I have had the privilege of writing about each Lost episode over the past two seasons. The show has produced some excellent episodes in that span, most notably Episode 4.05, The Constant. Desmond’s Season Four time trip (penned by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse) was by all means an outstanding achievement, an emotional and cerebral journey that reshaped the viewer’s outlook on the series. A full season later, audiences now have been treated with Episode 5.05, This Place is Death, written by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. This veteran Lost writing tandem brings it own unique blend of dark humor, introspection, and thematic connections to the show. In my opinion, This Place is Death is the finest Lost episode since the ending of Season Three, which concluded with the Kitsis/Horowitz classic Greatest Hits and the Lindelof/Cuse epic Through the Looking Glass. In its own way, this episode similarly alters perspectives on Lost’s past, present, and future. The Island means many things to many people, but quite possibly its most important meaning is expressed in those four words: “this place is death.”
The experience of watching This Place is Death nearly defies description. Many people have commented that the episode felt much longer than usual. The storytelling on display is remarkably succinct. The episode managed to compress four meaningful stories (Danielle and the Monster, Sun and Jin, Daniel and Charlotte, Locke and the Island) into a single hour. Rather than feeling disjointed, though, each of these stories links together beautifully, and offers its own take on that overarching theme expressed in its title. Another important sign of a masterful episode is the way in which the actors respond to the script. By my count, the episode included four truly great acting performances (Jeremy Davies, Daniel Dae Kim, Rebecca Mader, and Terry O’Quinn), along with a full complement of strong supporting turns. However, I think the best way for me to illustrate my feelings for the episode is not to praise the writing or the acting, but to make the following confession. For the first time, I find myself utterly intimidated by a Lost episode. As amazing as The Constant was, I still felt fairly confident that I could express my reaction to it in a single article. Not so for This Place is Death. I do not think that my words will be able to do it justice. I will begin, anyway.
EKO: If you don't mind, I will begin at the beginning. Long before Christ the king of Judah was a man named Josiah.
LOCKE: Boy, when you say beginning, you mean beginning.
The first segment of the episode connects two core pieces of Lost mythology that were introduced in the Pilot episode: the Monster and Danielle Rousseau. Part One of the Pilot offered the first glimpse at the power of the Island's supernatural enforcer, the Smoke Monster. In the first attempt to find rescue from the island, Jack, Kate, and Charlie ventured out into the jungle to find the plane’s transceiver. When it seemed as if their mission was accomplished, the Monster attacked for the first time, murdering the pilot and nearly preventing the team from recovering the radio. This Place is Death begins with a compressed version of comparable events, sixteen years earlier. Another strangely familiar group of people crashes onto the same island, and then ventures into the jungle in search of a radio transmitter. The Monster attacks the group on their way, to prevent them from reaching the equipment. Later in this episode, Robert echoes Danielle's memorable phrase that the Monster functions as a 'Security System' for guarding the Temple. Neither the Oceanic search party nor the French research team seemed to pose any direct threat to the Temple; the two groups of castaways were only looking for an escape route. Although Robert's description might be true, it does not offer a complete explanation of the Monster's behavior.
The Great Radzinsky used a different name for the creature, Cerberus, which offers another clue as to its purpose. In Greek mythology, Cerberus was the name given to the three-headed canine beast, which guards the gates of Hades, to prevent souls from escaping. No one who crosses into the underworld is ever supposed to return to the world of the living. Lost’s version of Cerberus seems to serve that same function for the Island. It possesses other abilities as well: the ability to re-animate corpses (Yemi and perhaps Christian), and to infect living bodies (Montand and Robert). In the seminal episode Walkabout, John Locke stared down the Monster face-to-face. Since that point, Locke has taken it upon himself to perform the task designated to Cerberus: to ensure that no one ever leaves the Island. It was Locke who eventually smashed that same transceiver, who detonated the Flame station, destroyed the submarine, killed Naomi, and turned a gun on his friends as they trekked to the radio tower. Locke may not be 'infected' in the same manner as Robert, but he has been acting as the willing agent of Cerberus for some time.
SHANNON: I'm alone now. On the island alone. Please, someone come. The others, they're … they're dead. It killed them. It killed them all.
