Friday, June 19, 2009

Lost: 2x15-2x22

Lost Season Two ends with a rush of philosophical and pulpy genre action that propels things to a frenetic, over the top conclusion that is absolutely brilliant. After the really meandering, disappointing season one finale, this episode is a great payoff, opening up a whole bunch of new doors for the show, and providing some strong emotional payoff in the episode itself.

The final episode itself is great, but a lot of that is due to the momentum built up over the final few episodes of the season. The middle part of the season has a lot of issues, which bottomed out in the Charlie tries to the steal the baby three times episode. In general, there’s a sense of directionless for much of the season’s mid section, but starting with the arrival of Henry Gale, and Claire’s trip to the Dharma medical station, things start to rev up again, culminating in the double shooting in “Two for the Road.” I could certainly see something like Henry Gale being frustrating on a weekly basis, since it’s a lot of the same stuff week after week, but watching it on DVD, it works pretty well, and gives the characters such a huge aura that you feel his absence when he’s offscreen in the two episodes between “Two for the Road” and the finale.

I criticized the show for its slow pacing and constant lack of payoffs in the first season. I don’t need to know everything that’s going on, what frustrates me is when there’s no narrative or character progress. That’s when the tinkering around not answering questions gets annoying, think the season one finale where we spend three episodes wandering around the jungle to open the hatch, then don’t find out what’s inside. A lot of things happen, with strong emotional impact, so even though more questions are raised than answered in the season two finale, I felt totally satisfied with the episodes. I experienced something, and am eager to see where things develop.

As I said above, I think the show has two primary strengths, on one level, it’s a philosophical/psychological exploration of metaphysical ideas and concepts. On the other, it’s a pulpy adventure story, in the tradition of classic serials and more modern updates, like Indiana Jones or Star Wars. Watching this last batch of episodes, I was often reminded of Star Wars. One major thing was the large number of characters getting trapped in nets in a forest, but beyond that, it’s that sort of heightened genre world, where characters are always getting caught up in wacky new action scenarios. A lot of Return of the Jedi is a spin through various pulp scenarios, with the last minute daring rescues on Jabba’s sail barge, or all the forest chasing on Endor. Divorced from the future technology, you’re looking at the same basic structure as here on Lost, flinging the characters from one mortal threat to the next, always struggling to avoid capture from an omnipresent enemy.

Ironically, one of the toughest things for movies or TV to do is to capture the fun spirit of Star Wars in a way that really works. I love the adventure aspects of those films, but looking at awful movies like National Treasure makes it clear that it’s not easy to create meaningful character, and scenarios that are genuinely thrilling. Lost manages to be genuinely suspenseful and edge of your seat throughout that entire run of episodes. I think a large part of the reason for that is that it’s not trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator, as most blockbuster films do. I think another huge advantage is that, though the show has a huge budget for TV, they can’t do the sort of CG spectacle that most blockbuster movies rely on for their thrills. As such, we get more character based conflicts and less random CG sets and obstacles. I love the location shooting grittiness of the action here, the dirty pier at the end, or the strange stack of pneumatic tubes in the jungle. It works really well, and keeping the Others offscreen for so long gives them an alien feel and a mystique that makes every moment they’re on screen exciting.

The Michael arc is what provides most of the momentum for the end of the season, and I think it’s really well executed. I like that he kills Ana Lucia and Libby because it gives real stakes to what he does. In theory, we support him trying to get Walt back, but isn’t there another way he could have done it? We may know the characters on the island well, but realistically, how much of an attachment does Michael have to any of these people? He hasn’t known them that long, and if it’s them or his son, he’s going to choose his son. And, I think this is actually a case where the flashbacks worked well, because it sets up Michael’s feelings of inadequacy about his role in his son’s life. ‘Miss Clue’ seemed just like Walt’s mother’s wife when she asked him what his son’s first words are. His failures in the past are what motivate him to be so brutal when it comes to getting Walt back. He just wants off the island, and he doesn’t care what happens to the others.

Fitting in a show with so much psychological grounding, this seems like a classic prisoner’s dilemma scenario. Michael can betray his fellow ‘prisoners’ on the island, and escape, or choose to defend them and risk being stuck there. Unlike the vast majority of people on the island, Michael does desperately want to leave, and that’s what motivates him to make the call. The Hatch video implies that the entire island could be designed as a psychological experiment, and the Others are likely watching what the castaways do as part of their research, assuming they are part of the Dharma Initiative.

