Monday, July 06, 2009

Lost: 4x01-4x09

As I mentioned, I’ve been rolling along through Lost’s fourth season. A Fourth of July weekend spent watching many episodes has me backlogged for blogging, just writing about it as I’m approaching the end of another season already.

When I started rewatching Lost, I was fine with revisiting episodes I’d already seen, but it’s this territory of the show that I was really curious about, the moment where people stopped complaining about it and started embracing it again. I’d heard a lot of wild things about what happened in the two most recent seasons, and to date, I’d say that the fourth season is by far the most consistent, and pretty easily its best, though some of the problems of the past do still persist. But, in general I’ve been really impressed by the way they restructured the series, and turned the persistent generation of questions rather than answers into a strength, making it possible to keep us interested in the events of both the present on island timeline, and the future “Oceanic Six” stuff.

The biggest surprise for me so far has been the fact that even after nine episodes, the six people to be rescued still haven’t made it off the island. Following the revelations of “Through the Looking Glass,” I assumed we’d take an episode, maybe two of three at most, to get Jack and co. off the island, then split our time between on island storylines and off. It obviously didn’t turn out that way, since we’re almost at the end of the season, and no one’s even left. So, I’m assuming that the Six won’t actually leave until the season finale, and presumably they won’t be leaving on the freighter as originally assumed.

One of the best choices the producers made was setting up the idea that a limited number of people make it off the island, and raising the question of how both Hurley and Jack could make it off the island, if Hurley goes with Locke’s nativist crew to the Others’ camp. What series of events could occur to bring Hurley, Jack and Kate back together to get off the island? That’s the question underlying the first couple of episodes.

The highlight of the first episode was definitely the disorienting sequence where Hurley encounters Jacob’s cabin in the woods, and trips out as its spatial orientation seemingly shifts around him. I loved the original Jacob’s cabin sequence, and am really interested in seeing Hurley, Locke and Ben get back there, which will presumably happen in the upcoming episode “Cabin Fever.” But, this glimpse of it was enough to intrigue for the next batch of episodes.

It’s probably a bit hypocritical to criticize the show for the random mysticism of something like the Smoke Monster, then rank the random appearances of Jacob’s cabin as one of my favorite things on here. I think the reason the cabin works is because it’s a more benign fear. There’s nothing inherently menacing about the cabin out there in the woods, but it has such an aura around it, partially because of how Ben described it when he and Locke traveled there, but also due to the way its presented in the story. It’s like how in Doctor Who, I could tell that the Daleks were a huge deal, even though I’d never seen the old show. Just the way that they were presented made it clear this mattered, and that’s how it feels with Jacob’s cabin. I also think the presentation of the physical cabin is more effective than the CG smoke monster, though the monster does get a great moment in “The Shape of Things to Come.”

Anyway, the next episode introduces a bunch of new characters, all of whom seem pretty interesting, though they haven’t gotten the chance to do that much yet. One thing that’s interesting about the season is the way that the pacing makes it feel like very little time has passed, I’d guess it’s maybe five days since the season finale nine episodes in, but it still feels like a lot of stuff has happened. The people from the freighter aren’t that well established, most of them slipping into the background following their spotlight episode, but Faraday and Miles both have had some good moments, and I think they all had pretty compelling introductions.

The nature of their mission has become a bit clearer as the season has gone on. It seems like they’ve been sent by Widmore to capture Ben, so that Widmore can get Ben out of the way and take over the island, using it to forward his own interests. Based on the flashforward in “The Shape of Things to Come,” it seems like the mission goes awry, possibly thanks to Michael sabotaging the boat, and Widmore is now scrambling to find another way to the island. Based on the information I’ve got now, it seems like Widmore is involved with the Dharma Initiative in some way, and he knows about Ben releasing poison gas to kill the Dharma people a few years back.

The question arises of when exactly that gassing scene was supposed to take place. It’s hard to say based on the actor’s age, but considering the clothes they were all wearing, it seemed like it was the 80s at latest, though perhaps fashions change slower on the island. Either way, it seems like there’s been an eternal struggle between forces seeking to use the island for the betterment of the mainland, and the Hostiles/Others, who want to keep the island to themselves. Ben, like Locke, now finds himself a disciple of the island, seeking to defend it from all who would attempt to use it for their own agenda.

