Lost in Translation: "Sundown," "Ab Aeterno" & "The Package"

Posted by Charles Reece, April 4, 2010 10:13pm | Post a Comment

A subjectivist would say that evil, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. However, cross-cultural psychology tells us that beauty preferences for bodily proportions remain pretty consistent across cultures -- e.g., the alignment of eyes to the nose or the ratio of hips to waist to bust might differ in our preference for how big or small the body parts, but percentage-wise, the preferred numbers are statistically close. Is the subjectivist also similarly wrong about evil?

In "The Package," the latest episode of Lost, having been captured by Whitmore's team, Jin turns on a brainwashing video in the cell where he's held. Along with the psychedelic montage are two inscriptions: "we are the causes of our own suffering" and "everything changes." Both respectively comment on two of the show's main themes, the nature of evil and determinism. Given that the narrative relies so heavily on fate and time travel, where the present has been determined by the actions of characters shifted into the past, we viewers should read irony into the Heraclitean message that you can never step into the same river twice. As is taking shape in the alternative timeline, the river might look different in the particulars, but it's always leading to the same place. Likewise, a grain of salt should be applied to the other message suggesting a subjectivist determination of evil. 

If memory serves, the video is the same one that was forced on Alex's boyfriend, Karl, by the Others (then led by Ben). Thus, it was either created by them, or they appropriated a DHARMA Initiative's video for their own purpose (since the room was definitely created by DHARMA). Either way, there was a good reason for the Others to use the video on a wayward member, to repress any suspicion that much suffering has been wrought by Jacob's will (and, of course, Ben's wish to punish the boy for dating his adopted daughter). Jacob pays a lot of lip service to free will, such as when he meets Richard for the first time in a flashback sequence of "Ab Aeterno." Just before offering a Richard a job as his liaison, he explains his purpose in bringing all the people to the island is to prove to the Nemesis that they can freely choose to do the right thing. However, the right thing isn't freely chosen by Jacob's candidates, but by the dictates of the island and/or Jacob. Thus, however justified the suffering of those who find themselves on the island might or might not be, one thing is certain, the evil effect isn't subjectively determined. What remains for the characters, as with the audience, is to determine the true nature of evil.

Since the last time I blogged about the show, I've been happy to discover that it hasn't gone the route of a dualistic struggle between good and evil. Sure, it continues to play with the iconography of a Star Wars metaphysics (black and white, two teams, etc.), but I think the writers have shown enough of their hand that the audience can be assured the moral outcome isn't going to be so simplistic. Take, for example, the parallel that's been drawn between the bargains proffered by Jacob and the Nemesis. As the personally chosen representative of Jacob and protector of the Temple, in "Sundown" Dogen offers the resurrected Sayid a chance to redeem himself and prove his goodness by killing UnLocke (the Nemesis) with a sacred dagger (sacred because it continues to get passed between the two island deities through the ages).

Using Jacob's typical rhetorical technique, Dogen only tells Sayid enough to get him to do the task at hand. It is hardly indicative of someone who respects the will of another, but rather the work of a satanic trickster. No mention is made of the likelihood that the dagger will have no effect on UnLocke -- and it doesn't. Furthermore, Dogen insists that Sayid must strike before UnLocke says anything, effectively robbing the opponent of any chance to prove his humanity to the contrary of his being characterized as "evil incarnate" (possibly another of Dogen's deceptions, since the Nemesis has been robbed of his body). On the other side, the Nemesis (as the Man in Black) gets Richard to go after Jacob with the dagger by tricking him into thinking the latter is the devil ("Ab Aeterna"). Richard is convinced he's in hell for killing a doctor, and due to the Nemesis' machinations, the only way to free himself and his wife is to kill Satan. Once again, the blow is to be dealt before the opponent has a chance to speak. Thus, the Nemesis has no more regard for a man's right of self-determination than Jacob. These methods suggest that the only good that will come out of following either Jacob or UnLocke is a utilitarian ratio where the final good outweighs all the evil means.

Having failed to kill UnLocke, Sayid makes a Faustian bargain to help the former infiltrate the Temple if he will bring the latter's dead wife back. Certainly, UnLocke makes a better argument for killing Dogen than the latter did in reverse. Would anyone else be convinced by "if you want to be good, kill this guy, no questions asked?" UnLocke gives a biblical choice to the Temple residents, either follow him or die. And a lot of them are murdered.

Jacob's temptation for Richard isn't all that different from Sayid's. He wants his wife back. No can do, says Jacob. Well, how about absolution? Nope. Alright, how about eternal life, so he'll never have to face eternal punishment? Jacob grants him that with a touch. In return, Richard helps line up candidates and followers for the next century and a half in whatever plan Jacob and the island have in place. As we've seen, and as Jacob explains, a lot of people have suffered and/or died for not having properly followed this agenda. Just like with UnLocke, either follow him or suffer the consequences. For their respective service, Sayid loses his emotional ties to his humanity and Richard loses any sense of purpose. The latter is brought back into Jacob's fold through Hurley communing with Isabella, Richard's dead wife. Keeping in mind that Jack once saw his dead father off the island where the Nemesis cannot be, it's posible that Jacob can impersonate dead people, too. Additionally, we never see "Isabella" actually telling Hurley to pass along the message to Richard that he must stop UnLocke from getting off the island. It might be that all of Hurley's ability as a medium is more of Jacob's shenanigans.

Jack has now found Locke's sense of purpose, but I'm betting on Sawyer's anarchic spirit. The latter has little concern for which side is correct or will win the game, and is more committed to playing them against each other for the sole purpose of getting himself and his friends off the island. Ultimately, the evil seems to be island bureaucracy. On the other hand, the possibility of freely choosing to go against the island's game has been severely undermined with all the deterministic courses everyone is on. Whatever, a Hollywood happy ending ain't likely. And I have no idea how the DHARMA Initiative fits into all of this (but it probably started with the owner of the Black Rock, Magnus Hanso -- was he on the ship?), or why Ben and Whitmore have to play by similar rules to those guiding Jacob and his Nemesis. 

Relevant Tags

Lost (13), Determinism (2), Television Criticism (12), Evil (2)