“What They Died For”
May 18, 2010
“I think you’re mistaking coincidence for fate.”
[For more analysis of this week's penultimate episode of Lost, check out my roundup of Critics' commentary from across the web.]
Earlier today, TV scholar Jason Mittell wrote a rather fantastic analysis of the variety of different types of questions floating around as Lost comes to an end, nicely capturing the ways in which categorizing the questions helps us outline our own “priorities.” Say what you will about “Across the Sea” (as I, or the critics, did), but it has certainly forced Lost’s active audience to consider which questions matter most at this late stage in the series – rather than forcing us to see things a certain way, the episode forced us to see things of our own choosing, things which help form our personal view of the series heading into its conclusion.
When the episode was labeled as “divisive,” it’s easy to presume that the division lies between those who liked it and those who hated it, but the divisions go much deeper than that. The discussion of the episode brought to light how each individual viewer (rather than “groups” of viewers who we bundle into particular categories) has viewed the series thus far, and in doing so led them to the variety of questions which Mittell classifies; rather than eliding these sorts of big questions or attempting to lead viewers in a certain direction, Lindelof and Cuse sat their audience down by the fire and told them that they had a choice to see this show in whichever way they wanted to going into these final episodes, and they have been more than willing to take the criticism and praise found in the questions that viewers have been asking in the past week.
I make this point because “What They Died For” is all about human agency, about how and why we make choices and what it is that pushes us to do things which may seem morally reprehensible or potentially dangerous. The episode is an important connecting point between the show’s two realities, emphasizing the ways in which choices – and the trust implicit or explicit to those choices – shape both the show and its characters on the island and within the newly introduced sideways stories. By putting to rest any doubts about the position of free will within the series, one can’t help but feel that the show is also empowering its audience to enjoy the same type of agency as we head into the finale, picking up on the spirit (if not necessarily the content) of last week’s divisive episode.
And I, speaking entirely personally, think it worked really well, but I think we’re to the point where saying this objectively may be going against the point of it all.
We do not, you’ll notice, get a definitive answer to the question posed in the episode’s title. If you are looking for a clear sense of the meaning behind “What” you are likely going to be disappointed with Jacob’s answer, as it really doesn’t get any more specific than what we already know: the Man in Black is a menace who threatens all of humanity, and Jacob’s job has been to stop him from achieving his goal of escaping the island and bring chaos to the planet. Jacob’s speech still speaks of light, and it still speaks in vague terms that no real human being would accept as an answer within our own reality, and yet it seemed like everyone sitting at that fire bought it. They, let’s remember, have been living on this crazy island (or living with memories of the crazy island) for years, so what they’re hearing actually seems to make sense, or at least as much sense as just about any other explanation they could think of. It helps that when they start to complain about why they were brought to the island and why they became candidates they get a practical response: it was their lives, the lives we spent so much time with in earlier seasons, which brought them to the island. Just as the show has always focused so strongly on the characters in order to sell its mythology, so too does Jacob rely on their own pasts to help them accept his logic.
Now, there’s a distinct problem with this particular theory: he seems to indicate that he brought them to the island because they were lonely in 2004, but yet we know that Jacob visited many of them long before then. This would imply that he spent his entire life ensuring they would be alone, cursing Hurley to lottery winnings he could never really enjoy and allowing John Locke to be crippled so that he would never achieve true love. He claims to have taken Kate off the list because she became a mother*, but yet Sayid was given no such reprieve when he married Nadia, so can we presume that Jacob killed her in order to justify bringing Sayid back to the island? The remaining candidates don’t have the access to this information, as it’s all scenes we saw back in “The Incident” at the end of last season, but this would seem to indicate that Jacob was not a passive observer who plucked them out of painful adulthoods (although it does offer a nice justification for why every single character on the show has been flawed in a way you only see on TV).
*Sorry to steal Sepinwall’s footnote bit, but I want to make a few notes on this that I had while editing the piece. Last week Maureen Ryan made some compelling points about how Allison Janney’s “Mother” character potentially extends an ongoing limitation of female characters to the role of either mother or lover within the series. While Kate’s exclusion as a result of her role as mother to Aaron potentially extends that particular meaning, does it matter that Jacob seems to place intense value on that part of her life, in that Kate didn’t *have* to come back like everyone else did? Kate chose to get onto the Ajira flight because she wanted to find Claire, but it seems like that was entirely her inner struggle rather than Jacob’s intervention (which was necessary for Sayid, for example). Note that Jacob doesn’t cross off Sawyer because he has a daughter, so it’s not as if parenthood in general is the deciding factor. I don’t necessarily think this answers Mo’s concerns, but it does sort of blur the line between the island’s view of women and the writers’ view of women, which could potentially offer some justification for their decisions (if not absolving them of all responsibilities therein).