It’s also notable that at this point in the show’s run, virtually all of the original characters are essentially irrelevant to the show’s master narrative. I’m sure people debate endlessly the question of whether the creators had a plan from the beginning, or if they’ve been making it up, a debate which I’d argue is predicated on a false legitimacy of some original plan. The world that you create on paper and the world that exists when something is actually made is hugely different, and it makes sense to make the best use of the resources you have.

I’ve already mentioned how the show seems to “burn” through its characters because it doesn’t really let them grow. Sun and Jin have moved forward to some extent, but they haven’t really changed that much because of the island. Their relationship has moved to a stasis point, but there hasn’t been the sort of really dynamic character growth you see on something like Buffy or The Sopranos. The greatest strength of Buffy is the way that the characters feel totally different in season six versus season one, to the point that just jumping from one to the other you’d probably think it’s impossible that these could be the same people. But, watching the show, you see the gentle evolution that moves them forward, and makes it clear that it’s the same person underneath. Sun and Jin, or Claire or even Jack and Kate are basically the exact same people they were in season one, it’s only their circumstances that have changed.

The lengthy reliance on the flashback structure precluded a serious evolution of character, because the structure made all character evolution a function of past experience. I think that was a huge mistake because it prevents people from changing based on what was presumably the biggest trauma/moment of their lives, the plane crash itself.

The characters who remain interesting and relevant to the plot are the ones who’ve changed on the island. Locke is the central example, he has a key role in the island mythology, and with the death of his father, he’s definitively severed ties to the man he once was.

Sawyer has also remained prominent, and made the very relevant point to Kate that there’s no reason for him to go back to the mainland. He’s got a better life on the island than on the mainland, and through his transformation into something of a hero, he’s proven that he can be a better person. His relationship with Kate is handled in a really strange way, as she continually uses him, with no particular motivation behind her actions. I suppose she’s mad at him for being happy that she isn’t pregnant, but should that be the only thing directing her behavior. Shouldn’t she be right with Sawyer on not wanting to go back home?

Her character is written in a nonsensical way most of the time, veering from damsel in distress at the start of season three to competent action hero later on. Here, we see her in the future back home, and still get little insight into her behavior. Why does she keep so distanced from Jack? Why does she choose to take on care of Aaron?

One thing that always bothers me in works of fiction, particularly TV shows, is when female characters get pregnant. I think being pregnant is often done as a cheap cliffhanger, like “I love you” to bring gravity to a character’s relationship without really justifying it. And, being pregnant invariably makes the woman a weaker character. So, it bothers me to put such emphasis on all the female characters as potential baby growing engines, which is what Juliet’s presence, and the question of the mysterious pregnant woman deaths on the island does. And, making Kate a mother off the island only dulls that character as well. Can’t one woman on the show be defined by not being a mother or potential mother? How long until we get to the flashback where we find out that Juliet became a fertility doctor because she couldn’t get pregnant herself?

In light of the Jack/Kate continued flirtation, the seemingly developing relationship between Jack and Juliet feels odd. The writers continually bounce back and forth, with no insight into why the characters are behaving the way they are. Why not bring all that tension to the surface and resolve it once and for all? But, I suppose it gives those characters something to do, since they’re all pretty much irrelevant to the overall plot of the show.

But, I don’t really miss any of those original characters, largely because they’re not as interesting as the new people. Ben, Desmond, Charles Widmore, even the freighter people are all more dynamic than most of the originals. I think a major part of that is the fact that the show started out dealing with a whole bunch of different types of characters on an island trying to survive. That’s not what the show is about at this point. It’s about some kind of long lasting, globe spanning power struggle for control of a mysterious island. So, people like Sun and Jin don’t have a huge role to play in that power struggle. I still think their individual episodes are effective, and I’d argue that you could give the characters more stuff to do, particularly Jin, but the way they’re written that doesn’t happen.

So, Ben basically takes over the show, and it seems like the central conflict will involve Ben trying to kill Penny Widmore as revenge, possibly manipulating Desmond as a way to find her. That will bring Desmond in conflict with Ben, but Ben will surely try to manipulate and control the situation.

I should mention a bit about “The Constant,” an episode that seems to be one of, if not the show’s most beloved. I went in with those expectations, and as such probably wasn’t as blown away as most people. I think that the stuff with Penny and Desmond in “Flashes Before Your Eyes” was more effective than the army scenes, but I did love the implications of Desmond and Faraday figuring out the nature of his time travel. The question that still lingers is whether Desmond always did these things in the past, and he’s just playing out a time loop now, or if he’s actually changing the future by doing this.

