Monday, July 13, 2009

Lost: 5x01-5x04

Lost’s fifth season throws off the last shackles of the series’ strictly divided flashback or flashforward structure and establishes a two pronged narrative, partially on the mainland, partially on the island, with the island half doing its own journey through time, sending the characters backwards and forward through the island’s own history. It’s a fantastic device, giving us the opportunity to explore a lot more of the island’s own history, and give the characters still on the island something new to deal with. However, the series is once again suffering to some extent from the problem it had during the first three seasons, and that’s a disparity of interest between the two narratives. In the past, it was the flashbacks that didn’t work so well, now it’s the 2007 mainland stuff that’s got me wanting to jump out and over the other storyline.

More on that later, for now let me just praise the dizzying journey that was the season premiere. The opening sequence is a great riff on the now iconic “Make Your Own Kind of Music” Desmond introduction, finally bringing legendary Dharma video host Marvin Candle/Pierre Chang out of the confines of old VHS tapes and 16mm film and into the glorious clarity of the show’s reality. I still think the first orientation film in “Orientation” is the series’ finest moment, raising possibilities I’m still waiting to be fully realized three seasons later.

What that video sketched out was a vision of the Dharma Initiative as a utopian, forward thinking organization that also had a strong undertone of menace. I’m still waiting to see the full story of the Dharma group, to see the people depicted in that video, and understand what went into the creation of the Initiative in the first place. The teaser here in the first episode indicates that our characters will soon find their way there, and we’ll get greater insight into the glory days of the Dharma Initiative. But, not so much yet.

The island story so far this season is easily the strongest the show has ever been. After teasing so many events in the island’s past, it’s really exciting to travel back through all these eras. The Dharma era is the one that interests me most, but the stop in the 50s, to see the Others in conflict with the US army has a lot of good stuff as well. It’s a great structural device to allow us to simultaneously get background history/exposition filled in, and keep our present day characters moving forward in their own stories.

I’ve always enjoyed time travel stories, and it seems that the series is sticking to the Invisibles model of time travel, which is that every movement through time has already happened, so you can’t actually change anything, you do things that you do because you already did them in the past. It’s a view of time which essentially denies the idea of any kind of present, all time exists as what Morrison in The Invisibles called the “allnow.” So, Richard can send his own compass from the future back to the past with Locke so that Richard from the 50s can show it to young Locke in the 60s. I like seeing how seemingly random elements like Richard’s appearance in Locke’s past now becomes something motivated and more significant.

This season flows seamlessly out of season four, a contrast to the semi-reboot feel of seasons two and three. Each season has its own distinct feel, but the narrative link between this and season four feels tighter than say the jump to the world of the Others in season three, or the structural switch in season four. It gives the impression that the creators had a much tighter plan when building these last three seasons, so scenes from Locke’s flashback last season can link together in a way that we can’t expect the glimpsed Claire giving birth scene to tie with the present.

It’s become more apparent as the show goes on that the real core character is the Island itself. I thought that the flashbacks felt pointless because of their narrative disconnect from the rest of the show, but seeing the off island stuff here, I felt a similar disinterest next to the island action. The Island not only serves as the narrative hub, it’s what makes characters more interesting. The closer a character gets to the mysterious force that is the Island, the more interesting they become, though I suppose that could simply be a function of my love for the quasi-religious force that the Island exerts over the characters.

The reason that people like Claire and Charlie, or even Sayid or Jin never felt essential to the show is that they had no real role to play in the drama of the Island itself, which in the wake of the Widmore/Linus revelations, has become increasingly the main focus of the series. Those characters didn’t have the mystical revelations that Locke, Ben or Desmond did, so even when they’re at the center of the narrative, they don’t feel as central to the show as even someone like Faraday or Miles does here. The characters had some strong moments, but they’re not what makes the show so distinct.