We know that loneliness allows someone to remain a candidate, but what isn’t clear is how far Jacob has gone to force people to remain lonely both on and off the island: did he instruct the Others to kidnap Walt in order to drive Michael to the point where he might murder the woman that Hurley was falling in love with? Jacob isn’t wrong to say that they were all alone when that plane crashed, which is what created such interesting character dynamics as the show went on – however, has Jacob gone so far as to force these people to be alone so that he would ensure the island’s protection should he die? And if so, has that been justified? Jack isn’t really concerned about any of these questions, as he’s to the point where he’s done with fate or coincidence or what have you – instead, he’s going to make a choice, choosing to place himself as the new protector of the island because he believes it to be his destiny.
There’s an element of trust here which we are generally conditioned to respect, and yet I have my apprehensions: if Jack were paying attention, he would realize the Lighthouse was focused on his childhood home and not the hospital or some other location, and perhaps he would question just how far Jacob went in order to protect this island. And yet, he makes that choice because he’s done trusting other people: he has spent the entire season following others, and for better or for worse Jack Shepard is a leader and is meant to step up in these sorts of situations. However, is it possible to do Jacob’s job of Island Protector without becoming an active participant in the lives of candidates, forcing Jack to make the same types of difficult decisions which Jacob made following his own mistakes? You can create a code of conduct, as various characters have done throughout the series’ run, but when push comes to shove will you abandon that code as unreasonable or will you try to change your situation to fit that code at the expense of people’s lives?
Benjamin Linus is a character who has struggled with codes his entire life, which has led to a complicated moral centre which has often been mistaken for an absence of morality. When Ben took a turn for the murderous in this week’s episode, sacrificing Charles Widmore and Zoey to the Man in Black, it seemed like a sudden turn towards the darkness we once presumed defined the character, but in reality it is simply yet another swing. He chooses to allow the Man in Black into the house not because he has given up all hope of moving on but because he knows that this man could kill him, and more importantly he knows that Charles Widmore murdered his daughter. Ben is not a man who forgets, just as Lost is a show which values the role of the past, so when Miles’ brain went funky at the edge of New Otherton it was a reminder that Alex died at Widmore’s hands, and something awakened in Ben. As much as he may not trust the Man in Black, he has absolutely no trust for the man who broke the rules and broke his heart, a logical if perhaps reckless course of action.
While Jack chooses to align with Jacob because he feels he was brought to the island for a reason and this sounds as good as any, Ben chooses to align with the Man in Black primarily because the “other guy” broke the “rules” and he harbours too much resentment for Jacob to feel like he has any other choice. Both decisions are reckless, but for different reasons: Jack is reckless because he commits too heavily to a man who he doesn’t know and who is at the very least withholding key facts about their relationship, while Ben is reckless because he knows the damage the Man is Black has done but nevertheless goes along for the ride. And while I have my doubts about how much agency Jack truly showed, as I do not buy Jacob as a benevolent observer based on what we’ve seen, I think both cases are meant to draw our attention to the weight of agency. While it may yet be underwritten by the powers of fate (or Jacob as the hand of fate), the show is still at the point where characters are making choices rather than filling in blanks, just as Jin chooses to die with his wife, or just as Lindelof and Cuse chose to place “Across the Sea” so late in the season.
This is especially true in the Sideways-verse, which has finally gained the sense of gravity and meaning that it somewhat struggled with early in the season. Suddenly, rather than seeming like bizarro world versions of the characters we love, the Sideways characters have become characters who have their own choices to make. There have always been implicit connections between the two storylines, with each speaking to the other and saying something about these people we recognize, but the trust which characters place in Desmond and their visions from the other reality is truly a fascinating thing. Off-screen, Hurley became a believer: from the moment he kissed Libby on that beach, everything came flowing back to him, and it’s perfectly in character for him to become obsessive and be more than open to Desmond’s suggestion that he bring $145,000 to the waterfront so that Kate and Sayid can go free (in other words, I buy not seeing those moments onscreen). However, we know that Kate and Sayid are characters who struggle with their loss of agency, each feeling as if their lives have been fated to be spent running from their past, so Desmond is very careful to win their trust: his grand gesture comes with the price of their willingness to do whatever it is he asks, and while we know his motives are pure his methods seem to reflect what the Man in Black and Jacob have been asking of people all season.
