The Afterlife of “Lost” and Why the Show Still Matters

The Afterlife of “Lost” and Why the Show Still Matters May 15, 2013

Since the TV series “Lost” wrapped up its six year run in May 2010, I’m reposting a couple of articles I wrote immediately following the finale – and another, one year later. Some people are only watching the series now on DVD or via streaming, so be forewarned, these articles are full of spoilers:

The Afterlife of “Lost” (originally posted May 25, 2010)

Rarely, if ever, has a television show dealt with religious and spiritual themes as extensively and maturely as ABC’s “Lost” which ended its six year run on Pentecost Sunday with an episode that was profoundly transcendent. On the surface, the series dealt with a group of plane crash survivors who landed on a mysterious, mystical island with a mythology that grew more complex each season. But at its heart, “Lost” told character-driven stories that explored themes like the possibility that human beings can find redemption from past sins.

The series finale addressed that theme again, but in a slightly different way – specifically, from the perspective of death and the afterlife. Apparently, this ending has left a number of people confused and, in some cases, dissatisfied. It was revealed that the Flash-sideways story device employed this season actually took place in a Purgatory-type realm in which the souls of the characters needed to work out their redemption by remembering and ultimately letting go of their past.

After experiencing their awakenings, the characters (or their souls, actually) all gather in a church in order to take the final step into eternal life together. Jack Shephard, the doctor who becomes the primary hero of the story by sacrificing his life to keep hell from being unleashed, is the last character to discover the truth in the Sideways world. The soul of his father explains to him that the realm they’re in exists outside of space and time – “Everyone dies some time, kiddo. Some of them before you, some of them long after you…There is no now here.”

So what exactly does this ending in which everyone is dead really mean? When the castaways arrived on the island, they were, as Jacob described them, “alone.” They were emotionally-crippled, lost souls without any genuine human connections. But through the love and responsibility they exhibited toward each other, they were able to grow as human beings and fulfill their real natures – to move past the tragedies, mistakes and obsessions that haunted them and eventually arrive in a state of grace. In fact, there was a promo for “Lost” before this final season began that was edited to Willie Nelson singing “Amazing Grace.” For me, the lyrics in that song “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see” explains the process of what happened in the Sideways/Purgatory world and over the course of the series. Grace builds on nature. As such, the castaways became a means of each others salvation.

The communal aspect of the final scene in the church also resolves one of the story’s earliest conflicts. In the first season after everyone is trying to adjust to surviving the island soonafter the crash, there are personality clashes and arguments about how best to run things. It gets to the point where Jack addresses the large group of castaways saying, “Every man for himself is not going to work…If we can’t live together, we’re gonna die alone.” That’s exactly what this group of loners learned to do over six seasons – live, love, sacrifice, and sometimes die together. And it makes all the difference. Because as their souls are ready to step into the final stage of the afterlife, they do it as a community. Learning to live together in their earthly lives resulted in their stepping into eternal life together too. As Christian Shephard explains, “The most important part of your life was the time you spent with these people. That’s why you’re all here. Nobody does it alone, Jack: you needed all of them, and they needed you … to let go.”

The notion of letting go leads me to another aspect of this Purgatory which doesn’t leave everyone with the happy ending the castaways achieve. The Sideways/Purgatory world is somewhat reminiscent of the afterlife created by C.S. Lewis in his book “The Great Divorce” in which dead souls can gain entrance to heaven if they let go of elements from their earthly pasts that are holding them back from fully loving God. For instance, one “Bright Spirit” from heaven tries to talk a mother whose son died years ago to let go of her grief and anger so she can see him in heaven. The mother refuses saying, “You are heartless…The past was all I had.” The Bright Spirit responds, “It was all you chose to have. It was the wrong way to deal with a sorrow.” In other words, the very normal grief she felt after losing him became the core of who she was to the point that the resentment holds more sway over her than the opportunity to see her son again. Another Spirit later explains, “Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country: but none will rise again until it has been buried.”

