? (S2, ep. 21)
EKO: Would you like to watch that again?
LOCKE: No. No, I’ve seen enough.
Maria Doria Russell’s moving novel The Sparrow contains a passage that I’ve always deeply admired:
“The voyage was not without reward for Alan,” Marc said. “But we are left with Anne’s question. Why would God bring him all this way only to die now?” He paused and looked at Sofia before continuing. “The Jewish sages tell us that the whole of the Torah, the entirety of the first five books of the Bible, is the name of God. With such a name, they ask, how much more is God? The fathers of the church tell us that God is mystery and unknowable. God himself in Scripture tells us, ‘My ways are not your ways and my thoughts are not your thoughts.’…. “It is the human condition to ask questions like Anne’s last night and to receive no plain answers,” he said. “Perhaps this is because we can’t understand the answers, because we are incapable of knowing God’s ways and God’s thoughts. We are, after all, only very clever tailless primates, doing the best we can, but limited. Perhaps we must all own up to being agnostic, unable to know the unknowable.”
Marc continued: “The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when his children defeat him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions like Anne’s are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of animal behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up his answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes – and we shall dance with God.”
I’ve reproduced that passage here not just because I think it’s legitimately profound, but because I believe that Russell’s words have something to offer us as fans of Lost.
To question is to participate in the act of faith. To ask questions of God, whether you define God as a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Deist, Atheist, Agnostic or [Insert equally applicable belief system here], is to engage with God. The same is true if we substitute ‘the Universe’ for the concept of God. The stories that we tell each other about mythic events, about religious experiences, about inexplicable events, about nature itself, are one way in which we engage the questions rising from a state of conscious existence.
When Job asks God why He has allowed Job to suffer he is asking a question we ask ourselves to this day. That God’s answer comes in the form of a refutation only strengthens the power of the question being asked. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” God asks Job in return. “Declare, if you have understanding.” That impenetrability is a road block that leads some away from an idea of faith and challenges others to look closer. Whether that faith is in God or in the idea of an ordered, scientific universe the same kind of basic trust is asked of us.
Today’s rewatch episode, titled simply “?,” is all about the questions that honest attempts at faith engender in us as human beings. It’s about the doubt that arises when those questions go unanswered, or when those answers fail to satisfy. It’s about the way in which one set of events can have entirely different meanings to two different people. And it remains inscrutable on fundamental levels – just like God.
So, come along my fellow clever apes, and let’s demand some answers.
• Despite the emotional impact of Libby’s (agonizingly) slow death I’m not moved to write much about it. Good character work, some terrific tension in the scenes with Michael, and so on and so forth, but it’s the Eko/Locke journey I’m focused on. Apologies in advance!
• Lost funfact: This episode was originally written and earmarked for Darren Aronofsky to direct. You can sort of tell.
Yemi: The work being done in this place is important, Eko. It is more important than anything. And it is in danger. You must help John. He has lost his way. You must make him take you to the question mark. John will not want to show you, so you must make him. Eko, there are many distractions, brother – but you must move past them. What is done is done. Do you understand?
I sure don’t.
I think I understand the larger thematic significance of The Button (see some of my musings on this in Too Much Information: Stimulus Response and Control Theory, or, How I Learned to Start Behaving and Love Course Correction), yet I’m admittedly baffled by its purpose as it relates to Jacob/the MiB/the Island. The seasons that follow this one don’t do much to clarify matters and I have the growing suspicion that this will not be explored much further within the show itself.
Are the “Ana Lucia” and “Yemi” who appear to Eko in his dreams meant to be aspects of the MiB? Are they meant, instead, to represent visitations from Jacob or a third party, perhaps the Island itself (See TMI 6: gnarly Gnosticism and Mondo Manichaeism, for my latest inane thoughts on Jacob, the MiB and the Island)? Without knowing who these apparitions/avatars/Archons truly are it becomes largely impossible to figure out whether Eko is being lead or mislead in this episode – whether Yemi’s claims that John has lost his way are the sounds of sincere concern or the seductions of a chess player.