But, the high point of the episode was definitely the phone call between Penny and Desmond at the end. I love the idea that the love the two of them share is what connects them across time, and is what ultimately anchors him in the present. It’s a very efficient metaphor, and the emotion of their reunion, even if it was only on the phone was palpable. In speaking to her, he not only vindicates his sanity and save himself, he also proves that she still loves him, he’s got someone waiting for him when he gets home. So, it was definitely a great episode, though I wouldn’t say it’s the series’ best.

“The Other Woman” indulged in a lot of old Lost bad habits, particularly the nonsensical motivations of Charlotte and Dan in the power station. If their goal all along was to turn off the gas, why not tell Kate that rather than act all mysterious and smack her on the head with the gun? If it was to release the gas, why stop just because Juliet is there? Either way, it makes no sense. That said, I did like the way that Ben made such a point of saying that he owned Juliet. The scene worked, but because the characters have been separated for so long, it didn’t have any immediate relevance to what was going on. As played, it became an excuse for Jack and Juliet to kiss in the present.

This season also brings us the return of Michael, which was spoiled a bit by Harold Perrineau’s presence in the credits from the start. I’d been vaguely aware that he’d return to the show at some point, but his appearance would have been a bigger surprise had he not been in the credits for six episodes before appearing. “Meet Kevin Johnson” wasn’t a season highlight, but it’s interesting to see him back, dealing with the consequences of what he did. His flashback story prefigures the sort of existential post island trauma that Jack and Hurley deal with in their respective flashforwards.

The flashforwards do invert the show’s structure, and to some extent the show’s axis of action has moved off the island, but even there, it’s not really about what our characters are going through. The off island action that matters is the Widmore and Ben stuff. I loved the reveal at the end of “The Economist” that Sayid was working for Ben. In general, Sayid is much more interested as the emotionally burnt out James Bond figure than doing yet another guilt about torturing flashback.

The flashforwards work because we’re inherently more interested in them than in the past stuff. I suppose at one time there was a novelty to being like what was Boone up to off the island or something like that. Now there’s a novelty in seeing what people do after they’re rescued, and also finding out who was rescued in the first place. Most importantly, we’ve got this ongoing mystery of why they chose to lie about what happened on the island, which all connects to the ongoing Ben/Widmore conflict. But, it’s still at the core the same structure as the flashbacks, juxtaposing the island story with another thematically connected story. The difference is that now we’re actually interested in both sides of the story.

The Ben/Widmore conflict came to a head in what I’d say was the best episode of the season to date, “The Shape of Things to Come,” which throws the little society Locke has created into chaos when the freighter people come to retrieve Ben. I loved seeing Ben get gradually more freedom in the camp, he knows exactly how best to play Locke to get what he wants. I also liked the nod to Philip K. Dick’s Valis, which deals a lot with the will of a mysterious godlike entity, in this case the pink lazer called Zebra. I’ll have to see how the season plays out to see if the Valis nod has any deeper meaning.

Anyway, everything gets kicked up a notch when Ben fortifies his camp and remains seemingly in control of the situation even as they’ve got his daughter at gunpoint. The great twist here is that Alex actually does get shot, prompting Ben to declare that the rules of the game have changed.

I’m a bit frustrated by Alex’s death, I think the character had a lot of potential, and I’d have loved to see more of her relationship with Rousseau. This is a kid who’s presumably never left the island, how would she feel to go back to the mainland? But, if she had to die, at least this way she went out making a big impact on the story.

I also wish we got to see a Rousseau flashback before she got killed. For a character who’d been on the show so long, her death was pretty abrupt, but the cast is already so crowded, I guess somebody had to go.

Ben summons the smoke monster and the monster has his best appearance ever, ripping up the soldiers and clearing the way for everyone to escape. This episode is one of the best juxtapositions of on and off island action, since we already see the impact of what happened with Alex. It changes the stakes, and puts Ben’s goals in conflict with Desmond’s reunion with Penny. At this point, Ben is essentially the protagonist of the show, the one who actually does things that push the story along, while everyone else reacts.

That final Widmore/Ben scene hints at a lot of stuff in the island’s history, and I’m eager to see the presumed connection between Widmore and Dharma, as well as some background on how the rules of their conflict got established.

