There are only two types of Lost fans: those who watch the show for the Characters, and those who watch the show for the Mythology. The statement I just made is, of course, a false one. It reflects a gross generalization, which oversimplifies the complex motivations of a wide spectrum of individuals into two categories. Look no further than the Season Five finale, The Incident, for evidence that the definitions of ‘character’ and ‘mythology’ overlap each other as to make the classification nearly meaningless. Jacob, the central force lurking behind all Lost mythology, is in fact a character. Nevertheless, that exact thought has probably crossed the mind of every person reading this article, in one form or another, at some point in time. Our world is so complex and chaotic, that if we never made such generalizations, if we never drew such dividing lines, then we could never understand anything. All science, art, and even language depends upon a binary choice between ‘X’ and ‘not-X’. Even when we stare into a random and meaningless abyss, a Rorschach inkblot, we instinctively need to find some greater meaning within it, to find some pattern in the black ink on white background.
When presented with a choice between two options, neutrality is nearly impossible. Personally, I know where I stand on most of Lost’s dueling opposites. The characters are more important than mythology. Season One is much stronger than Season Five. Terry O’Quinn is a far better actor than Michael Emerson. Jack is many times more interesting than James. Exposé kicks ass. Jack belongs with Juliet, and Kate should be with Sawyer. I hope that Widmore defeats Linus, and that Jacob loses to his nemesis. Science should always triumph over faith. I prefer one immutable timeline over alternate universes, and I prefer John Locke over everyone and everything. (While I’m at it, Elvis made better music than the Beatles, Manning is a better quarterback than Brady, Batman is better hero than Superman, Latin is more beautiful than Greek, but the Greeks themselves were more interesting than the Romans.) On an intellectual level, I understand the validity of the opposite perspectives, but, on an emotional level, I’m also 100% convinced that my opinions are correct. At its best, Lost presents us with a world of black-and-white dichotomies in perfect symmetry, but then exposes the truth in all of its shades of gray. Along the way, we can revel in the conflicts and enjoy choosing sides. Those who refuse to take sides, in the words of Rose and Bernard in this episode, simply don't care. True objectivity functions no differently from apathy. Ultimately, our reactions, opinions, and preferences reveal more about ourselves than about the artwork itself.
The two-part episode The Incident presents two stories in parallel: a science-fiction adventure involving time-travel, electro-magnetism, and a mad scientist hoping to change things with a hydrogen bomb; and a fantasy myth involving mortals enslaved by ancient demigods, trying to change things with a knife and sacrificial fire. (In keeping with the disclaimer introduced earlier, it must be noted that ‘science’ and ‘fantasy’ are terms loosely applied, and that perhaps even the Jacob story might craft a more plausible scientific explanation than the Incident itself.) This work of fiction exists somewhere at the intersection of drama, sci-fi, and fantasy, but wholly within the category of Mythology. The episode’s first images evoke the dawn of human culture, the harnessed power of fire, shelters made of rock, hand-spun clothing and sandals, and primitive tools to gather fish from the ocean. After mankind adapted the necessary technology to survive, his mind began to expand to other pursuits, darkening his bare walls to produce painted images, carving majestic statues into rock, weaving decorative tapestries dyed different colors, telling stories through language, and even building ships to explore the seas (and planes to conquer the skies). Although Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey still holds the record for the longest flash-forward in cinema history, the centuries-long transition after the opening scene achieves a similar narrative effect. Even though man has evolved from taming the Promethean fire to building Edison’s light bulb to unleashing the power of the atom, our civilization is still in its infancy. Human beings themselves have not matured at the same rate as our technological progress. “They come. They fight. They destroy. They corrupt. It always ends the same.” The same petty jealousies that motivated the biblical rivalry of Jacob and Esau, also inform our nuclear-age warfare. A doctor can now perform once-unthinkable paralysis-saving surgery on your spine, but can that same doctor ever fix his own backbone when dealing with his father? Even our artwork, after generations of progress from cave paintings to wireless transmission of digital media, have also taken us from Homer to New Kids on the Block.