Part Two of the Pilot concluded when the gang used the transceiver intercept the transmission from the radio tower. While the Monster in Part One served as a warning not to leave, Rousseau’s words in Part Two served to foreshadow the ultimate fate of the Oceanic passengers. The necessary corollary of the Island's command “You are not supposed to leave,” is the unspoken conclusion: “You are supposed to die here.” Jin’s rapid time-jumping in this episode accelerates our perception of the ultimate effect of the Island. One minute, you might be chatting about baby names, and the next minute, you might be forced to shoot your family members in the face. Rousseau had enough wits to outlive her team, but eventually Keamy (derived from Kimi, the Mayan symbol for Death) arrived to slaughter Danielle and her daughter. The one common link between Adam and Eve, the Black Rock, the Dharma Initiative, the French team, Henry Gale, the Nigerian plane, the Others, the Oceanic castaways, and the Kahana Freighter is that everyone dies on the Island. People on the Island do not merely grow peacefully into old age, leave behind a healthy family, and expire from natural causes. Instead, every character inevitably meets some horrible and violent end, when his work is complete. Death is the Island’s only Constant.
JACK: We're all here now. And god knows how long we're going to be here. But if we can't live together, we're going to die alone.
If the people on the Island have no power over Death, then what things can they control? The motif of ‘live together or die alone’ permeated the first four seasons, as the Oceanic crash survivors struggled to unite in their efforts to avoid death. Over that span, the tumultuous marriage of Sun and Jin has paralleled the ups and downs of the larger Island family. In Season Five, the divide among the group is wider than ever before. This particular story calls attention to the distance between Sun and Jin, not only on different hemispheres, but across decades of time. This episode employs night-and-day imagery to amplify this effect, but interestingly it casts Jin and the rest of the Island team in sunlight, while it surrounds Sun and everyone else with darkness.
This Place is Death forces Lost's preeminent couple into a novel predicament, which tests the bonds of their marriage. Jin witnesses a firsthand demonstration of the Island's power, and then he receives Charlotte's direct warning about the its nature. He resolves to live up to the same promise that Robert failed to keep: “I don't want anything to happen to us. To you, or to our baby.” On one hand, Sun and Ji Yeon can remain safe off the island, but she can never see Jin again. On the other hand, Sun can return to the Island, a place where Death can and probably will strike them soon. Essentially, Mr. and Mrs. Kwon were given the choice: would you prefer to die together or live alone? Jin chooses never to see his wife and daughter again, rather than put their lives in danger. Sun would prefer to risk her own death again on the island, rather than live the rest of her life apart from Jin. The husband and wife make opposite choices, each motivated by love of the other. Their wedding ring travels across an ocean of space and time to bind them together once again. Ultimately, Sun punches a one-way ticket back to the underworld, to join her husband, till death do them part.
DESMOND: Please, let me go back. Let me go back one more time. I'll do it right. I'll do it right this time. [...] I'll change it. I'll change it. -- Flashes Before Your Eyes
The journey to the underworld operates as a common theme throughout literature. For an epic hero like Odysseus of Homer’s Odyssey, the underworld serves merely an intermediary stage as part of a larger journey. Typically, the hero interacts with ghosts from the past, and receives visions of the future, before he moves on to the next phase. For other mythological figures, though, the underworld can serve as the focal point of the entire journey. The most famous example of such a character is Orpheus. In the Greek myth of Orpheus, his beloved young bride Eurydice suffers an untimely death, and then he ventures into Hades to bring her back to life. Desmond has long served as Lost’s version of Odysseus, and now Daniel Faraday has become the show’s sci-fi version of Orpheus. How far will Faraday go in his efforts to bring Charlotte back? Of course, he will try to warn her, and try to harness the temporal power of the Island to change the past. (I would not be surprised to see Daniel search for Jughead, to destroy the island some time between Charlotte’s departure as a child and her return as an adult. In doing so, Daniel may try to destroy Death itself.) Eventually, Orpheus was granted an opportunity to take Eurydice back from the underworld, on the sole condition that he must never look back at her on his way out. Tragically, Orpheus could not overcome the temptation, and he lost Eurydice once again. As Faraday himself explained: "You cannot change anything. You can't. Even if you tried to, it wouldn't work. [...] If we try to do anything different, we will fail every time." The same rules apply to ancient mythology as well as to Lost: death is more powerful than love.
