Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lost - 'The Lighthouse' (6x05)

Another extremely flawed episode has me increasingly worried about the direction of the final season, and still unconvinced about the effectiveness of the alt-verse flash sideways structure. This episode is just like a season one episode, a pointless off island story, a lot of leisurely scenes not doing much, one great scene and a solid cliffhanger. Sadly, that's not enough to make a great show, and particularly disappointing after how good the show was last year.

Let me start off with the alt-verse story, which once again doesn't work for me. Based on the three off island stories, which notably echo season one in their character focus, the alt-verse seems to be running a scenario in which all the characters get a happy ending, overcome the issues that plagued them in their original flashbacks and find happiness. In fact, you could connect these season six stories to the first three years' flashbacks and make a nice little story about people who have a lot of troubles and then resolve those issues and find some happiness.

The problem is the existence of the flashbacks in the first place was the series' greatest flaw, and revisiting that structure, and those issues, is an equally disastrous decision. The problem with the flashbacks previously was that they did not work as character development, they were pop psychology attempts to explain behavior that either commented on the on island action in a clumsy, overly obvious way or felt totally disconnected from the on island action and just took up ten minutes of screentime that could be better spent.

The alt-verse stories have a similar problem, and, considering we don't know how, if ever, they will link to the on island prime continuity, it's very difficult to emotionally invest in them. Why should we care about this version of Jack, who has a son we've never met before? Is it just because he shares qualities with the Jack that we already know? Or is it because this story is so compelling that we get emotionally engaged? I didn't, this sort of short story structure doesn't really interest me, particularly because it lacks the subtlety and nuance of real character development.

I don't think that every element of the show has to be tied into the series' mythology, or that giving out 'answers' is the only purpose of the show. I can appreciate taking the time to do a simple piece of character storytelling. One of my favorite episodes of last season was “Some Like it Hoth,” and the development of Miles and Pierre's relationship. The thing that made that work while Jack's story here didn't is that it was still integrated into the show. It wasn't a ten minute short story randomly intercut with a totally different story. It is possible to do character development and move a plot forward at the same time, and the very existence of the flashbacks or these flashsideways seems to indicate that the writers consider it impossible.

And, just like in the first three years, character development on the island has totally stalled thanks to the existence of the flashforward stuff. Fantastic characters like Miles or Ben are left standing around for five episodes, while we spend a whole bunch of time messing around with the same tired stories we've seen from Jack before, right down to yet another discussion about fixing things. The flashsideways story wasn't outright terrible on its own merits, but as part of the episode as a whole, it's a total disaster.

The creators promised a return to season one style storytelling, and they've delivered it. The thing is season one is an ok show with a lot of potential, so you can forgive the problems. Once you've actualized that potential to step backwards and erase it all is insulting to the audience. At this point, this season is the worst the show has been since season one, and in many of these episodes it feels like if you watched the flashbacks in The Incident and knew that Juliet died, you could jump from season one to season six without missing anything on a narrative or emotional level.

Some may say that's good evidence of accessibility. I think it's an abandonment of everything that made the show unique and special over the past four years. I'm sure some of that stuff will come back in as the season moves towards a close, but these episodes so far this year just haven't been very good, and abandoning those elements is a big part of why. The series was building such huge momentum last year, and it's all stalled out here. Again, I don't think the show will end terribly or won't be able to recover, but this has been a string of clunkers the likes of which haven't been seen since the middle of season three.

A big part of that, in this episode at least, comes down to the decisions made last season, namely to kill or exile so many interesting characters. Last year, we lost Daniel, Juliet and essentially lost Desmond, three of the show's best characters. Juliet in particular feels like losing the emotional center of the show, leaving a hole, in the same way that the last season of The Wire felt a bit off without Bodie there. She was the hub for so much of the show's narrative and character stuff that her absence stings all the more. On top of that, the alternating episode structure means that the three best characters left on the show, Sawyer, SmokeLocke and Ben didn't appear.

Anyway, there were a few things I really liked about the episode. Even though it's a big writing cheat, I like the Jacob/Hurley dynamic and loved the scene in the Lighthouse. That's the kind of mystical, spiritual strange setpiece that Lost does better than any other show, and it was wonderfully creepy and evocative, while also clearing up some of the bigger questions of the show in general. The meaning of the numbers is clearer, Jacob was calling these people to the island by sending out the message with the numbers.

The reveal at the end with Claire also worked well. Does this mean that Smoke Locke is back on the island, or does this scene take place before he left with Sawyer? I'm guessing it'll still be a few weeks before we find that out, but that ending reinforces the idea that forces are being gathered for a major battle between good and evil. SmokeLocke seems inspired by Randall Flagg from the stand, who also preyed on the weaknesses of vulnerable people to draw them into his cause. As the two sides consolidate their forces, we'll build to a similar big final battle.

That said, Claire as a character was never particularly developed or interesting, and the anger she has over losing her baby is the most cliched motivation you can give a female character. Lost in general has always struggled to write women, Juliet is the only female character to really click and grow and function outside the shadow of being either connected to a man or being someone's mother, which makes her death all the more frustrating. And Emilie de Ravin isn't a strong enough actress to really sell Claire's transformation. It does set up a potentially fun confrontation between her and Kate though, so we'll see.

