Sunday, July 19, 2009

Lost: 5x14-5x17

Appropriately, I’m writing the post for the last piece of Lost season five on a plane. This season finale was the show’s best episode since the season two finale, “Live Together, Die Alone,” combining pretty much all the elements that make the show work, the weird scientific elements, the religious power of the island and its mysterious history into a relentless episode that resolved very little, but felt more satisfying than either of the past two finales.

But, first the buildup to that episode. Farraday’s trip through time in “The Variable” gave some better context for the life he’d been leading, and gave us a better understanding of why Eloise has such a strictly deterministic view of the world. She’s known for thirty years that she was going to shoot and kill her son, and that contributes to her detached, almost godlike demeanor when she speaks with Desmond. She feels that we’re all subject to the rule of destiny, and so she carries a sense of fatalism through her entire life. It must have been painful for her to see Daniel grow up and realize that he is becoming the man she’ll shoot on the island.

These episodes tie Eloise and Widmore much more closely to the history of the island, clarifying that both of them acted as leader before Ben’s ascension. Presumably they were there during the era when the Dharma people got killed, though Eloise seems to have left the island earlier than Widmore. She’s not on bad terms with Ben, like Widmore is, presumably because she knows that Ben plays a role in bringing Jack and Kate back to the island, so that they can fulfill their destiny and ensure that Daniel gets killed.

A lot of these episodes deal with similar time issues as The Invisibles. Because it’s a pre-determined time continuum, everything that has happened will happen. They are powerless to change the past because past/future are all relative and one day our present will be someone else’s past. The notion is present is merely a function of one’s position in the timestream at any given moment. Daniel thinks that he can avoid his fate, but everything he does to try to defy it only leads him closer to his death.

It’s sad to lose Farraday, he was a great character, one of the better of the new additions to the show in season four, and it still seemed like he had a lot of story to tell. Will we ever get to see what’s up at Ann Arbor, and who exactly the DeGroots and Alvar Hanso are? That stuff isn’t strictly essential to the show, but I hope that we get at least a bit more time hopping in season six to cover the creation of the Dharma Initiative, and more of the ongoing history of the island.

Let me start off with the one thing I found problematic in the finale, because the vast majority of it worked fantastically, and that’s the rapid flip flopping of Juliet’s motivations. As Sawyer and Juliet get on the sub, there’s some lingering pauses, leading us to believe that Sawyer has some kind of scheme in the works and is going to get off the sub and go back and save his friends. That’s the motivation he had three years earlier when they chose to stay behind, though likely some of that motivation was also to stay behind for Kate.

But, as we’ve seen Sawyer has grown a lot over the last three years, and together he and Juliet have found a place to call home. There’s a heavy emphasis on Sawyer’s frustration at having the life he built over the course of his time with Dharma torn apart by the arrival of Jack and Kate. Considering the glimpses of Sawyer’s past that we’ve seen, this is the only time that he’s actually had any sort of regular stable life. The show is about people lost on an island, but what the flashbacks in the early days emphasized is the notion that very few of these people have anything to go back to on the mainland. Maybe the characters are all meant to stay on the island, hence Jacob’s involvement in their lives to subtly push them there. In the case of Sawyer, the home had had was torn apart, and he can’t be bothered trying to save things anymore, he’s walking away from it all to go live with Juliet on the mainland.

This desire for escape ties in thematically with the scene with Rose and Bernard in the jungle. They also emphasize the idyllic comfort of the island. What is there for them to go back to when they’ve got each other? They’ve walked out of the ongoing conflict between various factions for control of the island and just chosen to live their own lives. It’s like Boy in the second volume of The Invisibles, the war holds no allure for them anymore if they can just be together. And, it’s a great example of the way that more and more people are viewing the island as home. Everyone who leaves it spends the rest of their lives obsessed with its mysteries.

You know things were going to be trouble when Kate winds up on the sub with Sawyer and Juliet, as she’s surely destined to cause trouble. The problem with the episode largely stems from the way the writers choose to write Juliet and her sketchy motivations for constantly changing her mind throughout the episode. She decides to leave with Sawyer, then decides that morally she needs to stop Jack from detonating the bomb. This could potentially make sense, though I wanted her and Sawyer to leave the island together, and let Kate go off on her mission.

