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Lost in Myth – Lost on The Life and Death of Black & White Characters

By Marc Oromaner,

  Filed under: Lost, Lost In Myth
  Comments: 15

wicked2When I think about the TV shows and movies I used to watch as a kid, it was always very easy to tell who was good and who was bad. Superman—good. Lex Luthor—bad. Mike Brady—good. The dude who faked whiplash to win a case against Carol—bad. The Scooby gang—good. The masked villains who would’ve gotten away with their dastardly schemes had it not been for those blasted kids—bad. Looking back at it now, I honestly think this black and white view of the world tainted my perception of people and experiences. Teachers and kids were either good or bad. A hot lunch choice was either good or bad. My day was either good or bad. And because I grew up thinking this way, much of this mindset is still with me, for better or for worse.

I don’t believe the media is all to blame. In fact, our brains usually prefer when life is simple to categorize. While I’m not sure if it’s officially canon, DHARMA supposedly stands for the Department of Heuristics and Research on Material Applications. A “heuristic” is a rule of thumb that we use to take shortcuts in solving problems. It is helpful in that it can help us save time and brainpower in coming to conclusions. It is not as beneficial when it brings about rushed judgments, which are often incorrect, or at least, not fully developed. Maybe it’s because the world has gotten smaller, or more PC, but it seems to me that most people these days don’t see the world quite as black and white as they used to. While I’m sure the Internet and terms like “intellectually-challenged” have contributed to an extent, I feel that the biggest contributor towards seeing things in shades of gray has been our modern-day myths in the media.

When today’s audiences look back on dramas of the sixties and seventies, the characters often seem cartoonish in their portrayals of good and evil. A bad guy never needed a reason to be bad—that was just his character. And good guys never tired of being heroes, this was just who they were. By today’s standards, these characters seem boring and two-dimensional. This change in audience mindset has led to revealing new back-stories of these clichéd characters that help us understand why they may have acted the way they did.

One of the most popular recent stories to do this points out our propensity to rush to judgment by offering a new perspective on a classically evil character. Wicked takes another look at the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz and wonders, what if she really wasn’t so wicked after all? What if she was actually trying to do good but had been misunderstood and shunned by society. If a society itself is wicked, doesn’t that make the good guys bad from their point of view? Had Sodom and Gemorrah not been destroyed, wouldn’t their history have shown Abraham to have been wicked? And surely if the world had survived the Biblical flood, Noah would’ve been cast as a crazy villain who stole animals for his own personal gain. History is written by the victors, and of course, they always see themselves as “the good guys.”

starwars1_09_800x600While perhaps not as obvious as Wicked, the most recent Star Wars films also attempted to recast a famous villain in a new light. In episodes I-III, we learn that Darth Vader wasn’t always such a bad guy. That he had been manipulated into the dark side and, in many ways, was just a victim of circumstance. The Shrek films have also done a good job of showing ogres from a new perspective, as well as portraying fare maidens, princes and princesses as pompous, materialistic brats. Our mindset concerning characters has changed so much, you’d be hard-pressed to find any movie or TV drama anymore where the characters are so cut and dry. Are the protagonists good or bad on Prison Break? Who exactly are the heroes and who are villains on Heroes? And what about on Fringe? This brings us, to Lost.

As far as TV shows go, I think Lost has really gone out of its way to show us that there really is no such thing as good or bad. From the very beginning, flashbacks revealed a depth to characters that we wouldn’t have guessed. Sawyer was bad, until we saw what happened to him as a kid. But as a con man he was bad again, until we saw him walk away from a family who had a child that he didn’t want to con. He was bad for hiding Shannon’s asthma inhaler, until we realized that he was just a masochist who felt he deserved punishment for his sins. Punishment delivered by Sayid—good or bad? Is Kate good or bad? Jack? Desmond? The smoke monster? Its indefinable body almost seems to be a metaphor for its indefinable motives. What about Mr. Eko? Ana Lucia? Michael? Juliet? Danielle? In fact, it’s hard to tell which of Lost’s characters to root for at all. We find ourselves rooting for the ones who’s issues we relate to the most, but that’s only because they remind us of ourselves, and from our perspective, we are, of course, good.

