"For every man there is a scale. On one side of the scale there is good, on the other side evil.” -- DogenThe difficulty of this episode has made it hard for me to begin this column. For the first time in the history of the show, LOST gave us exactly what we expected. The MiB maneuvered his way into the temple, killed everyone, and left with more followers. Sayid and Claire, the infected duo, aided his conquest. Dogen and Lennon, the followers of Jacob, declared him evil incarnate (although I wonder how someone who doesn’t exactly seem to be a person or in-the-flesh can be “incarnate”). It was a paint-by-the-numbers episode that made many of us, at least in my circle, feeling empty at first. It was like we had been had. After all the quality of the show so far, LOST had degenerated into a typical TV show where everything was simple and could be taken at face value.
Except this thought is a conceptual error. LOST has never been that way, so there is little reason to believe it suddenly became that way except cynicism (that the good must necessarily become bad) or fear (that even though you believe there is good in the world there is really only bad). Thus we’ve reached the reason I began with Dogen’s quote above. While at first glance this episode appears to be a simple portrayal of evil running rampant on an island, it is actually much more complex.
Evil may have been running rampant. Whether the MiB is evil or not is the reoccurring theme in the LOSTology section, which I now expect to stay there all season and beyond the end of the series. (Yes, I expect that tension to be the unanswered question of the series.) However, the motivations of such evil (as I will be referring to it in this edition) where nowhere near as simple as we consider them to be on a daily basis. We say Hitler was evil. We say Stalin was evil. We say Jack the Ripper was evil. We say Ted Bundy was evil. I could continue this list for pages. What’s more important than these names is how we describe them: Violent monsters. There seems to be little other consideration into the phenomenon.
I am no expert on evil, philosophical or otherwise. I have done little reading on the subject. All I know is this: "Sundown" focused on the character that has always walked the thinnest line between good and evil on this show (besides Ben Linus, who, not-so-coincidentally has his episode next week). Since the beginning, Sayid Jarrah has been an interesting combination of many dualities, science and faith, violence and pacifism. He has struggled in both action and psychology. The writers have clearly built him up for the purpose of this episode. Ignoring psychopaths (House did a good job of portraying them in an episode this season), considering Sayid can help us learn about the source and reasons for evil.
You know a show is doing well when it can take on such issues. I’m still not sure where this episode stands in a list, of this season or all time, but I suspect my and others’ appreciation for it will go up as we see the rest of the series and time passes. For now, let’s try to appreciate it as much as we can.
WHAT WOULD QUINN MALLORY DO?
Sayid’s flashsideways seemed to be disappointing because they deviated from the others we have seen in a major way: Sayid P was no different from Sayid O except that his job was translating for an oil company. Except, the writers so obviously making the two Sayids the same allows us to go back and consider the What Kate Does more intricately. Was "Sundown" supposed to be the first episode where a character was the same in his flashsideways as he is on the island or was that Kate’s episode? I’m more inclined to believe the former, but that also means the Kate episode was probably a failure, in either acting or writing, and I’m very reluctant to declare any LOST episode a failure (except "Stranger in a Strange Land"). Regardless, that discussion could take up a column of its own. Let’s move to the subject of this column.
In his flashsideway, Sayid was dealing with the same two things he always deals with: His past as a soldier and his desire for Nadia. (Notice how his on-island plot dealt with the same two issues.) Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s just nothing else for the writers to dig up for this character. I don’t think believe so, though. The flashsideways plot was setup too intricately as Sayid went from: Good, conflicted, evil. At least, that’s how we’re led to believe those events are classified. Still, the three major moments in the story are there.
First, Sayid arrives in Los Angeles at Nadia’s doorstep. Finally it seems as if he’s found Nadia, the happy ending that has been set up for him since Claire asked if his name was Sayid and gave him the letter he thought he had, well, lost. Quickly though, we realize that things aren’t happy, as one of the kids that ran over, and could have been part of their happy family, calls him Uncle Sayid. Not long after, Sayid’s brother walks into the room and everything begins to unravel. The brother takes a shady phone call. The kids find a picture of Nadia in Sayid’s bag. This tale isn’t the journey of self discovery Locke P or Jack P took. It’s going somewhere dark. Still, Sayid seems happy. He seems good. There are no hints of the violent man we’re used to.
Then the turn begins. Sayid’s brother ends up in the hospital due to the loan he took out that wasn’t from the bank (because I always go to place other than the bank for loans, it’s a good idea). Nadia realizes what’s going on and discusses it with the man she loves, who isn’t the man she married. Realizing where Sayid is going as he’s about to storm out of the hospital, she begs him to just pick up the kids. Surprisingly, he does. Except, his inner turmoil is best summed up in an earlier conversation with his brother. As he is told about the loan and asked for protection by his brother, Sayid says he’s not that man anymore. How many times have we heard that statement? Many. And almost every time we have it has been a precursor to him being that man again.
