost dog) lies down next to him as Jack closes his eyes. The final shot of the show is Jack’s eye closing, paralleling his eye opening at the beginning of the show.
So what the hell was that all about?
The reason all that was important was because Jack saved the “source.” The source, we were informed in “Across the Sea” by Mother, was the source of “life, death, rebirth.” The light from the source is inside every living thing, but humans “always want more.” Humans aren’t able to take all of the light, but if they attempt to do so, they “put it out. And if the light goes out here … it goes out everywhere.” We’re also told by Richard’s wife in “Ab Aeterno” that if Smokey isn’t destroyed, we all “go to hell.”
With these clues in mind, let’s discuss what the “source” actually is: the physical manifestation of the human capacity to create Purgatory Reality. Let’s call that capacity “Light.” The idea is this: every person has Light. But that Light can only be maintained by the person (as we find out in the Purgatory Reality) if the person has relationships with others that allow them to understand the true value of their mortal lives and accept who they were during that mortal life. Relationships require unselfishness; selfishness destroys those relationships. Therefore, selfishness destroys Light. That’s why the selfish souls who destroyed their Light end up in a sort of wandering state on the island itself – they’ve lost the capacity to enter the Purgatory Reality.
By contrast, selflessness allows people to enter the Purgatory Reality. Every person in the Purgatory Reality has transformed over the course of the series from a selfish actor to a selfless one.
Jack was never able to “let go” and learn from others; he had to do things himself. That’s brought home most obviously in a scene from the Season 5 Finale, when Jack chews out Christian for helping him overcome his nervousness after rupturing a girl’s dural sac. Even in the pilot of the series, Jack can’t give Christian credit for helping him through that time – instead he acts as though his decision to count to five and let the fear in was his own, original creation. By the end of the series, Jack is willing to listen to Jacob, Sawyer, anyone – but in the end, he does what he thinks is right. That makes him a hero.
Sawyer started off as the ultimate in selfishness, a con man who doesn’t care about anyone or anything other than his stash. By the end of the series, he has repeatedly sacrificed himself for others, including Claire, Kate, Juliet, Jack, Hurley, Sun, Jin, and others.
Kate started off as a runner and remained a runner for most of the series. She blew up her step-dad not for her mom, but for herself (even if she was justified, which I think she was). She ditched her husband because she couldn’t sit still. She bounced between Sawyer and Jack like a ping-pong ball. By the end of the series, she picked a man, she gave up her own ambitions to bring Claire back to her baby.
This holds true for everybody. Hurley was a fat slob who was worried more about his unluckiness than his mission in life; he became island protector. Ben was a selfish mass-murderer; he became the number two. Claire wanted to ditch her baby; she became the ultimate mother. Sayid was obsessed with his own personal shortcomings; he sacrificed himself for everyone else on the sub. Sun cheated on Jin because she was self-centered; she came back to the island to find him. Jin worried about propriety more than the needs of his wife; he chose to die with her. Charlie was a drug addict attention junkie; he became a self-sacrificing hero.
By contrast, Smokey Locke is the embodiment of selfishness. He doesn’t care about Mother. He doesn’t care about Jacob. He doesn’t care about the people he lived among. He doesn’t care about the Losties or the Tailies or the Dharma folks or the Others. He cares about one thing only: his personal desire to leave the island. But he can’t leave the island because he is bound to it, having lost his mortal body when Jacob killed him and turned him into Smokey. The only way for Smokey Locke to get off the island, then, is to get rid of the source, make himself mortal, and take off, even if he doesn’t know it.
That almost comes to pass – but not quite. Jack stops him and kills him. Then Jack, in the ultimate display of selflessness, gives his life to re-plug the source and preserve the Purgatory Reality for everybody.
Now, for the Purgatory Reality. The people living in the Purgatory Reality have the Light – the possibility of redemption. But they haven’t been completely redeemed. That’s because in the Purgatory Reality, they’ve constructed neat and happy lives for themselves, but these are false lives. They’re not real – as Locke points out to Jack after Locke’s awakening, Jack has no son – because the people in the Purgatory Reality haven’t come to grips with the value of their mortal lives. They haven’t latched on to what made their ascension to the Purgatory Reality possible. They are still selfish in the Purgatory Reality because they haven’t come to grips with who they were in their mortal lives.
They need flashes of their mortal lives to remind them of what made their Light possible: the island. Each person on the island was transformed. Christian tells Jack that in the tear-jerking final scene: “This is a place that you all made together, so that you could find one another. The most important part of your life was the time that you spent with these people. That’s why all of you are here. Nobody does it alone, Jack – you needed all of them, and they needed you.” Jack asks the right question, for once: “To do what?” And Christian answers: “To remember. And to let go.”
That’s the whole story. They needed each other to let go of their selfishness. They needed each other to let go of what they were and embrace who they were becoming.
What happened on the island was real; their mortal lives mattered. As Christian tells Jack, “I’m real. You’re real. Everything that’s ever happened to you is real. All those people in the church – they’re all real, too.” Everyone is dead, of course, but that’s not really important – some died long before and some long after. What’s important is that they got up here because of what they did down there – not because of their good deeds, but because of who they became as a result of those deeds: full, unselfish and giving human beings.
That’s the takeaway of LOST: what we do here matters because we all have the capacity to make ourselves better people by “letting go” of our own shortcomings and arrogances.
That’s why my gut reaction to the series finale was wrong. The finale isn’t against earthly happiness. We can be happy on this earth, yes – Claire ends up with her baby in real life, Kate ends up helping her, Sawyer presumably ends up meeting his daughter, Hurley ends up fulfilling his mission with Ben’s help, Desmond probably makes it back to Penny. But the transformational moments we have in life may not be our happiest times – they may be our worst times. They may be the hardest times. In The End, though, we will be able to look back on our lives and see that what made us who we were allowed us to find an eternal happiness – if indeed we are proud of our lives and the bonds with others that we made.
It’s a beautiful message. And it’s a beautiful show. I’ll miss it – the unparalleled writing, the acting, the cinematography, the scoring. I’ll miss sitting with my wife and my family every Tuesday night watching it together in dead silence (yes, I am a member of the Facebook group, “If You Talk During Lost, I Will Kill You During the Commercials”). I’ll miss speculating what the hell was up with Walt. (Wait, I can still speculate on that. Oops. Wish they had answered that one!) Most of all, I’ll miss the characters – watching them transform over the course of their journey was truly joyful, and realizing that they all had a purpose and a mission was wonderful.
Thank you, Carlton and Damon, for the best series of all time.