Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Midside: LOST S6E15 Across the Sea

Are you confused, disappointed, angry? Do you feel hurt, belittled, violated? Well, I don’t know what those feelings are all about, but I’m here to help you understand LOST. But first let me make literary references for a few the Ayn Rand fans out there. Crazy Bitch, forever known as such from this point forward, is Ellsworth Toohey, Jacob is Peter Keating, and the Man in Black, tragically known as such from “The Incident” forward, is Gail Wynand. Confused? Good, then you’re right where I, and the writers, want you.

The inversion I’ve been writing about for years now did happen, and the key to understanding this episode is to understand quite simply that Jacob is the bad guy here. I said it in that manner, rather than saying “the Man in Black is the good guy,” for an important reason. I do believe that the Man in Black is the good guy in this episode, and the series, but as far as an actual good guy within the philosophy the writers have explicated, neither character is because they both hold a fundamentally flawed premise which the writers have used to subtly hide the true question of the show.

Like a good magician, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse distracted us in this episode, and the entire show, with sleight of hand. They put a pretty girl in front of us, their assistant, while they moved some boxes around in the background. In the context of this episode, they put a bright light in front of us, while saying some words in the background. In the context of the series, they put a mythology in front of us, while asking the same question in each episode. We missed the trees for the forest. Or, in LOST terms, we missed the people for the island.

We let it happen to ourselves, really. At the end of the “Pilot,” Charlie asked, “Guys, where are we?” and we all followed his lead, right down the rabbit hole to the next logical question: “What is the island?” because we know where they are. They’re on an island. People crashed on it over and over again. There is a bright light in the middle of it. These facts can’t be disputed. However, they also seemingly can’t be interpreted without some higher power telling us whether they’re good or bad. In the case of a story, that power is the writers. In the case of life, that power is “God.” So, we wait. In LOST, we wait for the writers to tell us the value of the island. We interpret the episodes, making educated guesses and defending our opinions. In life, we wait for God to tell us the value of the world. We interpret scriptures, making educated guesses and defending our opinions. By continually doing so, we look in the wrong place.

We ask the wrong question. In life, the question becomes: Why are we here? In LOST, the question becomes: Are we here to protect the light? Both, and the questions that lead to them, can be answered by asking a much more fundamental question, a question that the writers prove they know is fundamental in this episode. In life, the question is: Is humanity good?

In LOST, the question is:
Is humanity LOST?

By answering this question, you can understand this episode, and the entirety of LOST. Here is where it is easy to say that the question is open to interpretation in both life and LOST. However, I believe that, in both life and LOST, the question is answerable. In LOST, that answer is revealed in this episode, and I will explain how by first analyzing the Crazy Bitch and her motivations for protecting the island and raising Jacob and the MiB. I will then analyze Jacob and the MiB, explaining how the CB’s beliefs affected their lives. Finally, I will conclude with what this episode tells us about the entire series.

Now, cue the Buckcherry parody!

(MiB, couldn't do you right.
Jacob's been left intact to keep the light on.)

That’s the first time I’ve ever referenced Buck Cherry. Let it be the last.

The episode opened in the only way you could expect it to, with the introduction of two characters and, with them, a whole slew of questions. Who is this pregnant woman? Where is she from? Who is this other woman? Fortunately, this series is almost over, so there had to be some answers. The pregnant woman was Claudia, and she was the mother of Jacob and the MiB. Both of them spoke Latin, giving us an approximate time period. The other woman, well, she’s a bit more complicated.

The Crazy Bitch immediately informed us of what kind of episode that was in store. First, when Claudia asked her, “How long have you…,” she replied, “Every question I answer will simply lead to another question.” On one hand, this reply let us know we were in for a meta-episode, as the CB was also talking directly to us. We can keep asking the writers questions, but there will always be questions. Sure, it’d be nice to know how the CB got to the island, but there will have been somebody there before her and somebody there before that person. (It's Crazy Bitches all the way down!) There will always be questions about those people’s stories. This statement is a variation on the first mover argument, the other thing the CB’s statement was a commentary on.

