Going “Across the Sea” with Critics
May 12th, 2010
Writing about Lost on a weekly basis has been consistently challenging this year not in terms of having anything to talk about but rather in terms of tempering one’s response. We all know that the show is close to reaching its conclusion, so we’re all thinking in the back of our minds that the success of the sixth season’s episodes may well depend on where things end up. We can evaluate how much we enjoyed the episode, and how it connects with the show’s characters, but we can’t really evaluate where it fits into the big picture.
However, an episode like “Across the Sea” desperately wants us to think about the big picture, and I think the reaction to the episode is a reflection of the repressed theorizing regarding the finale that people have been building up inside. “Ab Aeterno” provided a release, a chance to consider the island’s past, but we’ve spent the rest of the season withholding our opinion about the Flash Sideways story until we see where it’s going, just as we’ve spent the last six seasons withholding final judgment on the island mysteries.
It makes perfect sense why outright Lost skeptics would respond to this episode in such a divisive fashion, as they’ve been waiting for an opportunity to tear apart the show’s science fiction and this episode gave them plenty of lines rife for parody. However, even the most patient of fans have reached the point where they can’t keep withholding their opinions, and “Across the Sea” has everyone expressing their concerns about whether this is all going to come together and whether this was how the show should be spending its time.
And perhaps the point of it all was to bring our skepticism to the surface, to force us as viewers (or as critics) to put our cards on the table and take a stance regarding the season and the series thus far. “Across the Sea” seems designed to provoke viewers, but perhaps it does so because it knows that it’s better audiences ask these questions (or angrily revolt against the series) now rather than after the finale. Perhaps it’s all a fiendish trick to place us on one side or another heading into the finale whether we have a choice in the matter or not, revealing which of us are men (or women) of science (desiring a more concrete explanation for events) and which of us are men (or women) of faith, who even through a somewhat ridiculous metaphor are still believers of what Lindelof and Cuse are trying to accomplish here.
Either way, the showdown is already beginning, and the crosstalk between critics is as interesting as it’s ever been, so I’m going to at least consider “Across the Sea” a success in that regard as I try to capture some of that discussion (although don’t pretend I capture the depth of each individual review with these comments, and do click through).
First off, let’s be clear: I liked this episode quite a bit, so I’m not coming into this with a skeptical attitude towards the episode. To quickly sum up my own review:
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 every 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.
It could turn out that I’m a sap, and that I’m misplacing my trust with Lindelof and Cuse, but I thought the episode had more than enough subtlety and complexity to speak to our character as much as these characters. As a result, I don’t entirely understand responses that the episode seemed irrelevant: this has always been a show about philosophy and theme, and those elements were so dominant in this episode for me that I don’t necessarily connect this episode to early season concerns that Jacob and the Man in Black are in any way taking over this narrative. I spent the entire episode connecting dots to our own characters, and that’s really what an episode like this needs to accomplish.
However, I do agree with Time’s James Poniewozik that there are perhaps better ways to be able to bring out these themes in theory (or, perhaps, I just can’t argue against Star Wars):
Darth Vader was the antagonist of Star Wars. He was the bad guy. He choked people with his mind. And yet… he was not bad at his core. We learned this not through flashbacks but through the action of characters in dramatic context. Luke believed that Vader had good in him. Obi-Wan said that he’d once been a great Jedi. And in the end, he saw Palpatine trying to kill his son, and he rose against him. That was all we needed to understand Darth Vader’s character.
But then George Lucas also created an entire three-movie prequel to further explain it. Tell me this: would Return of the Jedi have been better if, somewhere before the final battle at the second Death Star, Lucas had added an extended flashback showing us how Anakin was born in slavery, was in a podrace, lost his mother to murder, and had a dream that his wife was going to die?
I’m going to say no. And that’s why, for me, at this point, an entire episode of “Across the Sea” seemed unnecessary—better dealt with in the context of the action and dialogue, even at the risk of possible ticking off some fans who really had to know who Adam and Eve were and where that wheel came from.
I think James is absolutely right about Star Wars (and not just because the prequels were mostly awful), but I will contend the idea that Smokey’s story could have been told through actions, or more accurately that they could have been conveyed through actions when he is controlling John Locke’s body. With the Sideways story ongoing, creating the tension between these two characters Terry O’Quinn is playing, there is already a lot of confusion surrounding Smokey’s actions, so I don’t think that the show is able to use Return of the Jedi-esque actions to bring the character’s essence into the picture.
What James suggests is something akin to what we got from Sayid last week, an action which shows how the ongoing struggle within his soul eventually righted itself on the side of, well, righteousness; in Sayid’s case, it picked up on all of the hours we’ve spent with the character on and off the island, in both sideways and rightways universes, but any actions from the Man in Black tie into vague notions of the island’s past and the identity confusion surrounding the fact he has John Locke’s memories. While the original trilogy created an elegant and simple image of Vader as antagonist, Lost doesn’t have the same luxury, and I think this episode is necessary to clarify what we’re supposed to read as the Man in Black and what we’re supposed to read as something else entirely (although it obviously doesn’t do a perfect job with this task).
