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Friday, July 03, 2009


If you can't solve a problem, then you don't understand it well enough.



What follows is my overall theory for what's going on in LOST. If you don't want to see huge spoilers for everything, go away.

Okay. I figure that's enough blank space.

The central conflict of LOST is a chess-match, of sorts, between life (white) and death (black). The white king is the biblical Jacob, and the black king is the Angel of Death, which is of course not human but takes human form occasionally. (You can find biblical support for these claims in Genesis 32:25 and 49:33.) Jacob was "supposed" to be killed by his brother Esau, but fighting the angel of death allowed him to cheat fate. The angel has been trying to "course-correct" ever since. The island is the garden of Eden, which is the angel's home.

(I saw a reference to something in Kabbalah which says that the angel Jacob fought with is not only an angel of death, but also the angel which appeared in the form of a snake to Eve to get her to eat that apple way back when. I don't know if the writers of LOST were aware of this idea, but it's a cool thought.)

Jacob is only human, not omniscient. He sees what's going on by having "flashes" (which are actually prophecies) just like Desmond had concerning Charlie. These flashes come to anyone who's gotten too close to God. So while Jacob doesn't see the whole picture, he sees what actions he can take to turn the outcome of events to his favor.

The angel is also less than omniscient, but it has a deep connection to the spirit of every person who ever died. Even though you can't see them, those spirits are still wandering around and whispering to themselves. They are the angel's spies throughout the world, and nothing that happens around them escapes the angel's notice.

As an angel, the angel of death has strict rules about what it may or may not do in the world. If God allowed angels to do as they please, there would be chaos in the world because each angel is given so much power. I'm not entirely clear on what the rules are, but it is obvious that he usually isn't allowed to kill people directly. When he wanted Jacob to die, he wasn't able to just come to him as a baby and snap his neck; he had to manipulate Esau into doing it, by subtly messing with their entire lives.

Jacob follows no rules, because he has free will. So this is a very strange chess game: one player has most of the pieces, but the other player cheats. I'll talk a little bit more about what they can and can't do in a minute. First, the goal of the game:

Jacob's goal is to eliminate the angel of death, who he sees as an evil manipulator. Though Jacob is a genius, he's not smart enough to figure out how to do that on his own. So his plan is to keep bringing scientists and religious people to the island, to make scientific and spiritual progress toward the goal of destroying the angel. He's been doing this for 3,000 years.

The angel's goal is to stop Jacob, because it's only a matter of time until he succeeds. Jacob's figured out the angel's rules, and is abusing them to make himself untouchable. This has made him immortal. The only legal way for the angel of death to kill Jacob is to get a human being to kill him, of his own free will. (Remember, in LOST humans don't have any restrictions to what they may not do.)

You might think the angel of death doesn't have much power, but you'd be wrong. If he has access to the physical body of a dead person, he can animate that body (using the original spirit somehow) and have that body interact with people as though the person were still alive. These are more like zombies than ghosts, because they are physically there. That is, until the angel decides he's done with them. Then they disappear. This ability essentially gives the angel the abilities of all humans who have ever walked the Earth, though he probably can't animate more than a few bodies at a time.

Now, about the smoke monster. There's a lot which I can't say with any certainty. I think it's the angel in its true form, but if it's actually a separate entity which is directly controlled by the angel it wouldn't make any practical difference. It seems that usually it's only allowed to kill people who are judged to be evil, but on certain occasions it killed people just for being in the wrong place or messing up some plan. So it's not clear at all to me what rules the angel is playing by. This is definitely one of the weak points in my theory. It's conceivable that it can't kill anyone who has specifically been protected by someone else, though I don't what that protection could entail.

It is clear that both the reanimation of dead bodies and the smoke monster have serious restrictions on when and how they can be used, because otherwise we'd have seen them used much more often. So the angel usually uses one of two methods to get to a death. First, he can plan the weather, so that a bolt of lightning will hit at just the right place at just the right time to kill someone. That counts as a "natural" death, so it's legal for the angel. Second, the angel can have spirits manipulate people into doing the wrong thing. For instance, he can create car crashes by having a dead person suddenly appear in front of a car, making the driver swerve away and kill someone. Through tiny little events like a person appearing, or a bunch of spirits whispering, or a random natural event, he can subtly change the course of a person's entire life. And the angel is such an inhumanly masterful manipulator, that he can control the outcome of all this on a large scale. But it never goes exactly as planned with human pawns, because of that pesky free will thing.