This exchange reminds me of Eloise Hawking in the Sideways world. She appears to understand where she is and discourages Desmond from pursuing knowledge about the flashes that will make him realize he’s dead because she knows that her son Daniel will then leave her. So instead of valuing Daniel’s eternal happiness and maybe even joining him, Eloise prefers to possess him in the in-between world. Unlike Hurley & Libby or Sawyer & Juliet who remember their human love for each other and allow it to move them on toward something greater, Eloise is like the mother in Lewis’ story. She chooses stagnancy over growth, an earthly possessiveness over a higher love.

Of course, there’s someone who’s even worse off than Eloise: Anthony Cooper. It’s a Christian belief that God doesn’t send people to hell; we send ourselves to hell by choosing to separate ourselves from the love and will of God. The one denizen of the Sideways/Purgatory world that appears to fit that bill is Anthony Cooper, John Locke’s con-man father who was responsible for paralyzing him and who led Sawyer’s father to shoot his own wife and then himself. One of the few characters who never demonstrated any redemptive qualities, Cooper is locked in a stroke-like frozen state, seemingly forever. Interestingly, in Dante’s Inferno, the denizens of the 9th circle of hell are depicted as being frozen in a lake of blood and guilt. The choices Anthony Cooper made in his real life have left him with much blood on his hands. He also died unrepentant, so that final act of defiance against the natural moral law appears to have caught up with him here.

In the end – though the series ended showing everyone eventually dead – it can still be considered a happy ending from a Christian perspective. The main characters that viewers grew to love all lived their lives in a manner that will allow them to spend eternity together in heaven. Endings don’t get any happier than that.

Why “Lost” Still Matters (originally posted on April 12, 2011)

The ABC TV series “Lost” left the air almost a year ago, yet it continues to generate lots of emotion from fans and detractors. Recently the show’s Executive Producers, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were blind-sided by insults from popular fantasy author George R.R. Martin, whose book Game of Thrones has been turned into an HBO mini-series, and who continues work on his Song of Fire and Ice book series.

Martin expressed concern about finding a satisfying ending for his series saying, “What if I f— it up at the end? What if I do a Lost?”

That comment struck Lindelof and Cuse as unnecessarily harsh; they had poured their hearts and souls into “Lost’s” storytelling. Both men responded on Twitter—Lindelof with some zingers directed at Martin; Cuse more succinctly with the statement, “We never raise ourselves up by demeaning the work of others.”

Having watched “Lost” from the beginning, I think the level of animosity directed at it is completely unwarranted. The show told a brilliant, engaging story in a way that made it matter to people. In fact, it’s a story that I believe continues to matter.

For the uninitiated, “Lost” dealt with a group of plane crash survivors who landed on a mysterious, mystical island. Initially, these castaways were emotionally-crippled souls without any genuine human connections, but through the love and responsibility they exhibited toward each other, they were able to grow as human beings—to move past the tragedies, mistakes, and obsessions that haunted them and eventually arrive in a state of grace. Despite everything you may hear about the show’s complicated mythology, these are the issues the show was about at its core.

Before the haters and naysayers chime in, I do acknowledge that “Lost’s” mythology grew unwieldy, and numerous threads were not tied up. But to paraphrase Shakespeare, “Lost” is a show far more sinned against than sinning. It dared to deal with big issues—faith and doubt, sin and redemption, earthly life and the afterlife—through some of the most well-drawn and acted characters ever created on television.

Take the issues of faith and doubt: There was an ongoing clash between the characters Jack Shephard and John Locke about whether our actions and experiences in life have some unseen purpose, or whether only those things that can be scientifically proven and deduced are real.

In one heated exchange, Locke screams at Jack, “Why do you find it so hard to believe?” Jack responds, “Why do you find it so easy?” Locke exclaims, “It’s never been easy!”

Right there, you’ve got an encapsulated version of questions that most believers of all stripes have grappled with. In a world where earthquakes and tsunamis kill thousands, where people who’ve made evil decisions live to a ripe old age while innocent children die in accidents or from diseases, there can seem like plenty of reasons not to believe in a benevolent God. Yet if people are humble enough to consider the possibility that a reality exists beyond what the senses can experience, they may come to notice connections and meanings they never knew were there. “Lost” did an excellent job of bringing those questions and struggles to light in a way that resonates with the open-minded.