It’s widely acknowledged that most of the show’s best characters were introduced in the show’s later seasons, and that makes sense since the real narrative of the show only came to the fore in the later days. The show isn’t about wanting to leave the island now, it’s about controlling the island, or understanding the Island, with the Island itself functioning as an all purpose metaphor for that which beyond traditional human understanding, be it God or some other divine force. So, characters like Ben, Richard or Desmond are all more attuned to that understanding of the show than the earlier conception of an island filled with a myriad of horrors.

The off island action here isn’t anywhere near as bad as the flashbacks of yore, but it focuses on two characters who have become increasingly frustrating to watch, Jack and Kate. The ostensible stars of the show, I find them far less compelling than pretty much anyone else on the show. Jack is interesting sometimes, as when he came into conflict with Locke in last year’s finale, but the stuff here feels like plot mechanics playing to move the story along, and I’m not looking forward to Jack’s return to the island, simply because I think the character dynamics there are much more interesting without him.

Kate is another character the writers have struggled with over the years, they never can seem to agree on whether she’s a damsel in distress or a totally capable fighter. Here, she’s stuck with the most boring female plot line possible, the transformation into a mother. Wouldn’t it have been much more interesting to see Hurley or Jack struggling to raise a kid, and Kate just slipping away on the boat, never turning herself in and facing prosecution? It just seems like the most obvious way to spin the character, and I’ve got no emotional investment in her connection to Aaron, who she never really dealt with on the island. I also don’t buy the woman who burned every bridge she ever had deciding all of a sudden to settle down and become a suburban mom. It doesn’t make much sense, and was never given any real motivation. There seems to be a big deal being made about Kate wanting to keep Aaron despite the fact that he’s not really her son, but I just don’t have any investment in it.

The other vexing thing about the off island stuff is that hanging around with this batch of characters has taken away a lot of the evangelical fervor that made Ben so compelling last season and turned him into more of a generic trickster manipulator bad guy. I loved him and Locke competing for the affection of Jacob last year, but the more power he has, the less interesting he is. In season two, imprisoned in a room, or season four, subject to Locke’s leadership, he’s easily the most interesting character on the series. But, as here, or at the start of season three, when he’s already in total control, his manipulation has no real end. There’s some interesting stuff with him, particularly the meeting with Ms. Hawking, but I want to see him get back to the island, or at least perhaps interact with Locke after Locke gets off the island and becomes ‘Jeremy Bentham.’

But, there’s some good stuff on the mainland too. I really liked the stuff with Hurley and his parents, and his crumbling belief in the effectiveness of the Oceanic Six lie. He’s the only character to actually have supportive parents, even if it means a recasting of his dad from child abandoner to nice guy. I don’t necessarily mind that since it seems like a natural growth of the events we saw in “Tricia Tanaka is Dead,” and it’s a lot more interesting than hitting the same bad dad beats again. But, in general, the on island action is more interesting.

At this point, the on island characters are all much more engaging than the people on the mainland. Sawyer continues his growth, and his grief over surviving while he believes Kate died is sublimated by some extent to his and Juliet’s ascension as the alpha leaders of the remaining survivors. Sawyer is a much more compelling leader than Jack, and I really like the interaction between him and Juliet. Juliet knows the sacrifice he made so that the others could escape, and she respects him for that, she’s willing to comfort him as he suffers through his pain. Juliet remains the most fascinating female character on the show, still carrying a bit of mystery, but also a strong, independent leader. I forsee a relationship between her and Sawyer, which makes sense, both of them feel so much more mature and centered than Kate or Jack, and I’d be glad to see them end the quadrangle once and for all.

The freighter people have also become some of the most interesting characters on the show. We get hints that both Charlotte and Miles have been on the island a lot longer than previously expected. Daniel is definitely the center, particularly in the episode where he negotiates the burial of the hydrogen bomb in the 50s, but Miles adds good color. They’re all pretty compelling characters.

