Confluence of Redemption:
The Cultural Significance of the Sideways World in Lost
by Pearson Moore
It was just purgatory, nothing more.
After all the writers' denials, their insistence that the Island was real, that there would be no St. Elsewhere snow globe, no purgatory, the best thing they could come up with for Season Six was... Purgatory. Its only connection to the greater story was artificial and contrived, a means of resolving a plethora of questions that could never be explained on the Island in a single season.
Perhaps. We enter this cinematic Starbucks expecting Darlton to pick up the tab. I think we do this to our detriment, and to a much diminished appreciation of Lost. I prefer to accompany Damon and Carlton to the coffee shop, dollar (or loonie or pound note) in hand. Perhaps I don't need to give anything, but this is my desire. With Juliet, I prefer to go Dutch, recognising the multiple and essential connections between the sideways world and the Island world, recognising that I get out of Lost only those riches that reflect the effort I bring in trying to understand this most complex but most rewarding and most fascinating television series.
The heart of Lost is not the Island. The heart of Lost is a mirror, reflecting Jack's wounded body, Locke's unhandicapped courage in a wheelchair, Sawyer's fragmented soul. The heart of Lost is our own reflection, the stark image of our own wounds, our fragmented selves, our rare acts of courage. The heart of Lost is the sideways world.
Many have marveled at the expertly edited five-minute ending sequence of Lost. This was no ordinary editing accomplishment; its perfect beauty and symmetry earned the editors the greatest honour in television: an Emmy for Outstanding Editing. As Jack takes his final walk through the bamboo forest, he enters the sanctuary of the church. Locke is the first one to greet Jack, and breaking from Locke's handshake, Jack greets Penny and Desmond, takes Boone's hand--and grasps a green bamboo shoot just as he passes the decaying shoe, hanging by its laces in the bamboo, that is the portal to his final resting place. Grasping Boone's hand in the sideways world at the moment he passes the shoe on the Island is of course no coincidence. The awkwardly placed shoe is a symbol of the apparent chaos of the Island, just as Boone was the first of many incomprehensible "sacrifices the Island demands".
More importantly, the recurring juxtaposition of the sideways world in the church and the death walk on the Island was meant to convey the intimate connections between the two worlds.
The shoe and Boone and the chaos they represented are now understood in a new light: they are the symbols of a grand plan, the one initiated six years ago, when the mysteriously resurrected Christian Shephard whistled to the yellow Labrador Retriever, Vincent, calling the dog to the second-most important assignment he would ever perform. "I need you to go find my son. He's over there in that bamboo forest, unconscious. I need you to go wake him up.... He has work to do."
When Vincent rushed toward Jack, the noise of his forward motion awakened the unconscious man. Even before he reached this most important disoriented crash survivor, the dog had accomplished his mission. I said earlier this was only Vincent's second greatest assignment. The task of greatest moment was the one he carried out three years later, when he took his place at Jack's side, comforting the great hero in his last two minutes on Earth.
The comfort he provided was symbolic in many ways, not only as a way of ensuring the one who had given his life so that others could live together would not himself have to die alone. There was much more than that to the dog's act of compassion to a dying man. In fact, the entire five-minute sequence chosen to bring closure to the episode perfectly resolved the entire six-year series.
The actions and images in the final five minutes on the Island parallel not only the events in the sideways world, but those that occurred in the first five minutes of the series' beginning. In fact, all three scenes--the opening minutes of Lost, Jack's walk to his death, and the last moments in the church sanctuary--point to each other, demonstrating a triune parallelism of images that complements the deeper conceptual symmetry of the series as a whole.
The series begins with Christian (Lost Missing Pieces M.13, "So It Begins"), apparently acting as an agent of some greater power. Many believe, and there is a good amount of evidence to support the idea, that Christian's form was inhabited by the Smoke Monster. My take on Christian and Vincent, which I believe is more consonant with the continuity of events over six years, is that Jack's father and the dog were agents of the Island (my analysis of Christian Shephard is here: http://pearsonmoore-gets-lost.com/WhiteRabbit.aspx).
Christian, acting on behalf of--or perhaps as the embodiment of--the Island, dispatched his agent, Vincent, to wake his son. Jack's task completed, the Island's representative in the sideways world (Christian) patted Jack's shoulder just before he opened the double doors to the brilliant white light. In that same moment on the Island, Christian's agent (Vincent) barked and took his place next to Jack.
Christian began the series with instructions to Vincent to wake Jack, who "has work to do". When Jack's work was done, Christian (in the sideways world) and Vincent (on the Island) were the last two individuals he interacted with, other than Kate, who would forever remain a part of him as his Constant. The presence of Christian and Vincent--agents of the Island--at both beginning and end, in both the Island and sideways worlds, symbolised the momentous importance of Jack to the Island, acted as bookends to the Island's most important story, and demonstrated the dependence of both Island and sideways realities on each other.
The Grand Leitmotif: Trust
The unifying theme of Season Six was trust.
