'Lost': The core themes and mysteries

16054__lostcast_dlMysteries. Lost is filled with them, even defined by them. Mysteries of history. Why is there an ancient statue of the Egyptian death deity Taweret on The Island?  Four Toed statue? Mysteries of character. Can Jack really change and find redemption? Mysteries about the nature of reality itself. Guys… where are we?!

A couple of  months ago, I asked the readers of my Doc Jensen column to send me their picks for the three mysteries they most need Lost to resolve in its final season. I tabulated all the entries (nearly 2000) and created what I call “The Lost Must-Answer Mystery List,” which you’ll find here at the site in gallery form. I think hard core Losties might be a little surprised by No. 1.

uwu_logoThe sixth and final season of Lost, set to premiere early next year, certainly has its work cut out for it in terms of answering every single question of every single fan… especially when one fan’s idea of a “Must-Answer Mystery” is another fan’s “Who cares?” I know of one Lostophile who really wants to know: “Whatever happened to the cow outside The Flame?” (Seriously, Dad. Let it go.)

Yet obsessing over individual mysteries does risk losing sight of the forest amid so many trees. I’ve always felt the mysteries of Lost are better appreciated not as puzzles to be solved or questions to be answered (though I do hope they are) but as expressions of the drama’s essential themes. That may sound odd coming from a guy who spends hours after every episode madly digging for buried secrets in the subtext. But that’s just me having fun—and/or being crazy. Truth is, I am sane enough to recognize that Lost is best enjoyed when “read” for its themes, not as cipher to be decoded.

Let’s start by hitting the One Big Theme underlying the myriad of other themes that form Lost’s matrix of meaning. Terry O’Quinn, who plays Locke, provocatively poked at this uber-theme earlier this year when he spoke to The Los Angeles Times about the drama’s trickiest mystery: What is The Island? “What [Locke] perceives, his understanding of the island is, is special. But it might be the road to hell. We still don’t know what [kind of] moral entity the island is. Is it a good guy or a bad guy?” In other words: Lost is all about trust. It’s the defining quality of our post-modern condition, not to mention our current moment: In whom — or in what — can we really trust? Science? Religion? Philosophy? Technology? Political systems? Leaders? Neighbors? Parents? Friends? Lovers? If we are predisposed to trust one thing (say, science) and distrust its opposite (say, religion), then… why? Have we ever considered the origins of our own bias? How can we be certain that the god of our choosing is truly good and has our best interests at heart? Are we being fooled? Are we fooling ourselves? How can we be certain that we aren’t just simps and marks in some big bad bastard’s “long con,” to use Sawyer’s term? (Ironically — and maybe not coincidentally — the theme of trust has defined Lost’s behind-the-scenes story, as well; see our discussion of “Do the producers have a master plan?”)

Lost’s most-discussed theme is reason vs. faith, embodied by science-trusting skeptic Dr. Jack Shephard and destiny-seeking mystic John Locke. Their conflicting worldviews are reflected in the audience’s engagement with Lost‘s mysteries, too. There are Scoobies (as in the cartoon Scooby-Doo, where otherworldly phenomenon is always proven bogus), and there are Goobers (as in the cartoon Goober and the Ghost Chasers, a Scooby clone where otherworldly phenomenon is legitimately otherwordly). Scoobies insist that Lost resolve its mysteries rationally. Goobers are game for more fantastic possibilities. Take the smoke monster. We look at that seemingly sentient billow of black haze and we think: What the heck is that? But Goobers lean toward and support supernatural solutions; they could be cool with Smokey being an angel, like the one God parked outside Eden after kicking out Adam and Eve; or perhaps mythological Cerberus, or watchdog, tasked with policing a realm not meant for humans, or at least all humans; or perhaps a mere figment of our imagination or manifestation of fear, brought to life by Island magic. But Scoobies want naturalistic explanations for Smokey — maybe an undiscovered life form, maybe a swarm of nanobots, or maybe something else entirely that will make total sense once we get a chance to study it and become smart enough to understand it. Or him. Or her. Whatever. Yes, the theories on either side of the divide are “out there,” yet the supernatural/naturalism debate is eons old — at least as old as the name John Locke, one of several Age of Reason/Age of Enlightenment philosophers name-checked on the show who were deeply invested in resolving this debate — and certainly relevant to our current moment, noisy with fighting between evolution and creationism and filled with best-selling books by celebrity atheists attacking religion and best-selling books by celebrity spiritualists attacking books written by the celebrity atheists attacking religion. Such is the unchanging (vicious) circle of life.