Many people would respond to the comment with, “How can there always be another question? There must be an ultimate argument.” This response is the argument for the first mover. The universe couldn’t have begun by itself. Someone had to make the first move, and that someone is God. Likewise, by that logic, there had to be a first protector of the island, so if it’s not the CB, who is it? The CB’s answer is as follows, said to the MiB when he asked where he came from: “You and your brother came from me, and I came from my mother.” In other words, they are. There is no need to keep considering the line of causality. Why? The island is the island and has a protector. In other words, you have no choice in the matter, you can’t change it, so it’s futile trying to consider otherwise. This thought is a meditation on the overarching theme of the island representing life. The real life cognate is “existence exists.” It’s futile trying to consider non-existence, nothing. Don’t believe me? Go ahead, try. I dare you.

Back from your little fruitless escape? Good, because now we can turn to the important issue: The CB’s answer to the question of LOST. It was very familiar because we heard it before when the MiB said it to Jacob at the beginning of “The Incident.” For posterity’s sake, let’s reprint it here anyway. On the way to showing “her” boys the “heart of the island,” the CB said she never told them about the other people because they were dangerous and what makes them that way is:
CB: “The same thing that makes all men dangerous. They come, they fight, they destroy, they corrupt, and it always ends the same.”
In other words, people suck; people are metaphysically bad. Humanity’s nature is not good. Got it? I hope so because this statement is the underlying belief of the CB that she passed on to both boys, so not only is it important to understand what it is, it’s also important to understand where it was revealed in the episode: Immediately after the boys see the other people and immediately before the CB explains the theory behind protecting the island. It was written this way to mimic a philosophical argument. Observe humanity --> Determine they are metaphysically bad --> Thus, the island must be protected. But why does protecting the island follow from a negative view of human nature? The answer to that question is within the CB’s description of what the light is.
MiB: “What’s down there?”
CB: “Light, the warmest, brightest light you’ve ever seen or felt, and we must make sure that no one ever finds it.”
MiB: “It’s beautiful.”
CB: “Yes it is, and that’s why they want it. Because a little bit of this very same light is inside of every man. But they always want more.”
Jacob: “Can they take it?”
CB: “No, but they would try, and if they tried, they could put it out, and if the light goes out here, it goes out everywhere. And so I’ve protected this place…”
The important part here is not the identification of the light as “warm,” “bright,” and “beautiful.” While these qualities are often associated with goodness, they are not necessary links. I mean, have you ever seen a Michael Bay movie? Better yet, have you seen Avatar? Visually, it is certainly warm and bright, but it is most certainly not a good movie. (Read my reasoning as to why.) So, what we must focus on what the light is, what it does, and this is what we know: “a little bit…is inside of every man.” Ok, so it’s inside man, but what does it do? Is it the reason humanity is bad, or is it something removed from man’s nature? At first glance, it would be easy to say it’s part of man’s nature, it’s what makes him bad (especially because the MiB turns into the black smoke when he is thrown into it). However, we have to consider the rest of the CB’s explanation as to what happens if the light is not protected properly, as that is the justification for protecting it.

It would seem, she protects the light to stop it from going out, because if it goes out on the island it goes out everywhere. From her earlier explanation, we know that “everywhere” is inside of every man. Essentially, the CB is protecting the light to stop it from going out in every man. Ok, so we know what she’s doing, but we don’t know why. We do know her appraisal of what she’s doing. She’s protecting the light inside every man. You don’t protect bad things. You protect good things.

Long story short, the CB is protecting the light to redeem man. Because man’s nature is bad, the light is the only thing keeping them from being completely awful. If it were to go out, it would mean, wait for it, hell on Earth, just as Jacob told Richard back in “Ab Aeterno.” However, if you’re very clever, which I’m sure you are, then you’ve noticed what I’ve noticed. The CB’s job as protector is only necessary if you believe humanity is bad. If humanity is good, then the light is just a light, another part of the world to interact with. This analysis continues the anti-faith / pro-human rational themes of LOST, as the same line of logic can be applied to God. Belief in God only works if you accept that humanity is bad, otherwise there is no need for humanity to seek out someone/thing else. Think of it this way: If you’re Michael Jordan, are you going to seek out another basketball player to teach you how to play? No, because it’s unneeded. However, if you’re a 14 year old kid trying to learn how, of course you’re going to seek out another basketball player because your skills are bad. The same logic applies to human nature and God. (This discussion, of course, applies to the parallel universe. I’ll return to there at the end of the column.)

