Friday, July 10, 2009

Lost: 4x10-4x14

The fourth season of Lost was by far the series’ most consistent, so it stands to reason that where other seasons fluctuated wildly between drawn out, boring middle patches, and brilliant finales, the gap between regular episode and finale would be less in this season. The finale is still strong, with a couple of great moments, but in general, feels more like just putting together a bunch of pieces we already knew than progressing the story in a totally unexpected fashion. Those story developments needed to happen, but I almost wish we had to get to them an episode earlier, then gotten a bit more new stuff in the finale.

As it is, I’d argue the season’s high point was Ben’s trip through time in “The Shape of Things to Come,” an episode that contained the season’s biggest “game changing” moment and solidified Ben as the series’ central actor, pushing all the stories forward just as he pushed the wheel of spacetime forward at the end here. In general, that episode spoke to the divide between the characters who are still interesting, and those who have basically exhausted themselves.

Jack and Kate are certainly exhausted at this point. Both were fairly simple characters to begin with, and hammering the same beats over the course of many flashbacks didn’t help them. Turning Kate into a protective mother in the flashforwards seems like the most easy and obvious way to go with a female character. I’m sure we’ll see Kate in action at some points this year, but most likely just in service of protecting her ‘son,’ and I think that’s a boring direction. It worked great with Ripley in Aliens, but I don’t see any particular motivation for Kate’s motherhood all of a sudden, why would someone who was all about running earlier in her life all of a sudden decide to settle down?

The reason is that she’s got to be a contrast to Jack, who’s gradually sliding back into bad old habits. We see their relationship dramatized in fast forward, jumping from engagement to separation in a few flashbacks. Jack is playing the same beats we saw in his flashbacks with Sarah, and apart from the intriguing appearance of his dad, not too much exciting happens there.

You’d think that the flashforward structure would make the island action largely irrelevant, but in most cases, I found myself still preferring the island stuff to the flashforwards. For one, it’s still where most of the narrative momentum is, and where most of the questions are. The flashforwards, though far superior to the flashbacks, still suffer from the fact that the characters are disconnected from the island and the core mystical experience of the show. There’s more questions raised and answered, but apart from Sayid and Sun’s stuff, we’re getting that much real forward movement.

But, the on the island action is better than ever. Though the ultimate scene in the cabin was a bit anticlimactic, I enjoyed Locke, Hurley and Ben’s trip to see Jacob in “Cabin Fever,” particularly Locke’s dream vision of Horace Mathematician, raising again the specter of Ben’s past destruction of the Dharma Initiative. I loved seeing them in their heyday in “Man Behind the Curtain,” and I’m hoping we’ll get another glimpse in the not too distant future.

The cabin scene itself had the feel of Twin Peaks’ Red Room, it’s a classic other space, with spatial temporal properties that don’t adhere to the typical rules of behavior. Based on what we see in this episode, and the finale, it seems like Christian Shepard has become a form through which the island can present itself to others, and enact its will. How he will contrast to the eventual appearance of Jacob remains to be seen, but his appearance to Claire, and his later appearance to Michael indicates that he’s a form through which the island can enact its will. Claire’s chilled out demeanor in the cabin raises a lot of questions, she’s more interesting now than she ever was during her many normal days on the island.

Starting last year, but coming to prominence in this season is the notion of the island exerting a will of its own over characters. It feels that Michael has a role to play, and he’s not allowed to die until that role is finished. This recalls The Invisibles’ cosmological structure, which posed that each character has a specific role to play in the realization of an end, in that case, the supercontext, and that our choices will inevitably result in that end. With the introduction of time travel as a prominent element in the final episode, it’s clear that some of that predestination, fate vs. free will thematic exploration will come to the fore in the next season.

The moving of the island scene is the high point of the finale for me. It’s the only scene in the episode that recaptures the feeling of religious otherness that made the season two finale so special. Ben starts out in a scientific space, the video cues us to view this as similar to the Hatch we saw previously in the second season. But, after he blows through the hatch, he finds himself in a strange fantasy realm, where all of a sudden it’s cold, and there’s an ancient looking wheel that can activate travel through spacetime. As he turns the wheel, we see everyone connected by a strange feeling, again echoing the explosion of the hatch in season two, then the island disappears, and we don’t see it again this year.

After Ben leaves, Locke moves on to take his place as leader of the Others. This is a plot development that was teased in season three, as well as in Locke’s flashbacks, and finally comes to fruition here. Why doesn’t Richard lead the tribe himself? I’m guessing we’ll see more of the mechanics of the hostiles/others society next season. The axis of conflict has now shifted from others/castaways to the island vs. society. And, because we’ve watched this whole show about the island, I’m more inclined to side with the mystical reverence of Locke than with the people who just want to get home.