The idea of separating motives from actions has been an important part of Desmond’s persona within the Sideways-verse, considering that he’s running over Locke and pummeling Dr. Linus. When people become that reckless, we often presume it is because they have lost their sanity, but I like the idea that it’s because they have “perfect perspective,” so to speak. They have such a clear sense of what is important that they no longer bother with society’s rules, or with what we would generally consider to be society’s rules. It’s why Desmond walked off with Sayid even after he killed someone in front of his eyes on the island, and it’s why Desmond has been so willing to risk people’s lives in trying to bring everyone together. Just as the Man in Black is blinded by his desire to murder Jacob and leave the island, and just as Jacob is blinded by his desire to protect the island and withhold the legacy forced upon him, Desmond is blinded by his desire to set everything to rights. The actions may not be that dissimilar (although Desmond hasn’t turned quite as monstrous as the others), but their motives are quite different, and so we wonder what it is which leads them down this particular path. Is it because they have no other choice, or is it that they have so much trust in their position that they believe they can make any choice they want to make?
This season has been filled with important scenes between John Locke and Jack Shepard, and Locke’s decision to get the surgery in the Sideways storyline is yet another. Locke isn’t there because he is choosing to get surgery to potentially fix his spine, he’s there because he chooses to believe in (and trust in) fate. He’s choosing, without seeing any sign of his old life and without a direct visit from Desmond beyond his parting comments for Ben earlier in the episode, to follow a course of action which he was once vehemently opposed to. And while the connective nature of the Sideways makes us read this decision as a return more than a departure, as we know Locke as the “Man of Faith” who is so quick to disbelieve coincidences in favour of fate, this version of the character has lived years of his life guilting himself into a future of pain and suffering, feigning happiness but not truly able to live with himself. He’s not fixing himself because he wants to return to the island, or because the narrative threads of the season need to come together, but rather because Desmond’s talk of letting go has inspired him to get past that which has hampered him for so long. It’s as if Locke looked in the mirror and told his reflection not to tell him what he can’t do, the kind of self-reflection that we’ve seen throughout the season both prompted by the flashes from the other reality and hinted at through the constant shots of mirrors.
It’s the sort of self-reflection which inspires agency, which forces characters to make choices for better or for worse. Heading into the finale, the Sideways verse is filled with people who have made choices that have placed them in difficult situations, people who are being led by a man who wants them to believe that their entire world is a life. Because we know Desmond’s motivations, we want them to hand over their sense of agency, but we also want that decision to feel like a reflection of that agency: Hurley may become Desmond’s sugar daddy, but he does it because he chooses to do so, not because Desmond forces his hand. While Jacob and the Man in Black seek to either create or take advantage of suffering (killing Sayid’s wife and using her potential resurrection to control Sayid, respectively), Desmond seeks to make characters aware that they can make other choices, choices which could potentially be part of something much larger. It’s given a weight to the Sideways story which it didn’t have before, weight which feels distinct to these versions of these characters rather than weight solely created by the connections we draw as viewers between the two realities. Jack’s son felt like a fun twist when he was first introduced, but the bond between father and son has become so natural that I found myself urging Jack not to take on the task of becoming the island’s guardian because he has a son to live for.
I’ll admit, though, that it seems weird to be focused so much on the Flash Sideways when we’re still reeling from Jin and Sun’s death. One of the challenges of placing “Across the Sea” between these two episodes is that their tragic death, which this week’s title refers to, becomes a bit abstract, even with the “Previously on Lost” focusing so heavily on the event. However, I think “What They Died For” nicely emphasizes the way in which their deaths destabilized the remaining castaways: they’re willing to listen to Jacob because want to find some sense of stability regarding Jin and Sun’s fate, to know that they died for a reason. The answers they get are vague, but there is a clear solution offered, a solution which Jack accepts impulsively because he just saw two of his friends die at the hands of the man he is now supposed to be protecting the island from. Once you remember that Jack didn’t see “Across the Sea,” and doesn’t have our knowledge of either the Man in Black’s intense desire to leave the island or Jacob’s conflicted emotional state regarding his mother and his sense of responsibility, and the fact that what knowledge he does have is so clouded by Jin and Sun’s death and his conflicted state after returning to the island, you realize that he can’t really see it all clearly.