Except now we have to question the CB’s original statement: “Every question I answer will simply lead to another question.” If her point is simply existence exists, then she has accepted her role of protector without questioning it as a fact of reality. Except, we know her reasoning behind being the protector, so really, her intent in making that statement was to stop Claudia from questioning her because, any line of questioning will inevitably end up at the necessity of protecting the light. Really, the CB wasn’t saying “there always has been, always will be, and always must be a protector.” She was saying, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” She didn’t want Claudia to realize what we did in the previous paragraph: The role of protector is only necessary if you believe in a negative view of humanity. In this sense, the protector is actually the metaphor for God and the light is the Holy Spirit. God must only exist to protect if it is needed to redeem humanity. Interestingly, this comparison sheds light on how religion utilizes the “existence exists” concept negatively. Rather than saying, “existence exists and you should learn about it,” religion says, “existence exists and you should accept it unquestioningly (including the idea that humanity is bad).” The latter is, if you think about it, is exactly what CB taught “her” sons.

The CB’s other motivation, though less complicated, must be acknowledged. At the core of it, she was tired of living, and Jacob and the MiB were the candidates to replace her as protector of the island. How she affected them when attempting to mold them into this role is extremely important to understand.

Where I used to sit
All alone in the dark
And dream about things
That I cannot say
You always said destiny
Would blow me away
And nothing's gonna blow me away

At Cavanaugh Park
Where you used to take me
To play in the sand
And said to me, 'Son, one day you'll be a man.
"And men can do terrible things.'
Yes they can

And there was never any place
For someone like me to be
Totally happy
I'm running out of clock and that
Ain't a shock
Some things never do change
Never do change

At Cavanaugh Park
We used to get high
Watching teams as they fought
They loved my friend Adam
But he always got caught
Man, that kid made fucking up look cool
Aren't we all so cool? No, No...”

Apparently this is the musical edition of The Midside, not to be confused with “Once More with Feeling” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “My Musical” from Scrubs, or any episode of Glee. Going into composing this column, I didn’t intend the theme, but while writing the previous section I was listening to Something Corporate’s greatest hits album Played in Space (great band, get the album somehow) when “Cavanaugh Park” came on. I paused for a second to listen and thought, “Wow, this song really fits Jacob.” Let’s break it down.

The basic theme of the song is the basic theme of Jacob: Accepting the destiny, the determinism, that is told to him by the CB, but not being too happy about it. This contradiction points to one of the strengths of the episode, the use of children. The first half of the episode used the children to good effect. They began by asking a billion different questions, both representing the audience and representing the wonder with which humans enter the world. Regardless of personality or ability, we all have a certain curiosity about the world when we’re young. In the lyrics, this is described as “dreaming about things I cannot say.” Jacob was no different.

Except, the differences between him and his brother soon emerged based on the symbol of the game that washed up on shore, a Senet board (subtly explaining the Egyptian influence on the island). The first time he sits down to at the board with his brother he asks, “How do you know how (to play)?” and, “Why can’t we tell [the CB] (about the game?” Jacob’s curiosity has a natural limit, not based upon any sort of desire. He ends the scene by emphatically putting a piece down and saying, “Yes, I want to play.” Rather, what he is limited by is ability. He can’t look at the game and figure out how to play it. He can’t even consider that by looking at the game you can figure out how to play it. Likewise, he can’t consider other possibilities enough to think that the CB might lie to them or take away a game. I’m not saying that he would be unable to consider these things at all. These ideas are not at the upward threshold of human intelligence. Jacob would, and certainly does, learn them eventually. However, that’s the point, he learns slower. This trait makes him an easy target for the CB.

Though the CB doesn’t realize it at first, Jacob is actually the better candidate to replace her, and it’s because his lesser ability makes him question things a lot less, causing him to embrace her negative view of humanity on a deep level. In the lyrics, this idea is demonstrated by being brought to “play in the sand” and being told, “Son, one day, you’ll be a man, and men can do terrible things.” We already know that the CB tells Jacob that, and we know he eventually agrees because he spends his life protecting the light. However, the important thing to understand about Jacob is how is awareness of his lesser ability and the way the CB treats him makes him view himself.