Then there’s Ben and Widmore. Which, if either, of them is good or bad? Well, since both are responsible for the deaths of many people, both would be considered bad in the classic sense, but since we don’t know the big picture yet, it’s hard to say for sure. There’s no doubt that Ben considers himself to be the good guy, or at least, wants everyone to think that he’s the good guy. I think the point Lost tries to make is that we all think of ourselves as good. If you show a movie to a bunch of prisoners serving hard time, would they root for the hero or villain? I think most of them would root for the hero because we all see ourselves this way. Usually, we are more likely to relate to the character that has to struggle the most and overcome the odds, because we can relate. It’s for this reason that most of us find ourselves rooting for Locke. Is Locke any more of a good guy than Ben? Let’s see, he broke the law by working on a pot farm, he helped his crooked father secure stolen funds, he took it upon himself to foil every means of escape for the Losties, he’s spent a good portion of his time on sex phone lines, and he’s killed many a poor, defenseless boar.

After watching “The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham,” the lines between good and evil seem more vague than ever, and I think this is the point. I know there are many fans who want Ben to be bad, and many who want Widmore to be. This is because we’ve been trained to simplify—it’s the heuristics of our mind pleading for something we can understand on Lost. Personally, I don’t think we’re ever going to get a definitive answer, and this is really the whole point. Oh sure, once Lost concludes, there will be debate over who was good or bad, and perhaps Facebook pages devoted to one perspective or the other. I can see it now, “Widmore had the black stone at the end so that made him the bad guy!” or “Ben died selflessly in the volcano—a sacrifice to the gods to save the world so he is the hero!”

Say what you will, I believe the message of Lost 800px-john_martin_-_sodom_and_gomorrahis that there ultimately is no good or evil. No right or wrong. There is only that which can move us forward and that which does not; that which challenges us to grow and that which causes us to shrink back in fear; that which is based on sharing and that which is based on selfishness. In our illusionary, material world, where we tend to judge others by our own life experiences and values, it’s often difficult to see this. But I believe that one day, we will get a bigger picture of the ultimate reality. A reality where everything just is and it doesn’t come with a judgment. I also believe that Lost is preparing us for this time. A time when…well, according to Lost may not actually be “time” as we now currently think of it. In any case, whatever the future holds for us, as Lost fans who are now able to see the world from new perspectives that include time-shifts, constants, proxies, and yes, the blurring of what is good and evil, we’ll be ready.

Marc Oromaner author of The Myth of Lost will be giving a presentation about the meaning of Lost and what it can tell us about the world today, and tomorrow. The presentation will be held on Sunday, March 8th from 2:30pm-4:30pm at East West Books in NYC (78 Fifth Avenue @ 14th Street). For details, those on Facebook can click here: And others can click here: (Go to March and click on the event on the 8th.)

The Myth of Lost is available on Amazon: and

  • HandsomeSmitty

    Sad, if true, Lost will be a tale preaching relativism.

    I’ll be back.

    • Devin

      I don’t think it’s really relativism, cuz it’s not saying that everybody is doing the right thing considering their own background. I think it’s just saying that the world isn’t black and white, and it’s not as simple as evil vs. good, but the characters each have their own motivation, and have each convinced themselves that they are doing what they should be, even if it’s a stretch and we’re never going to agree. And even as that is similar to relativism, I don’t think Lost will be preaching it. It would just be a sweeping oversimplification and uninteresting if it was good vs. evil.

      Personally I’ve always kinda loved the moral ambiguity on the show, and how they’re always showing both sides of a conflict.

  • Jared

    Seriously? Morally flawed characters led you to believe LOST is about how “ultimately there is no good or evil”? Not even a “people have the ability to choose between the two” scenario? You just jumped right to a “there is only power and those strong enough to use it,” watered down Voldemort-y justification of right and wrong actions? I think I’m done here.

    • No. A show featuring morally ambiguous characters that are initially cliched causing us to make snap judgments until we see their back stories is what led me to believe that one of the many messages of “Lost” is that there ultimately is no good or evil. I also did not mean to insinuate that only those strong enough to use power may do so. Everyone has the power. Lastly, I do not justify “right” or “wrong” actions. My point is that our tendency to make snap judgments about people often does not serve us, and this message is coming through on the show.

  • mpl

    Thanks Marc for this great, articulate post! I agree with you.

  • “When I think about the TV shows and movies I used to watch as a kid, it was always very easy to tell who was good and who was bad. Superman—good. Lex Luthor—bad.”

