It’s not an epilogue.
Praise be to Jacob, it’s not an epilogue. To be honest, I never truly believed the Sideways world represented our Losties’ happy endings, but so many people were arguing for this reading that my brain’s firewall had a hard time blocking the idea. Then along came “Happily Ever After,” which drove the epilogue theory off a pier and let it drown in the Pacific.
But if Lost’s Sideways Universe does not represent an epilogue, what is it? Although I don’t know the answer to that question just yet, I have some ideas.
Now that it’s evident we’re watching a true parallel universe story, I think we’d better take a hard look at some other similar plots and see how they work. TVTropes already has a good classification system for alternate universe stories. They distinguish between one story and another based on the difference in setting. Here are their major types, along with what makes each one special:
-The Multiverse: In this story, there are an infinite number of universes that the characters can travel between. For instance: Sliders. (Professor Arturo, how I miss thee!)
-For Want of a Nail: The parallel or alt-universe is created when one big thing in the timeline is changed. Examples: Hitler wins World War II; George Bailey is never born; the Klingons break the peace with the Federation; the Swan is never completed.
–Bizarro/Mirror Universe: In this story, characters from the normal universe are found in an alt-universe, where everything is flip-flopped. Good is evil; black is white; George Costanza is a polite, patient, likable fellow; Flashforward is a decent show. (BOOM!)
–Magical Land: Parallel dimensions accessed by portal/mirror/wardrobe/etc. Examples: Wonderland, Narnia, Hell…
–Pocket Dimension: In this story, at least one alt-universe is found inside another universe. TVTropes gives the excellent example of Harry Potter’s Room of Requirement. Any example of a “Faerie Land” found within our own world would also apply.
–Platonic Cave: In this story, the parallel universe isn’t actually a real universe at all; it’s some sort of illusion, Michael. Sometimes the fake world is our own world (as in The Matrix), and sometimes the fake world is a wonderful dream world that isn’t quite right (as in the trippy masquerade ball scene from Labyrinth).
TVTropes’s classification of parallel universe plots based on setting and point of divergence works well, but it doesn’t help us make predictions about this season of Lost. Unfortunately, we just don’t know how the Sideways universe differs from our “regular” Island universe, and season six’s first ten episodes have given us few clues about what the point of divergence between these two worlds is. At first we thought the Sideways Universe came to be after the Losties blew up the Swan (thus making Lost season 6 a “For Want of a Nail” plot), but that doesn’t seem to fit, based on what we now know about the Alt-Universe. For instance, if the Losties nuked the Island in 1977, why are Ben, Ben’s dad, Widmore, and Eloise alive? Shouldn’t they have been, you know, exploded? And why is the Island underwater in the Sideways universe? We don’t yet know. Could it be that the Sideways Universe is not a “For Want of a Nail” universe, as we thought, but secretly a “Bizarro Universe,” a “Pocket Dimension,” or some kind of “Platonic Cave”?
Because I can’t yet answer that question for you, I feel we need another classification system that is not based on a story’s setting or point of divergence. Back when I was writing about season four, I classified time-travel plots based not on the method of time-travel or the variability of their respective timelines but based on the themes they carried. It seems to me that different parallel universe plots have different themes, as well. My guess is that figuring out Lost’s themes will likely allow us to work backwards and figure out season six’s plot. Make sense?
Sure, it does.
DISCLAIMER: I’m not all that well-read on the subject of parallel worlds, primarily because I don’t read many superhero comic books, so if you have any insight on these matters, please feel free to add to/correct my theories in the comment section below.
PARALLEL UNIVERSE STORIES, ARRANGED BY THEME
Big Theme 1: There But For the Grace of God Go We
The point of these kinds of stories is for the author to say, “Look how different things could have turned out! Nothing is destined!” But this silent exclamation is made for different reasons, depending on the setting.
Theme 1a) IF this plot is an alternate history plot, THEN the theme usually is, “Wow, world history is based much more on randomness than we thought!” (Example: The alt-Superman comic, Red Son, which shows how Superman originally landed in the Soviet Union instead of the U.S. and became a communist uber-mensch.) This seems to be somewhat of a way of the author deconstructing or undermining most people’s accepted idea of history, which was that Things Happened For a Reason. These alternate histories also, purposefully or not, go against the idea that Progress Marches On. Consider, for example, the Fallout series. Progress did not, in fact, march on in Fallout’s alternate history. Progress, in fact, went kablooey.