I also really like that they chose to end with such a downer scenario, and a classic Manichaean break, calling into question everything that’s come before. Henry declares that “We’re the good guys,” and in their minds they are. No one thinks they’re bad, and I’m sure we’ll find out the reasons for their choices later on in the season. There’s a heavy emphasis on good and bad during Henry’s imprisonment, with the implication that children are unsullied and worthy of saving, while people who’ve sinned in their past, like Sawyer, Kate and Jack do not. Was Henry lying when he told Locke that he was coming to get him, that Locke was chosen? It’s hard to say, Henry was all about manipulating people, but it would fit with what we’ve heard so far. Why do the Others have to assemble this group of ‘good’ people, what’s their master plan? That remains to be seen.

The one person we know was taken by the Others is Rousseau’s daughter, Alex, who has grown up to be an assistant to Tom and the rest of the crew. She doesn’t buy into the mythology in the way that the rest seem to, hence her release of Claire and generally nicer attitude to Michael. The primary question that lingers for me is the connection between the Dharma experiments that we see discussed in the film and video, and this group of people. Are these the researchers who started with the DeGroots and Alvar Hanso? Have they all gone native? I’m sure this will be addressed in upcoming episodes.

The second Hatch video, shown in “?” raises some more questions about the nature of the Dharma experiment. The video implies that the Hatch and the button are all an experiment in exploring human nature, while this recording is the real work. Desmond later raises the idea that the opposite is the case, and based on the events we see in the finale, that’s a more believable claim. The giant pile of pneumatic tubes in a field also supports the notion that this observation is the real fakeout. The question that lingers here is what is the ultimate purpose of the experiments, and why did the system break down? Why aren’t people being replaced every three weeks? Are the stations meant to experienced linearly? In that case, this is video number 5, what does 6 hold, the real truth about the island? I love the production value of the video, and also the use of old technology.

There’s something so alien about the pneumatic tube in our world. I think that stuff like the film texture, or that early 80s VHS aesthetic feel so much stranger than something that’s a straight up period piece because they exist on the fringe of our memories. I experienced that world and that technology, but it exists in memory. Seeing it emphasizes the vast changes our world has undergone since that era, and also gives both Hatches a strange suspended in time quality. To live in the Hatch is to lose all sense of the outside world, to become a cog in a strange machine.

We see that dramatized in the flashback story with Desmond. I thought that the flashbacks would become absolutely exhausting by season two, but I think the producers generally managed to integrate them into the stories better. Less typical flashbacks, like the Desmond one, or Michael’s trip to the others are always exciting to see. And, even though Eko’s “Miracle” flashback doesn’t really tie in that much to what’s going on, it’s not egregiously bad. Even the Ana Lucia stuff in “Two for the Road” worked fairly well since it was both intriguing on its own terms, made strong use of Jack’s dad, and raised the question of Jack’s missing sister. I don’t typically like the tendency to make random characters related to each other, but I could understand why they might choose to make Claire into Jack’s half sister, as a way of tying the baby more directly into the goings on of the main cast.

Anyway, the Desmond flashback was a highlight of the season. The early stuff with him on the mainland works pretty well, though I think having Libby be the one to give him the boat is an excessive use of interconnectedness. But, the scene with him and Penny at the track is really strong, and lays the emotional groundwork for the end of the episode. It also informs Desmond’s actions in the first episode of the season, when he speaks to Jack.

The show may be very frustrating at times, but I deeply respect it for being so committed to building a very involved and intricate universe, and letting you piece moments together. There’s the expectation that you’ve seen every episode, and know everything that’s happened. I like that, I want shows to be as ambitious and smart as this, to span time and space and do challenging things with character. I don’t think it’s in the pantheon of the greatest shows, but if TV goes downhill in future years, it’ll be a prime example of “Golden Age TV,” a show that’s huge in scope and complexity and extremely demanding. But, as with all things, the more you put in, the more you get out of it.

