In order to prevent the slightest whiff of spoilers leaking out, ABC purposefully avoided showing almost any clips of the final season of Lost before its premiere earlier this month. The worry was that the pivotal question of last May’s finale—“Did the castaways change the future?”—would be answered prematurely. It seemed like a simple yes or no question, right? Well, in classic Lost fashion, inspired show creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse answered with both a “yes” and a “no” by creating two parallel universes—one in which the survivors of Oceanic 815 did not succeed in preventing their plane from crashing on the island by detonating an atomic bomb, and one in which it appears they did.
The latter, nicknamed by fans as the Sideways World, has presented the greatest conceptual challenge that Lindelof and Cuse have ever given their audience—and that’s saying something after five seasons of smoke monsters, miraculous healings, doomsday buttons, cursed numbers, ghost sightings, teleportation, and time travel. It’s also hard to think of the last time any network television audience was challenged like this, aside from the various incarnations of Star Trek, whose fans are quite accustomed to alternate timelines and parallel universes. The success of Lost’s Sideways World thus far—and, by extension, its sixth season in general—is that it’s not being used just to further expand the show’s mythology, but rather to deepen an appreciation of the characters we’ve come to love, hate, admire, and pity.
At first it might seem difficult to embrace a parallel universe with the same emotional commitment demanded by the series thus far, but the perceptive writing of Lindelof, Cuse, and their team has embraced this conceit as a way to shed new light on beloved characters and answer some key “What if?” questions. What if eternal cosmic-joke punchline John Locke (Terry O’Quinn) had not ruined his relationship with Helen? What if daddy-obsessed Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) had himself become a father? What if Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) had not been stuck on the island pushing a button for three years? Would these and many other characters still possess their various neuroses had their destinies never guided them toward the island?
In my review of the last season, I wrote that Lost’s “overall narrative is more circular than linear, an ongoing accretion of understanding, adding more depth each time it passes over an earlier plot element, theme, or motif.” Well, this season, Lost’s approach to storytelling has become prismatic, using its parallel universe to hold each of its characters up to scrutiny from a whole new angle. For instance, a catchphrase that once defined a character’s inner struggle now ricochets back with a different meaning. Jack, whose obsession with “fixing things,” including people, led to the ruin of his marriage, now admits that he’s “broken,” and that he thought coming back to the Island would fix him. Locke, whose inspirational slogan “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” defined his struggle to overcome his spinal injury, finds his catchphrase reappropriated by his murderous doppelgänger, instantly changing its meaning from positive determination to an amoral sense of entitlement.
This is dazzling writing, but it wouldn’t mean nearly as much without equally accomplished acting to sell it, and with O’Quinn, long the emotional anchor of the show, it becomes something truly magical. By my reckoning, he’s played at least three versions of John Locke: the bitter, betrayed, crippled Locke who becomes the island’s Man of Faith; the accepting, contented Locke who never became an island shaman but recognizes both his limitations and the precious value of true love; and, finally, as the latest avatar of the island’s Man in Black (a.k.a. the Smoke Monster) locked in his Manichaean battle against island demigod Jacob (Mark Pellegrino). That the man who we thought was Locke is really the Smoke Monster is one of Lost’s hardest sells, but O’Quinn has made the transition from Locke to Smokey with such subtlety that it took half a season for anybody to realize we weren’t even watching the same character anymore. Is this Man in Black really a villain? It seems so, especially if we take the show’s color-coded, light vs. dark morality at face value. If he does turn out to be a villain, what a masterfully understated, uncertain villain O’Quinn has given us at this cultural moment when over-the-top, cartoonish evil, from Heath Ledger’s Joker, to Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview, to Mo’Nique’s Mary Jones is à la mode.
Mythology is just as important as ever, but now Lost is delving a bit more into bibilical archetypes. The conflict between Jacob and the Man in Black evokes the Genesis story of Jacob and Esau. Sayid’s (Naveen Andrews) apparent resurrection obviously brings to mind Lazarus. Even O’Quinn’s Man in Black displays the cunning of a talking snake bearing fruit when he tempts Sawyer (Josh Holloway) with “What if I told you I was the person who could answer the most important question in the world?” Not surprisingly, Lost concerns itself far more with the mythological archetypes behind these bibilical references than any associated religious faith. And there’s an admirable unpretentiousness about how it presents these symbols and metaphors. When Hurley (Jorge Garcia) talks about seeing the ghost of Jacob he says, “He’s kind of dead. Turns up whenever he wants, like Obi-Wan Kenobi.” These characters, along with Lost’s writers and intended audience, make sense of the world through movies, TV shows, novels, comic books, and rock songs.
Like its most important cultural predecessor, Twin Peaks, Lost recognizes culture, particularly pop culture, as the primary means for understanding the world today. The spiritualism of Locke and the overt Christian faith of Mr. Eko lead them down blind allies of denial and, ultimately, to death. The Dharma Initiative’s adherence to scientific method dooms them to their own destruction. But with impunity, characters continually name-check Our Mutual Friend, The Turn of the Screw, Of Mice and Men, The Empire Strikes Back, Carrie. Lost reflects the central role of pop culture itself, in place of science or religion, as the worldview-shaping meta narrative for many. After years of referencing other texts, the greatest honor that Lost could receive would be for it to be quoted as well. And there’s no doubt that it will.