Saturday, May 15, 2010

Lost - 'Across the Sea' (6x15)

I'm a bit late on this one, been traveling this week, but I just saw the episode and while it's quite interesting on its own terms, I think it's also symptomatic of a lot of the problems of the show throughout its entire run.

The discussion surrounding the show has often been consumed by questions and answers, the need for people to find out the answer to the various mysteries set up over the course of the series' run, and the creators' often frustrating refusal to resolve mysteries in a timely or satisfying way. For me personally, the mysteries don't really matter as an end to themselves. What has always frustrated me is that the show dwelled on mysteries for such a long time, at the expense of real narrative and character progress. And now that the series is winding down, it's clear that a lot of the questions that really interested me over the run of the series will never be answered.

So, it's frustrating to see an episode of the show that is ostensibly about providing answers, but doesn't really tell us anything new. Sure, it's nice to know that Jacob and the still unnamed Smoke Monster character were brothers, but it's a case where the relationship was so well sketched through actual character action on the island that it seems pointless to add in all this Oedipal trauma backstory, which begins by outright saying we're not going to answer any real questions because that only leads to more questions.

That notion is key to the series as a whole because it demonstrates the creators' basic misunderstanding of story structures. The notion back at season two or three was that there wasn't enough story to last for a lengthy run so they had to parse it out in small bits, but coming to the end of the series, I see countless stories that interest me that will never be addressed. I'd have loved to see more of Jacob's interaction with island inhabitants over the ages. I'd have loved to get a better understanding of his dual god and man nature, and also more of the Smoke Monster's motivations.

The decision to withhold this episode until the end of the series is frustrating because everything was already implied, and if this information was out in the open, we could have engaged with it more and actually used it to build new stories instead of as a retroactive explanation for stuff we already figured out. The genius of the opening scene of “The Incident” was that it was rich with portent and feeling, all the tension and drama of this episode played out in microcosm. It didn't frustrate me there to have these two characters come out of nowhere because they felt totally organic to the world and so important.

But, both this episode and “Ab Aeterno” feel redundant and turn what felt like an utterly epic and spiritual conflict into something more mundane. Would I rather not know who Jacob is? Probably not, but what I really wanted to know was how does Jacob, a god like figure, make decisions. How does he engage with the world and experience things? In “The Incident,” you had the sense of a being with a vision that transcended space and time as he weaved the various threads of the characters' lives together to prove the Smoke Monster wrong.

So, it's frustrating to take this omniscient, otherworldly character and bring him down to the same Freudian psychology that motivates every other character on the show. Not every single action in human history has been motivated by bad parenting, and to reduce Jacob to yet another victim of parental misguidance strips the character of so much of what made him special. You can either make Jacob a god beyond our understanding or a real human being. What we see here explains to some extent his actions later on, but not why he started this quest to prove that humans are good, or how he's able to leave the island to get Jack and co.

I feel like this episode suffered a bit from Phantom Menace syndrome, in that it ends at the point where things are starting to get interesting. I think it was interesting on its own terms, but there's so much more interesting Jacob stuff I'd have loved to see, and this didn't answer any of the really interesting questions, the ones that aren't about abstract concepts and ideas, but instead actually pertain to the characters and show we've been watching for the past six years. I don't think anyone really cares about who Adam and Eve are, since that's not a question that leads to more interesting stories, but finding out what the interaction between Jacob and Ben, through Richard, was like would at least give us a better context for the often convoluted and mysterious motivations of the Others in the early days of the series.

The same is actually true of “Ab Aeterno,” it took an entire episode to tell what should have been the first five minutes of the story. The reason this Jacob stuff feels disconnected from the series is that it is, but it doesn't have to be. “The Incident” worked so well because it put Jacob into the world of the series, and retroactively tied a lot of things together. This episode just tacks on a story that basically says these things happen because they happen and they'll continue to happen.

What about the episode itself? I admire the audacity of doing something so outside of the show's normal world, and barely even showing any of the regular characters, and I think the basic story worked, but felt emotionally simplistic.

Ultimately, I think this whole season would have been vastly improved if this Jacob material was threaded throughout the other episodes as the cutaway story, tracking from Jacob's origins to the plan that brought the characters to the island. That would remove the pointless alt-verse stories, and have given a chance to resolve a lot of confusing points from the past, while also reinforcing the notion of the island as an eternal struggle to protect this essential human goodness.

But, that was not to be. As it is, I'm still really excited for those final few episodes, but I'm increasingly feeling like the series peaked with years four and five, and this ending is not going to satisfy. And, that's not because of the answers issue, it's because this season has had no character development at all for anyone but Jack and Sawyer, so it'll be hard to make us care about whatever happens on anything but an intellectual level. Lindelof and Cuse say the show is about characters, not mysteries, but if that's the case why didn't anyone get real, meaningful development this year?


Anonymous said...

