Weekend Doc Jensen: The Redemption Gospel According To Jacob
Image Credit: Mario Perez/ABC For an episode that many fans allegedly disliked, “Across The Sea” has inspired some of the most spirited and thought-provoking commentary I’ve ever seen from Lost fandom. I’m not the first to make this observation. Myles McNutt has posted a directory of “Across The Sea” blogging on his (highly recommended) Cultural Learnings website, and I encourage you to click over there and check it out after I’m done talking your ear off about all things Jacob. (To the mix of voices, I would also add our own Ken Tucker, who deemed “Across The Sea” a “stinker.”) One of the more contentious reviews I read came from Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune. She was troubled by the depiction of Mother and how Lost in her view has become “the epic, heroic or anti-heroic journeys of a bunch of white men.” As a white, anti-heroic man myself, I can’t quite relate to her critique — which I confess might be something of a problem on my part. Regardless, Maureen is a smart critic and has been a fan of Lost and her review is a credible, challenging (in a good way) read.
My favorite essay about “Across The Sea” was written by McNutt himself. His piece discusses the pros and cons of the episode’s use of metaphor, and I hope you’ll believe me when I say it’s not as dry as my too-succinct summary makes it sound. It’s a valuable read for Lost fans because it helps give you eyes to see the important ideas in the story while fairly questioning whether the episode worked as drama.
In my recap of “Across The Sea,” I theorized that the Mother/Jacob/MIB drama created a mythic template (or followed and reinforced an existing template) for subsequent Island stories. In the same way many Christians believe the actions of Adam and Eve created a condition called original sin that affects all of mankind, Jacob’s early life trauma cursed the Island and affects those who come to it in various ways. The recurring motifs of mad mothers (Rousseau, Claire), Island birthright rivalry (Widmore vs. Ben, Ben vs. Locke), the conflicts between determinism vs. free will and faith vs. reason (Locke vs. Jack) and more — they can infect and take possession of Island visitors, especially ones already vulnerable to these themes. The Sickness that claimed Rousseau? Maybe it wasn’t a disease — maybe it was a story. The Island, then, is akin to The Overlook Hotel of The Shining, whose caretakers and guests risk becoming actors in a demonic play that haunts the environs.
[The following paragraph includes references to the upcoming episode of Lost. Though I don’t describe any plot points, I should give you a SPOILER WARNING, anyway.]
Some people might not like this theory because it would seem to deny the castaways self-determinism. Of course, that’s part of the curse, too, isn’t it? Mother warped her children into aspects of herself. And she all but forced Jacob into role of Island guardian, telling him, “You don’t really have a choice.” For now, I would ask you to set this reservation aside … and wait for Tuesday’s episode; having seen “What They Died For,” I can report that it includes revelations that shade the whole issue of free will in Lost.
[End Spoiler Warning.]
In a recent interview with critic Alan Sepinwall, Lost exec producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof acknowledged that the history of Jacob’s tenure as Island protector has been marked by repeating cycles of the same story. Noting that there is a link between The Purge (in which Ben and The Others wiped out The Dharma Initiative) and Mother’s slaughter of The Man In Black’s well-digging castaway people (the ancient Roman predecessors to Rousseau and her men-of-science friends), Lindelof explained: “There is a repeating vicious cycle that seems to happen on this island, where people come to the Island, they try to figure out what makes the Island work, and the closer they [come] leads them to their own inevitable demise…. The more curious you become about why the Island has its properties, inevitably the protector of the Island feels the need to engage in some form of mass genocide. It was more our attempt to say that history repeats itself, and this is an ongoing and continuing motif.”
If history is stuck in a rut of corruption and catastrophe, can it be unstuck? Can the vicious cycle be broken? Can the hopeless myth of damnation be replaced with a new, better myth? I would like to suggest that these questions represent the Great Work that Jacob has been pursuing over the past couple thousand years. And after much trial and error, and after a few failed approaches, Jacob has found a way to do it — though it will be up to the castaways themselves, and perhaps one castaway in particular, to actually finish his Island redemption project.
