Tuesday, May 25, 2010

LOST in Thought

[For the record, this post is about LOST.  So if you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading.  If you don’t care about LOST, you might not care.  But, as with so much else that I write, this isn’t actually about the subject at hand...]

Rise.  Life is in motion.  I’m stuck in line.
Oh rise.  You can’t be neutral on a moving train.
One day…these symptoms fade.  Think I’ll throw these pills away.
And if hope can grow from dirt like me, it can be done.

Won’t let the light escape from me.
Won’t let the darkness swallow me.

--Pearl Jam, “Down”

Six years of my life I gave, to varying degrees, to LOST.  At times I obsessively tried to follow clues through Lostpedia and random blog entries.  At times I swore I’d never watch the show again.  This past season was the first time I was genuinely ambivalent about the show.  It wasn’t asking any more questions, but it wasn’t really answering them, as it had promised.  It was just kind of…ending.

This was an idea that I greeted with equal parts happiness and horror.  There are really only two other TV shows that I have invested in like LOST: Babylon 5 and Scrubs.  In the end, all three shows were rewarding.  And in the end, both Babylon 5 and LOST made me cry at the end.

There’s this moment at the end of Babylon 5.  It comes during the end credits.  We see all the main characters in split screen, with one half at the beginning and the other half at the end.  John Sheridan has died.  The station has blown up.  But the moment that always catches me is the sight of Marcus, on the left side as the Ranger, on the right as a personnel file…dead.

Babylon 5 is strongly anti-religious.  In a weird way, the most concrete point we get to that is the indication that Marcus is just…dead.  But, really, the overall message is much stronger.  The angels and demons we worship turn out not to be supernatural, just super advanced, and most definitely handicapped by their own flaws.  We find out that the angels aren’t so pure and the demons aren’t so corrupt.  We also find out that, in the end, the gods don’t actually much care about the people they’re supposed to be fighting over.  They’re just a means to an end.

LOST…well…LOST went that same way.  It was, I think, more overt.  Jack spent the run of the show searching for his father, a man named Christian Shepherd.  When we first learned about Jacob I quickly put “Jacob” and “Christian Shepherd” together in their proper context.  The show finally, FINALLY, hung a lampshade on it in the very finale.

When we first met the Man in Black I named him Esau.  It seemed so apropos.  And when we learned that they were twins, that Esau was the favorite, but Jacob ended up with his birthright…

At the beginning of season 6, the episode where Ben killed Jacob, I made my Facebook status, “Consider my servant, Job.”  Ben had done everything he could in Jacob’s name.  Jacob had taken everything away.  Jacob didn’t fucking care.  And when we realized that the whole thing was just a game between Jacob and Esau…

Then, of course, there was the Dharma Initiative.  The doing of duty that leads to nirvana.

I’ve read some reviews and discussions of the final episode in the last couple days.  The thing that struck me with the first couple was the way the reviewers tiptoed around the issue of religious imagery.  One kept reminding his readers that he was an agnostic.  Another apologized for feeling the need to sing “Amazing Grace.”

Then I saw a couple reviews that were angry about it.  They were atheists, pissed about the fact that the LOSTies were sent to some sort of weird, wishy-washy heaven-esque eternity.

I gave up religion at the same time I found storytelling.  So at the same time I was turning my back on the literal supernatural, I was coming to see the narrative value of that same thing.  So all the religious under- (and over) tones of LOST bothered me not one bit.  I can’t imagine why anyone would be pissed that they were there, just as I can’t imagine why anyone would feel they had to apologize just for noticing and pointing them out.

Religion serves as a cultural touchstone of, well, culture.  It serves as a touchstone of society.  By placing a scene in a church I can say a lot about the purpose of that scene.

By putting a stained-glass window in a supposed church with symbols of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism it says you’re subverting a trope.  By making it the same church that acted as a cover for Eloise’s station that found the mysterious, moving island…well…

And what of that mysterious, moving island?  What of the fact that the entire goddamn island was a symbol of Buddhism?  It’s the Dharmacakra, the symbol of the eightfold path.