So the way this has gone for thousands of years (though the plot of LOST is something altogether different, because we're already at the endgame) is that geniuses of all sorts have been brought to the island by Jacob (He has a flash of exactly what he needs to do to get them there, and he does it.), they make a tiny bit of progress, then the angel tricks them into worshipping him and killing each other. It always ends with one of them wiping out all of the others motivated by petty emotions, and thinking that the idea was his when actually his entirely life was twisted around so that it would have that outcome. But the progress isn't lost, because whatever they learned is knowledge that Jacob can use for himself.

Presumably he's learned everything there is to know about the angel and its rules by this point. He's also learned about all the things which can be done on the island, having been designed as a utopian place not quite like the rest of the world. Most importantly, the island has a built-in time machine. (Yes, this is silly. I don't expect the show to ever stop being goofy and geeky.) Jacob knows how it works, but it's never been much use to him yet because he has no regrets. What has been of great use to him is that he's figured out a mystical way of healing people. Off the island, he needs to touch someone to do it. On the island, he can do it remotely. Once a person is dead he can't bring him back to life, but even a person right on the edge can be given perfect health in a moment.

Now, that last ability is one of his most important tools. He can't speak to people directly, because if he ever did the angel would have outmaneuvered him and made whichever person he talked to into a person who wanted to kill him. So while Jacob usually heals everyone on the island from everything, sometimes he specifically doesn't heal them in the hopes that they'll understand they're doing something wrong. (He doesn't like to be too direct or manipulative in telling people what to do, he prefers if they make the choice for themselves. But he'll give a little nudge in the right direction.) So for instance, when John Locke got obsessed with his irrelevant father instead of looking for his own path in life, Jacob let him stay crippled as a reminder of his mistake. And when Jack Shephard came close to leaving the island and his appendix burst, Jacob didn't heal it instantly (though he could have). Jack was supposed to understand from the sickness that he was going the wrong way. (He didn't, and everyone suffered the consequences.) And Ben Linus, who misunderstood almost everything Jacob wanted of him, was never healed by Jacob of his cancer.

Those are the basic mechanics of the game. It's a complicated game. Now, I've pieced together a plausible version of what's happened for the past hundred years, all the way up to the five seasons of LOST, but that's based on a lot more speculation. I'll write that up later. What I can say with certainty is that Jacob is 3,000 years old, his family is all long-since dead, and he's fighting the angel of death in a game for both ideals and self-preservation.

In LOST, "electromagnetic energy" is what souls and spirits and angels are made of. So the supernatural is scientifically measurable. The DHARMA Initiative were brought to the island by Jacob, and they were the most promising scientists yet. They figured out that the island could be used for time travel, and did experiments sending rabbits a nanosecond forward in time, so that they could measure the electromagnetic energy in the moment it was gone and see what happens to souls without a living body to hold them. They did other experiments on lots of other kinds of animals: polar bears, sharks. All life has a soul, which is why animals were needed for the research. The DHARMA Initiative didn't understand that there was a specific goal to all of this, but (like all the other scientists before them) they were exactly the right sort of people to want to dig and study and learn everything they could.

On the other side of the island were the "hostiles", who understood that there was a purpose to everything on the island but not the details of what needed to be done. They were people who had survived from earlier expeditions, people not smart enough to be great thinkers and with enough faith to be loyal to Jacob. Understanding the danger of meeting other people, Jacob had appointed a righteous man named Richard Alpert to mediate between himself and his people. Who he is exactly, we don't have any way of knowing yet. He may have lived for half a century, or he may have lived for millennia. The bottom line is, Jacob tells Richard what he wants and Richard tells the leader of the people, and the leader tells his people and they do it. The people don't understand why they're doing what they're doing, and the leader doesn't quite understand why he's doing what he's doing (though he has theories), and Richard doesn't really understand any more than them. But these are men of faith, so they usually follow orders blindly.

