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First Impressions: Rationalizing Death

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In much of Western culture, death is something to be feared and avoided as long as possible. We often try to rationalize the reason or meaning behind what seems to be a senseless death, and we want to give meaning to life, not from the life itself, but by understanding a person’s death. Like life on the island, death on Lost shows us the sometimes inexplicable timing behind the inevitable end of a character’s (or person’s) life cycle.

Eko’s apparent death in “The Cost of Living” differed from other characters’ deaths. It’s much more difficult to rationalize from a story point of view, and it doesn’t seem to symbolize anything overt. For example, previous deaths can be categorized and rationalized from a story perspective like this:

Boone = Sacrificial death

Boone was sacrificial in death, most recently reiterated in “Further Instructions” when even spirit guide Boone admitted he was the sacrifice the island demanded. This death wasn’t considered a tragic accident, simply that Boone fell and died of his injuries. The castaways had to blame someone or something for the too-early death of a man.

Jack used Boone’s death to vilify Locke, as did Shannon, who wallowed in her own grief/guilt after Boone was gone. Locke might believe he’s not such a great mentor; he himself told Charlie, in “Every Man for Himself,” that bad things happen to people who hang around him. That’s not so much because Locke is a bad person or goes out of his way to harm others, but the man does like to seek danger.

In terms of story, Boone’s death was a shock, simply because it was the first. The drawn-out process of trying to figure out who would die, once that little tidbit was leaked to fans, made Boone’s death even worse. We’d been waiting for that shoe (or plane) to fall for several weeks before it happened. Boone’s death marked an important step in Lost’s storytelling: any character could be killed.

With Boone’s “return” as a character in flashbacks or dreams/visions, Lost gives us what we often may want in our real world—the opportunity to see beloved dead friends again. On the one hand, Lost kills characters we (usually) don’t want to see go, but on the other, its type of storytelling makes it possible for these characters to return. This capability makes it easier for us to deal with the death of characters, but it also lessens the shock value of future deaths. There’s always the possibility that someone else can return from the dead.

Ethan = Vengeance killing

“Bad guys” often are killed by “good guys” with guns, sometimes seeking revenge. In a scene worthy of any Western, Charlie pumped Ethan full of lead because he took Claire hostage and strung up Charlie. But even Ethan’s death gained poignancy when we saw in “Maternity Leave” that Ethan might not have been all that bad, or at least not as demonic as Charlie believed. From a story point of view, that’s an important step, too—humanizing “enemies” and making the casualty count more personal. Ethan left behind friends, too, who mourned his loss and can be just as vengeful (need I say 'Ben'?).

Shannon = Redemption and Death

Shannon’s death was shocking because it was unexpected (although savvy net fans figured out her demise before it aired). Shannon was redeemed—she finally learned to accept herself when she could truly accept Sayid’s love—immediately before her death. This ironic twist gave her death more tragic depth. Within the story, Shannon’s death gave birth to the “new” Sayid who tortures and kills Others apparently without remorse.

Ana-Lucia’s death also had redemptive qualities—it occurred right after she decided she could no longer be the vengeance-seeking person she once was. (Her death also fits a variation on the axiom, “Those who live by the gun die by the gun.”) Her death revealed the depths that a parent might reach in order to help his child. Ironically, the “redemption” of the women who died highlights the downward moral slide of the men with them when they died.

Libby = Horrific death

Libby’s death was horrific—she died terrified. Hers, to me, is the worst death so far; betrayed by a friend and killed senselessly, Libby knew only pain and fear during her final moments. This death seems more symbolic of drive-by killings and random acts of violence becoming commonplace in our society. Even a Lost island isn’t immune to such violence.

I thought that Libby’s death would be a catalyst for Hurley’s personality change, which seemed to take place in the immediate aftermath of her funeral. A forceful, but still justice-loving Hurley refused to carry a gun, which would give him the means to act in anger, rather than in self-defense; he really went along on the journey to find Walt because he thought they could find Walt. Hurley angrily realized the ramifications of Michael’s confession, but he didn’t physically lash out at Michael. Now, back in camp, Hurley returned to his pre-Libby life. I’m still hopeful that Hurley is one who works for peace rather than retribution, and one who honors Libby’s memory with love instead of murder. The current storyline, however, makes it look like Hurley already has forgotten Libby or dealt quickly with his grief.

“Casualties” of a violent society

Many deaths on Lost are the result of living in a society that values guns and often uses them, whether for self-defense and protection or vengeance. Characters like Charlie, Ana-Lucia, Michael, Kate, and Sawyer often shoot first and think about the consequences after. Perhaps the “Cost of Living” goes far beyond this episode; it’s a running tally of just how high priced this type of society or mindset toward problem-solving has become.

Scott/Steve became a casualty in retaliation for Ethan’s death, and the escalation of hostilities between the Others and the castaways began. Goodwin’s death might’ve been accidental in the way it happened, but Ana-Lucia seemed intent on doing him in. If that sharp stick hadn’t been handy, some other weapon likely would’ve shown up soon. Sawyer shot one of the people tracking Walt’s rescue party; Kate wanted to hunt down and kill the Other one who ran off. Colleen, the latest gunshot victim, warned Sun that her death would make the Others become enemies, although that’s not their intent. Whether overtly threatening or simply doing their jobs, the Others die at the hands of the castaways more often than the reverse; so far, Steve/Scott’s broken body is the only death we can really trace to the Others; we’re not even sure who “owns” the Smoke Monster.

As the death toll climbs, we often don’t feel as much grief over the deaths of “lesser” characters. We didn’t know much about Cole/Colleen, except that she and Pickett seemed to be a loving couple. We couldn’t really keep Scott/Steve straight as far as who’s who (and apparently neither could the writers, who killed the “name” of one but got rid of the actor playing the other). The pilot of Oceanic 815 only had a few moments on screen before a monster pulled him out of the plane. In many ways, we’re becoming accustomed to the number of deaths in the series, especially those of characters about whom we knew little, and, if Charlie’s song “Monster Ate the Pilot” is any indication, the castaways also are less shocked by sudden, violent death.

Eko’s Death

Eko’s death was not sacrificial, redemptive, ironic, horrific, or shocking. (It did provide the opportunity for interesting special effects and an answer to how the pilot left the plane.) ABC seemed to accept that Lost fans are becoming used to death. They even advertised the event in their promo: One of these characters will die. Not a maybe, not a tease, just a fact. It’s not so shocking anymore.

Few people on Lost die of natural causes or live long lives. We’re becoming desensitized, not only as viewers but as a TV-watching society, to seeing sudden, violent deaths. Those deaths are becoming “natural” to us. Lost succeeded in “The Cost of Living” in showing how far island society, as well as ours, has come from its idealistic, hopeful beginnings to acceptance of fear, death, and destruction as everyday occurrences.

I keep trying to make sense out of Eko’s death at this point in his life and this point in the story. Priest Eko might say that it reminds us that everyone has to pay the price of past actions. That’s the true “Cost of Living.” Whether Judgment Day becomes monstrous is largely up to the individual. With that interpretation, Eko’s last words “We’re next” (probably the actual words were “You’re next”) are less of a dire warning about the monster coming to slam dunk his friends and more of a general reminder that everyone has to face the “monster” of the past and take responsibility for his/her life. Given Eko’s recent acts as a priest, those might be good words to heed and, in my search to give meaning to Eko’s death, serve as a decent epitaph.

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