Joined at the quantum hip with Lost’s metaphysical make-up is another core thematic concern: destiny vs. chance, or what my philosopher friend Dr. Steve Porter has previously articulated as free will vs. determinism. Among the mysteries that best represent this conflict is one of the very first: were the Oceanic 815 castaways brought to The Island intentionally, for a reason, or was it a mere accident, some fluke of catastrophe, some unguided, undirected sequence of events that set their adventure in motion? The mystery of The Numbers has put a human, often comic spin on this existential conundrum. Do their creepy-uncanny recurrence in Hurley’s life mean that his universe is governed by some kind of underlying, unseen order? Or is this mere conspiracy theory, projected upon trippy, tragic coincidence — crappy comfort logic like fatty comfort food for souls spooked by meaninglessness, or desperate to avoid hard, inconvenient truths? Again, the show taps a timely nerve: anyone who has lived through the past decade, with its terror and calamity, has surely wondered: “What the hell? Why has this happened?!” There’s rarely satisfying relief for that bewilderment — which is why I suspect Lost may dare to opt for shruggy non-answers for its more overly profound mysteries, even at the risk of pissing off some of its fans. Anything too specific risks feeling trite, campy, and missing-the-pointish.

If truth is ultimately unknowable and reality ultimately ambiguous, then how are we to live our lives?  This, too, weighs on Lost’s mind, and its answer has been expressed in the oft-cited mantra “Live together, die alone.” I think the show believes in this agreeable platitude, but I think it’s more interested in exploring the difficulty of living it out.  What if the needs of the community gets in the way of personal fulfillment — and vise versa? What if one man’s pursuit of life’s meaning is the key to the community’s survival, and vise versa? It’s the age-old individual vs. society conflict, and I see it in characters like Jack, Locke and Ben, men whose headstrong pursuit of a personal agenda or unwavering commitment to a worldview could be lead to salvation for all… or ruin. Over the past two seasons, Lost has name-checked a 18th/19th century English philosopher named Jeremy Bentham, the founding father of Utilitarianism, a system of thought that assesses the morality of an action based on the happiness it brings to the most amount of people. I have often wondered if the mystery of Ben’s manipulative methods and mercurial nature will ultimately be explained along Utilitarian lines; his mandate is to facilitate a happy ending for The Island and its inhabitants, and any and all means are acceptable and forgivable. (Ditto Jacob, The Island’s recently revealed maybe-benevolent deity — and perhaps also his companion, the maybe-diabolical Man In Black.)

But the themes at the heart of Lost are enlightenment and transformation. The castaways came to The Island stuck in a rut of some sort, their hope and ambition for transformation undermined by past baggage or a belief in their own damnation. As I currently see it, the story has brought these characters to a place where they can recognize that they “always have a choice,” to use the Jacob’s words — a choice to do something different; a choice to change. But first, they must do the hard work of taking a good hard look at themselves and seeing themselves as they really. So far, most of them have done anything but that. Last season’s time travel storyline culminated with Jack becoming convinced that he could finally find happiness if only he could change… history. Not himself — history. Seriously. Even if the castaways succeeded at collapsing the timeline and rebooting their lives timeline — we’ll find out next season — I doubt Jack’s self-improvement will be among the revisions. And so the great work of his life remains. Physician, heal thyself already, will ya?

Extra credit viewing! Contact (1997), based on Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel, which tackles the faith/reason conflict between a man of faith and woman of science, and What The BLEEP Do We Know? (2004), which ponders the metaphysical/mystical make-up of the universe.

George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) extols faith, fate, and the whole hero’s journey thing; The Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003) deconstructs it all. The films of Russian director by Andrei Tarkovsky, particularly Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) are philosophical flicks about perception and reality and lost souls in trippy circumstances. And then there’s Orson Welles’ adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Just for fun.

Extra credit reading! The following books approach the science/religion debate, as well as the morality of God and problem of evil, from partisan, provocative, intelligent perspectives: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995-2000), The Bible (the Book of Job), Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot (first performed 1953), The God Delusion (2006) by atheist Richard Dawkins, Miracles (1947) and Space Trilogy (1938-1945) by Christian theologian and novelist C.S. Lewis, and Animal Man (1988-1990) by Grant Morrison and various artists.

The Plague (1947), by Albert Camus, Wise Blood (1952) by Flannery O’Connor, The Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding,The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) by Thomas Pynchon, Slaughterhouse 5 (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut, Replay (1987) by Ken Grimwood, Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) by Umberto Eco, Sandman (1989-1996) by Neil Gaiman and various artists, House of Leaves (2000 )by Mark Z. Danielewski, American Gods (2001) by Gaiman, The Dead Father (2004) by Donald Barthelme, and The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker (1973). I’ll let you discover for yourself why I chose these books.

