The Word of Christian Shephard: Endings, Heteronormativity, and Religion in Lost

Here we go–my slightly belated thoughts on the Lost finale. I haven’t yet read other people’s responses, having just come out of the end-of-the-semester grading chasm, but here’s my immediate post-episode response:

I loved parts of it–significant parts. I loved how the series opens and closes with Jack’s perception, and how we leave the story as Jack leaves consciousness. I loved that we finally get the much-delayed recognition of past relationships that I’d been waiting for all season. I loved that Claire and Kate were each other’s triggers. I adored seeing the doubling of Claire’s delivery. And when Sun and Jin remembered… that felt like satisfying retribution for what to me seemed to be their needless sacrifice earlier.

I wish there had been a way they could have spread out those moments of revelation and recognition over the course of the season (as Damages might have done), because all that delayed gratification left for a frustrating mid season experience. But the pay off was monumental, I’ll admit that much. I was more than teary-eyed for each long-awaited reunion.

BUT… and here is the but. Look, I’m a sucker for Christian mythology integrated into serial television. I mean, I didn’t fully get on board with Supernatural until they introduced the angel storyline in season 4. But, when it came to the Lost finale, I was frustrated by the way all that heavy-handed religious imagery combined with the fact that, for the most part, it seemed characters had to be tied to hetero-romantic relationships in order to gain entrance to the ascension church (be that Jack’s fantasy or everyone’s final ascension ground). I wish the closing scene could have been about a community, not a community of hetero-romantic pairs plus Locke and Boone. (Apparently it’s OK to be a renegade masculine figure, but I couldn’t help but note that all the women were paired up.)

And it wasn’t just that they sat in pairs, but also how the camera shifted lovingly from one heteronormative pairing to the next, as Christian walked by, giving his benediction to each. It looked a bit like a mass cult wedding service. I like my Christian mythology more angsty and less certain, and I like my communities a bit less heteronormative.

I very much like the framing idea that, as Christian said, this was the place that the Lost survivors built together to find each other. I can live with the idea that out of a multitude of realities and times, they have built a link, forged by the island, to each other. That aspect of the closure was extremely satisfying.

But the merger of hetero-romantic unions with the show’s origin, to the extent that Sayid ends up with Shannon (and not Nadia?)–where the island plus hetero-romance trumps all–this bothered me. Perhaps it was meant as the ultimate, meta fan-service: these are the characters you either started with or care about most. But if that were the case, Faraday would have broken free of his mother and joined the others. I can’t fully unpack the logic of who got access to the salvation scene, I only know that the final imagery felt so constrained by romanticized religiosity, or religious heteronormativity.

I think it was the salvational tone that got to me most; I felt like in its final use of religious imagery, Lost was setting up a cultish (and not in the fannish sense) request for pure belief. Compare it to Supernatural, where the seasonal closure indicates that God does care enough to resurrect an angel, but other than that God’s role in human existence is highly in question. Or, at the very most, God is an unshaven alcoholic genre novel writer.

Actually, I find the comparison between Lost and Supernatural quite profound–these two shows encapsulate two (vastly different) ways in which serial narratives of god and faith and humanity are playing out, simultaneously, on our television screen. I find myself pulled toward Lost‘s epic art of questioning, with the endless sense that answers are just around the corner. I’ve always loved that about Lost; but when push comes to shove, I prefer ambiguity to closure. And part of this may be because closure tends to fix characters within normative relational codes–and hence we have this strange, closing scene that feels too closed and regressive in terms of gender politics for such a rich and complex show.

Hmm. Having said all of this, and gotten it off my back, I actually feel quite at peace with the show as a whole. This was a show that always hooked me in fits and starts, and that I loved unevenly. But what it did well, it did fully. It committed. I hope we can get that level of sustained commitment in future TV.

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11 thoughts on “The Word of Christian Shephard: Endings, Heteronormativity, and Religion in Lost

  1. Kelli Marshall says:

    Nice post! It’s so funny to read which elements of the finale people have problems with. For you, it’s obviously that the show was too heavy-handed re: spirituality and hetero-normative pairings. For me, it was the last few shots, with Jack and the dog: http://kellimarshall.net/unmuzzledthoughts/other/animals/lost-finale

    It’s also quite funny — and someone pointed this out to me on Twitter, I think — that both before and after anyone criticizes the finale (even slightly), s/he must praise it and acknowledge its ambitiousness and ultimate contribution to television history. I did the same thing. =)

    1. lstein says:

      Thanks for commenting! And you’re so right–the diversity of people’s responses to the finale (now that I’m just sticking my toe into other’s reviews) is fascinating.

      Though we picked up on different elements that bothered us (the dog didn’t really bother to me, exactly, because I was caught up with the symmetry and the relief that Jack wasn’t alone), I think we might be responding to the same impulse of “shamelessness” that you mention in your post… I mean, it really does feel like they went for it, all in, cheesy symbolism and all. No fears about being heavy handed or too obvious, nor about being too mystifying or denying answers. And the more I think about that–and the enormous amount of pressure they were under–the more I’m starting to respect it. But it does come with the danger of including oversimplified codes that don’t match with the complexity of the series as a whole.

