The 23rd Psalm (S2, ep. 10)
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” -Karl Marx
CHARLIE: It was my brother’s fault.
CHARLIE: It was his fault I became an addict. He started with the heroin. I tried to make him stop. You don’t know me, man. I was a good person. I was an alter boy. Alright, I knew what was in that statue; it doesn’t mean I needed what was inside it. So don’t judge me, man.
“The 23rd Psalm,” Mr. Eko’s first flashback episode, is a solid tale of redemption and rejection. It suggests both the power and the futility in religion. It illuminates our understanding of both Eko and Charlie in significant ways. And Sawyer gets a haircut.
• The further we get into Season Two of Lost, the more that I realize just how little I remember of it. The broad strokes are still in my memory, but many of the episodes feel almost entirely fresh to me. I haven’t watched this season through since it first aired and I’m glad that I waited until now to do so. The second season of Lost got a fair amount of flack from its viewers when it first aired, but on re-watch its (so far) solid and compelling television. If you’re someone that gave up on the show during this season you’d do well to revisit it.
Nigerian Thug (after tearing off young Eko’s cross): “You won’t need that anymore.”
• Lost’s engagement with global issues – in this case, the plight of African children who are taken and shaped into killers by various warring factions – continues to impress. One could argue (in the same shallowly-observed way in which Slumdog Millionaire was criticized) that using such events as the backdrop for a television show is ‘exploitative,’ but to do so you would have to ignore Lost’s restless intelligence and its engagement with the moral/ethical/social factors involved when characters are presented with terrible choices.
In order to save his brother, Yemi, from being forced to murder another man, Eko kills him in his brother’s stead. In doing so, he voluntarily sets himself down a dark, amoral road. He becomes a ‘soulless’ Warlord – the figurative black stone to Yemi’s white stone – and yet, in the universe that Lost inhabits, its suggested that even a man as cold and violent as Eko can be redeemed.
• Sacrifice is an ongoing theme of this show, and that’s made explicit twice during ‘The 23rd Psalm,’ when Eko sacrifices his own childhood to save his brother and when his brother is subsequently sacrificed to save Eko.
• Eko reveals himself to be a fake preacher by the way he’s carved “Revelations : 3” into his staff, as pictured above. It’s the Book of Revelation, not Revelations. Mistakes aside, that particular chapter offers some character-specific color commentary on Eko – and indeed on most of the castaways:
2 “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God.
3 Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.”
EKO: Aaron was a great man. Moses had great difficulty speaking so it was Aaron who spoke for him.
• The Biblical significance of the name Aaron is directly addressed here, as Claire and Eko chat on the beach. He may be a fake priest but Eko’s clearly been studying his Bible and Biblical interpretations.
It’s because of this talk that Eko becomes aware of the presence of Virgin Mary statues on the Island, and Claire becomes aware that they contain heroin. Uh-oh, Charlie.
• Locke installs a lock on the gun closet to prevent half-cocked idiots from running in and grabbing a weapon every time they’re fired up about something. This is good timing on his part, as Michael shows up immediately, looking for some Others-killing Ordnance.
• Claire confronts Charlie on the beach about the heroin, and Charlie lies. He tells her that he didn’t know the drugs were in the Virgin Mary but he doesn’t lie about being clean.
• The symbolism of the Virgin Mary carrying a narcotic inside of it is potent and provocative. It directly echoes Marx’s oft-misquoted belief that religion is the opiate of the people.
I’m certainly no expert on Marx, but the full text of his comment implies something approaching sympathy toward those who seek refuge from the world’s injustices through the solace of religion, a sympathy that Lost appears to share. Marx argues that those who would attack the religious impulse are, in fact, attacking the conditions responsible for creating a religious yearning – namely injustice, inequality, inhumanity. Religion is a salve that makes such injustices bearable – just as (to use the most obvious, Lost-centric example) reason is a salve that makes chaos bearable.
From an agnostic/atheistic perspective, Eko’s embrace of his brother’s religion can be interpreted as his attempting to make sense of a tragedy by adopting a world-view which offers explanations for suffering. From a Christian/spiritual perspective, Eko’s embrace of his brother’s religion can be interpreted as atonement of the soul – honest penitence.
• Locke learned how to shoot from his father – the infamous Anthony “Sawyer” Cooper. He passes this knowledge along to Michael, fully aware that Mike will probably use this skill to go after the Others. Again we have the theme of taking both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ from your life and using both to reconstruct yourself as a better person. But in this instance, we can’t be sure that the skill being passed on is a good one. Its Locke’s training that, in part, emboldens Michael to go after the Others and, eventually, results in two tragic shootings.
YEMI: Well, why waste your time confessing. It won’t help you.
EKO: It won’t?
YEMI: No, for confession to mean something you must have a penitent heart.
EKO: You and your guilt, Yemi. I’ve only done what I needed to do to survive. How is that a sin?
YEMI: You may live far from here, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t heard of who you are and what you have done.