The bigger problem comes when Juliet decides that she is going to help Jack set off the bomb, because of the way Sawyer looked at Kate. So, even though she acknowledges that he’ll stay with her forever, she all of a sudden decides that that isn’t enough because she thinks that he still loves Kate more. That’s problematic on a story level for a couple of reasons. One is it makes Juliet seem awfully flaky, and turns this whole atom bomb storyline into yet another adolescent trouble within the love triangle.

But, more importantly, as Miles says, no one really seems to think through the plan. If you’ve got an incident involving an unspecified release of electromagnetic energy, wouldn’t it be likely that setting off this atom bomb would be precisely the thing that kicks off this incident? And, even if the plan goes ahead as planned, that would mean essentially killing the people that they are, and choosing to revert to the people they were before the island. I don’t think that’s something that most of them would want, considering how miserable they all seem in their flashbacks.

From Jack’s point of view, his motivations are unclear. He’s already seen that going back to the mainland doesn’t solve anything, the memory of the island haunts him. I suppose his thought is that once you go to the island, it has such a hold on you that you can never return and have a happy life on the mainland. So, he has to go back and prevent himself from ever going to the island in the first place, thus ensuring that he remains in his regular life, and never has the deviation to adventure that the island represents. Essentially, if you’ve never had excitement in your life, you don’t notice when you’re bored.

And, ultimately it all comes down to hinge on Jack’s belief that he messed things up so badly with Kate that he has to reset all of spacetime to get another chance with her. This is obviously illogical, since she’ll go to jail, and he’ll never even meet her, but he’s not thinking logically. Why everyone goes along with it is the bigger question. No matter how bad some of their time on the island was, how could they be complicit in trying to wipe away many years of their life? It seems particularly odd for Sawyer to go along with this.

In a show like Buffy, we see small scale personal emotional conflicts played out as grand scale battles for the fate of the universe, and it works because of the way that they choose to frame the metaphorical battles. I could see a story like this work on Buffy, using the bomb and time erasure as metaphor for lost love and the desire for another chance, but it doesn’t make as much sense in this show, which is ostensibly reality based.

So, that’s my major issue with the finale. I don’t buy the rapidly shifting character motivations, or everyone’s decision to just detonate a nuclear bomb, which is much more likely to just kill them all than reset space time.

But, it did lead to some great moments of action spectacle, as they all storm the Swan station and have a big shoot out. The high point though was definitely the activation of the electromagnet, which echoed the season two finale’s similar onrush of metal objects.

It also made for an emotional peak that made up for at least some of the shifting character motivations. After telling Sawyer she didn’t believe he loved her the most, Sawyer does everything he can to save Juliet from being pulled down into the magnetic field. It’s an awesome scene, hitting really strong on an emotional level, thanks to the epic visual context. It gets closer to some of those Buffy moments I mentioned earlier, where the nuclear bomb detonation plan just has too many real world logic gaps, this moment married the visual spectacle and action tension to a huge emotional payoff. The actors are really raw, and it pays off the entire relationship that developed between Sawyer and Juliet over the course of the season.

That said, losing Juliet from the series, very troubling. I’m sure she’ll be back a few times thanks to the trippy time aspects, but in detonating the bomb, present day Juliet is presumably dead, or perhaps zapped somewhere else in time where she and Sawyer won’t be together. Elizabeth Mitchell was a standout in the cast, and pretty much the only effective female character left on the show. So, if anyone had to die, it shouldn’t have been her.

The way this story plays out raises some interesting questions about the seeming disconnect between what I’m guessing is the creators’ intended or perceived perception of the character dynamics and my own emotional response. They seem to still believe that people have a strong interest in Kate and Sawyer being together, or at least in this triangle being perpetuated. At this point, Kate is like Riley from Buffy, a really annoying character who just keeps sticking around and getting a prominent place in the show. The relationship between Juliet and Sawyer was much more real and emotionally engaging than the constant drama of anything involving Kate.

But, I do love the audacity of igniting the nuclear bomb, leaving pretty much everything up for grabs in the sixth season. I’m assuming that the timestream hasn’t been altered, and this bomb might be what propels everyone back to 2007. But there’s a lot of different options, and even though nothing was specifically resolved, it felt emotionally satisfying in a way that the previous two season finales didn’t quite achieve.