While Alan Sepinwall’s review at HitFix is insightful overall, and shares many of my perspectives with the episode, I think the most interesting argument is the return to the sense of meta-analysis which has been pervasive in the series this year. When we hear lines like “Questions will only lead to more questions” we go beyond the connections to previous episodes (Adam and Eve, etc.) and start thinking to Lindelof and Cuse sitting in a room hashing out this story (while being hassled by Muppets, I’m sure), which Alan captures nicely:
When you answer a question, you take away the suspense that comes from waiting for that answer, but you also rob that question of its power over the listener. Had Mother told Smokey the full truth about herself and the island, maybe he would have run away and started digging for electromagnetic spots, but maybe he would have recognized the rightness of her cause and become the dutiful son and successor she wanted. And had Darlton been less stingy with information (and/or more stingy with raising more and more questions), maybe the fan focus at the end of the run would be less on demanding answers and more on paying attention to the character arcs that the showrunners insist are the true heart of the series.
Unsurprisingly, Alan really nails the response to the episode here: I presume that he was considering the divisive reactions on Twitter when he was writing this (or at least the divisive reactions he presumed would exist based on previous fan behaviour/comments, but it nicely captures the sense that fans were trained to “wait” for episodes like this one and not necessarily to consider the character arcs it speaks to. There’s been a lot of talk lately about serialized shows training their audiences, and the idea that at some point along the line Lost seemed to lose control of their audience and their expectations (Jeremy Mongeau has been tweeting about it a lot, if memory serves). “Across the Sea” is totally in line with the perspective that the island’s mysteries exist to shed light on our characters, so it is perfectly consistent for the show to elide clear answers in favour of “meaning” which can be applied to the character arcs Alan speaks of – however, some viewers obviously don’t feel the same way, and thus this episode is a cold, hard reminder that the show is never going to be what they want it to be (or, in their minds, what they thought it was supposed to be).
Todd VanDerWerff does a great job of drawing the lines between critics and fans in his review, and he gets caught up in some of the same issues I had with the way the episode seemed to pose certain questions that it may not actually want to answer:
And yet I fear that the final season of “Lost” is courting this sort of problem. I’m not saying that Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse needed to sit down with an extra-critical creative writing teacher who would explain to them just what didn’t make sense in their story or anything, but I do wonder if the producers think they’ve answered some questions without providing us with enough context to realize they’ve been answered. This is why I fear that the producers think they’ve solved the question of just what the sickness does to people by showing us how it affects Sayid, when, really, what we want is for someone to sit down and just explain the process to us. Hopefully succinctly, granted, but we want that explanation.
To that end, as a “Lost” fan, the success of “Across the Sea” is almost wholly dependent on what happens in the three-and-a-half hours that will close out the season. The cave of softly glowing light? I suspect we’ll get an explanation for that. What happened to the proto-Man in Black when he went down in there? I hope we’ll get an explanation, but I fear the producers think “He became the Smoke Monster! Or something!” will suffice. Who was the Woman who raised the twins? How long has the Island been around? Where did any of these people come from to begin with? I fear that the producers think these questions have been adequately answered…
As Todd points out, we can’t entirely judge where things are going quite yet, but I definitely agree this episode raised some questions in a way which seemed to indicate that the show has no intention of answering them further. However, there’s every chance that Widmore and Ben could have an epic conversation in next week’s episode where they talk about what drew them to the island that does some exposition in regards to some of these questions. There are still elements on the island in the present which could work towards offering us some answers, but the real problem is that they’re coming after we’ve seen entire story arcs trapped within those mysteries come to a close. The show is very interested in retroactive meanings, something which this episode did a lot of, so a lot of this comes down to how things work in the episode that follow.
This is especially true since there are some things that the show can’t retroactively change, as Maureen Ryan’s strong review captures. While she makes some good observations about the episode as a whole which fit with a more skeptical perspective, her review is most interesting for the responsibility she accepts as one of the few female critics writing about the show when she takes on how the show is treating its female characters:
“Lost” started out in Season 1 as an ethnically diverse show with a lot of potentially intriguing male and female characters. Now it is, to a large degree, a story about the epic, heroic or anti-heroic journeys of a bunch of white men. Non-white or female characters — with a few exceptions — just aren’t in the foreground of the main narrative most of the time. Given that, when the show began, I thought that “Lost” was going to be different in that regard, it’s disappointing.
After watching “Across the Sea” twice, it sure seemed to me that if it hadn’t been for “Eve’s” mistakes, perhaps the garden of Eden and the Source wouldn’t have been ruined or endangered, and perhaps her sons wouldn’t have gone to war. She tempted them with the knowledge of the Cave of Mystical Glowy Secrets, and an endless battle for supremacy began.
As I said, we don’t even know if she was well-intentioned or not, though it’s clear that she didn’t want her sons to suffer. But the fact is, a woman is at the heart of what first went wrong on the island. After years of putting up with lame Kate episodes, loony or smothering mothers and the killing off of great female characters like Juliet, the reward we get for our patience is … this? To say it was demoralizing is putting it mildly.
