Monday, December 7

Too Much Information 10: Bad Dads

"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


  1. I find it really interesting that the BEST father we've seen on this show abandoned his family when his son was 10, then just showed up again 20 years later after his son won the lottery.

    You've mentioned the Old Testament concept of generational sins, and the sins of parents being visited upon the children throughout several generations. Now, plainly the castaways et. al. aren't on the Island as some form of generational punishment--there was obviously something else going on in the conversation betwixt Jacob and the MiB--but I think it's a nice reference to make concerning a show that deals so often in biblical imagery.

    That notion was especially resonant in season five, when we not only began to see signs that the next generation may be drawn into the violence and mania concerning the Island (Sun promising Ji Yeon that she would meet and play with Aaron, Charlie Hume watching as Ben Linus tried to kill his parents), but also began to see just to what extent many of the people we already know, such as Miles and Charlotte and Daniel and Penny, have actually inherited their various "Island problems" from their parents.

    But more to your point, I don't know exactly to what effect the writers have been setting up this theme of horrific fathers--Is it part of the mythology? Is seeing how a group of people who have all been damaged by their fathers react to the Island part of this round of Jacob's experiment? Is it just an issue that the writers want to explore from multiple different angles? Is it all just an elaborate recurring joke by the writers?

    However, whether it is a narrative issue or a purely thematic one, it's been such a prominent through-line that I wouldn't expect the story or the theme to really begin resolving itself until the final season, as part of the show's denouement.

    Just how it resolves itself is something I'm really looking forward to seeing in the coming season.

  2. Great post, gravyboat. You've touched on some of the things I'll be discussing, and you're 100% correct in asserting that we can't know how (or if) this aspect will resolve until season 6. Thematically though, I'm going to suggest that there's something potentially revolutionary going on here (in terms of network tv).

  3. Jin's dad didnt seem like too bad a guy.

  4. Not a bad guy, no. But very much an absent father.

  5. GravyBoat said...

    (Sorry, my OpenID credentials are acting up.)

    MMorse, I've really been enjoying your blog. I've spent most of this year in a developing nation with few DVDs and little opportunity to talk to people back in the States, and so your re-watch has been a fun connection to home and has me really looking forward to chewing on season 6 with my friends next year. Lost has certainly been one of the most narratively ambitious and thematically rich network shows that I can recall, so I'm looking forward to your assessment.

  6. Gravyboat,

    Wow. I'm frankly kinda honored that you've used these columns to help you through your time over there. Thanks so much for making this site one of your destinations, and I hope to continue hearing from you as we progress on to Season 4.



  7. I think Jin's dad was actually a loving caring guy. It was Jin who had the shame issues. At least what I can find about him here:

  8. I'd put green money on The Man in Black being Jacob's father.

  9. That, or the MiB and Jacob really ARE brothers and The Island itself is somehow their father. (Albeit kind of a crappy father).
    Maybe that's why there are so many bad fathers on this show, The Island wants to gather as many dead-beat dads as it can so it doesn't feel as bad and go, "Well, at least I never pushed my son out a window." or "At least I'm not as big an asshole as Charles Widmore."
    Sidenote: I bet Vincent's dad was a prick too.

  10. I apologize in advance for posting off topic, but I'm just getting started on the re-watch (outstanding job, by the way) and wasn't sure if you'd still be checking the older posts. So, here are my thoughts on TMI 3: Loopholes and Prison-Feet. I'd love any feedback you have on it:

    I don't think that the cabin was ever Jacob's. I don't think he ever lived there. I think that the MiB, or at least a part of his "essense," was trapped there by Jacob's knights, the Others, as a way of protecting Jacob from the MiB's plan, which Jacob saw coming. Further, I think the MiB was fully freed by Locke when he broke the circle of ash.

    My reasons for this speculation:

    1) in the S5 finale Jacob visits Ilyana and asks for her help - he knows that the ash circle has been broken and that he is somehow vunerable.
    2) someone in the cabin asks Locke for help, and who has Locke been helping (albiet, without his knowledge)?
    3) when Ilyana and her crew show up, with Locke's dead body, and say, "He's not here" (or, he hasn't been here for a long time, or whatever they say) they are referring to the MiB, not Jacob, which confirms their fears about Locke's body. After burning the cabin, they make a bee-line for the statue.
    4) the "shadow of the statue" riddle implies, along with the beginning shots of the S5 finale, that Jacob has long, or always, lived on the beach.

    If my supposition is true, what does this mean for the characters/show? Well, for one, that Ben has long been visiting the MiB, and not Jacob. Even though he couldn't communicate with anyone in the cabin it would seem to suggest that Ben has always been on the wrong path to some extent, seeking his absent "father", Jacob, and being decieved by the MiB instead. Also, it would mean that Jacob has known about MiB's loophole for sometime, and has done nothing on his own to stop it, only influencing others to help him. Does this mean that Jacob is as powerless against MiB as MiB seems to be against Jacob?

    Any thoughts?

  11. I just re-watched the S5 finale cabin scene. Ilana says:
    "He isn't there, hasn't been in a long time. Someone else has been using it." Which implies that at least two different entities had used it. I'm sticking with the straightforward interpretation, that Jacob used it first, then MIB/Christian came along.

  12. "when Ilyana and her crew show up, with Locke's dead body, and say, "He's not here" (or, he hasn't been here for a long time, or whatever they say) they are referring to the MiB, not Jacob, which confirms their fears about Locke's body. After burning the cabin, they make a bee-line for the statue."


    That's a really interesting interpretation, Croubieu. I still tend to think that Resident's interpretation is correct - that Jacob initially used it, but that the MiB then 'moved in.'

    I think you're right about Ben - I think he's been visiting the cabin. It's clear that he and Smokey have some kind of relationship/connection, it's not clear what the connection is or why it exists. We know that Ben was taken to the Temple to be healed, and we know that the Monster inhabits the underworld beneath the Temple at least some of the time. We also know that Ben's house has the weirdo-equivalent of an emergency phone line straight to the Monster.

    What does that 'mean'? No idea!

  13. Ahhh...the full quote from Ilyana is more revealing. Looks like I had misremembered it. It does make me wonder why Jacob would need the cabin when he has his awesome under-the-statue digs to hang out in. Probably one of those mysteries that we'll just have to live with.

    I seem to recall some speculation regaring the MiB and the Monster to be the same, or at least to have some connection to one another (possibly as manifestations of the Island itself). And while it seems likely, given what we've seen so far, why then would Richard bring baby-Ben to the Monster for healing? Doesn't that imply some unknown connection between Jacob and the Monster? Or maybe Richard was acting on his own and that's why Jacob refused to see Ben all that time?

    So many questions! I guess that's why we love the show, huh?

    Which, for me anyway, begs one more question: what the hell is going to take it's place for me after it's gone?

  14. "Which, for me anyway, begs one more question: what the hell is going to take it's place for me after it's gone?"

    I was talking to a friend about this last night. When this season ends we're really going to miss the excitement of calling each other up after an episode airs to marvel over/dissect/be bewildered by what's happened.