    Have you seen the Smallville take on the Superman Myth? The core of the story surrounding Clark and Lex applies layers of complexity to the original creators’ ideas. We see Clark battle temptation with his god-like powers (the desire to be normal and turn his back on the world tops that list). We also see Lex become a demented egoist, although it is still not clear whether or not he was born a bit bent or not. Regardless, the man commits evil acts based on his demented need to save the world.

    “Mike Brady—good. The dude who faked whiplash to win a case against Carol—bad.”

    Isn’t it okay that Brady was a good man, not some demented molester leering at Carlo’s daughters? And no matter the motivations of “dude who faked whiplash”, he is bad, even if pathetically sympathetic (like Locke?).

    “The Scooby gang—good.”

    A children’s show (or teen-age dopers) you would prefer Beavis and Butthead?

    “Looking back at it now, I honestly think this black and white view of the world tainted my perception of people and experiences. Teachers and kids were either good or bad. A hot lunch choice was either good or bad. My day was either good or bad.”

    MO, relax, it’s okay to dislike broccoli or spinach in the lunchline. Just like it’s okay to realize there are bad teachers and bad kids. I teach, and believe me, man, that is a truism! But does that mean we give up on rehabilitating those who make poor choices or have bad habits? Do we redefine good or bad so as not to offend?

    You’re right, humans do categorize – it’s what made us the dominant species on the planet. But it is not just the brain’s reflex to categorize, it also compels us to reflect and evaluate those categorizations. The philosophy of the Greeks and Romans and Jews and others helped modern humans to determine that good and bad exists in the behaviors and choices we make. While there is a driving need for most humans to justify their existence (probably driven by the amygdale), there is no reason to denigrate that drive into a simplicity that does not exist, for me, at least. (Yes, yes, “elegant design”.)

    “Maybe it’s because the world has gotten smaller, or more PC, but it seems to me that most people these days don’t see the world quite as black and white as they used to. I feel that the biggest contributor towards seeing things in shades of gray has been our modern-day myths in the media.”

    Yes, MO, it’s the same media you point the finger of blame at for forming your earlier black-and-white perceptions. They worship at the altar of relativism, rejecting the philosophy of Western Civilization. While far from perfect, WC is what helped us advance so far in the sciences and our understanding of the physical world and to some extent the ethereal world as well. And talk about modern-day myth making – Americans are seeing it occur right before our eyes. Although many myths are baked from historical people or occurrences, and others are created from a non-existent distant path to inspire the populace, we’re seeing one created in present-day based on what a man might accomplish rather than what he has done. Born from a fictitious past, we are being told only this one man can save us all. Imagine if this had been taking out of a religious book, that there is one foreordained to save humankind! Our modern-day media would be blowing so many gaskets we could designate them as the polluters they are! ‘-)

    But as far as tele-fiction goes, I don’t think it’s so much as a change in mores as it is creative writing that allowed characters to become more complex. Certainly many writers have an agenda and belong firmly in a relativist camp. However, some writers present these complexities to make us think, to help us not just to be compassionate to firmly define a right and wrong, a black and white. We might also consider the rise of the art of deconstruction at colleges during the past 60 years!

    Character and plot complexities also exist in ancient writings and certainly we see modern fiction become more complex with the advancement of English/American Literature the past three centuries. As you and so many other Lost-bloggers note, there are connections/comparisons to be found in the most diverse human literatures!

    I will be disappointed, although no less appreciative if the men behind Lost are pushing relativist beliefs. As I pointed out to various professors in my papers, deconstruction allows many arguments to be shown, not just the PC classifications they push in class. If you can support it with the text, as you probably know, any argument can be made legitimate.

    And please, fellow posters, I’m not attacking MO personally or being snippy – I am simply sharing my thoughts based on perceptions/beliefs like anyone else. I’m sure MO is an excellent Dude, probably living in a cabin on certain red rock in Australia! I’m rebutting some of his prepositions, or as he might put it, adding another layer of understanding. I could, I suppose, deconstruct the show in my own posting, explaining how Lost is simply showing us how to understand and identify evil. I don’t know how many bloggers say they want Ben to be good even though he is running around like Mephistopheles with a lunchbox full of badness. It’s like the writers are saying, beware, because charisma and a good lie can make you give your last shirt away.

    Then again, perhaps I’m just posting from an alternate reality – like from whence came the Island!