LOCKE: Years later a visiting prince came into Michelangelo's studio and found the master staring at a single 18 foot block of marble. Then he knew that the rumors were true -- that Michelangelo had come in everyday for the last four months, stared at the marble, and gone home for his supper. So the prince asked the obvious -- what are you doing? And Michelangelo turned around and looked at him, and whispered, sto lavorando, I'm working. Three years later that block of marble was the statue of David.
Two special artifacts from this classic opening scene, which are revisited at the ending of the episode, deserve special attention. The first is Jacob’s tapestry. The meticulously hand-crafted decoration initially appears in incomplete form. He has emblazoned the top section of the tapestry with ancient Greek lettering, a phrase from Homer’s Odyssey: “May the Gods grant thee all that thy heart desires”. Under those letters, the Egyptian symbol of the Eye of Horus, a symbol of divine power, occupies the center, between two massive wings. When Ben arrives at the statue centuries later, Jacob’s masterpiece is complete. Arms stretch down from the eye, towards nine human figures, while two kings observe from both sides. The image offers a visual representation of Jacob’s long-term plan, to give each piece ‘a little push’ into place for his endgame. Presumably, those nine individuals correspond to Kate, Sawyer, Sayid, Ilana, Locke, Sun, Jin, Jack, and Hurley (although Ben might be the final person, as Ben received Jacob’s touch rather than Ilana). Much like the sequence of literal and figurative long cons that preceded this one, the tapestry doubles as a metaphor for the show’s writing process. The gods of this particular story, writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, strung the audience along for several years, slowly revealing pieces, painting each character with care, until it was time to unveil this man behind the curtain. Of course, they understood that the journey was more important than the final destination. As Jacob later confesses: “It takes a very long time when you're making the thread, but, uh... I suppose that's the point, isn't it?”.
Allusions to outside mythology, of course, occur quite frequently on Lost. For every direct reference that the show makes, there are a dozen other meaningful comparisons to be made, some intentional (such as Apollo the son of Zeus, or Everything That Rises Must Converge) but many others are merely fortuitous. Minds working independently across the globe tend to converge on the same core ideas or mythemes. Mythology scholars have produced a number of different theories to explain why authors from different cultures, without any direct contact, produce legends with such striking similarities. Each theory of mythology necessary rests on a simplification and generalization, more valid for some works than for others. In my assessment, the work of French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss offers the deepest insight into the objectives of Lost-style myth-making. Lévi-Strauss posited that human beings organize information primarily through binary oppositions (pairs like faith-empiricism, freedom-determinism). The underlying storytelling purpose of any myth is to unify those irreconcilable opposites, or at least create the illusion that the conflict has been resolved. Through the clash of thesis and antithesis, we can arrive at a synthesis. The commonly-cited analysis of the tragedy of Oedipus Rex offers a useful example: Sophocles revealed the consequences for a son showing not nearly enough affection for one parent, by killing his father; and far too much affection for the other parent, by marrying his mother. The great Lost myth revolves around the mirroring psyches of its pair of heroes, Jack Shephard and John Locke, one child who received far too much parenting (with Christian pushing his adult son around the clock) and another child who received far too little parenting (with Cooper pushing his adult son out of the eight-story window). The endless dichotomies of Lost are indeed false ones, and no one who chooses one extreme side, can ever be fully correct.
LOCKE: Backgammon is the oldest game in the world. Archeologists found sets when they excavated the ruins of ancient Mesopotamia. Five thousand years old. That's older than Jesus Christ.
WALT: Did they have dice and stuff?
LOCKE: [nods] But theirs weren't made of plastic. Their dice were made of bones.
LOCKE: Two players. Two sides. One is light … one is dark.
