"Birth and death are not two different states, but they are different aspects of the same state. There is as little reason to deplore the one as there is to be pleased over the other.”- Mahatma Gandhi
As the fourth season of Lost moved beyond its halfway point, episode 4.07 Ji Yeon once again managed to push the show’s narrative structure into new territory. Just as the series was beginning to settle into a steady rhythm of flashback episodes and flash-forward episodes (aside from the occasional Desmond time-travel story), Ji Yeon experimented with an even stranger concept. The episode intertwined the stories of three different time periods at once: the events on the island, flash-forward scenes for Sun, and flashback scenes for Jin. In the future, viewers might no longer need to categorize individual episodes as back or forward, but they might need to make such distinctions on a scene-by-scene basis.
Throughout Jin's storyline, this episode presented a series of clues to indicate that his scenes were flashbacks. The camera calls attention to Jin's outdated cellular phone, and the store clerk refers to the Year of the Dragon (2000 on Chinese calendars). The chronology was jumbled further, in such a way that the audience sees Jin rushing to the hospital before the scene in which Sun tries to notify him. Sun’s flashes even included a brief glimpse of Nikki from Exposé, as a hint that a similar surprise ending might be in store.
The most revealing clue of all though should have Jin’s behavior. Jin remarks that he has become a much different man on the island than he once was before it. The 2004 Jin is a thoughtful and devoted husband, while the 2000 Jin is a cold-hearted man driven by ambition. His flashbacks highlighted not his need to be with his wife, but his need to acquire a material object, the stuffed panda. Jin explains that the panda is not a sign of his affection for Sun, but "a symbol of Mr. Paik's eagerness to do business in the great country of China". Along his way towards completing this service to the Paik empire, Jin bribes, intimidates, threatens to kill a man, and he even flirts with a nurse afterward. Regardless of these differences, Daniel Dae Kim somehow succeeded in his portrayal of these two different personalities, while he still maintained the necessary illusion of playing the same character throughout.
Ultimately, the episode concluded with the surprising revelation that Jin did not escape the island safely with Sun. In general, there are two different varieties of ‘twist endings’ to stories. A twist ending can be used either be used just for its own sake, or it can be used due to creative necessity, to highlight artistic themes that could not be addressed otherwise. The aforementioned episode of the fictional television show Exposé provides a classic example of the first type of story. Nikki's gratuitous death on that show punctuated the big reveal that the LaShade (Billy Dee Williams) was the criminal mastermind known as the Cobra. The other variety of twist is more similar to the conclusions of Lost episodes such as Walkabout or Through the Looking Glass, in which the ending reveals the very core of the episode’s themes. Was the purpose of this particular story merely to set the audience up for a big razzle-dazzle, "Gotcha!" payoff? Were the artistic goals of Ji Yeon no different from Zuckerman’s Exposé (to be "like Baywatch only better")? Or, did this episode move beyond pure trickery to express something much more enduring?
For one thing, the ending to Ji Yeon was nowhere near as straightforward as it might have initially appeared. One element of this story is certain: Jin is somewhere far apart from Sun in her flash forward. Now, the heavily debated issue will become much like the question Matthew Abbadon once posed to Hurley: is Jin still alive? The episode leaves open two perfectly valid interpretations for these events: either Jin died or Jin remains stranded on the island. Sun still wears her wedding ring, and she desperately tried to stop the doctors from removing it. The pain of childbirth put her into a state of emotional distress, in which she began calling out for her lost husband, even though she knew his presence was impossible. At the end of the episode, Sun and Hurley take the baby to "visit him" at Jin's graveyard memorial. She speaks to the stone there as if it were Jin: “I wish you could’ve been there. […] I miss you so much”. The memorial incorrectly lists the date of Jin’s death as September 22, 2004, the same day of the 815 plane crash, which indicates that Jin is not buried in the cemetery. All of these facts are worth noting, but none of them offer any definitive proof one way or another.
This development creates a unique new situation for Jin’s character in future episodes. One of the most common complaints against the introduction of flash-forwards has been that knowledge of future outcomes removes much of the show’s dramatic tension. In Jin’s case, though, the flash-forward now creates the exact opposite effect. Jin now exists on the show in an uncertain state between life and death. Somewhere in Korea, there is a tombstone with Jin’s name on it. Watching Jin on the island again will feel similar to seeing a ghost. In many ways, the viewer now experiences the same predicament in which Desmond found himself during Season Three. We suspect that something horrible will happen to Jin, but we do not know exactly when or exactly how this situation will play out. To an even greater extent than Desmond, though, the audience is now completely powerless to prevent this future.
Like so many other unanswered questions on Lost, the show probably will not reveal the literal answer to this episode's central question for a significant period of time. We do not know whether Jin’s body will be physically alive by the time of Sun's flash forward in 2005. Even so, the episode as a whole presents several other possible conceptions of Jin's life to consider. On the island, Jin promised Sun: “I’ll do everything it takes to protect you and the baby. […] And you will never lose me.” Has Jin lived up to those promises? Even though Jin and Sun are hopelessly separated, in what sense can we say that Jin is still alive in the world? The answer to this question depends on the ultimate meaning of what constitutes Jin’s life.