So, this was an extremely frustrating episode. A lot of vague stuff was thrown out, but there's very little real emotional development going on, outside of hitting those same Jack beats again and again. The past three years, I've felt the show's universe expanding and the emotions deepening, this year has seen a contraction and retreat from that, thanks to a structure that's crippling the show and some really poor plotting and character arc construction on island, namely the decision to not have any emotional arcs for anyone except Sawyer and Jack. All is not lost, but a few more bad episodes could push the show so far off course it will be difficult to recover.


suncore598 said...

I thought the episode was good. Not as great as The Substitute but better than What Kate Does. I thought the alternate Jack story for this episode was sweet. Jack trying to a better father to his son than his father was to him just brings us back to Jack's issues with his father which I felt has been always messed with his self-confidence and has been a driving force to his inability to accept failure. Jack's speech to his son about loving him despite any past or future failures just touched my heart.
Other than that, I loved the interactions between Hurley and Jacob and the ending involving Claire and Fake Locke.
I haven't completely warmed up the freshly returned Claire character because I never was a real fan of her. I thought she was a nice, loving character but not a character I had a strong attachment to like Locke, Hurley, and Ben. And I'm just waiting for Jack to stop resisting his destiny and embrace it. I thought we were going to see that last season but Jack's embrace of destiny turns into a selfish attempt to change the past so past tragedies wouldn't occur and him and Kate can live separate lives, without taking into account the real consequences of changing the timeline which would erase not only the bad stuff that has happened in the past but the good stuff as well.

Anonymous said...

Yeah Patrick,

love your blog. Been reading it off and on for years and picked up some great recomendations from your writing.

I think you're spot on with your analysis. The show built up so much momentum last season, both narratively and emotionally, that unfortunately so far this season has been a bit of a damp squib for me. I'm sure it will pick up and I'm willing to bet that it finishes on a great high, but it seems a real shame to me that it hasn't continued at the high standard last season finished on, where there was growth and character development in even the 'filler' episodes.

Part of the reason, as you say, is the whole alt universe idea. The show was originally meant to be called the Circle and I think the producers were so tied into the idea that seasons 3 and 4 were linked, as were seasons 2 and 5 that they're pushing the idea of using the same format as season 1 for the last season, when it patently brings the 'main' narrative to a crashing halt. You rightly point out that these aren't even character arcs, as these are the 'mirror image' versions of 'our' characters (although curiously Kate is exactly the same) and in some cases introduce characters we have no history with at all. I'm also finding the cameos a bit lame, a bit like in Star Trek where the alt universe is completely different to ours, but somehow all the same characters are involved.

I'm sure (or at least fervently hoping), that they will tie this alt universe into the 'main' arc eventually (probably with a great twist), but I can't help feeling that it would have been stronger for at least one of the characters in the alt universe to have a complete recollection of all the events of the main timeline and be the anchor for the alt universe stories and a palpable way to tie both stories from the onset (without relying on a twist later on and viewer patience in the meanwhile). Probably Kate, because her story was so utterly pointless otherwise and she was the one whose story seemed almpost identical to her real one.

The consequence of this adherence to format over content is, as you pointed out, there's just no time for the really interesting characters. Ben has been CRIMINALLY underused so far. They clearly feel Miles' story is done and he's there for sarcastic barbs. Who knows what's happened to Desmond?

One of the other great things about last season is that it kept bringing up big questions as well. Can we change the past? Is 'destiny' always gonna get us or do we have a choice? Does whatever happened really happen? So far there's really been nothing like that. Having a character aware that they're in an alt universe would at least allow the characters to ask is this real or is the other real? Am I the product of my experiences or is there a core to my character that will never change? That's not possible because none of these characters even know that this is an alt universe, or rather that another one exists. It's like a House of M story, but where no-one remembers the 'real' universe. Of all the characters in an alt universe, Farraday would probably be the most entertaining for the viewer to watch for this very reason. Farraday was important to the show for me because he was the one who asked the questions the viewer was interested in and the ones that narrative reasons prevented any of the others from even bothering with. He was a powerful reason why the later seasons were stonger than the earlier ones, because you got the sense of a character who actually cared about the questions we the viewers care about too, rather than people just running round blindly because thats what the story requires them to do.

Anyway, like you, I'll keep watching and hoping. I'm pretty sure a few episodes in will leave no alternative but to pick up the main thread and start running.


ps I'm loving the web-series! Congrats

Patrick said...

That focus on the absence of Farraday makes a lot of sense, and I think the producers really underestimated both how great a character he was, and how key he was to a logical exploration of the mysteries of the island. He was the only character who seemed interested in finding out why things were happening the way they were. His absence brings us right back to the early years dynamic of people never asking the right questions, and the show going in loops.

And, I cited House of M in a previous review as a similarly terrible alternate reality. Lost is a character based show in some respects, but it always a more conceptual and story based one, and, particularly with almost all the season one original cast, the characters just aren't deep enough or compelling enough to sustain the sort of consequence free short stories they're doing in the alt-verse. At this point, you could make your own alt-verse Jack episode by pausing every few minutes and playing a random clip from Party of Five.

Having someone get switched with their alternate reality counterpart would have been a great way to tie the timelines together and keep things much more interesting. That would give the characters more of a goal, when now they're basically sitting around getting exposition and waiting for the story to start up again.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions that people had about the problems with seasons 2 and 3 is that the problem wasn't that we weren't getting answers, it was that episodes consisted solely of questions being raised without actual story happening. If the characters are developing and the story progressing, then 'answers' become a bonus, if nothing is happening and people are just sitting around, of course viewers are going to get frustrated at the lack of forward momentum.