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Lost: An Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living

on Mon, 05/31/2010 - 00:00

In The Apology, the dialogue written by Plato that details the trial and death of Socrates, the accused philosopher makes the observation that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates meant it as a defense of his inquisitive nature regarding man’s existence, but it could also serve as an epitaph to the final season of the ABC drama Lost. The story arc that year featured an “alternative universe” where Oceanic Flight 815 never crashed on the island and details how the lives of the major Lostaways were similar-yet-different because of it.

In the final episode—appropriately named “The End”—it is revealed that this alternative universe was actually some sort of purgatory created by the characters as a gathering place where they could remember their past and find each other again before moving on to the afterlife. Although it thus served a higher purpose, it also functioned as a telling observation of how each of the characters perceived themselves and how far they had progressed in terms of dealing with the personal demons they faced during their actual lifetimes.

James “Sawyer” Ford is a prime example. When he was a boy, Sawyer’s family was conned out of their life savings and his father reacted by killing both his wife and himself. Although the young James Ford vowed to someday find the conman responsible, he instead turned to a life of criminal scheming and even adopted the name of the person responsible for ruining his life. When he arrived on the island, Sawyer was thus a bitter, conniving loner with few morals. His time on Lost, however, showed growth in the man as he evolved into a genuine leader and caring companion to fellow Lostaway Juliet Burke.

The Sawyer in the alternative world, meanwhile, isn’t named Sawyer at all but simply James Ford. And although his Southern smugness is still very much evident in the first “flashsideways,” as they came to be known, this James Ford was not a conman but a police detective. “I got to a point in my life where I was either going to become a criminal or a cop, so I chose cop,” he tells Charlotte Lewis during a blind date. Apparently in the afterlife Sawyer sees himself as a better person than the masochistic Sawyer who initially crashed on the island, although he still appears to be haunted by the tragedy of his childhood. “When I was nine-years-old, my father shot my mother, then he killed himself,” he later remarks to his LAPD partner Miles Straume. “Sawyer was the reason why. I’ve been hunting him down since the day I left the academy. And when I find (him), I’m going to kill him.”

It’s also telling that although James Ford is an attractive male in his thirties, he has no romantic entanglements in his life. While the real life version was also a reluctant companion, this alternative James Ford does not have the same self-hating nature. One potential reason for his lack of commitment may have to do with losing his true love, Juliet Burke, when she died at the end of season five. Even though he did not become aware of it until “The End,” odds are he was holding out for that magic moment when he was finally reunited with Burke in front of a hospital vending machine.

While Sawyer’s flashsideways portrayed a better James Ford—even if he was still haunted by the events of his childhood—the same does not hold true for Sayid Jarrah. Although he immediately rose to a position of on-island leadership after the crash, as well as a respected and valued member of the Lostaways, Sayid did not always see himself in a positive light. He was, after all, a former torturer for the Iraqi Republican Guard and in the later seasons of Lost, he even became a personal “hit man” for Other villain Benjamin Linus. “You’re capable of things that most other men aren’t,” Ben told Sayid in season five. “Every choice you’ve made in your life, whether it was to murder or to torture, it really hasn’t been a choice at all, has it? It’s in your nature, it’s what you are.”

Despite an heroic death on the island, the alternative Sayid is apparently still influenced by this negative opinion about his true nature. Although he dedicated eight years of his real life to finding his lost love Noor “Nadia” Abed Jazeem, in the world Sayid created in the flashsideways Nadia is married to his brother despite the fact that Sayid has obvious feelings for her himself. “Why didn’t you want to be with me?” she asks him in the flashsideways. “If you care about me, why did you push me towards your brother?”

“The last twelve years I’ve been trying to wash my hands of all the horrible things I’ve done,” Sayid replies. “I can’t be with you because I don’t deserve you.”

When later confronted by a group of lowlife thugs who loaned his brother money and were intent on extracting either blood or more cash in return, Sayid quickly turns the tables and inflicts Jack Bauer-like vengeance upon them. It wasn’t until Hugo “Hurley” Reyes, aware of the significance of the alternative universe, confronted him that the Iraqi finally embraced what can ultimately be considered his true nature. “I think you’re a good guy,” Hurley tells Sayid. “I know a lot of people have told you that you’re not. Maybe you’ve heard it so many times you started believing it. You can’t let other people tell you what you are, dude. You have to decide that for yourself”

Then there’s the case of Benjamin Linus. During his time on Lost, Ben was portrayed as a mass murderer guilty of patricide, the kidnapper of Danielle Rousseau’s baby daughter Alex, a consummate liar, expert manipulator and all around self-centered bad guy. He also killed the god-like Jacob and paved the path for the “evil incarnate” entity known as the Man-In-Black to potentially leave the island by strangling Lostaway John Locke.

While Ben’s apology to Locke in the afterlife was both heartfelt and genuine (“I was selfish, jealous; you were special, John, and I wasn’t”) the flashsideways that he created for himself proves just how far Ben has progressed during his life’s journey. Instead of being “special,” Ben is the opposite—a high school history professor who can’t even convince his colleagues to refer to him as “Dr. Linus.” And while he had murdered his father on-island, the alternative universe shows Ben taking care of his elderly parent, even going so far as to buy the “healthy” frozen dinners for their meals together.

“I have a doctorate in modern European history and yet I’m babysitting burnouts in detention,” Ben says. “And the worst of it is, as I look out at those ingrates that I’m tasked with watching, I can’t help thinking that maybe I’m more a loser than any of them.” This is obviously not the same Benjamin Linus seen on Lost plotting and manipulating his way through life. In fact, when he does display shades of the old Ben by blackmailing the principal at his high school for personal gain, he backs down from the demand in order to secure a letter of recommendation for honor student and one time foster daughter Alex. In the book The Gospel According to Lost, author Chris Seay argues that it was the lack of any form of true love in Ben’s life that made him the villain he became, and Ben’s emotional breakdown in the flashsideways upon hearing that Alex looks upon him as a father-figure proves that assessment may indeed be correct.

The revelation that the flashsideways from the final season of Lost were actually some sort of purgatory served as a fitting epitaph for the series and not only gave closure to the characters but also provided a deeper understanding of both their true nature and ultimate opinions of themselves. While real life does not necessarily include the time needed for such reflection, the afterlife the Lostaways created offers not only insight into their personal growth but serves as a meaningful extension to Socrates’ observation that “an unexamined life is not worth living” as well.

Anthony Letizia (May 31, 2010)

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