Sunday, July 05, 2009

Lost: 3x17-3x22

This batch of episodes features answers to some of the major ongoing questions surrounding the series, as well as a format changing event that promises a much better show in future seasons. I’ve seen the first four of the fourth season, but I’ll stick primarily to the end of season three, because there’s a lot of stuff to talk about there, and then I’ll probably do another post exploring the start of the fourth season.

Let me start at the end, with the twist that alters the formal structure of the series and opens up a whole new range of interesting possibilities. I’d heard about this twist in the ether when the show was airing, so I knew what to expect going in, but it was still quite a moment when Kate showed up in the final moments and you realize the full extent of what we’ve just watched.

I think the sequence was deliberately designed to be, to some extent, a generic Jack flashback. But, it also had an intensity that’s missing from typical flashbacks, so that even without the flashforward element, there was still a deeply apocalyptic feel to the events, particularly Jack’s insane ranting about his father in the hospital. Seeing a scene of flashbacks like this makes it clear how often the flashbacks were just phoned in, without any real emotional investment.

I think it’s tough in a show with twenty-two episodes to keep up the intensity and emotional engagement that the best of the show offers on a consistent basis. Why couldn’t previous Jack flashbacks be as simple and powerful as this one? The answer is because it’s very, very difficult to do so, and that’s why it’s great to leave behind such a tired storytelling device in favor of something new. So, the flash forward is a very welcome change, and that cliffhanger made me jump right over to the first episode of the fourth season. I imagine it was a very long summer when that first aired.

The finale as a whole was a bit frustrating because the episode basically just stopped and relied on that final twist to cap it all off. It certainly was a strong note to close on, but I feel like I would have liked to see a bit more resolution to the island story itself. The season two finale is still my favorite episode of the series, and even though it left a bunch of cliffhangers, there was a strong feeling of emotional resolution. The creators had learned their lesson from not revealing the interior of the hatch in season two, and gave a strong sense of closure there. The destruction of the hatch was a cathartic moment of almost religious transcendence, and nothing in this episode matched that.

I think part of what frustrated me was that the setup was so engaging and effective, weaving a tapestry of approaching doom for our heroes that reached its height in the season’s penultimate episode, “Greatest Hits.” It all started with the return of Locke to the camp, and his trip with Sawyer to kill his father. I loved the flashbacks to Locke with the others, which gave us further hints of their society, though even at season’s end, it remains unclear what their overall goal on the island is, or why Cindi has joined up so fervently.

But, at least we find out that they presumably captured Anthony Cooper and brought him to the island for John to kill, as a final test of John’s allegiance to the man that he was. Locke claims that he won’t be a murderer, despite shoving Mikhail into the security thing mere episodes before and seemingly killing him without remorse. At this point, Locke and Ben are in a strange relationship, Locke’s loyalty has transcended either side in the conflict, he believes he serves the will of the island. On his messiah kick, he might feel that just killing this man would be wrong, but to let Sawyer do it is a way of letting the island work its will in another way.

The scene with Sawyer gradually realizing this is the man he’s been looking for for so many years is really well done as well. I love his slow build rage, culminating in the vicious death by choking. The island brought Locke a way of doing what needed to be done, and he has used it to bring about his desired end.

This leads to one of my favorite episodes of the series to date, the trip into Ben’s backstory, “The Man Behind the Curtain.” The episode works equally well in the present on the island, as Locke and Ben travel off in search of Jacob, as it does in the past, with our first sustained glimpse into the world of the Dharma Initiative on the island.

The three minute Marvin Candle video from “Orientation” is still my favorite moment of the show to date, and this is the first time since then that we get a real new insight into what the Dharma group was about, and how they functioned on the island. It feels like a mix of cult and commune, with everyone in very defined roles, presumably working for the good of the whole while living a kind of fantasy existence apart from the world as a whole.

Everything we see of the group seems like an ideal world, but there are hints of darkness underneath. While Ben’s at school, there’s some kind of attack, which may or may not be the incident referred to in the Hatch video. It’s also unclear how much of the experiments surrounding the Hatch and Pearl station were going on at this time. Things seem so good, but presumably all those experiments were happening at this time, the shiny surface a mask for some of the more sinister explorations going on underneath.

