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Dr. Shephard, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (an interpretation of Lost)

Taweret at the bottom of the ocean in Lost

To say that I was at first a bit disappointed in how Lost ended is putting it mildly—I accused them of totally copping out. I was really into the show at the time, and had a few friends over to watch the finale. Those friends were then subjected to my ranting once it finished. As I thought about it more over the course of the ensuing days, however, I began to come around to being OK with the ending, though that required some interpretive work. I will here be laying out both the grounds of my concerns, and sketching the interpretation that led me in the direction of acceptance.

Each season of Lost is, in my mind, a thematic unit, and, while the whole thing hangs together, each season really plays out in response to one overarching mystery. In the final season, this mystery was about the aftermath of “The Incident”—did the attempt to destroy the EM energy with a nuke work, such that the plane never crashed? The opening sequence of “LAX” provides us with an answer: yes, the plane continues to LAX without crashing, and The Island is shown at the bottom of the ocean.

Thus the central paradox of the season: if they did it (blew up the bomb/island), such that Oceanic 815 never crashed, then they never went to The Island, never moved through time, and thus couldn’t have done it.

This paradox deepened when we returned to find our heroes still on The Island, but now back in (putatively) 2007. If this is the case, then it seems the attempt with the bomb couldn’t have worked, because if it had, then they wouldn’t be on The Island.

So the season develops two series, which I think of as incompossible worlds: one in which the bomb worked, and the other in which it didn’t. And the central question, which I contend the show was diegetically obliged to answer, has to do with the relationship between these two worlds: how could they possibly be coordinated?

Desmond looks bewildered

And, let’s be clear here, this is a huge narrative problem, one which I couldn’t even speculate about how to resolve prior to the finale, because the explosion of the bomb, if it worked in destroying the energy, properly didn’t exist in EITHER world: in The Island present, because The Island was still there; in the flash-sideways because the very people who did it never went to The Island to be able to do it.

So, how do we resolve this? At the end of the finale, our heroes, after coming to have memories of their lives on The Island, gather in a church. Christian Shephard appears to Jack, who asks if he is dead. This seems to be confirmed (“We all die sometime, kiddo.”) and Christian goes on to say that our heroes “made this place, so they could remember, and let go.” He also says that “there is no ‘now’ here” and that they won’t be leaving, but rather “moving on.” At the same time, besides the fact that they are in a church, there is a stained-glass window featured rather prominently with the symbols of all of the world’s major religions behind Christian, and once they go into the sanctuary, where our heroes all smile and cry while sitting in pews, Christian walks out the door, which opens to reveal a blinding white light (and it was night-time when they went in the church).

OK, so, at first, this all struck me as a cop-out, because I took it to be saying what most people seem to have taken it to be saying: the flash-sideways world was really the afterlife, where the characters went after they died. The implication being that it wasn’t “real” and, to my mind, that it didn’t really matter, because it didn’t resolve the paradox I outlined above. Others seemed to take it this way as well, even if they didn’t have a problem with it.

If this were so, though, there would be a number of inconsistencies, beyond the big one (the shot of The Island at the bottom of the sea): the fact that Jack has a son in the flash-sideways, Juliet trying to tell Sawyer “it worked,” the bad guys who show up in the flash-sideways to do things like shoot Sun, the comments that Eloise makes to Desmond during the concert, etc. If this is an afterlife that they made as a sort of spiritual construct, why are some of these things included? And when did this afterlife begin, given that they died at various times (as Christian notes)? Now, there are ways you could resolve these questions, if you want to hang on to this interpretation. I don’t want to say this line of thought is closed, but it makes little sense to me that these elements would be a part of some world our protagonists constructed in a purely spiritual sort of way.

What bothered me was that it seemed like we were left with only this line (the “Man of Faith” line), when the entire show had always also included another, “Man of Science” approach. This isn’t to say that the narrative is scientifically plausible, but that one was always able to approach what was given empirically, taking the evidence for what it was worth and not jumping to conclusions, even if this meant leaving some big questions open. And, some notions were offered about electro-magnetism, and the like—even if this wasn’t science, it offered that perspective. I initially felt that the ending was a cop-out because I didn’t know how to articulate this kind of interpretation: it seemed to shut down reason in the name of faith.

But, things are, in fact, more complex. Start with the fact that Christian also tells Jack that everything is real; that everything that ever happened to him is real. I take it that this includes everything that happened in the flash-sideways. Of course, that doesn’t shut down the afterlife interpretation—what is “real” anyway?—but it does complicate the question of how we are to interpret all of this.

So, two questions: 1) How, exactly, did they create “this place”; and 2) Why was The Island on the bottom of the ocean?

Have one answer: blowing up the a-bomb worked. It was by blowing up that bomb that they created this alternate world. This world is an “afterlife” or post-life, in which everyone is dead, because what they blew up was the light at the heart of/underneath The Island (which gave off the EM energy), which we are told, by Mother, is the source of life in the world.

So, we have to accept that piece of mumbo-jumbo as unexplained, but, if we do, then it follows that the world that would be created in the wake of the explosion would be lifeless. Now, granted, they weren’t all involved directly in blowing up that bomb, but one could argue that they were all meaningfully related to the attempt (which was in large part motivated by a desire to keep the separations of characters that had occurred, be they through death or otherwise, from happening)—they wanted to come back together, as Christian says.

So, it worked and created another possible world, in which things unfolded differently. Of course, our heroes, as they were at the time of the explosion, were not a part of this world, but were rather a part of the world of The Island present. So, they get shot back to 2007 through a time-flash that occurs at the same time as the bomb going off by the same mechanism which caused all of the time flashes—a disturbance in the EM energy/light. Why they were the only ones that moved through time is, of course, just as unexplained as it was in any other instance

Thus we get the two incompossible worlds, and the paradox I started with, with the onus on “The End” to provide some kind of coordination between the two.

