Is not the ultimate American paranoiac fantasy that of an individual living in a small idyllic Californian city, a consumerist paradise, who suddenly starts to suspect that the world he lives in is a fake, a spectacle staged to convince him that he lives in a real world, while all people around him are effectively actors and extras in a gigantic show? [...] Th[e] final shot of The Truman Show may seem to enact the liberating experience of breaking out from the ideological suture of the enclosed universe into its outside, invisible from the ideological inside. However, what if it is precisely this "happy" denouement of the film [...], with the hero breaking out and, as we are led to believe, soon to join his true love (so that we have again the formula of the production of the couple!), that is ideology at its purest? What if ideology resides in the very belief that, outside the closure of the finite universe, there is some "true reality" to be entered?
-- Slavoj Žižek, "The Matrix, or Two Sides of Perversion"
The only interpretation I've come across so far of Lost's ending in that church with Christian opening the doors to white light (why never neon violet?) is that the whole sideways timeline (ST) is a purgatory where all the characters are reunited (having died at various times in the original timeline, OT). Passing through those doors, they'll go on to discover the meaning of it all, reality ground zero. Chief apologist Doc Jensen's reading goes something like that: "the castaways moved into the ''afterlife,'' which I have called 'heaven,' [... b]ut upon reflection, [... m]ost likely, the castaways returned to the Source, the hub of life, death, and rebirth, and their energy was recycled back into creation." Contrariwise, I suggest another possibility, that the island functions like Bugs Bunny sitting at the drawing board, constantly manipulating poor Daffy Duck's environment with a pencil and eraser (thus the white light is nothing more than blank paper). As it is with the cocksure rabbit, Jacob's ability to create arbitrary rules for reality ultimately rests on the unknowable fiat of some other creator, opening a potentially infinite regress of stinkers. What this entails is that Jack's sacrifice wasn't grounded -- wasn't guaranteed significance -- through transcendent means as the other interpretation would have it. Instead, if his martyrdom has meaning, it's because of the material effects on his reality, the OT, what's constituted by his relation to the other characters involved in the Gordian plot of the first five seasons.
Among theists, there are those who filter all of reality through the promise of the afterlife, the transcendent Truth, and there are others who are more concerned with how their faith gets the believer to act. For the former, ontology is paramount; their religious belief is a description of the ultimate foundation. For the latter, representationalism isn't important; the value of their faith is grounded in realworld effects. It doesn't matter to the post-ontological theist if he's believing in a fiction, as long as it's a useful fiction. Paraphrasing David Byrne, who was paraphrasing Ludwig Wittgenstein, of that which he has nothing to say, his lips are sealed. Aren't these two positions similar to what we have with Lost's Alexandrian resolution? The existence of a god qua magical island was never much in doubt (theism was the default narrative strategy), so the theme of faith versus skepticism really comes down to: (1) Were the castaways really working towards some great Truth that justified all their struggles and sacrifices, or were they simply side characters in an old family drama? And (2) did that white light give a meaningful closure to what we, the audience, have been following for 6 years, or was it simply that the creators couldn't figure out anything else to put on the page?
Like Neo in The Matrix, Locke had faith and chose the "red pill," but it turned out to be the Man in Black (MIB or UnLocke)'s game piece. So, nothing was revealed to him, and he died a mere pawn, asking why. At least, that's the skeptical reading, provided by UnLocke himself. The other reading was given by Jack as he pushes UnLocke into the water on his way to the sub ("The Candidate"):
UnLocke: "Whoever told you that you needed to stay had no idea what they were talking about."
Jack: "John Locke told me I needed to stay."
In other words, Locke's death had meaning, at least to someone willing to accept it. As the culmination of his fidelity to the island, it was the event that reconstituted Jack's worldview, putting him on the path of accepting the candidacy. Locke's willingness to die for the island led to the central role reversal instantiating the show's major theme: Jack became the disciple to protect the island against its chief skeptic, MIB, embodied in the form of Locke. This ideo-theoretical division was one about existential purpose, not (as it often is in the real world) the existence of supernatural properties (which are a given in fantasy). And, also as it was with The Matrix, this debate gets reduced to a mano-a-mano fistfight (with Kate's bullet becoming the deciding factor). Where would religion be without violence?
As far as I can tell, MIB was correct in every way. There was no reason he couldn't leave the island other than the controlling demands of his possessive Mother. Jacob could've changed the rules as the island's guardian, making it so that candidates didn't have to be dead for his brother to leave, but he was too much the mama's boy. Candidate after candidate died for 2,000 years just to keep the suffering bastard on the island. Even worse, when the island's cork was pulled by Desmond, shutting down the power source, UnLocke changed into an ordinary mortal. That kind of diminished his ability to wreak havoc on the mainland, so why couldn't Jack (as the new guardian) let him go? Revenge for killing Jin, Sun and Sayid, I suppose. Of course, they wouldn't have been killed if it weren't for Jacob's fucked up rules in the first place. And I guess UnLocke might've had his powers turned back on, once Jack replugged the cork, but like most everything else in the finale, all the audience has to go on are ad hoc speculations, since the show didn't provide any ground rules that it stuck to.[*] All we know for sure is that Jack made a commitment and he died sticking to it -- admirable, in a hate-the-war-but-support-our-troops kind of way.
What I dislike about the onto-theological reading of the ST -- despite granting that it's a valid interpretation -- is that when taken by itself it reduces Lost's entire shambolic story arc to the ideological yearning that Žižek points to in The Truman Show's conclusion. The mere promise of a transcendent Truth (behind the curtain, outside of the OT) is supposed to free the characters of choices made and acts committed. Similarly, the audience is supposed to forget all the dangling plot threads, finding closure in the characters having finally discovered their purpose, whatever that might be. So, my more skeptical (post-onto-theological) interpretation of the ST is that it's a dying dream granted to Jack by the island for service rendered -- a way of making him feel as if he died for something, even if he didn't. Of course, both Juliet and Desmond tapped into this same dream, but are influenced by the same magical island that can read and influence all the characters' thoughts. Think of it as Matrix-styled A.I. software being implemented in their wetware at different times. The ST is thereby rendered an illusion. However, because "The End" is ambivalent (however imperfectly) between these two interpretations, it doesn't require what Žižek demanded of The Matrix, a third pill to get past the forced choice of pure ideological manipulation (the Matrix) versus the unveiling of base reality (the grimy burned out husk of Earth with humans as they really are, atrophied and plugged in). Instead of the red pill enabling Neo to see the reality behind the illusion, the third pill would enable him to see reality's dependency on its ideological/fictional/fantasmatic support. Is Lost's OT the enabling fiction, or is it the ST? As much as I hated the distraction that was the ST, to its credit, the finale seems to answer, "both."
So I ain't satisfied, but that's the most favorable reading I could think of.
Free at last!
[*Since I was pretty sick of picking apart with friends all this season's problems in plot construction, I left them out here, but a raging geek over at Ain't It Cool News' talkback gives a pretty good stream-of-conscious rant that lists many.]