    • Smallville:
      I’ve caught a few episodes. I almost mentioned it in the article here because like “”Wicked” and the new “Star Wars” films, it also updates the Superman characters to make them more complex. The Superman I used top watch “as a kid” was from the old B&W TV show and the “Superfriends” cartoons. So yes, “Smallville” is another example. Good call.

      Brady Bunch/Scooby Doo
      Don’t get me wrong, I love those shows. They were just, well, cartoony and unrealistic. In teaching morals they shortchanged kids in teaching understanding.

      Good/Bad Students, etc
      It’s not offending that is my concern, it’s our attitudes. The judgment and expectation of students being good or bad leads to a self-fulfilling prophesy. For the bad kids, it’s a downward spiral. By acting out, they get attention so they act out more. And as others see them, they see themselves. And the opposite is true of the good/smart kids.

      Humans Categorizing
      If by categorizing you mean judging, this certainly hasn’t made us the dominant species. It’s what keeps us tied to our animal-side. Any animal will also make snap judgments on whether you a re friend, foe, or food. Snap judgmets have helped keep us alive. But these days, it has caused it more harm than good. It’s what brought us to war in Iraq, what prejudice is based on, race riots, road rage, among many other issues. If you are free from making these judgments and see people and situations objectively and reanalyze categorizations you’ve made in the past, then I can see why you would have trouble relating to this particular column.

      Western Civilization vs. Relativism
      HS, you are taking a mighty big leap to say that because Western Society has been historically anti-relativism, it is this attitude that allowed it to become so advanced. Even if this were true, who’s to say that a relativism perspective wouldn’t have allowed it to grow further and faster. Quite honestly, looking at western society today, we don’t seem so advanced anymore. Sure, we have lots of toys, but why are so many people stressed out? How many people are truly happy? Perhaps we’ve gone as far as this separate, judgmental attitude can take us and its time to try another on for size.

      “Born from a fictitious past, we are being told only this one man can save us all.”
      Are you referring to Obama here or Jesus? Either way, I believe Obama’s oft repeated catch-phrase, “we are the change we’ve been waiting for” explains both. I agree that there is no messiah that will come save us. We are all the Messiah. Only we can save the world. I talk about this in “The Myth of Lost.”

      “I don’t think it’s so much as a change in mores as it is creative writing that allowed characters to become more complex” Complex characters have always existed in writing. What’s changed is that now they are the norm and cliches have become passe. Writers reflect and help inspire the collective consciousness. The fact that so many TV shows and movies now are breaking tradition with these deep characters tells me that we as a society are becoming more empathetic and objective.

      “Character and plot complexities also exist in ancient writings”

      ” if the men behind Lost are pushing relativist beliefs”
      I don’t think they are pushing anything. The show is reflective of the world today. It is revealing a lot of wisdom that only now can we understand. I don’t think they have any agenda at all other than to provide a cool story that people will find meaningful however they want to interpret it. Lost has many messages, and they will likely be different for everyone. The message you get is likely the one you need for where you are at in your life.

      “probably living in a cabin on certain red rock in Australia!”
      Right now, I live in an apartment in NYC, but the woodsy cabin is the vision–at least for a country home.

      “I could, I suppose, deconstruct the show in my own posting, explaining how Lost is simply showing us how to understand and identify evil.”

      “Then again, perhaps I’m just posting from an alternate reality – like from whence came the Island!”
      I believe we jump into alternate realities constantly, whenever we make a new decision. Right now, there’s probably a version of me that decided not to spend an hour responding to your post. But when similar comments come up during his presentations, he’ll probably be less prepared. Then again, the universe will probably give him another chance to think about these issues, since it seems to have a way of course correcting.

      • Thanks for taking the time. Least you’re willing to stand by your…product (think about the word choice).

        While I have almost limitless time to blog since I’m unemployed, apparently you have a real life and so I will limit myself to two things: The pre-70s show did address issues that I as a child of the 50s and 60s did experience and dealt with even though you might decline to believe so. When drugs and sex did get coverage for the most part the example was to shun those behaviors, taught as a life-lesson, like what the bible basically is, a tome of how-to-live-a-life-of-contentment.

        For me, nothing wrong with that. I remember countless times the Beav discussing his decisions and the behaviors of others with his dad, a scene that we all should admit is way too rare in our current society’s celebration of fatherless children!