Jacob, in a manner similar to Jack, does not have an inward sense of self, so he reaches for approval externally from his parental figure. This lack of self-esteem is demonstrated in the lyrics by, “there was never any place for someone like me to be happy” and the story of the friend Adam, in the case of Jacob his brother, being “cool” punctuated with the revelation “aren’t we all so cool? No no.” Jacob just doesn’t think he’s as good as his brother. He identifies the different levels of ability and the fact that the CB treats him differently. In the short term, this lack of self-esteem causes Jacob to stay with the CB, as when he confronts her about loving his brother more, she says she just loves them differently (worse explanation ever, by the way, never use it) and then convinces Jacob he needs to stay with her to be good (as the other people are bad and staying with her made him good). In the long term, it causes him to have one basic desire that manifests in two different ways that intertwine in a complex way.

Jacob accepts the role of protector because the CB convinces him it’s the only way to be a good person:
CB: “It has to be you, Jacob.”
Jacob: “No it doesn’t. You wanted it to be him, but now I’m all you have.”
CB: “It was always supposed to be you, Jacob. I see that now. And one day you’ll see it too, but until then, you don’t really have a choice.”
He doesn’t have a choice? The CB was playing off of Jacob’s lesser ability to trick him into accepting the role as protector of the light. The truth is, she really did believe it was supposed to be him. What she realized is that someone with lesser ability won’t question that they don’t have a choice, and, as Jacob drinks from the cup in a communion metaphor, the anti-faith / anti-religion themes of LOST return. Just as Jacob was a deconstruction of God in relation to Richard, here the CB is a deconstruction of God in relation to Jacob, as she preys upon his insecurities and shortcomings. She’s convinced him since he was a child that man is bad and he is bad, so, by accepting those premises, he really does have no choice. By being protector, Jacob can prove he is good, but that role is not enough for him to prove himself.

Jacob is using his role as protector to also play a game with his brother. Whereas the CB only had two candidates, Jacob has had an insanely large amount spanning the years all with the intent of proving one thing: People can be redeemed. Why does he need to prove so? Not only will it will legitimize his role of protector of the island, but it will prove he is better than his brother. That desire to be better than his brother is why he does it in game form. The main way they interacted as children was through the game, which we get the sense that the MiB was always better at, but in which the MiB also says a very telling thing. When Jacob doesn’t like that the MiB has made up the rules to the game he found, the MiB replies, “One day, you can make up your own game and everyone else will have to follow your rules.” And he has done so, as we have seen throughout the series.

All of the above is what fuels the inversion, what turns Jacob. He sees people as bad. He sees himself as bad. His overriding goal is to be seen as good. He wants everyone to play by his rules. Give him some power, and he throws his brother into the light, seemingly transforming the MiB into the monster, except, we now understand that Jacob is the true monster, taking everyone else’s lives into his hands because he believes that he can redeem them. The first person he did so with was his brother, sending him into “a fate worse than death.” That fate was the denial of his humanity, trapping the MiB on the island in the form of smoke that is forever linked with the light, making it so the MiB’s goal is literally the opposite of Jacob’s. To leave, the MiB needs the light to go out. Truthfully, we can’t understand Jacob’s true evil until we understand the tragic tale of his brother.

“I'm mired in hypocrisy
Yet I’m still down with JC.
I guess that everyone includes me
And that's why I'm a humanist.”

Continuing the musical theme of this edition of The Midside, I present to you “Hate Everyone” by Say Anything as a good example of the mentality of the MiB. In all honesty, I could find lots of quotes for Say Anything’s new self-titled album (also a great band, get the album any way you can), but we’ll stick with the above quote above for simplicity. It points to three important ideas: His acceptance of the CB’s view of humanity, his dislike of everyone else, and his dislike of himself. If I had to use one word to describe him it would be “guilt.” In Randian terms, he is the man who does not believe he has a moral sanction to live. To best understand him, we need to look at three scenes, his conversation with the CB when he was a child, his conversation with the CB as an adult about the wheel, and his conversation with his mother when he was a child.

