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Gotta Have Faith: It’s a Wonderful Afterlife…

Well I guess it would be nice…

Battlestar Galactica has a lot to answer for. It seems that religious-themed endings are now in vogue again, at least for mindbending television shows of choice. Both Ashes to Ashes and Lost came to an end within days of each other last week, and both included some fairly noticeable religious themes in their finales. Has religion somehow become a non-taboo subject on mainstream television?

Go in peace...

Note: As the introduction suggests, this article will contain spoilers for the finales of Ashes to Ashes and Lost. I’m posting it about now because I figure that anybody who wanted to watch them has had the chance.

Lost had always been pseudo-religious. One of the earliest theories suggested that everyone died in the plane crash and the island itself was some sort of weird and horrible limbo. Even discounting that, we had the almost godlike Jacob and the light in the heart of man, along with typically religious themes of penitence and forgiveness (along with absolution). However, the finale kicked it up a notch. It turns out that the “flash sideways” universe we’d been witnessing (which many of us suspected was simply a reality where the island never existed) was in fact a form of afterlife for the characters. A place where everyone got to be happy and spend time with the people who really mattered to them – touchingly, the people they met on the island.

Meanwhile, while Lost pulled a twist of jumping forward to after the death of the main characters (the writers have gone to great pains to illustrate that they certainly weren’t dead all along), Ashes to Ashes one-upped it as it revealed the nature of its iconic lead character in its finale a mere 72 hours earlier. Gene Hunt – long suspected of being a shared hallucination, a brain tumour or a million other things – was a dead police office buried in an unmarked grave. His colleagues all shared similar fates. The world that Sam Tyler and Alex Drake had found themselves thrown into was purgatory and did exist in a real and tangible sense, as opposed to being the figment of an imagination.

It’s quite interesting that the notion of an afterlife and of divine intervention has become so popular that two iconic TV shows feel comfortable using it in an unambiguous fashion. Acknowledgement of an afterlife at least heavily implies the existence of the divine. Ashes to Ashes never really explores that angle, while Lost keeps its options open by citing everything from Egyptian to Hebrew to Buddhism. While the particulars are up for debate (and undoubtedly will be discussed to death), it’s interesting to see spirituality broached in such a straightforward manner by two hugely popular television shows.

Cop out?

Religion is, perhaps understandably, a tetchy subject for mainstream properties. Hell, the one place on Earth Roland Emmerich can’t destroy is Mecca – he acknowledged he’d receive death threats for the attempt. Even ignoring the religious strife between adherents of different faith, the past few decades have underscored another religious divide within America itself: that between the faithful and the secular. Given the heat that can be generated because evolution snuck its way into a school curriculum, I don’t think it’s hard to see why Hollywood might stay the hell away from the issue. It’s like all those politics television shows which go out of their way to avoid telling you the party affiliation of the character. Hell, when making a mexploitation film gets you accused of wanting to start a “race war”, it’s almost reasonable for studios to want to steer clear of controversial topics like spirituality.

However, despite the ambiguities as to which particular afterlife the character’s find themselves in (if one subscribes to the theory of “afterlife apartheid”), it’s hard not to imagine Richard Dawkins shaking his fist at his television set. I actually kinda expected a mini-controversy, given how difficult it is to do anything these days without sparking a protest – some statement as to how Lost is pushing an “agenda” of some sort upon its audience, but I’m relieved to here that it hasn’t come. At least not yet.

I think that Battlestar Galactica opened up the way for the discussion of notions like religion and spirituality within the context of network television, and demonstrated that it could be done in a way that wasn’t heavy-handed or moralising. I still maintain that the ending of that particular show undermined some necessary ambiguity by explicitly insisting that “God did it” (though he doesn’t like that name).

Of course, Quantum Leap arguably beat all of these to the punch with its last episode way back in 1990. The show, for those not versed in sci-fi lore, saw a time traveler leaping from body-to-body setting right what once went wrong. Eventually he jumped into a small bar somewhere which was probably heaven and met a bartender who was probably God. He got to do right be his friend one last time before disappearing forever. So maybe Quantum Leap got the ball rolling.

Either way, it’s a tool back in vogue. In fairness, all the “it’s a wonderful afterlife” ending represents is a slight variation upon the classic “it was all a dream” ending, which we’ve seen skilfully (or not) used on season finales of Dallas and series finales of Newhart and St. Elsewhere among others. However, this particular twist on this ending has something to recommend it – it allows the writers to warp reality, without invalidating the characters or the events which came before. Instead of being the idle wandering mind of one individual, it’s a collective experience which is ultimately equally “real” to all participants. Plus, you know, actual closure. The kind of absolute closure you could only get any other way by killing all the cast – and you probably don’t want to end on such a huge downer. The appeal of ending as a narrative device is apparent.

And, after either five seasons of policing the mean streets or quite some time on that god forsaken island, it feels like the characters have earned a bit of peace.

4 Responses

  1. It still amazes me how few people realize what BSG was able to do with their show. They were able to cover almost every social agenda, and still convey it with a touch soft enough that the people that did watch the show didn’t get upset about it, but instead started up conversation.

    If only the majority of the people wouldn’t be scared half to death of something that is on SyFy and takes place in outer space.

    • Yep. I didn’t like BSG ending, but I really admired the show’s exploration of faith and religion. For me the problem was that show (which prided itself on a wonderful moral ambiguity up to that point) decided to unambiguously declare that “God had done it”. It just isn’t faith if you know that God did it.

      I was much happier with Lost and Ashes to Ashes, though.

      • I was away at Basic Training when the final season aired…I was friggin pissed when I missed it. Finally got back home in the summer and caught up with it and I really didn’t mind the ending.

      • I don’t know. I don’t doubt it was a brave and gutsy move (and arguably one befitting the series), but it just didn’t work for me.

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