Is Lost season 6 using this theme?: As far as I can tell, no. Although it does seem like the Sideways world is a kind of alternate history, Lost isn’t a big fan of randomness as a theme. The show, instead, pits fate and free will against each other. Fate, to Lost, means that history is destined to follow a certain path. Free will, to Lost, means that history can be changed by willful historical actors (a.k.a. Special People). Randomness doesn’t really come into play in this show at all.
Theme 1b) IF the plot is a character-based study, THEN the theme usually is, “One’s character or genes does not determine his personality! One’s environment does!” It’s the nature/nurture debate all over again, and nurture wins. For example, in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Tapestry,” Q gives Jean-Luc Picard a glimpse of an alternate timeline in which Picard does not get into a fight with some fiery Nausicaans and thus does not get stabbed and get an artificial heart. This leads alt-Picard to become a weak-willed, boring, un-ambitious nice guy who never grows up to become the starship captain we all know and love. The moral of the story is: It is our experiences, not our genes or temperament, that shape us.
Is Lost season 6 using this theme?: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. In the flash sideways, some the alt-characters seem completely different from their “normal” selves and others don’t. So far, the people who have changed the most in the alt-timeline are John Locke, Jack, Hurley, Desmond, Ben, Ethan, and Rose. Those who have changed somewhat include Faraday, Widmore, Eloise, Sawyer, Charlie, Sun, and Jin. And those who seem not to have changed, really, at all include Sayid, Artz, Keamy, Mikhail, Claire (although she did change a lot on the Island over the past three years), and Kate.
Theme 1c) IF the plot is a “Mirror Universe” story, THEN the theme usually is, “Humans tend to suck.” To use another Star Trek example, these stories say that, if you take idealistic Captain Kirk or Benjamin Sisko out of their idyllic Federation society and stick them in a Mirror Universe, they’ll quickly become immoral or amoral assholes. Also, Spock will grow a beard.
Is Lost season 6 using this theme?: This is an interesting question. At first, I was inclined to say, “No,” because the “Mirror” (or Alt, or Sideways) Universe in Lost’s season six seems in many ways to be much nicer than the regular Island world. But then I thought, “Aha! What if the regular Island world is the Evil Bizarro World, and the Sideways World is on the good side of the mirror?” (I don’t actually believe this theory, but it’s interesting, ain’t it?)
Big Theme 2: Plato Was Right
This is the “Allegory of the Cave” story, also known to you little’uns as “The Matrix.” In this kind of parallel worlds story, one world is “real” and one is an illusion. This theme seems to come in two flavors:
Theme 2a) The Lotus Eater theme, a.k.a. “Heaven Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be.” In this story, the real word sucks (but, hey, at least it’s real!), and the illusionary world is fairly awesome…at first glance. Eventually, though, the paradise starts to seem a little too nice, as in the book/movie Coraline. These stories tend to be about what the protagonists think they want versus what they actually need. At the beginning of the book, Coraline thinks she needs a perfect, doting mother, but she learns she actually needs to chill out and forgive her real parents for not being perfect.
Is Lost season 6 using this theme?: Possibly! This week, Eloise alluded to it by telling Desmond, “This is what you wanted all along! No emotional attachments and the approval of Charles Widmore, your stand-in Daddy! This is your own version of Heaven! Mwahahaha!” Luckily, Charlie came along and opened Desmond’s eyes to a universe-shattering love that allowed him access to the “real” world of the Island and the thing he really needs, which is Penny. But if the Sideways-verse is an illusory world made of wishes and shadows, who is making the illusion? Could it be… Smokey?
On the other hand, the Sideways World isn’t heavenly for everyone. Alt-Sun’s been shot in the womb and had her bank account emptied by her dad; alt-Locke still can’t walk (although he seems to be OK with that); alt-Sayid is still a murderer (although you can argue that secretly he’s always wanted to be one); and alt-Kate is still on the run (although you can argue that she’s such a screwed up person that constantly running is “heavenly” for her)…
Theme 2b) The Prison of Illusions. In this story, which basically the opposite of the Lotus Eater story, the illusory/shadow world is a hellish prison, while the “real” world (which is very difficult to access) is super-duper-sweet. Consider, for example, almost every world religion. According to them, this material world we’re living in is false and awful, but if we’re good/holy/whatever, we’ll get to break through to the “real” world of Heaven/Nirvana/Land of Milk and Honey and 100 Nubile Virgins. Sweet sweet.