Before we get to the present, let’s review the past — specifically the trajectory of change in Jacob’s life. Jacob’s traumatic early years may be emblazoned on the Island’s soul, but his life story didn’t end with his reluctant choice to become Island guardian. Nor did it end with his choice to punish his brother for murdering their mother by tossing him down the Holy Wormhole and turning him into a smoke monster. Over time, Jacob evolved from hapless Momma’s Boy into his own man with a distinctly different worldview from Mother and his own approach to Island management. He rejected his mother’s cynical view of mankind as hopelessly corrupt. Instead, Jacob chose to see mankind as being capable of redemption. He also rejected Mother’s isolationism. Instead, Jacob began bringing people to the Island, presumably via some kind of psychic summoning. And at some point, he even began to journey out into the world and personally recruit people to the Island via his Global Touching Tours. I have to think this was a pretty ballsy thing to do for an eternal man-child who was raised to believe that nothing existed beyond the Island. What do you think he thought of the world of men? I’d like to think he thought: Mother, you were wrong about the world. This is not a place to run away from. This is a place that must be engaged and enjoyed. Yes, it is also a place of suffering and evil — which is why it is also a place that must be redeemed. Besides, the Apollo Candy Bars rock my socks off! (Or they would if I wore socks.)
In “Ab Aeterno,” we learned that Jacob began bringing people to the Island to prove mankind’s goodness to his brother, who had adopted Mother’s cynical worldview. It was through this project, I think, that Jacob hoped to break the mythic cycle of damnation set forth who knows how long ago. I propose that the life story of the Island’s guardian becomes imprinted on the Island. Ergo, I think Jacob has spent most of his life trying to cultivate his replacement as Island protector, someone whose life story that was better than his own and could make for an inspiring and corrective new myth for the Island. I think Jacob has tried a few different approaches to creating a new model Island guardian. The first was pretty naïve. Jacob seemed to think that the broken people and damaged souls who came to the Island would embrace the opportunity of a fresh start and naturally blossom into the super-Buddha he was looking for. And why not? As Jacob told Richard, the Island is a place where “the past doesn’t matter.” But what he realized is that people have a really hard time letting go of the past. I might also argue that people shouldn’t let go of the past; at the very least, we can’t let it rule us, but we do need it to learn from it.
Richard Alpert also exposed another flaw in Jacob’s thinking. People need rules. People need to be told what’s right, what’s wrong, what to do, what not to do. Jacob didn’t like that idea. He didn’t want to tell people what to do because he felt doing so would undermine their free will and cheapen their accomplishment. Still, Jacob saw Richard’s point and came up with a compromise solution: He would use an intermediary that would help people glean his will and coach them on right and wrong. Jacob offered Richard the job. Richard accepted.
But Jacob and Richard quickly realized that this approach was also flawed. People need rules … but they don’t really like following them. There are many reasons why. For starters, we all like to think we’re “special.” Rules are all fine and dandy… that is, until they start limiting our self-interest. Then, suddenly, the rules become grossly unfair. There’s also the cold hard fact that to some degree, Mother and MIB are correct: People are at least kinda corrupt. Ambition and greed are real. We want what we want, and we always want more.
Case in point: The Dharma Initiative. Dharma came to the Island with a seemingly spiritual orientation. They rejected the values of the world and wanted a place where they could live out their idealism of peace, love and harmony. Jacob must have been impressed that they identified themselves with the word Dharma, which embodies the ideas of law, rule following and reverence. But I wonder if he was also impressed by the whole “Namaste” business. “Namaste” generally translates into “I bow to you,” but more specifically, it refers to the idea that an aspect of the divine lives in all of us. Indeed, one translation of Namaste is “The light in me sees the light in you.” Another: “The divine in me acknowledges the divine in you and acknowledges that we are the same.” Now, what did Mother tell her sons about the spiritual light underneath the Island? “A little bit of this light is inside every man.” What did she tell Jacob when she consecrated him as Island protector? “Now you and I are the same.” I think Jacob looked at these Dharma folks and thought: These could be my chosen people! Mother would certainly approve! I don’t think he was ever blind to Dharma’s scientific interests and pursuits. To be clear, I don’t think Jacob is or has ever been anti-science. Yes, he is a “man of faith.” But just as Jacob only ever wanted a healthy, respectful relationship with his “Man of Science” brother, I think he has aspired to a healthy, respectful relationship between faith and reason. Jacob may have hoped that The Dharma Initiative could embody the integration and reconciliation of these two modalities. He had Richard Alpert negotiate a treaty with Dharma and gave them rules to follow. He hoped that the Dharma tribe would live according to their ideals and mature into a spiritually vibrant people—and that from their ranks, one special soul would emerge and prove worthy of becoming the Island messiah he was seeking.