The conflict between "men of science" and "men of faith" is something which re-emerges every time people are brought to the island. That conflict has been going since Jacob and Esau, and it's a totally counter-productive one. All the living people are supposed to be fighting on the same side: for life. Instead they always split into two camps, and either because they're being manipulated into that or because it's just human nature. This split is what allows the angel of death to eliminate all the people who come to the island, because if the locals succeed in killing the scientists the angel no longer has anything to worry about. (A bunch of gullible hunters aren't much threat.) So the angel's tactic is to always corrupt the "hostiles", or "The Others" as we know them. That's why Jacob needs to keep them close, but lets the scientists roam free: The scientists will naturally do what he wants. But the hunters need to be controlled, or they mess everything up. Jacob's long-term plan is to find someone who can unite the two camps, to minimize the danger of them killing each other. But that would take a really exceptional kind of leader.

In the 1970s, the leader of the Others was Eloise Hawking and she wasn't doing a very good job. Her philosophy was that anything which is happening, is supposed to be happening. (She never understood that there was more than one side on Jacob's level.) So if they'd been fighting scientists for a long time, then they were supposed to be fighting scientists and that was their grand purpose. (This effectively makes her a black pawn, even though she's alive and taking orders from Jacob.) When she got particularly violent and destructive, Jacob (through Alpert) ordered her to create a truce, but she misunderstood the intent behind the order. She thought that the time was just not right to wipe them out yet, and that they should always be ready for the order to come down to get rid of them. Jacob would have explained the situation to her personally, but since she was such a violent person he was afraid to meet her face-to-face. So the orders that a confused Richard Alpert was handing down were the only thing Hawking had to go by.

The next in line to take over was Eloise's lover Charles Widmore, who agreed with her on everything except for her restraint. He felt that if Jacob wanted them to kill the scientists they should just go ahead and kill the scientists already, and not worry so much about subtlety and following orders to the letter. So Jacob had a dilemma: if anyone could beat the angel, it was the DHARMA Initiative. But the tension between them and the Others had reached a very dangerous point, and showed no signs of dying down any time soon.

That's when the angel stepped in with one of his convoluted manipulations. I will attempt to summarize it, but it's really complicated. He had a woman named Emily Linus die in childbirth in America, right as the head of the DHARMA Initiative (Horace Goodspeed) happened to be passing nearby. That encounter got the husband, Roger Linus, into the DHARMA Initiative even though he had no talent. With his demeaning job as a janitor, mixed with his loneliness, he took out his anger on his son Benjamin. The angel then reanimated Emily's body and had her go to the island. He used her to push Ben into running out into the forest and away from his father, at the precise moment when Richard Alpert happened to be walking around on his own right there. And Ben asked Richard if he could join them. The key point to understand was that all this was neither fate nor coincidence, but a calculated manipulation.

The point of all these events was to have Jacob consider Ben as a suitable leader for the Others. And it worked. Ben was a good kid despite everything he'd been put through. He had grown up in the DHARMA Initiative, and he wanted to be one of the Others. That made him a very rare person: someone who could conceivably bridge the gap between the two worlds. The problem was, he'd seen a dead person. That made it clear that he had been brought to them by the angel. So Jacob decided, in the absence of any better options, to bring Ben in. But it would need to be done very slowly and gradually, both to minimize the resentment of the people he'd be leading and to have time to ensure that he hadn't been too corrupted to be useful.

Now, for the most part I'm going to ignore the time travel, because like most time travel stories it doesn't make any kind of sense. (Science-fiction writers always spend lots of time thinking about the mechanics of time travel, and produce some inconsistent nonsense which doesn't even have any internal logic.) But I need to make an exception for time-traveling Sayid shooting young Ben, because it's very curious. Richard Alpert, instead of bringing Ben to Jacob, brought him to the smoke monster's temple. That's the ancient temple built by people Jacob brought, which has all sorts of mystical stuff in it to increase the angel's power a little. Now, it's not hard to explain what happened in there. The angel reanimated a great dead surgeon, healed him up, and sent him back out. The harder question to answer is why Richard brought him there. The easiest possible answer is that Jacob was off the island meeting young James Ford, so it was the only way to get Ben healed. (Richard knew that the angel had brought Ben to them as part of a plan, so he suspected the angel would heal him.) I am informed by Lostpedia that that was a year earlier, though. So the only other explanations I can offer (and they're all a bit outrageous) are that Richard was tricked into thinking that the smoke monster was good, Richard was corrupted and is listening to some dead loved one, or that Richard is dead. (That last explanation appeals to me greatly, but there's too much in his behavior that doesn't add up then.) In any event, Richard didn't know exactly what the monster would do, but he was afraid Ben wouldn't be the same afterwards, so he gave a vague warning about Ben "losing his innocence" or some such nonsense. But he needn't have worried, because Ben was returned good as new.