Is Lost season 6 using this theme?: I don’t think so—or, not yet, anyway. But, interestingly, this seems to be the storyline the Man in Black is feeding to his minions. “We’re trapped together in this awful Island prison,” he says. “It’s Hell,” he says. “And if you help me,” he says, “you’ll be free, you’ll to ascend [in an airplane] to a higher realm [called L.A.], and you’ll be reunited with your dead loved ones [as in Heaven].” Except we all know that Smokey is a big, fat liar—or at least a big, fat manipulator. Could it be that Lost is saying that the idea that our world is a prison made of illusions is itself an illusion?! My mind has been blown.
Big Theme 3: Life is But a Dream
In this story, there are two worlds/universes, but one is revealed to be a dream dreamt by the someone in the real world. Ah, but then the question is, Who is to say that the “real” world isn’t someone else’s dream? Yeah. Chew on that one, readers. Examples: The end of that post-apocalyptic episode of “American Dad” and Final Fantasy X. (Yes, I referenced a Final Fantasy game in this literary treatise. You wanna fight about it?) Another similar, and interesting case, is the Japanese folktale “The Dream of Akinosuke,” which seemed to inspire the Star Trek: TNG episode “The Inner Light.” The folktale is quite beautiful, and it involves what could be construed as a “dreamed universe.” Or, it could be said that the story shows two separate universes; it just so happens that one universe is contained within the other. Anyway, in all of these stories, the main theme seems to be, “Life is fleeting. Enjoy it knowing it’s going to end.”
Is Lost season 6 using this theme?: I don’t think so. No, not at all. This “life is but a dream” theme seems to be saying that life and love and family are ephmeral, so we should enjoy them while we have them. Lost, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to think ANYTHING is ephemeral: Ghosts are everywhere; people go on living for hundreds of years due to a magical touch from a demi-god; love is considered a Constant that can transcend space and time…
Big Theme 4: Aren’t Multiverses Fun?
It occurred to me as I was writing this post that all of the examples I gave involved “separate but not equal” parallel universes. In each above example, one of the universes is considered more “real” than the others. But clearly there are stories in which there are multiple universes, and each one is considered just as real as the rest. Some examples of Multiverse stories include His Dark Materials, the multiverse episode of Family Guy, the multiverse episode of Futurama, Sliders…
But, in all of these, the multiverse theme seems to be nothing more complex than, “Gee, isn’t traveling between one universe and another fun?” That’s not to say that these text don’t have other, non-multiverse-related themes. His Dark Materials, for instance, talks a lot about God and organized religion and sex and the soul and so on… but none of these themes has anything to do with multiverses. It seems to me that the multiverses in these texts exist primarily as “sci-fi window dressing” rather than carriers for themes.
But, then, I don’t have that much of a background dealing with this kind of story—I haven’t read The Dark Tower, for instance—so you tell me if I’m completely off-base here. Are there “separate but equal” multiverse stories in which the act of traveling between one ‘verse and other has thematic weight?
Is Lost season 6 using this theme?: Not yet. So far, Lost has only made us aware of two universes, and one of them (the Sideways Universe) is shot in such a way as to make us feel like it’s not really real. As much as we might be confused by the writers’ decision to add a Sideways Universe, and as much as some of us may dislike the way the flashsideways have been handled, it does seem like there is a thematic purpose to them. I actually do still have enough faith in Lost’s writers to say, “They didn’t do this just because they think multiverses are fun.” Of course, we’ll have to wait and see for sure.
I’m not sure these themes are the only ones associated with parallel universe stories, but I think my list is a good start. By skimming through the above analysis and working backwards from Lost’s main themes, I’m going to say that Lost’s Sideways Universe has the greatest chance of turning out to be some kind of “universe of illusions” created by some god-like figure such as the Man in Black or Jacob–not by the Swan explosion. But, hey, I could be wrong. What do you think?
[You tell me: what do YOU think the Sideways Universe is? And, thematically, why is it there? Why did the writers use a parallel universe plot in Lost’s last season? What are they trying to say? Sound off in the comments.]