Posted by: Ken Brown | May 30, 2008

Selfishness and Sacrifice in LOST: There’s No Place Like Home

I only started watching LOST a couple months ago, but thanks to generously offering all four seasons in HD – for free! – I’ve been able to catch up in time to watch the last few episodes live, and man am I hooked. Last night’s season finale reminded me why this has become my new favorite show (sorry Battlestar). “There’s No Place Like Home” had everything I could want in a TV show: mystery and revelation, action and suspense, character and charm, and one shocker of an ending. As Carmen Andres has noted, however, perhaps the best thing about it was its exploration of the opposites of selfishness and sacrifice (spoiler warning).

“There’s No Place Like Home” included a number of powerful moments of selfishness – especially when Ben callously murdered Keamy, knowing full well it could mean the deaths of everyone on the boat – and ultimate sacrifice, as when Michael and Jin stay behind to give the others a chance to escape before the boat is destroyed. As for Ben moving, and leaving, the island, we don’t yet know if that was truly a sacrifice, or yet more selfishness. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this theme lay in the contrast between Jack and Sawyer.

Since the beginning, LOST has presented Jack and Sawyer as opposites: Jack has always been the selfless one, his only goal to ensure that his fellow castaways get home. Sawyer, on the other hand, has always been self-focused, concerned only for his own survival. Even their appearances reflected the contrast – Jack was always clean-cut and respectable, while Sawyer was gruff and uncivilized. But ever since Season Three ended with a drunk and bearded Jack, back in Los Angeles, actually hoping another plane will crash so that he might return to the island, their roles have been reversed. Throughout Season Four we’ve seen him descend from everything he stood for, most notably when he held a gun to Locke’s head and pulled the trigger in “The Beginning of the End.” Now in the two-part Season Finale we find that three years after escaping the island, he has not only become a drunk, but has abandoned Kate and Aaron, and is willing to do just about anything – even trust Ben – to get back.

Meanwhile, Sawyer has moved the opposite direction, and broken free from his old selfishness. Again, we saw a hint of this (though not the first) at the end of Season Three, when Sawyer turned back to save Sayid, Jin and Bernard in “Through the Looking Glass.” His newfound nobility has also been seen, for instance, in “The Shape of Things to Come,” when he risked his life to save Claire from the attack on the Barracks. Now in the two-part finale, his transformation seems to be complete. In the first half, he turned Jack’s signature line (“live together or die alone”) against him, by insisting that “You don’t get to die alone.” Then in the second half, he does what even Jack was unwilling to do: sacrifice himself to save the rest in the helicopter. While Jack remains silent, it is Sawyer who tells Kate he loves her then gives up his chance to escape. I love the symbolism too: his plunge into the water seems a kind of baptism, which leads to new life for himself (back on the island) and for the rest (who escape on the helicopter). Jack, meanwhile, is nothing more than a spectator to this scene, and as we have seen – he comes to dearly regret that he too did not stay behind.

In so reversing Jack and Sawyer’s roles, LOST has not only presented a powerful image of the nature and results of these two essential options – life-giving sacrifice or soul-destroying selfishness – but also emphasized the inescapably present choice between them. The decision between selfishness and sacrifice is not once for all, but a constant demand. It doesn’t matter how noble Jack was, unless he continues to be so. It doesn’t matter how selfish Sawyer was; for today he can make a new start. Virtue is never satisfied with the past, but awaits each new decision. No one can rest on their past deeds as proof of their character or hope, and no one is so far lost that they can’t find their way home. Sawyer seems to have learned that, as did Michael and Charlie and many others before them; I just hope that Jack, too, will remember it before the end.



  1. ken, wow, i can see the advantage of watching the series over a short period of time – you really pick up on some good stuff i’ve missed/forgotten! i particularly like how you articulate the play between selflessness/sacrifice and selfishness. i noticed a bit of that, but it didn’t really click (or articulate it nearly as well as you) until i read your post.

    sawyer’s “baptism” was one of the other things i missed. oh, no. moments like that tend to doom island residents to death, ack.

    and, if your interested, yesterday i ran across this tidbit on wikipedia’s site on jack shephard:

    “Throughout the series, it has been stated numerous times that Jack is a natural leader. This has been demonstrated many times by his ability to think quickly and analyze crisis situations. Jack intentionally represses many of his emotions of fear and anxiety, usually in order to remain strong for the other crash survivors. The emotion that he seems to repress most, however, is his deep love for Kate Austen, which he has only twice ever fully admitted to, and even then only once in a very emotional tone of voice. This seems to be because he believes that Kate does not/cannot love him, but rather loves Sawyer, and therefore, there is no point in telling her of his deep devotion. Jack’s habit of repression sometimes does flare out, usually in his propensity to become violent when he is enraged. He is also prone to become highly obsessive, which also can lead to violence. Jack is a deeply self-centered person and his quest to get his crashmates off the island is mostly about his inability to relinquish control and his fear of failure and loss of respect.”

    interesting, eh. i don’t know who wrote it up, but it’s an interesting way to look at jack.

  2. I really like that analysis of Jack as a description of what he has become, but he hasn’t always been this way. In the first couple seasons especially he was genuinely selfless, and didn’t show any real obsession or rage. But since the end of Three, even though he has continued to do many selfless things, you can definitely see that a shift has occurred in his motivation, and so his results. I wonder if it was his time imprisoned by the Others which started his decline? The timing is about right.

    I’m glad you brought up the Jack-Kate-Sawyer relationship. It seems like a microcosm of the whole selfless/selfish tension as the two guys also bring out these aspects of Kate’s personality, but again the roles have been switched – now it’s Sawyer who brings Aaron to Kate to care for when Claire disappears, while Jack leave Kate to care for him (his nephew!!) by herself!

    Oh, but I don’t think you need to worry about Sawyer kicking the bucket; he’s the most popular character. Though did you see that he (along with Desmond) was one of the two “alternates” they filmed in the coffin so that the cast and crew wouldn’t be able to spoil the ending?

  3. Great post. Thank you for drawing out that message so clearly.

  4. this has been rolling around in the back of my mind — thanks for putting it into words. It’s a powerful theme, and although my heart sinks with every step jack takes toward downhill, I have been inspired by the change I’ve seen in sawyer. amazing show.

  5. […] Jack, Sawyer, and Selflessness By jamesbradfordpate After this last week’s Lost episode, I thought about Ken Brown’s post from May 30, 2008, Selfishness and Sacrifice on LOST. […]

  6. […] the possible exception of Sayid, all of these “sideways world” story-lines have been redemptive. Kate escapes from custody and helps Claire decide to keep her baby (even the creepy Other Ethan […]

  7. Since the beginning, LOST has presented Jack and Sawyer as opposites: Jack has always been the selfless one, his only goal to ensure that his fellow castaways get home. Sawyer, on the other hand, has always been self-focused, concerned only for his own survival. Even their appearances reflected the contrast – Jack was always clean-cut and respectable, while Sawyer was gruff and uncivilized.

    Oh for Pete’s sakes! Why must you reduce these two to cliches? Both Jack and Sawyer had their virtues. However, both were seriously flawed men. Why couldn’t you just accept that?

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