Once he reaches the Hatch, Desmond teams up with Kelvin, aka Clancy Brown from Carnivale. He’s a great actor, so I was happy to see him again after his role in the Sayid flashback, but I’m not quite sure it was necessary to tie him in with a previous flashback. Again, that’s something that works in some stories, but can just feel a bit excessive. I suppose one of the ideas is to show the interconnectedness of the world, with a six degrees of separation kind of thing, but it seems like in this case, it always gets down to two degrees.

The depiction of their life in the Hatch was really well done. I love the concept of the button, and the philosophical questions it raises. It’s a metaphor that can be read in many ways, isn’t everyone who works a corporate job just pushing buttons for someone, out of fear that their life would fall apart if they don’t. We’re all bound to our specific situation by the fear that if we don’t do what we’re supposed to, our worlds will end. To push the button is to have security and the knowledge that things will remain the same, and the hope that our efforts are meaningful, even as we can never know for sure that they are. To not push the button is to walk into uncertainty, it could mean freedom, but it could also mean the destruction of all the comforts we hold.

And, the longer you serve that master, the more insane you get. Kelvin’s death, shot against a gorgeous alien rockscape, leads to the first Hatch incident, the one that apparently brings down the plane in the first place. I think that fits pretty elegantly into the mythology, and ties Desmond into the overall scheme of things even more. Knowing he brought down the plane means that he wasn’t wasting his time by pushing the button the rest of the time, but it also means that he’s responsible for the suffering of all these people.

The arrival of Desmond on the boat also raises a lot of questions. He speaks of the world as a kind of video game landscape where, no matter how far you sail, you’ll always wind up in the same place. I think bringing a boat to the island raises a lot of questions about using it for escaping instead of attacking the others, but to enjoy the show, you have to accept that these people don’t behave like normal people would on a desert island. They apparently don’t want to leave, and also don’t have to worry about running out of food or resources. In that case, the boat provides a nice opportunity to bring the action to a third front, and give us a glimpse of that mysterious statue foot.

After a season of buildup, Locke decides that he doesn’t want to be manipulated anymore by malevolent father figures, be they his actual father or the Dharma Initiative, and decides to let the timer run down. A lot of this seems to be motivated by his decision to trust Henry, and the subsequent revelation that Henry played him. If Henry could so easily manipulate him, how can he believe anything? Desmond seems to go along with it, until he realizes that it was the Hatch’s electromagnet that brought down the plane, and his faith is vindicated.

This is illustrated in the flashback that crosses over with Locke’s pounding on the Hatch from season one. Here, both Desmond and Locke reach out to a higher power for some kind of evidence that they’re on the right path, and are vindicated when they each receive the sign they need. The implication seems to be that there may be no omniscient god, rather god is manifested in the disparate connections between all of us, of people being there for us when they need to be. That would fit thematically with the flashbacks, and explain why characters continually pop up in each others’ pasts, a self-sentient social network that supports people when they need it, and drives them to the points in time that they have to be.

The entire faith vs. reason argument that drives so much of this season comes down the basic question of whether our lives have a purpose or whether they’re just random. And, that’s ultimately a subjective one. We can see happenstance as unlikely chance, or we can view it as divine direction. Eko sees the hand of God in his exile on the island, a chance to atone for his past, while Jack sees only a problem to be solved. I like the idea of the island as this kind of divine entity, perhaps that’s why the Dharma Initiative chose it, the chance to build a new world where everyone gets what they need.

In choosing not to push the button, Locke is seemingly abandoning his faith, but perhaps he’s actually transcending in his faith, reaching out to the island for advice on what the next step of his journey is. The button counts down and in a really exciting sequence, the magnet activates and pulls everything towards it. I love the weird ultraviolet light and odd sound of the Hatch pulling everything in. It’s a bizarre mix of religious and scientific experience, and in the end, it would seem that Locke’s faith has been vindicated, and his doubt will be the end of him.

But, then we get the final piece of the Hatch, the failsafe self destruct. I think for the VCR generation, that was raised watching the same movies many times over, certain elements of genre movies, like Star Wars, take on a kind of religious significance. In ancient times, myths grew out of stories that were told over campfires, spread among people. The images in those myths had a potency that tapped into subconscious human needs. I’d argue that things like these weird scientific facilities, and buildings collapsing while a hero struggles to hit a self destruct button have that same kind of subconscious resonance for the present day viewer. Nothing in this episode directly references Star Wars, but it draws on that same kind of genre mysticism that touches me on a deep subconscious level.