But to get back to the main gist of the story:

In 1977, the DHARMA Initiative found and dug into a "pocket of electromagnetic energy". They didn't understand that this was the angel of death. The smoke monster, the dead bodies being reanimated, the random occurrences in nature, even the physical person (who by all outward appearances was totally human) who occasionally talked to Jacob, that was all being projected from that one spot. And Jacob didn't know where that spot was (only that it was somewhere on the island), but the DHARMA Initiative figured it out, and they started digging. That was the one moment in history in which the angel of death was finally vulnerable. And behold, the angel was pissed off. It not only unleashed its smoke monster (which for some reason had usually been kept in the temple until that point), and not only did it raise a bunch of dead DHARMA guys to kill their friends and cause chaos, but it also created a plague to wipe out the humans. Because the angel realized that he had come an inch away from destruction, and the subtlety wasn't going to be enough anymore. So it created a plague to wipe out all the humans on the island. Of course, the angel wasn't allowed to effect the living people, but unborn fetuses were far enough from life that they technically qualified as "dead", so the plague was able to kill both them and their mothers. That's a pretty slow way to kill a population, but it was the best the angel could do. (The near-"death" experience made the angel of death more desperate and therefore more resourceful, but the rules governing it had not changed.) More importantly, he intimidated the DHARMA Initiative into building a computer over that hole they made, where they would type in a numerical "prayer" every 108 minutes or face more of his wrath. (He said all this to them in person, taking credit for all the death he was causing.) It turned out, even the DHARMA Initiative were superstitious enough to do what they were told when their lives were at stake. So they went along with these instructions, not really understanding that the prayer was not just containing (and protecting) the energy but actively healing the hole they'd made. After that, the DHARMA Initiative scaled back its research. They started to do social research, too scared to continue messing with physics.

That's the set-up. The actual plot of LOST is the endgame, like I said earlier. The philosophy of the show is that we're all lost in our own lives, living out a grand cosmic plan that we don't know the first thing about. That's why it seems like the more we find out the less we know, and why we're probably only going to see what's really going on in the series finale (though it's possible that the characters will never figure it out).

But (please forgive me for this) I'm going to back up first, because there's plenty of stuff that happened in the Others' camp between 1977 and 2004 (when the show begins). When the Incident happened, Charles Widmore insisted that Eloise and her unborn baby should leave the island at once. Charles took over in her absence.

The plague (and the smoke monster's increased activity) were effecting everyone, not just the DHARMA Initiative. And since it was clearly DHARMA's fault for digging there, Widmore wanted more than ever to kill them all. But he didn't, for three reasons. First, he figured letting them die to what they unleashed was more poetic. Second, Richard Alpert was desperately begging him not to. Jacob made it very clear to Widmore that he was not to take advantage of DHARMA's current weakness, that he was to leave them alone. And third, Widmore had his hands full just trying to keep his own people alive in this much harsher environment. The angel was no longer content to just create tension between factions, he wanted all the living people gone and as soon as possible.

Meanwhile Ben was being brought further up in the Others' hierarchy, on Jacob's orders. And though this process was extremely gradual, Widmore was smarter than Jacob gave him credit for and he understood perfectly well what was going on. Ben was being prepared to replace him. So he pushed Ben down, made him look bad, tried to delay the inevitable for as long as possible. And then (in 1992), Widmore wiped out the entire DHARMA Initiative. He was sick of following orders. He was thrown off the island very soon afterward, and Ben took over.

By this point Ben was just who Jacob was stuck with: there were no scientists on the island at that point (An attempt a few years earlier to bring in new ones from France was unsuccessful.), so uniting separate tribes was no longer a concern. But after fifteen years of pushing him up, it was much too late to push him aside. And without that goal, he wasn't really the right person for the job at all. The Others needed to be subservient, to have faith that Jacob knew what he was doing. But Benjamin Linus, having been brought up surrounded by scientists, was the sort of person who questioned assumptions and tried to understand rather than follow. He wanted to be in control of the game. The trouble with that was, he didn't understand the rules. And his approach to leadership is precisely the reason that the angel went to such lengths to instate him.