For discussion: Are you a Scooby or a Goober? If you’re a Scooby, how do you explain Smokey or all the ghosts? Scoobers tend to be more passionate and insistent that Lost resolve its mysteries with reason and science — why? Goobers: Is your openness to supernatural explanations a reflection of your worldview, or speak merely to your pop-culture tastes?

What themes in Lost resonate with you most? A major theme not discussed in this essay is Lost’s fixation with parent-child relationships, especially troubled/betrayed father-son rapports. Why do you think Lost is so interested in that theme? Where might that theme dramatize or fit within the context of the other themes discussed here?

For more ‘Lost’ EW U:
Lost: Jeff Jensen’s diary of a super fan (Part 2)
Lost: Jeff Jensen’s diary of a super fan (Part 1)
Lost: The cult of “cult-TV” (Part 1)
Lost: The cult of “cult-TV” (Part 2)
Lost: 15 Must-Answer Mysteries
EW U Final Exam:  ‘Lost’ Season 5


Comments (72 total) Add your comment
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  • Heather

    I love that you mention the film Stalker, we watched that in my Russian Sci-Fi class and it reminded me of Lost in so many ways. I really enjoy the thought you put into these articles and the very relevant resources you site. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on the final season!

  • Perelandra

    You missed the theme of Redemption or second chances as the producers put it. Resolving the philosophical issues is less important that having characters come to terms with their past wrongs and turning to a better path. (Charlie is the best example.) This is the issue that enthralls me. What do our characters ultimately do with their lives?

    • Jennie

      Interesting that Charlie had to die for his life’s issues to be resolved. Is this an omen for the rest of them?

  • Lindsay

    Wait a minute – I want to know why and whem woman on the island could not carry their babies to term? That’s the reason Juliet was brought in, the others started kidnapping and Claire was abducted. But it looks like you covered all the rest of the mysteries!

    • Lux

      Lindsay- I suspect the original Incident that happened in 1977 is what somehow caused infertility on the island, after the explosion. I expect that after Juliet detonated Jughead and a new timeline is established and history changed, that Juliet might not be on the island at all and that perhaps there won’t be an infertility issue anymore?

      • geoff

        no new timeline

      • Natalie M

        Ooo so Juliet would be brought on the Island to fix the problem that she started, but at the same time her being brought to the island in present day also puts her there and makes it a possibility for her to time travel to 1977 and start the infertility issues in the first place??? Makes my head spin!

  • Peabs

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for publishing this, Doc. I’ll finish my summer chore of rewatching Seasons 1-4 this weekend, and I’m really enjoying the big picture themes that you mentioned. Answering the questions can get in the way of enjoying the experience. I’ve already read Job and the Space Trilogy this summer, too. Nice picks.

  • Andrew

    I think I’m actually a Scoober (the equivalent of a 2 and a half point calvinist?). I feel like the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I’m not saying its not hard to reconcile science and faith as symbiotic, (whether obligate or facultative I’ve no clue), but the 2 exist and coexist in our world now (my world view), so why can’t they on the show. I think there are things Locke, at least when he was alive, could have learned from Jack, and there are things that Jack needed to learn from Locke. Jack, I think jumped on the Locke bandwagon with a little too much gusto this past season. In that jump he forgot who he was and where he’s been and so he will have to reconcile the two within himself this next season. I grew up in the church became a Christian at a young age. For a long time I aired heavily on the side of discipline and works(which was exhausting), in college I struggled with that and began airing heavily on the side of grace, and went too far the other way using grace as an excuse to be irresponsible. Now in my adult life I’ve realized that Grace is crux, but “Faith without works is dead.” I actually believe (not in the postmodern “your truth,my truth way”) in free will and predestination (read Romans), that they somehow both exist. It’s just more than my mind can fathom, which leaves me okay with not everything being solved this final season, but like you Jeff I want a lot of answers too. :-)

    • Debbie

      In reading your comment, I found myself channeling my inner Hurley –“Dude, what are you, a Jedi Master? You are truly wise, Obi-Wan” Thanks for the profoundly thought-provoking post!

  • Steve

    Didn’t Lapidus come across the cow from The Flame early in Season 4?

  • Jill

    Put me in the Goober column – but – who says science and religion are mutually exclusive? I’m not religious per se, but there’s clearly more going on in this universe than our tiny brains can hope to comprehend. Seems that there’s likely to be a ‘scientific’ explanation for just about everything, we just haven’t figured it out yet. And maybe never will. What seems supernatural now could very well become scientific in later millennia.

    • Adam

      Science and religion are mutually exclusive because science is honest inquiry and religion pretends to have answers to questions which nobody could possibly know the answers to. I’m partial to this quote: Philosophy is questions that may never be answered, religion is answers that may never be questioned.

