Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Lost: 3x13-3x16

Each of these four episodes was a success on its own terms, and in general, the show is building some nice momentum. The story is moving forward again after a protracted period of stasis. One of the most intangible elements of any long form series is the viewer’s need to see the next episode. That’s ultimately the goal of any show, to make you want to, need to see the next episode. Be it high brow stuff like The Sopranos and The Wire, or lower brow shows like Buffy and Angel, the shows I love most are all ones that engaged me on that level of absolutely needing to see the next episode, to the point that I’m thinking about the show, theorizing about the show when not watching it.

I think in general that’s one of the things that makes serialized TV, when done right, a more compelling experience than film. It dominates your thoughts not just in the time you actually spend watching it, but when you’re between episodes as well. It’s a long term engagement that enhances the experience of the episodes themselves. In the case of Lost, I spent most of season one, both on the rewatch and the first time through, interested, but never really needing to see the next episode. With season two, the Henry Gale arc was something that had me consistently wondering it would go next, and everything after Michael’s return demanded to be watched. Season three lost that urgency in its first half, but it’s getting there. There’s a lot of threads I’m interested in seeing develop, and all the stories are at a pretty solid place right now.

But, what got them there? Let’s back track to “The Man From Tallahassee,” the payoff to pretty much all the long running arcs from the first part of the season. The story is married to yet another Locke and his dad storyline, but thankfully this one answers the major question from his past, and does a good job of setting up why the island is so important to him. While I generally don’t like the more supernatural side of things, I prefer the mysteries to be science based, I do love both Locke and Ben’s belief in the island as a kind of supernatural life force, taking care of them and giving them what they need.

Ben was riveting in the second season during his incarceration as Henry Gale, but he hasn’t been as effective this season. I think a lot of that is due to the fact that he’s best when he has no power, and has to use his psychological tactics to fight his battles. With Jack, Sawyer and Kate imprisoned, he’s got nothing to do. Confined to a wheelchair with Locke, he’s got to use his wits to survive, and he does so expertly.

I also particularly like Locke’s reasoning that he’s more in tune with the island because Ben’s the one in the wheelchair. Locke this season has seemed vaguely unhinged. He lost his faith last season, and felt that he was wasting his time by pushing the button. His faith was vindicated when the hatch exploded, not only did it show he wasn’t wasting his time, the explosion also sealed the island off from the world, ensuring that they won’t be rescued, which would force John back to the life he hated.

The question arises, why would Locke be so scared of Jack and Juliet leaving the island. He seems to believe that everything on the island happens for a reason, everyone has a part to play, so leaving the island would mean that things wouldn’t happen as the island intended. He is forced to act in the island’s interest to ensure things happen as intended.

And, when he fulfills the island’s will, he gets what he wants. He can walk, he can live the dream of adventure he sought when he signed up for the walkabout experience, and now out of the island’s “magic box” comes the final specter of his old life, his father, imprisoned and powerless before a dominant Locke.

When Ben talks about the “magic box,” I see it as the island’s universal will giving people what they want. He needed a spinal surgeon, one came to him. To trust in the island, to subsume yourself to its natural direction is to get everything you ever wanted. As the flashbacks have so relentlessly clear, everyone has myriad traumas in their past, and time on the island could be a way to come to terms with those traumas. That would explain why so much time has been spent on peoples’ pasts, rather than developing them in the present, but I’d argue that’s more of a coincidence than the writers’ design.

A few episodes later, we find out that Locke is going off with the Others to wherever they’re going. I loved this scene, and it’s got me really excited to see what’s happened to him. Ben told him that the reason he was coming to the camp was to bring John back, because he’s one of the good ones. John has bought into this, and has went over to the other side. Was the same true of the people the others took from the tail side of the plane? Are all the people on the beach side of things not good enough to be part of the Others community? There’s definitely a cult Jonestown kind of feel to things, and I think that’s a really interesting dynamic. Locke believes he has found his place, that he’s chosen, and that’s why he’s leaving the others behind.

Elsewhere, “Expose” is a fun episode that pokes fun at the show, and also does some nice character development with its time jumping story about Nikki and Paolo. This reminded me a lot of a season six era X-Files episode, in its self aware in jokes, and meta comment on the show itself. I thought the opening with Billy Dee Williams was great, and in general I enjoyed the alternate island history, but I think more could have bee done with that. Not that much was done to tweak the existing scenes, there was definitely room for more radical reinterpretations.