It’s the same image we see time and again as the symbol of the Dharma Initiative and in the lower left of that stained glass window.  And it’s what all the characters are searching for throughout the show: enlightenment.

In the end, too, Jack and Hurley become Bodhisattvas, given up the possibility of life, of rescue, to save others.  Jack chooses an insular route, attempting to save his friends and the island.  Hurley, we can only imagine, goes on to do something even greater.  Everyone seemed to notice the “Jack as Jesus” angle, but, in all honesty, “Jack as Bodhisattva” makes way more sense.  It’s a difference, I suppose, of degrees.  Jesus, it could be argued, was a Middle Eastern Bodhisattva.

But, really, it doesn’t matter.  Because LOST wasn’t really about the religious imagery it borrowed.

It was far more interesting to take note of how LOST completely and totally broke that religious imagery in the process.  I saw Jacob as a god-like character, Esau as the tempter.  In the end, though, we find out that all of the rules that the people on the island had to play by were invented by an annoying, whiny mama’s boy who just hated losing.[1]  We found out that Esau wasn’t really evil, he was just restless.

That bright, glowy, Holy MacGuffin?  That thing that everyone wanted to know the meaning of but that most people seem pissed didn’t really have any purpose other than as a radically unclever plot device?  Yeah…about that…

That bright, glowy MacGuffin was…are you ready for it?  The Meaning of Life.  The island’s rules were religion itself.  They were arbitrary, immature, invented by a child with no social skills who had never really gotten around to growing up and didn’t actually give a shit about people except to see how he could use them to win a bet with his brother.

Consider my servant Job.

There are many, many places where Babylon 5 and LOST intersect in my mind.  The fact that Mira Furlan is in both doesn’t hurt a bit, either.[2]  But there’s also the simple fact that, really, neither John Sheridan nor Jack Shepherd were the most interesting characters in the shows that supposedly revolved around them.  The two best characters in Babylon 5 were Londo and G’Kar.  The best character in LOST was Ben.  And all three played the exact same role: the scoundrel patriot who finds that all he worked for has come to naught and, in the end, he has lost everything.

Londo got the throne he’d so desired, but as a puppet of the servants of the devils he’d dealt with.

G’Kar got the respect and followers he’d desired, but after he no longer wanted them and had to leave to find peace.

Ben lost everything in exchange for nothing, not even a tiny bit of recognition from his self-absorbed master and, even after revenge and possible redemption found himself outside the church, unable or unwilling to take the few steps inside.

I wanted Londo to find happiness as emperor by the end.  I wanted G’Kar to find peace in his home.  I wanted Ben to walk in to that church.  But, in the end, I think their punishment fit the crimes they’d committed.  They got what they wanted, but only after it had turned to ashes.  And then they couldn’t forgive themselves or find any external agency to do it for them.  Of course with G’Kar and Ben it was still possible.  And that’s the hope that they carried forward, the lesson that they offer.

And everyone else, well, they needed each other to move on.  Sure, there were gaping holes in the pews at that final send off.  But, when you think about it, Ana Lucia couldn’t forgive herself and had never made the necessary connections to do so in the LOST universe.  Perhaps she did outside of it, though.  Michael’s only real connection was to Walt, but when we last knew of Michael and Walt, Michael was barred from his son’s life and died alone, trapped on the island’s purgatory.  Perhaps he could escape, perhaps not.  But he couldn’t go with the rest of the LOSTies.[3]  Miles, Faraday, Charlotte, Lapidus, Danielle, and Alex, well…we can hope that they had their own places of meeting to go to in the end, too.

That, in the end, is why I’m genuinely baffled as to why anyone would raise a stink about the religious imagery at the end of the series finale of LOST.  We’re told that they built that place of meeting together.  So they would have used common images to do so.  And, as I recall, more than a few of them had some idea of what that particular church represented: the way to find their way back to the island together in reality, the way to find their way to make the next step in the afterlife.[4]

And, really, we need each other to give life meaning out here in the real world.  We create that shared meaning through symbols.  For many that means religion, be it Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, Unitarianism…ah, hell, you get the point.  Even for those of us who aren’t religious the common touchpoints of religious symbolism hold meaning, even if those meanings aren’t actually transcendent in any way, shape, or form.  They’re quick shorthand to grasp an otherwise hard to explain concept.

