The Significance of Lost

A look at this intriguing television drama

Imagine a television drama series that charts the human journey from sin to redemption, climaxing in radiant joy. That vision became a reality in a show called Lost. Although Lost ended its six-year run in May of this year, the August release of the final season on DVD plus a complete box set of all the show’s episodes will allow a fuller appreciation of the series’ achievement.

Lost merits attention for dramatizing religious and philosophical questions on commercial network television without irony or ridicule. Applying C.S. Lewis’ critical principle on judging a book by how its audience reads it, viewers’ responses to Lost bear witness to its quality. Even on the frivolous and worldly website of Entertainment Weekly, comments argued issues of theology, myth, and literature rather than the issues that normally occupy TV nerds.

The show’s co-producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof noted fans’ reactions, encouraging a sense of communal discovery. They and Lost’s creator, J.J. Abrams, built in ambiguities to favor multiple interpretations. On April 19, Cuse told Wired magazine that “there is not a unified field theory of Lost, nor do we think there should be.” The show proposes rather than imposes what matters in this journey of life.

Finding meanings in Lost is especially challenging because its nonlinear storytelling uses flash-backs, flash-forwards, flash-sideways, mental and physical time-travel, as well as apparitions, dreams, and hallucinations. Episodes are densely layered with allusions to sources as varied as the Bible, Oz, Narnia, Star Wars, Lewis Carroll, the Odyssey, and Stephen King. Besides concepts taken from Christianity, Buddhism, and primitive religions, Lost also draws on worldwide myths of darkness and light, water, elusive magic islands, the perilous passage, and the afterlife. Many characters’ surnames are taken from thinkers and scientists whose theories are in play (Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Carlyle, Lewis, Rutherford, Faraday, Hawking) or have symbolic meanings (Shephard, Reyes).

What follows includes spoilers. But many people who’ve never watched Lost are at least vaguely aware of its premise: a plane crash strands an ill-assorted band of survivors on an uncharted tropical island. Their struggles test them in body and soul as perils and mysteries multiply. The island is a place of second chances—and perhaps a metaphysical game board—where people may be able “work out their salvation with fear and trembling.” They can choose to “live together or die alone.”

The core characters are lost in every sense. They are badly flawed people searching for something to make them whole. They include: Jack, a doctor eager to fix everyone but himself; Kate, a fugitive murderess; Sawyer, a roguish con-man; Hugo, an obese slacker with mental illness in his past; Locke, an embittered perennial victim; Sayid, a former torturer in the Iraqi Republican Guard; Charlie, a drug-addicted former rock star; Claire, unwed and pregnant; Michael, an erratic single father, and his sullen son Walt. There are additions and subtractions to the company over the course of the show.

The surviving plane passengers aren’t alone. Waves of other people have been shipwrecked on the island over the centuries. Some castaways are still there, including Desmond the clairvoyant Scot. Over and over again, groups split into opposing factions, killing and being killed as they re-enact an ancient rivalry between twin brothers. They struggle for mastery of the island’s strange powers over space, time, and energy that could doom the world—or perhaps confer godlike status on the victor. The desire to exploit the life-giving light and healing waters of this Earthly Paradise has fatally corrupted each new wave of occupants.

Everything on the island is imperiled by the Smoke Monster, a serpentine tornado of energy that smashes and slays without pity. When not roiling through the jungle, the malevolent thing can copy human or animal forms, scan memories, capture wills and infect spirits with darkness, always remaining invulnerable. “Smokey” is effectively a demon. It’s spent thousands of years plotting to escape beyond the sea.

From first episode to last, Lost encourages viewers to think in binary terms—Good against Evil, Us against Them. This is hammered home with black and white gaming pieces, weights on scales, mirror images, enemy twins and persons with dual identities such as Eko, a former African warlord posing as a Catholic priest. Having established oppositions, Lost subverts them. Rules of play are arbitrary. Friends and foes aren’t whom they first seemed to be. Allies change sides—repeatedly. Bits of dialogue and action recur with reversed meanings. The conman is conned, the torturer tortured. The man of faith and the man of science switch roles.

Yet the message of Lost is neither Manichaean nor relativist. Vice and virtue are very real. But the vicious and the virtuous don’t exist in tidy compartments on the island, or anywhere else on earth. Wicked people can’t be simply isolated and destroyed. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn says, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Healing riven hearts, not solving puzzles, is the purpose of the drama.

The wounds that Lost’s characters bring to the island were inflicted within their families, often stemming from adultery. Although some harmful mothers appear, more damage was caused by fathers. Some fathers were absent because of death, desertion, or divorce. Some stifled dreams; others praised the wrong traits. Some were criminals, abusers, or addicts. There are intrafamilial killings on a scale worthy of Greek tragedy and sinful conceptions galore. This isn’t a show for children.

Yet Lost is amazingly pro-child. Eight births are directly depicted—one of them three times. Parenthood inspires sacrifice and repentance. Abortion is rejected; infertility is a curse. Harming a pregnant woman is the most heinous of crimes. But even the love between parent and child can be twisted into sin. Michael betrays and murders his friends to rescue his son and thereby insures losing him.

Over millennia, the island has been through at least three cycles of tragedy involving mad mothers and stolen babies. This cruel pattern breaks in the final season of Lost. Kate, who had served as Claire’s midwife, had rescued, rather than stolen, her son. She had already surrendered the boy to his grandmother before trying to save Claire. Kate’s stubborn charity succeeds on the third try. The deranged— in a sense possessed—young woman is healed and restored to her family.

Kate also terminates the ancient feud between the island’s Protector, the blond Jacob, and his nameless dark twin whose soul is the Smoke Monster’s animating principle. Although the brothers can’t kill each other, Smokey manipulates another into doing the deed. Trying to eliminate all of Jacob’s potential successors, he overlooks Kate. Impure, unblessed, improper Katherine Anne Austen is still a Woman who destroys the Serpent. Smokey falls like the Satan he is. The role of Protector finally passes to the kindest and most innocent of the castaways—Hugo.

On the island, eyes open to truth. Sinners learn to admit guilt, take responsibility, to let go of old hatreds— including self-hatred—and welcome new love. They move from selfishness to self-sacrifice, even laying down their lives for others. They’ve accepted what can’t be changed while gaining the wisdom to see what can. Even when doom is inescapable, as in Desmond’s visions of possible futures, a man can choose to die bravely.

Away from the island, a “soul cluster” of core characters experience what initially seems to be an alternate—and somewhat better—world. Actor Michael Emerson (Ben) calls it “a happy dream of a wished-for life.” In this “purgatory,” characters must remember their island selves and find their loved ones. One awakens another, starting with the least (Charlie) to the greatest (Jack). Some people aren’t ready to let go and surrender to what eternity may hold. The rest gather at a church dedicated to the Sacred Heart. There, Jack reconciles with his father, Dr. Christian Shephard, to complete this circle of redemption.

Everything that rose did converge. The lost are found and forgiven, with “wrath ended/ And woes mended.” Candles burn by the altar. Holy water waits at the rear. The community sits in joyful expectation. Christian the shepherd opens the church doors on a flood of boundless light.


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About Sandra Miesel 30 Articles
Sandra Miesel is an American medievalist and writer. She is the author of hundreds of articles on history and art, among other subjects, and has written several books, including The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code, which she co-authored with Carl E. Olson, and is co-editor with Paul E. Kerry of Light Beyond All Shadow: Religious Experience in Tolkien's Work (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011).