By Jeff Jensen
July 31, 2009 at 05:01 PM EDT

Mysteries. Lost is filled with them, even defined by them. Mysteries of history. Why is there an ancient statue of the Egyptian death deity Taweret on The Island?  Four Toed statue? Mysteries of character. Can Jack really change and find redemption? Mysteries about the nature of reality itself. Guys… where are we?!

A couple of  months ago, I asked the readers of my Doc Jensen column to send me their picks for the three mysteries they most need Lost to resolve in its final season. I tabulated all the entries (nearly 2000) and created what I call “The Lost Must-Answer Mystery List,” which you’ll find here at the site in gallery form. I think hard core Losties might be a little surprised by No. 1.

The sixth and final season of Lost, set to premiere early next year, certainly has its work cut out for it in terms of answering every single question of every single fan… especially when one fan’s idea of a “Must-Answer Mystery” is another fan’s “Who cares?” I know of one Lostophile who really wants to know: “Whatever happened to the cow outside The Flame?” (Seriously, Dad. Let it go.)

Yet obsessing over individual mysteries does risk losing sight of the forest amid so many trees. I’ve always felt the mysteries of Lost are better appreciated not as puzzles to be solved or questions to be answered (though I do hope they are) but as expressions of the drama’s essential themes. That may sound odd coming from a guy who spends hours after every episode madly digging for buried secrets in the subtext. But that’s just me having fun—and/or being crazy. Truth is, I am sane enough to recognize that Lost is best enjoyed when “read” for its themes, not as cipher to be decoded.

Let’s start by hitting the One Big Theme underlying the myriad of other themes that form Lost’s matrix of meaning. Terry O’Quinn, who plays Locke, provocatively poked at this uber-theme earlier this year when he spoke to The Los Angeles Times about the drama’s trickiest mystery: What is The Island? “What [Locke] perceives, his understanding of the island is, is special. But it might be the road to hell. We still don’t know what [kind of] moral entity the island is. Is it a good guy or a bad guy?” In other words: Lost is all about trust. It’s the defining quality of our post-modern condition, not to mention our current moment: In whom — or in what — can we really trust? Science? Religion? Philosophy? Technology? Political systems? Leaders? Neighbors? Parents? Friends? Lovers? If we are predisposed to trust one thing (say, science) and distrust its opposite (say, religion), then… why? Have we ever considered the origins of our own bias? How can we be certain that the god of our choosing is truly good and has our best interests at heart? Are we being fooled? Are we fooling ourselves? How can we be certain that we aren’t just simps and marks in some big bad bastard’s “long con,” to use Sawyer’s term? (Ironically — and maybe not coincidentally — the theme of trust has defined Lost’s behind-the-scenes story, as well; see our discussion of “Do the producers have a master plan?”)

Lost’s most-discussed theme is reason vs. faith, embodied by science-trusting skeptic Dr. Jack Shephard and destiny-seeking mystic John Locke. Their conflicting worldviews are reflected in the audience’s engagement with Lost‘s mysteries, too. There are Scoobies (as in the cartoon Scooby-Doo, where otherworldly phenomenon is always proven bogus), and there are Goobers (as in the cartoon Goober and the Ghost Chasers, a Scooby clone where otherworldly phenomenon is legitimately otherwordly). Scoobies insist that Lost resolve its mysteries rationally. Goobers are game for more fantastic possibilities. Take the smoke monster. We look at that seemingly sentient billow of black haze and we think: What the heck is that? But Goobers lean toward and support supernatural solutions; they could be cool with Smokey being an angel, like the one God parked outside Eden after kicking out Adam and Eve; or perhaps mythological Cerberus, or watchdog, tasked with policing a realm not meant for humans, or at least all humans; or perhaps a mere figment of our imagination or manifestation of fear, brought to life by Island magic. But Scoobies want naturalistic explanations for Smokey — maybe an undiscovered life form, maybe a swarm of nanobots, or maybe something else entirely that will make total sense once we get a chance to study it and become smart enough to understand it. Or him. Or her. Whatever. Yes, the theories on either side of the divide are “out there,” yet the supernatural/naturalism debate is eons old — at least as old as the name John Locke, one of several Age of Reason/Age of Enlightenment philosophers name-checked on the show who were deeply invested in resolving this debate — and certainly relevant to our current moment, noisy with fighting between evolution and creationism and filled with best-selling books by celebrity atheists attacking religion and best-selling books by celebrity spiritualists attacking books written by the celebrity atheists attacking religion. Such is the unchanging (vicious) circle of life.

