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.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lost: The Ten Best Episodes

Since I've been pretty harsh on Lost this year, I wanted to go back and write about my ten favorite episodes of the series, going into the end. Since I watched it in a pretty compressed time frame, it can sometimes be tough to remember what happened in specific episodes, but I did my best to break them out and find my ten favorites.

10. Orientation (2x03) - This episode finally resolved the three episode long Mexican standoff that opened season two, but that's not why it's memorable. To this day, no moment on Lost has been as astonishing for me as the 16mm Dharma Orientation film, which raised so many new questions and ideas, ideas that took four seasons to fully pay off. That film was such an astonishing piece of world building, even after a season long flashback to the 70s, I still want more background on Dharma.

9. There's No Place Like Home (4x12-4x14) - Though less goundbreaking and game changing than any of the previous three season finales, this episode still has a bunch of killer moments. This is the end of the line for an era of the show in which Ben was the main character motivating the action and he goes out with the incredible high point of moving the island through the frozen wheel device. It's a moment of almost religious power, and ties in wonderfully with the emotional hit of Sawyer abandoning the helicopter and washing up with Juliet. The rest of the episode is filled with great moments, including a key Jack/Locke confrontation, but those two moments linger.

8. The Shape of Things to Come (4x09) - Alex's death was one of the most shocking moments in the series, and Ben unleashing the Smoke Monster one of its best action sequences. As I mentioned above, this was an era where Ben ran the show, and he was never better than here, his emotional attachment to Alex contrasted with his power hungry nature. It also featured a great off island story, with an exotic James Bond feel. This was an era where the show's world was expanding, and the island was just one piece of something larger.

7. Some Like it Hoth (5x13) - I really loved all the 70s era stuff, but this is one of the high points. It hits on a comedy level, with Hurley's attempts to write The Empire Strikes Back, but also has some of the most spot on emotional content of the entire series, as Miles finally comes to terms with the father who he believes abandoned him as a child. Science fiction devices can be used to literalize emotions in a way that isn't possible in reality, and the scene with Miles watching his father tending to a younger version of himself, and seeing that he did love him does that perfectly. And, unlike every other character on the show, Miles gets to confront his parental issues and come to terms with them. Miles was already a great character, but this made him even stronger and deeper. It's a shame they gave up on developing him this year.

6. Through the Looking Glass (3x22) - The end of an era for the show, this episode is best known for the shocking flashforward revelation at the end, which was great and integral to the series' evolution. But, it's also got a great fight with the Others, the chaotic promise of rescue from Naomi and the freighter, and the fantastic action setpiece in the Looking Glass Dharma station. The emotional high point is Charlie's death, and the classic “Not Penny's Boat” scene. A really fantastic, epic finale.

5. Greatest Hits (3x21) - But it's topped by its precursor, this incredibly sweet episode that goes a huge way to redeem Charlie from his season two “Darth Hoodie” era, and earn him serious fan affection that continues to this day. Charlie and Claire worked really well as a couple in late season three, and this episode solidifies that family. It's also the farewell to the beach camp era of the show, sending the flashbacks out on a high note. The emotional stakes of the finale are so high because of this episode laying the groundwork.

4. La Fleur (5x08) - The show's most ambitious gambit, sending all our characters to the 70s for half a season, begins here, and it opens up the show's most rewarding era. This episode gives us the series' most satisfying romantic relationship, Sawyer and Juliet's. Those two characters had both grown to be favorites before they got together, but together they're each matured and grow in really interesting ways. It's a great example of showing character change through action happening in the present, in a subtle, but revelatory way, rather than explaining it through pop psychology. I love the world they build here, I love the three year time jump and I love just seeing our characters happy and engaged in this world. To be totally honest, I'd rather have seen an entire show about the Dharma Initiative than the Lost that we got, and that's thanks to episodes like this.

3. The Incident (5x16) - This episode had some off elements to it, notably the fluctuating motivations of Juliet and Kate, but it's also perhaps the series' most successful fusion of its scientific and religious mythologies, all wrapped up in an emotionally intense, riveting hour. After three seasons of buildup, the episode finally introduces Jacob, and manages to make him live up to the hype. We get a better sense of his character and motivations here than in all of his season six appearances, and even the could have been out of left field idea of the Fake Locke fits perfectly with what we've seen before. Other highlights include the Rose/Bernard farewell scene, the Jack/Sawyer fight, and of course the series' single strongest emotional moment, Juliet's fall down the hole and Sawyer's raw emotion as he struggles to hold her. This one's a winner all the way through.

2. The Man Behind the Curtain (3x20) - Just as “Orientation” was a massive download of information that opened up infinite story possibilities, this episode gave us an entire world to explore through his flashbacks to Ben's experience with Dharma as a youth. I love the world they built here, and no episode contains the density of information we get here. In addition to our first glimpses of the Dharma world, we find out that Richard is immortal, and also see the massacre that wiped out the Dharma Initiative. It's one of the show's most shocking, brutal moments, and something that I'd have loved to return to before the series ended. Still, talking about answering questions, this one resolved a lot. It also featured one of my favorite scenes in the series, Locke and Ben's trip to the cabin to see Jacob. The scene is creepy and has a strange aura of mysterious power about it, going right to the subconscious. Ben's backstory is one of the greatest 'answers' the show ever gave.

1. Live Together, Die Alone (2x23) - While I obviously tend towards the later years of the show, no single episode has topped what this one did. I'm sure people are wondering why “The Constant” is on here, and I do really like that episode, but even more dazzling is how efficiently the Desmond/Penny love story is set up here. Desmond solidified his status as one of the show's best characters here, and the flashbacks in the Hatch are some of the strangest, most disturbing the series ever did. That stuff alone would make this a classic, but we also get the great confrontation between the Others and Jack/Kate/Sawyer and the first appearance of the mysterious statue. But, the high point is the incredible sequence in which Locke decides to not push the button and Desmond is forced to detonate the hatch. This is a sequence with a religious power, and watching it, I was just in it emotionally. It's the series' greatest moment, and the show has never quite matched the apocalyptic swirl of power this episode contained.

See, I don't hate the show! And, I'd love for one of the final two episode to join the list here. Other than the dreadful first season finale, which, while not the series' worst episode by any stretch, is its most disappointing and exemplary of what makes show frustrating, they've never failed to nail an ending. So, I'm keeping the faith and eager to see how it all plays out. Until then, these are the series' finest hours.