This is where I’ve come…if not quite full-circle, at least to a point of release on the subject of religion.  There was a time when I, too, probably would have been mad that everyone met at a church at walked in to the light.  It probably would have been mitigated by the fact that I’ve never really expected anyone to tailor the world to my expectations of how something should begin or end.[5]  Erm, well, there was that one time.[6]

Now…well, I find that I’m annoyed by those I refer to as being “dogmatically non-religious.”  I don’t mean the people who assert that their life is meaningful without religion.  I don’t even necessarily mean the PZ Myerses or Richard Dawkinses of the world.  I get the impression that they find plenty of meaning outside of being vocally anti-religious and if all religion disappeared tomorrow they’d be happy to go on to other pursuits.

What I mean is the people who get pissed that there is religion or that popular entertainment would dare use any religious imagery (even the extremely watered-down sort used by LOST).  In truth, I think LOST could probably do more to subvert the idea of religion than even something like the extremely obviously atheistic Star Trek: The Next Generation.

By setting up Jacob as a character worth derision more than worship as soon as he steps out from behind the curtain, LOST invites us to question our views about god.  By setting up Esau as evil-because-Jacob-says-so we’re invited to question whether “evil” is really such a black and white concept.  By showing all of Ben’s machinations turn to ashes in his mouth LOST suggests we should ask if sacrificing everything to a “greater good” we don’t understand or question is really a good idea.

And, of course, by handing the island over to the most caring, the most humane, the most human of all the characters, LOST asks if maybe we should be looking to find a better set of rules than the ones we’ve followed for so very long.

So I suppose you could say I don’t begrudge LOST its religiously-tinged finale.  You could even say I loved it precisely for that.

Well, at the fact that it made me cry.  And it reminded me to believe in the power of, well, love and togetherness.


[1]I found “Across the Sea” to be utterly terrible when I first saw it.  But, in retrospect, it was massively useful to understanding…well, everything.  Yeah, it had the terrible MacGuffin, but…wait…I’ll get to it in the main text.

[2]Seriously, my well-publicized love for Kristen Bell aside, I’d have to say that Mira Furlan is probably my favorite actress, like, ever.  She owned two absolutely crucial roles in two of the most important television shows of my life.  That’s got to be worth something, right?

[3]And, of course, Walt ain’t 11 anymore.  They probably could have dealt with that in some way, but…well.  And the actor who played Eko just didn’t want to be there, so there’s only so much they could do about that.

[4]I’m still not giving up my pet theory that the entire sideways universe was just Jack’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”-style dying fantasy.  In that case it makes about 1000% more sense.

[5]Seriously.  Expecting the last episode of LOST to ditch all the religious stuff it had built up at become militantly atheist just because you don’t like religion is stupid, silly, and juvenile.  It’s, well, it’s exactly like the religious folks who get mad about the rock music and the books that talk about sex and stuff.

[6]She still doesn’t talk to me.  Actually, I suppose that’s my own Ben moment.  Everyone I’ve met since Her isn’t good enough or doesn’t come around at the right time or whatever.  I spent a long time just sitting alone and trying to figure out what had gone wrong.  I was, basically, the scoundrel patriot, attempting to shape every single event, moment, and interaction towards my own end goals.  Perhaps I simply haven’t been able to forgive myself for that and I’ve just been sitting outside the church…waiting.

1 comment:

Suzy-Q said...

I agree. On many levels. I loved that stained-glass window. Loved it. Which is why I didn't necessarily think they were in a Heaven of Christianity sense, but just another life, brutha. The overall message of relationships with your fellow man rather than something like accepting Jesus as your savior is a religion I can get on board with more easily. And the writers must have put that window in to try and hammer home the point that this wasn't about Jesus or God. But I don't think a lot of people got that.

Jack dying with a smile on his face after saving everyone. Loved it.