I only thought I’d typed my last words about Lost for The Washington Post. This morning, post-finale, it turned out we really needed someone to make the case for purgatory, amid all the other theories we were posting, either by Liz Kelly and Jen Chaney (our in-house “Lost” PhD’s), or from lots of devoted readers. Here’s what I wrote, which is getting me lots of argumentative e-mail in return. It’s online only. (We’ve decided that we’ve killed enough trees trying to elucidate Lost.)
IT WAS PURGATORY, PEOPLE
By Hank Stuever / (c) The Washington Post / posted on May 24, 2010 (updated version)
In the fall of 2004, when “Lost” was amassing what turned out to be its incredibly dedicated audience, there were viewers (I was among them) who said: Maybe the island is just purgatory. Maybe everyone on Oceanic 815 is really dead (killed in a plane crash, obviously) and they are trapped somewhere between a dark place and a heavenly afterlife. This theory made the most sense, and it didn’t lessen the show’s best qualities one bit.
But the more-involved fans hated the purgatory theory. No, no, no, they said. It’s a real place — and look, see? It was a science experiment. There was a hatch and a series of numbers being entered into a computer! If it’s purgatory, then how come people actually die? There are “Other” inhabitants. This story goes way back to Egypt, dude!
But can’t that all be purga—
No! See? The flash-forwards? The six survivors who go back to the real world?
But what if that world is also purga—
No! Because look, they set off a bomb that split everything into two realities, one on the island and one in an alternate sideways world!
But maybe that’s because it’s purga—
I don’t know what the rest of you 13 million people were watching Sunday night, but in the last five minutes of “Lost’s” insanely overlong finale, I realized that the purgatory camp had been right all along, that Occam’s razor (the simplest solution is usually the correct one) had worked. “Lost” was a story about purgatory.
Yes, the show’s creators vehemently denied all along that the island was purgatory. Fans, being fans, took them at their word — which, by the way, one should never do. Snap out of your Comicon-style “ ‘Lost’ community” daze and realize that this is showbiz and the customer base must be sustained and strung along. “Lost” frequently abused its viewers’ time and patience and, masochistically, its core viewers stuck around and asked for more. What is purgatory, after all, but a series of torture devices?
Maybe the word “purgatory” is the problem. What about limbo? (It’s been too long since Catholic school for me to fully recall how purgatory is different from limbo. We used to pray for the souls of dead babies in limbo, whom we felt sorry for, because they didn’t have television. Maybe saying the word “purgatory,” for “Lost” diehards, feels too much like finding Bobby Ewing in the shower (“Dallas”) or listening to Dorothy babble about Oz after her barnyard concussion. One thing people despise is an “it was all an illusion” ending, but tell that to “The Twilight Zone” or Ambrose Bierce. This much I know: ABC is counting on us to argue about this forever, so they can somehow show us even more commercials than the ungodly number they showed Sunday night.
Now let’s broaden the definition of limbo or purgatory, to allow that the all of the people who came and went from “Lost’s” island were technically corporeal — alive. They hungered, fell ill, needed shelter, had sex. You could die on this limbo island, which only makes it worse for your soul. This allows the island to be sorta-real. Some people in “our” world know it exists and seek to get there, to unlock or exploit its energy. Others just wash up there. Everyone who is there belongs there. Maybe for a while, maybe forever.
Jack Shephard and his fellow travelers were unwittingly brought there to resolve a number of problems between heaven and hell. They were fresh souls, there to address a few too many anomalies and broken-machinery issues in some sort of working universal order.
During their time in purgatory, the Oceanic people (helped by other lost souls, such as Juliet and Desmond and Faraday) brought parallels together and eventually they prevented the devil’s meddling attempt to return to heaven and destroy creation. They blew up the Dharma Initiative in the 1970s, because it also threatened the island’s energy. They killed the Smoke monster. They altered time/space without killing the rest of us. Big jobs.
This limbo followed them backwards and forwards and sideways into a tangle of past, present and alternate future. The characters finally fixed it. Their reward was the hereafter.
People in “Lost” died multiple times in a lot of ways. Jack’s exit in the final minutes of “Lost” was the death that got him to heaven, but the 815 crash was the death that got him busy on what he was meant to do. That’s why the finale takes Jack back to that same bamboo field — where he snapped awake in 2004 (dead, but not technically) and where, now that he is fully cognizant of all that has happened (and un-happened), he lays down and experiences a final peace. His work is done.
I know some hardcore fans don’t want to believe it was purgatory all along, perhaps because they worked so hard to decipher “Lost’s” layers of pointless mythology and whatnot. This is not an “it was all a dream” ending. It was about another realm that is like a dream, which explains why everything had to be so frustrating, complicated — like a dream where you can’t solve a problem.
But not a dream. An actual place — a purgatory. Or for people who hate that word, an in-between. You don’t go there simply because your soul is stuck. You go there because you’re needed.