Jumping across time and space, all this stuff probably wasn’t even the high point of the finale. Right from the first scene, this episode was expanding the series’ scope and clarifying what the essential conflict of the series is. We thought that it was Widmore vs. Ben, or Dharma vs. hostiles, a sort of society vs. nature conflict, as the hostiles continually repel invaders, or integrate them into their group.

But, it turns out that the conflict is actually part of a much longer, ongoing struggle between Jacob and another man, who have a sort of bet going on another the exact nature of humanity. Jacob seems to continually bring new groups of people to the island, as a way of exploring whether they can overcome their interpersonal conflicts, and stop being violent and live in harmony. Meanwhile, his associate, who doesn’t seem to have an official name, but I’ll call him Esau, based on what other people online seem to call him, schemes to undermine Jacob and sow conflict within the groups.

This clarifies much of what we’ve seen over the course of the series, by framing the individual conflicts within the context of a much larger conflict. The island has some wonderful healing powers, but it also shows people things that threaten them and incite them to violence. Jacob has a very Christlike demeanor, he’s the one who seems able to heal people, the good at the heart of the island. While Esau is more like Satan, showing people what they want to see in order to manipulate them into his service.

As we find out at the end of the episode, Esau manifests himself in the form of Locke when Locke returns to the island, enlisting Ben into his service, and playing on Ben’s weakness and guilt to ultimately get Jacob killed. Esau presumably is the Smoke Monster, and is also able to manifest in many different forms on the island, appearing to Jack as his dad, and Ben as his mom, so many years earlier, as a way of getting Ben to join the Others and set in motion the lengthy chain of events that led to this moment. Esau also manipulated Rousseau, getting the rest of her group killed, so that her baby would be in a position for Ben to take her, raise her, and ultimately allow her to get killed.

The potential problem with any story like this is that it reduces our heroes to pawns of much larger forces, merely playing out an endless war. But, I think this works well in the context of this season because we’ve already been dealing with the notion of characters unable to change their paths within the timestream. The timestream is predetermined, but are our actions within it predetermined? The story takes on a mythic resonance, tying back to Greek mythology, where humans struggled to assert their authority in the face of gods who sought to direct their destiny. It also feels very Invisibles, in the notion of this grand conflict between the force of darkness and the force of light. Jacob functions as Barbelith, seeking to move people to the island so they can evolve beyond war, while Esau is like the Outer Church, seeking to perpetuate the endless conflict between humans.

This put the series in a much larger context. Every conflict over the course of the entire timeline can be integrated in to the larger conflict between Jacob and Esau. As we see in the episode’s flashbacks, Jacob travels through the world, subtly influencing people so that they wind up on the island, where they are “supposed to be.” At first, I thought that Jacob was being portrayed as a sinister force, helping Kate get away with her shoplifting, and assisting Sawyer in writing the letter that would ultimately lead to him spending his entire life committed to vengeance.

But, it seems more like Jacob is there, subtly working to ensure that everyone makes the choices they need to to wind up on the island, and in the position to overcome their past failures and make themselves better. It’s essentially a conflict between optimist and pessimist, Jacob believes that people can better themselves, while Esau believes they will always devolve into war and violence.

The Sawyer and Kate scenes obviously direct the two of them down a set path, but the Jin/Sun and Jack scenes are subtler. In the case of Jin/Sun, the flaw that brings them to the island is Sun’s desire for escape from Jin, and during their time on the island, they are able to work through that issue, to overcome the conflict, and be together. Similarly, even though Jacob ostensibly encourages Sawyer’s vengance, he is really putting him in a position where he can finally confront his problem and overcome it. The island gives everyone what they need, the chance to confront the issues that dominate their civilian life, and Jacob gives them all a subtle nudge, an encouragement to persevere and get to the island where they can change and get better.

The question arises, why didn’t Jacob appear to Ben, why is he so secretive? I’m not really sure why, other than perhaps the idea that in the conflict that Jacob and Esau have, Jacob can only set people on their path, he can’t step in to help them until they’ve reached some kind of personal enlightenment, at which point he will finally appear to them. It would seem that Richard is the only one who’s actually be in contact with Jacob, though Locke presumably actually did see/hear him when he went to the cabin in “The Man Behind the Curtain.”

Jacob tells Locke “Help me” there. The fact that Jacob did appear to him implies that Locke was closer to being on his path than Ben was, and perhaps Jacob was reflecting on how close Locke was to achieving his destiny and being the leader that the island needed.

