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Destiny, or free will? Who's a pawn, and who's not? What is “a good person”?

Posted by filigod on 2010.05.07 at 15:35

So, way back when we had just seen "Lighthouse," I tried to square what I'd seen with the questions in my head, then got busy and never posted it. I noticed it today and was surprised at the degree to which some of this still up in the air, although Darlton have kindly informed us since then that MIB is definitely evil.

Since it's still four (4!) days until "Across the Sea," and I'm squirming with impatience, I thought I'd post those thoughts for the heck of it, to kill time. I'm sure that it will date rapidly once the new episode airs, but no matter. I haven't bothered to change what I wrote because I think it's interesting to look back on how we saw the show at different stages.

So, on with the flashback:

If you watched the enhanced 6x04 re-run before the new 6x05, you know that although MIB may not be trustworthy, much of what he said was backed up by the captions. The cave names really are Jacob’s names. Being “candidates to replace Jacob” really is why they are on the Island.

For six seasons we've been shown characters and situations, prompted to react to them, then challenged to re-think our point of view. Is Jin a mean husband? Can a torturer be a hero? Are the Others evil or would we act the same if we knew what they know? Is Widmore a destroyer or a wronged savior? Is Jacob the good guy and MIB the bad guy, the reverse, or neither? The camera keeps pulling back for deeper perspective.

Mythic rivals

At first sight of Jacob and MIB, it was tempting to view them as paired mythical characters of one stripe or another – Set and Horus, Jacob and Esau, whatever. Since the Island abounded with ancient middle-eastern culture, some asked “what are two modern-seeming, European-looking guys doing in those roles?” But if Jacob isn’t a higher supernatural being, but just somebody doing a job for X number of years, it wouldn’t matter who he was to start with – only who he ended up as. And if Jacob is a role that can be recast, might not MIB be the same?

After the premiere I entertained the idea that the Island was just a secure prison for scary entity MIB (the way Terence Stamp’s Superman character was imprisoned in a dimension-thingie), and Jacob was the guardian. But “The Substitute” gave me pause. We don’t know that it was the truth when MIB told Sawyer that he used to be just a guy like him, but it’s an odd lie for a powerful monster (though it does push Sawyer’s buttons). We don’t know yet what MIB’s agenda is, but his story could be exactly as he’s been telling it.

MIB acknowledges that Jacob is ‘the protector.’ Since these two seem to be peers, was there a complementary role that MIB filled, and if so, what was it? Was it originally as vital as Jacob’s? Does MIB hate Jacob because he was overpowered by him? Or is it it that he wanted Jacob’s job, but found himself in the ‘other’ role instead? Maybe MIB stopped playing his legitimate role – went rogue, as it were – and had to be contained, leading to the stasis broken by Jacob’s death.

In 6x04 MIB said bitterly that the castaways were pawns of Jacob, denied their free will even as Jacob reminds them that they have it. He also seems to see himself as a pawn or at least a victim, trapped for so long he can’t remember what it’s like to be free.

Is MIB so resentful because he's found himself playing the antagonist, when it wasn't what he wanted? Jacob keeps reminding people that they 'have a choice.' Did Jacob and MIB originally both have choices, and MIB made choices that trapped him in this role, and now he's raging against it just as Locke raged against what he considered his cruel fate? Is that why John’s old catchphrase comes so easily to MIB’s lips now?

Famous paired foes I’m reminded of:

Osiris vs Set or Horus vs Set: Set is jealous of his favored younger brother Osiris and kills him, thereby setting up his own fall at the hands of Osiris’ son Horus. Horus defeats Set by turning Set’s own scheme against him – as many speculate Jacob has done to MIB.

Jacob vs Esau: another older brother ‘usurped’ by a younger one. They struggle for their father’s favor; Jacob tricks Esau into giving up his inheritance. A favorite fan analogy because this struggle mirrors that of Ben Linus and Charles Widmore. Also, biblical Jacob’s favorite son was his youngest, Benjamin.

Cain and Abel: again with the biblical brother theme. One is ‘faithful,’ the other rebellious; Cain kills the favored Abel out of jealousy but finds that he is now cursed. He roams the wilderness, feared by all, but unkillable.

Obi-Wan vs Anakin: “you can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

Michael vs Lucifer: angels in heaven, of whom Lucifer “shone the most brightly” until he tried to overthrow and replace God. Thereafter he was exiled and spent eternity ‘recruiting’ mortals to the ranks of the damned. Michael was his counterpart who led the ‘faithful’ angels.

Manwë vs Melkor: In Tolkien’s Silmarillion, Melkor was the greatest of the Ainur, an exalted race of beings who were given the task of preparing the newly created World for the ‘Children’ (elves and men) who would inhabit it. But Melkor coveted the World for himself and began sabotaging the efforts of the other Ainur. When the Children appeared, he waged an unrelenting war to recruit them to his own service, turn them against each other or destroy them outright. Eventually the Ainur, led by Manwë, captured him and thrust him out of the World through the Door of Night. It was prophesied that someday he would find a way back into the World to continue wreaking havoc.

