Sunday, June 07, 2009

Lost: 1x13-2x02

My journey through Lost has continued, bringing me through episodes with some of the series’ best moments, and also some of its most frustrating. The thing that makes the show so annoying is the fact that it’s consistently about 10% genius, 40% good 10% bad and 40% frustratingly drawn out events. Never is that more evident than in the three closing episodes of season one, and the first two of season two.

Let me start with the genius parts. I think the decision to not reveal what was in the hatch in the season one finale was a major mistake in many ways, but the payoff that we finally got in the second season’s premiere was well worth the wait. I love the little world they build in the first few minutes of the episode, giving you huge insight into the day to day life of Desmond, the hatch’s occupant. And, the use of the joyous “Make Your Own Kind of Music” gives everything a surreal feel that works perfectly.

“Make Your Own Kind of Music” powers the other great moment of the premiere, Jack’s delirious journey through the hatch in search of Locke and Kate. The sequence reminded me a lot of the finale of The Prisoner, where “All You Need is Love” blares as Number Six rushes through this bizarre government facility. The filmmaking was great, and the energy reaches a huge peak as the episode ends, and we realize that Jack has met this guy before, brother.

Those two sequences were great enough to make up for a lot of the weaknesses along the way. Season two, at least in its first episodes, maximizes a lot of what’s great about the first season, and what’s frustrating about it. The first season finale is a really problematic episode, paced so slowly you’ve got to figure they left absolutely nothing on the cutting room floor.

I don’t have a problem with slow pacing if it makes sense. The launching of the raft takes a lot more time than you’d expect for a TV show, but it works, giving a real majesty and scale to what’s happening. You believe that this is a critical event in the lives of all involved, and slowing things down lets you really get into the emotion of the moment. These are all their hopes and dreams, sailing away, and in their wordless expressions, we get such insight into how Sun and Jin are feeling. The score magnifies the emotion, and it’s a totally satisfying moment.

However, other than that, “Exodus” is all teasing and no payoff. I think the backhalf of season one is actually pretty solid in terms of developing character and giving us interesting stories that reveal a lot about who the people are in the present, and push them forward. I don’t even think the pacing or flashbacks are that problematic, since they generally work together well. There’s nothing as egregiously mismatched as Charlie’s copy machine vomit story.

Then, “Exodus” comes along, and what should be the culmination of all we’ve seen so far becomes a really limp, drawn out set of episodes that don’t really accomplish anything, the raft story excluded. Part of the problem is structuring the episode around multiple flashbacks, which works at times, like in the Michael and Walt stuff, but then you get a five minute scene of Hurley running to get his flight, which takes you out of the world of the island, and defuses any tension or narrative momentum that’s been built up over the course of the episode. I don’t have any intrinsic problem with that Hurley flashback, it’s a fun scene, and would be great on a deleted scenes section of a DVD, but in the context of the episode, it just detracts from everything else that’s going on.

Film is about casting a spell over the audience. Writing, acting, editing, it’s all about drawing you in and making you believe that what you’re seeing on this screen is ‘real,’ making you feel what the characters feel and experience specific situations and emotions. The goal of this finale seemed to be to build up the threat of the others, through the dual storylines of Jack and co. trying to protect everyone, and Rousseau stealing Claire’s baby. The opening sets up some tension instantly and draws you in to the threat, but from there on, the episode goes so slowly, and has so many digressive flashbacks, you lose the sense of any threat. And, a lot of the character behavior hinges on the idea that there is an immediate threat, so the whole Locke/Jack conflict doesn’t work as well it would if we felt the ticking clock element.

There’s one really good payoff in the episode, and that’s the others stealing Walt and blowing up the raft. I suppose the point was to subvert expectations and have the others pop up where we least expected them, which works in that story, but which also means the rest of this three part episode winds up being a lengthy journey to nowhere.

