Sunday, May 23, 2010

Thoughts on The End...

BIGMOUTH: My immediate reaction is that "The End" gets a perfect 10 on the Sickness Scale for one of the great fictional endings of all time.  The real test of any book, film, or television show is whether you can't stop thinking about it after it's over.  I went to bed marveling at "The End," and woke up with the same thought on my mind.  It was beautiful, moving, and mysterious, much like the endings to the film versions of Solaris, both of which also rank among my all-time favorites.  In fact, the parallels were so striking that I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to learn the writers of LOST were inspired by these precedents.

Warning: Major Solaris Spoilers

I've often mentioned the influence on LOST of Stanislaw Lem's classic novel about a sentient planet that manifests the memories of scientists studying it.  The book spawned two equally classic film adaptations, one by Andrei Tarkovsky, and another by Stephen Soderbergh, both of which end brilliantly.  In Tarkovsky's original, the final scene is between the protagonist, Kelvin, and his domineering father.  The encounter seems to take place at their family home, implying that Kelvin has returned to Earth.  At the very end, however, the camera pulls back to reveal the home is actually on an island in the middle of the Solarian sea.


Soderbergh's remake also appears to end on Earth.  In a voice-over, Kelvin describes how he escaped the space station, returned home, and resumed his old life.  He's standing in the kitchen of his apartment when he cuts his finger.  Kelvin starts to clean the wound, but watches in surprise as it mysteriously heals by itself.  Things get even weirder when his wife Rheya, who committed suicide years ago, walks into the room.  Kelvin asks in wonder whether they're alive or dead.  To which Rheya replies, "we don't have to think like that anymore."  The implication is Kelvin never left and they're actually in a virtual afterlife created by planet Solaris.

I don't mean to suggest our Losties died in the crash of Oceanic 815, or that they never left the Island -- the last scenes confirmed quite the opposite.  But Jack's strange conversation with his father, and the way he died watching Ajira 316 depart, both echo these ambiguous endings to Solaris.  I'll expand on this in the full recap, but my initial take is that there is only one universe -- i.e, the Crash reality.  What we've been calling the Mirror "reality" is actually an afterlife created by the Island from their memories where they can work out their emotional issues before "moving on" to heaven.  Yes, they're dead.  Thanks to the Island, however, they "don't have to think like that anymore."

Update May 28, 2010: I promised above to expand upon why I thought this ending was so remarkable.  To do so requires that I eat some crow.  When the first clips of the Mirror reality aired at Comic-Con, Damon and Carlton asked us to trust them.  Around the time of "Happily Ever After," however, I decided they had lost my trust.  The Mirror timeline made no logical sense if Jughead was its cause, and the prospect of them cheating death via transfer of their memories to the Mirror struck me as a total copout.  Many of you chided me for doubting that the writers had one last twist up their sleeves.  I dismissed such speculations for lack of evidence.  I was wrong, and like Jack, I wish I had believed.  Them and you.

The brilliance of the ending was that it made me see the Mirror reality in a whole new light.  Until that last 15 minutes, I was sure the Mirror would render the sacrifices of the Crash reality painless at best and pointless at worst.  The prospect made me doubt whether I would re-watch the series when it was over.  Think about that for a moment. Someone who has blogged about LOST for the last six years had doubts about re-watching.  To my pleasant surprise, however, the ending had precisely the opposite effect of clearly affirming the reality of the Crash world.  It not only inspired me to re-watch Season 6 for what I missed, I see potential clues in earlier episodes, like the ghostly visitations from Season 4.

I can't think of another finale that similarly shifted my perspective on the entire series.  I have to look to films like Solaris and the Sixth Sense for anything comparable.  LOST transcended the medium, which is simply remarkable for a network television show.

So what's my take?  I believe the Island is home to the Source of all creation, including the afterlife.  "Heaven" is returning to the Source for rebirth after you die and find your soul mates in Mirror "purgatory."  "Hell" is having your soul trapped on the Island, unable to reunite with your loved ones and return to the Source.  I put those terms in quotes because their ascribed meanings only loosely approximate Judeo-Christian usage.  The concepts in question transcend any particular faith, whether eastern or western, which is why the church at the end contained symbols from all of the world's major religions.  The bright light when Christian opened the church doors was from the Source itself.

The fate of this entire afterlife apparatus -- heaven, hell, and purgatory alike -- hinged on the outcome of the final showdown between Jack and the Man in Black.  If the latter had succeeded in destroying the the Island, it would have disrupted the entire cycle of "life, death, and rebirth," quite possibly causing the Island's fertility problems to go global.  Even worse, destruction of the Island would have unleashed the entire contents of hell on Earth, causing malevolence, evil, and darkness to spread.  I previously assumed that Jacob's cork-and-wine analogy referred specifically to the Man in Black.  Now, however, I think he may also have meant tortured souls like Michael, who are prevented from returning to the Source.