The second key artifact is Jacob’s home, the Statue itself. As confirmed through outside sources (although hardly apparent from the actual episode), the Statue represents the hippopotamus-headed Egyptian fertility goddess Tawaret. (The interior chamber also includes a painting of the Egyptian deity Isis, another goddess similarly associated with protection, birth, and motherhood.) Before this revelation, many people, including myself, predicted incorrectly that the Statue would depict Anubis, the jackal-faced god of death, judgment, and the underworld. Images of Anubis last appeared during Season Five's Dead is Dead, on the tunnel walls where Linus confronted the black Smoke, also known by its Greek mythological moniker, Cerberus. The overall implication here is that the dividing lines have been drawn, with Jacob’s light side linked to Life, with the Man in Black associated with Death. In flashback, Jacob’s touch breathes life in Locke’s fallen body, while his nemesis apparently has been manipulating corpses for years to help him commit a murder.
Among the ancient secrets revealed in this episode, Ricardus answers Ilana’s ongoing riddle “What lies in the shadow of the Statue?” with the Latin phrase: ille qui nos omnes servabit. The standard translation apparently characterizes Jacob as a messiah figure: the one who will save us all. Despite all preliminary indications, it would be a premature mistake to equate the light-dark imagery with a good-evil metaphor. As Frank Lapidus wisely remarks: “In my experience, the people who go out of their way to tell you that the good guys are the bad guys.” The basic conclusions are undisputed: Jacob wants to keep bringing people to the Island to bring about an Ending, while the Man in Black wants to kill Jacob and keep the Island isolated. (The physical acting of the two rivals even conveys their dueling outlooks, with Mark Pellegrino relaxing as he scans the horizon, but with Titus Welliver squinting uncomfortably in the reflected sunlight.) Conceivably, Jacob’s Ending, his desire for change, could include the death of all mankind, to make way for the birth of a new progressive era. A phrase on the bottom of his tapestry offers a foreboding hint of Jacob’s final solution to end human corruption: “Only the dead have seen the end of war”. Keep in mind, the first on-screen action of Jacob, the great fisher of men, was to gather life from the ocean, rip its guts out, and then devour it.
(Here is another fun etymological fact for all of the Latin lovers out there. Early in the episode, Bram and Ilana share a cryptic exchange about whether Frank might be a Candidate for their side, a term that undoubtedly will reappear in Season Six scripts. The Latin adjective candidatus literally means “dressed in white,” and Mr. Lapidus clearly fits that bill. The word developed its English meaning from the white gowns worn by Romans seeking senatorial election. The word also shares a common origin with the adjective candidus which could be used for its literal meaning of “white,” or in a more figurative sense as “clear”, “candid”, or in other words “Frank.”)
MIKHAIL: Ha! Don’t waste your time. For ten years I have tried to defeat that game. But it was programmed by three grand masters. And it cheats.
LOCKE: Hmm. Well, I’ve played a lot of computers and I’m pretty sure they don’t know how to cheat. That’s what makes being human so distinctly wonderful.
For the first time, The Incident allows the viewer to rise up from a ground-level view of the game pieces on earth, to see the chess board from the player’s perspective in the sky. The story begins with the Man in White and the Man in Black trapped in an eternal stalemate. The fisherman Jacob gathers people from the seas, and then his enemy the hunter watches them destroy each other. Like the layman’s definition of insanity, Jacob repeats the same action over and over, while expecting a different result, faithful that one day the humans will change their nature, and the outcome. As Jacob points out, though, time is on his side: only one counterexample is necessary to disprove a negative. The rules of the game favor an endless cycle of perfectly symmetrical violence, until one of the players can find a way to change, break, or at least bend the rules. The Man in Black found the loophole in the rules that would allow him to kill Jacob. Evidently, he needed to impersonate Locke (and a number of other departed souls along the way) in order to persuade Ben, the leader of the Others, to choose to murder Jacob. At the same time, Jacob knew that his opponent would exploit the technicality eventually. In response, Jacob found his own way to cheat the rules: he brought a handful of special individuals to the Island, so that they could erase the events that lead to his death. To borrow a key phrase from Lost creator J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek opus: “Going back in time, changing history ... that's cheating.” Both master plans required a tremendous degree of faith in mankind: Jacob placed his confidence in the better angels of our nature, the ability of separate individuals to collaborate on one final goal; the Man in Black went all-in gambling on the inherent weakness of Locke, the corruption of Ben, and the mindlessness of his followers.
