“Across the Sea”
May 11th, 2010
[For more discussion of the episode, check out my breakdown and analysis of critical responses to "Across the Sea." Also, for a review of the series' penultimate episode, What They Died For, click here]
Do metaphors count as answers?
It’s the question I found myself returning to throughout “Across the Sea,” a story which feels so designed to discover answers that it never quite achieves a narrative in its own right, although I don’t necessarily mean that as a slight to its effectiveness. However, while you could argue we get some facts and details that help us piece together previous events, there is very little of what one would call “clear” answers in the hour. What we get are extended metaphors meant to give meaning, rather than clarity, to that which has happened before and that which will happen in the future.
Considering the breadth of questions we as an audience have at this stage in the show’s run, there is no chance that the show will ever be able to make everything perfectly clear, and when tonight’s episode actually tried to provide “answers” it often felt unnatural, inorganic. Where the episode worked best is in using metaphors and abstract ideas to solidify human emotions and character motivations: this is the story of Jacob and his nameless twin brother (who we’ll call Esau for the sake of the Biblical connection, even if their mother’s name makes it less than perfect), but it both implicitly and explicitly gestures to what we’ve seen unfold on the island for six seasons, and in doing so gives greater meaning to that journey even if the “why” question remains unanswered.
I don’t think “Across the Sea” is by any means perfect, but I think it did a most admirable job at crafting a story which crystallizes the show’s journey thus far, worrying less about the big picture and more about establishing where the individual portraits the show has created fit into the mysteries of the island (which may remain unsolved).
To start with what I thought didn’t quite work, I do think that joining Allison Janney’s “Mother” character in media res was a bit of a bizarre decision: while the why/how of the situation can’t be the show’s priority, the complete lack of context for how she arrived on the island and how she was given this kind of power seems incredibly bizarre to me. I’m very glad to see a woman in a role of authority on the show, and I thought Janney was great throughout, but I still feel like this flashback episode needs another flashback episode. I don’t necessarily think this is the case, as I think the episode derives enough meaning from the island’s past to build momentum heading into the final three and a half hours, but I nonetheless felt like something was missing, a takeaway that I think Lindelof and Cuse could have avoided with some sort of context for her position. This is very clearly Jacob and Esau’s story, but I think Janney’s character’s existence gestures too closely to mysteries that it is clear the show has no intention of solving.
However, I’m fine with the decision because it is another reminder that it doesn’t particularly matter what started this process, or what it is which lies at the heart of the island: the show isn’t about the island itself but rather the people who are drawn to it as part of this massive game of sorts, so it makes sense that the show would focus on how the island changed Jacob and Esau’s relationship rather than how this entire situation came to be. The important thing is that Jacob and Esau were not always omniscient beings, and that they were once humans who were fighting over whether or not they should leave the island just as Jack and Locke would do centuries later. The two child actors were well cast, and Mark Pellegrino and especially Titus Welliver stepped up to the plate to humanize two characters who have always seemed a bit obtuse. This wasn’t quite as successful as “Ab Aeterno” at creating an emotional core to their characters, if only because it was so concerned with creating thematic meaning for the rest of the series at the same time, but I thought the actors really brought it to the table and managed to show us the origins of these two characters without it seeming like the show just connecting some dots. We better understand why it is that Esau would be so focused on leaving, just as we understand why Jacob would be so concerned with finding someone to replace him (as it was his task, bestowed to him by his mother before her death). All of that works pretty well, and I’m officially campaigning for Welliver to grab an Emmy nod for his work in this episode (Janney’s a lock based on her pedigree, one would think).
That was really only half of the episode, though. The other half is going to be a hell of a tough thing to write about, as the show was throwing out possible connections left and right. Not everything was quite as (overly) clear as the Adam/Eve mystery being officially solved; I don’t think the flashbacks were necessary, as any fan in their right mind was thinking “Adam and Eve!” as soon as Jacob carried Esau’s body back to the caves, but it was still nice to see the show actually come full circle, and to show that the black/white rocks were really there from the beginning (plus, you know, in the backgammon game). However, the rest of the episode was filled with moments that spoke to what we’ve seen before: the baby-snatching which “Mother” performs is akin to the drama surrounding both Alex and Aaron, while Claudia’s death is perhaps a portend for the problems with child birth on the island in later years. As Jacob and Esau are playing their game (which James Poniewozik discovered via Twitter was an Egyptian game called Senet), they discuss the idea that they’re making up their own rules, which plays into what we know about Widmore and Ben’s rules from their time on the island. Despite being a “flashback” for these two unrelated characters, a lot of what we’re seeing explains (or at least prescribes meaning to) things we’ve seen in the past, sort of like a refresher course of the show’s history tucked away within this well-acted narrative.
However, the big element of the episode is the introduction of “Light” as the term to describe the essence of the island’s power: from what we were told, it seems that “Mother” was protecting this power, and she took on the two sons as a way to pass on that responsibility to someone else. She explains that the light is beautiful, and something that is inside of everyone, but also something that inspires greed and malice; if they tried to abuse it, it could go out forever, and then the light would go out everywhere. At first this seemed a little bit far-fetched, but it was never intended to be literal: while there is an actual light that we see in that tiny little cave, the metaphor of light is meant to capture something larger, and we are inspired to make various connections not only to past discussions like that one (like Jacob explaining the whole Hellmouth-esque theory of the island to Richard) but also past events where “life, death and rebirth” (the three qualities the light represents) have played out on the island. We start to wonder whether the temple was built over this pool of water and whether that water is the same which Esau flowed into at episode’s end, and we start to realize why it is that the screen flashed to white after Jughead exploded rather than fading to black as we’ve come to expect. “Light” may not mean anything considered in the abstract, but as a metaphor for what we’ve seen it helps us piece together what it’s all meant.
