Critics Ponder “What They Died For”
May 19th, 2010
Trapped between perhaps the most divisive episode in the show’s history and a sprawling two and a half hour finale shrouded in mystery, “What They Died For” is a bit tough to “criticize.” Generally speaking, the episode was dramatically strong and effective at providing momentum heading into the finale, but with no guarantees that the payoff will live up to our expectations there is this sense of uncertainty which means that this weeks reviews from critics are sort of hedging their bets.
Normally, you might claim this is in some way counterproductive, but it means that critics are focused on making connections to past episodes and offering their own takes on how the developments in this episode apply to larger ideas within Lost as a whole. It makes for another strong week of Lost criticism, as the setup work done in “What They Died For” is mirrored by critics setting up their own perspectives on the series as we head into Sunday’s finale.
So, let’s take a journey around the internet to see what the critics are saying, shall we?
“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.
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).
“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).