Yemi’s words here – ‘what is done is done’ – seem to reinforce what Eko himself will say to “Yemi” in Season 3. And yet, “Yemi”’s reaction there is far colder and inhuman than the Yemi we see in this initial dream sequence. Yemi!
• That sense of uncertainty stretches farther in this episode, into Eko’s flashbacks. His encounters with Richard Malkin in Australia (last seen in “Raised by Another,” giving Claire some seriously bifurcated parenting advice) draw into question not only the apparent ‘miracle’ of the episode but also Malkin’s prior conversations with Claire.
Eko: This is your hatch, yes?
Locke: It’s not my hatch.
• The way in which Locke and others refer to the Hatch as ‘his’ throughout Season 2 is something I’ve commented on before. Here we’ve reached the opposite end of that arc. Whereas before John referred to the Swan as ‘my Hatch,’ now he disavows it.
Eko: Now, she wants us to go here, John, together. She said this in my dream.
Locke: Of course, a dream.
Eko: Tell me, John, haven’t you ever followed a dream?
• We know that John has indeed followed a dream – one that was responsible, in part, for the death of Boone. Shouldn’t that immediately make us worry about the consequences of Eko following his dream?
• Eko’s meeting with the coroner that autopsied Charlotte Malkin is some seriously effective, creepy stuff. The name Charlotte Malkin echoes against the Charlotte Lewis that will arrive on the Island with Widmore’s crew – note that Charlotte Malkin mysteriously resurrects in this episode, and that Charlotte Lewis dies mysteriously in Season 5.
Locke: Boone. Boone made it fall. Then he died. A sacrifice that the Island demanded.
• Locke’s words here recall his justification to Jack for Boone’s death in Season 1, but the meaning has changed. There’s no real belief in the words now. What remains is an almost nostalgic wistfulness, as if John is remembering what it was like to have such clarity of faith and purpose.
• John’s dream is confusing. At first we’re meant to believe that Eko is having a lucid, waking dream – Yemi tells him to be quiet so as not to wake “John.” After climbing the cliff where the beech craft once sat, we see Yemi in a wheelchair, saying “Wake up, John.” At which point, Eko/John falls from the cliff, just as John will be seen falling from the building that his father pushes him from, leading to his being in the very wheelchair Yemi is sitting in. Got all of that? Good. Now explain it to me.
Eko: Why would she spite you?
Malkin: Because she knows I’m a fraud. Because I make my living as a psychic. You see, that’s what I do. I gather intelligence on people and I exploit it. Everyday I meet people looking for a miracle, desperate to find one. But there are none to be had. Not in this world, anyway.
• Malkin offers us something of an answer for his previous appearance in Claire’s episode. He’s a fraud. Like The Others he gathers intelligence on people and exploits that intelligence for his own gain. This lends further credence to the idea that Malkin was working two sides (one black, one white; Widmore and The Others?) when giving his conflicting advice to Claire. But it doesn’t truly explain what happened to his daughter, as we’ll cover a little further down. Nor does it explain how or why Malkin has been instrumental in directing both Claire and Eko to their Date With Tropical Destiny.
• Eko’s discovery of the salted earth that created the question mark – a mark that can only be seen from above, from a God’s-eye perspective – appropriately raises more questions. Who salted the earth? Why? What purpose does it serve?
• The Orientation video for The Pearl features Dr. Marvin Candle again, only this time he isn’t Marvin Candle. He’s “Dr. Mark Wickman.”
Wickman: “As Karen DeGroot herself has written, ‘Careful observation is the only key to true and complete awareness.’”
• We learn that the Pearl is an ‘observation station,’ designed to record the activities of other Dharma Initiative employees in other stations. The Swan Station is never mentioned by name, nor is it stated that the act of pushing The Button is useless. In point of fact, the existence of this ‘second-level’ experiment in observation suggests that both the Swan and the Pearl have both concrete, valuable functions (for the Swan, it’s ensuring that the electromagnetic ‘steam’ gets vented at the right times, for the Pearl, it’s a method of ensuring that The Button does get pushed and to ensure that the workers are doing their jobs) as well as uncomfortably-manipulative functions.
