Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Lost - 'Sundown' (6x06)

This week's Lost has many of the same issues that have plagued the season as a whole, but also finally kickstarts the story a bit and ends on a major high note that will hopefully propel us forward to bigger and better things as the season goes on. But, as in the first three seasons, the structure prevents the episode from being entirely satisfying.

I know a lot of people criticized the flashbacks in the early days of Lost for slowing down the narrative or distracting from the 'answers' that everyone wanted, and the consensus narrative is that it took the dire Bai Ling episode to turn things around and let the creators show that the show needed an endpoint. The flashbacks, and these subsequent flash-sideways, are inherently problematic and should never have been part of the show's structure. The main reason is that they distract from any attempts to build atmosphere and coherent narrative momentum. The much maligned Bai Ling story is actually better than most of the flashbacks because it had an atmosphere that matched the island happenings, so even though the narrative elements of it were pointless, it fit well with the on island story.

In an episode like this, the rising action on the island is undercut by the need to build up an off island story, and that is crippling to the momentum of the episode as a whole. The effect of the flashbacks has always been that of randomly flipping between two different stories with little connection between the two. The entire point of intercutting stories is to make each feel like something more, and that's how it worked during the flashforward era, when our advance knowledge of events played into the on island action in interesting ways, and the off island material actually gave us new information. Compare the fourth season's “The Economist” to this episode, and you'll see there an episode that was full of interesting loose ends and questions that seemed to come out of nowhere, but gradually came together with the main narrative, whereas this episode only raises the same question as any of the other alt-verse stories, what's up with the alternate universe, and how will it eventually connect to the main story?

The thing about the alt-verse that makes it so frustrating is that the characters there are not the characters we know. They are versions of them, but they're not at all connected to the past five years of show that we've watched. If you're arguing that a character is not fundamentally altered by the events of the series we've watched, why did we bother watching it? And if, as the creators so often argue, the real pleasures of the show are in the characters not the mysteries, then wouldn't telling stories that don't involve those characters not be of much interest to the audience? Or, are they arguing that all the interesting work with the characters was done in their initial conception and in the flashbacks and the island stuff didn't matter.

And these alt-verse stories have gotten pretty predictable in their formula, always returning to the boring 'core character dilemma' that the writers beat to death in the first three seasons. Part of the reason the characters who were introduced later are so much more interesting is that they weren't reduced to a one line pop psychology character motivation to fill out endless flashbacks. We know that Sayid wants to escape a life of violence, but always returns to it. We know that Jack wants to 'fix' things, but can't fix himself because of issues with his father. We know that Kate is a loner who runs away, but has a heart of gold. These are boring stories, and just because you twist it around and have things end well in the alt-verse doesn't make them any more interesting. Do that, plus throw in a couple of surprise cameos and you've got a flash-sideways. This one wasn't as dire as the previous ones, but when shit's finally going down on island, I don't really care about the fate of alt-verse Keamy.

Continued objections to the structure aside, this episode had a lot going for it. There was some more of the annoying tell, don't show plot construction that's been prevalent this season, but there were also a lot of fantastic moments, and a real sense of apocalyptic dread. As we see Dogen continuing to manipulate, it becomes less and less clear which side is right in the battle between Jacob and SmokeLocke. If Locke really can give everyone what they want, is that such a bad thing?

It's insinuated that Locke's prizes could lie in the alt-verse, where everyone seems to get what they want, and haven't fallen prey to the troubles that beset them on the island. That makes sense with the structure, but I think it betrays one of the central appeals of the show, which is that going to the island is actually a good thing for most of the characters. The show isn't a nightmare scenario, positing what would happen to you if you were stranded on a desert island, it's more of a dream, imagining what would happen if you could leave your old life behind and live a meaningful life of adventure.

I think part of why I liked the middle years more is that they were largely about the island as something great, something that people are struggling to get to and control, because the island is cool and exciting, more exciting than our world here. With the Dharma Initiative, we saw our most concentrated dose of the island as a utopian experimental space in which people can remake the world in whatever image they choose. This season is retreating from that and returning to the first season conception of the island as an obtrusion standing in the way of people getting what they want. Perhaps SmokeLocke's greatest trick is to take people away from the island and strand them in a bland world where they get what they want, but at the cost of becoming stronger, better people.

Dogen seals his own fate by choosing not to kill Sayid, and allowing him to join forces with Locke. Why does he do this? He doesn't want any more killing, after removing himself from his son's life to save him, much as Juliet did with her sister. He seems tired of life on the island, and after seeing what it has turned him into he presumably decides to give up the fight and finally pay back his debt to the island.

