Ballistic: Jacob vs. Esau

or, Time Travel Chess

For Lost Fans Only: Thoughts On the Season 5 Finale

by MATT STOKES | MAY 14, 2009

I want my kidney back!
-John Locke (the philosopher)

I complain about Lost all the time. For all the critical acclaim it gets as the smartest, most innovative, best-written series on television, nobody ever seems to address the fact that it relies on repetitive action clichés, hilariously bad dialogue, and deus ex machina solutions to virtually every problem that arises. And, while I thought the finale to season five was perhaps the least exciting finale Lost has had, I was so thoroughly blown away by the conclusion that I was driven into hardcore discussion of what it meant for hours after the episode ended.

Where to begin? First of all, if you haven’t seen the episode, don’t bother even reading this because I don’t feel like explaining everything that happened in the show, and you probably wouldn’t understand anyway.

A Game Of Chess

By far the most fascinating element of the episode was the introduction of a completely new dynamic within the show: Jacob and his Unnamed Nemesis. We had heard so much about Jacob for three years, but I must say I had no idea that we would be in for something like what we got in tonight’s episode. To say that his scenes were the most utterly perplexing scenes in the history of Lost would be an understatement. What in the holy fucking sam hell did that shit mean? Can anybody in the world tell me? No? Well, I just happen to have some ideas.

Okay, stay with me here: The creators of Lost have made no secret about their affection for biblical references in the show. And when we are given a character named Jacob, the Bible seems the obvious place to start. What relationship does the biblical Jacob have with the Jacob of Lost? Well, Jacob on Lost seems to be engaged in some kind of epic battle (Or, as is more in line with Lost tradition, a game [Think John Locke and his stupid marbles and checkers, and Ben and Charles Widmore and their lil war game.].) with his Nemesis. In the Bible, Jacob’s nemesis was his brother, Esau. The two vied for the inheritance of their father, Isaac; when Jacob tricked his blind father into thinking he was Esau, the rightful heir (because he was older), a lifelong hatred was born.

Now, since we weren’t given a name in the show for Jacob’s Nemesis, for the sake of clarity we’ll call him Esau. So, Jacob and Esau are engaged in a battle. But, them being gods (or demigods, or something like that), theirs is not a typical mortal battle. Theirs is essentially an infinite game of chess.I)We see this all the time in movies and literature, the omnipotent beings battling in what is essentially a game of chess. Fighting hand to hand isn’t good enough, so they engage people from the world to act as their pawns and such. Kind of an awesome thing to think about, right? What if everything that happens on Earth is a result of some epic game of chess between God and the Devil? Dude. I think I’d be a Rook. I’d make a good Rook. A straight-shooter all the way. Jack, Kate, Sawyer, and Co. are all pawns in the grand scheme of the universe. Who controls which pieces, I’m not sure (You can make the case for either guy, in some instances.), but it certainly appears that all the people on the island are there for a “purpose.” There is constant talk of “destiny.” What if these purposes, these destinies, are brought about by the will of Jacob and Esau?

The Pirate Ship

Now what if Jacob and Esau are doomed to repeat their battle over and over again, for the rest of time? Each chess match lasts, let’s say, a day (in their view at least, which could mean a million years for the rest of the world), and when the game ends, the next day the whole cycle begins again. Lost seems to show that Jacob wins every single time. This cannot change. He is the superior player, and he never lets him guard down. The rules are established so that he wins every match. Esau even says at the beginning of the episode, “I want to kill you so badly.” He wants to because he is never able to.

Trapped in this Groundhog Day-like scenario, Jacob and Esau play the role of the Bill Murray character who can’t figure out how to alter his universe-on-loop cycle and escape into the next day. This is symbolized by the pirate ship that sits in the distance.

“You know that ship is never gonna come, right?” Esau says to Jacob.

What the hell is this pirate ship, exactly? Within the reality of Lost, I have no clue. But symbolically, it helps us understand the nature of the game of Jacob vs. Esau. Clearly they are not doing something right. Jacob keeps winning, but he is never able to escape the island on the pirate ship, because the ship never approaches close enough to the island; it always remains just out of reach. Hopefully one day, he can figure out what it is he needs to do to escape.II)The ship reminds me of that other famous TV show about a desert island (other than Survivor), Gilligan’s Island. In every episode, the means to escape the island appear tantalizingly close. It seems a sure thing that, yes, this time Gilligan and the Skipper and everyone else will get rescued by the latest movie star, political activist, or traveling exhibition sports team. But it never happened. Something always went wrong, whether it was Gilligan oversleeping and missing the boat or everybody getting drunk and passing out. And the castaways knew all along that they would never escape, which is why they were never devastated at the end of each episode. They would just return to their exotic tiki huts and eat mangoes. But the pirate ship was (figuratively) always sitting there, just out of reach, teasing them about What Could Have Been. The scene with the pirate ship has been done in hundreds of books, short stories, TV shows, and movies before. We all recall this theme showing up in some form.

[Unfortunately, I can’t think of a good slam-dunk example in literature or movies that parallels this idea. But I keep thinking of the Simpsons episode “Bart Sells His Soul,” which has a dream sequence scene in which all the kids are rowing small boats with their souls across a lake to a futuristic-looking island, but we never find out exactly what happens when they get to that island.]

The Loophole (or, How I Learned That Time Travel Doesn’t Fucking Work!)

This is where it gets complicated.

Jack, one of Jacob/Esau’s main chess pieces, gets the idea that he should detonate a hydrogen bomb on the island when he travels back in time to the 1970s, which would basically set off a chain reaction of events that ultimately prevents his plane from ever having crashed on the island in the first place, solving all his problems.

Sounds like a good idea, right? Right.

WRONG!