This episode does feature a key development in the Locke/Jack rivalry, as Jack’s lie indicates that Jack accepts that Locke was right, at least to some extent. There is a mystical piece of the island, and it may be guiding them forward to a specific destiny. I’m guessing that season five will focus largely on Jack dealing with that realization, as he struggles to get back to the island and correct the mistake he made by leaving in the first place. Where does Locke’s dead body, and the alias Jeremy Bentham factor into this? I don’t know that yet.

Though I found some of the finale a bit perfunctory, I thought the boat escape and explosion stuff was really well executed. The ferrying of passengers between the island and the boat, accompanied by a great score cue, was very visual and dynamic. And, the explosion of the boat, as Jin tried to get their attention was a great moment. I’m sure he’s still out there somewhere, we didn’t see a body.

Desmond and Penny’s reunion was also really well done, a great payoff to their long separation. Though, it does leave me questioning where the character will go in the next season. We’ve still got Ben’s desire to kill Penny out there, so perhaps he and Desmond will come into conflict over that.

But, the character who impressed me the most in the finale, and has grown the most in general, is Sawyer, who’s right up there with Ben and Locke as the most compelling characters on the series. He definitely started out as a riff on the Han Solo archetype, but he’s grown into the hero role subtly over the past few seasons, and now is the one to step up and sacrifice himself and stay on the island so everyone else can leave. It’s a great moment, and I like him and Juliet sitting on the empty beach, wondering what’s going to happen now that everyone else has left.

So, season four ends with most of the answers from the season three cliffhanger answered, but a lot of stuff still in flux. I think this was easily the series’ best season, and it just flew by. I’d imagine watching seven months after season three, and seven months from season five, it had to be a bit frustrating since it’s very much a middle act. A lot of new elements are introduced, and the scope of the story is vastly expanded, but not much is resolved, and we’re still waiting to get to the real story about what’s up with Daniel, Charlotte and Miles. I’m guessing now that there’s fewer people on the island, we’ll see more of them, and I hope so. They all have potential as characters.

In general, I’m much more interested in seeing what happens on the island, and I’m hoping they don’t elide over the three years spent there without Jack and Kate, just to keep the ostensible stars of the show in the spotlight. I want to see how Locke runs the island now that he’s got everything he wanted, and I want to see whether Sawyer and Juliet join up with him, or try to keep their own society going. What does Sawyer do now that he’s decided he’s not going back to society, and that the island will be his world? And how will Ben get back to the island?

I’m sure Jack and co. will get back eventually, but I’m not as concerned with that. That said, I think all the plots are in a really interesting place, and most of the characters are a lot more interesting than they were at the beginning of the season. Sun’s proposal to Widmore, Sayid’s work with Ben, the scope of the show has expanded, and I’m curious to see how all the threads will tie together.

X-Men: Manifest Destiny and The Immortal Iron Fist: The Last Iron Fist Story

Matt Fraction is a comics writer who I’d heard about for a while, and always seemed like the kind of writer I’d be into should I read his stuff. I read the first volume of Casanova a while back, and enjoyed a lot of it, but also found it a bit convoluted, full of great ideas, but without the emotional grounding to make them meaningful. The reason I’d argue Morrison is the greatest comics writer, and I’d go so far as straight up greatest writer around, is that even as he’s spitting out a ton of crazy ideas on each page, he still emphasizes the character’s emotion. A classic case is Robin’s return from the supercontext in the last issue of The Invisibles, the first time through, I didn’t know what was happening, but he made me feel what was happening.

In comics, there’s a lot of lower tier writers who can spin ideas and do the crazy pop Kirby inspired Silver Age madness, think Ellis, Joe Casey or Fraction, but few of them manage to capture very real emotion amidst the craziness. That was my problem with Casanova, I really liked it, but it was too surface cool to really dig in deep emotionally.
After reading the first volume of his Iron Fist run, and the first volume of his X-Men, I’ve got similar feelings, I liked them both, but didn’t quite love them.

Of course, I should add that both these books were co-written with Ed Brubaker. Brubaker’s a guy who is frequently hailed, but I’ve never read anything by him that I loved. The first volume of Gotham Central played exactly as it was pitched, Homicide or Law and Order in the DCU. And, if I don’t watch Law and Order for free on TV, why would I want to pay $10 to read the equivalent of one episode. The first volume of his Catwoman was alright, but I didn’t think much of his X-Men run. Deadly Genesis was yet another attempt to write “The Anatomy Lesson,” playing off past history rather than doing anything interesting and new. As a long time X-Men fan, it’s probably the worst X-Men comic I’ve ever read, just misconceived on every level. The lengthy journey to Shiar space in his run proper wasn’t much better. I hate writers who use the “long lost brother” as a shortcut to build character rather than just making a character who’s interesting on his own terms.