Joined at the quantum hip with Lost’s metaphysical make-up is another core thematic concern: destiny vs. chance, or what my philosopher friend Dr. Steve Porter has previously articulated as free will vs. determinism. Among the mysteries that best represent this conflict is one of the very first: were the Oceanic 815 castaways brought to The Island intentionally, for a reason, or was it a mere accident, some fluke of catastrophe, some unguided, undirected sequence of events that set their adventure in motion? The mystery of The Numbers has put a human, often comic spin on this existential conundrum. Do their creepy-uncanny recurrence in Hurley’s life mean that his universe is governed by some kind of underlying, unseen order? Or is this mere conspiracy theory, projected upon trippy, tragic coincidence — crappy comfort logic like fatty comfort food for souls spooked by meaninglessness, or desperate to avoid hard, inconvenient truths? Again, the show taps a timely nerve: anyone who has lived through the past decade, with its terror and calamity, has surely wondered: “What the hell? Why has this happened?!” There’s rarely satisfying relief for that bewilderment — which is why I suspect Lost may dare to opt for shruggy non-answers for its more overly profound mysteries, even at the risk of pissing off some of its fans. Anything too specific risks feeling trite, campy, and missing-the-pointish.

If truth is ultimately unknowable and reality ultimately ambiguous, then how are we to live our lives?  This, too, weighs on Lost’s mind, and its answer has been expressed in the oft-cited mantra “Live together, die alone.” I think the show believes in this agreeable platitude, but I think it’s more interested in exploring the difficulty of living it out.  What if the needs of the community gets in the way of personal fulfillment — and vise versa? What if one man’s pursuit of life’s meaning is the key to the community’s survival, and vise versa? It’s the age-old individual vs. society conflict, and I see it in characters like Jack, Locke and Ben, men whose headstrong pursuit of a personal agenda or unwavering commitment to a worldview could be lead to salvation for all… or ruin. Over the past two seasons, Lost has name-checked a 18th/19th century English philosopher named Jeremy Bentham, the founding father of Utilitarianism, a system of thought that assesses the morality of an action based on the happiness it brings to the most amount of people. I have often wondered if the mystery of Ben’s manipulative methods and mercurial nature will ultimately be explained along Utilitarian lines; his mandate is to facilitate a happy ending for The Island and its inhabitants, and any and all means are acceptable and forgivable. (Ditto Jacob, The Island’s recently revealed maybe-benevolent deity — and perhaps also his companion, the maybe-diabolical Man In Black.)

But the themes at the heart of Lost are enlightenment and transformation. The castaways came to The Island stuck in a rut of some sort, their hope and ambition for transformation undermined by past baggage or a belief in their own damnation. As I currently see it, the story has brought these characters to a place where they can recognize that they “always have a choice,” to use the Jacob’s words — a choice to do something different; a choice to change. But first, they must do the hard work of taking a good hard look at themselves and seeing themselves as they really. So far, most of them have done anything but that. Last season’s time travel storyline culminated with Jack becoming convinced that he could finally find happiness if only he could change… history. Not himself — history. Seriously. Even if the castaways succeeded at collapsing the timeline and rebooting their lives timeline — we’ll find out next season — I doubt Jack’s self-improvement will be among the revisions. And so the great work of his life remains. Physician, heal thyself already, will ya?

Extra credit viewing! Contact (1997), based on Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel, which tackles the faith/reason conflict between a man of faith and woman of science, and What The BLEEP Do We Know? (2004), which ponders the metaphysical/mystical make-up of the universe.

George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) extols faith, fate, and the whole hero’s journey thing; The Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003) deconstructs it all. The films of Russian director by Andrei Tarkovsky, particularly Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) are philosophical flicks about perception and reality and lost souls in trippy circumstances. And then there’s Orson Welles’ adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Just for fun.

Extra credit reading! The following books approach the science/religion debate, as well as the morality of God and problem of evil, from partisan, provocative, intelligent perspectives: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995-2000), The Bible (the Book of Job), Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot (first performed 1953), The God Delusion (2006) by atheist Richard Dawkins, Miracles (1947) and Space Trilogy (1938-1945) by Christian theologian and novelist C.S. Lewis, and Animal Man (1988-1990) by Grant Morrison and various artists.

The Plague (1947), by Albert Camus, Wise Blood (1952) by Flannery O’Connor, The Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding,The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) by Thomas Pynchon, Slaughterhouse 5 (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut, Replay (1987) by Ken Grimwood, Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) by Umberto Eco, Sandman (1989-1996) by Neil Gaiman and various artists, House of Leaves (2000 )by Mark Z. Danielewski, American Gods (2001) by Gaiman, The Dead Father (2004) by Donald Barthelme, and The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker (1973). I’ll let you discover for yourself why I chose these books.

For discussion: Are you a Scooby or a Goober? If you’re a Scooby, how do you explain Smokey or all the ghosts? Scoobers tend to be more passionate and insistent that Lost resolve its mysteries with reason and science — why? Goobers: Is your openness to supernatural explanations a reflection of your worldview, or speak merely to your pop-culture tastes?

What themes in Lost resonate with you most? A major theme not discussed in this essay is Lost’s fixation with parent-child relationships, especially troubled/betrayed father-son rapports. Why do you think Lost is so interested in that theme? Where might that theme dramatize or fit within the context of the other themes discussed here?

For more ‘Lost’ EW U:

Lost: Jeff Jensen’s diary of a super fan (Part 1)

Lost: The cult of “cult-TV” (Part 2)

Lost: 15 Must-Answer Mysteries