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Your Pals Are Not What They Seem 2: Faith and Reason in Lost's Season 5 Finale

Posted by Charles Reece, May 30, 2009 02:07pm | Post a Comment
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Being a congenital skeptic, I had expected Lost to go the way of other fantasy shows exploring the issue of faith. It began by establishing the central antagonism between its central characters, the rationalist doctor Jack Shephard (the de facto leader -- get it?) and the faith-filled, ironically named John Locke (the namesake of the famous British empiricist whose philosophical inbred progeny was one B. F. Skinner). In regaining the use of his legs after crashing on the island, Locke was granted something of his own revelation. By way of this objective correlative, Locke and the audience had a inkling that there was something more to the island than Jack's skepticism allowed. Throw in a smoke monster, people coming back from the dead and time travel and any reasonable person starts sympathizing with Nochimson's vaginal heroism. The lure is there to wrap the antagonism up in the same generic package as all the aforementioned failed fantasy programs. Affirm faith by killing it with literalism (compare the deracinated horror of Stephen King's CGI-infested movie-adpatation of his The Shining to the dread of Stanley Kubrick's).

Seems to me that faith is both an opening and a closing. The believer must remain open to mysterious possibilities that defy the normative limits given by our best explanatory models while digging his heels in the sand and claiming his irrationally derived belief is the truth. Therefore, faith requires mystery. If the implausible is made normative, as it is so often in fantasy, there is no faith involved. Of course, the recipient (viewer, reader) must maintain a level of faith by way of the classic suspension of disbelief. Similarly, lest the believer become a mere ideologue, he must live with uncertainity, a nagging suspicion that he might be wrong (i.e., not all that different from the fantasy genre's suspension requirement).

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As developed over Lost's five seasons, there's some unitary (possibly collective, if you're so disposed) force pushing the buttons, be it deterministic fate (such as Lucretius' nature of things) or a telelogical will (such as God). Jack denies it to the point of despair, eventually becoming as much of a believer as Locke in a search for salvation. (Jack goes from militant skeptic to miserable addict to setting off a nuclear warhead as an act of redemption. Now, that's a character arc!) Locke is a true fanatical acolyte, following his gut from the getgo, and only finding more reasons through which to validate his faith. He doesn't seem like an ideologue/theocrat in comparison to Ben Linus. LIke a Jerry Falwell, Ben attempts to control others through his faith, whereas Locke is willing to martyr himself. Furthermore, the island is for Locke a personal guiding force and benevolent (or, at least, trustworthy) power. If he feels the island telling him to do something, he does it. This force has a name, Jacob. And with this season's finale, he finally has a recognizable face, the same one as the hired killer, Joe, in Lynch's Mulholland Dr.

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Choosing an actor from Lynch's Weirdville doesn't seem accidental, since Lost has taken a decidely Twin Peak-ish turn: with the introduction of Jacob comes his age-old, unnamed nemesis, much like the dynamic between the reformed demiurge Mike and the unrepentant BOB; both BOB and the nemesis can take the form of mortals, the former through possession, the latter by using a doppelgänger (provided the source is dead, it seems); these beings aren't omnipotent gods (maybe demi-gods, if I'm remembering my D&D Handbook correctly), because they have to obey rules not of their devising (e.g., BOB has to be invited in, the nemesis has to trick mortals into doing his dirty work); the hero-seekers of both shows, Cooper and Locke, willingly sacrifice themselves for a higher purpose. It's that last similarity that I find most interesting.

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Cooper lets BOB in as a quid pro quo for the release of his beloved Annie, which is ultimately more a romantically heroic feat than an act of faith. Locke, on the other hand, gives his life because a supposed apparitional representative of the island (Jack's dead father) asks him to. That's some Old Testament, Abrahamic faith right there. From Cecil B. DeMille to the present, Hollywood fantasies with this theme have copped out by demonstratively showing such sacrifices are not in vain. Much to its writers' credit and my surprise, Lost doesn't. Instead, the show brings in Cartesian doubt. René Descartes, the founder of modern skepticism, asked how we can know that all of reality isn't some malicious demon's skullduggery, rather than the truth from an omnibenevolent God. His answer was the undoubtable cogito (the 'I' necessary in order to doubt) and a bit of undoubtedly brilliant circular reasoning. Locke's answer is that he was fulfilling his role in the nemesis' malicious scheme to do away with Jacob.

Because the rules of the island's game state that the nemesis can't kill Jacob himself (just as Ben can't kill his rival, Charles Whitmore), the former had to devise an elaborate ruse to get someone else to perform the task. Locke's belief that he was acting in accordance to his destiny -- what the island had mapped out for him -- turned out correct, but his role was as a patsy. (His whole history is laid out here.) His sacrifice was needed so that the nemesis could take his form in order to manipulate Ben into killing Jacob. As any televangelist can tell you, the fear of God is a better tool than rational bargaining for getting people to do things against their own interests. "It is your destiny" sounds more virtuous than "I wonder if you wouldn't mind committing suicide to resolve this argument I'm having." Stopping here would make the show a parable for the merits of skepticism (not an unworthy endeavor in a country dominated by creationists). However, the writers amp up the mystery at this point by having Jacob goad a doubting Ben into fulfilling the nemesis' plan. If Jacob's apparent death is part of a higher purpose, then so is Locke's. The issue of faith's value is still on the table. But, pace the theocrats, it's the skeptical challenge that gives faith its substance.

The Lost team has already avoided the major pitfall of earlier similarly themed shows by getting ABC to agree to an end (the executives had wanted them to milk it as along as possible). Once the mystery is revealed, the jig is up, so it's good that there'll be a conclusion to the narrative. Now, it's a question of whether the show will follow the unfortunate path of Battlestar Galactica, answering all the questions with a mundane deus ex machina, or if it'll keep the mystery intact while giving some closure to the human drama rooted in the mystery.

Relevant Tags

Skepticism (2), Lost (13), Faith (3), Twin Peaks (8), X-files (3), Rationalism (3), Religion (7), B. F. Skinner (2), René Descartes (3), Television Criticism (12), David Lynch (23), Battlestar Galactica (3)