As someone who approaches works from an auteurist perspective, that makes it difficult, particularly when I’m going in with the bias that I want to like Fraction’s stuff and I dislike Brubaker’s stuff. At least in the X-Men, Fraction took over as the sole writer after this batch of issues, so I’m guessing most of the direction was his, Iron Fist I’m not so sure.

I’m getting more acclimated to the DCU, but I’m still not totally sure about all the characters and worlds there. However, I’ve read the vast majority of important X-Men stories ever written, so I can easily jump into that universe. In these issues, we see the X-Men starting up a new status quo in San Francisco, one that follows thematically off a lot of what Grant was doing in his run. In discussing his run, Grant talked about how writing X-Men is like doing jazz riffs on the original Claremont run. These issues remind me the most of the Paul Smith era, where the team had a lot of downtime, and there was a heavy emphasis on personal relationships, mixed with a bit of the Romita era struggle between mutants and humans.

Smith was my favorite era on the book, and transporting that feel to the present day with Grant’s mutants as metaphor for gay people/evolutionary force outracing the ‘cavemen’ works well. This feels very hopeful and progressive in the same way as the early days of New X-Men, before the characters got trapped in their own soap opera. Thematically, this is a more logical followup to Grant’s run than Whedon’s Astonishing run, which had its moments, but felt more like it was looking back. This run feels a bit like Volume III of The Invisibles, in the sense that the X-Men have won the war, they’ve evolved and they’re just waiting for the world to catch up.

I think some moments work better than others, but in general I like the forward thinking celebrity take on the team, and the street level day after tomorrow style reality based approach to the concept. I like how everyone seems so relaxed, and is actually enjoying themselves for once.

I’m also intrigued by the return of Maddy Pryor. I loved the character, and don’t like to see her turned into a villain, but perhaps she’ll function more as a manifestation of Scott’s guilt about both abandoning Maddy, and leaving Jean for Emma.

But, the book isn’t quite perfect. The biggest issue from a narrative point of view is the disconnect between the mutant de-powering and the story Fraction is trying to tell. If there’s only 198 mutants left in the world, why would a group like the Hellfire Cult still exist? Grant’s X-Men hinged on the revelation that humanity would become extinct a few years into the future, so it made sense to build a mutant society. Here, it’s the opposite, and the structure would make so much more sense if mutants really were coming into prominence, not barely surviving.

I suppose the point is that finding a mutant baby gave them hope for the future, but I think with 198 left in the entire world, things would be a bit more dire. This is not to mention the absurdity of so many mutants losing their powers, but none of the major characters getting depowered.

The other issue is the much criticized, and in most cases deservedly so, art of Greg Land. I don’t hate Land’s art at all times, but I find his weird traced air brushed style falls into uncanny valley territory, so close to real that it seems more fake than, say, the randomly placed Terry Dodson pages in #500. And, his much commented on tracing of porn faces definitely shows up in his drawings of Emma Frost. He’s not totally awful, I think the scene in the club with Dazzler at the end works pretty well, but I’d have much rather seen someone like Phil Jiminez on the book, who could bring the pop sexy aesthetic Fraction is going for, without going into creepy un-sexy like Land.

But, I definitely liked it, I think it’s a more compelling new direction for the book than we’ve seen from Brubaker or Carey, and definitely calls back to the Morrison era, which I love. I’ll be picking up the next trade next time I’m at a comic store.

His Iron Fist was objectively a better comic. It’s a more ambitious story, and moves much faster and further than the X-Men issues do. The comic reminded me of Casanova, in its emphasis on pop moments. There’s a lot of scenes in there that are the sort of fanboy “fuck yeah” moments, hundreds of ninjas battling an Iron Fist who can use his powers to charge the bullets of his gun, and blowing up a train with women who turn into birds. This is all great stuff.

The problem is I found it hard to emotionally relate to most of what was going on. Part of it was unfamiliarity with the world, or current status quo of Iron Fist, but it was also due to the art. I think Aja’s art on the book is aesthetically astounding, these are gorgeous, moody pages, that rank among the most striking art I’ve seen in a long time. The problem is, I found it hard to emotionally relate to the characters because of all the shadows and moodiness. If you can’t see Danny’s face in the mask, and can barely see it out of the mask, how can you get a sense of who he is?

But, I definitely liked the story on the whole, and will probably check out the next volume. And I hope we get to see more of Luke Cage, Colleen and Misty Knight, their entrance in the last issue is one of the best moments in the comic.

So, is Fraction the next great comics writer? Perhaps, I’m not totally sold yet, but I’m intrigued by this work, and I’ll be checking out more to see how he develops.

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.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Lost: 3x17-3x22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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