That’s why I’ll continue to defend the latest Indiana Jones movie, even as popular opinion shits on it. I think that the confrontation with an alien force, and the equation of that alien force, the pulp fiction of the 1950s, with the religion of past generations was as perfect a summary of what Spielberg and Lucas have done as anything in their work. Sure, there’s issues with the rest of the film, but to miss the thematic significance of that image, and the self reflexivity is to misunderstand a lot of what those two men have put into the cultural consciousness.

Here, we get a kind of Raiders of the Lost Ark scenario, where a divine presence is brought into the world, and our heroes are confronted with evidence of that divinity. In this case, the divinity is housed in the electromagnetic structure of the Hatch. I loved the juxtaposition of Penny’s voiceover with Desmond turning the key and in that moment transcending into pure white. He has reached the end of the world, and it’s his love that will carry over.

From a narrative point of view, I think the self destruct on the Hatch kind of comes out of nowhere, and raises the question of why they just didn’t destroy the Hatch in the first place, rather than set up this elaborate system and risk another Incident. But, I still think the moment works, in the same way that the deus ex machina finales of Doctor Who do. The scene is such a powerful experience that it transcends narrative and becomes a kind of pure sensory immersion, in many ways the highest aspiration of any film, to take you into its world and make you feel what it wants you to.

The season ends with much in chaos, Locke, Eko and Desmond are seemingly dead, the hatch is destroyed, Jack, Sawyer and Kate and captured. But, on the mainland, someone saw that electromagnetic incident, and Penny is going to seek a way back to Desmond. How does she know to look for electromagnetics? That’s still unclear, but it’s a suitably intriguing final moment.

Well, as you can probably guess, I loved this finale. I think it was easily the strongest episode of the series, reaching a kind of pulp nirvana in those final moments, fusing the philosophical and genre into a perfect mix. I’m sure there’s still some ups and downs to come, but I’m loving where the show’s at right now.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Lost: 2x03-2x14

I’ve now caught up to where I stopped watching Lost the first time, and am zipping along, heading off into the uncharted territory of late season two. At this point, I’m really liking a lot of elements of the show, but some frustrating stuff is cropping up as well. But, in light of what I’ve heard about later seasons of the show, I’ve got faith that it will all work out for the best in the end.

Let me start by jumping back to what is easily the high point of the series so far, the Dharma Initiation video in “Orientation.” Those three minutes are just pure joy for me, hitting so many of the themes and motifs I love in fiction, in a really alien way. Watching it feels like a message from a time capsule, and the glimpses of Hanson and the DeGroots are really intriguing. I want to know more about the Dharma Initiative, what kind of experiments did they do, where did all their utopian dreams go wrong?

I think it’s both a testament to the quality and density of those three minutes, and something of a knock on the rest of the show, that I’m left with more to ponder and want to know from that piece than from everything else that’s going on. I don’t deeply care what happens to any of the characters on the show, but I want to know about the Dharma group and their world and reality. The added bit that Eko brings doesn’t really tell us anything new, I’m looking forward to the discovery of the other stations and the other videos.

And, annoyingly, there’s been very little development of things out of that film in the roughly ten episodes that have followed. That’s okay when there’s interesting stuff going on, but frustration sets in when the stories don’t work. I suppose that’s true with any TV show, but because of the structure of this one, the frustration can become particularly pronounced. Narrative progress in the present tense can be very slow because we’re always looking back to the flashbacks.

That works great in an episode like “The Long Con,” where Sawyer’s flashback is emotionally engaging, a great little short story in its own right, and when juxtaposed with the island story, makes both more interesting. But, an episode like “One of Them” is really problematic because we’ve got an interesting story in the present, and a flashback that’s both totally redundant thematically to what’s happening in the present now, redundant to what we already saw in the first season present, and redundant to both earlier Sayid flashbacks. We get it, he tortures people and feels bad about it, but sometimes has to do it. The point is made, move on.