In other words, it’s possible to view the Swan as (1) a necessary Station devoted to keeping electromagnetism under control and (2) a Skinner Box which provides observers with the opportunity to watch how close quarters, repetitive tasks, and strict scheduling affect the participants. At the same time, its possible to view The Pearl as (1) a necessary Station devoted to making sure the vital functions of the other Stations are carried out and (2) a place to monitor and study human behavior more generally. The structure of all of this, the existence of The Pearl as a seemingly elevated ‘observation’ Station, the ways in which Dharma apparently sought to analyze those who were otherwise ‘willing’ participants in their projects, bring to mind some (in)famous social psychology experiments, such as The Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment. In those examples, ideas of apparent authority were exploited in order to study the ways in which the illusion of authority could change or warp human behavior.
• The Pearl also recalls Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a prison design which allows an observer to watch the prisoners without the prisoners being aware that they’re watched. In yet another echo of Season 5, Jeremy Bentham is the name which Locke adopts off the Island.
How do people act when we think no one is watching? How does the act of observation change a thing? Those are questions Lost seems to be asking on multiple levels. How do the Hatch folks act when they’re unaware that they’re being observed? How does Locke feel, how would you or I feel, on discovering they’re being observed? How would it have changed things if someone had been watching when Michael shot Ana Lucia and Libby? How does it change things to feel certain that the Pearl’s inhabitants were aware that they could be monitored? And what about the fact that we’re monitoring the Pearl – that the audience is monitoring all of the characters? Like Locke, the audience is watching the unaware – how do we know we’re not being observed as covertly as we’re observing Locke, whether by a peeping tom, a security camera, or the figurative eye of God? How do we act when we think we’re unobserved? In a Meta sense, the audience is participating in a level-spanning Panopticon.
• The Pearl Station film is copyrighted as of 1980 – a full three years after The Incident. Despite this, Pierre Chang (aka Marvin Candle, aka Edgar Halliwax, aka Toots McGee) possesses two fully-functional arms in the Station training video. What’s up with that?
EKO: Would you like to watch that again?
LOCKE: No. No, I’ve seen enough.
• When the Swan Station video was first discovered John’s first words after viewing it were “We’re going to need to watch that again.” That mini-conversation functions as a mirror reflecting the John Locke we see here, who has lost his faith over nothing more than a well-timed lie, against the John Locke from earlier in the season – the Locke who was utterly, righteously convinced of both the Hatch’s, and his own, importance.
EKO: It is work, John. We are being tested.
EKO: The reason to do it — push the button — is not because we are told to do so in a film.
LOCKE: Oh — well, then what is the reason, Mr. Eko?
EKO: We do it because we believe we are meant to. Isn’t that the reason you pushed it, John?
LOCKE: I was never meant to do anything. Every single second of my pathetic little life is as useless as that button! You think it’s important? You think it’s necessary? It’s nothing. It’s nothing. It’s meaningless. And who are you to tell me that it’s not?
• This exchange is, I think, the very heart of the episode. It’s also, perhaps, a kind of key to the show itself. Eko’s reasoning here, which I didn’t entirely understand the first time around, now seems much clearer to me. What matters isn’t whether they push The Button because they are told to; what matters is the act of faith itself, freely chosen, and not any subsequent validation of that faith.
Thematically all of this ties into determinism and free will. Pushing a Button because someone threatens you is a form of slavery. Pushing it because you feel it is the right thing to do is a kind of freedom.
Operating within a deterministic system, i.e., the Hatch, the choice to push The Button of our own free will represents an exercise in conscious choice. If we view the Hatch as the world, with its arbitrary rules and its implicit contracts, choosing to push The Button can be seen as accepting responsibility for it – recognizing that someone needs to be at the controls, so to speak, lest the whole thing blow up in our faces.
But the kind of freedom Eko could represent here is a limited freedom, ultimately. The irony of it is that this exercise in conscious choice on Eko’s part is coupled with surrender to what is, in his case, a divine purpose. Eko is in thrall to an ultimately-active, deterministic force that’s far more abstract than an Orientation video. The thing is, Eko is essentially repeating Locke’s Season 1 journey. Locke began his time on the Island as a Shaman/Warrior, a protective force that starts to become isolated and sidelined due to mysteriously silent instructions. Eko began his time as a silent Priest/Warrior, a protective force that becomes isolated and sidelined due to mysteriously silent instructions. Locke was compelled to find and uncover a Hatch. Eko is compelled to find and uncover a Hatch. Locke found near-messianic purpose when he found The Button. Eko finds that same passion when they find the Pearl.
