Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lost - 'What They Died For' (6x16)

Tonight's Lost was definitely one of the better episodes of the season, and particularly during the opening sequences with Ben and Widmore, I was reminded of the show at its peak, with all kinds of machinations and scheming from two of the show's most exciting characters. After that, it was a mix of mythology payoffs and frustratingly slow moving alt-verse stuff that made for a great episode, but one whose schizophrenic intensities made it hard to build momentum going into the finale.

Let me start off with what I felt didn't work, specifically, once again, the juxtaposition of the alt-verse story with the island stuff. In the season's most consistently exciting episode, “The Last Recruit,” there was a great sense of momentum as all the Oceanic survivors came together in chaotic situations, mirroring the intense island action. Here, even though the survivors were still coming together, the intensity wasn't there. The primary reason for that is that we still, one episode from the end of the series, don't understand the stakes of the alt-verse story.

It's clear that Desmond is bringing all the characters together for a reason, but nobody except for Desmond, and now Hurley, has any agency in the story. It's always exciting to see Desmond in the alt-verse because he's doing something. The others are just being manipulated into certain situations. For a show that is supposedly “character-centered,” it makes no sense to have all your characters having no agency whatsoever to keep a mystery alive. That's what the terribly misguided alt-verse structure has done, and it's not only made for weak scenes on its own, it totally undercuts the feeling that everything on the island is coming together to a close. Even if you're totally engaged with both stories, they don't compliment each other.

It's implied during most of the season that Smoke Locke leaving the island creates the alt-verse, so presumably the characters in the alt-verse must come together to defeat him. But, if him leaving the island is so bad, why is the alt-verse not that bad? The Desmond episode implies that the world there is false in some way, devoid of real love, but this episode has a lot of warm, sweet moments. So, how are we supposed to feel about that? If they're going to fight to destroy this world, are we seeing scenes like Ben's just to make us feel bittersweet about that world being destroyed, or perhaps sad at seeing who Ben could have been? But, in a world without love, why would Ben be a better person than in the main verse?

These are interesting questions, but they're ones that preclude being really engaged with the story. I did love a few of the alt-verse scenes this week. The Ben and Danielle scene is really powerful, particularly when juxtaposed with the killer Ben we see on the island. But, what does it mean in the overall context of things? That's key to adding that extra layer of meaning beyond just what is inherent in the scene itself.

The best scene in the alt-verse was Locke finally going to Jack to get “fixed.” We witness Locke going through the same journey he went through on island, going from a skeptic to believer and in the finale, we'll probably see him walk and become like the Locke we saw on the island at the beginning of the series.

Presuming that the alt-verse was created by Locke escaping the island, I feel like it would have been much better to play the first fifteen episodes of the season out without any alt-verse, have Locke escape, then do two full episodes of alt-verse and compress the stories we saw across the season into one episode. Generally speaking all those stories were based around surprise at seeing how things were different, so compressing them only makes them stronger. Then, we'd presumably return to the island proper in the final episode.

The big question then is how does the detonation of the nuke relate to the alt-verse. The whole nuke story has gone unmentioned for a long time, but it's still presumably related to the creation of the alt-verse. I had assumed that the alt-verse was a result of the island being destroyed in the 70s, leading to the different world we see, but if that's the case, then why did Ben Linus and Pierre Chang survive the detonation of a hydrogen bomb? Did the bomb ever actually go off? This is all hazy stuff that's a pretty big logical gap in the series, and hopefully it'll be addressed next week.

The island story has a bunch of interesting developments, including the return of a character who's been missing from the series for nearly two seasons, Ben Linus! After being neutered and sidelined for much of the past two years, he's back on the forefront, with the same ambitious scheming that made him the series' driving engine for much of its run. While I love some of the Ben material from last season, his character has generally been getting dragged around by various groups for two seasons. I always loved when he was on his own and had tricks up his sleeve, so it was great to see his mysterious closet back, and to see him in control.

The beauty of the character in season two was that he was always in control, even when he was imprisoned in the hatch. In season six, there was a briefly touched on redemption arc, but that never really went anywhere, so now we've got a Ben working to take control of the island again, or at least I'm guessing that's what's happening, it could be a double cross. Either way, there's not much island to take over considering everybody on it has seemingly been killed.

I love Widmore and Ben because they allude to a much larger world, a far reaching struggle that is different from the somewhat limited world that our main castaways inhabit. I love how they go on and off island, and I love the spy movie feel of their interactions. The big difference between them and the castaways is that Ben or Widmore always have agency, they always are after something and they actually do things. That makes for better drama than people being confused and not asking questions.

So, even though this side of the story doesn't really reveal anything. It's already implied that Desmond was a “last resort,” but the scenes work because of the wonderful shock and catharsis of Ben shooting Widmore, and taking control of his own destiny. The callback to Alex works, and resolves the cliffhanger from way back in “The Shape of Things to Come.” Why do the rules no longer apply? Who knows, but I don't really care since the scene works. The whole scene had me wishing that this had happened earlier to give the show's two best actors more chances to play off each other.

Who else does Ben want to kill? That's an unknown at this point. Is he going to try and kill Jack, who's tried to usurp his role as island protector? Perhaps he's going to kill Richard for withholding Jacob from him for all these years. Either possibility is interesting, and it's great to have Ben back in the mix.

Though Richard was taken out by the Smoke Monster, I'm assuming that he'll play a part in the finale, as will Miles who conspicuously ran wildly out into the woods. That's another character who finally got some good material and killed it. Claire is also out there, so there's a lot of last minute rescue possibilities. Perhaps she's already teamed up with Desmond?