Are you gonna review the last 4 Doctor Who episodes?
Hope so! :)

suncore598 said...

Have you ever thought about reviewing Fringe? It seems it's heading towards the direction of becoming the next Lost but with very little flashbacks.

Patrick said...

I've still got to catch up on the last two Doctor Whos, that's the plan for today!

And, I've seen the first four Fringes, and enjoyed them, though there's definitely a heavy X-Files influence/redundancy. But, I liked it and will check out more of the series once the TV season ends and there's fewer new shows.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what the fuss is about. You've been pretty spot on with your reviews of the season so far.

It has been a great show overall, but there is no doubt that this season has been flawed from the start.

The decision to follow the pattern of season 1 (on island focus on one character supported by flashbacks) has led to choppy storytelling, filler to artificially focus on a character (why did Widmore kidnap Jin if not to allow him a centric episode?) and woefully underused characters.

The flash sideways, which still has not been explained yet, should have had Desmond in the first episode and should have mixed the character sketches with an overall story arc to add drama to some pretty boring stories (Kate, Locke, Jack, Sun/Jin). Some hints to it's relevance to 'our' characters would have gone a long way to making me care about the characters introduced in this world.

The island stuff has been dominated completely by fake Locke and the whole mythology that the writers spent so much time building up boils down to a son wanting to prove his mother wrong. I personally am a little disappointed with that to be honest.

But Lost always seems to go out with a bang, so I have high hopes for the finale.

Jeff said...

Sadly, I think Cuse and Lindelof just aren't very good writers. I'd say the directors/cast did a good job of covering for them for the most part, but the episodes without really strong actors like Terry O'Quinn, Henry Ian Cusick or Josh Holloway almost always prove to be crap.

Jeff said...

Oh, and Fringe is awesome (and gets better as it goes along.) John Noble is one of the best actors on TV right now.

Patrick said...

I totally agree with your point about the sideways stories. It seems like such basic storytelling, to give the audience an understanding of the story's stakes, but the show has always fallen down on basic storytelling.

That said, I wouldn't say Cuse/Lindelof are bad writers, I think that to some extent they were so worried of falling into the perceived Twin Peaks/X-Files trap of running out of material that they paced things to an absurdly slow degree, and assumed that answering questions meant ending a story rather than opening up new ones.

I think the biggest problem with the series is that their need to be oblique meant that character motivations and pacing seriously suffered. That was a massive problem in the first three seasons, and has recurred with the pointlessly cryptic flash sideways stories. I don't care how ridiculously amazing the final result of the flash sideways is, nothing can redeem the pointlessness of the Kate or Sun/Jin sideways stories.

I think The Sopranos' Kevin Finnerty storyline from its own last season would have been a much better template for the alt-verse story, playing off the idea that the characters know the world is wrong, particularly if they do go with the idea that the sideways world is the result of the Smoke Monster being unleashed. As it is now, I feel like you could go with the sideways world is hell or the sideways world is paradise and have either work, and that makes it an uncertain emotional experience.

Ultimately, I think Cuse/Lindelof paced the series as a whole, outside of seasons four and five, very poorly, and now they're at an end point where there's still so many potentially amazing stories to tell that we'll never get. It's very frustrating. You can say stuff like how was the statue built or why did the hatch have a counter doesn't matter, but it would be a lot more interesting than so much of what we saw on the show. If there was no reason to hold off on those reveals until the end, why not have parsed them out throughout the earlier years to give a better sense of forward momentum and not give us the feeling of a lot of unfinished business at the end.

Jeff said...

I agree with basically all of your points, Patrick. Although I will say that them not knowing how to pace for an open-ended series or how to use a conclusion to one story to open up new ones doesn't seem like a very good defense for their writing skills. Claremont certainly didn't have that problem. :-)

Also the fact that this is the final season with a specific ending date and the pacing is STILL horrible, leads me to think the same thing. They are making the claim that the character beats are more important, which is valid, except this last episode focused almost solely on the mythology...only not the parts of the mythology anybody was interested in.

And they are still falling back on the crutch of having characters not ask pertinent questions and still bringing in characters only to drop them (eg, the Temple Others).

It's funny, because I still enjoy the show due to the spectacle, the location scenery and the acting from most of the leads, but the writing blows.

Patrick said...

The Claremont comparison is a good touchstone because Claremont's writing is a great example of truly character based writing. There were overarching plot threads going through his whole run, up until Inferno at least, but most of the action came out of character choices. That's why he was able to sustain the series for so long, since when things got stale, he brought in fresh new characters and changed things up.

The writers always love to blame ABC for the problems in the early days of the show, but when your show's a hit, I don't think they're going to tell you what to do in flashbacks or anywhere, so it's your call whether you do a flashback to Sawyer in prison or something more compelling about the history of the island. As a showrunner, you have to own the show, positives and negatives, and I feel like they're always too willing to blame outside forces (be they the network, fan expectations, etc.) for all of the series' problems.