As I’ve wailed about on countless occasions to people who could not have cared less, YOU CAN’T CHANGE SHIT LIKE THAT WHEN YOU TRAVEL BACK IN TIME. You can’t. Here’s why: Jack plans to detonate a bomb in the 1970s. It is, then, a FACT that JACK detonated the bomb in the 1970s, right? Because he set off this bomb in the 1970s, his plane ultimately doesn’t crash onto the island in the year 2002 (or whenever the hell it was), and he NEVER ENDS UP ON THE ISLAND. EVER. So the question becomes: How could the bomb have been detonated by Jack when Jack was never on the island? As Doc Brown explained, this is a paradox that could destroy the very fabric of the space-time continuum (I think.).

To the credit of Lost, the characters on the show actually discuss this and other possibilities. One character suggests that it is Jack’s detonating the bomb that actually causes them to end up on the island years later. I don’t think this can be the case, however. If the hydrogen bomb had always gone off, everyone and everything on the island would have been destroyed, thus no Dharma Initiative or Whoever the Fuck to build hatches and store energy to accidentally release energy to bring down Oceanic 815 in the year 2002 (or whenever the hell). Follow? Me neither.

Here’s my theory: Esau orchestrated all this. Jack was his MVP, his Tom Brady, his Queen Chess Piece, etc. And in having Jack so drastically alter the universe, he found a Loophole in his war with Jacob. And it is this loophole that allows him to KILL JACOB at the end of the episode.

But if you watched the episode, you know that it wasn’t “Esau” who killed Jacob, it was John Locke. Or was it? I don’t know if you’ll believe this but, I have a theory…

Checkmate.

What if Esau’s a shape-shifter? What if he could assume the form of any person he wanted to? This would explain the appearances of Christian Shepherd (who always had weird instructions for John Locke), Alex Linus (Who told Ben that he absolutely had to “follow the orders of John Locke”… what were Locke’s eventual orders? Kill Jacob.), and, for the past few episodes… John Locke?

We’ve noticed how oddly Locke had been behaving recently. How he seemed almost a different person who knew things he shouldn’t have known. And when the people on the island discovered a dead John Locke body in tonight’s episode, there was clearly something bizarre going on. So what if the explanation is simply Esau taking the form of John Locke in order to lead a bunch of people across the island (How many times have we seen people walk back and forth across the island before? I’m guessing 748.) and manipulate Ben and Richard into orchestrating Jacob’s death? Check and mate.

“You found a loophole,” Jacob says to Locke/Esau.

And then, very sinisterly, as he is dying, he whispers to the Lockesau, “They are coming…”

Who’s coming? Could it be those pirates? Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to have them come after all. Maybe they only come in peace for Jacob or something lame like that, and will actually attack Esau.

The point is, Esau found a way to alter reality, and win the game against Jacob, at least for this one day. So where does that leave us, the viewers, for when season six finally arrives eight years from now?

The Final Season

Really, if the show had just ended with tonight’s episode, I would have been thrilled. It would have been one of the great all time, “What the hell was that all about anyway?” questions… way better than the last scene in The Sopranos. Instead, we’re gonna get a whole season of resolutions, but probably not enough to satisfy us loyal fans.

Here’s what I think will happened: When Esau and Jacob wake up for the next round of infinity, things are going to be different. Maybe the pirates will come. Maybe not. But, back in the future, Jack and co. will have never made it to the island, and their lives will be entirely different. But I think we’re gonna get one of those situations where, like Keanu Reeves at the beginning of The Matrix, they live their seemingly normal lives constantly nagged by questions: Is this really what my life is supposed to be like? Why does it feel like there’s something more going on? Why does it feel like there’s something I’m supposed to do? Their lives will be quite similar to how they should have been, but there will be subtle differences that are enough to drive them crazy and, eventually, back to the island to restore the normalcy to their lives (In this sense, normal meaning running around a stupid beach from smoke monsters and angry short guys with flaming arrows and giant statues of Anubis.). We see this kind of thing happen all the time in fiction.

Or maybe not. Maybe everything just starts over. And this time, it’s Esau’s turn to take control of the players. It will be like that episode of The Twilight Zone where a guy has the same nightmare every night that ends with him being executed; every night, there’s the same outcome and the same people are involved, but the people play different roles every time. This is bad news for me because it means Juliette is coming back. Is there anybody in the world who wants that? Agh.

Maybe I have no idea about any of this. I’m sure I’m wrong. But it sure is fun to talk about. And it sure is fun to realize how much better I could have done this semester in school had I put this much thought and energy into French 2102. Oh well.

Much credit belongs to Courtney Haley, with whom I came up with all of this.

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MARCH 10, 2010

None of this ever happened, and we’re coming to confiscate your DVDs to prove that it never happened.

Footnotes

Footnotes
I We see this all the time in movies and literature, the omnipotent beings battling in what is essentially a game of chess. Fighting hand to hand isn’t good enough, so they engage people from the world to act as their pawns and such. Kind of an awesome thing to think about, right? What if everything that happens on Earth is a result of some epic game of chess between God and the Devil? Dude. I think I’d be a Rook. I’d make a good Rook. A straight-shooter all the way.
II The ship reminds me of that other famous TV show about a desert island (other than Survivor), Gilligan’s Island. In every episode, the means to escape the island appear tantalizingly close. It seems a sure thing that, yes, this time Gilligan and the Skipper and everyone else will get rescued by the latest movie star, political activist, or traveling exhibition sports team. But it never happened. Something always went wrong, whether it was Gilligan oversleeping and missing the boat or everybody getting drunk and passing out. And the castaways knew all along that they would never escape, which is why they were never devastated at the end of each episode. They would just return to their exotic tiki huts and eat mangoes. But the pirate ship was (figuratively) always sitting there, just out of reach, teasing them about What Could Have Been.