We’re also told once and for all that Dharma and the Hostiles are two distinct groups, thanks to the appearance of the seemingly ageless Richard Alpert. Alpert’s name is drawn from a philosopher/guru, also named Richard Alpert. I read his book “Be Here Now” a few months ago, and it focused mainly on transcending materialism and the structures of society and expanding one’s mind through Buddhist practices and the use of LSD. That would fit with the idea of the Hostiles as people retreating from traditional society. If Richard is seemingly immortal, is that due to the power of the island? Why does he not age when he’s off island visiting Juliet? That’s unknown, what is significant is that Richard sees in Ben someone who’s in deep communion with the island and has the potential to be important down the line.

Ben winds up working with the Hostiles to kill his father and wipe out seemingly the entire Dharma commune. The show has always dealt with bad dads, but seldom in so explicitly oedipal and Freudian a scenario as we see here. Roger “Work Man” has nothing but disdain for Ben after he “killed” his mother. A Freudian reading would likely be that Roger’s hatred for Ben is the same subconscious hatred that all men feel towards their kids in competing for the love of their mother. That’s the reverse Oedipal, on the same level, Ben is drawn to his mother, and winds up killing his father, seemingly a way of proving his love for his mother. I’m sure on some level his affection for his mother is harmless, but the way it’s presented, there’s an element of transgressive danger, which gives it that oedipal feel.

The scene of Ben converging on the compound to find all the dead bodies is one of the most powerful images the show has come up with to date, and was nicely expanded on in the present when Ben throws Locke into the Dharma mass grave. There’s definitely a significance to Locke winding up in that grave, and it all seems to tie in to Ben’s relationship to his new father figure, the mysterious Jacob.

Jacob has been mentioned before, but here we get the background on him, he’s the mysterious force or person guiding Ben’s actions on the island. But, who exactly he is and why he does the things he does remains shrouded in mystery. With Locke challenging Ben for authority among the Others, and for connection to the island, via his healing, Ben decides to bring Locke to Jacob, probably hoping that Locke will not see what he sees, vindicating Ben’s leadership.

The clear allegory here is Jacob as God. To believe in Jacob without evidence of his existence is faith. By controlling access to Jacob, Ben puts himself in the priestly role of interpreting the word of God for the people, and thus preserves his importance to the camp. Without him, they would be directionless, receiving no guidance from Jacob. The question arises what did these people do before Ben came along? Was there a previous prophet who saw Jacob, was there a similar Ben/Locke rivalry in the past?

Locke goes with Ben, and winds up at the creepy cabin in the woods. I love this setting, both in its initial appearance, and later in the season four premiere when Hurley has an even trippier visit there. I latch on to certain concepts with this show, the Dharma stuff is a big one, but Jacob’s cabin is another that just grips my mind for whatever reason. On one level, you could view it as a sort of cheesy poltergeist style scene, but I think the whole thing worked wonderfully.

Locke seems to have no faith, and thinks he’s exposed the fraud perpetuating the myth of the Wizard of Oz, only to find out that Jacob is apparently quite real, and tells Locke to “help me.” Locke sees no one in the chair, except for a brief moment when he catches someone’s face. It would seem to Jacob appears to people based either on their faith in him, or their connection to the island.

The significance of “help me” is unclear as well. Is it that Jacob is trapped by Ben somehow, or did he just tell Locke that so when Ben asked him later on what Jacob said to him, Locke would say “help me,” in the context of asking for help for his gunshot. Either way I’m intrigued, I thought the hints of Jacob in the first part of the season seemed kind of pointless, but I really like him now, or at least the idea of him, and am intrigued to see more. The idea of Jacob in general feels very Stephen King, and Dark Tower in particular. And, I think the show is at its best when it has the genre bending quasi-pulp, quasi-religious feel of those books.