Much of the MiB’s life revolves around the idea that he is “special,” a theme that harkens back to the first season Michael/Walt flashback episode “Special.” The only problem is, the CB leads the MiB, and us, down a path that says being “special” is bad when, really, all it means is having more ability. When he is a child, she confronts him on the beach, and we get our first glimpse into what she means by “special:”
The MiB: “Jacob told you what I found.”
The CB: “Of course he did. Jacob doesn’t know how to lie. He’s not like you.”
The MiB: “Why, what am I like?”
The CB: “You’re…special.”
By the CB’s phrasing, special becomes associated with lying, which associates it with bad in our minds, because we believe lying to always be bad. However, by focusing on the lying, we are looking at the wrong part of the sentence. The important part is “Jacob doesn’t know how.” What special is really associated with is ability. The MiB knows how to lie because, as shown in the scene where Jacob first plays the game, he knows how to look at all angles of a situation. Lying is a method of doing so; it can be good or bad. It’s a method that Jacob doesn’t know how to use, like many methods. Interestingly, the CB then proceeds to lie about there being nothing across the sea. The MiB picks up on this falsity, and his path toward guilt begins.

The MiB leaves his fake family and joins the “others.” He begins to use his ability to figure out how the island works. He later tells Jacob about it, “There are very smart men among us, men who are curious about how things work. Together we have discovered places all over this island where metal behaves strangely.” Just as Jacob’s lack of ability is associated with not knowing, the MiB’s ability is associated with curiosity and discovery. He uses it all to work towards one goal, leaving the island, which has a way point, finding the light. Eventually, he does find the light, and that discovery forces a second confrontation with the CB which further reveals this notion of special meaning ability, and also reveals the MiB’s guilt.
The MiB: “But then I began to think. What if the light underneath the island, what if I could get to it from someplace else? Figuring out how to reach it took a very long time.”
The CB: “The people with you, they saw this too?”
The MiB: “Yes. They have some very interesting ideas about what to do with it?”
The CB: “Do with it? You don’t have any idea…”
The MiB: “I have no idea because you wouldn’t tell me, mother…I’m going to make an opening, one much bigger than this one. And then I’m going to attach that wheel to a system we’re building, a system that channels the water and the light. And then I’m going to turn it. And when I do, I’ll finally be able to leave this place.”
The CB: “How do you know all this? How do you know it will work?”
The MiB: “I’m special, mother.”
The CB: “Please don’t do this. Don’t go.”
The MiB: “I have to go.”
The CB: “Why?”
The MiB: “Because I don’t belong here.”
Once again, the idea of being special is linked with knowing. The MiB knows it will work. He knows how to build the wheel and channel the light and water. Interestingly, if Jacob and the CB represent faith, then the MiB represents science, one of the basic dichotomies of the show. Also of note is what the MiB says at the beginning of the excerpt, “I began to think.” If you remember, one of the most important conversations of S5 was when Sawyer told Jack, “I think. You react.” Thus, we can link thinking with science and reacting with faith, proving this analysis is in line with the overall themes of the show. However, what’s most interesting here is the way in which the MiB says he is special.

The MiB spits the words “I’m special, mother” at the CB as if they are something to be ashamed of, because to him they are. He had to go live with the others to use his ability. Others that the CB had convinced him are bad people. Others that he tells Jacob the CB was right about because they’re greedy and selfish. In order to be smart, the MiB also had to be bad, falling right in line with the CB’s premise necessitating faith, necessitating reacting. It’s also a clever bit of philosophical thought that points out how we undermine ourselves. Though we embrace science and though, we do so based on a premise that ultimately undermines those things, that humanity is bad. And what’s most interesting with the MiB’s use of his ability is its association with his pursuit for the light.

For both Jacob and the MiB, the light is a metaphor for truth. However, the difference is how they view that light. For Jacob, and faith, the light is about redemption. The truth is about making sure your bad nature is rectified. For MiB and science, the light is about discovering a way to get off the island. The truth is about gaining the knowledge to achieve a goal. This difference in perspective gives us two very different understandings of young MiB’s conversation with his (dead) mother.

Bathed in the light, Claudia appears to the young MiB to show him something. Here is where the association of “special” as ability becomes tricky. As Jacob can’t see Claudia, it would seem as if the MiB has some sort of supernatural power…but he doesn’t. What does Claudia tell the MiB? She tells him the truth, that he comes from across the sea and that she is really his mother, just as Michael appeared to Hurley and told him the truth. Once again, the light represents truth, and it sends the MiB on his course of discovery and enLIGHTenment.