So, I’m loving the show right now. It’s a lot tighter than it was before. There’s still some frustrating stuff, particularly with the Jack/Juliet/Kate axis, but the rest of the show’s pretty strong, and I can’t wait to see what happens when Locke, Ben and Hurley get to Jacob’s cabin, and presumably get the direction that will guide them to the next stage of the storyline. I'm hoping to catch up to the end of season five by the time I go to comicon, so I'll be able to go and see the Lost panel there. At this rate, I think I'll make it.


shlomo said...

for me i think there reallywas a point that i accepted that the characters wouldnt talk to each othewr about certain things, and that Ben functioned as the writers stand-in, always manipulating and throwing out possibilities. I stopped asking the obvious frustrated questions, but I never did warm up to ben. And the ben-widmore flash-foward confrontation left me feeling irriatted that the show had seemed to become a a childish competition between the two of them.

I would say my favirote epsiodes somewhat synch up with yours: i loved the S2 and S3 finales. but I also loved the constant.

a more gneeral comment/question: as someone who has unequivocably stated that they love long-form serial-dramas. how does one best appreciate LOST after its over? its not like buffy where you can pop in any epsidoe at random and be brought back to that time period. to plop in on most LOST epsidoes is very confusing. And it becomes hard to reread it like a favorite series of comics or books, because you really have to to go all the way fromt he begining to the end. When i remininse about the x-men i basically have samed the 10 issues that ifeel the most nostalgic about, and have kept reading them. I wish i could do that for lost. but that goes back to the self-contained issue. So basically my appreciation of or the series is on my head. its hard for me to return to it and get a second enjoyment out of an epsiode review.

Anonymous said...

As someone who watched from the beginning I think one can feel nostalgic and possessive of the show.
I associate Season 1 with my own initial misgivings and frustrations with the show and my excitement at its visual style and its narrative potential-as then untapped.

Season 2 I have fond feelings of the sense of foreboding and the haunted house ambiance of the hatches.

Season 3 I've a soft spot for, since the show finally embraced the quest vibe/exploration of the island angle it had held out on for so long.

Season 4, as many times said, tells a very fun exciting adventure story that almsot stands on its own while deepening the mythos.

But then I've always loved Ben as a character and really enjoy Michael Emerson's perfromance.

Season 5 I find hard to assess until I've seen how the twists of its finale play out in the final year-it feels very much like the 'dark' mid section of a trilogy.

I would give Lost more credit for its characters and character drama than not. It balances plot and character better than many of its genre competitors. The characters are broader than in many shows; but I still think people like Jack have evolved from where they were in season 1. But yeah many of the female characters are under-used or given overly convenient motivations. Still, I forgive, for the many other things the show delivers, which can sometimes be understated too.

all the best, enjoying the blog!


Patrick C said...

I'm really enjoying these posts and looking forward to your thoughts on the remainder of Season 4 and Season 5. Ben really has become the central character, and I think already can be put down as one of the greatest television villains of all time (and sure, it can be argued if the "villain" tag truly applies).

I think Ben killing the Dharma people must have taken place in the late 80s / early 90s based on the timeline.

Patrick said...

Shlomo, I think the central difference between Buffy and Lost is that Lost has such a focus on raising questions about the island, and gradually revealing these mysteries that I'm not sure how well it would play on the rewatch, particularly once the series ends. I feel like now, you can watch season one and see things that could potentially come back, every loose end is a possible clue to the ultimate outcome. It's still an open system, but what happens to the show after it's a closed system, and something like Eko's brother's plane becomes not a potential clue to the ending, but just a loose end that makes no sense.

In that respect, I think it's a show that might lose something once it's all done, that sense of mystery, the kind of Schroedinger's Cat thing, where the question has so many possibilities, and answering the question deprive you of the possibility.

But, I would agree that the characters are perhaps a bit stronger than I've given the show credit for in the past. People like Ben and Desmond are a lot more interesting and challenging than most of the original characters. Ben in particular walks the line of hero and villain in really interesting ways. I've seen him compared to late period Spike in Buffy, and I could definitely see that, in the way he just walks on and takes over the show to a large extent. But, in each case, I think the character and performance are strong enough that it generally works.