The other big development is Jack accepting the role of Jacob. This is something I predicted a while back, and flows logically out of the character development we've seen for him this year. He's stepped into the role that Locke had claimed for himself and come around to believe in the power of the island. I like the callbacks to the wine ceremony from last episode, though this entire episode has me feeling like last week's episode didn't really add anything we didn't see explained here more concisely.

That said, I wouldn't be totally shocked to see a left field Jacob turn from Hurley who notably mentioned how relieved he was to not be Jacob. The stakes are in place for the final battle, the protectors of the island versus the Smoke Monster who's trying to destroy it. It's taken a while to get here, but it seems like a nice setup for the finale.

That said, there's still a lot of questions about the series in retrospect with the decision to make the Smoke Monster's motivation be leaving the island. I preferred the idea of him and Jacob as embodiments of good and evil, and Jacob using the island as an experiment to see if people could not destroy themselves and be good. If the light at the heart of the island is human goodness, wouldn't all these failed experiments indicate that we already live in a bad world?

It's a very Christian feel, as Jacob struggles to atone for an original sin that unleashed this great evil force. It pollutes the world, and now they're fighting to keep that sin bottled up so that the world is not corrupted. This is a logical thematic thing, and fits with what we've seen on the series to date. The idea is presumably that no love exists in the alt-verse because the Smoke Monster escaped the island and the light went out. That's why all the glimpses of the prime-verse are colored in that glowy yellow shade.

We also find out that the people were chosen to come to the island because they were alone before. That explains to some extent why the flashbacks were used in the earlier seasons, and why they were all so depressingly similar. That said, I don't think we needed to see that stuff to understand it, we could already see it from the way the people behaved on the island. It seems to be up to our characters now to end the cycle of violence and destroy the Smoke Monster, using Desmond's powers somehow.

The notion of this cycle existing far before Jacob pushed his brother into the cave complicates things a bit. Did the evil they're trying to stop begin in that moment, or was it always present in the island, along with the good? Is that why the temple water infects people, and why Jacob's adopted Mother killed his birth mother. That would make sense, that the source of darkness is the same as the source of the light. It's all hard to reconcile, and I feel like it makes a lot more sense if Jacob is even older than is alluded to here. Is Jack destined to destroy his “brother,” perhaps Sawyer, to keep the cycle going.

There's a lot of questions, and the alt-verse really complicates it all. Let's hope it all resolves itself in a satisfying way with the finale. This was a really strong episode in a lot of ways, and has me excited for the finale. I think a really strong end is within reach, but it's going to require a quicker pace and the creators to finally stop messing, and resolve this alt-verse stuff on an intellectual level so we can feel it on an emotional level. I'm eager to see it all come together at the concert and perhaps see the return of the Locke we once knew. And Juliet too! I'm feeling better about the finale than I did before the episode, but there's still a ton of stuff to do and not much time left.


Jeff said...

Credit where credit is due, this episode allayed a lot of my fears that last week's episode just introduced a lot of stuff that was not going to be followed up on. Totally agree that this was one of the better of the season and has me in a much better mood for the finale.

Patrick said...

I totally agree, though I wish this episode was about four episodes ago. Still, at least we got here eventually!

Anonymous said...

I think Ben wants to kill Locke. I'm hoping for a double-cross to pay off the redemption arc from Dr. Linus.
I think the rules between Ben and Widmore only echo the rules between Jacob and MIB and are simply a kind of gentlemen's code: the rules were easily transgressed when Keamy killed Alex. Ben didn't kill Widmore in London so he could have the satisfaction of inflicting Penny's death on him. Now that he knows she's a mother, that option's off the table for him and the oppertunity for revenge has presented itself.

Two points:
I don't get the implication from the show that the alt-verse is a world without love caused by Smokey's escape at all. Neither do I think the alt verse is being presented as literally a world without love. Rather in 'HEA', Des, Charlie and Faraday are shown to be without love until they recover their awareness of their dual identity through restaging events on the island; most powerfully the experience of love.
I think the alt-verse logic is an extrapolation of what we saw in "Flashes Before Your Eyes" and "The Constant" except instead of consciousness travel into the past (or structurally into a flashback), it's travel into an alternate universe created by the bomb. I think the finale will end with everyone's dual consciousness' merging, via Des functioning as a fail-safe, mirroring the destruction of the hatch that began his own original consciousness travelling.
Also, I disagree that the alt portrays these characters as lacking agency. Sure, Des and Hurley are manipulating them for a bigger picture, but this bigger picture is possible because of the decisions and volition displayed by the characters in the island time-line and in the side-flashes. Their agency comes in relation to the relationships in their lives (Jack and his son, Sayid and Nadia, Ben and Alex, Sawyer and Miles, Locke and Helen etc.). You may find this a rethread of the same beats for these characters, but I think the intent is that they govern what happens in these relationships, and the bigger picture gives it an epic emotional context. The ambiguity between free-will and choice/agency has always driven the show, and I hope is given an emotional pay off in the finale. I think a lot depends on whether you buy the altverse people as the same characters, which I more or less manage.
Finally, I think the light's (the EM on the island)effect on individuals depends on their emotional state at the point of exposure. I feel this is what Richard means when he says Ben will "lose his innocence" as a child. The water in the temple spring originates I assume at the source waterfall, and as such is a diluted version of the Source Cave stream. When Sayid is exposed he believes he has nothing to live for and is corrupt and so he returns as a zombie-in-waiting. Ben we might speculate is strenghtened in his island devotion. MIB in his pain and anger is stripped of his humanity when exposed to the light at its source, where it has the greatest impact. Des when exposed to the light is engulfed in his love of Penny and is freed from space and time to revisit his love. I think Des or Jack will enter the source in the finale; should be interesting.
That's my take anyway.