What is Richard’s role in all of this though? He was granted immortality by Jacob many years ago. Perhaps the price of that was that it took him “out of the game” to some extent, so that he can listen to what the leaders on the island want to do, but can’t actually direct them himself. He seems to function as Jacob’s custodian of the island, directing things, but not actively interfering. It’s likely that Richard was on the Black Rock and arrived in the opening scene. Hopefully next season will bring us the long awaited Richard flashback.

One of the interesting things about the show at this point is that it feels like there’s so much story left to tell. In the early days, story points were doled out at snail’s pace, intercut with seemingly endless flashbacks retreating the same territory. At this point, I’d love to see more of the Dharma Initiative, more of the foundation of the Dharma, more of the early days of the island. There’s so much stuff out there to explore, and I’m not sure how much of it we’ll actually get to. It makes me wish that the show was paced a bit faster in the early days, leaving more time to hang out at Dharma here and get further insight into their world. Obviously the show has made a quantum leap in these last couple of seasons, but considering how much story there is, I’m not sure why it was doled out so slowly in the first place.

The Jacob/Esau conflict echoes the stated motivations of the Dharma Initiative, to form a better world, a utopian place where world peace can be achieved. So, Jacob was presumably influential in drawing Dharma to the island. He keeps bringing different types of people to the island, seeing how previous groups failed and then trying things again. The island’s good and bad elements become representative of the larger good and bad within humanity. We all have the capacity for good and evil, and each personal battle becomes representative of the larger struggle.

But, if Jacob has such a large reach, why is it that the island, with Jacob as proxy would “punish” people for leaving? Perhaps devotion to the island is a manifestation of devotion to Jacob’s mission of making a better world outside the presumably fallen place that is the real world. So, the more the real world infects the island, the less chance there is to make it better. In general, the people who abandoned their real world incarnations and grew and changed have succeeded the most on the island, while people like Jack, who remained wrapped up in their old selves failed to fulfill Jacob’s will.

Time is relative, but we’re presented with Jacob dying at the same time the nuclear bomb goes off, which implies that Jack’s desire to erase his time on the island is the ultimate affront to Jacob. To be on the island is to be in harmony with Jacob, so to try to erase that harmony from time entirely would lead to Jacob’s death, or at least the seeming death of the physical form he currently embodies, and perhaps a victory in the war for Esau, the definitive proof that people can always be manipulated through their weaknesses to do bad things, to even kill the people who they saw as god. That’s essentially what it is when Ben kills Jacob, a revenge against God for bringing so much pain into his life.

The visual design of Jacob’s temple was fantastic, and the whole scene, particularly intercut with the electromagnetic event, echoed really nicely the similar test of faith in the season two finale, when Locke had his faith in the island/Jacob vindicated through the electromagnetic event. In this case, Ben’s faith is rendered invalid, as he follows the lead of a false prophet, and kills the person who may have allowed some things to be taken away, but also gave him everything he had.

As I’ve said before, Ben is always a more interesting character when he’s out of power. So, the idea that he has to do everything that Locke says makes him very compelling. It’s also interesting to see Ben, who believes that he always has the answers, put in a situation where he’s totally out of his depth, caught in a war between two gods.

The escalation of events at the finale was particularly well done, as we find out that Ilana and her crew seem to have a very deep connection to the island, going back to the days when Richard was Ricardos. Perhaps they’re the ones who really are trying to save it. They knew where Jacob was, and also know that the cabin has been corrupted after he let it, as it was inhabited by Esau in the guise of Christian Shepard. That raises questions about what exactly happened to Claire, why did Esau lure her away, and where is she now? Was it all part of getting Kate to take the baby, and split up her and Jack to set the nuclear bomb plan in motion? Aaron was the divisive thing between them, and the detonation of the bomb in 1977 may have aided in killing Jacob in the present, or at least set in motion the events that led everything to happen.

In a season about the immutability of time, it’s great that the final conflict comes down to beings who can move through time and space, creating chains of events to play out their wills on a lower human level. It’s the exact same thing as John a Dreams or the Harlequinade in The Invisibles.