I'm sure the end of the show will be pretty controversial, both loved and hated by longtime viewers, and probably very confusing to people who check in just to watch the last episode. But, it does seem like the creators have a clear idea of the story. It may not successfully incorporate every element of the series to date, but I'm pretty confident most of the stuff will be knitted in nicely.

Anonymous said...

As to the Schrodinger's cat element of the show,I think one factor that will give the show its own unique longevity once it's complete is that the island as a fantastical place, in and of itself, is pretty compelling, and viewers I think will want to return there and spend time in it.

As a classical 'Other' place (pun intended), it stands as one of the most fully realised examples on television ever, alongside the Village from The Prisoner and things like Jackson's realisation of Middle-Earth on film.

The show's inconsistencies and various dead-spots in the island's pyscho-geography will perhaps do more to extend the allure of the place for the repeat imagination than deaden interest due to any perceived lack of internal logic or 'completeness'.

Especially in Season 5 of the show with its many intertextual references to Narnia, the island is continuously and explicitly figured as a kind of Neverland, a fantasy realm-and this is why the show corresponds to religious fantasy more than any strand of traditional TV Science Fiction.

Without getting spoilerish, many of the Season 5 finale's details remind me of elements of Clive Barker's novel The Great and Secret Show.

Time will tell.

Shlomo said...

well said patrick--I like the shroedinger's cat metaphor, and the buffy comparison.

I feel that all the mainstays, Jack, locke and ben, did not benefit from the 1-hour-problem-of-the-week format. Overall their characters have changed and developed over the course of the series, bu too often one of them would behave in a very strange way, that often seemed contrived to fit the dramatic needs of individual episodes.

the last comment of the psyhco-geography, seems intrguing. I hope to hear more.

Patrick said...

I definitely agree about the power of the "otherness of the island. I think it's something that was dealt with to some extent in the first season, but has become much more interesting in the more recent years, as the cosmology of the island has coalesced, and we get the sense of the island itself as a powerful force, the island as essentially God, with faith in the island empowering some, while a lack of faith in it causes problems for others.

I think one of the major issues for characters like Jack and Kate at this point is that they don't have any religious component, and thus are kind of left out when the overall story goes in that direction. In season four, they're essentially sitting around on the beach, while the real story goes on with Ben and Locke and his crew.

But, I definitely agree about some of the overall development being screwy thanks to the one hour format. I've said it before, but the flashback structure definitely made for irregular development, where all actions were based around past traumas, and not everything developed organically. I think in general the show would have benefitted from letting plots develop more concurrently and intercut, rather than doing a pretty strict strong A story and not much B story for most of the run. It makes it feel like you lose touch with characters for a long time, and thus their arcs feel less coherent.

Anonymous said...

Yes-Jack and Kate are left out of the loop regarding the religious perspective more often than not, but Jack works, and sometimes even succeeds, as a foil for some other character's devotion to the island, mainly when they deliberately accentuate his 'man of science' persona.

Of course, as you pointed out, like BSG, this being a product of noughties' Manichean theatrics, by this stage there is an always unstable duality between Jack as this figure of reason and scepticism and his growing need to return to the island evidenced in the flash-forwards.

In Season 5 we later discover how this 'matures', focusing in particular on Jack's development of a more ambiguous personal 'religious' standpoint.

366, a season 5 episode which many ranked as the nadir of the season, was for me a highlight, for its clarification in specifically character-based terms of much of the mystic imagery suffusing the technology studded natural landscape of the island, achieved throughout the episode in a low-key, unusually downbeat tone.

Along these lines Jack and Locke have a nice exchange at a pivotal moment in the S4 finale.

Both BSG and Lost have their own narrative problems, usually born of each shows' ambition -and Lost, like BSG post the final Cylon reveals, will no doubt suggest many different and expanded readings on re-watch once the show ends to compensate for the stabilisation of various 'mysteries'.

But what's more important than its overt mysteries for this or any show by the end, is that the writers manage to suggest an enigmatic but uncannily attractive cosmology while delivering a thematic coherence in the last episodes which unifies the series as a whole more than the simple mathematical accounting of mysteries in an overly literal fashion ever would.
With any luck if they manage this to some extent we will be able to engage imaginatively with the show's images and aura for dvd years to come!

I'll try to post a bit more on the psycho-geography angle I mentioned once Patrick gets through S5.

Danny K.(must set up a Google ID! -normally don't post much online but really having fun with the discussion and your write-ups as a long time reader)