Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lost Speculations and Observations: May 2010 Edition

Lost fans are inevitably drawn to the arena of speculation and prediction. And most of what we predict, we get wrong. Most of what we do predict correctly doesn't really matter. So when we get one right, it's a cause for celebration. I think a long-standing theory of mine was proven correct in "Across the Sea", the Roman origin of Jacob and the Man in Black. Roman Latin, check. (I have to believe that the switch to English three minutes into the episode was for the benefit of the audience and the actors, not a representation of a sudden linguistic epiphany on the part of Claudia.) Woman with a Roman name (Claudia) and Roman attire (toga and sandals), double check. Technology consistent with two millennia ago, check. And--unverified but my best evidence--Mark Pellegrino telling an interviewer that the episode took place in the year 43 AD, check. This one feels good, especially knowing that I got it on the variety of Latin alone. Thank you, Dale Buff.

(Don't worry--I've gotten many, many predictions dead wrong. After the finale, I plan to devote an entire blog post to all the screwy stuff I predicted that didn't even come close to the truth.)

"Across the Sea" was the mythological capstone of season 6, and arguably the entire series. It provided us with probably a dozen answers to mysteries as mundane as "who built the wells?" to ones as deeply significant as "where did the smoke monster come from?" Equally as importantly, it detailed how the Man in Black and Jacob came to embrace their particular philosophies. The Man in Black, with the limited sample size of twenty or so Romanesque dudes, observed that all of them were greedy, destructive people and (reasonably) concludes that every person is inherently like that. Jacob has absolutely no sample size whatsoever, just the ambiguous nature of the Source, and therefore concludes that every human has an innately ambiguous morality, tabula rasa, open to influence from their environment.

The Island continues to serve as a reflection on, and a symbol of, human nature. We see that any time two disparate groups of people appear on the Island, a Lord of the Flies-style "us vs. them" mentality emerges every time. Whether it's "mother" versus the hut-dwellers, or DHARMA versus the Hostiles, or our own people versus the Others, the Island's inhabitants are always drawn into conflict with each other. Maybe it's the desire to grow closer to the Source, to enlarge that spark of the divine in all of them.

The Source (radioactive-cheesy as it was) provides one united explanation for virtually every supernatural or pseudo-scientific phenomenon on the Island. The Swan station's "electromagnetic pocket", the strangeness of directions and passage through time, the healing powers, the magical mirror in the lighthouse, and even the spring in the Temple, are all probably effects of the Source's power. The Source also echoes a theme found in many world religions and philosophies. Judeo-Christian thought places a small measure of God in each one of His followers. Mormonism takes this a bit farther and teaches that everyone becomes a God in their own right after their death. The Dharmic religions (Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism) have a greeting that roughly translates to "I acknowledge the divine in you."


Once again, the clueless hippies of the DHARMA Initiative hit closer to the truth than they could have guessed. (See also their use of Egyptian hieroglyphs and their location of the stations right on the Source's pockets of energy.) But their attempts to control it--like those of everyone else who has ever tried--ultimately led to disaster. Pierre Chang and Stuart Radzinsky were brilliant men, but they were not candidates, not chosen by the Island, and thus powerless to control it.

"Across the Sea" reminds us that people have been on the Island, and attempting (to various degrees of success) to control its power, for a very, very long time. But it also chastens us not to expect answers about all of them. When "mother" tells Claudia that every answer leads to more questions, the narrative purpose is to get Claudia to stop being so nosy. But in the meta-narrative, the dialog between the storytellers of Lost and its audience, this is a way of saying that we're not going to get answers to every single question we might have. We've seen "every answer leads to another question" as a theme throughout the show, and I mentioned it last month as well: as soon as Tom Friendly becomes something less than mystical, we meet Ben Linus. Ben gives way to Widmore, then Richard, then Jacob, and DHARMA is peppered throughout for good measure.

Now that we have Jacob's "mother", the cycle ends here. The mythological "onion" of the setting is infinite, and we could keep peeling back enough layers to fill twelve seasons of the show, but we don't want or need to. The only thing the story of Lost is concerned with is what affects our characters, our people, and our plot lines. Jacob and the Man in Black certainly do; that's why they merited a centric episode of their own. Jacob's "mother", perhaps not so much. It doesn't matter where the woman who raised Jacob and his brother came from... but we might already know more about her motives and abilities than we think we do. The root of this theory lies in the pre-Jacob era of the Island's history.

Even by the Roman era, there were civilizations on the Island that had come and gone, the Egyptians chief among them. Perhaps one or two thousand years before even Jacob and the Man in Black arrived, some Egyptian civilization thrived on the Island, playing a little senet, and building a magnificent statue of one of their deities. But not everything was fun and games in the Egyptian era on the Island--the carving below the Temple that we see in "Dead is Dead" suggests they had their own smoke monster problem to deal with. Some entity taking the form of a pillar of smoke has existed on the Island as long as the Island itself has been there.