The Man in Black ceased being Smokey after Desmond pulled the Plug.  I maintain this was always the key to his escape, which makes sense when you think about it.  The Man in Black could presumably have sailed away long ago if it were really that simple.  Destroying the Island's magic was the only way of releasing himself from the iron grip of the Rules.  The problem was that the Man in Black's merger with the Island's security system prohibited him from pulling the Plug himself.  He tried sending people into the Cave to do the deed for him, but without Desmond's immunity, they all succumbed to the electromagnetism.  We saw the skeletons of these poor saps littering the floor of the Plug chamber.

Even if destroying the Island wasn't necessary for the Man in Black to escape, however, those skeletons suggest he was obsessed.  Jacob no doubt knew of his  brother's obsession and realized that the only way to make the latter mortal again was to allow him to succeed.  Having Widmore return with Desmond was Jacob's desperate gamble that his brother would be unable to resist the prospect of sinking the Island at long last.  Jacob trusted Jack to intuit that killing the Man in Black required first pulling the Plug.  The Man in Black was so busy gloating over his apparent triumph that he didn't realize he'd been trapped until it was too late.  He really should have heeded Admiral Akbar's warnings.

Some complain that the finale lacked mythological grandeur.  But I think it did a nice job of bringing the core mythology full circle. The Plug, in particular, was the culmination of a recurring dynamic whereby visitors to the Island unwittingly release the dangerous power of the Source.  Metaphorical allusions abound, including when Charlie cracked the hornets' nest, when Ben summoned Smokey, and when Jacob analogized the Island to a cork.  Literal examples include when Locke caused the Swan implosion and DHARMA caused the Incident.  Now we learn they were all following in the footsteps of the ancient Egyptians, whose efforts to tap and exploit the Source apparently caused a breach that was filled with a plug in a giant dam just like the Swan station. 

And yes, the Plug was a little simplistic, though no moreso than a giant Wheel that moves the Island.  (Then again, so frankly is the notion of a magic tree or mountain supporting the cosmos.)  The point LOST seems to be making with such images is that the Source is so beyond our current understanding of physics that we can only comprehend it in mythological terms.  That's precisely why the Island needs protection.  Yes, the man of science within me would have liked more insight from everyone's favorite physicist, Daniel Faraday.  But the philosopher in me is quite satisfied with this commentary on the limits of the scientific perspective, which brings me to the other main complaint I've heard. 

Some say the finale sided too decisively with faith.  But that strikes me as entirely appropriate given the existential outlook of the show.  The core philosophy of LOST was embodied by Jack's leap of faith to return to the Island and reinforced by the Kierkegaard reference earlier this season.  As I've explained before, some existentialists argue that we attain free will though leaps of faith that liberate us from the deterministic operation of history.  Jacob's entire modus operandi was an expression of this existential ethos.  He wanted to give his Candidates what Mother had denied him: a choice whether to take the job of Island protector.  For that to happen -- for free will to trump fate -- the show had to side with faith.

Nor should this be confused as a purely religious message.  Anyone who's studied the history of science can tell you that leaps of faith abound.  As Thomas Kuhn showed in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the notion that science progresses through falsification of old theories is actually an illusion.  Science evolves less by the orderly accumulation of evidence than by radical shifts between contradictory theoretical paradigms.  As brilliant as Einstein was, for example, he could never accept quantum mechanics because it defied his view of the universe.  Paradigm shifts thus resemble leaps of faith because both entail rejection of an entire existing belief framework, usually in the absence of conclusive proof. 

Lem's book version of Solaris contains similar existential commentary on the limits of the scientific method.  Ultimately, however, I keep returning to the Solaris parallel for a more basic reason.  Tarkovsky believed that the goal of art should be to personalize the abstract and metaphysical.  Both his film adaptation and Soderbergh's do just that, translating Lem's insights into character relationships that resonate with viewers emotionally.  LOST follows in this same grand tradition of showing us what big ideas like fate and free will mean in terms we can relate to personally.  Other television shows have done this, too, but few as effectively as LOST.  Witness the recently canceled Flashforward.

The power of that Mirror reunion in the church transcended the narrative revelation that these particular characters were eternally bonded by their shared love and memories.  I don't personally believe in the afterlife, but I still found myself contemplating who might move on with me, and what our particular version of the Mirror might look like.  I thought of my friends and loved ones -- living and dead -- who helped make me the person that I am.  I thought of you all everybody and the remarkable time we've had discussing this amazing show.  Those reflections, more than the character resolutions, were what made the last 15 minutes such a profoundly moving experience for me.

That's the end of this recap, but certainly not the discussion.  It's been a wonderfully whackadoo ride, my fellow Sickies.  Ago multas gratias vobis, and may we all move on together.  Over to you, Wayne...

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WAYNE: A big 10 for the episode, but when we get around to bullet points, I'll be talking about parts of the episode that fell flat for me. Lost has always been about symmetry, and I wish I had connected the thought of purgatory being equated to the consciousness of the Island earlier. The producers did a nice job of keeping me away from those dark moments in the caves in Season 1, when Sun brought up the P word for the first time, by making the Mirror reality a sort of mystery.