I watched the whole first season of the show live as it aired, and after the ending cliffhanger, I decided I was done with the show. The entire episode is structured around opening the hatch, to not actually show what’s in the hatch means that we have no payoff at all in the episode. It’s fine if you can watch the next one a day after, but as a season finale, you need a bit more to make it an emotionally satisfying conclusion. And, it wouldn’t bother me so much if the episodes themselves weren’t so absurdly slowly paced.

Now, I don’t want to say that slow pacing can’t work, or that de-centralizing the narrative is by necessity a mistake. On a show like Buffy or Six Feet Under, the characters were so fully drawn, it was nice just to spend time with them, and there wasn’t as big a concern about storyline payoffs. Here, very few of the characters are particularly deep, which means that the narrative has to hold more weight. I think all the Sun and Jin stuff is fantastic, and the Michael and Walt stuff here is great too, I care about those characters. Then, Jack and Locke are interesting in their connection to the thematic development of the series, setting up the faith/reason dichotomy which is made concrete in the title of the second season premiere. It’s a good dynamic, and works.

But, centralizing events around those two characters means that a lot of the other people on the island are left without purpose. The show at the beginning seemed designed to show a cross section of people put together, now most of the ‘civilian’ characters are not doing much, and the populace exists as a device to put Locke and Jack in conflict. People like Charlie, Claire and Shanon really don’t have much to do anymore.

The character who suffers most is Kate, who exists as a wedge to exacerbate conflict between Locke and Jack. It frustrates me to see Jack not let her carry the dynamite for no apparent reason, other than the fact that she’s a woman. It’s a not so subtle sexism that is never really addressed by the show, and diminishes her as a character. Already, most of the female characters are pretty weak, and taking away all her agency makes that even worse. When she says she’s going down the hatch with Locke, it’s not about her action, it’s about Locke winning in his fight against Jack.

It also bothers me that everyone seems so scared of the hatch. On one level, yeah, it’s a mystery on an island with a lot of bad stuff. But, if you’re in the jungle with no hope of escape, a man made structure would seem like the best thing you could hope for, a chance to get back home. I guess I fall on Locke’s side of the argument, believing that things will work out, and not fearing the unknown.

But, in general, I think the show improved in the second half of the first season, and though they’re very frustrating on some levels, particularly the almost tauntingly slow move into the hatch, the first two episodes of the second season open up a whole new realm of stuff for the show to deal with, and I love all the Dharma Institute stuff, from the mysterious button to the Shining like perfectly labeled food pantry.

And, I really like the questions raised by Desmond’s previous conversation with Jack. I’ve heard vague discussion that time travel becomes a factor in the later seasons, and I would guess that Desmond travels back in time after leaving the hatch to go meet Jack at the stadium a few years back, and create a time loop that leads to Jack going to the island in the first place. But, no spoilers on that.

So, I’ll press on. I watched through 2x09 originally, so I’ll soon be in uncharted territory.


Anonymous said...

One of my favorite moments from season 1 is the image of Locke beating his hands in frustration and despair against the hatch door at night, after Boone's death - and the light coming on.
It says so much about the character and presents an interesting idea of faith embodied in this paradoxically scientific artifact.

The season 1 finale is the weakest by a long way-especially the dynamite/Artz stuff.
Having said that, the Black Rock reveal is quite fun and novel.

Yeah the show has gender issues; most of the female characters are too often left at the fringes of the plot.

theoldboy said...

Actually that bit with Hurley trying not to miss the flight is somewhat necessary, because of the continual recurrence throughout it of The Numbers, which are an intriguing concept even if I don't really dig the episode in which they are introduced.

Patrick said...

The element of the numbers in that sequence gives it some narrative relevance, but my major issue with is was that it was tonally totally at odds with the stuff happening on the island. After watching some goofy comedy for five minutes, you lose whatever tension was built up during the rest of the episode.

I think in general, that's one of the major issues with the flashbacks, they make it difficult to build a coherent tone throughout an episode. The best flashbacks flow out of present day events like a fever dream, blurring the events together, the worst take you totally out of the story.

And, I did love that image of the light shining up at Locke through the hatch door. It's a great visual representation of the "man of faith" characterization they built for him over the course of the season.