Legend has it, during Season Three, ABC reached a compromise when they decided on the show’s end date. My memory might be incorrect, or the information might not even have been accurate in the first place. The show’s writers wanted to finish the series with two more seasons, but the network of course wanted to keep its valuable product for at least three more. Their solution was to reduce the length of the final seasons, and divide up the remaining 48 episodes over three years. Then, the infamous writers’ strike complicated matters even further, and the fourth season became even shorter. The fourth season finale, There’s No Place Like Home, ultimately delivered plenty of excellent drama, but it did not provide quite the same sense of narrative finality as its three predecessors. Basically, the Season Four conclusion did not move into any new territory, but it merely filled the gaps created by the superlative ending of Season Three.
Many elements have changed over the course of production, and it is impossible to know how much of the story was planned in advance. Nevertheless, I suspect that the original ending of Lost’s fourth chapter probably matched the events of this recent three-part saga: This Place is Death, 316, and The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham. To make this situation even more confusing, The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham was originally written as the lead-in to 316, rather than vice-versa. After both episodes, you could make a strong argument for either order. The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham essentially represents an ending, for the Coffin story, as well as the Oceanic Six storyline. 316 represents more of a beginning, with the start of a new Island adventure for our familiar 815 survivors, and with the introduction of Ajira 316, another plane full of castaways. The opening images of 316, showing the return of Jack and company to the Island, might have even served as the penultimate season-ending cliffhanger.
The opening scene of 316 transports the viewer back in time to the first moments of the series. A number of episodes have repeated some of the famous introductory images from the Pilot episode (the close-up of the eye opening, the overhead shot of a man lying on his back), but none more closely than this one. 316 recreates the same sequence of shots, depicts the same character in duplicate circumstances, and uses identical music. Jack once again follows the screams for help, and rushes to the aid of Hurley and Kate (who like Claire from the Pilot may be pregnant with another Shephard baby). Some things never change: Jack’s instincts still propel him to run directly towards the cries of help, as reliably as Vincent being hailed by a whistle. These two scenes not only portray Jack’s natural bravery, but they first highlight a sense of isolation. Perhaps the Shephard’s ultimate destiny is to die alone in the jungle, apart from the rest of the group. Many people have guessed that the series would end with the image of Jack’s eye opening, but now the image of Jack’s eye closing seems more likely.
The similarities in these two introductions may be obvious, but some key differences deserve mention. The shot of Jack lying in the jungle is not merely a repetition, but an inversion of the original shot. The object in Jack’s pocket has transformed as well, from a bottle of alcohol (his form of self-medication), into the letter with the mystical, open-ended sentence “I wish ...”. When Jack sits up in 316, the camera shows the left side of his face, rather than the right side as shown in the Pilot. This new angle of 316 instead matches another Season One shot, the image of Locke rising from paralysis at the end of Walkabout. Furthermore, the Matthew Fox’s expression does not express those same emotions from Jack’s original awakening in the jungle: fear, confusion, and pain. Instead, he gazes upward with the same gasping smile first displayed by Terry O’Quinn. The new Jack sees the Island through Locke’s eyes, as a place where miracles happen. Locke’s miracle was a physical one, as the Island restored his broken body; Jack’s miracle is a spiritual one, in which the Island revives his shattered soul. The story of 316 chronicles the final stages of that miracle, Doubting Jack’s transformation into a true believer, Locke’s primary apostle.
316, as well as its follow-up The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham, restores many other core elements from the show’s original Season One form. With the Wheel firmly in place, the random time jumps from the early episodes of Season Five have ended. The primary storytelling device, flashbacks centering on an individual character, resumes as well. In fact, Jack is present in every scene of 316 (while Locke similarly features in every scene of the following episode). These two characters have been my personal favorites since the first season: the paraplegic and the spinal surgeon have always been linked together inseparably as the backbone of the story. A significant portion of this episode also involves recreating specific details from Oceanic Flight 815. Almost every original character (even forgotten ones like the Marshal and Rose) receives a nod or two along the way. Most significantly, though, 316 also manages to shift back into Season One mystery mode. On some level, each passenger on the plane becomes a mysterious stranger. What convinced Kate to give up Aaron? How did Hugo come to join the flight? Why did Sun abandon her daughter? Why is a law enforcement officer, Ilana, escorting Sayid to Guam? Who is the mystery man with the ominous name of Caesar? Did Ben really complete his unfinished business with the Widmores? The episode could have answered everything outright; instead, it shows Flight 316 entirely from Jack’s perspective, in order to impart that same sense of wonder onto the viewer.