If Sawyer had been able to trust, he would not have pulled the leads from the Smoke Monster's bomb on board the submarine, the bomb would not have been detonated, and Sayid, Sun, and Jin would not have died. Events would have gone very badly for Smokey, and much more quickly, if the submarine survivors had been able to work together toward his demise.
Trust was the central concept throughout Season Six. Jack trusted the Rules of the Island enough to know that if he lit the fuse on a stick of dynamite no explosion would occur in his presence. The Rules transcended and bent to their own ends the lesser so-called "laws" of physics. The Island was greater than physics, greater than science, greater than any logic, because it was the point of contact with the Source, that aspect of reality that is sometimes referenced as "divine will". In almost every Island event of any significance in Season Six, trust was the dominant issue.
The word "Trust" occurs 178 times throughout the corpus of Lost. Only a few words carrying conceptual weight outrank Trust in frequency of occurrence. The most heavily-used concept word in Lost is "Believe", at 275 occurrences. "Love" is close, at 267 entries throughout all episodes and mobisodes.
An argument could be made that the concept of Faith, as represented in the word "believe", is the dominant leitmotif of the series. I would argue that as we approached the final and pivotal scenes of the series, and especially as we approached the Light and the Source, the idea of trust came to occupy the central position in Lost's hierarchy of values, and not just on the Island. Trust was the dominant theme holding together the sideways world.
In the scene leading to Sayid's enlightenment, Hurley raises the issue of trust, elevating it to the central issue in Sayid's life. He also continues to skew word frequency analysis with the use of his favourite word (dude)--twice in only four lines!
SAYID: What are we doing here?
HURLEY: I'm not allowed to tell you.
SAYID: What do you mean you're not allowed?
HURLEY: There are rules, dude.
SAYID: Whose rules?
HURLEY: Don't worry about it. Just trust me, okay? I trust you.
SAYID: And what, may I ask, have I done to deserve your trust?
HURLEY: I think you're a good guy, Sayid. You know, a lot of people have told you that you're not. Maybe you've heard it so many times you started believing it. You can't let other people tell you what you are, dude. You have to decide that for yourself.
Trust was the dominant theme in the sideways reality for all of the characters. It dominated Season Six. But it had strong roots going all the way back to the very beginning of the series.
Trust: Civilisation's Constant
Trust is the basis of every relationship in Lost.
In the image above, a man and a woman extend their right hands toward each other in Western civilisation's greatest symbol of trust: the handshake. The lighting is dark, and it is difficult to discern enough features to hazard a guess regarding the characters' identities. Perhaps you are thinking this handshake could not carry much significance. Isn't this a normal expression of agreement, solidarity, or trust between individuals? Isn't this gesture performed billions of times every day?
No. Not in a dark, empty stadium late at night. If you are a woman, ask yourself how much trust you would place in a man who approaches you in this defenceless and vulnerable place, far from the safety and constraints of civility. And yet she trusted him immediately. Her name of course was Penny, and the man she met in this dark stadium, for the first time in her life, was the person who would become her best friend, her lover--in the parlance of Lost--her Constant.
Penny and Desmond became the symbol of Lost's version of Love. Love starts with trust and it becomes that which no one can put asunder. True love is Constant because it is the union of two souls to become one. Love is not subordinate to trust, but it begins with trust. Without trust, there is no faith, no hope, no love. Without trust there is no Constant.
In the same way the Lost version of civilisation begins with trust. It is the first rule of civilisation carved into the Cork Stone. (For in-depth analysis of the theme of civilisation in Lost, please see the essays here:
http://pearsonmoore-gets-lost.com/TheMeasureofanIsland.aspx and also
It was trust in the Rules of the Island that allowed Jack to refuse surgically "fixing" young Ben after Sayid shot him (Lost 5.11), to risk swallowing the green pill to save Sayid (Lost 6.06), to confront Richard fearlessly, even as fast-moving flame worked its way toward very unstable dynamite (Lost 6.07). Civilisation begins when two people, without history or precedent, without any basis whatever for agreement or solidarity, extend hands toward each other and place their trust in each others' good will.
Trust is the core value of Lost. Deemed of greater importance than any other virtue, the idea of trust even has a martyr: John Locke. For a complete examination of trust in the character arc of John Locke, please see my essay here: http://pearsonmoore-gets-lost.com/ExFragilitateFortis.aspx
Confluence of Virtues
Trust is the centre of the philosophical underpinnings of the series. Without trust Jack could not have grown into a man of faith. He would never have entered the Cave of Light to replace the Cork Stone. But trust is not limited in scope to unifying the events on the Island. It is the attractor for every other virtue, both on the Island and in the sideways purgatory.
Trust and love are the stuff of which our physical existence in the world is based. Without a Constant, Desmond would succumb to time-travel-induced confusion, unstoppable nosebleeds, massive internal haemorrhaging, unconsciousness, and death.