One possible way in which we can view Jin’s life is not as his physical body, but as a collection of moments in time. The flashbacks in this episode remind us that there are many moments in Jin’s life other than those shown onscreen. If the makers of Lost so chose, they could broadcast many more stories about the old Jin, alive and well in the past. If we regard the year 2000 as the present, then Jin is still alive in Korea, running errands for Mr. Paik while running his marriage into the ground. Even if Jin died in 2004, Jin still continues to live in these other moments throughout time. (For a more detailed discussion of this idea, check out the prior Luhks commentary on The Constant, entitled "The Heart and the Head".)
Television itself serves as an effective analogy for this nonlinear concept of time. Consider the image of Nikki shown during Sun’s flash-forward scenes. The frame itself contains several shades of life and death. At that moment in the universe of Exposé, Nikki’s character is alive and about to be killed immediately after. In the universe of Lost, actress Nikki Fernandez is dead even though a moment from her life is being portrayed on Sun’s television. In real life, actress Kiele Sanchez is alive, while a moment from her life is being relived on all of our TV screens. From a certain perspective, Nikki will always be ‘alive’ somewhere in that moment. Long after all of the characters and actors from Lost perish, each of them will continue to live in many moments in the past, and all of us will be able to revive some of those moments on our screens.
A different perspective on Jin's life comes from the genetic sense of his existence. We can think of Jin, or any person in the world, as a unique collection of DNA. When Jin and Sun conceived their child, they created a new life, one that contains half of Jin’s genes and half of Sun’s genes. Upon seeing her for the first time, Hurley comments that “She looks just like Jin”. Genetically, Ji Yeon not only resembles Jin, but a large part of her is Jin. Every human life represents a miracle in some sense, and Ji Yeon’s existence is a much more improbable occurrence than most. The Kwons crash-landed on the only place on earth in which they could conceive a child. Later, Sun became perhaps the first pregnant woman to escape and to deliver her child safely off the island. Only this remarkable chain of events could have produced a living embodiment of Sun’s genes and Jin’s genes. Whenever Sun looks at her daughter, she will see not only a reflection of herself, but also her lost husband. Jin will continue to live in the form of his daughter, and he will become a part of any of her descendents. (This idea applies to other characters on the island as well. The deceased Christian Shephard, for instance, remains physically alive on the island inside the bodies of his children Jack, Claire, and his grandson Aaron.) Every human body will eventually perish, but each one of us has the ability to live on forever through our children.
We can also conceive of Jin’s life not as a collection of cells, but as an idea. Although Sun's husband is absent, the idea of Jin remains very much alive in her mind. She clings to her wedding ring, because it holds symbolic value for her, as a token of their unbreakable union. The rational part of Sun's mind knows that Jin is gone, but even her mind became confused and believed that Jin might be present beside her in labor. (This scene is not the first instance in which a character experienced this type of confusion. Recall also Jack’s comments about his father in his own flash forward.) The idea of Jin’s existence will continue to impact Ji Yeon’s life as well as Sun's. Sun fulfills Jin’s wishes for the child's preferred name, and she will continue to honor his intentions by raising her in the way both of them would have wanted. This idea holds great significance for other departed characters as well. For instance, Charlie died without any children of his own, but the idea of Charlie continues to live on inside the memories of the living. Uncle Hurley will one day pass on to Ji Yeon the memory of Jin and Charlie, because she would not exist without their bravery. These lost souls will continue to have life, as long as other people continue to remember them.
In perhaps the episode’s strongest scene, Bernard introduces yet another concept that suggests the possibility of life after death. (In an ironic twist, Bernard discusses Locke in this scene, while he himself seems to have transformed into the Locke we once knew from Season One. Bernard acts as the wise mentor, who offers perspective to help a character return to the right path.) Bernard guides Jin to make the right choices his marital crisis, by appealing to the religious concept of karma:
BERNARD: It’s all about karma, Jin. You know karma? You make bad choices, bad things happen to you. You make good choices, then good … [Jin catches a fish.] Wow! Look, now you see. Now that’s karma. We must be the good guys, huh?
This notion of karma has lurked in the background throughout the series. For instance, Sawyer's story in Outlaws suggested that past deeds would "come back around" in one form or another. In the episode Exodus, Sun even suggested that Fate was punishing the people on the island for past sins. Bernard in this scene finally mentions karma by name. He describes karma only in the layman’s sense of the word, which carries a different connotation than the term's original meaning.
Karma represents a central idea in a number of Eastern religions, most notably Hinduism. The word karma literally denotes the sum total of a person’s actions. Unlike Bernard’s explanation of karma, Hinduism does not preach precisely that good things will happen in a person's lifetime if they make good choices. Instead, karma plays the deciding force in a person’s reincarnation. Each person's soul (atman) will continue to be reborn into different bodies, and karma determines the new states of being through which they will progress. Eventually, after a series of rebirths, a person can ascend to the state of final salvation (moksha). Perhaps we can apply this idea of reincarnation directly into the story of Lost. If we accept the Hindu idea of reincarnation, then any characters who die on Lost do not perish completely, but their souls move on to different bodies. Some viewers have suggested that, during the Season One episode Do No Harm, Boone’s body died, but his soul was reincarnated into the body of Aaron. Even if Jin did indeed die on the island, religion offers hope that Jin’s soul might continue to exist in some different form.