One of, if not my biggest, issue with the build up to the finale was the handling of Jack in the last few episodes. I like the idea that Sayid and Desmond feel they can’t trust him with the discovery of Naomi, creating a kind of low scale schism in the camp that makes a lot of sense. Even if they can trust Jack still, I think their faith in Juliet should be shaky at best. But, then the show goes and turns that whole storyline into an excuse to mess around with the Jack/Juliet/Kate/Sawyer quardrangle. And, the way things play out, we wind up with Jack simultaneously angry at them for not telling him about Naomi and telling them that he had a secret plan just he and Juliet knew about.

I’m still not sure how the show feels about Jack at this point. Characters will call him out on his behavior from time to time, but he stills seems to be positioned as the hero, and I think that’s a really tired, boring approach. If you suspect Jack of colluding with the Others, would him saying he has a secret plan with Juliet dispel those suspicions? Wouldn’t it only enhance them?

Regardless, the return of Karl, and their frantic prep with the dynamite works really well, as we get some final emotional moments before splitting everyone apart. Charlie, who’d been raked through a series of awful storylines in season two, has made it back to being a pretty likable character by the end of season three. He became part of a likable B team of characters with Jin, Desmond and Hurley, and the ongoing specter of his imminent death moved closer and closer as the season progressed. That funereal element was enhanced by a strong series of flashbacks, which tripped through the best moments in his life. I’ll admit I dreaded the onset of more Charlie flashbacks, but this batch worked great.

In general, the buildup to the finale was fantastic. Pieces were being moved around, but there was a heavy sense of emotion, and Charlie and Claire’s parting in particular was really sad and emotional. In a lot of cases, it’s the buildup to the action that really matters, that’s where the emotion is. The action itself functions as a release for the audience, real tension is in knowing something awful is coming and moving inexorably towards it.

And, Charlie’s boat trip is a great example of that, as he and Desmond sail out to the underwater hatch, each knowing what has to happen. I think Charlie hitting Desmond with the oar was a bit over the top, but ultimately necessary for the story. Though, Desmond doesn’t seem to have handed over the list, I guess it got too wet in his swim, or perhaps we’ve just moved on.

I loved the underwater hatch, which felt like something right out of an old Bond movie. The arrival of one eyed unstoppable villain Mikhail only enhanced that. In general, I think the underwater hatch stuff was the best payoff of the finale, with real tension and emotional closure with Charlie’s death. The two major issues I had were the continual rebirth of Mikhail. The grenade was one jump too many, why not have it be one of the women out there? The other issue was the fact that it wasn’t quite clear why Charlie couldn’t escape. I guess he felt he had to die to keep the timeline and get Claire off the island, but surely they could have had some switch that required him to stay in there, and build the scenario so his death was more necessary than it seemed.

Elsewhere in the finale, the shootout at the camp was great, a really exciting and well executed action sequence. Because TV shows are working with such a smaller budget, I feel like the action sequences are much more thought out and well integrated into the plot than in most blockbuster movies. I thought this sequence was really tight and fun to watch in the way that the bloated CGI fests of something like Wolverine or Transformers aren’t. Of course, a big part of that is our emotional connection to the characters, but as I said before, it’s that buildup that makes the scene work, the intricate groundwork laid down that makes the scene play well.

But, in the case of this episode, the buildup was the high point since we got very little resolution for what was going on in the island. It remains unclear why Ben went out to meet them alone, apart from plotting reasons. What was his strategy, to just tell them not to get rescued? That seems absurd, though clearly his point about people having no reason to leave resonates with the flashbacks it was juxtaposed against.

The show, in its reality based premise, puts every viewer in a kind of what if position, thinking about what we’d be on the island. Would I be the Jack? The Locke? The Nikki and Paolo? Ostensibly, the plane crash is an awful event, and not something we’d want to undergo, but the show also offers a fantasy for the viewer, the fantasy of living a life of adventure and urgency, far away from the more sedate civilized lives we live here. In this world, a boring office guy like Locke can realize his true potential and become a hero. I’d argue that a show like this, and other post apocalyptic narratives, ostensibly offer a nightmare scenario that is actually a dream scenario. The show isn’t saying it would be terrible to crash, it’s saying it would be amazing, that within all of us lies an adventurer, just waiting to be unleashed.