Sayid kills him because he has chosen to embrace the evil within himself, like Claire, he is now controlled by his desire. It's notable that much of Jacob's, and the Dharmas', philosophy seems derived from Buddhism. It is only by giving up things, the life you led off island, and surrendering to the flow of things that you can find enlightenment. Desire is the prison that holds you back. Ben crosses to the other side and kills Jacob when his desire for personal recognition and to finally meet Jacob overwhelms his faith in the natural order of things. Someone like Richard is the most zen character on the island, and over the long course of his life will always help things happen as they need to be.

Perhaps “What happened, happened” is another way of saying that you can only be in tune with destiny, you can't try to change it. Jack's detonation of the bomb is an affront to Jacob because it's saying that he knows better than God what should happen to the world. Of course, that's assuming that Jacob's way is the right way. You could also argue that the bomb, and now Locke's offer to take everyone home, is an attempt to return things to the way they should be, and counteract Jacob's meddling. That said, he preys on peoples' selfish motivations in a way that Jacob doesn't. He is trying to give people what they want, and the more you want something, the more likely it is to slip away.

Either way, the final moments of the episode are fantastic. Dogen's death felt like a jolt to the show, the first time since “LA X” that I've felt any significant story momentum. The death of Lennon kept that rolling, as did the awesome sudden appearance of the beach crew. The chaos of the smoke monster attack on the temple was fantastic, bringing to mind the chaotic intercutting of the end of Empire Strikes Back. This is a case where intercutting adds a lot to the story, with Miles' run raising the stakes on Locke's entrance. The whole scene was wonderfully executed and it was particularly great to see Miles, Lapidus, Ilana and Ben getting something to do again.

Though some may deny it, this season is incredibly similar to season three structurally, in the sense that we're introduced to this new environment that's pretty cool at first, but then our characters just sit around waiting for something to happen and not asking the right questions. Then, things finally break out around the sixth episode and the season starts rolling.

So, this episode had some issues, but at least we're going now, and I'm eager to see what happens next. But, it may be a couple of weeks before I can post the next recap because I'm going to be in the UK. So, stand by for those when I return!


Anonymous said...

Haven't seen the episode yet, so just skimmed your commentary, avoiding plot details.
Provocative as always!
I find myself in agreement with you on TV most of the time, so it's fun being on a different wavelength usually with Lost.
We'll always have Six Feet Under I guess!
With the side-ways and flashbacks I think I must just enjoy spending time with these characters more than you, and get more enjoyment out of them, despite the thinness evinced by some like Kate, occasionally Sayid (though I find Jack more complex and interesting than you seem to). I like how in Lost, characters that in other shows might linger at the back of the plot, like the hard-man, the goon, the clerk, the official, archetypal-ish, rote-roles almost, like Sayid I suppose, are given time to inhabit and repurpose the narrative.

Anyway I think I disagree with two of your premises that have been constant aggravations for you in your reading of Lost.
I think the structural issues you find in the show are more interesting than a simple flaw and yield interesting, deliberate narrative effects, building on the thematics in a way that could not be achieved without pursuing this parallel story-telling, and which are more dynamic than you sometimes credit. Disturbance of atmosphere and narrative coherency aren't necessarily pejorative techniques, especially when employed in a work that dramatizes the division between a world left behind and its fantasy substitute.
I also think the use of the side-ways isn't the disaster you paint it to be in such an unequivocal manner. Thematically it fits the mood of culmination to abstract that 'real-world' so often framed as memory by staining it more forcefully with the uncanny effects of island experience. Emotionally it plays off the idea that the show was always gonna end with the characters somehow reverting into the flashbacks and changing what happened. Which can seem a reductive notion, except it's elaborated in an overall structure and mythology that renders the broad-strokes of emotion with a nostalgia for the mystery of time and distance in which these are placed and contextualised.
Duality is at the heart of Lost's ethos. And it's performed through the show's often alienating alternations between time and place. Last week a Jack entering the recital and breaking with emotion patterened after his entry into the Lighthouse seemed to fill those LA scenes for me with a luminous mystique, as though the textures, the atmosphere, the significance life could seem to have on the island was leaching into this opaque world, this resumption of bitter, mundane, unresolved life.
The side-ways for me, didn't present a different Jack, but used a SF conceit to re-present the character, and in doing so questioning what character actually is- a prison of arrested pop psychological non-developments, or a prismatic line of flight, a life redoubled by the island's strange mirror.

Anonymous said...

