"Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me." - Exodus 20:5
"The LORD is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation." - Numbers 14:18
Tolstoy once wrote that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." That certainly applies to the fathers and children of Lost. With a few notable exceptions the characters that populate this show have fractured and/or ruined relationships with their respective poppas that are each as unique and as horrible as a toxic snowflake:
Jack's father is a drunken and distant man fond of telling his son that he doesn't have what it takes. Sun's father is a controlling overlord, a man willing to use his daughter's husband as a personal pitbull. Kate's stepfather is an abusive drunk. Locke's father cons him and tries to kill him. Ben's father is a shiftless drunk who vocally blames his son for the death of his own mother. Penelope's father treats her boyfriend like dirt and uses her name to provide a cover story for a freighter full of homicidal goons with automatic weapons. Alex's father steals her from her mother and, incidentally, is a power-mad sociopath.
That's a lot of bad dads.
The fathers on the show who aren't out-and-out "bad" are, nonetheless, absent. Hurley's father runs out on his family for years before finally returning and appearing to atone. Aaron's father runs out on Claire. Michael is separated from Walt at infancy all the way through most of his childhood.
Jin is the exception that proves the rule. His father seems like a kind, loving man but interestingly - by Korean society's standards - he's still a 'bad dad' as a 'lowly' fisherman.
What's up with this?
Are Lost's writers just unusually obsessed with terrible poppas? Is this pattern of problematic patriarchs meaningful in any way, or does the proliferation of pitiful paters in the show's narrative simply serve to signify generalized generational grief? And can the amount of alliteration in this analysis be alleviated in any way? Because, man, it's annoying.
One thing's for sure - the children of these men haven't been shy about expressing their anger and pain over the various ways in which their fathers have screwed them over - and that includes the figurative children of figurative fathers.
Take Jacob and Ben.
When Ben kills his father he essentially adopts Jacob as his surrogate dad - an elevated figure who he obeys and, judging by his emotions in The Incident, regards paternally. Just before Ben runs Poppa Jacob through with his knife he complains that he's followed Jacob faithfully - that he's done everything Jacob asked of him and what about his needs and his feelings? What about Ben the Good Son? Jacob's answer to Ben is, when looked at objectively, just as cool and callous as the answer that Cooper gives to Locke: What about you?
Judging only from what we know of character motivation I think it's fair to ask: What's the difference between Cooper and Jacob? Aren't they both fathers using their sons to their own ends?
Because what do we actually know about Jacob? Not a hell of a lot. We know that he seems to have a plan, but we don't know what it is. Richard indicated in "The Brig" that the Others had important work to do on the Island, but does he know what that work is? Does he understand it's purpose? Does anyone, other than Jacob?
Whatever Jacob's doing, it's putting a lot of people in some serious misery. Maybe Jacob's goal is a sort of universal rising-up of humanity and/or human consciousness (and again, while I've theorized that this might be the case there's next-to-no-evidence for it, other than a brief shot of a great Flannery O'Connor book), but in order to secure that goal Jacob must allow the lives of individual people to go horribly wrong when he could arguably have stepped in and tried to make things better. That makes him kind of a monster, from a certain point of view.
And yet. While a good many of the fathers we've seen on this show are legitimately awful, none of them forced their children to make the decisions which they ended up making. Cooper may have conned Locke out of a kidney, but he didn't force him to trail around after him like a wounded puppy. Jack's father may have been a cold dude, but he didn't create Jack's problems - Jack created those problems. No one forced Jin to become a hired thug - both he and Sun created that reality through their choices, choices that they withheld from one another.
In fact, from another point of view, some of these dads aren't 'bad' at all. What if Sun's father had 'good' intentions for his son-in-law? What if Mr. Paik is simply following the lead of his own father, and attempting to teach Jin a lesson in 'toughness,' so that one day he might be 'worthy' of the Paik name? What if Christian's ham-fisted talks with Jack were his way of awkwardly reaching out to connect, and not to chastise? What if Jacob recognizes that real change comes not from forcible imposition, but from voluntary attempts at reformation?
Even if these fathers are as terrible as they seem however, the choices that their children have made are their own. And it's our own choices, Lost has argued over and over and over again, that define us and either lift us up or let us fall. The characters of Lost have the ability, and the opportunity, to remake themselves and their lives in the image of who they are - not who they think their fathers have made them.
If we look all the way back to Season 1's episode "The Moth," we can see the dynamic of the bad dad and the surly man-child playing out on the Island itself, in the form of Charlie and Locke. Locke tells Charlie that he could take away his drugs, but that it wouldn't help him the way that Charlie needs to be helped. In order to be free of his addiction, Charlie needed to learn to help himself - and Locke's stern paternalism was instrumental in getting him to realize this. Charlie was the boss of Charlie - not Locke, not Heroin. Only Charlie could decide to change Charlie.
Part of what may be Lost's larger point about 'Good Being' involves the idea that, in large part, we create our own misery - that we have the power to make choices and change our lives - that we decide who and what matters and why. That's a lofty, high-minded and admirable thought, but the problem is that it's a lofty and high-minded thought that's pretty difficult to keep in mind on a not-lofty, not-high-minded day-to-day basis. It's an ideal that most of us labor to aspire to - not something we just do in our day-to-day lives (David Foster Wallace writes wonderfully and compassionately about the act of directed thinking in the book 'This Is Water,' a book I could not recommend more highly as a gift for any graduate and, more importantly, as a gift to anyone who enjoys thinking about how we all think).
We're mostly a bunch of Charlies, wanting someone to take our drugs away from us without doing the work of changing our mindset so that we won't feel the need for them anymore.
I began this edition of TMI with a Bible quote that suggests the iniquities of the fathers will be visited on the sons. But I don't think that's Lost's message. I believe that it's message is bound up in ideas of Good Being and Sartre-ian ideas of self-definition and self-realization. That message might be summed up by another Bible prophet, the bizarre and wonderful Ezekiel:
The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself." - Ezekiel 18:20
Of course, all of this assumes that Jacob's plans are benevolent, or at the least, benign. We'll deal with this ambiguity in an upcoming edition of TMI.
Catch up on Too Much Information!
Too Much Information 9: How To Be Good
Too Much Information 8: The Question Jar
Too Much Information 7: Sartre-Speak
Too Much Information 6: Gnarly Gnosticism & Mondo Manichaeism
Too Much Information 5: Mirrors & Delays
Too Much Information 4: Gods and Musicians - How The Mythologizing of The Beatles Helps Us Understand the Reality of the Dharma Initiative
Too Much Information 3: Loopholes and Prison-feet
Too Much Information 2: Who is the MiB?
Too Much Information: Stimulus/Response and Control Theory, or How I Learned To Start Behaving And Love Course Correction