And, the flashforward reinforces the idea that going home only brings back all the old problems that people had been running from. No one had a happy life off the island, so why would they want to leave? It’s something to work towards, a purpose. What purpose do they have once they’re home? Then, all the problems resurface and Jack has to find a new purpose, in this case, to go back to the island.

Locke can forsee this, and is doing everything he can to keep people on the island. He is a zealot, believing he works in the island’s service, the island told him to “help me,” and now he’s going to do that. So, he knifes Naomi, throwing everything into chaos. Jack has seemingly led the people to salvation, now Locke raises the idea that he might be a false prophet.

And then things basically end. The helicopters are imminent, and rescue seems in sight. Clearly someone got rescued, but how and why will wait until next year. I think the episode was pretty strong on the whole, and the buildup was great, but I would have liked a bit more emotional closure in the island’s present day. But, I suppose the first time through, people were just thinking about those mind blowing final moments, and not so concerned about anything else.

The third season’s in the books, and it was easily the show’s most inconsistent, featuring some of the series’ best episodes, but also indulging in a lot of its worst tendencies early on. If I had to rank them on the whole, I’d say season two was probably the strongest, season three second and season one the weakest. I know people still worship season one as some kind of platonic ideal of the show, when the flashbacks were great and everything worked, but I think the ideas at play here are so much more interesting than the simple presence of the Monster or some random Nigerian people. And I think Ben and Juliet are much more compelling than Boone or Shanon or most of the original castaways.

But, I’m someone who generally likes shows better as they go on. I think it’s because I have such an investment in long form narrative, I’m more concerned with character and thematic evolution than in story. Yes, the stories on an episode by episode basis in season one were probably tighter, but I prefer the sprawling, ambition of this season, and I’d hate to see the show “go back to basics.” The flashbacks in many cases never worked right from the beginning. The first Sawyer flashback episode is a total mess, and the first Charlie is equally awful. And I find the question being asked in this series of episodes much more interesting than anything in season one.

I give season two the slight edge because it had a stronger first half, and a better emotional payoff in the finale. But, this season had many fantastic episodes, and most importantly, made it through the dark time to probably the strongest sustained run of episodes to date, with the stuff from “One of Us” on.

And, as I said, I’m already into season four, which is proving to be the best season to date. I don’t think all the show’s flaws are fixed, but it’s consistently much stronger than any season to date. More on that soon.

5 comments:

crossoverman said...

The season three finale got me back into the show full time - but the fourth season is definitely the show's strongest overall.

Patrick said...

It definitely seems that way from the few episodes I'v seen so far. I can't believe they kept the flashback gimmick going for so long, you get sort of inured to it after a while, but it's such a poor use of screentime. And then I read interviews from the era where the producers talk about how bored they were writing flashback stories, it's like, yeah, why don't you just putting them in then. So, at least they finally got around to fixing things.

Keith said...

Yay, I'm excited to start reading your thoughts on Season 4. Rewatching that season was what made me ping you about this show again. I keep telling people it's probably the best season of serial television I've ever seen, miles above BSG and B5 for me. Tells one complete exciting story.

Anonymous said...

I think the writers in other interviews still defend their choice to tell stories in flashbacks; it seems to me the main issue stems from these earlier seasons being constrained to tell their stories in 23 or 25 episode runs prior to the deal with the network. Combined with the inevitable stalling due to the lack of an end date at the time exacerbates the flashback's seeming redundancy, and excessiveness to the narrative they are trying to move.
Later seasons do not entirely jettison the classic Lost structure of moving in time, but instead the flashbacks/forwards etc. are allowed to carry more of the plot, rather than just amounting character details, or going over old ground!

I agree with Keith as to the effectiveness of Season 4 in telling its story, which gives me faith that the writers will be able to dramatise the final season in a way that gives sufficient closure to the series.

Patrick said...

I'm definitely liking season four, though so far I don't know if I'd place quite up with the best of BSG. It's probably more consistent than BSG which, even if I do love it, never had a season that made it all the way through without a slow patch in the middle. I think having a shorter number of episodes definitely helps focus things, so far, there's been no real duds in the fourth season. Every episode has had at least a few really interesting sequences, if not a totally engaging story.