Their debate about whether mankind can change its nature arrives alongside the time-travel corollary question of whether human beings can alter their future. The “we’re the variables” framework presented in Season Five - note the emphasis on the plural - suggests that one person acting alone cannot alter history. Due to our natural tendency to oppose each other, the reactions of some other person will negate that action. Season Five's test case demonstrated the principle, as Kate's efforts to save little Benjamin negated Sayid's attempts to destroy him. The light will drive away the darkness, and vice-versa. However, if enough individuals combine in an effort to alter history, then the magnetism of their aggregate positive charge can overcome the negative pull. When the dark energy approaches the Swan (Jack, Sayid, Jin, and Hurley - all shown as adults in flashback), the forces of light gather to stop them (James, Juliet, and Kate – each one appearing as a child). The ensuing argument between echoes the central time-travel issue of Season Five: James asserts “What’s done is done,” and Jack responds “If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.” The resulting boxing match between the Black-Jack and Light-LaFleur depicts the larger war between the dueling demigods in microcosm: the two men are evenly matched when trading punches, so James exploits a few holes in Jack’s rulebook. In the end, though, one side prevails with nothing more than a little push to tip the scales. Juliet’s paradoxical, circular logic, a freely-willed decision grounded on her concept of predestination, resolves the conflict into its synthesis.
BERNARD: You realize we're the only two married guys on the island?
[He shows his ring]
BERNARD: Yeah, well, no, not to each other. No. (laughing) You got it. It's not easy, is it? Oh, I mean, it's--it's wonderful, but... let's face it, every decision that you make takes twice as long. 'Cause you always gotta talk them into it.
The episode’s black-and-white motif takes on a completely different meaning in the context of the Island’s two married couples. Part One includes the long-awaited return of Rose and Bernard, a couple whose bond transcends not only the color barrier between black and white, but also the perhaps deeper divide between a woman of faith and a man of science. The retired couple sets the example that the children refuse to follow, to lay down their differences and evolve into peaceful harmony. Subsequent flashbacks also reunite our other married couple, the wedding between Sun in her white dress and Jin in his black tuxedo. Western observers often mistakenly refer to the prominent Eastern symbols of yin and yang, as images of the struggle between good and evil. On the contrary, the black-and-white emblem common from Chinese philosophy (also incorporated into the flag of South Korea) represents duality rather than polarity. The dark and the light, the male and the female, instead of opposing each other become unified halves of a stronger whole. Jin provides another useful image: “We will never be apart, because being apart would be like the sky being apart from the earth.” Their wedding rings reinforce the idea of interconnectedness between the two halves of the same story, an unbreakable bond despite decades of separation. Sun’s later discovery of Charlie’s Driveshaft ring suggests a similar connection between the living and the dead, the past and the future. On a more depressing note, this episode also includes a third married couple, with the tragedy of Sayid and Nadia. While Sayid bleeds to death from his gunshot wound on the island, he suffers a deeper wound in flashback, his own sky being ripped away from his earth.
In what is either a sheer accident, or the product of intelligent design, the dark and light phenomenon even extends into the ongoing turmoil between the episode’s four romantic leads. On the physical level, James and Juliet share the same light-haired, lighter-eyed look of Jacob, while Jack and Kate share the same dark-haired, darker-eyed look of his nemesis. As Radzinsky might attest, basic electromagnetism holds that like charges repel and opposite charges attract. Even heading into the final season, the love quadrangle has never settled into a stable equilibrium, due to a peculiar mix of shared-physical-traits-with-opposite-personality-traits and vice versa. If you wanted a second opinion from Dr. Freud, then he could tell you a thing or too about Ms. Austen and Mrs. Shephard, Ms. Burke and Mrs. Ford. (Speaking of Freud, what can a psychoanalyst say about writers who changed temporarily the name of one of its leads from the revenge-driven Sawyer to flower-sniffing LaFleur. The Flower, as it translates from French to English, is traditionally associated with femininity, fertility, and even serves a common symbol for a certain part of the female anatomy. Fortunately, The Incident confirms that, “there ain’t no more LaFleur,” and with it the nominal castration of James Ford comes to an end.) The Incident focuses much of its creative energy on manufacturing motivations for each of the four lovers, to join forces to detonate Jughead, mostly at the expense of the supporting players. For each of these four characters, Lindelof and Cuse go too far in spelling out the answers to the audience in childish black-and-white terms, when shades of adult gray would have sufficed.
