When Michael Schur was coming up with The Good Place, he asked Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof for advice. “[Lindelof] told me, ‘Here are the pitfalls. Here are the traps you can fall into. Here’s the problem you’re going to hit’…” Schur said, “He actually I think said to me, ‘You just need to know where you’re going.’”
Lindelof’s advice was presumably drawing from experience, because Lost absolutely did not know where it was going. For the six full-length seasons it ran, it was an incredibly messy show, narratively convoluted and incoherent, brimming over with set-ups that were never paid off – and not in a David Lynch way, where it’s meant to be surreal and not intended to be “solved”. It only took Lost until its second season to do a “what if this character is in a psych ward and this is all in his head” episode, something Buffy managed to stave off for six years. The finale of Lost aired eight years ago to a polarised reception, and its reputation has only depreciated in the interim. It regularly makes lists of the worst finales of all time, and is practically synonymous with “all the mystery-box shit turning out to be nonsense” and “wasting years of your life on a show that turns out to be crap.”
So here’s the thing: Lost was a great show, finale and all. And I think that those who came away from the finale scratching their heads kind of missed the whole point of the show – because Lost was always a show about religion.
I don’t like saying that someone watched something “wrong.” I watched all of Lost a few years after it aired, so maybe at the time it really did seem like Lost was a sci-fi show built around explaining where the polar bears came from, I wouldn’t know. But I also think there’s an increasing unwillingness or inability to read theological meanings into works of popular culture. Last year “what is mother! about?” became the biggest question in entertainment journalism, despite mother! being incredibly overt in pretty much just being the Bible, but about the environment. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the current target of the seasonal movie thinkpiece industry, with rarely a mention of its Catholic-rooted moral theology (this Vox article goes a good job wrestling with if McDonagh can tell a Flannery O’Connor story without a God, if you’re interested). I cringe remembering how many reviews of Silence, one of Martin Scorsese’s masterpieces, wondered why Andrew Garfield’s character didn’t just step on the thing already, I mean, who cares? It’s only apostasy.
This problem has nothing to do with believing or not believing in God, by the way. Lots of atheists think seriously and deeply about religion, from Nietzsche to Ingmar Bergman – often more so than believers. It’s about how critics and audiences should come armed with as many lenses of interpretation as they can to any work of art, and how one of the most basic lenses – one that has informed how stories are told for millennia – is increasingly left to gather dust. I’ve written before on this blog about how frustrating it can be when critics talk about films in terms of their political implications instead of as aesthetic and emotional experiences, how we’ve become so focused on meaning that we’ve forgotten about beauty. But equally, what meanings we’ve equipped ourselves to look for are so narrow. “Meaning” is rendered into what happens when we read a film with logic alone, not with our emotions or senses, and so excluding all the kinds of meaning that go beyond logic. It’s a minor miracle that any political values make the cut, owing in no small part to the American liberal’s belief that their values are the products of reason alone.
In that context, it becomes easy to try and watch Lost as a sci-fi or fantasy show, where eventually someone will figure out that the atoms on the island something something physics, or at the very least, the plants on the island something something magic. But Lost was always something closer to myth, a show about miracles and fate and faith.
When I say Lost was always a show about religion, I’m not trying to absolve it of its messiness or convolution. Season two of Lost is very bad, and so is the first half of season three. Nothing can excuse or explain Kate and Sawyer having sex in a cage or the episode about how Jack got his tattoos. I don’t know how they didn’t realise that children get older looking when they were writing Walt. I have no interest in hand-waving those things away. I’m also not trying to claim that Lost was too subtle to understand or anything: if you watched the first season of Lost and thought having a character called John Locke was too on the nose, they eventually had a character called – I shit you not – Charlotte Staples Lewis. I’d like to hope that anybody could watch Michael Emerson deliver a monologue about Saint Thomas and think “huh, religion”. I’m talking about something that’s harder to explain – the ability or willingness to glean theological meaning, not just recognise religious content. I mean an ability or willingness to watch Lost as not just a show with religious motifs, but – right at its core – about religion.
Lost does get better again partway through season three, and manages to become remarkably less convoluted and confusing right when it sounds the dumbest to describe (my favourite season is the one where the island itself has travelled through time to the 1970s, I swear). But it’s always messy, always armed and ready with a dangling narrative thread or a boring episode with flashbacks about Jack’s difficult relationship with his father. But the through line in Lost, the thing that matters, its beating heart, is theological.
Lost opens on a miracle. We don’t realise it for a few episodes, but John Locke was paralysed, and now he can walk, like the invalid that Christ cures in John 5:8. I’ve never been sure what I’m supposed to make of Locke – he’s the man of faith to Jack’s man of science, but the miracle that seems to open up his heart in season one curdles him into something often blindly fundamentalist and flat-out mean, a man whose miracle removes from him all doubt and eventually humility with it. Ben (Michael Emerson) quotes Dostoevsky to him: “Men reject their prophets and slay them, but they love their martyrs and honour those whom they have slain.” (Ben has done almost every evil thing, but he can talk faith better than anybody on the show. “Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror,” I guess.)