      • AJ

        I believe that God wants us to question and find the answers. in finding the answers to the questions, we will find the purpose of life and will draw closer to God.

      • Todd

        AJ- You miss the point because your answer presumes a God in the first place. That in itself is THE big example of an “answer” (God exists) that may never be questioned (Faith, the cornerstone of every religion.)
        Science however is a process, an aggregate tool. It has no opinion. It says if God exists there’s an equation out there that can explain it. Religion says forget the equation, obey “God”.
        Fans of Lost don’t mind if religious theory figures into the show… they just demand that there are at least attempts at explaining those things in scientifically logical terms. Or else the whole thing is a big fakeout.

  • Adam

    I guess I’m a scooby mainly because the term “supernatural explanation” is an oxymoron. Everything in the universe has an explanation whether or not we can ever find out what it is. Anything people label as supernatural such as ghosts or gods, if they exist must have an explanation. If there were gods they must have unique properties that exist only in them, and those properties would account for their supernatural abilities. Those properties in theory would not be beyond the reach of science forever. To ancient people the stars and the solar system were supernatural mysteries, but science has since explained these phenomenon in great detail. This is why I love when characters on Lost reference “unique properties” that exist only on the island. Nothing is without explanation.

  • jcs

    Thanks Doc, I love reading your articles. I think the most important point you made here is that we shouldn’t get too bogged down in checking off each and every mystery as they get solved next season and that although we all want some answers, we should also keep an eye on the bigger, thematic issues, which as you have shown there are many. Thanks for the reading list, I’m working on it and haven’t wanted to read so much since…probably ever. I really look forward to hearing all your insights and reading all the comments as we take the final season journey together. If only it would get here already…

  • MartinSA

    Bentham also co-developed the Panopticon concept which coincides nicely with Jacob’s actions during the s5 finale.

  • DaninSTL

    As to the destiny/chance question, it has to be destiny, doesn’t it, if there is a kind of consistent logic to the story arc, specifically, of Jacob. How could Jacob be in the O815 survivor’s lives in the past unless destiny was involved? For it to be chance would mean that he was psychic, and if that were so, then we’d have to wonder why he couldn’t forsee his own stabbing.

    • CeeCee

      “…why he couldn’t forsee his own stabbing”
      Actually, I was definately under the impression that he *did* forsee it. He seemed completely unsurprised by the presence and actions of Locke/man in black and Ben, and even some hints that he ‘touched’ the lives of the ones that were “on their way” (time traveler) for this reason.

  • kat newkirk

    Ypu’ve missed an addition to your reading list: ‘Job, A Comedy of Errors’ by the late great Robert A. Heinlein. Actually, much of Heinlein’s later work touches on science or religion & the gaps and intersections between the two. In my own personal universe, I believe that everything has an answer, but not always the same answer for every person. That comes under the heading of Unconfirmed Personal Gnosis, but it works for me.

    Now, about unsolved mysteries: what did the Zuleika Robinson character mean when she said to bring Lapidus along, he may be a candidate. Candidate for what? To become the next Jacob incarnation? To become a member of the Others? I hope I hope Lapidus gets a shot at getting answers to this.

    • Laura

      Isn’t it “Job: A Comedy of Justice?” It’s been years since I read it, but I thought that was the subtitle. Which kind of makes all the difference, IMHO. Great book.

      And instead of watching “Contact,” make yourself read Sagan’s book. The film captured the spirit of the book, but very few of the actual details. Which, again, make all the difference. It’s very dated and Cold War-ish now, but still a great read.

  • Elaine

    Hey Doc,
    Love our school logo! Are the sweats out yet? Love to get my hands on them. LOL!! Do we have a EW U Store? LOL!

  • Anne

    Although viewers can lean towards being Goobers or Scoobys, I think it’s too late to compartmentalize. True Losties have to have a well developed creative and scientific mind, and the outcome must satisfy both sides of the brain. There really is only one way that Lost can end satisfying the confusion it has created.. although that one way can have many fascinating interpretations. We all know that now. The success of the writers will hang on whether they are more clever/creative than the viewers.. or at least can keep up. That’s a huge task, but I think they can.

    As well, not only father/son conflicts are thematic, but also father/daughter. Sun and her father, Kate and her’s. Claire. Resolving relationships with your parents are probably the last thing you do before you die. Before that, during life, I think those relationships are always haunting, either in a romantic good way, or crippling negative way. You can’t really die until you can allow yourself to return to the womb. Not easy sometimes, coming full circle. hmmmmm

  • heather b

    does anyone remember when charlotte was introduced and they showed background scenes of her as an anthropologist….there was a scene of her in a desert and she found a collar with a dharma symbol on it (i think it was for the polar bear) what was up with that?!!

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