One thing I did really enjoy was how Nikki and Paolo find all this stuff in the jungle, and see Ben and Juliet for instance, but don’t tell anyone. On the one hand, it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t tell anyone about this stuff, but I seriously doubt Jack and co. update the bulk of the castaways on what they’re doing. We see Jack as the leader, but maybe Nikki and Paolo don’t consider themselves part of that civilization. I think they made a mistake on the show by having 40 people among the castaways, instead of just the fifteen or so major characters. I suppose they wanted to have a pool of characters to draw on should they want to kill someone or introduce people. The problem is, we have no sense of who these people are at all, or how they relate to things. I don’t think they should have all been developed or focused on, certainly the show can barely service the characters it has.

But, The Wire can easily manage a world with 50 or 60 major people. Why not have more consistent faces in there, people who we may not know as anything more than “that guy,” but still know, and give them stuff to do every once in a while. As they chose to run the show, it would make a lot more sense to only have 20 castaways than to have thirty totally passive people we don’t engage with not doing much of anything on the island.

That’s why I think characters like Nikki and Paolo were a fun addition to the show, since they brought these other characters’ uselessness to the fore. They’re only concerned with themselves, and maybe all the other people there are too. I think the reason they were so hated is because they sucked up screen time at a point in the show when it was stuck in a rut, and they got blamed for that. I’d have liked to see them stick around as background personalities, in the vein of a Bernard and Rose. I also think they were nice comic relief in their absurdity.

But they’re dead now, and their final burial sequence was a really nice Tales from the Crypt or Twilight Zone style farewell. They got what they deserved I guess, and in the process we got another light, but fun episode, with a couple of serious bits. Sneaking the revelation about Sun’s attack into that episode was a smart choice, since the seriousness of what was done to her constrasted well with the generally goofier tone. But, successful though the episode was, I think it could have either been a lot more illuminating, or a lot funnier. As it was, it was too much clip show not enough recontextualizing.

Next up was a fun, though illogical episode centered around Juliet and Kate running around the jungle handcuffed together. You can practically hear the Grindhouse voiceover as they battle each other and get drenched and soaked in mud through the course of the episode. I thought the fight scene with the two of them cuffed was great, and in general it was a really fun scenario. How did Juliet learn to fight like this considering she was a scientist? I guess that’s a question for another flashback, but it worked well here.

What doesn’t work so well on this episode is the totally illogical moment where Juliet uncuffs them all of a sudden and reveals to Kate she’s been running a con. So, the plan was to gain her trust by telling her that she was lying to her about the plan to gain her trust? Seems a bit off to me, particularly when they were almost back to the Other camp, and she could have “found” the key there.

The Smoke Monster is one of the elements of the show that doesn’t really work for me. The use of recognizable real world sound effects, like receipts printing a roller coaster going up chains is distracting, and it doesn’t make too much sense in a reality based context. So, I wasn’t thrilled to see it back here.

Regardless, the next episode is another solid one, as Juliet heads back to the camp, and we find out that she’s running a con on them, or perhaps a double con and is actually double crossing Ben. I guess we’ll find out, I do find the constant cons on the show a bit exhausting. But, the episode worked, and did a better job of integrating and recontextualizing old scenes than the Nikki and Paolo episode.

And perhaps best of all, I’m really excited to see what happens next. There’s a lot of interesting plots running, and Juliet’s presence in the camp will probably incite a lot of lingering tension. Perhaps she’ll also pay off all these coincidental connections in the flashbacks and reveal that Claire is Jack’s sister and other things like that. What will be the point of that? I don’t know, but it’ll probably happen.

The episode also gives us some insight into the world of the Others. The Flame station looks like it was quite a place before Locke blew it up. The connection to the outside world is definitely something he’d want to be rid of, and perhaps Ben knew he’d be going there, and made it easy for him to destroy it.

What is the Others’ master plan remains unknown? But, they become even more like the cylons in Battlestar Galactica here, with the revelation that they’re just trying to have kids. I believe the missing ingredient was love, perhaps that revelation is coming up. But beyond that, what’s the goal? What’s worth fighting and dying for? Maybe we’ll find out more as Locke goes behind the curtain of the Others and gets initiated into their world. I just hope one episode ends with a sad montage of Tom and Jack staring out at the water on their own separate beaches, thinking back about the good times they had together.

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