But when I think about religious characters in Lost, I don’t really think about Locke. I think about Charlie or Desmond or Hurley, about characters whose faith is less grandiose and more pure-hearted.
Charlie Pace (Dominic Monaghan) is a heroin addict, a working-class Catholic from the north of England whose band were one-hit wonders years ago and who can’t keep from chasing his glory days. He went to Australia to ask his brother to get the band back together, and he of course said no, instead offering to get Charlie into rehab. On the plane, Charlie gets so antsy that he goes to the bathroom to take heroin, right when they crash.
There’s another, smaller miracle that happens after the plane goes down. Charlie gets clean. Locke makes him choose between his guitar and his drugs, and he chooses the thing that he loves, not the thing that he feels like he needs. Locke tells him that a moth needs to struggle and break through its own cocoon, not have it cut open when it’s too weak to survive. Charlie getting clean isn’t the miracle, though: he’ll take heroin again, and it’ll be sad and frustrating. The miracle is that his faith returns. He prays. He convinces Claire to have herself and her baby baptised. Knowing he’s going to die, Charlie makes a list of his “greatest hits”: among them is the time that, while others had passed by a woman being attacked, he helped her, like the Good Samaritan. (Literally exactly like the Good Samaritan.) Right before he dies, he makes the sign of the cross.
There are a million stories in every religion about going out into the wilderness. The Israelites did it in Exodus, Jesus did it after his baptism, Buddha spent years in the wilderness during his quest for enlightenment. That’s what Lost is, too: the island is a Biblical wilderness or a fairy-tale woods, where, cut off from all civilisation, the characters discover things about themselves and are transformed by revelation. Sawyer becomes James, and finds his redemption; Hurley, who thinks he’s cursed, finds that he is blessed; Ben is a genocide-committing God-killer (sorta), but that doesn’t have to mean he has lost his capacity for good. When Desmond was kicked out of the monastery, he was told that God had bigger plans for him, and it was true: apart from a star-crossed love affair, travelling through time, and being kind of a mystic, he will bring all these people here, where they will have to reckon with things beyond themselves.
Lost’s wilderness is saturated in the miraculous, a place with Satan and wild animals and angels. It’s a show with plenty of mystery boxes set out like riddles to be solved, plenty of them dumb as a post. But it’s also a show concerned with mystery in the divine sense. A lot of New Atheists are quick to disparage the concept of divine mystery – I remember a meme that said, “The parts I can’t explain are mysteries”, like it was a total own – and that’s in no small part because it’s easy to think of divine mysteries as just the religious version of detective stories, with the third act gutted out. But divine mystery is something else. It’s what cannot be comprehended by reason, but only known through revelation. The Holy Trinity is the most famous example: it is impossible to reason yourself to the Holy Trinity, because it’s impossible to even understand the Trinity through reason alone. Divine mysteries are all the wacky shit that’s impossible to explain, and that makes them easy to poke fun at – but they’re any faith’s beating heart, the thing that makes it faith. All the unexplained or unexplainable stuff that happened on Lost is only unexplainable if “the island’s divine magic” isn’t an answer. It’s like asking how could Mary get pregnant if she was a virgin: it is something beyond us, and the purpose of the story is to reveal that which is beyond us.
“While the writers gave us answers to why or what,” Digital Spy says in their list of questions Lost didn’t answer, “they weren’t so great at telling us how things came to be.” But I didn’t care about how. I don’t care who built the statue or why women had problems giving birth or where the mother of the guy who was in charge of keeping all the light in the world alive came from. I don’t care how so much magic stuff happens on a magical island, or even know what kind of explanation you would want for that (it’s magic!). I care about Water and Light and statues of Mary and God allegedly has bigger plans for me and let’s look death in the face and say whatever, man, let’s make our own luck. “The important thing … is not answers. It’s resolution,” Todd VanDerWerff wrote after the final episode aired, “And Lost provided that in spades.”
A lot of people think the finale of Lost was a declaration that none of it mattered and you were stupid for caring. Partly this is because a lot of people misunderstood and thought that everyone was dead the whole time. In the finale, we found out that the flash-sideways portions of the final season were an afterlife, a kind of self-built purgatory where the characters lived out their lives without the plane crash and without the island, before moving on to the next world. I can understand why anyone who didn’t understand the episode would dislike it, but what I find really depressing is the idea that because everyone died – at some point, lots of them survived the “real” events of the finale but died eventually later, like every single person will – or because there was something beyond death, that rendered the events of the show meaningless. As if the existence of something beyond this world would strip this world of value.
One of the mantras that gets repeated throughout Lost is “Whatever happened, happened.” It’s not exactly groundbreaking lyricism, but it matters: everything did really happen, insofar as anything “really” happens on a fictional TV show. They went into the wilderness, and it doesn’t matter any less because they made it to the promised land. A show called Lost was always going to be about finding and being found: finding love and family, finding faith, finding yourself. And that’s all so much more interesting and important that I don’t know why anyone would be so hung up on how they got lost in the first place.