For those who might think everyone found their true love, I didn't see Helen around. (Yes, she was never on the Island, but I think Locke being alone offsets any soul-mate ending that some might gripe over.) In fact, my first real nudge towards seeing the Mirror reality for what it ultimately was came when Helen didn't make an appearance before or after Locke's surgery. Props to NetProphet for his mention of the Dreamtime, as well as the line by Charles Ingalls in "Recon": "knowing that people aren't really gone when they die. We have all the good memories to sustain us until we see them again." And, of course, as Hurley said during the game of Risk in "The Shape of Things to Come," Australia was the key to whole game. The final scene at the Church of the Lamp Post made me think of Philip Jose Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go, more deja vu than anything. I'll address the book in my bullet points.

This is a much better explanation to the Whispers, as well as why we saw no Helen, and even creepy old Eloise's wanting to hold on to son Daniel for a little while longer. And I have my answer now as to that cryptic scream from Charlotte in S5, "This place is death!" It really is. Much more to be said in future bullet points, including my assumption that the outrigger shoot-out must have happened In The Year 2525, and that creepy moment when Miles pulled that gray hair out of Richard's scalp. And I really can't think of a better ending scene, with Ajira 316's flying over a dying Jack. 

In that long-ago mobisode, Christian told Vincent that Jack had work to do.  Now we know that Vincent had work to do, too: be at Jack's side when he finally let go.

Update: June 7, 2010.  I see in the newest post that Bigmouth has listed answers to many of the questions posed by the show. I have been vocal in my comments after recent recaps that it is quite easy to come up with a plausible answer for many of these conundrums, but I've also said that it can be a bit of a cheat to simply accept things the way they played out. For every Room 23 question, there is also the mystery of the Outrigger Shooting.

I can offer an example from one of my literary peers, Richard R. McCammon. In 1987, Rick wrote a post-apocalyptic novel, Swan Song, well within the length and scope of Stephen King's The Stand. A character known only as Sister came into possession of a magical ring that had seven spokes, the first two of which were used to defeat certain evils. Seven years later, only two of the spikes remained. For fans who asked at the conventions, his reply was always the same: "Did it matter to the story?" And, no, it didn't. And yet, as with Lost, we were still cheated several times over.

A couple of mentions here from my recent trip to visit family in Kentucky. Remember when the producers said that Lost would end somewhere in the Crab Nebula? It got people to think that maybe the Island was an alien craft. This is one of those questions -- what is the origin of the Island? -- that might have any number of answers. My older cousin questioned the hieroglyphs on the "plug." More specifically, he suggested that the writings were not a warning, but rather instructions on how to fly the Island craft at some point in the future. We had a spirited conversation, and I considered the possibility that stranded extra-terrestrials left behind both a How-To manual, as well as the energy to do it.

I took my oldest niece Ashley to an old Civil War cemetery on the outskirts of Shelbyville. Fragments of dirty stone tossed by tree limbs, a newer tombstone erected for a man who served in the Revolutionary War and died in 1794. A time when Illinois was still a territory. I thought of the Ruins, and of how visitors to the Island would fight, destroy, and corrupt. I looked down from the small bluff, grave markers and farmland to my back, and saw a Wal-Mart and a KFC. Not quite DHARMA, but certainly a mocking reminder of what type of utopian society many of us will settle for in this new millenia.

So what was with the outrigger scene from Season 5? I'm not sure how this works logistically, but it would have been cool if the occupants of the second outrigger were the same people who ended up leaving on Ajira 316, while the shoe belonged to Richard Alpert. Cool, but not plausible perhaps. Logically, it would seem to be Ilana's crew, as they knew about the two Lockes early on. Many of the questions of Lost can be answered with simple logic, as the producers always set up something in advance, foreshadowing later events but then leaving us with those unanswered queries. Locke saw the Source the first time he saw the smoke monster, which was why he was willing to be dragged into the Cerberus Vent in Season 1. This is what gave Locke faith, why he never tried to argue the point that he no longer needed a wheelchair.

Which leads me to this: the Lighthouse compass rose offered us views of at least three candidates' lives, magic boxes of homes and churches. After all the talk of who was at the Lamp Post Church and who wasn't, I've begun to wonder if there are multiple afterlifes on LOST.  This prrticular Mirror reality was the afterlife of Jack's consciousness specifically. He could see Sawyer becoming a cop, just as he could see himself married to Juliet with a son. Desmond flashed into Jack's Mirror because they both ended up near the Source. 

I mull this over a lot, because I still can't seem to grasp the dynamics of the Mirror. For example, when Sawyer dies in the future, will he have a whole separate Mirror reality play out, in which he meets Juliet somewhere else than the hospital? Will Richard be working at the hospital with Juliet when he dies and experiences his own Mirror reality? And does that, by extension, happen to all of us, or just those who spent time near the Source?

Winding up, big thanks to Bigmouth for letting me recap, and for keeping me focused. You see, my usual manner of narrative is more like Charles Bukowski if he wore a heating pad as a superhero cape and drank Aqua Velva from a Juicy Juice carton while huddled under an off-ramp on the Tri-State Tollway. A better friend one could not ask for. Namaste to you all.
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