WARNING: The following contains MAJOR SPOILERS for the television show Lost. If you have not caught up through season 5, do not read this. It will spoil your enjoyment of the show.
Indulge me for a moment while I write about Lost, in my estimation one of television’s greatest dramas and something with which I am currently obsessed.
Of all the overriding themes of Lost, one of the most powerful is that of faith. Or more accurately, the struggle between faith and reason. The belief in fate and external forces beyond our comprehension, and the disregard of those concepts in favor of accepting only that which we can see and touch.
Representative of this is the sometimes overt, sometimes spiritual conflict between John Locke, a man of faith, and Jack Shepard, a man of science. Jack believes in reason, in using logic and sound thinking to overcome the obstacles fate (which he does not believe in) has put before. Locke, on the other hand, believes in fate, and even more importantly, he believes in the Island as a guiding hand in his life. It is an entity unto itself that has granted him the opportunity to experience what amounts to a kind of illumination.
Locke, you see, was born again upon coming to the Island. Or at least that is the message the show imparts to us.
After the traumatic birthing experience of Flight 815’s crash — what else is it for the survivors other than the pain of labor and then a birthing? — Locke is essentially reborn. He begins his second life, but now as the man he wanted to be rather than the man he was. The Island, he believes, has given him the power to be that person. Throughout most of the season we see him place an ever greater amount of faith in the Island as something special, important, and maybe even benevolent. It delivers a guitar to Charlie, allows Locke to once again walk, and most significantly, gives him a purpose by handing him the Hatch, first as a puzzle to be unlocked and then as a task he must do. These among many examples that reinforce his faith in the Island.
But Locke, as is often the case when upon a spiritual journey of this sort, begins to experience a crisis of faith. Here it comes after the Hatch has been opened and he has devoted himself to entering the mysterious numbers, 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42. After a time, Locke’s previously unshakable faith in the need to enter the numbers begins to waver, as does his faith in the Island itself. Locke doubts his purpose and the things to which he devoted himself. He once considered the Hatch of great importance, but this is called into question after we explore DHARMA Station 5: The Pearl, which (falsely) reveals the Hatch to be little more than an elaborate psychological experiment. It is the final blow to Locke’s faith.
Yet Locke’s faith is validated in the season 2 finale, “Live Together, Die Alone,” when the Hatch implodes on itself after the numbers are not entered.
Locke, it seems, should never have lost faith.
This validation of faith continues not just in Locke’s experiences — following the events at the Hatch, Locke is increasingly painted as a chosen one, the next person in which the Island will place trust and power — but also in Jack’s experiences.
Jack is the man of science. Of rationality. Despite the fantastic things he has seen and experienced, up to and including interacting with his dead father, he refuses to be taken in by the allure of the Island. He does not want what it has to offer. He does not believe. In the ultimate rejection of the Island, he escapes and returns to the real world.
Jack’s reward for snubbing the Island is to lose his love, his job, and his very soul to drug addiction. He is stripped of everything, right down to his dignity. The once clean-cut, stoic Jack ends up an unkempt, unstable and haunted man searching for a way to return to the Island.
Lose faith and lose yourself, or so seems the message. And thus is the man of science foiled.
But is he? As it does repeatedly, Lost again turns everything we know upside down as Locke’s shocking story continues to unfold. Following the implosion of the Hatch, Locke’s faith in the power of the Island is repeatedly reinforced and validated. The Island’s power to help him achieve a kind of human perfection, a oneness with the world around him, is maybe most dramatically displayed in Locke’s ability to recover from wounds with remarkable quickness. What better way to underscore the power of Locke’s faith than in the healing hand of the Island? Whenever Locke wavers, he is given a new reason to believe. A new miracle. A new affirmation of the power of his faith.
Eventually, Locke makes the ultimate sacrifice for the Island. So deep is Locke’s faith in the rightness of the Island and the sense of purpose it gives him that he chooses to die when it demands his death. Had Ben Linus not taken action, Locke would have died by his own hand. Though by Ben’s hand rather than his own, Locke does indeed die for the Island. That’s how strong his faith in its unfathomable purpose.
And indeed, we are led to believe in the Island’s amazing power now, too, as we see the greatest miracle of all. Locke’s resurrection. If ever we had reason to doubt, it is wiped away in the most uncompromising of ways.
But Lost is not a show content with satisfying viewer expectations. In the stunning season 5 finale, “The Incident,” we discover — or think we discover; by now we should know not to take things at face value — that Locke had not been resurrected after all. He is dead, truly dead, and the post-resurrection Locke we’ve been seeing was merely an ancient being that had taken his form in order to trick an old adversary, the elusive Jacob.
In stark contrast to all we had come to believe, Locke’s reward for his faith was death. Meanwhile, Jack, the man of science and reason, may be on the path to breaking the chain of events that led to the crash of Flight 815.
So what are we to take from this? Faith, it seems, was a false road. A will-o’-the-wisp that leads the unwary to a bad end.
Maybe. Given Lost’s history of defying our expectations, it’s impossible to predict where this clash of faith and reason will end. Jack’s unwavering adherence to reason got him off the island, but also ruined his life. His sudden faith in the Island and fate, which was found during his darkest days, restored him to the heroic figure he was, yet as season 5 came to a close it was once again his reason that drove him forward. The question we’re now left with is, did his decision to detonate the hydrogen bomb accomplish what he sought to accomplish? Did reason win out over faith, or was it again a trap?
And what of Locke, the One True Believer in the Island and all it offered? Are we really to believe that his story ends here? That he is dead, dead dead, and such was his final reward for his loyalty to the Island?
Ultimately, I think we’ll find that neither will be the “correct” viewpoint. Rather, we’ll see that strict adherence to either results in blind spots in our vision, an unwillingness or inability to see all that there is to see. Lost being Lost, there will be no easy answers. No neat and tidy and clean judgments.
Just like in the real world.