Likewise, the third act of the flashsideways featured Sayid coming face-to-face with the man his brother took the loan from: Martin Keamy. Keamy, one of the most violent characters of all in LOST. Keamy, who Sayid had one of his most epic fights with. This fight wasn’t epic though. As naturally as always, Sayid dispensed Keamy’s two henchmen and then Keamy himself. And then he found Jin. OK, so he doesn’t always find Jin, but he does seem to kill people easily. Look how easy it was for him to kill Dogen and Lennon on-island. What’s interesting here, though, is what preceded Sayid’s turn in both the flashsideways and on-island story.
What tips the scale of good and evil inside of a person? This episode so very clearly seems to say it’s a choice. First, consider the flashsideways arch I just explicated. Through the majority of the episode, Sayid chose not to be “that man.” Finally, he gave in and became him. True, he was in a tough situation, but Keamy did say the debt was forgiven. Shooting the henchmen could have been an act of self-defense, but Keamy’s murder is much harder to justify. Likewise, throughout the on-island plot, Sayid seemed to choose to be good--even seemed to understand he was choosing to be good. Then, he killed Dogen and Lennon and believed himself so evil that even Ben was afraid of him. The key quote here is the last question Dogen ever asked and Sayid’s answer:
Dogen: "It's sundown. Will you choose to stay or go?"At that moment, Sayid finally gave into the inner battle he has been fighting the entire series and became evil. He chose to be evil. It’s why the exchange between him and Ben went as follows:
Sayid: "I'd like to stay."
Ben: "Sayid, come on. I know a way out of here. There's still time."Except, I’d like to point to a scene in the flashsideways and argue that the writers are actually making an even more intricate claim about the source of evil. Yes, evil is a choice, but the motivations behind that choice are also important.
Sayid: "Not for me."
Sitting at the kitchen table, Sayid and Nadia discussed their relationship. Nadia, in an admirable and ballsy move, flat out asked Sayid why he pushed her to be with his brother. He responded, “For the last 12 years I've been trying to wash my hands of all the horrible things I've done. I can't be with you, because I don't deserve you."
In other words, what motivated Sayid to believe he was evil was guilt--guilt over the actions he committed as a soldier. We’ve seen him deal with those issues many times on-island, in the flashbacks, the flashforwards, and now the flashsideways. Ultimately, that guilt pushed him towards the choice of siding with someone who was described to him as evil incarnate. I’ve seen this manifestation of guilt many times in my life. People who feel bad about their past continue to sabotage themselves because they don’t believe they deserve happiness. They don’t believe they deserve to be good.
I’d actually like to take this discussion one step further and contrast Sayid’s life with Eko’s death. Ignoring the motivations of the MiB when killing Eko, consider what Eko said before his end. He refused to apologize for the actions in his life because he did what he needed to in order to survive. He felt no guilt over his actions. This discussion helps us understand how a character we know did so many bad things seemed so good. He didn’t feel guilt over this action.
In my experience, the difference between Sayids and Ekos, and the source of their guilt, is one thing: Self-esteem. Eko believed he had a right to do the things he did because he had a right to survive. In contrast, Sayid doesn’t believe he had a right to do the things he did. Unfortunately, in the series, there is little evidence Sayid’s guilt comes from self-esteem, but you have to wonder why a man who constantly claims to have convictions of pacifism violates them over and over again. A man who truly believes he is right, as Eko did, doesn’t waver, even in the harshest of conditions. Here is the other key difference between Eko and Sayid. While Eko loved his brother Yemi, he did not place Yemi’s safety and happiness above his own. In the flashsideways, Sayid P placed the safety and happiness of his brother and Nadia above his own.
That fact makes it interesting to consider what convinced Sayid O to join the MiB: The pursuit of his personal happiness. Sayid O chose to side with the person who could give him what he wanted. It was at that point that he said he couldn’t stay and there was no longer any time for him. Perhaps the real issue with Sayid has never been a dichotomy between violence and pacifism, but pacifism being a front for Sayid’s poor self-image. Rather than be proud of what he is good at, being a soldier, he carried it around like a burden.
And maybe that guilt and low self-esteem is the true source of evil. I mean, really, who wants to destroy the lives of others besides someone who doesn’t value his own?
HEY, AT LEAST IT BUILDS CHARACTER
Consider this discussion with one of the characters who has always been on the fence: Kate. She has always shown self-sabotaging behavior, not only putting herself in situations where she can be kidnapped or harmed, but also running away from situations where she can find happiness. She was married to Nathan Fillion and didn’t think herself good enough. How many sci-fi fan girls who watch LOST instantly started to hate her after that moment? I’m betting it was all three of them.
