Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Lost - 'What Kate Does' (6x03)

Last week's Lost had me feeling some uncertainties about the season's direction, and this week's only enhances that with an episode that feels right out of the problematic characters in cages era of the third season, backing it up with an alt-verse storyline that felt tacked on and inessential at best, outright illogical at worst. The cliffhanger ending and teaser for next week look great, but this week's episode was not a winner.

Let me start with the worst of it, the alt-verse Kate storyline, which didn't seem to add anything to the universe of the show. The big problem with any alternate universe is that you're not going to invest in the characters in the way that you have in the main universe. That usually leads to stories that have shocking twists, think Peter Parker's marriage to Gwen Stacey in House of M, or just pile on the spectacle, kill a bunch of characters and get out, like “Days of Future Past,” or Buffy's “The Wish.”

The Lost alternate universe is weird primarily in the way that it's being used. The very first moments of the alt-verse were fantastic, with the exciting trip to the drowned island, raising the question of how one change can create a butterfly of consequences. I'd be curious to explore the entire alternate history of the island, and the Dharma Initiative, and even see what happens to our characters, but that's something that I'm not particularly interested in on an emotional level, it's something I want to do on an intellectual level.

As such, it's mildly interesting to see that Claire winds up with Aaron anyway, and that Ethan happens to be a doctor on the mainland, and that information may play a big part in the prime-verse storyline down the line. But, even if it does, that doesn't make up for the fact that it's about the journey not the destination, and this Kate story didn't work. It felt like some leftover scripts from season three, repurposed for a new era. I have no idea what this story told us about the character that we didn't know before, namely that even though she does bad things, she secretly has a heart of gold. I didn't need to see that again, and certainly not in a storyline that seems inherently consequence free.

The creators promised to bring back a season one feel, and unfortunately, that's very much the case here, with a series of meandering island stories, intercut with a pointless off island story that has enough interesting ideas and a good cliffhanger to keep things moving. Notably, this episode featured none of the great characters introduced from seasons two through five, except for Miles who has to announce he's going to “the food court” just to get a line in the episode.

The fundamental flaw of many peoples' approach to the show is the idea that the off island flashbacks were character based storytelling while the on island stuff is all convoluted mythology. Character development in a six year series isn't telling us how someone got to where they were when the show began, it's about letting them change and develop in the moment. I feel like Juliet/Ben and the freighter people were a conscious effort to bring in characters who were more interesting than the first batch of characters, and now spend so much time with Jack and Kate drags the show backwards.

The series' most effective character arc happened not off island, but in the Dharma stuff that turned Sawyer from rogue to hero and domesticated man. One of my big problems viewing this season is that I was so invested in that Dharma stuff and the relationship between Sawyer and Juliet that I find myself hating Kate and Jack for ruining that, and being trapped in a position like Sawyer, lamenting the loss of those days.

And, I will commend the episode for showing us more of Sawyer's pain. And, the most effective Kate moment here was her crying on the dock, after realizing just how badly she'd screwed things up. I get the sense that she always felt like Sawyer was on the shelf, waiting for her if she ever wanted him, and knowing that he fell in love with someone else hurts her, and makes her realize how many things she's messed up in her life.

Elsewhere, the temple storyline is reminding me a lot of season three's troubled polar bear cages arc. It started out interesting as we get a glimpse of a new world on the island, but by this point, it's basically our characters sitting around doing nothing, asking questions that aren't answered, and being manipulated by all powerful enigmatic figures. The problem with this from a plot construction standpoint is that it reinforces the show's worst tendencies to be willfully obscure and make us focus on how many questions aren't being answered. I don't care about answers at this point, I think most stuff has been answered, but if you're not going to give answers, the episode has to have more to it than asking questions.

It's also frustrating to have an episode where Jack and Kate totally dominate, leaving everybody else on the sidelines. Hopefully they'll have the week off next week when we return to Locke, Ben and the rest of the gang, as well as the reborn feral Claire.

In terms of questions raised this episode, the big issue seems to be the nature of the Smoke Monster, and the way that his infection works on Claire and Sayid. Are they implying that Rousseau herself was infected by the Smoke Monster, hence her at times mentally off behavior? If that's the case though, it doesn't seem worthy of killing. But, this may be a more insidious infection. It would make sense to have Claire and Sayid corrupted so that Fake Locke will have some people to back him up in battle. Could we be building to a big battle where the Fake Locke revives everyone who's dead on the island and puts them into battle against the living?