As one notable exception, however, the episode's first off-island scenes place Lost squarely in Answer Mode rather than Question Mode. Jack, Ben, Sun, and Desmond convene inside Dharma’s Lamp Post, buried underneath a church, for a didactic lecture from Ms. Eloise Hawking. The setting bears such a strong resemblance to a science classroom (with bookshelves and machines and equation-filled chalkboards and an old woman demanding everyone’s attention) that Ben even refers to it as ‘school’ later on. Judging from this scene, as well as Lost’s earlier jokes about Dr. Arzt, I suspect Lindelof and Cuse do not have a high opinion of science teachers. Anyone who has worked as a teacher will tell you what a poor job Ms. Hawking did in her instruction. To be fair, she did a decent job at classroom management, and kept some difficult students in line. As an educator, though, she failed miserably. She essentially delivered a series of orders, without asking the students not to develop any understanding of why she gave those orders. Her entire pitch relies on an appeal to authority: “Some people smarter than you, who worked those complicated equations behind me, somehow determined scientifically that you need to re-create the circumstances of the original flight. There’s no time to explain, so you’ll just have to take our word for it.”
Season Five has included countless allusions to Jesus of Nazareth, and these scenes in Hawking’s church pile on a few more overt references. The title of this episode, among other things, refers to John 3:16 from Christian scripture. Next to Jesus, the second-most influential martyr of Western civilization, the Greek philosopher Socrates, also was sentenced to death under comparable circumstances, four centuries earlier. Socrates was tried for nothing more than asking questions, and challenging people to reconsider their assumptions about the world. In doing so, he developed the Socratic method, the most effective method for teaching anything (and certainly not the method used by Ms. Hawking). Only one of Hawking’s students, Desmond, embodies the spirit of Socratic thinking. Desmond has enough skepticism of this authority figure to question what he had been told. He does what any true student must always do: he thinks for himself and he questions everything. Specifically, he challenges the assumption that returning to the Island could be a good thing. His own experiences offer plenty of evidence to the contrary. The only response he receives (the Island is not done with you yet) is unsatisfactory. Desmond, the only Catholic in the room, refuses to make the leap of faith.
If I were in that classroom, I also would have questioned much of Ms. Hawking’s instructions. At one point, she claims that Island is 'always moving'. This idea still does not make any sense to me. If the Island were jumping around the globe, then the people on the Island would see the sun shifting from one part of the sky to another. I suspect that the moving Island is really a misnomer, a metaphor for how to reach the Island. The windows to reach the Island might change all the time, but the land mass itself must occupy some fixed location on the earth’s surface. I also would have questioned Hawking’s instructions to recreate the details of the original flight. Her conclusion does not follow from the stated premises. If the Lamp Post can predict the next open window to the Island, then the contents of the plane would be irrelevant. Calculations might explain why Flight 316 to Guam had the best chances of success, but no numbers could ever explain why bringing Christian’s shoes would increase that probability. The Oceanic passengers would need to be together for it to work, only if they were the factors that caused it to work. Possibly, Hawking’s entire display was nothing more than like the pyrotechnics that surround the Wizard of Oz, mere scenery to convince the subjects.
Later, Ben’s monologue adds another layer to the show’s Christian symbolism when he compares Jack to Thomas the Apostle. First, Ben refers to the Thomas’ bravery, his refusal to let people 'die alone'. More importantly, his story portrays the force of doubt in direct opposition to faith. Doubting Thomas’ great flaw was his refusal to accept second-hand accounts of miracles. Jack shares this mindset, as he refused to believe so many of the things that Locke and Ben had told him. The morality of Lost’s Doubting Thomas story seems highly questionable. Why should skepticism be regarded with such disdain, and blind belief be regarded with such admiration? Personally, I admire the skepticism of men like Thomas, Jack, Socrates, and Desmond. Paradoxically, a scientific mind requires its own brand of faith: you must trust your own senses and your own powers of reason. Why should a person need to be redeemed simply for being unconvinced without proof? It is not even apparent why Jack the Believer is really an improvement over Jack the Skeptic. At the very least, Jack’s new willingness to trust Hawking and Linus presents a troubling sign for his future.
As part of his transformation, the new Jack has developed the uncanny ability to let things go. The transcript for 316 contains 124 question marks after lines of dialogue. (By contrast, there are only 24 exclamation points.) Jack, of course, asks more questions than any other character in this episode, but he rarely hears a straight response. The lack of direct answers almost becomes a running gag through this particular script. There are many different ways to avoid answering questions, and the writers of Lost employ every one of them in this episode. One way to avoid a spoken question is to ensure that none of the characters know the answer, either. When Kate awakes on the Island, she immediately asks the obvious question: What happened? (When the scene is repeated at the end of the episode, she also asks to know the whereabouts of the plane, Sun, Sayid, and Ben.) Jack and Hurley, though, have no more information than she does at that point. This episode provides no answer to this major question, either to the audience or to the characters.