Of course, some of the connections are more clear, and they create further mysteries: we still don’t understand how it is that Esau knew that his donkey wheel would somehow tap into the power of the light in order to transport him off of the island, or how the people within his community would eventually inspire the Dharma initiative. There are gaps to be found that perhaps Widmore and Ben can fill in, but there isn’t enough time to do flashbacks of every stage of the island’s development. I don’t know if these “new” mysteries were intended as mysteries or rather simply shortcuts to get us to the emotional stages in the episode, but I think that we are at the point where Lost viewers are intelligent enough to derive meaning from the events without getting entirely caught up in the “how/why” of things. What happens to Esau at episode’s end shows us how it is that he came to be the smoke monster, but rather than getting hung up on the metaphysical properties of the transformation I found myself wondering how that compares to what happened with Claire and Sayid, and whether the transformation was the result of the light’s general powers or the result of Jacob going against the letter (if not the law) of his Mother’s “rule” and allowing Esau to live on beyond his mortal death.
However, I’ve never been one to get caught up on “answers” when it comes to Lost – there’s a point where Janney’s character shushes Claudia and tells her that every question she asks about the island will only create more questions, and I felt like it was a less than subtle nod to the audience. These sort of meta moments, sprinkled throughout the episode as it starts to piece together certain things from the show’s past, kept the story of Jacob and Esau from forming its own entity, but that was the point of the episode. The point was that this wasn’t a new story so much as it was a story we’ve never heard before but seems awfully familiar. Lost loves to keep us on edge, and now that we’re all desperate for some sort of conclusion they gave us an episode which masqueraded as one thing (the backstory of Jacob and Esau) and ended up being a broad thematic investigation of the island and its meaning with a few pretty unsurprising “facts” about our favourite frateternal (invented word alert) twins.
I don’t really view this as a problem, but I’ll admit that it wasn’t what the show advertised it was going to do: the short cable blurb for the episode implied that we would understand “John Locke’s” motives, but all the episode did was give his very simple and straightforward desire to escape the island greater meaning. That meaning is largely philosophical: he lived a life where he didn’t understand death and had no clue what a ship was, and so when he learns that his “Mother” has been keeping him away from everything he wants to understand how the island works and use that to explore the world around him. He is the eternal philosopher, someone who believes in “Across the Sea” and who as Smokey is more trapped than he ever was before. Jacob, meanwhile, put his trust in his “Mother” and took on the responsibility of the island without really having a choice in the matter; it’s a situation which he recreates numerous times over, as none of the people who arrive on the island truly have a choice, whether it’s Dogen taking over the Temple watch or characters being unable to die until their true purpose has been served. What we’ve seen thus far on the island is an extension of what they live through here, and while it doesn’t go much further into the “how” and on occasion elides or looks past the “why,” it makes a meaningful connection between Jacob and Esau’s story and the rest of the series.
There are points in the episode where it all feels stretched a bit thin, and points which (as noted) raise mysteries and further questions that I’m not sure the show can elide as easily as it might like to (or as might be necessary); I’m also open to arguments that we needed this episode earlier in the season, or needed more time spent during earlier time periods in order to further contextualize what we saw tonight. However, I think “Across the Sea” was successful at emphasizing the meaning of the island to both these two characters and the rest of the show’s journey, and while it was ultimately light on clear answers it used metaphor to bring to life some of the mysteries of the past. Without knowing where the show goes from here, we can only really judge on how this episode speaks to what came before and how it stands as its own hour of entertainment: on those two fronts, some strong explicit and implicit connections with past episodes and some strong performances from the guest stars (who dominated the entire hour) are enough to make this episode meaningful.
We’ll see in the next two weeks whether or not it is as meaningful as it needed to be.
- Part of the problem with Lost’s plethora of mysteries is that we like to jump to conclusions: for example, I kept thinking that the whole Donkey Wheel scenario was concocted by a time-travelling Daniel Faraday, so if we get any other sort of answer I’m going to be eternally frustrated.
- Considering light’s importance to the episode, there was some great lighting: the show finally explained why it is that Esau (as Locke) has been seeing dead people (or earlier versions of dead people) bathed in a sort of light, and the shot of Janney standing in the light at the bottom of the well was some really great stuff.
- I know it’s been a while since we’ve been to the Caves set, but the way it was lit made it seem obnoxiously fake – I’m going to say budget cuts, as it’s a nice easy answer as to why it seemed so “off.”
- Liked the parallels between the child and adult struggles of Jacob and Esau, with Jacob attacking him in much the same way as an adult as he did when he was a child. It was a nice parallel, and interestingly depicts Jacob as the aggressor (when we’ve clearly, to this point, associated Esau with that role).
- I am struggling to understand how it is that “Mother” burned down and murdered an entire village, but I guess we’re just supposed to chalk that up to her using the island’s power in some way – same goes for filling in the well.
- The idea that no one ever stumbled across Jacob and Esau’s humble abode in the caves, or that Esau could never find the “Light Cave” on his own, implies that Jacob and his mother could both camouflage certain locations – perhaps this explains why it is that they weren’t able to see the Lighthouse or some other parts of the island at various stages of the series?
- I think this is officially the first time I was exciting to see someone looming on a television show, but I cheered a bit when we learned where Jacob got his odd hobby.
- My one big remaining question: the whole eternal life thing. We presume it has something to do with the light (which Jacob controls and which Esau embodies), but I can’t help but be curious.