It could also imply that Ben's own corruption and lying nature is a result of his corruption in the temple healing pool. That would tie together a lot of things, and would it mean that Sayid would essentially become Ben? The question then is why would the temple people let Ben go if they want to kill Sayid? Perhaps being actually dead makes your condition worse than if you were just injured then healed. As in all stories, every good things comes at a price.

It's also notable that some of the Others from Ben's group are in the temple. The question that raises is whether Ben knows about the temple and its healing properties in the present day. He went there as a kid, but do these guys know about what he's doing now? Is he exiled from their group? I'm imagining we'll get some clarification on this once the two stories come together. I do really like the idea of the Smoke Monster as incarnation of this essentially evil force, and I think it helps tie together a lot of disparate elements of the mythology in a satisfying way.

So, there's some good elements in this episode, most notably all the Sawyer stuff around the ghostly Dharma barracks as he struggles to come to terms with losing Juliet. However, the basic structure of the season still has me very concerned. I have no idea why they feel so resolutely committed to the off island/on island structure, particularly when the backhalf of season five, which featured no off island, was by far the show's high point. This alt-verse structure recalls the worst of seasons one through three, and even if it is vindicated by a great plot twist down the line, these episodes will still be dramatically flawed.

But, let's hope things pick up next week when we get a more interesting set of characters back and dig deeper into the mysteries of Fake Locke and perhaps even finally see Jin and Sun reunited.


Jeff said...

Have to agree with your assessment Patrick. I was pretty disappointed with this episode. The writers insist on stretching out to an hour a plot that should take about 15 minutes but the characters don't ask questions that any rational human being would ask. Jack keeps demanding to know what's in the pill, but doesn't think to ask how exactly Sayid came back to life or even what the 'infection' is. On top of that, I agree that the Kate "flash-sideways" told us nothing we didn't already know about the character. It sucks to see them spinning their wheels again this season. Hopefully, once they get back to Locke and the beach people it will get back on track.

Patrick said...

I agree all around, and it's particularly frustrating because the show had gotten so much better and is now falling back on old habits.

I also find it curious that there was an almost instant reverse backlash for the episode, with people giving it more credit than I'd argue it deserves just because they know a lot of people will hate it. The Kate present day story may lay some groundwork for future stuff, but it does so in a boring, illogical on a character level way that doesn't work. I hope that season six doesn't go the way of season two or three, where a lot of slow moving narrative and boring flashbacks had to be salvaged by a fantastic season finale.

Danny Kennedy said...

I appreciate your sensibility on this episode and the scepticism at a reverse backlash. I do fear you'll be continually frustrated with the structure of this season.
The writers seem pretty committed to storytelling in this alt timeline.
At the risk of being perceived as a blinkered apologist I'll lay out my take on the purpose of some of these apparently redundant scenes:
I think rather than showing us new things about the character per se the episode worked for me in reinforcing different aspects of Kate, running back to rather than away from her life's problems, in the dual shape of Clare and Sawyer and in dramatising the differences in how she's able to effect change in the differing timelines and changed experiences.
Kate runs towards representations of human relations in both time frames, finding rejection in one and unexpected kindness in the other.
Also I think The Temple stuff is moving in different areas to the Hydra material in S3 (for all its problems an underestimated portion of the show).
We see Jack in his exchange with Sayid considering allowing forces outside his individual will effect change, contary to his general sense of fixing things himself.
In his scenes with Dogen we see a Jack that is a lot more collected and crafty than most recently, getting answers through guile (swallowing the pill) rather than just haranguing.
It makes sense in the narrative at this point that the Temple leaders would be cautious with the truth, but in the world of the show's usual MO the infection and its implications are laid out relatively quickly compared to the obfuscation we've seen before in LOST.
Some people are complaining that the translator routine is a campy throwback to Kung Fu movie sterotypes. Which it is, though I'd say a fun throwback. However here we got in Lennon's clarification that there is no perfect English translation for the stated effects of the infection, a nod to the thematic expression of the show's frustration in giving clear answers: The Island workings' fantastical resistance to language and semantic exchange.

Anyway, just my two cents, always enjoy the blog, and hope you enjoy the rest of the season, though I worry you'll be fundamentally turned off by the re-emergence of the Season 1 crew!
Take care!

Patrick said...