The story of Charlotte Lewis by no means follows the path of the typical Lost character. (Depending on the chronology of the time jumps, she may have died even before she was born, or at least at a young age.) As a child, she received a message from Daniel, warning her that she would die if she ever returned to the island. Benjamin Linus, who is Death incarnate for the Dharma Initiative, murdered her entire people. Despite Daniel’s warning and her mother’s efforts to dissuade her (or, more accurately, probably because of those events), she spent her entire life trying to find This Place again, to find her Death. She immersed herself in study of ancient history, embracing the world of the dead rather than the living. She studied the Carthaginians, another race of people wiped away from existence by a group of Latin-speaking killers, the Romans. When she first appeared on-screen, in Season Four’s Confirmed Dead, she was shrugging off the sight of 324 bodies, and digging up skeletons with a morbid grin. She survived another brush with Linus, the Dharma killer, but he eventually killed her anyway (by turning the wheel that caused her fatal sickness). There is no morality here in her story, no redemption, no personal fulfillment. The only force at play in her life was Death itself. Charlotte’s entire life can be summarized by the memorable image from the beginning of the episode: an unstoppable black hand, dragging her down underground to her doom.
LOCKE: [It] kept saying they're dead, it killed them all, over and over? Is that a place you really want to lead people to? – The Greater Good
In addition to bringing death to Dharma, Benjamin Linus has been a destructive force for the Oceanic survivors. Linus shot Locke at the mass grave, he ordered the death of Charlie, and he destroyed everyone on the Freighter without a second thought. The ending of This Place is Death reveals the true source of the massive Island casualties of Season Five. (Daniel’s empirical breakdown of the situation early in the episode hints to this same conclusion.) The 'very bad things' that happened over the first five episodes did not occur because of the helicopter’s departure. The You in Because You Left refers to one man. Ben’s actions at the Orchid station not only cast out the Oceanic Six, but also tossed the Island’s inhabitants into temporal disaster. In his most important moment of the episode, though, Ben describes himself as a protector, not a killer: “If you had any idea what I’ve had to do to keep you safe, to keep your friends safe, then you’d never stop thanking me.” Ben’s outburst in response to Jack’s threat seems uncharacteristically sincere. As always, his words most likely are designed to conceal the truth. I suspect that the more honest phrasing of his sentence would be: “If you had any idea of the things that I’ve actually done to your friends, then you’d really want me dead.” Sayid, for one, distrusts Ben entirely, and he either knows or at least suspects that Locke did not die from suicide. In his fateful meeting with Bentham, perhaps Linus finally finished the job he started in The Man Behind The Curtain, to add John's body to his personal pile of corpses.
John Locke lived his life with hopes of becoming a great leader. At the end of Season Four, his dream appeared to come true. The Island had cast out his two rivals, Jack and Ben, and chosen him to lead the people left behind. The ending of This Place is Death reveals the true nature of the destiny he had been seeking for so long. He was chosen not as a leader, but as a martyr, the sacrifice that the Island demanded. His whole life had been pointing him towards his one great accomplishment, his death. In possibly the most heartbreaking moment of the entire series, Locke accepts his fate, without a single complaint. He loses everything in one scene, more than any character in this epic story called Lost. Locke loses his friends as the Island buries him under its surface; he once again loses the power to walk, in a remarkably painful fashion; he loses his beloved Island, never to return to it in living form; and ultimately he will lose his life. In exchange, he gains nothing, except the assurance that someone believed in him.
This Place is Death provides an onslaught of macabre imagery that one hardly would expect to find in an ABC prime-time drama: the innocent faces of Danielle Rousseau and her friends, ghosts trapped in the tragic prison of the past; the determined face of Jin, as he declares himself dead in an attempt to spare his wife and daughter; the pale face of Charlotte Lewis, spewing forth blood and random memories, as her brain slips through time; and the anguished face of John Locke, as he crawls willingly to the altar of his self-sacrifice. After This Place is Death, Locke will never see the Island again in this life. I do not think that I ever will see this place in the same way, either. According to Christian belief, the sacrifice of Jesus made it possible for his followers to enjoy eternal life. I doubt whether John's sacrifice will accomplish as much in this story, but his death ensures that when these characters die, they will at least die together. If death seems to be a given on Lost, then dying together might be the nearest thing possible to a happy ending.