Why the end of 'Lost' is not a matter of life and death

matthew-fox3-lost-320.jpgWe're into the final block of " Lost," and as such, you're going to start seeing a lot of similar columns about the show start to spring up. Topics such as "overall cultural impact," "the place of the show in the annals of television history," and general love letters to "Lost" will pop up all over the place. That's fine and dandy, and I'm sure I'll tackle those topics at some point during the final month of the show. But one inevitable trend in which I vow NOT to participate: playing the "who will die?" game. No way. No how.
 
In the past, I've laid odds on character deaths. But those were odds taken against season finales, not series finales. As this final season has progressed, a clearer sense of the show's overall purpose has emerged. And while "death" has always been relative on a show that featured flashbacks and ghostly appearances, the emergence of the sideways timeline has grounded the show's overall arc in a way that makes death pools not only irrelevant but perhaps even offensive to the show's ultimate meaning.
 
Here's why: In the past, death pools have placed odds centered around a character's overall importance to the narrative. In other words: "Can the show survive without this person as a weekly contributor?" This question functions around a character's importance to the ongoing narrative, not necessarily the importance of the events that surrounded the death itself. Let's take Daniel Faraday's death: It was a senseless act that set in motion a variety of events that may or may not have even led to the creation of the sideways universe. Faraday's death was sad, no doubt. But its importance lay far more in what happened after its wake than in trying to derive any meaning from the apparently meaningless event itself.
 
Why do I say it was meaningless? I realize that word can sound cruel. But I take it to denote that we still don't have the ultimate impact of his death in our hands. Daniel's counterpart, in many ways, is another character we saw re-emerge in "Happily Ever After": Charlie Pace. Charlie's suicide mission, started in "Greatest Hits" and culminating in "Through the Looking Glass," has yet to achieve its true purpose: getting Claire and Aaron off the Island safely. Did Desmond predict a scene yet to play out? Or were his flashes unreliable? It's a quandary that hopefully is solved in the final few hours in the show.
 
naveen-andrews-lost-s6-320.jpgBecause when people construct their death pools in the upcoming weeks, they will more often than not miss a crucial component: moral context. It's all well and fine to say that Sayid will die before the show's over, but without exploring WHY that might be the case, it's just a morbid exercise in pop-culture prognostication. One thing that I've striven to get across on the blog this season, both in written form and via the weekly podcasts, is the emergence of a particular moral perspective that the show has started to reveal via the sideways timeline. Rather than use it as a large-scale stunt designed to pay homage to the show as a whole, the universe functions as a litmus test for everything that's come before it. It's a way to dramatize the question, "What kind of life should we live?"
 
As such, when talking about who might live or die by the time the final credits roll, we need first and foremost to ask what each of these particular characters ultimately wants. Because ultimately, none of these characters are going to have a simple question to answer. It's not merely that they will be offered the chance to live or die. They will be asked if they could live in a world that was not their own, with memories of constructed experiences, to live a life with potentially less pain but the capacity for less joy. They will be asked to voluntarily give something up without any knowledge of how that loss will affect their future lives. In other words: Most of these characters will be called on to make some sort of sacrifice.
 
How you view the sideways timeline all depends on how you view Charlie's line to Des in "Happily Ever After": "Whoa! You think I'm going to play a rock concert after this? This doesn't matter. None of this matters. All that matters is that we felt it." If you believe Charlie, then you view the sideways world as "wrong." If you don't, well, then you think it's the place in which the show ends, ultimately, either through the successful attempt of Smocke to get off the Island or some sort of reward mechanism for stopping him. I've heard both sides, and up through "Happily Ever After," I didn't agree with those assessments but couldn't dismiss them. After "Happily," I could dismiss them.
 
But plenty of you can't. I'm past the point of trying to convince those not on board with them to pop on now, but trying to pick a winning theory is like the death pool -- beside the point. We're not looking at some black/white, either/or, yes/no construction. Where Season 6 of "Lost" takes the show further than it's ever gone before is taking its "man of science, man of faith" dichotomy and expanding it to every single character, asking them to decide once and for all what it is they believe about themselves and the world around them. They are being called upon to be citizens of the world, isolated from said world but perhaps the ultimate deciders of its fate. For thousands of years, Jacob has brought them to this Island so they could make the right decisions. But only by removing himself from the equation could he ever hope for them to make the correct ones.
 
"But," you say, stamping your metaphorical four-toed foot, "Jacob HASN'T removed himself! He's still giving marching orders to Hurley! He's still manipulating people!" To that I say: Every advancement of human potential has needed a little push. The Jacob that Richard Alpert met fresh off the Black Rock didn't get that. Only through their conversation did he realize a little intervention now and then might be necessary, due to the inherent weaknesses of man exploited by his nemesis. But Jacob also realized that his very interference was also the ultimate stumbling block toward the "end" he knew was possible. The progress he touted was asymptotic so long as he was still around: People could get infinitesimally close but never reached the end until he was gone.
 
All of this comes back to another crucial Des line, this time to Sayid from the bottom of a well. After Sayid tells Des of his plans to be reunited with the love of his life, Des simply asks: "This woman -- when she asks you what you did to be with her again ... what will you tell her?" Looking at the sideways timeline simply as a function of personal happiness doesn't capture the complexity of Des' question, nor the implications inherent in the presentation of lives in the sideways universe. If people over there were miserable, well, the choice would be easy. But there are varying levels of happiness and sadness and the sum total is something ... well, fairly realistic. So realistic that any idea of another life seems beyond comprehension. Until you look into a mirror. Until you almost choke to death on a bag of heroin. Until you see a commercial on the television. Until you have a kiss on the beach. Until you get pancaked by a Scotsman.
 
Sideways Des allows people to ask, "Can I live with what I have done?" What makes Island Des so dangerous to Smocke is in allowing people to start asking, "Can I live with what I am about to do?" If either side collectively decides no, then Smocke has trouble. And while there will undoubtedly be death in the coming weeks on the show, framing matters of mortality around these two questions gives relevance, weight, and moral meaning to those inevitable actions. Because in dying, some people might give life to others. In dying, they might give meaning retroactively to their own existence. In living, others can honor the acts of those that have been lost. In their end, the end predicted by Jacob but enabled by these people, they can foment a new beginning.
 
Photo credit: ABC