Lost’s themes about the journey from sin to redemption was reflected in all the primary characters, but none quite so well as Ben Linus. He was a Machiavellian villain who justified his own self-aggrandizing actions as being for the good of the island. As the story progressed, however, we began to see hints that he genuinely cared about his adopted daughter, Alex.

When she is murdered because he refused to give himself up, there’s a change in him; the guilt of not saving Alex gnaws at him, slowly producing a change for the better. That change doesn’t proceed in a straight line. Just when you think Ben is getting in touch with the better angels of his nature, he kills someone and is seemingly back to his old ways. There comes a point when Ben, who had allied himself with the good guys for a while, believes he has nowhere to turn but back to the story’s chief villain in order to survive. What happens next is a perfect mirror for Catholics familiar with the sacrament of confession/reconciliation.

Ilana, who is the representative of the island’s godlike figure Jacob, whom Ben had murdered, confronts him about what he did. Ben finally breaks down and admits, “I watched my daughter Alex die in front of me. And it was my fault. I had a chance to save her . . . I’m sorry I killed Jacob, I am, and I do not expect you to forgive me because I can never forgive myself.” When Ilana asks Ben why he wants to now ally himself with the island’s resident evil, Ben responds, “Because he’s the only one that’ll have me.”

Ilana answers, “I’ll have you.”

Ben, who has been alienated from the community because of his sins, confesses them to Ilana who is acting as a stand-in for the godlike Jacob. In the sacrament of confession, a Catholic penitent confesses his or her sins to the priest who is acting in the person of Christ. The sinner sincerely asks for forgiveness and the priest grants it, thereby reconciling the sinner to the greater community. In granting Ben forgiveness, Ilana welcomes him back into the community as well. It’s my favorite pop culture reflection of the opportunities God offers for redemption, and “Lost” deserves credit for taking the story down that road.

The story element of “Lost” that irks most viewers, however, is the choice to have half the final season take place in the afterlife. Many thought it was a waste of time and didn’t stay true to the series. In terms of staying true to the series, religious and supernatural subtexts were prevalent throughout “Lost’s” six seasons, so I disagree.

It wasn’t a waste of time because death and the afterlife is a topic our culture rarely addresses, though it should. After all, no matter how many vitamins we take and advice we follow about staying perpetually young, we’re all going to die some day. So, what happens next? Do we cease to exist or is there something more? If there is something more, do the choices we make in this life affect what happens in the next? Does it matter if our primary focus is indulging our own desires or is there a value in sacrificing ourselves for a greater good?

In setting much of “Lost’s” final season in a place that resembles purgatory, it demonstrated that our choices in this life make a difference in the next. For instance, many people have the impression that Christians believe God sends bad people to hell. What Christians actually believe is that we send ourselves to hell, by separating ourselves from the love and will of God. Hell is, therefore, a choice. A secondary character, who remained unrepentantly evil until his dying breath, was shown in this afterlife as frozen in a hellish state from which he would never escape. On the other hand, the characters who engaged in self-sacrifice found themselves in a much better situation than those who thought primarily of themselves. There was still a journey toward being perfected they needed to undergo before completely moving on, but they achieved that, eventually.

For people expecting some kind of sci-fi resolution, this ending was a shock. Faith, it turns out, is just as real as science, and people who suffer in this life can find happiness in the next. The ending was heart-breaking yet hopeful, leaving an indelible impression that will stay with me forever.

Did “Lost” do everything perfectly over its six season run? No. What TV series has? But it succeeded far more than it failed. Lindelof and Cuse told a transcendent story about real people dealing with temporal, moral, and spiritual struggles. Those are the kinds of stories that last. Those are the kinds of stories that will continue to matter.

RELATED: “Lost’s” 10th Anniversary Reunion Reflects on Show’s Soul and Spirituality

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