Of his own initiative, Ben had the Others move to the DHARMA base and start acting more like scientists. But none of them were scientists, and they couldn't get much done. Ben's first priority was to cure the plague that was killing pregnant women, and he was so certain that that was the right thing to do, that when Richard Alpert told him that it really didn't matter in the grand scheme of things, Ben ignored him. If Jacob was a good person then Jacob would want Ben to do the right thing regardless of what Jacob told him. This drove Jacob crazy. When Ben got cancer, Jacob didn't cure him. He wanted Ben to understand from this that he was going the wrong way, in the hopes that Ben would choose of his own free will to make himself useful for once. (Only then would Jacob feel safe telling Ben the most important part of his plan. If he couldn't, he'd have to find someone else.) But Ben was much too stubborn to take a hint.

Wow, this is longer than I thought it would be. But I'm finally getting to the part I know you want to hear about: Oceanic Flight 815.

The plague and the smoke monster, those were just about intimidation. They weren't allowed to cause any deaths that would have significant repercussions. So if the angel of death wanted to kill Jacob before it was too late, he needed to turn to those unpredictable humans to do it. To minimize the riskiness of this decision, he hand-picked a large group of people from around the world who'd best suit his purposes, spent twenty-seven years shaping their lives through random deaths and accidents and all sorts of other manipulations so that they'd be absolutely perfect for their jobs, and then (with the help of Widmore, who even after all these years was still unwittingly helping him) got them all onto a plane (Oceanic 815) and had it crash into the island.

The "hows" of all this would take even longer to explain than this is already taking, because each little move is actually another huge, convoluted manipulation with many steps. Those steps are seen in the many flashbacks of the show. But I think one manipulation in particular is worth spelling out, because it's the manipulation that led to the plane crash.

I am speaking, of course, of the life of Desmond Hume. It was love at first sight when he met Charles Widmore's daughter Penelope, but that "random" encounter was actually set up by Eloise Hawking. I actually can explain how she did this and many other seemingly prophetic things, despite having no special power: she has a diary from the future. (She gets it toward the end of season 5, back in 1977.) Every detail she reads in that diary, she takes to be destiny. And of course it isn't; it's just the way the angel wants the story to go. In any event, Eloise convinced Charles that he needed to pretend to despise Desmond, and set up a boating competition which Desmond would join, trying to prove he was worthy of Penny. The boat went off course and crashed on the island, and his activities with the prayer-computer led to the plane crashing. None of this was destiny, but it was very convenient for the angel that Eloise and Charles thought it was. That basically makes them black pawns.

Anyway, the plane crashed. Jacob saved them all from the certain death, hoping that they'd finish what DHARMA started.

I don't understand exactly what it was about everyone that appealed to the angel, but some are really obvious.

For instance, Jack Shephard. A spinal surgeon who's renowned for working miracles, who doesn't give up when something looks impossible. He was brought to the island for one reason only: to heal Ben so he could keep going the wrong way and never realize his mistake.

Kate was there specifically because Jack would fall in love with her, so that she could be used as a bargaining chip by Ben. That she'd killed her own father, and therefore might kill the Others, was a bonus.

Walt was there because he can kill things with his mind.

Locke was there because he's exactly the sort of person who Jacob would want to replace Ben. As a kid he was a scientist-type, but he wanted to be a hunter. He's gullible and angry, and those qualities make him easy to control. For the angel's plan (as finally witnessed in the season five finale), one leader in the angel's back pocket wasn't enough. (It's a really convoluted plan, as always.)

Claire was there because she'd give birth to Aaron, who is somehow important for reasons that have yet to be explained.

Jin was there (the angel wanted Sun to leave him at the airport, but she disappointed him) because he's a killer who'd create lots of tension due to the language barrier.

Similarly, Sayid was there because he's a natural killer, Nikki and Paolo were there because they're pure evil, Sawyer's there because he can manipulate everyone else, and has enough baggage to be manipulated himself.

Hurley's there because he thinks nothing's real, which makes him easy to manipulate with a dead person (Dave). All those accidents after he won the lottery, those weren't accidents.

