Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Lost - 'The Substitute' (6x04)

This week's Lost in an improvement over last week's very troubled episode, but still suffers from a lot of the same problems as the season to date, most notably the remoteness of the alt-verse sections from the central narrative, and the lack of any actual story on the island. All the main island stuff so far has been about raising questions, and answering a few. There's very few points of actual emotional engagement, or forward narrative momentum, where there are, it works great, everywhere else, the show is flailing a bit.

Let me first discuss what worked, since I think it gives a template for why the rest of the stories aren't working. This year, with everyone else standing around waiting for something to happen, Sawyer has been given almost the full brunt of the show's emotional content, and it's worked great. I'm frustrated that he lost Juliet, but I like how that loss hasn't turned him back into the person from season one or two. He still has the emotions he developed, but the nihilistic solitary worldview has returned, making him the perfect candidate to finally abandon the island and follow Fake Locke.

Fake Locke is the other really compelling character this year. His agenda isn't totally clear, and we see to be heading for a Babylon 5 style merging of the two sides, and recognition that you need both order and chaos to run the island successfully. We see that in the image of the scales becoming unbalanced, and I'm assuming that the end of the series will be about restoring that balance. Based on what this episode showed us, it's not good for either side to win, the best thing is for there to be a balance between control and freedom.

It seems to boil down to a parenting philosophy, as manifested in gods. Jacob wants to control every aspect of his 'children's' lives, while Fake Locke is willing to let them do their own thing. This would reinforce my suspicion that Jack will become the new Jacob by the end of the series, and this episode implies that Sawyer will be the new Man in Black. I could easily see the series ending with the two of them in a scene similar to the opening of “The Incident.” The ascent of our characters to the status of Jacob is reinforced by the reference to the Fake Locke wanting to go home, implying that he was stranded on this island and is just one in a long line of god like entities ruling over it.

With this conflict as the framing device for both the season, and the series as a whole, the purpose of the alt-verse becomes clearer. Jacob worked to ensure that everyone wound up on the island, but the alt-verse is running a scenario in which Jacob never interceded and everybody just went about their life without getting caught up in the island drama. Was Jacob killed in the bomb explosion? Perhaps, the island was certainly destroyed, and without that, he'd have no purpose.

The end of the episode opens up some really interesting territory for Sawyer, and I'm curious to see if he and Fake Locke make it back to the mainland, or if perhaps they wind up in the alt-verse somehow. We haven't seen anyone off island in the prime-verse, so is it possible that the island has been stranded outside time and all that exists in core reality is the alt-verse? I suppose we'll find out once Sawyer goes on his journey, but I'm guessing it'll be at least a few episodes before that happens.

This episode did clear up a bunch of Jacob questions, and set up some interesting new story possibilities. But, outside of the Locke/Sawyer scenes, not much was going on, and particularly with the time sucked up by the alt-verse stories, this feels a lot like seasons one through three, where you have to go through a lot of narrative fat to get to anything good. The Locke funeral scene doesn't do much since we can't feel his death emotionally when there's two separate versions of him going around during the episode.

The Richard, and random island kid stuff was more intriguing, but still a lot of teasing and not that much emotional or character substance. We seem to be moving towards a reunion of all our characters at the temple, but the season needs to have a bit more happen than that to be satisfying. Perhaps my biggest issue with the season is that the smaller character arcs we saw in past years aren't really present, nobody seems to have much happening emotionally, and the sense of constant crisis is preventing any sort of introspection. It's a major contrast from last year when, even during the time jump chaos, we saw Juliet and Sawyer getting closer and great stuff with Faraday and Charlotte. Those characters are really missed this year, as is Desmond who's barely been on the show for the past two years.

And, once again magnifying all of the on island problems with its draining of time and attention away from present day character development is another pointless alt-verse story. As I said before, I think the whole alt-verse thing has something to do with Jacob's absence from the world and the impact that has on these peoples' lives. It will perhaps show the Fake Locke that Jacob was needed, or perhaps that he wasn't needed because everyone winds up happy without him. Maybe it will be the device used to flip the show's morality and show that Jacob was bad all along.

That's a fascinating idea, however, in execution the stories are not doing it. O'Quinn is a much better actor than Evangeline Lily, but this story had no real point, and piled on a bunch of random cameos that didn't add anything to the story other than this vague idea that everyone is connected. That's okay, but the story has all the problems of any alternate universe story, when you've invested in one version of a character, it's hard to invest in a different one. It's the House of M problem, because you know the character stuff there 'doesn't count,' you're just looking at differences and not engaging emotionally.

It seems like, for some misguided reason, they've decided that the alt-verse stuff will be where the character and emotional stuff happens, but by its very nature, it precludes emotional engagement. So, we're left with a ten minute short story that's okay, not terrible, but adds nothing to the series that a one minute version of the story wouldn't. But, it kills a lot of the momentum of the on island stuff. It's like intercutting Luke vs. Vader in Return of the Jedi with a ten minute sequence showing what Luke's life would be like if he'd never left Tatooine. It might be interesting in and of itself, but when you're getting to the end of a long story, it's not the time for a distraction, unless that distraction is absolutely amazing, and this is not.

If they're going to do this alt-verse, I'd rather see a world spanning quick paced jump through the world than these low scale stories that expend so much time and effort creating something that ultimately feels pointless. Again, the concept might play into the show's endgame, but it's the journey not the destination, and none of the alt-verse stuff has worked on a narrative or emotional level for me.

But, the Sawyer/Locke stuff was great, and opens up a lot of interesting possibilities for future stories. I'm still loving the show when it does actual character development, as with Sawyer and Fake Locke this episode, but it's a lot noise to go through to get to the signal.