These days I’ve been rewatching Lost. Why would I bother? You may wonder. Well, my wife hadn’t seen it yet and I felt that, even if the end didn’t really cut it, she couldn’t miss one of the most influential TV series of the century. And I was also curious as to how it would feel to see the whole show again, knowing what would happen beforehand.
First, I need to say I was positively surprised. I didn’t remember a lot of stuff, because the thing about Lost was mysteries didn’t linger. They were constantly closing threads and opening new ones, so that you never really knew what was going on but you always knew more than in the last chapter. So I had forgotten a lot of the intermediate steps which really got me hooked. Also, the characters were not obvious and their backstories were interesting. Unlike in Flashforward, where I honestly couldn’t care less about the alcoholic guy and his daughter and, well, anyone in the show, in Lost the characters feel alive, real, and every time you think you have them figured out, they do or remember something unexpected.
But this article is titled “The Philosophy of Lost” and not “Why Lost Didn’t Suck.” So I’d better get started.
There are several philosophical trends in Lost, with the different points of view being expressed mainly by Locke, Jack and Sawyer and some other characters pitching in from time to time.
The first thing we need to realize in order to understand what Lost is about is that Christian Shepard is dead. That is obviously a metaphor which I won’t bother to elaborate: its meaning is more than clear. Then we have a bunch of people who have been stranded on an island they can’t leave for reasons which are far from clear. In this case, the island represents life. Just like in life, they’ve been thrown in there with no warning and with no apparent purpose. Just like in life, they can’t just leave. Just like in life, they need to figure out what to do. And what to do will depend, mainly, on their philosophical perspective.
John Locke believes they are there for a reason. He believes in destiny. He has faith that everything will make sense at some stage and is willing to listen to the signs the island gives him. He may not believe in a God – Christian Shepard is dead, after all – but he believes in something closely related. He has substituted God for destiny, but his morality is still heteronomous: that is, his decisions are not dictated by himself, but by some external agent which he identifies with “the island” and which, as I said before, we can ascribe to “life” or the signs we find in it. His fixation with listening for signs instead of making his own choices makes him an easy target for manipulators such as Ben and the Man in Black, but at the same time it makes him a powerful presence on the island and the only one who doesn’t want to leave it. In this sense, he perfectly reflects the advantages and disadvantages of religion.
Jack, on the other hand, starts as a man of science. He does not believe in any kind of purpose and treats John as a madman every time he speaks of “destiny.” To Jack, the only worthy objective is to keep his people alive and get them off the island. What makes Jack different from a nihilist is he has a goal: to get his people off the island. He also thinks of them as his people, which reveals he has a sense of community. Community fulfills Jack. It gives him purpose. It gives him a reason to keep going. In this sense he is similar to John: he has a goal, but his next steps are dictated by his conscience, not by ethereal signs from the island.
Sawyer is the ultimate nihilist. For him, just like Jack, there is no purpose; however, he goes way beyond the doctor in the rejection of meaning. Sawyer has no goal. For Sawyer, all that matters is surviving. Sawyer believes that life is not something to be enjoyed, but to be endured. It’s a place where the strong thrive and the weak die. He does not question whether this is acceptable, but assumes it is so. For Sawyer, life is “every man for himself.” He is the paradigm of individualism and social Darwinism and the furthest character from Locke.
The question of free will pops up naturally when considering purpose or destiny, but the moment in which it fully comes to life is during season 5, when the two groups of characters are stuck at different stages in time. Sawyer, Juliet and Miles are living in the seventies in the Dharma camp and they are told by Faraday that nothing they do will change the future: what’s done is done. Even though they may feel like they have free will, everything they do is already predetermined. Later, Faraday comes back and questions this assumption: Jack quickly makes this his own credo. The question that permeates season 5 is, then: will they be able to change the present? Do their choices matter or have they already been made? Can humans really choose anything but what they have already been programmed to choose?
The question gets answered at the end of season 6, when it is clear that detonating the bomb didn’t achieve anything a
t all (though my suspicion is the writers had actually planned to create a “parallel universe” of sorts, but people figured it out too soon and they had to change the story.) Lost, then, makes quite a strong statement against the existence of free will.
What about the ending? Well, I thought the ending sucked. Again, I think they decided to change it once they saw people were figuring things out. However, we could also look at it from a metaphoric point of view. In this case, all they are saying is: yes, the Christian Shepherd is dead. Now we will embark on a new adventure, where all the other philosophical options will go hand by hand and, together, we will try to figure out what it all means, if it means anything. Since I believe the whole show is nothing but a metaphor (a pretty long one at that) this interpretation sits quite well the general spirit.
In any case, I’m actually enjoying this second watching of lost. Many things are making sense that didn’t in the first run. I am getting many more details. And I am able to reflect on the philosophy of the whole thing which, let’s face it, is pretty entertaining.