The revelation that Widmore was on the island as a younger man is perhaps the key piece of information revealed by the trips through time. It sets up why he’s in such conflict with Ben over the island, and also makes clear the central conflict that’s raged throughout time, between the Others and invaders to the Island. In this case, those invaders are British and American armed forces, later on it will be the Dharma Initiative, and even later, the castaways.

The conflict invariably seems to end in the absorption of some of the invaders into the group of Others, while the rest are destroyed. That’s how it went with these army people, and later with the Dharma group. The wheels are moving to set up the return of Jack, and all the characters forming a unified front against a grand invasion by Widmore, and perhaps a series finale that has them take up permanent residence as the new Others.

But, we’re not there yet. For now, the show is rolling along. On the whole, this season has been top notch, really expansive and mind bending in ways the show has only hinted at before.


Unknown said...

I guess season 5 finally makes it clear that the show really isn't an island drama, but solidly in the scifi/fantasy genre. The constant time travel is of course the most obvious departure from the traditional beautiful-people-on-a-beach soap. ;)

I am really looking forward to see how you like the last part of S5. And maybe especially how you like the opening scene and the last 5 minutes of the finale. Keep up the good work. :)

Patrick said...

That's definitely been made clear, and I'm seeing even more links with The Dark Tower series. I'm sure Lindelof/Cuse would be a bit wary of jumping right into another lengthy epic series, but I would love to see their takes on those books. The fusion of various forms of pulp history, as well as the time hopping multiple timelines structure from the later era of those books feels a lot like what's going on in this season. I suppose this show's time structure doesn't allow for parallel universes like King's did there, but it still has the same feel.

Unknown said...

Re: DT. They have the rights, at least Abrams and Lindelof do, so it's in the cards to be the next project, I think as movies, though, not a TV series (which it obviously should be).

Patrick said...

Yeah, Dark Tower definitely needs to be a show. The first book could probably make it as a film, but everything after that would be have to be terribly compressed to make it as a film. It's such a rich world, I'd hate to see the novels restructured to make them into something that would work as a two hour movie. But, I guess we'll see how it develops, it's definitely a logical next step for Lindelof/Cuse.

Alex said...

off-topic, but do you still think Bebop is a better show than Evangelion? I mean, you went into extensive detail about how great it was, but you put Bebop above it.(which, was awesome, its a bit too "cool" and "controlled", compared the the messier pop avant grade masterwork of Eva). I was just wondering, it seem like a peculiar ranking.

Patrick said...

Ranking Evangelion and Bebop is very tough. I would definitely put the back half of Eva/the film over Bebop, but I think Bebop has a through and through consistency that Eva lacked. The first half of Eva has some really strong moments, but can't match up to Bebop's first half.

I think Bebop is on the surface very cool and controlled, but those final episodes are absolutely devastating for me emotionally. Even something as goofy as the beta/VHS episode turns all of a sudden into a really powerful emotional beat when we see the young Faye, and everything she hasn't become. Similarly effective is Faye running up to the plot where her house used to be, or pretty much anything in the finale.

Both shows have very high heights, and end on really high notes. And, I do think nothing in Bebop quite matches a moment like Shinji choking Asuka in Eva or Asuka's mental assault in episode 22, but Bebop had a rock solid consistency, there's only a couple of ok episodes, and most were pretty close to great.

So, the reason I give Bebop the slight nod is the consistency. Eva's highs are higher, but it takes a bit to get going. From a stylistic point of view, I love the visual approach of Eva, but the fusion of visual and music to create an aesthetic in Bebop is in some ways just as sophisticated. Bebop reminds me a lot of a Wong Kar-Wai film in its very understated emotion and surface cool masking inner turmoil.

I've written a lot about Eva more recently, but there are some classic Bebop posts, particularly the very lengthy post here.

But, I will say, even though I might give Bebop the slight nod on the whole, Eva probably had me more mentally enraptured by it, and if I had to see new material from either show, I'd go with new Eva stuff.