The faith based response, of course, is going to be that the island is the ultimate answer to the show. The island is God. It manifested in the form of Claudia to send the MiB down the path that would make Jacob the protector, and insure humanity’s redemption for years to come. However, that interpretation just doesn’t jive with this episode (or the show). The key to seeing how is looking at how Jacob stole the MiB’s humanity.

I’ve already explained how throughout the episode faith, in the form of the CB, attempted to stop enlightenment. When the CB realized the others learned of the light, she burned them all, or, she smote them in an act of vengeance. This idea is clearly in line with the story of, wait for it, Adam and Eve, and what were the two bodies called at the beginning of the series? The question is rhetorical. Just as God told Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge is bad because it gives you the knowledge of good and evil, the CB told Jacob that bathing in the light is “a fate worse than death.” So what does Jacob do? Fueled by his self-hatred and his disdain for his brother, he throws the MiB into the light, at once taking away his humanity and turning him into the symbol for enlightenment.

All the MiB ever tried to do was use his mind and body. He wanted to discover a way to leave the island. By the end of the episode, he was told his mind is bad and his body was taken away from him. He is forced to roam the island as a disembodied mind. Essentially, his right to self-determination (to think), his free will, was denied for “the greater good” of redeeming humanity, just as Jacob denies free will to the candidates by touching them and summoning them to the island. Except, the MiB was transformed into the smoke, which we’ve seen use light time after time. John Locke looked into the eye of the island, the smoke, and what he saw was beautiful, the light. The Smoke scanned Eko and flashes of light revealed Eko’s past. The smoke scanned Kate and Juliet with flashes of light. The MiB is the embodiment of enlightenment, yet is continually demonized because he is forced to make harsh decisions within the game, within the rules, that have been set up for him by faith.

Not that the MiB is anywhere near perfect. He still accepts the CB’s premise, which is why, as he tells Jacob, he sees people as a means to an end, a Machiavellian turn of logic. However, as I started this column, the nature of humanity is the question of LOST, and the show has clearly come down on the side of humanity and enlightenment being good.


Desmond’s use of the word “brother” and his early catchphrase seem all the more important now, as they foreshadowed two important elements of the show: The relationship between the MiB and Jacob and the parallel universe. The former has been revealed and demystified. The latter will be reconciled in the remaining episodes. Except, we now know the difference between the two universes. In the parallel universe, the island sunk and the light went out.

The main trope of the parallel universe is the mirror, symbolizing self-knowledge. An early trope of the show is the eye opening, symbolizing waking up to the world and learning about it. In fact, the first shot of the show is Jack’s eye opening. I could rehash my analysis of John Locke’s arc here. I could go into depth about how the flashbacks, and forward, represent knowledge. How we learned about the characters and they learned about themselves. However, none of that explanation is necessary. All we have to look at is S6 and the parallel universe arc, one that the writers said would be self-enclosed so that if you never saw the show before you’d be able to watch it and get a complete story.

Through the use of the mirror, the majority of the characters have better lives in the parallel universe due to self-reflection and knowledge. This theme was deepened by the re-introduction of Desmond to the plot. By helping people gain more knowledge, by helping them have flashes of the other universe (which, if you notice, were very bright), they were able to move closer towards “happily ever after.” It would even be logically consistent now if the parallel universe was the fulfillment of the MiB’s promises to the characters. Since he is the symbol of enlightenment, it would make sense that the universe in which they moved towards knowledge is the universe in which they gain what they want.

It’s entirely possible that the writers will undermine the parallel universe in the remaining episodes, but doing so is not necessarily inconsistent with the anti-faith, pro-humanity, pro-reason message. However, the difficulty here is, no matter how they craft their show to deliver a certain message, which universe you see as better, who you see as good and bad in the series will ultimately come down to your answer to the question of the series. Not so ironically, this idea of it being up to you is consistent with the message. You have to think to discover the answer to the question.

Is humanity LOST?

Think about it.

(Be sure to check out my addendum to this edition of The Midside.)

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