Now, Kate leaves the Temple and is reluctantly following the MiB. She certainly doesn’t seem to be allied with him, but the same can be said of her often cohort, Sawyer, who was conspicuous by his absence in this episode. It’s also interesting who Kate is trying to associate herself with now: Claire.
The theories that Claire died in S4 are well known and probably widely accepted now as she seems to be infected. Except, what if the infection is different. What if the infection is guilt? Maybe Sayid didn’t become infected when he died, but when he shot Harry Potter. Likewise, Claire became infected when she realized she, well, lost Aaron. It’s interesting that the only really evil action we’ve seen her commit is killing Justin. Even in this episode, when the MiB sent her into the Temple, she didn’t seem that evil, asking if the MiB was going to hurt everyone. That concern doesn’t seem to be very evil.
Then again, the portrayal of Ben has seemed to pull back from his evil nature earlier in the series, and I except that trend to continue next episode when he seems like a normal person in his flashsideways. However, it is at this point that I’d like to remind you of my self-esteem discussion in my column for "The Incident." Perhaps Ben is beginning to find himself, and that journey is the one we’ll witness next week.
Finally, there’s Miles. I have a sneaking suspicion he’s going to be the equivalent of Andrew in S7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Constantly, we’re going to ask ourselves why he’s around, what purpose he serves, and when he’s going to do something. We’ll come to expect his demise every episode. Somehow, he’ll manage to survive until the end, disappointing and pleasing us at the same time. At least, I see his character that way right now. I hope they do more with him.
This episode actually was a gamechanger in that we now believe the MiB is evil. Before we had our doubts; now he has killed everyone in the Temple and tempted Sayid and Claire into helping him. Likewise, we finally seem to have an explanation for Eko’s death. As I danced around at the end of the first section of this column, the MiB seems to seek out people with guilt (Sawyer, Sayid, Claire) and uses that guilt against them. In the form of Yemi, the MiB wanted Eko to admit his guilt. Eko refused. He was then killed. I can’t think of a better explanation of Eko’s death, as it both explains the MiB’s motivations and maintains the philosophical undertones of the episode and show.
However, I don’t want to buy what the writers are selling hook, line, and sinker. I’d like to point to the message Sayid delivered in order to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves. One line in particular stands out to me:
"He wants you to know that Jacob is dead, and because he is gone, none of you have to stay here any longer. You're free."The MiB’s agenda is revealed more, and it is beginning to become more than a simple anti-Jacob hatred. He seems to be supporting some sort of freedom from the island, a freedom that Jacob prevented people from having. This idea is actually quite in line with the possibility of Jacob being evil that I previously discussed.
As I’ve previously stated, Jacob is incredibly manipulative. We saw this character trait once again. Jacob sought out Dogen in his weakest moment and bargained with him. He brought his son back to life, as he brought Locke back to life after falling from the building, in exchange for Dogen living on the island with some sort of anti-MiB power. It now likely seems that Dogen somehow blessed the ash. It also now seems that Jacob probably gave Richard Alpert the power of immortality. I’d imagine we’re going to learn more about Jacob’s deals in Alpert’s episode.
Before then, though, I’d like to introduce a new idea. So far, we have been considering Jacob and the MiB as inherently good and inherently evil, as if those traits define their nature. What if some other traits define their nature and being good or evil is a choice, just as it is with everyone else? In other words, maybe they are humans with enhancements that have to do with their relationship with the island (perhaps given to them by that kid the MiB saw). What there powers are is evident.
Jacob has the power to give life. The MiB has the power to take life. Since they have free will, they can use those powers anyway they choose. This idea explains why we would see them as good/evil. It’s very easy to see the life giver as good and the life taker as evil. Except, if we mainly see those powers as tools, then we have a different perception of the characters of Jacob and the MiB all together. Of course, this idea also presents the idea of Jacob and the MiB both being evil because they are using their powers to place themselves on a higher level than everyone. Here is where I return to the idea of Jacob manipulating, or forcing people, into certain outcomes and the MiB offering bargains.
Phew, big breath out. I’m actually pretty proud of myself this week, even if there is no epic quote or moment of the week. I did enjoy Sayid’s fight with Dogen and Miles playing solitaire as a shout-out to the name of Sayid’s first episode, though. And I know I introduced some tenuous and tough ideas here, but that’s why I’m proud. I took an episode that seemed tough and shallow and found out what was lurking beneath the surface. I don’t really care if you agree with me or not. I just want you to do one thing:
Think about it.
(More importantly than LOST, think about your scale and how the decisions you make add weight to either side. Also, are you motivated by guilt? Remember, what’s done is done…)