The Existential Nature of 'Lost'

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Mario Perez / ABC-AP

Dear Josh:

You know I never disagree with you, but I really must correct your gross misreading of the Lost finale. Actually, I agree with almost everything you say, with one exception: the "noncommittal, New Agey" ending. To the degree that this was, in many ways, an existential drama (perhaps the only existential TV show ever outside of the 700 Club), the vagueness of what happened at the end is the very point of it all. To me, Jack finally realizes that life is your experiences, your connections, your deeds, good and bad. It's not about saving lives, or who gets the girl, or hating your father. Actually, it is about those things, but only insofar as they form the narrative of existence. As John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens while you're making other plans." I admit I was annoyed a bit by the collection of characters in the church—at times it felt like some kind of high-school reunion. And yet, it felt deeper than that, too. All the couples who reconnect in the post-island world, all the characters who meet up in the church at the end—those memories, as Jack's father calls them, are all we have. Better cherish them now—you never know when your plane is going to crash.

In that sense, all the other folks (not us!) who are obsessed with the show's mythology are missing the tropical rainforest for the trees. The hatches, the numbers, the light—the mystery of what they are and how they came to be isn't important. They are simply a means to an end, a way to bring people together. When Locke reminds Jack about arguing over whether or not to push the numbers in the hatch, it's not the actual numbers that mean anything. They were simply a way to connect everyone, which is why 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 turn up again as Hurley's lottery numbers, Kate's trial number, the numbers on Mr. Eko's stick, etc. Most important of all, they were a way for Desmond (button-pusher No. 1) to pass on his life's work to the castaways who discovered the hatch in season two. In that way, the numbers serve the same purpose as the light in the hole in the last season. What does the light mean? Death? Purgatory? The goodness in the human soul? Take your pick. To me, it's really about Jake passing his life's work to Jack, who passes it to Hurley. As E. M. Forster said: only connect.

That's not to say that death is irrelevant here, though it is fun to ponder the role it plays in the scheme of things. Jack's father makes it clear that everyone has died, some before Jack, some long after. I'm not sure if I think Jack (and the rest) died immediately after the plane crash—the way the camera focuses on his eye as he's lying down looking at the sky is clearly meant to evoke the scene from the first episode where he opens his eye, and the fact that he's closing it now suggests that he died on the beach. In that case, the rest of what he experiences (and we experience in the next six seasons), is in his imagination, in that flash of light we see as we are about to die and we take stock of where we've been and where we might have gone in our lives. That said, I think it's also fair to argue that Jack dies from the stab wounds inflicted by Locke, which means that the rest of the episode (and, again the entire show), are what flashes through his mind at that last second as he passes from life to death (go toward the light, and all that). But the larger idea is the same. We are, at the end, a collection of our moments and relationships. To quote from the opening of another TV show—another soap opera, in fact—"Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives."

OK, now that you're arguing with me about all this, let me lay one more out-there theory on you. Once I got over pondering the fates of the individual characters and focused on them collectively, I fixated on the show's really metamessage. I actually think that the shared journey of the characters—of the collective life they made on the island—is a metaphor for the show itself. In our fractured culture, Lost may arguably be the last mass entertainment to cross genre lines and draw together a group of disparate people. Sci-fi folks, religious-minded people (notice all the different religious symbols in the stained-glass window at the end?), fans of spectacle (the plane crash was nothing it not a blockbuster-movie moment), Web fanatics and old-fashioned TV viewers—the most amazing thing about Lost is the way it managed to draw all these people together into a common discussion, and one about the weightiest of topics. When Jack's father tells him that the time he spent with the Oceanic passengers was the best of his life, I could hear him talking to the viewers, too, who spent so much time picking and prodding and pondering what was happening and why. Call me crazy, but any television show that gets people talking about the meaning of life—even the meaning of the life of a smoke monster—is a rare commodity these days. I might even say it is an island of thoughtfulness. And now it's gone.

The Existential Nature of 'Lost' | Culture