The Ainur were able to change their shape (or have none at all). Melkor took on a ‘monster’ form designed to inspire terror and submission and wound up getting trapped in that body forever. What he thought would empower him backfired and diminished him, as he was never able to deceive the Children after that.

Jesus vs Judas: an interesting paradigm for our Island pair, focusing on the role they have to play and the choices they make. Jesus may be God, but his presence is useless unless he carries out his mission to let himself be destroyed. Judas abandons his role as faithful ally, betraying Jesus, who openly acknowledges what Judas will do. Afterwards, Judas could still repent, but chooses suicide instead. Bottom line: Jesus honors the ‘rules’ and rises to the challenge; Judas cheats, then quits the game completely.

Primitive good-vs-evil stories have a true hero and a true villain – they’re simply being themselves when they do good or evil things. In a more complex narrative like the above stories – and LOST – nobody is born a hero or a villain. They make a series of choices, good and bad, that eventually shape their destiny. NONE of the above “villains” start out as a villain. They all start out as gifted, promising individuals who eventually self-destruct.

Also, in most of the above stories, the ‘foes’ aren’t true enemies: one wants to coexist productively, while the other feels aggrieved and attacks out of spite. Jacob has mostly seemed like the ‘good guy’ up to now because he seems at peace with his rival’s existence, while MIB can hardly stand the fact that Jacob goes on breathing. Of course, backstory could change all that instantly.

“What about me?” -- “What about you?”

These may have been the last words between Jacob and Ben, but it could be an echo of a similar exchange, long ago, between Jacob and MIB. If there are any good and bad guys, ultimately the issue may boil down to Jacob being ‘good’ because he was ‘successful’ – that is, rose above shortsighted desires – and MIB being ‘bad’ because he limited himself by his own rage the same way that Locke did. We may not be prisoners of fate, but ultimately we are prisoners of ourselves. Sartre said that “hell is other people;” in LOST, hell is the self – the prison of one’s own choices.

Destiny, or free will?

So, how does this trickle down to the mere mortals in the story?

Ever since Season 2 we’ve been driven nuts by the Others’ defining people as ‘good people’ or not good people. It seems so arbitrary. Maybe their meaning of ‘a good person’ is ‘a successful person’ in terms of genuinely embracing free will. You can’t do that without accepting responsibility for the results of your actions and changing your choices even if it feels as though you are fighting ‘fate.’ From that perspective, Locke was crossed off the list because he failed. We don’t know about Kate yet; perhaps Miles is crossed off because he never even took up the challenge, instead settling into the psychologically damaged role presented by his sad circumstances. (Conceivably, “Straume” could be Lara, crossed off because she left the Island/died.)

In Sideflash World, Locke is still paralyzed, Rose is still dying. But both consciously make choices that bring them happiness even in the midst of misfortune. They have stopped being prisoners of their bodies – and of their feelings. Even Jack breaks free of his father’s legacy, avoids alcoholism and bridges the gulf between him and his son.

I think it’s an easy guess that the answer to “Destiny or Free Will” will be “free will” in the end. Apart from the fact that that’s what the LOST-watching demographic will be demanding (because “no choice” is “unfair”), the show teased it all last season with the Incident/Bomb conundrum and is telegraphing it now with the sideflashes. And that, for LOST, is what will constitute a happy ending – not any sort of guarantee of happiness at all, but the simple truth that in the end their fate is up to them, not an unseen puppetmaster.

Movies/Books that Season 6 is reminding me of:
(spoiler-y for the movies/books. ROFL at the idea of spoiler warnings for Star Wars and A Christmas Carol, but hey, I always try to be polite…)

A Christmas Carol: did MIB become trapped the same way Marley did?

the Star Wars saga: two talented men start down the same path but end up enemies after one is destroyed by his own tragic behavior.

Groundhog Day: through a bizarre time-warp, a man gets a unique chance to escape being an asshole, and escapes only when he succeeds.

Match Point: man makes horrific choices, escapes consequences through preternatural good luck, gets everything he wants and lives wretchedly ever after, imprisoned in his ‘perfect’ life.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: unhappy people get the chance to ‘erase’ the past, only to repeat their mistakes now that they can’t learn from the past.

Mulholland Dr: a story of enthralling paranoia seems too overwrought to be real; after the narrative abruptly changes, we slowly realize we’re seeing not a different story, but the same story inside out.

The Silmarillion: a godlike evil being lures a series of mortals into serving his purpose even as they imagine they’re fighting him, notably resulting in the tragic, ignominious death of one proud warrior who styled himself ‘Master of Fate’ but who walked straight into the doom designed for him by the schemer.

The Last Temptation of Christ: Jesus is shown a vision with two alternate lifelines, one seemingly full and happy, the other in which he dies horribly. He chooses death and finds triumph in it. Judas rages at Jesus over the meaning of struggle, the meaning of victory, and just generally “what about me?” He also chooses death – but his choice equals despair.

Post-6x14 Epilogue:

Okay, we all know now that MIB is definitely evil and the Island is indeed his prison, whatever else it is. And as for his story, well, we know that he has a genius for telling the truth in a way that turns it into a lie and a cheat, just as his unwitting servant Ben has. I can't wait to find out more about him and Jacob next week.

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