It may be true that most characters in Lost did not travel through time, and therefore never suffered nosebleeds. We might be tempted to conclude that Lost considers love of the type that requires a Constant to be a good and noble part of the well-lived life, but in the end not essential to human existence. If you adhere to the faith principles of your religion, regardless of the religious tradition you follow, you probably are not required to seek and find a soul mate. The religion I attempt to practice teaches that all people, whether single or married, in relationship or not, are eligible for any of the benefits that might accrue from having lived a good life.
This is not the teaching of Lost.
If you do not have a Constant, you will not receive a ticket admitting you to Our Lady of the Foucault Pendulum. You will never sit in a pew, waiting for the light to carry you to Shamballa. For all eternity, you will be among the unhappy, whispering ones on the Island, forever cursing your lonely existence.
This may seem a harsh statement, but we can rely on the integrity of very clear statements in Season Six to provide guidance and understanding. Martin Keamy not only did not have a Constant, he had no concept of civil behaviour. For some reason (perhaps a bookkeeping error, possibly an extreme example of what some religions call "undeserved grace"), the uncivilised mercenary was granted a place among those in the sideways reality. But there he died, his existence forevermore expunged from reality. There would be no redemption, no afterlife of any kind for Martin Keamy.
Michael never connected with his ex-wife. He loved his son, Walt, but not to the extent of being able to call him his Constant. To his eternal regret, he was to be forever marooned on the Island, never even granted a chance to redeem himself in the land of sideways souls.
Ben Linus was granted a place in the sideways world, but without a Constant at his side he could not enter the Church of the Holy Lamp Post. As we saw in the Season Six episode "Dr. Linus", Ben was working on a serious relationship with Danielle Rousseau, giving his all to ensure Alex's safe passage to adulthood--something he failed to do on the Island, a fact that shook him to the core and changed his outlook on everything (for a complete analysis of Benjamin Linus, please see the essay here: http://pearsonmoore-gets-lost.com/TheGoodGuys.aspx ).
No doubt upon the successful completion of his relationship-building efforts in the sideways world he would be granted a ticket to a moving-on party inside Our Lady of the Perpetual Pendulum, but it would be with a group clustered around the Rousseau family, and not with the Island group led by the Shephard dynasty.
But, you argue, what about Locke? He had no Constant. How did he end up with a first-class ticket with front-row seating? I think in this case you'd find Jack Shephard vigorously disagreeing with you. Locke had a Constant alright. His Constant was the Island itself.
The case of John Locke indicates those who devote themselves whole-heartedly to a noble cause might also experience redemption, even without a visible Constant. Boone was the only other person in the church without a significant other at his side. I attributed this to his close relationship with his step-sister, Shannon, thinking perhaps she was Constant to both Sayid and Boone. But possibly Boone's case was similar to Locke's. Perhaps martyrdom to the Island was sufficient to ensure oneself a place in the pews. Certainly there was never any question that both Charlie and Sayid, arguably the greatest of the Saints of Mittelos, would have honoured positions at any banquet celebrating the redemption of lost souls.
Cascade of Values
Anyone could become eligible for a chance at redemption during life or after death--even murderers like Kate Austen, James Ford, and Martin Keamy and his henchmen. Earning the opportunity for redemption was as easy as escaping a polar bear cage. But actually achieving redemption was considerably more difficult--maybe akin to beating the polar bears' fish biscuit challenge.
The bar was set high, and not everyone would make it. Even the greatest of the heroes, Jack, had to end the Shephard legacy of psychological abuse of the family's sons before he was allowed a glimpse of nirvana with Kate. In fact, getting the Shephard family affairs in order carried such importance that an imaginary son, David, was created for Jack so he could work on the requisite parenting skills. Even after righting the wrongs in his family, though, he still had to find his Constant. Fortunately for Jack, that prerequisite was taken care of on the Island.
Redemption in Lost is the end result of a cascade of values that begins with human civilisation. Civilisation is founded on trust, which leads to faith, which leads to love, which leads to a soul-mate Constant, which leads to redemption. Without the proper placement of the Cork Stone over the Source, there is no Light in the human heart, no civility between people, no trust, no collaboration. Everything begins with the energy of the Source, modulated by humanity's pledge of civility (carved into the Cork Stone), which converts the fierce, red energy to soft yellow Light, converts hardness of heart to lightness of spirit, opens our eyes to the Light in everyone around us.
Until the Cork Stone was replaced at the Source, there could be no warm and fuzzy hug-fest in the pews. There could have been no light to see, no light to share.
The events in the sideways after-world were entirely dependent upon the continuity of human civilisation in the physical world. But the nobility of the human spirit that takes earthly form in civilised behaviour finds its most enduring expression in the faith, hope, and love of the sideways reality. Just as Desmond could not physically endure the trials of this world without his Constant, the physical world itself cannot exist without the unbroken continuity of the sideways world. It is truly in this sideways reality that we live and move and have our being.
The sideways world is not purgatory. It is the final and best statement of who we are. We are women and men of trust, people of faith, enduring Constants, children of the Light.
Confluence of Redemption: