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!