Ryan brings an important perspective to this conversation, but I will say this much: I think it’s meaningful that Kate is still on the island despite having been crossed off the list as a Candidate (in at least one location), and I think it’s meaningful that Smokey (who was betrayed by his mother and murdered his mother) would have crossed Kate off the list of candidates and undersold the character. I do think that the show has gone too far in sidelining female characters, and in losing track of who Kate is supposed to be, for it to entirely redeem itself, but I think that there is the potential for Kate’s role in the finale to offer a sort of alternative take on the “Mother” (since she and Claire fit into the Mother/Claudia roles, and yet I don’t think it’s predetermined that Kate will walk down the same path). I believe (perhaps naively) that there is still some room for some subtlety in this area, and while I’ll agree with Ryan that this seems to imply that women are in some way responsible for destroying the island (heck, Juliet was the one who eventually blew the thing up or at least tried to) I guess I’m still waiting to see whether the surviving women (Claire and Kate) who fit into this episode’s narrative stray from the same path – as Todd points out, there’s still three and a half hours left, and while I don’t think they can retroactively undo that which came before I think they can offer a new perspective that may be less problematic than this particular hour.
The A.V. Club’s Noel Murray does a nice job of capturing the sense that this is still open to interpretation, emphasizing the ways in which the episode’s function could perhaps be separated from its execution:
But those conversations sound better on reflection, and grow in the memory. What I liked about “Across The Sea”—loved, really—is that when all was said and done, the answers really weren’t so simple. Sure, the implications may be. Lost over the last several weeks has clarified just who the villain of the piece is, and what the responsibilities of our heroes are, vis-a-vis said villain. Yet the roots of that hero/villain dynamic remain awfully tangled, and indicate that when it comes to faith vs. reason, and choice vs. no-choice, there’s still quite a bit of gray in this story of white stones and black stones. “Across The Sea” had a real biblical feel, as just as with The Holy Bible, there’s a lot here that’s open to interpretation.
There’s been a lot of talk about how this season might play better on DVD, and I think Murray indicates why: with more time to reflect, scenes tend to grow in the memory, and you can sort of see the big picture. That big picture is messy, certainly, but Lost isn’t trying to narrow our perspectives with an episode like this. The fact that the internet response has been so divisive shows that the episode worked: rather than forcing us all down one path so that the finale plays the same for everyone, it forced our true feelings about the show to the surface. In some cases, this means that Mo Ryan’s intelligent discourse on women within the series becomes even more apparent, while in other cases it means that previous character actions are given new meaning; in both cases, for better or for worse, we have a much better sense of what we want the show to do in its conclusion. As noted, we like to talk about a show training its audience to watch a certain way, but “Across the Sea” sort of throw that out the window and tells fans to interpret it as they see fit.
To close with one final point, Jason Mittell’s post about the episode at Antenna raises an issue regarding the narrative placement of the episode that a number of reviews have spoken to:
The risk that doesn’t payoff was choosing to place “Across the Sea” as Lost’s antepenultimate episode (sorry, but I had to slip that in…). It break-ups the narrative momentum from last week’s bloodbath, and risks pissing off viewers leading into the finale. Is there a reason why we couldn’t have known the backstory of Jacob and Smokey prior to now? As the only true stand-alone episode in the series history, it seems better suited to midway through the final season to deepen our understanding of the complex relationship and motivation between the dueling brothers. As is, it seems like Cuse & Lindelof wanted to keep it up their sleeve for a grand reveal, but I doubt it functioned quite as they’d hoped.
I think that, if this had been placed earlier on, it would have divided the fanbase too soon – this episode was going to start raising big questions before the character work ahead of time had really been laid down, and I think that the “waiting for answers” mode kept some people from prematurely judging the season or the series. Now, fans are in this particular place right before the finale, which is when they’re supposed to be predominantly concerned with those questions. It’s true that some of their actions on the island may have made more sense if we had had this backstory, but it’s too caught up in the six-season-long mysteries for it to be lingering over the entire last half season.
If the goal of Lost is to get us thinking about it, then the show has hit the mother lode: I seriously doubt that Lost fans will stop thinking about this episode (for good or for bad) until long after the finale, and it inherently sparks conversations and debates which are both interesting and, in the case of Mo Ryan’s argument, important to the series’ long-term impact. It’s heartening to me that the show’s “answers” episode has created so many important questions, and I look forward to seeing these same voices (and many more) digging into the finale in a week and a half, and lament the fact that these discussions will mostly disappear in the years which follow.
- Line of the week goes to Mo Ryan: “There were elements of the mythology that were fleshed out (well, in the case of the Adam and Eve skeletons, it was the opposite).” Hey-o!
- For more on the “mythology” of the episode, Sean C. Duncan has some nice analysis of the ways in which relics and artifacts imply a sense of history that the episode doesn’t specifically refer to.
- I know there’s some people who haven’t posted their reviews yet (like Jace over at Televisionary), or who I didn’t quite have room to get to (this is already ludicrously long as it is), so I’ll update if anyone’s thoughts particularly strike me (and when Metacritic posts its rundown of links).