And how did all that turn out? Not so well. As I’ve stated earlier, I do think The Dharma Initiative coughed up a viable candidate, someone who still may prove to be the Island’s next protector: Benjamin Linus. But Ben would require many more years of refinement, and in fact, the project is still an ongoing concern. And Dharma itself was a bust, failing to become “The Chosen People” Jacob hoped they would become. Elements within The Dharma Initiative harbored ulterior motives that involved exploiting the Island in ways that violated the natural order of things, from circumventing the process of life, death and rebirth to subverting free will for the sake of facilitating global peace. (For further intel on Dharma’s true intentions, especially in that latter area, check out Lostpedia’s summary of The Valenzetti Equation.) And so, when Dharma broke the rules of the treaty (Radzinsky’s Black Swan drilling team was probably the ultimate no-no), The Others went to war with Dharma, a conflict that ended with The Purge. Perhaps the Others were acting on orders from Jacob. Perhaps they assumed it was what Jacob would want and acted according to their interpretation of his will. Or perhaps this is an example of the Mother/Jacob/MIB myth exerting itself. Regardless: Bye-bye Dharma.
I think that in the wake of the Dharma catastrophe, Jacob realized he needed a new approach to cultivating The Candidate of his dreams, whether that meant bringing new potential candidates to The Island or using these people to further refine Benjamin Linus. I also think he realized that he would need to become a little more involved in order to finish the work. Enter: The New Testament strategy of Island salvation. It is built around the theme of sacrifice. In the end, human goodness is proven by a willingness to lay aside self-interest and lay down your life so others may live or flourish. Perhaps Jacob hoped his latest batch of would-be mythic heroes, the Oceanic 815 castaways, would figure this out on their own. Jack at least got the ideology correct when he preached the gospel of “Live together, die alone,” even if at the time he was speaking more of castaways’ physical survival than spiritual flourishing. But ultimately, Jacob had to show them what true sacrifice looked like. We’ve been wondering since last season why Jacob all but walked into Ben’s knife. After all, we saw in “Ab Aeterno” that Jacob can easily fend off a knife-wielding assassin. So I think Jacob wanted to die. Not like Mother wanted to die — not in a “put me out of my misery” kind of way. I think he wanted to accomplish something, in the way that Christ accomplished something by submitting to death on the cross. (Yes, I know what Miles said; I know he told Ben that until his last moment, Jacob had hoped that Ben wouldn’t kill him. But I argue that Jacob was hoping Ben would do the right thing for Ben’s sake, not his own.)
But what did Jacob accomplish with his death? After all, it was only witnessed by the two men who participated in his murder: Fake Locke the conspirator and Ben the weapon. But perhaps Jacob’s impact can be measured by the changes we’ve seen in people’s lives. Specifically, the lives of the people he touched. Ben (whom Jacob touched prior to dying; go back and look, it happened) has experienced a profound movement in his heart — a humbling that he has embraced; he seems to moving toward redemption. Sayid succumbed to darkness — but rallied and moved toward the light, sacrificing his life so his friends may live. Jin also died heroically; his love for his wife was stronger than his attachment to life and he went willingly into eternity. I think all the candidates are symbiotically linked via the soul. How? Jacob. When Jacob touched the castaways, he spiritually connected all of them to each other — and to him — creating a circuit of souls. They are now literally vested in each other’s redemption struggles. They share in the strength that’s gained from their victories and they share in the pain that’s suffered from their losses. Jacob’s sacrifice has set off a chain reaction of sacrifice/redemption moments throughout this network of touched souls. I suspect there will be more sacrifice/redemption moments to come, and I wonder if the sum total of that energy will ultimately roll into the last candidate standing, and if that will make all the difference in the final battle with Fake Locke. More, I wonder if their success in overcoming their flaws — together — and finding redemption and new life — together — will create a new mythic story for the Island, finally breaking the cycle of cynicism and damnation that has haunted the Island for thousands of years.
I end with this — another quote from Lindelof, from a just-published interview with The New York Times. I found it as I was finishing this essay. “If there’s one word that we keep coming back to, it’s redemption. It is that idea of everybody has something to be redeemed for and the idea that that redemption doesn’t necessarily come from anywhere else other than internally. But in order to redeem yourself, you can only do it through a community. So the redemption theme started to kind of connect into “live together, die alone,” which is that these people were all lone wolves who were complete strangers on an aircraft, even the ones who were flying together like Sun and Jin. Then let’s bring them together and through their experiences together allow themselves to be redeemed. When the show is firing on all pistons, that’s the kind of storytelling that we’re doing. I think we’ve always said that the characters of Lost are deeply flawed, but when you look at their flashback stories, they’re all victims. … This idea of saying this bad thing happened to me and I’m a victim and it created some bad behavior and now I’m going to take responsibility for that and allow myself to be redeemed by community with other people, that seems to be the theme that we keep coming back to.”
One week from tonight: It all ends.
The countdown begins.
More on Tuesday.