It would seem now that Locke actually was killed by Ben in the hotel room. The thing that led him there, that led him to bring all the Oceanic Six back was actually Esau’s manipulation. He told Richard what to tell the real Locke, thus setting in motion the path that would lead to the death of Locke and the creation of Fake Locke. Esau has co-opted the image of Jacob’s leader and used him to bring about Jacob’s destruction. Will the real Locke ever return? It’s not looking likely, but his body is still kicking around, so who knows.

Well, this was easily the show’s best season on the whole, doing so many fun and inventive stories, and hitting some really strong emotional beats along the way. The Sawyer/Juliet and Dharma stuff was fantastic, and this season finale was top notch all around. I found some of the mainland stuff early on a bit lacking, but everything picked up eventually and we got a wide variety of story. Particualrly notable was the Jacob/Esau stuff at the end, which seemingly comes out of nowhere, but actually clarifies so much of the thematic development of what came before. And, kudos to the production and Mark Pellegrino for making Jacob feel like such a key character even though we’d never seen him before.

Where does the show go from here? There’s a lot of options, they could parallel the detonation of the bomb and Jacob’s death to say that the timestream is now open and everyone can do whatever they want to do, unbound by what’s happened before. I’m guessing we’ll see a bit more island history, before getting into a final battle that will answer the question of whether everyone can move beyond conflict or if they’re doomed to repeat it.

Going into Dark Tower spoilers a bit, the Jacob stuff reminded me a lot of the very end of the last book, or the end of The Stand. In The Dark Tower, Roland ends his quest and is told that he did things wrong, and has to go back and do it all again, only after that can he ascend up another rung of karma, and get closer to leaving his mission behind. It becomes about evolution, and in this case, rather than one man struggling to change things, it’s an ongoing series of visitors, each trying to get it right.

In the context of The Stand, we saw all our characters defeat the dark man, Randall Flagg, but he turned up elsewhere at the end, setting the whole thing in motion. That’s the same core conflict as Jacob/Esau, and the question here is whether the show will let everyone triumph and end the cycle of violence, or just allude to a possible ending in the future, once they finally get things right. Either way, it’s rich thematic material, and does a great job of synthesizing so many seemingly random elements into something resembling a cohesive mythology. Well done.

My next Lost experience will be the Lost comicon panel a week from today. It’s great to be caught up on the show and not have to worry about getting spoilers for anything that’s already aired. After that, it’s the long wait until season six debuts. But, I’m definitely excited to see it happen.

I started out this rewatch with the promise that I’d give Lost one more chance to impress me, and though there were some ups and downs, I’m totally on board. I still think the first three seasons have colossal structural issues, and the first season in particular feels very basic and underdeveloped compared to what comes later. But, once the endpoint was set, the show became remarkably consistent, and continuously entertaining and thought provoking. The first three seasons will probably keep it out of the pantheon of greatest series for me, but I could easily see it moving in to my top 15 all time when I make the list, particularly if they stick the landing next season.

2 comments:

Keith said...

Keith dances a happy cause you came out of the rewatch with exactly the opinion I thought you would. Once we got into the crazy time shenanigans of S5, I started seeing Invisibles/GM parallels all over the place, and was convinced you'd be on board if you could make it through the spotty parts (you are right about the issues of S1-S3, although I think things dramatically improved halfway through S3, basically at the moment that episodes started being written with the end point in mind).

One thing to point out is that I'm fairly convinced that it was Man in Black (my preferred name for him) in the cabin saying "Help me" to Locke. Basically most of Locke's actions have been manipulated by MiB so as to put him in the position he is in to get him off the island while Jacob's followers believe in him. So when he returns, alive, resurrected, they will follow his every word. I'm also a firm believer in the MiB = Smokey idea, as Judgement seems to be part in parcel of his personality/aspect. Perhaps, I'm wrong though and it was Jacob trapped in the cabin. I'm very curious as to this plot point and the obvious question of "how did Jacob/MiB get out?" "who broke the ash circle?"

Patrick said...

Thanks for that push to give the show another chance. As I said, I've still got mixed feelings about the first couple of seasons, but everything from the end of season three on has been really top notch.

The reason I'd say it was Jacob in the cabin is that, IIRC, Ilana says something like Jacob was here, but someone had been impersonating him. So, it's hard to say if it was Jacob talking to Locke in the cabin then, but I'm still leaning that way. Either way, I'm really looking forward to season six and seeing how that element of the mythology gets developed.