However, in the Flash Sideways the characters are achieving a sort of ideal sense of awareness, the “perfect perspective” that I spoke of earlier. While I still think it’s risky and it still may not pay off on Sunday, the show has officially shifted the weight of its central themes onto the shoulders of the Sideways characters; the fate of the island is in their hands more than Jack or the Man in Black’s at this stage in the game, and in some ways that story will contain far more tragedy than Jin and Sun’s death two weeks ago. If we presume that they will need to undertake actions to “right” the realities and return things back to the current timeline in order to save the island, this would mean Jin and Sun would need to give up a future with a daughter they love for a world in which she is an orphan, and it means that Jack will go back to a world where he has no son and where he truly was alone, and that Ben would have to turn his back on a world where his “daughter” could live a happy life so that he could return to a world where she speaks only to Miles. For Lost to achieve a happy ending (in terms of the world not becoming a Smoke Monster playground), some of its characters (in their Sideways forms) will need to make tragic choices to abandon the potential of their current lives for a much different fate.
I think “What They Died For” did a nice job of emphasizing the agency required to make that choice, rendering it both dramatically effective and consistent with what we’ve seen from these characters in the past. The two realities seem to be converging more and more, and yet at the same time it doesn’t feel like they’re necessarily heading towards an inevitable conclusion: we still don’t know what Widmore whispered to the Man in Black, nor do we do know who rescued Desmond from the well (Frank or Miles seem like the only two options), plus we still aren’t sure just what Desmond is planning to pull off at the museum concert. However, rather than those elisions producing a sense of mistrust, I’m choosing to read it as the writers emphasizing their own sense of agency, and asking us to trust in the choices they’ve made.
While I still believe that last week’s episode was well-executed and deep with meaning that was put to good use in this episode, I will say that “What They Died For” felt more balanced, which seems only logical: the episode was tasked with not only serving as the series’ penultimate episode but also managing the return of the maligned Flash Sideways structure (after its absence last week) and the weight of six seasons, so balance seems like an ideal goal. However, within that balance remained a certain swagger, a confidence that I have put my trust in up until this point. My fate could be similar to that of Richard, as I’m sent flying across New Otherton in my attempts to reason with Lindelof and Cuse, but I have a feeling that this series will be somewhat more respectful of the audience’s own views heading into the finale than perhaps some viewers would like to give them credit for after last week’s divisiveness.
- I think we’re officially reaching the point where “grading” episodes of Lost may be impossible: this one is so dependent on the finale that in rereading the review I noticed I don’t really talk about whether I liked it or not. For the record, I did, but that’s not really the point at this juncture.
- Nice to see Ana Lucia again – Michelle Rodriquez doesn’t deserve the scorn that has been placed on her, and I thought that Ana Lucia serving as one of the “side-characters return as bit players in Sideways action” feels fitting for her role within the main narrative.
- However, while Ana Lucia’s return was a joke for Hurley and a nice wink to the audience, Danielle Rousseau’s return as Alex’s mother was an emotional punch in the gut: not only was it nice to see Mira Furlan return to the series and finally get to look something more than disheveled, but it was the way that Ben realizes how he has become a father figure after spending his last few years caring for his ill father that makes it all work. It’s a powerful reminder of what Alex did for Ben’s life on the island, and is nicely placed in the episode.
- I will agree with Jason Mittell, who I linked to above, that Widmore seems like an important piece to this puzzle, so I was somewhat annoyed to see him killed so quickly. There was more we needed to hear in that discussion in my personal view, although we were able to piece together some of their history (as Eloise would have been crossed off when she became a mother, similar to what happened with Kate) based on Jacob’s speech. It just seems like that chapter hasn’t been closed quite yet, despite the deaths of those involved, so here’s hoping we see something of it in the Sideways storyline on Sunday.
- “If you don’t want to die, we need to hide” is like the coward’s version of the infamous “Come with me if you want to live” Terminator line.
- Sawyer is still capable of serving as comic relief, what with the whole “And we thought he had a god complex before” bit, but I liked how the scene led the punchline sit for just a bit too long so that we could watch it dissipate as the characters settled into the gravity of it all.
- I argued last week that Jacob having to be shown the Magical Glowing Light Cave might explain why it is that the Castaways never found the Lighthouse, or the Cave, before these episodes, and Jacob’s directions to Jack regarding the former seems to support this theory.
- Next week, we finally get the answer we’ve all been waiting for: the identity of David’s mother. It’s the answer we’ve been waiting four months to find out. I don’t know if I can wait another five days.