Perhaps the simplest method of avoiding an answer is to avoid asking the question altogether. Sun, for instance, never needed to explain why she chose to leave Ji Yeon, because no one mentioned it. Similarly, when Sayid arrives aboard the plane, Ilana sits between him and his friends, and prevents him from saying a word. Other questions need not be answered, because the response is implied in the language itself. This episode contains a few examples of rhetorical questions, but the best of the bunch is Frank’s memorable line: “We’re not going to Guam, are we?”. Another sure-fire method is to change the subject. When Jack begins to ask Hurley about how he arrived for the flight, Hurley brushed the inquiry aside by saying “All that matters is that I’m here, right?”. Kate’s method of changing the topic of conversation is equally effective, even though it is remarkably less subtle. When Jack asks her “Where’s Aaron?”, her reply is: “No, don’t ask questions. If you want me to go with you, you’ll never ask that question again.” Immediately after, Kate employs history’s most proven method to silence an inquisitive male: she sleeps with him. I am not a neuroscientist, but I am fairly certain that whenever Evangeline Lilly jumps a guy and starts making out with him, the portion of his brain required for forming questions shuts down entirely.
As secretive as those Oceanic survivors can be, master manipulator Benjamin Linus knows how to conceal information better than anyone. For Ben, dodging questions is not only a way of life, but almost a form of art. He uses outright lying (Jack: “Did you know about this place?” Ben: “No. No, I didn’t.”). He tells cryptic half-truths (Jack: “Where are you going?” Ben: “Oh, I made a promise to an old friend of mine, just a loose end that needs tying up.”). He stonewalls (Jack [on the phone]: “What’s happened to you?” Ben: “Just do it. Please.”). He answers questions with questions (Jack: “What’s going to happen to the other people on this plane?” Ben: “Who cares?”). He deflects with humor (Jack: “How can you read?” Ben: “My mother taught me.”). Linus’ bag of tricks can only be surpassed perhaps by Presidents Nixon and Clinton. Ben is far from my favorite character on Lost, but I must admit that 316 contained one of his strongest performances yet on the show. The phone call from the marina might be the ultimate Ben moment: he calmly states that he has been ‘sidetracked’, with blood pouring down his face, moments after likely murdering an innocent woman.
As a whole, the episode 316 sends conflicting signals about the viewer’s role in interpreting Lost. In the first half of the episode, Hawking and Linus suggest that our role should be passive one: the audience should just listen to the experts, believe whatever they hear, and try not to over-think anything. Nobody appreciates a Doubting Thomas. It would be impossible to enjoy this work of fiction without constant suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, other elements of the episode not only suggest, but require, that the viewer take an active role in the experience. No one could appreciate the mystery elements of this episode if they were not actively asking themselves questions and thinking about the possible answers. This episode’s magic show at the senior citizens’ home provides an apt analogy. Jack’s grandfather, Ray Shephard, is the only person in the audience who refuses to enjoy the magic show before him. Ray knows that there is no such thing as magic, only trickery. No one can deny that the storytelling is contrived, and the audience is constantly being manipulated by curtains, smoke, and mirrors. By the same token, the pleasure of watching would disappear without these contrivances. Perhaps truly enjoying Lost requires some degree of double-think: treating the show seriously enough to engage its mysteries, while simultaneously remembering not to take the show seriously at all.
In my opinion, Lost episodes work most effectively when the writing is at its most Socratic, when the show presents one thought-provoking question after another. Instead of telling the viewers what to think (a la Hawking), the best Lost moments ask the viewers what they think. By obscuring the facts, the show encourages the viewers to search for the underlying truth on their own. The show’s best and most famous example of this type of storytelling, the Through the Looking Glass Coffin, plays a central role in this episode. 316’s number one mystery box exists on a much smaller scale, Jack's unopened letter from Locke beyond the grave. As with the coffin, Jack needed time to wrap his mind around things, before he could open it. He needed to consider the possibilities, to prepare himself for what would find inside. The delay also allows the audience to ponder the unknown, and to think more deeply about the characters than we would otherwise. As Socrates understood, the questioning process is more important than the final answer.
The actual letter does not contain the meaning of life, or reveal a personal secret, or even uncover any great Island mysteries. The ultimate revelation is a simple message, which stays true to character: “I wish you had believed me.” When Jack reads the sentence, two miracles occur. Jack achieves his dream of returning to the Island, his chance to start over and do everything differently. Reading the heartfelt letter achieves the same effect for Jack as touching Jesus' wounds did for Thomas. Locke’s written wish is also granted. Jack not only believes him in the present, but the Island transports him back in time, so that Jack ‘had believed’ him in the past tense. There must be some happy medium between believing everything you are told (as Locke often does) and believing nothing that you are told (as Jack once did). The new Jack the Apostle has jumped from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other. In the process, he seems to have replaced one tragic flaw with another. Desmond’s words offer a sound warning that faith can be misplaced easily. Looking forward, I have two wishes of my own to make. I wish that Jack and Locke will continue to search for answers, using their own reason. More importantly, though, I wish that Lost itself will continue to pose questions worthy of being answered, even after the series ends. All answers have a definite, final end point. The right type of questions, however, ensure that a work of art will live on forever.