        So the more tele-fiction has advanced the coverage or layer-peeling of character circumstances, so too has the decline of quality of life followed. I don’t think relativism, or not jumping to ANY conclusion about right and wrong has done much good for US, or course-corrected humanity in any stretch of the imagination.

        Perhaps the alternate-reality is a correct theory. For now, it’s only a theory. As I am late in my life, a predictable (or maybe alternate) end in sight, I sense such a plethora of realities plausible although not certain. My observations indicate to me that we may determine a what-might-have-been by observing the choices of others. I see the success I dreamed of decades ago touch others who may have been in the same situations as me but chose more wisely. Cool for them.

        And if there are a bunch of me wandering around on different paths, I hope that the mistakes I made helped them avoid such obstacles – and if there is a me or more out there worse off, oh my, I feel badly I wasn’t able to help lift his burden!

        I could go on and on, but like I tell the students in class when we’re watching a film, I’ll keep it to myself because I’m sure many of the responses pinging in my head are shared by others and so even though left unsaid, I am heard – not as a “collective consciousness” but as a Universal truth!

  • horselover

    I really think Lost is saying “there is no right and wrong” or “there is no good and evil.” I think the message is simply that the two aren’t always easily defined and there is often a large gray area. The point is also that even the “good guys” make mistakes and can slip into evil, and well as vice versa. I agree that Lost has made the characters much harder to pigeonhole as protagonist or antagonist, but it hasn’t done away with the idea completely.

    • horselover

      Just to note, I had to get the CAPTCHA code from the audio file. The one displayed was way off. Not sure if that’s just me or not.

      • I have an occasional problem with the captcha as well. I suspect it is time-limited. If you spend a lot of time reading before posting, the captcha may expire.

        Or something.

        Glad to know it’s not just me.

  • Thor

    I think it’s really important to focus on the distinction between an evil/good act, and an evil/good person, or human being. Here lies also some of the solutions to the problems with relativism in Lost.

    What Marc elegantly showed in his article, the characters in earlier shows was dominated by so-called modern meta-narratives. A meta-narrative is sort of an overarching (often moral) story that determines the everyday lives of people. That persons are either good og bad, period, is an example of a meta-narrative. What counts for modernity, the idea of (endless) progress in capitalism and society as a whole is an example of a cultural meta-narrative.

    My point is that, even though it’s legitimate to be critical to a meta-narravite, when, on the other hand, you’re interpreting the single actions of a person one can debate whether that act was good or evil.

    In Lost, there’s clearly no meta-narrative telling me a character is good og evil, period. The only source to make such interpretations is the acts and choices the characters make in the show. This was stated early in the first season when Sawyer tells Kate “I’m a complex guy, sweetheart”. Sure, Sawyer was (and still is according to some) a con man. But that does not mean Sawyer is an evil character.

    Ben, though, one could argue is an evil person. But that’s not because he murdered the Dharma-people in the past. It’s simply because allmost everytime we see him he commits evil acts!

    The only way for Ben to justify his acts, I think, is for him to commit to utilitarian ethics.

    • Excellent post, Hammer-Man!

      Perhaps Sawyer is not evil but he most certainly is bad – isn’t it a bad thing to con someone out of their life-savings, even if their decision to play the game is based on greed? From a relativist’s point of view, they would argue that a greedy person is as fault for providing the opportunity for the con.

      Perhaps the problem here is just what is evil? How many bad acts does one have to commit to be labeled thus?

      Looking at various definitions of the word leaves me just as clueless as to how define “evil” – except with my own connotation! If one intentionally acts with determination to cause suffering for someone, that is evil-light.

      But consider the sociopath and the fanatic (two distinct classes) who one acts on a total lack of compassion and solely for self or self-gratification, and the other who acts on total belief in a reality with intent to enforce that reality on all others. Do we consider these two types “evil”. Don’t we make excuses for their behaviors, excuse them from the anger with which we might respond to someone who acts knowing with intent to harm?

      I think that is the true discussion here about the moral ambiguity of Lost and that MO so eloquently (as you said) posits.

      However, in my book, the one in my head etched by too many years of life, I call Sawyer a bad guy working towards redemption and Ben a bad man motivated by evil regardless whether or not he is sociopathic or fanatical.

  • If there were no problems, most of us would be unemployed. -Zig Ziglar