And in that sense I don't think it's true that character development is meanly divided between off and on-island with characters lingering without arcs on the island, or leaning too heavily on the mainland scenes to convey dubiously contrived moments of affected pathos: Jack et al, may move in circles, but through their repetitions difference seems to appear and be eventually enacted, as you say, in those scenes the show those so well such as in the Lighthouse itself, where emotional advancement converts into a fantastical tableau of action. Or in smaller moments punctuating a quest, where Jack might see again a punctured coffin case and grieve at his own earlier, on-island, resistance to the demands of confronting his enigmatic ansent heritage.
Anyway I think what I'm trying to say is I find there's some poetry and emotion in the side-ways scenes and more accumulations of experience in the characterisations than I thought I would see at this point, except it's being distributed across characters in a surprising and intriguingly non-linear fashion.
Sorry to go on, you always draw me into wanting to reply on Lost.
Great job on the blog and congrats on your many posts!

suncore598 said...

I also think the flash sideways are important. Not only are they going back to what got us interested in the characters in the first place and showing us the different directions their lives would have taken if the plane hadn't crashed, I also think they are heading towards something, with Locke meeting Jack in the airport and Jack giving him his card, Kate running into Claire, Locke meeting Ben, and Sayid finding a tied up Jin. I don't know what it is exactly but it'll tie with the conclusion. I have a very sure feeling about that.

I feel this episode touched on Sayid's desire for redemption in combination with his inescapable ability to kill and inflict pain on others when forced by circumstances or, in the case of Sayid's switch to the dark side by the end of the episode, personal desires. I think he has fully embraced that, maybe due to the infection he has which I think makes people more receptive to their darker impulses and to Fake Locke's will.

By the look of how the episode ended with the Temple falling apart, Kate finally finding Claire who looks ready to kill her for taking Aaron away from her, and Fake Locke forming his own army, it looks like Season 6 is truly kicking into gear. But I'm wondering what is the purpose of Fake Locke's army? What role do they play in his plan to leave the island for good?

Anonymous said...

Hang on. There are major differences here that are NOT the result of the plane landing. Think of them - Hurley being lucky, Jack being a dad, Nadia marrying Sayid's brother. So far all the really big changes predate the flight. Something else has changed this world. The flight landing has only been one small part of it so far, certainly in at least three of the stories.

They may or may not be the result of the bomb. The writers haven't given us any indication of that yet. A lot of the effectiveness of this device relies on our (the viewers') identification of a character and the actors playing them. So, for instance, we see last week's Jack as 'our' Jack.

But, ignoring the literary necessity of squeezing all the differences into a one story arc that emphasises the one 'key' core element of the character (a tv or movie convention if ever there was one), last week's Jack was NOT 'our' Jack, nor this week's Sayid 'our' Sayid. How can being a father for 12 years NOT make you a different person? How can seeing your love with your brother NOT be different to looking for a lost love for years?

So these are 'character' stories of different characters with the same names, being played by the same actors. So far, it's been a nice 'what-if' whimsy, with the what-if being provided by us, the viewers.

It's only really been commenters and forum members bringing up what makes the differences count and how. Nothing in the story itself is addressing these, which IMO is a flaw.

Until we get some clue as to the significance of this Alt world, this is a peek into a world, seemingly at random, the same way reading some fan fiction or shipper story would be on some forum. Some people find that interesting, but to me a Sawyer that hasn't experienced the three years of responsibility and love with Juliet (then grief), is not 'my' Sawyer.

Alan Sepinwall has suggested we might be looking at an epilogue of the whole series here, but to me that would be a terrible literary device. Epilogues are generally after the main story for a reason. Taking a substantial portion of the story to tell an epilogue is one of those things that sounds good in a writers' meeting, but in reality just doesn't work. Good filler material though. Here's hoping, but this might just be the reason why the significance of the Alt-world has not been touched on yet.

I'm enjoying the stuff on the island and would probably enjoy the off world stuff if they at least started hinting as to what it's exact nature is and it's relevance. Even a hint would be nice, preferably in a way that added some drama to the alt stories themselves, but doesn't spoil the ending.

(ps that AS theory, is just that. Not a spoiler. He doesn't have any more infor on the ending than I do, so he says anyway)

Patrick said...

I'd agree that the epilogue thing is interesting, and would justify the story's place in the narrative, but I think it would be foolish to end your story by erasing the whole story of the series from existence.

On another note, I think the big changes in the world aren't so much the result of the plane landing, as they are a chain reaction of events coming out of the hatch never being built and the island being blown up by a bomb and sunk under the ocean. That's the real change, the plane thing is just an echo.