Pushing a Button every 108 minutes is a form of slavery too – much more overt and direct. You may find higher purpose in it, but The Button owns your ass. Is Locke’s instinct then the right one? After all, there’s immediate, literal freedom in deciding not to push The Button. Locke would have no reason to stay in the Hatch anymore. He’d see it for what it was – a prison. A Bentham-style Panoption. He’d return to the naturalism of Season 1, one assumes, where Locke was an undeniably dynamic, confident, natural presence on the Island. And more than that, the refusal to push The Button does more than set Locke free – it sets what’s still entirely-mysterious energy free.
All of the above is good reason to have me committed. But if I can indulge my insanity a little further, what I think this all boils down to on the part of the show isn’t a plea for the audience to get some Jesus in your life but rather an internal conversation about human motivations and choice – about getting to choose between hitting life’s Buttons because you’re afraid and hitting it because you feel its right.
• Malkin’s daughter provides us with quite a quandary here. The tape which Eko views, the message which the girl imparts to Eko about his brother, suggest that something truly miraculous has occurred. But what, exactly? If the girl is truthful and her experience was real, what does that tell us about the afterlife in the universe that Lost inhabits? Is there one? If, as some have suggested, Season 6 will explore the idea of a quantum universe in which every choice we could have made or will make results in an endlessly-branching, infinite number of possible worlds all around us which we never see or hear or notice, then Charlotte’s resurrection might be explained “scientifically” in some way. In fact, “Dr. Candle/Wickman/Chang” may be another hint in this direction. We’ve been assuming that Ol’ One Arm is playing head-games with his names but what if there are in fact three different doctors in three different timestreams? The Island, we’ve been told, shifts through time AND space. Is it a kind of nexus of all possible worlds? The hub from which extend an infinite number of spokes? A kind of Frozen Donkey Wheel writ large? That might explain why, once he landed on the Island Locke was able to walk again – because in these other universes, he was never pushed from that building.
I’m interested in part because the traditional idea of ‘heaven’ doesn’t seem to be a destination for the dead in Lost’s universe. For all the signs and visions Lost has paraded in front of us there’s never been a real sense that the dead can rest, that there’s a good place, or any place at all, in store for the deceased. Instead, we’ve seen that a significant number of folks have resurrected as “ghosts” on the Island. Those that don’t actively resurrect still manage to haunt the living in memories. The dead don’t rest easily on Lost. And speaking of the dead…
• Watching Hurley get this upset is like watching kittens strangle each other in Hello Kitty t-shirts.
JACK: Michael. He’s okay. He made it, Libby. It’s okay. It’s alright.
• Libby’s death is chilly and unsettling stuff. Her episode-long struggle to hold on to life comes to a close as the episode does, and her last word, meant as warning, is dismissed as concern by Captain Clueless himself, Jack. Some excellent tension for anyone watching this episode for the first time. I remember being on the edge of my seat as I waited for Michael to give himself away.
• The deaths of Libby and Ana send real shockwaves through the core group of the show. Nowhere is this more obvious than in how Sawyer continues his winding journey to compassion as he cradles a shattered Kate in his arms. Dark, emotional stuff and a slow growth of character through tragedy. But hang on… we’re almost to the end of the tunnel….
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Missed a column? Catch up here:
• Two for The Road (S2 ep. 20)
• S.O.S. (S2 ep. 19)
• Dave (S2 ep. 18)
• Lockdown (S2 ep. 17)
• The Whole Truth (S2 ep. 16)
• Maternity Leave (S2 ep. 15)
• One of Them (S2 ep. 14)
• The Long Con (S2 ep. 13)
• Fire + Water (S2 ep. 12)
• The Hunting Party (S2 ep 11)
• The 23rd Psalm (S2, ep. 10)
• What Kate Did (S2, ep. 9)
• Collision (S2, ep. 8)
• The Other 48 Days (S2, ep. 7)