KATE: So, do you believe it?
JACK: Believe what?
KATE: That everything's going to be okay?
JACK: Yeah, I do.
KATE: Kind of unlike you -- the whole glass half-full thing.
JACK: There's a glass?
The childish immaturity of adults often comes across in a negative light, but child-like innocence can also be seen as a positive trait. Hurley, more than any other character, has been blessed (or, depending on your perspective, cursed) with the heart of a child. The adult Hugo not only enjoys a nice cherry Fruit Rollup on his ride home from jail, but he is thoughtful enough to offer to share it with a stranger. Just as any girl Juliet’s age will blame her own actions for her parents’ failed marriage, Hurley similarly internalizes the misfortunes of others as his own personal shortcoming. Hurley’s conversation with Jacob carries the same tune as any kid in need of parental guidance. Jacob’s words add another classic binary opposition to this tapestry of black and white: optimism and pessimism. There are always two ways to look at any situation. Even the darkest curse might be viewed as a brilliant blessing in disguise. As a point of caution, though, the converse of that principle also holds some merit. Throughout this story, Jack plays the unlikely role of a zealous optimist. Absolutely confident in the plan’s improbable success, he illuminates all of the wonderful merits of the revised timeline (Sayid’s life will be saved, Jin will get reunite with Sun, Claire will have the chance to keep Aaron, etc.). Foolish optimism can be a more dangerous force than cautious pessimism. His alternate future easily could result in an abyss of darkness, rather than a beacon of sunshine.
After so many rays of hope, the story of John Locke now ends in the gloomiest depths of tragedy. Frank quotes the same eternal question that links together Through the Looking Glass with There’s No Place Like Home: “What’s in the box?”. Three years later, the answer remains the same: Locke’s rotting corpse. John's life ended with him alone, miserable, and a failure. He was a puppet on strings, pulled by Cooper, by Ben, and by the Man in Black, and then discarded as a piece of trash, like on the day he was born. In a way, the entity now occupying Locke’s body has been fulfilling John Locke’s lifelong dreams. Locke always wanted to become a decisive leader, a man strong enough stand up to the Coopers and Linuses and Jacobs of the world. This master pulling the strings is unburdened by John’s emotional scars, his neediness, his self-doubt, even his morality. John’s ambitions of divinity could not be reconciled with his identity as a mortal, so one of those two needed to die. Even so, Locke’s tragic curse can be viewed as a blessing of martyrdom. Seemingly, Locke’s last chance for redemption hinges upon the success of Shephard’s mission to erase history. His phony resurrection in The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham could be explained only by a cheap deus ex machina. The alternative option, resuming his life in a wheelchair at LAX, would be the product of his own leadership, the effect of mentoring Jack into a true believer. Jack drops the warhead onto the Swan site, like a kid tossing a coin into a wishing well, with the hope that when the magic box opens again, whatever he imagines will come true.
LOCKE: You have to do it.
JACK: You do it yourself, John.
LOCKE: No, you saw the film, Jack. This is a two person job, at least. […] I can't do this alone, Jack. I don't want to. It's a leap of faith, Jack.