Was anyone really watching that episode really caring about the Sayid flashback? I don’t think so, and thus watching the show becomes something of a masochistic experience, where you ‘suffer’ through boring stuff in the flashbacks, and the drawn out pace of stuff on the island, to get to those moments of greatness like the orientation video. I think the major thing that makes me like the series more now, and be more forgiving of its flaws than when I watched it the first time is the knowledge that it will go to some more interesting places, and that a lot of this teasing will pay off in interesting ways. I’ve heard vague things, and they all really intrigue me, and make it easy to sit through the tedious stuff.

I think in a longterm series, you sometimes need that knowledge that things will get better. The Babylon 5 pilot is downright bad, but knowing that the show would get better made it easier to stick with it. Buffy was the same way, I don’t think I’d have made it through season one watching it live, but hearing how much people liked it, I stuck with it, and grew to love it. Watching Lost in season two, there was no clue where it would go, or if things would develop in interesting ways, and that magnified all the flaws.

I still think that the stuff with Sayid and Sharon’s death is a classic Joss Whedon, but done badly. When Sayid breaks into tears with Henry Gale, the moment doesn’t work because I don’t emotionally buy into their relationship. It seemed more like they were pretty casual, getting together simply because they’re on a desert island together. I think he’d be really troubled by it, but I don’t think it was ever true love, so much of his arc post her death doesn’t make sense.

The creators acknowledged, via Ana Lucia, that the desert island scenario is pretty sexy, and people should be “hittin’ that” all over the place, but things still seem pretty chaste on the island. There’s a morning after Sun and Jin thing, but how has a guy like Sawyer not been with one woman during the 50 days he’s been on the island. Now, maybe him and Kate did get together at some point during their flirty haircut phase, but it’s not made explicit, or really implied. I’m not saying the show needs to either just feature a lot of random sex, or a lot of soapy relationship, but realistically, people would get together in that situation, and I think you’d see more couples like Charlie and Claire were during the early days of the season. But, again, that seemed really chaste. It’s a potentially interesting area of human interaction, and I’d certainly rather see people developing relationships in the present than more flashbacks.

But, a lot of enjoying the show requires forgetting about what you want the show to be, or what normal human behavior actually entails. This isn’t a show about a realistic experience of what it would be to be stranded on an island. I’d love to see that show, but this isn’t it. This show is essentially a horror/adventure show about a group of people who have been brought together to battle an outside malevolent force known as the Others. It’s a lot like The Stand in that sense, and accepting that interpretation of the series makes it easier to just go with the flow and enjoy things for what they are.

I will say that early season two, the endlessly replayed hatch scene aside, moved pretty snappily. Having two fronts of action made it easier for the narrative to progress, and gave things more drive. Now that the two camps are united, there’s not the same sense of forward momentum, and a lot of characters feel superfluous. What is Eko doing that Locke doesn’t? What is Ana Lucia doing that Jack doesn’t? They haven’t been used in really interesting ways.

Things reached their nadir during the Charlie baby kidnapping episode, which just totally didn’t work, and featured the worst sort of TV dream sequence, the one with a really obvious meaning that feels falsely surreal and nothing like a real dream. I love dream sequences when done right, as in The Sopranos or Buffy, dream sequences that probe a character’s subconscious and build a world within their head. But, the dream sequence here is just giving motivation to smooth over illogical plot points.

It turns out I hadn’t stopped watching at 2x09, it was Charlie’s baby kidnapping fiasco that did it. Watching the first half of the season, I was like, “why’d I stop? This is good stuff.” Watching Charlie in a diaper, I understood why I stopped..

All of this is a way of saying that the show is as frustrating as ever at times, but I believe in it, and am enjoying it. I think the Sawyer double cross episode was fantastic, and did a great job of giving some edge back to a character who’d gotten soft. Was the ranch dressing frog subplot in the next episode necessary? Not really, but I’d prefer that to a flashback because it actually forwards our understanding of the character. The key issue about the flashbacks with me is it doesn’t let the character grow, it locks him into a psych 101 kind of idea that you’re doomed to repeat the past ad infinitum.

The Henry Gale thing looks good as well, and raises a lot of potentially interesting questions. But, I’m still left wondering when will we finally get another piece of film to peruse? Will there be an episode that’s all Dharma Initiative films? Can Marvin Candle narrate every episode, like Rod Serling? Only time will tell.