Is it possible that "mother" held the office of "smoke monster" before the Man in Black did? (This is one of those theories that I can't take credit for coming up with on my own, but many of the supporting details are mine.) She warns her adopted children never to enter the warmth and beauty of the Source (invoking the Pandora's box myth), suggesting that she knows very well what happens when you enter the Source. She destroyed Hut Village and filled in the Man in Black's well, which would be difficult for a middle-aged woman, but trivially easy for the smoke monster. Most likely, "mother" was a woman who washed up on the Island, entered the Source when she found it, and merged with some ancient protective entity already on the Island to become the smoke monster before the Man in Black. It's likely that even before her, the same fate befell a curious Egyptian.

Then the smoke monster is not inherently evil, nor is it inherently good or inherently moral at all. The disposition of the monster at any given time is more directly a product of the agenda of whomever assumed the role of smoke monster. When "mother" was Smokey, it was a paranoid, protective, and secretive force. Now that the Man in Black is Smokey, it's more destructive and vengeful. This suggests that if a truly good person enters the Source and becomes the next smoke monster, it may serve as a force of good itself.

Here's a screwball theory (almost certain to be featured in my later "litany of bad theories" post): Jack was always destined to become the next Jacob--social ruler of the Island and selector of candidates--and now he's finally agreed to it. So how about a reformed John Locke, restored to his humanity when the realities are reconciled, is going to stay on as the smoke monster, champion of the Source and guardian of the Island? In yet another nod to the Dark Tower, the story we've been following ends with the beginning of a new cycle of the exact same story... except this time, maybe things will finally work out, maybe we're one step closer to the ultimate "happy" ending.

I theorized before that Jacob and the Man in Black, while not exactly two halves of the same entity, were the opposing factions in a dualistic pantheon. Now it appears that they're something else close to both of those thoughts: inheritors of two different halves of Island power. Jacob got the ability to bring people to the Island and to pick his successors, while the Man in Black got the smoke monster power. "Mother" had both of these sets of abilities.

In the ultimate irony of the story, then, the Island actually intends the Jacob figure (that is, the person with the Jacob portfolio) and the Man in Black figure (the person with the smoke monster portfolio) to be the same person, or failing that, to work together to protect the Source and decide how best to use the power of the Island. Under the Jack/Locke theory, maybe the conclusion of the story is the reunification of these halves of the island-guardian force, if not to the same person, then at least to two people who will work together instead of opposing each other for two thousand years. It would be especially appropriate for that reunification to come at the hands of Jack and Locke, who have carried the torches for white and black, science and faith, for the entire time they've been on the Island.

The scene where "mother" literally passes the torch to Jacob is a powerfully symbolic one. "Mother" offers some wine to Jacob, saying "drink from this cup." Then I imagine every Catholic in the audience began to subconsciously recall the Eucharistic prayer:
"Take this, all of you, and drink from it:
this is the cup of my blood,
the blood of the new and everlasting covenant.
It will be shed for you and for all
so that sins may be forgiven.
Do this in memory of me."
Does the wine actually do anything, or is it merely a ritual? How you answer that question might depend on if you're a Catholic or a Protestant, but either way, it's symbolically relevant. Then, as if the Communion reference wasn't overt enough already, "mother" tells Jacob "now you and I are the same." This mirrors the Scriptural basis for Communion and the Eucharistic prayer: "whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him" (John 6:56). The Island mythology combines the Eucharist with another important Catholic tradition, apostolic succession. Catholics hold that the priesthood is sacred because every ordained priest was consecrated by another, and so on all the way back to Jesus. This succession and ordination is symbolized by the laying on of hands. In the same way, the office of "guardian of the Island" can be traced from "mother", through Jacob, and to his own "laying on of hands" on each of his candidates.

The Man in Black, of course, would prefer to disrupt this apostolic succession. His smashing the bottle of wine in "Ab Aeterno" gains a greater symbolic relevance, as it represents not only escaping his prison, but breaking part of the succession ritual. He very nearly succeeds in "The Candidate". If "Across the Sea" was the mythological capstone, then "The Candidate" is the narrative capstone of at least season 6, if not the entire series. Every plot development and character interaction--every science vs. faith moment, every power struggle, and every decision whether to leave the Island or stay on it--came to a head in "The Candidate".

So many of the recurring character arcs from the series are resolved in "The Candidate" that it's hard to list them all. Jack has accepted the mantle of "candidate", at last completing his transition from "man of science" to "man of faith". Jin and Sun, reunited at last, make the conscious decision never to be apart again, even if that means they die together. Sayid's toeing the fine line between redemption and succumbing to his lethal nature ends when he tips irrevocably toward "good" in the instant before he dies. With Ben's and Richard's arcs concluded in their own respective centric episodes, Ilana's abruptly over when the Island was "finished with her", and Desmond's tantalizingly close, it finally seems that the series is headed toward a conclusion.