Jack’s mad quest to detonate the bomb and prevent the Incident should remind the audience of Locke’s equally mad quest to end the 108-minute cycle of button-pushing once and for all. The content of Season Two’s Live Together, Die Alone resembles The Incident in other ways as well, a two-hour flashback episode to introduce a new character, with a timer ticking down to a scheduled event, which ends with one last heroic gesture to "make it all go away" in a flash of light. (Also, it never hurts to add liberal doses of the Great Radzinsky into your script.) These two episodes pull their characters violently towards the same magnetic focal point, with metal projectiles flying through the air. In each case, the man of faith puts his blind beliefs to an empirical test, to find a yes-or-no, black-and-white scientific question. Locke told us: “I’m more sure about this than anything in my entire life,” and he was wrong. For Jack, the words are: “Nothing... nothing in my life has ever felt so right.” (These statements also reveal a great deal about the degree of confidence the two men felt in themselves over the years.) The destinies of these two great men have been intertwined quite beautifully. Indeed, the outcome of one question hinges upon the answer to the other. If Jack had succeeded in destroying the energy, then Locke would have been correct as the timer ticked down to zero. On the other hand, if the Button truly served no purpose, then Oceanic 815 would have crashed regardless of any Incident, and Jack’s plan would have no effect on the timeline. I cannot help but admire their pure strength of will required to risk everything, seemingly beyond good and evil, beyond fate and free will.
Lost’s famous Live Together, Die Alone dichotomy reappears in another form, in the story of Juliet. When Jack first spoke those words in Season One’s White Rabbit, he phrased it as an either-or choice: “if we can’t live together, then we’re going to die alone.” When Juliet references the mantra in The Incident, she makes a crucial misstatement, “Live together and die alone” (at least, according to the closed-captions on my DVD.) A few minutes later, Juliet indeed does die alone, in the hope that everyone else might live again, together at LAX. The method of her death, proved to be an inspired creative choice. James, who tried desperately to lift John from the well in This Place is Death, once again found himself on the losing end of a tug-of-war with the grim reaper. Despite moving on from the death of his parents to build a new life, he finds himself in the same place as his childhood self in Tennessee, losing the woman he loves most in the world. The magnetically-charged chains, pulling her down into the gaping hole, offers a more scientific counterpart to the fantasy-inspired image of the Smoke Monster’s black hand of Death. Chains commonly serve as a symbol of restraint, imprisonment, inevitability, the antithesis of human liberty. In the famous words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains." Pulled underground against her will, Juliet makes one last free choice, to erase countless freely-willed decisions of others. She achieves her destiny by destroying the chain of events that caused her to fulfill that destiny.
When the final white screen with black letters appears for the first time, after five years of white-on-black writing, the implication is clear: the Lost universe as we know it has inverted itself. The central binary dilemma of Season Five hangs in the balance with the flash of light. Two players, two sides. Did the events of the Season-Five-ending Incident prevent the Season One-opening Pilot’s crash of Oceanic 815? Or did the characters cause the very future they were trying to prevent? Both options offer a mix of positives and negatives. A brand new timeline would offer fresh storytelling opportunities, and a chance to revisit old friends long gone. On the other hand, the explosion would also incinerate the entire five-season hand-crafted tapestry of the Island story. The entire post-1977 universe, including the 2007 storyline of the Incident, would amount to nothing more than a dream. Preserving the old timeline would re-affirm the show’s fundamental rules for meaningful storytelling stakes: dead is dead; whatever happened, happened. With that solution, the entire time-travel story arc that lead to this finale event, and all those post-cliffhanger months of anticipation, would become meaningless. (Logistically, I don’t think either solution even makes much logical sense.) Perhaps the fatal flaw of this debate is that we view it as a debate. As Juliet did, maybe we should simple replace the word ‘OR’ with the word ‘AND’. There can be two universes, one in which Jacob succeeds, and one in which the Man in Black succeeds. Instead of conflict, we can find harmony. As the men who first painted on cave walls understood, one color is not enough. A world of pure white and a world of pure black would be indistinguishable from chaos. But, when you combine the dark and the light in some kind of balance, then any work of art becomes possible.
Posted by DarkUFO at 2/03/2010 02:16:00 am 27 CommentsLuhks , Recaps , The Incident