(Eko brings out Yemi’s cross – the same one that was pulled from Eko’s neck as a boy)
EKO: Have you forgotten how you got that cross, brother — the day they took me? Is what I did that day a sin? Or is it forgiven because it was you that was saved?
Do you believe in sin?
I do, in that I believe all mankind has the capacity to inflict needless agony on the world around them. Sin is the dark half of every human being – the potential for cruelty and selfishness and harm – the black stone to the conscience’s white stone. In scientific terms it might be called the destructive impulse, or the unleashed Id, or any number of other terms.
Regardless of whether you name this impulse scientifically or spiritually, the complicated problem of sin remains, as does the thorny issue of “moral calculus.” If you do a ‘bad’ thing for ‘good’ reasons should you feel guilt, or should you find peace with the fact that you have taken on a heavier burden to lighten someone else’s? If you do a ‘good’ thing for ‘bad’ reasons is it less good? Or does the action justify itself?
These are brutally difficult questions. There are, arguably, no answers – only perspectives. I bring all of this up not just because I have a penchant for meandering as I write, but because these questions will come to have great significance for Eko’s fate on the Island.
We know that Eko is penitent through his actions and his behavior. We also know that he does not feel guilt for what he has done. Is this Lost’s way of illustrating the necessary formula for achieving personal peace/betterment? Again, it seems the show is suggesting that we cannot wash away what we have been, but that we can make amends and change who we now are.
This is essentially the same rationale that Eko will later use in speaking with Yemi’s ‘ghost’ on the Island. There too he claims that he did what he needed to do in order to survive. He is killed directly after asserting this – after refusing guilt and taking ownership of his entire life. Is this because the Monster ‘judges’ him? Or is it because, as has been suggested, the Monster realizes that it cannot use a man who is at peace with himself? We’ll dwell on these questions again in the next season.
KATE (to Sawyer, mid-haircut): You know, you don’t have to be belligerent just for belligerent’s sake. Everyone loves you now.
Now that Sawyer is back to good health he’s beginning to discover that his fellow castaways are glad to see him and were, so it seems, concerned for his welfare. These gestures of kindness, so alien and irritating to Sawyer at first, are liberating to him. The scene brings to mind the following passage written by Vasily Grossman, one that never fails to lift my spirit:
“I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning.
Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”
These castaways, as mistrustful and cruel and deceptive as they can be, have an infinite capacity for small acts of devastating kindness. And every time that kindness is revealed, more layers of manipulation are stripped away.
EKO: Yemi, I understand that you live in a world where righteousness and evil seem very far apart, but that is not the real world.
And indeed it is not. In the end, arguably, we all must bend so we do not break. Yemi must sign the documents to make Eko and his criminal brethren false priests in order to protect what he loves. This kind of symbiosis – between right and wrong, good and evil, between prizing an ideal and the realities of life’s suffering – evokes and strengthens the show’s consistent call to see how opposites reflect, transform, and invade each other.
• Our first full glimpse of The Monster comes in this episode, as Eko confronts and appears to stare down a column of animate black smoke. We’re given no explanation as to why The Monster does not attack Eko, but if we slow the frames of this confrontation we can see that portions of Eko’s flashback appear within The Monster’s form in much the same way that they appear during Ben’s confrontation with it in S5. The Monster appears to be ‘reading’ Eko, testing and/or analyzing him. Has it discovered a way to potentially manipulate Eko? Or has it judged him and found him worthy?
• During Eko’s final flashback the Nigerian plane takes off. Three seasons from now we’ll watch it crash on the Island.
• Charlie and Claire’s already-strained relationship breaks completely at episode’s end, as Claire tells him that she doesn’t want him around the baby anymore (what with him being a lying smack-head and all). Still, even given that Charlie lies about his knowledge of the drugs, I think he gets kind of a rough deal here. Claire’s no angel, and Charlie’s been there for her without fail. He may be tempted, but temptation is part of life, and he’s resisted it admirably. Thanks to the plane, Charlie has enough heroin on the Island to stay sky-high for the rest of his life – but he hasn’t touched the stuff.
The irony, such as it is: Claire’s rejection sends Charlie (seemingly) closer to relapse. In mistaking him for something he no longer is, she pushes him a little further down the road toward becoming it again. At episode’s end we see that he’s creating a cache of the statues and we have the sinking feeling that Charlie is slipping back into the insecure darkness he’s only really just emerged from.
• This is the episode that officially begins the “Charlie: Dark Lord of the Sith” arc, wherein our favorite former-hobbit starts acting weird and twitchy and kind-of-not-sane and wears a hood a lot. I despised this turn of events for the character when the episodes first aired and I’m curious to see how they’ve aged. It may be the first instance where I felt Lost’s writers beginning to cautiously tread water. They’d already shown us Charlie’s redemption – beautifully – in The Moth. To see him slip backward into darkness was hard for me as a viewer to watch. But life is complicated, addiction is a fierce master, and Charlie’s ultimate redemption remains on the horizon.