    2. lstein says:

      Somehow I skipped over the second part of your comment…. maybe I just clicked on the link. But that’s so true about the disavowal of critique! I actually added on the after praise as a last minute addition. I still feel I meant what I wrote but your point is very taken. I felt I had to frame my critique with a testament to my love for and appreciation with the show. And in so doing, I likely diluted my point.

  2. Charlotte Howell says:

    Lots of great points in this post!

    I’m glad to know that I wasn’t the only one comparing the Lost finale with Supernatural’s season finale; especially with a lot of people talking about the final moments in Lost in humanistic or inclusive/non-dogmatic terms. Both shows seem to frame the central theological themes in Christian terms but with a great deal of play around that worldview that makes humans the soteriological mechanism.

    I was not as satisfied with Lost’s finale as most have been, and I wonder how much of that arises from seeing the narratives of faith, God, and humanity through a–for want of a better word–terrestrial lens, focusing on the earthly struggle and choice to believe and/or act more than the afterlife. Maybe it’s my Jewish upbringing coming to the fore.

    You can even compare the two shows regarding the heteronormative coupling: your points about Lost are apt, but how different is the idea of salvation through such coupling from Dean’s return to Lisa in Supernatural?

  3. lstein says:

    Oh, yes, fascinating comment! It’s so interesting to think about how both shows posit humans as necessary for the universe’s salvation. They both run with the Jesus as human and god metaphor to give us these imperfect, struggling heroes. The stigmata on Jack’s hand really trumped even Supernatural’s resurrection of Dean. Ha. Now I’m imagining a Christian allegory Lost/Supernatural drinking game…

    Anyway, back to your point. This:

    the narratives of faith, God, and humanity through a–for want of a better word–terrestrial lens, focusing on the earthly struggle and choice to believe and/or act more than the afterlife.

    That sums up perfectly why I preferred the religiosity of Supernatural to that of Lost. In the pregame of Lost, various actors were talking about how Lost offered a narrative of faith, but in the end the answers were given to them; they had unquestioning faith because they saw something we (as viewers, not getting to see their visions in their entirety) didn’t. Compare that to the similar vision that Sam has–the one that gives him control over Lucifer in the finale. For Sam, his vision of their past life gives him a reason to fight to stay in control on the terrestrial plane. For the Lost survivors, their visions of a larger whole, questions answered, give them faith to let go. I find the prior narrative of faith in the past and struggle in the present/future so much more compelling.

    Re; Lisa, I feel like Supernatural is only playing with heteronormativity, as it always does (with the unfortunate byproduct of only playing with women, and then burning them on ceilings.) Even in those brief shots, we got the sense that Dean doesn’t quite belong. That’s so different from the all inclusive community of couples in a church that closed out Lost.

  4. Chris Becker says:

    Did you see the “alternate endings” on Jimmy Kimmel? The Newhart one ended with Cuse and Lindelof in bed; Lindelof got flirty with Cuse, then Cuse got a horrified look on his face, end of scene. That explained everything I needed to know about why there are no gay characters to relevantly speak of on Lost. Really, really pathetic.

    1. lstein says:

      I finally got around to watching them now, and yes… that “oh no gay subtext” was the closing out joke? Definitely illuminating. Next thing we know they’ll be making a Brokeback Mountain trailer spoof of Jack and Sawyer.

      It frustrates me to think of how Lost could have been subtly different if there had been a more expansive sense of sexuality, gender, and identity at the heart of it. For all its seeming diversity self-deprecation, in the end it almost seemed to revert to an epic tale of a sacrificial white male hero. Or at least, it gravitated toward that norm at key moments–when killing of Sun and Jin, and in its closing sequence.

  5. Jonathan Gray says:

    But surely you knew the show was heteronormed already, no? I’d agree with the criticism that the entire show was heteronormed, but within that frame, the finale just gave some ooey-gooey aw-shucks closure to a bunch of the pairings. So, in other words, your criticism seems more apt of the show and the six years of set-up than of the finale specifically (unless you were hoping for some last minute heavy slashing).

    1. lstein says:

      Hmmm. Well, obviously the show has hetero-romance as part of its essential makeup. And I was invested in those relationships (well, some of them) and loved seeing Sun and Jin reunited, for example, and Sawyer and Juliet. But I never had felt that those relationships defined the overall purpose of the show. They worked within the messy but vital system of a community, and many homosocial relationships were key to that community too. Locke and Ben, Sawyer and Jack, Sawyer and Hurley, Kate and Claire, Faraday and Desmond… I could go on. The interactions overall in the final episode gave ample and appropriate place for these connections–and even created new ones (thinking of Hurley and Ben here.) I especially liked Kate and Claire’s clear, repeated bond over Aaron’s birth and their shifting feelings about motherhood.

      So it really was only that final imagery in the church that set me off. Something about the combination of the church setting with the community for the most part broken down into couples rather than as a complex whole… this felt out of step with the complexity of the show’s depiction of community and interpersonal relationships as a whole.

      One of my friend’s mentioned to me how different the final sequence would have been if they met at the beach rather than at a church. No pews, more opportunity for a more flexible community unit… I quite like that idea, and I feel like the thought of an alternate closing setting demonstrates how constrained and purposeful those final images are.

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