I can see all those points, I guess it's that for me, identity is more a result of choices you make and things you do, so the notion of there being a core self that exists no matter what you do seems kind of sad to me because it makes me feel like what's the point then? If we can't make ourselves better, what's the point?

This is more of a personal philosophical feeling than something specific to the way that I view Lost, and it's part of what made the flashbacks so frustrating to me. I don't think we're a prisoner of our past failures, we've always got new opportunities, and both the flashbacks, and this new alt-verse structure seem to enforce the idea that you're always going to wind up a certain way, stuck in the same patterns and there's nothing you can do.

So, what was so exciting about seasons 4-5 was that they abandoned those 'core conflicts,' or basic psychological issues from the flashbacks used to motivate the characters and instead let the characters exist in the present. I think they're still essentially doing that in the present day storylines, but the presence of essentially a random "What if?" story in the episode distracts and magnifies flaws in the present day stuff.

As for the temple vs. Hydra, there are differences certainly, and I actually did like a lot of the Hydra stuff. The whole scientific experiment element was fascinating and I liked the strange blend of various pulp genre tropes, I think the problem was just that it went on too long without any forward narrative momentum happening elsewhere. I didn't have a problem with the temple stuff when we had the Locke story happening, but without that in the episode, and with the Kate alt-verse taking up more time, the temple felt even more restrictive and Hydra-like.

But, I'm still pretty confident I'll enjoy the season. I'm really into it, it's just frustrating that they're going back to so many of what I'd consider bad habits after getting so good in the past two years. But, I'm sure people saying the opposite, that it's great to get back to the core characters after being distracted in season five.

Danny Kennedy said...

Interesting thoughts there! Always like hearing your take on the thematic underpinnings of the show.

I loved Season 5 too, particularly on rewatch, as an individual, almost standalone, season it seemed really tightly plotted.
I'm pondering your restatement of unease at the presentation of the characters in flashbacks and in the flashsideways as confined by unchanging essential selves across time and space.
In the time travel material of last year, this idea seemed to be presented by the Hawking authorised notions of What Happened Happened and Course Correction; essentially the notion of destiny translated into the pseudo-scientific theoretical rhetoric of Eloise's offspring Faraday. For some of the characters, most notably Locke, embracing the idea of a personal destiny seemed liberatory after the physical and emotional confinements of pre-island life. Of course this conviction (faith), especially for Locke proved illusory, a long con engineered by MIB. Destiny was a trap, foreshadowed in Locke's game of mousetrap, and by the centrality of the hatch to Desmond's life and later for Locke himself (an enlavement to a button in a prison-like bunker).

The alternate viewpoint (Jacob's?) was dramatised in Faraday's heretical conversion to the logic of the variables.
I think we've yet to see this play out exactly or understand its consequences in the aftermath of Jughead.
The variable on the show is maybe best solidified in the trials and person of Desmond-trapped by the hatch, yes, Widmore and Hawking's manipulations, yes, but crucially, also by his initial fatalistic understanding of his own psychology and its failings/insecurities.
The variable should manifest in the narrative like Mister Miracle offering the chance of escape from the construct of psychology for the characters. Offering change.

Of course its still fairly ambiguous. The destiny circuit despite its threat of incarceration also provides the succour of The Constant.
And the MIB at times seems a prisoner himself confined to the island crucible by Jacob?
The slavery/prison meme is also referenced in the prison ship and MIB's address to Richard "in chains".

Also perhaps the alt timeline will also demonstrate the freeing up of the variables thanks to Juliet's actions, despite reinforcing many aspects of pre-destination in its synchronicities and coincidences.

Patrick said...

The idea of destiny has definitely been present since the beginning of the series, and the idea of a Mister Miracle style loop in which the characters will keep running the same events until they finally change or discover themselves is interesting. It also ties in nicely to the course correction material that's been present for a long time.

On a certain level, it seems like Jack's whole nuclear bomb thing was a desire to shake off the restriction of a set destiny that all the characters have, as evidenced by the flashbacks, which reinforced the idea that no matter how much these people do, they're still stuck in the same loops, trapped in the same psychological issues. He wants to be free of the past failures that have plagued him and have a blank slate to do the right thing once and for all.

I guess the question is whether they can integrate the alt-verse flashsideways in an interesting, thematically cohesive way and use it to expand the story, rather than just tell the same standalone kind of stories they have in the first three episodes. I think it could be really interesting, but in execution, so far at least, it hasn't been.