This was done through the characters. Each person existed in both worlds—and it was the same person (we don’t get any wild divergences in personality in the flash-sideways, except for maybe with Desmond, but even he’s clearly the same person, just in a different set of circumstances). By coming into contact with one another, they each connected with the other aspect of their personality. We get a kind of Leibnizian possible worlds logic, where Adam-the-non-sinner is a part of a different possible world, which is incompossible with the existing world in which Adam sinned. But, here, in Lost, these two incompossible worlds both exist, so both manifestations of the person exist in different worlds, which are irreconcilable.

Rather than attempting to coordinate the worlds, the narrative of Lost brings about the reconciliation of the characters, who now remember their lives together in the other world (and all of it, because such a reconciliation could only happen, logically, sub specie aeternitatas.) So, we get, e.g., that moment between Charlie and Claire, which, frankly, made me tear up.

This brings the light back into the lifeless world of the flash-sideways world (the light that appears when Christian opens the doors) because the characters have now incorporated it, as a part of their other lives on The Island, into their persons. We aren’t told where they are moving on to. The indication is that even Christian does not know. He says “Let’s find out” to Jack. So, it doesn’t have to be “heaven” in any traditional sense.

But, there’s still the problem about Christian appearing to talk to Jack, which seems to make sense in the spiritualized afterlife reading, but not so much in mine. Here, I can only point out a couple of things:

1) Christian was never in his coffin, in either world (Jack finds it empty on The Island in Season 1)

2) This would hardly be the first time a dead person has appeared and talked to someone over the course of the series (which is something that requires an interpretation in its own right, but there is no reason that this couldn’t be another one of those times)

3) The Man in Black took Christian’s form on The Island; it’s theoretically possible that in the flash-sideways he escaped from The Island, and that it is him appearing to Jack as Christian (I don’t like this possibility, though—it doesn’t feel right); instead, I’d prefer to read this as the actual confrontation with his father that he sought in Season 1 when the Man in Black led him on a chase

None of which resolves the issue, but I think it does put it at the same level as a number of other lingering questions, rather than making it a deal-breaker, which, to my mind, The Island at the bottom of the ocean is for the spiritualized reading.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos


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  1. I agree that the island at the bottom off the ocean is misleading. I would even say it was a deliberate red herring. The final reveal tells us that there was in fact no connection between the bomb and the “flash sideways”. Juliet just had a temporary connection to when the vending machine worked in the afterlife “it worked”, this was coincidentally after she tapped the bomb. She was too delirious and near death to explain.

    To me, the only reasonable reading of the sunken island is that it was symbolic of the fact that they have all suppressed their memories of the island, each other, and the memories they share. They all, of course, recover those memories in the end and move on together. That’s the story of the flash sideways.

    As for the mechanics of how the flash sideways works, and why: I don’t think they provide much of an explanation, because the ‘how’ wasn’t the point. Rather it was about the ‘why’: the special bond they all shared created this place so they could find each other, to remember and let go.

    • I think we may be interpreting things in opposite directions, but that’s OK. There is definitely ambiguity

    • Well, I needed to engage in all of this thinking in order to become OK with the end. As I indicated, my first reaction was quite negative. If yours wasn’t, and you are OK with an appeal to an afterlife without explanation, that’s cool.

      My hope in this piece was that it might be of interest, or help, to some others, who like me had difficulty with the way the show ended. Or, you know, just to provide an opportunity to talk about it.

      I am happy to engage with and discuss alternate interpretations, but expecting that an explanation is possible seems to me to be a key part of interpretation. Which isn’t to say that I expect an explanation to be *given* – that’s different.

      But I will recognize that part of this relates the kind of person I am. I don’t want to demean anyone who is OK with the idea that some things just happen.

      And I do like that LOST presented us with a *literal* God-machine to go along with the deus ex machina

  2. The idea that that it was MIB in the church in the last episode. that would be perfect to start a reboot of lost.

  3. Food for thought. I had the same reaction when I watched the last series finale. To make matters worse I had sat watching it with my sister who was dying of cancer, who was sometimes present and sometimes not. Neither myself or her approached her impending death as a passage into a new world so, I felt particularly cheated by the end. If we jump forward to the other Lindelof show The Left Overs, the end made perfect sense, within an absurdist reading. Lost also played with absurdity, as does Lynch, but form memory the ending just didn’t deliver like the Return or Left Overs. I’m watching the series again with my son now. We are in the middle of season two – the episode Rousseau takes Sayid to Ben. I’m intrigued to see how I will respond to the end second time around. Thanks for the article. It’s the revisiting of Lost on 25YL that has made me reengage again. I have to say I’m enjoying it so far.

    • I still have to watch the last season of the Leftovers. I decided to rewatch the first two first, and that has held me up. But your point is well-taken. There is a fundamental way in which I don’t want too many answers from that show. And certainly Twin Peaks plays with depriving us of explanation in a way I really enjoy.

      I just don’t think Lost quite pulls off that move, So, I think we agree. Curious to learn what you think of it on this new viewing. I could probably stand to watch the show again myself. I thought it was great until the end, which, well, that’s what this piece is about 🙂

  4. You certainly don’t have to like the ending, many don’t! Damon Lindelof was one of the most hated celebrities on the internet for a time because of the ending of LOST. But, among all points on LOST, I think they were pretty clear on what they wanted the flash sideways to be. Now, about that cabin…

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