Rose and Bernard, I have no idea. Maybe they're not part of the plan.

But most of the people are. Most of the people were on that plane because of random deaths, or because someone was paid off to trick them into being on the plane, or because of all sorts of other things that smell like manipulations.

Jacob knows what's going on, because he had a flash of the plane crash. So while he builds up his own preferred team, he also goes to those people and nudges them in the right direction a little at key points in their lives. Just as he wasn't totally willing to give up on Ben, he won't totally write off these guys. People have free will, so any person could be the one who gets rid of the angel.

The last thing Jacob wanted was to start up the fighting again, so he gave Ben explicit instructions: "Stay away from them. Far away. Hide from them, make sure they don't even know you exist." He didn't trust Ben, so he wanted to keep him out of these newcomers' way.

Ben didn't listen, of course. He followed the letter of the law, but refused to sit by and watch as bad things happened to them. So he sent in spies, trying to being very careful that they weren't found out. When the Oceanic survivors started getting too close to the Others' territory, Ben had his people dress up in silly costumes (because he thought the point of the separation was that they shouldn't know there were civilized people) and intimidated them into going away. He covertly gave injections to the pregnant women, to make sure they weren't killed by the plague. And when he found out that Walt could kill things with his mind, he kidnapped him and tried to brainwash him to make sure he didn't try anything. Ben completely misunderstood (or ignored) what Jacob wanted from him at every step of the way.

The people who'd crashed were so focused on getting off the island that they never noticed that there was a reason they were there. Jacob's tactic of keeping the two groups separate kept both sides reasonably safe, but it also kept the newcomers far away from the Orchid, which is where they needed to eventually get to. He hoped that they'd figure it out on their own, because he didn't trust Ben to show it to them. If Ben brought them straight to the Orchid, Ben would do the work himself and he'd be bound to mess it up somehow by misinterpreting orders and making his own decisions.

Not satisfied that all the killers he'd put on Oceanic 815 were sufficient, the angel also tried to get Widmore back to the island to kill everyone for pure spite. I think the idea is that if there are enough people on the island who just want to kill each other, there's no way anything will happen in the end except for them all dying. That's basically what the angel of death has been doing since the very beginning!

But of course there's more to it than that. Both Jacob and the angel wanted them to find the Orchid, where the time-travel controls are. And both of them wanted John Locke to be the one at the wheel. Jacob wanted it because Locke doing it would ensure that it sends them straight to 1977, and the angel wanted it because he wanted John to leave and get killed so that the angel could change his appearance to look like Locke and fool Jacob. (None of this makes any kind of sense. You just have to run with the nonsense-rules, I think.) To the irritation of both of them, Ben got there first, which caused some hiccuping in the time travel. But they improvised nicely, and eventually they got Locke to turn the wheel.

What happened in the fifth season finale is the "checkmate" moment. In 2008, the angel took the form of Locke and fooled Richard Alpert into letting himself and Ben in to see Jacob, at which point Ben (so angry at Jacob for not supporting him more) killed Jacob. And in 1977, Jack Shephard and friends dropped a hydrogen bomb onto the angel at the one moment in history where he was vulnerable (right after his energy was uncovered). So they killed the angel of death. Whether this nullifies Jacob's death thirty years later is impossible to say, given the arbitrariness of this show's time travel. But what can be said with certainty is that from 1977 on, the angel of death does not exist.

So season six is going to show us a totally different timeline, where all the characters we know have had totally different lives. Because there are no random deaths, and no manipulations. Their lives aren't being twisted around as part of a chess game, so they're different people. Happier people. I'm sure that for some reason they'll still go to the island, because otherwise there's no show.

So this can go three ways. One is that I could be absolutely right about everything. Not likely. Two, I could be right about certain key things but very wrong about others. And finally, I could be completely wrong about everything. It would really suck if the actual explanation makes less sense than mine, but if it makes more sense than mine I'll be really happy. Obviously I'll be happiest if I'm right about everything, but honestly I'm okay with any ending just so long as it's fun to watch.

We'll all find out next year.

Okay, we found out. I was completely wrong about everything, and the official explanation makes much less sense than mine. Oh well. I was entertained throughout, though, so I'll forgive them.


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