Perhaps the most memorable image of this episode will be the massive, majestic trees growing in the Korean graveyard. This visual reminded me of the 2006 feature film, The Fountain, from director Darren Aronofsky. Essentially, The Fountain is a love story between a husband and wife, told across three different time periods a thousand years apart. The stories contain many echoes of Eastern and Western religions, to explore the true nature of life and death. Aronofsky’s film questions whether death itself can be viewed an act of creation:
“Remember Moses Morales? The Mayan guide I told you about. Yeah. The last night I was with him, he told me about his father, who had died. Well Moses wouldn't believe it. No, no. Listen, listen. He said that if they dug his father's body up, it would be gone. They planted a seed over his grave. The seed became a tree. Moses said his father became a part of that tree. He grew into the wood, into the bloom. And when a sparrow ate the tree's fruit, his father flew with the birds. He said... death was his father's road to awe. That's what he called it. The road to awe.” (Izzi Creo, The Fountain)
This echo of The Fountain in Ji Yeon could be intentional or coincidental. Regardless, the thematic, structural, and even visual similarities between the two works are remarkable. The Fountain offers us yet another explanation for the possibility of life after death on Lost. This idea of immortality is not quite the same as the Hindu concept of reincarnation, but it falls somewhere in between a physical and a spiritual rebirth. Matter cannot be created or destroyed, but the building blocks of our existence will be recycled over and over in life and death. Right now on the island, the molecules which once composed the body of Mr. Eko are being broken down and eventually will become part of the jungle. Even though Jin is not literally buried underneath these trees, any person who dies eventually will become one with the earth and will one day be a part of new life.
Near the conclusion of the episode, Jin himself introduces perhaps an even more provocative viewpoint on the true nature of his life. Maybe it is wrong even to think of Jin as a single entity. During his climactic discussion with Sun, Jin refers to his existence not as the life of one man, but as two different men living in the same body at different times.
JIN: I know why you did it. I know the man I used to be. Before this island, I withheld my affections. And I know that, whatever you did, you did to that man. His actions caused this.
Every individual undergoes constant changes throughout life. No person is ever exactly the same person they were a moment ago. Memories change continuously. In the physical sense, the human body itself even replaces all of its cells every seven years. As the audience, we tend to perceive the Jin on the island as the ‘real’ Jin, and to forgive him for his past. Jin’s flashback scenes in this episode call into question whether that perception is ultimately true. The Old Jin followed a dubious path for a full four years of his marriage. The New Jin has managed to become a model husband on the island, but for a period of only a few months. Is either one of these Jins any more real than the other? Do Jin’s past actions even matter anymore, or should we only care about his eventual state in the present?
Jin’s discussion of his life as two distinct men holds even greater significance for another character: Michael Dawson, who returned to Lost for the first time since the Season Two finale. For a few fateful days, Michael became a murderer and a traitor. Now he has spent weeks living a new life under an assumed name. The name Kevin Johnson serves not only as a plot necessity, but also as a symbol of his new life after the island. Desmond, who made the phrase "See you in another life" famous, actually regards the man in front of him as Kevin Johnson. Sayid might have taken his hand not only to conceal Michael’s secret, but perhaps also as a gesture of forgiveness and his acceptance of Kevin Johnson’s new life. (Sayid understands Michael's situation better than anyone. He himself once committed the same act: he betrayed his people, murdered an innocent Iraqi soldier, and wounded himself in order to free Nadia.) Perhaps the timing of Michael's murders marks the most significant difference between his story and the stories of all of Lost’s other murderers, such as Sayid. By habit, we tend to judge characters based on their actions in 2004, the ‘present’. Most of the other main characters completed the darkest chapters of their lives before the island, but Michael/Kevin currently remains in that horrible stage of his own journey. The audience can forgive 2004 Jin for the actions of 2000 Jin. Will we eventually be able to forgive Kevin Johnson for the actions of Michael Dawson?
Since the very first episodes of Lost, many fans have conjectured that the entire series might become one overarching metaphor for the afterlife. Even after three and a half seasons of development, the notion that all the characters died still persists on some level. Episode 4.07 includes a sinister reminder that there are 324 dead bodies resting somewhere at the bottom of the ocean. Although the Island itself is something much different from Purgatory, the show continues to question the very nature of a person's life and death. Science, philosophy, and religion all offer different ways for us to approach this subject, but ultimately none of us has any idea what happens after death.
A work of art such as Lost might be the most honest way to describe this human predicament. At the end of the episode Ji Yeon, the audience has no way to know for certain whether Sun and her daughter will ever see Jin again. Maybe all of our lost loved ones have not perished completely from existence, but maybe they are merely waiting for us to join them, on an island somewhere in the universe.