Therefore, "What They Died For" becomes the linchpin to the entire series. It has the unenviable task of not only serving as the "prologue to the finale" (see also "Greatest Hits", "Cabin Fever", and "Follow the Leader"), but also integrating the narrative and mythological climaxes of the story into the denouement of the finale.

And amazingly, it succeeds. Mythology and character development are integrated beautifully with Jacob's fireside chat, where the answer to one of the greatest mysteries of all (second only to "what is the Island?") is finally revealed: why these people? We learn that it has to do with purpose, and with reason. "Maybe all of this is happening for a reason," many characters have suggested in one form or another throughout the series, but what we don't find out until the series' penultimate episode is that the Jacob job is the reason, the purpose they never knew they wanted or needed. We also find out why (besides death, of course) your name might be crossed off of the candidate cave: if you do find your purpose in life, then Jacob no longer needs you. The chalk line that struck through "Austen", for instance, is presumably the same one that struck through "Linus" (when he started raising Alex) and "Chang" (when he and Lara had Miles).

Jack has been accepting all of this little by little, beginning with when he tells Kate in the first flash-forward that they "have to go back." He formalizes his decision to inherit the Jacob job at the fire, but his mind was made up at the end of "The Candidate" when he saw his friends die. Jack barely hesitates when Jacob puts the decision of who to succeed him on the table. Then Jacob, having already laid his hands on Jack and ordained him a candidate, consecrates some water. Jack takes his communion, and now Jack remains in Jacob and Jacob in him. Then, fall Jacob.

It's Jacob's second "death"--of course, he is not really alive here, merely using his ashes and a little Island trickery to temporarily make his spirit corporeal again. His actual death came at the hands of Ben Linus in a very Julius Caesar moment. Ben has never been afraid of killing people, and he makes no exception in "What They Died For". His scheming, treacherous ways seemed to be at an end after his redemptive confession in "Dr. Linus", but here we see Ben once again playing the role of killer. And in a way, the Ben Linus in "What They Died For" is a culmination of every aspect of Ben Linus we've seen so far: the conflict that underscored much of the story (especially during seasons 4 and 5) is resolved with three quick gunshots; the Ben Linus that has played both sides of every conflict he's been involved in without mercy or remorse is once again trying to align himself with the stronger power.

But here's the thing: while Ben certainly shed no tears over killing his archrival of twenty or more years, revenge wasn't his sole motive. He killed Widmore with the intention of stopping him from divulging the secret of Desmond to the Man in Black. While Ben may not end the story on the side of "good", he at least must end it on the side of righteousness, or else the powerfully redemptive episode of "Dr. Linus" doesn't mean anything at all. Ben's killing Widmore--and his subsequent offer to kill people for the Man in Black--is just his way of manipulating himself into the Man in Black's good graces. Ben will never be truly heroic, and he will always be at least a little self-serving, but he has the chance to finish his story with his humanity reclaimed.

One interesting thing about Widmore: back when the Widmore-Ben conflict took center stage in the middle of season 5, I remarked that Ben and Widmore weren't very different at all--their approaches may have been diametrically opposed, but their motives, rhetoric, and attitudes were essentially the same. In his final moment, Widmore reveals one more facet to his personality that's exactly like Ben's, and ironically it's the most human one of all: love for his daughter. Ben's love for Alex was strong enough for him to question his entire existence on the Island when he failed to save her. Now, Widmore gives up his ultimate mission to the Island for the prospect of saving his own daughter, Penny.

The secret that Ben didn't quite prevent Widmore from telling the Man in Black is that Desmond is Jacob's failsafe, his electromagnetic means of destroying the Island--and thus preventing the Man in Black from reaching the Source--in case all his candidates were killed or declined the job. It doesn't look like that's going to be necessary, with Jack's accession to "protector of the Island" status. But Desmond remains an important player nevertheless, mostly because the Man in Black considers him so important. The thing that not even the Man in Black can comprehend is that Desmond is even more important in an alternate reality, where he is marshaling the forces of the Island to collectively "remember" their parallel existence.

Last month, I predicted that the big reunion was going to happen at St. Sebastian's, but now it appears that it's headed for the Widmore benefit concert instead. All our major players are headed there, and I suspect some minor but important ones (Juliet and Shannon for sure, like I mentioned last month) will turn up as well. And then? Desmond drops the "bomb", everyone suddenly "recalls" the Island, and that leads to the Man in Black's defeat? It seems a long way to go, but it has the makings of two and a half hours of an absolutely sensational finale.

Currently listening: "Sick Muse", Metric

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