This Island Earth - towards a unified theory of LOST

(This is the second of two essays I wrote about the television show LOST. The first one can be found here.)   

The last episode of ABC’s prime time drama LOST was a polarizing piece of television. Following the broadcast, viewers either praised or panned the finale based largely on the expectations they had going into the show.  

So what did it all mean? LOST’s creative team insisted much of the story was known prior to filming the pilot while finer aspects were fleshed out during production. Despite this contention, there were certainly occasions during LOST’s six-year run where it seemed that no one knew where the program was headed.  

The epic scope of LOST left many viewers puzzled, questioning how the byzantine story lines, baffling plot twists and elaborate character arcs were connected. As well, the esoteric nature of the final few episodes did little to alleviate the mystery or satisfy the demands of a segment of the show’s audience who ultimately felt cheated by the series conclusion. 

What if the problem was not so much with the storytelling as it was with the lack of an interpretive framework for the series, something that contextualized the series and made it more than the sum of its six seasons? 

To answer that question, it becomes necessary to review at the show more creatively – and more critically – in order to discern the threads that connect the seemingly disparate seasons of the program together.

First and foremost, LOST was a character-driven drama about relationships between people. Accordingly, this fundamental premise constitutes the first of three tiers that form an interpretive framework for the show. 

In large part, the appeal of LOST lay with individuals whose struggles and triumphs in some way echoed viewers’ own. These characters initially occupy states of despair and tension between past sins and new beginnings.

The idea of sacrifice, or letting go, is also a key theme that’s established early on, as characters wrestle with issues of identity and control (Jack, John), addiction (Charlie), guilt (Kate, Sayid), anger (Sawyer, Jin), deception (Sun), mortality (Rose/Bernard), duty (Claire) and sanity (Hurley).   

By season six, the human narrative had developed into a story about love and forgiveness – with the requisite focus still on the ideas of sacrifice and release. This was a natural evolution of the narrative, with the characters moving from a state of alienation through personal crisis, and towards acceptance of themselves and others. 

All the main characters follow this evolutionary trajectory, undergoing gradual changes in perspective that ultimately results in the awakenings they experience in the sideways world of the final season. Yet their transformations are not achieved in isolation. 

“Nobody does it alone, Jack – you needed all of them and they needed you,” Christian tells Jack at the end of the final episode.

“Why?” Jack asks. 

Christian’s response - “to remember, and to let go” – goes to the heart of what LOST is about. Letting go is not just about releasing the pain, joy and sorrow the characters have experienced on the Island, and in flashbacks and flash-forwards. It’s about letting go of life itself.  

The notion that the Island and what happens on it is a metaphor for the human experience on this planet provides the second tier for the unified theory of LOST. 

Images of islands are frequently evoked when describing Earth’s journey through space. The planet is – quite literally – an oasis for humanity in a seemingly indifferent and hostile universe. One need not be religious in any way to recognize the precarious providence of our existential circumstance.

While the survivors of Oceanic flight 815 are lost on a mysterious island in the middle of the Pacific, they are also lost in their lives. In fact, it’s this common predicament that provides the connective element for the first 50 episodes of the program.

And again, situations faced by the characters – which involve issues of survival, purpose and acceptance - are analogous to the challenges faced by many of us here on planet Earth, as we seek to “find ourselves”, or just make it through the day.  

The Island is described in different ways at various points in the show. John Locke’s calls it “a place where miracles happen” and Jacob uses the metaphor of a cork in bottle of wine to describe how the Island is a barrier protecting the world from evil. It’s described as hell on more than one occasion.    

Christian Shepherd calls the sideways world of season six “a place you all made together so you could find one another.” But this could apply to the Island as well, where characters with little in common discover that they are connected in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways. 

The description can also be extended to the planet Earth. Societies, cities, schools and families are all created so we can – in a very real sense - find one another. And it’s this theme – in both its practical and metaphorical applications – that sets the stage for the final tenet of this unifying theory.  

The last tier of LOST’s interpretative framework involves a thought experiment.

We imagine that the first shot of the series and the last shot of the series constitute the beginning and ending of the entire LOST narrative cycle. 

Because of this, it’s important to know what these shots actually are. 

The first shot of the series is an eye opening; the final shot is an eye closing.

Whose eye is it? Why is it opening? Why is it closing? What does the eye see? 

This is really where the mystery in LOST begins. In the absence of any other information, it’s impossible to say because there is no middle to the story yet.  

There is no drama, no conflict or struggle. There is no time or place. There’s no Island or smoke monster or exile named Widmore. There’s no Sawyer, Hurley or Kate. And there’s no Jack – even though it’s his eye that’s opening and closing – because he hasn't been introduced yet.

There is just the eye – the eye through which the viewer will watch the show. 

The subtext to this beginning and ending – to the eye opening and the eye closing – is that everything the viewer watches in-between the proverbial “blink of the eye” will be subject to perception: reality, time, love, death, survival.

“Are you real?” Jack asks Christian at the church in the finale. 

“I sure hope so,” Christian answers, laughing. “Yeah, I’m real. You’re real. Everything that’s ever happened to you is real. All those people in the church; they’re real, too.” 

With these statements, the barriers between the sideways world, the Island, the flashbacks, time travel and flash-forwards melt away. Suddenly, everything is real – but only as real as the eye perceiving it.    

LOST is about dissolving barriers - barriers between, people, time and realities. The transformative journeys undertaken by the principal characters and the Island as metaphor are the first two parts of the theory.

But with the third tier – the thought experiment – a novel interpretation of the program begins to emerge. 

It’s about people, and how we perceive our lives - and the role we play in the lives of others - as we hurdle through space and time on this Island Earth.