Aired: March 23rd, 2010
[Cultural Learnings' Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective - for more information, and the complete list as it goes up, click here.]
Last year, in making a similar list, I put Battlestar Galactica’s “Daybreak” on it, and as one would expect it proved somewhat divisive. The fact of the matter is that I loved the poetry of the BSG finale while acknowledging some of its shortcuts, and in many ways the controversy surrounding it only made it more likely to find its way onto a list like this one; my investment becomes stronger when I feel as if there is a groundswell to reject the finale entirely based largely on principles of television viewership which I don’t entirely understand. This is not to say that I start a crusade to change their minds, but rather that I become very interested in discovering where they’re coming from.
It’s almost scary how much of a carbon copy the reaction to “The End” has been for me. Last week, when Dan Harmon snuck in a dig at Lost’s sense of “payoff” in the Community Christmas episode, watching my Twitter feed’s reaction was a microcosm of larger opinions: some laughed along, the joke confirming their pre-existing dismissal of Lost’s conclusion, while others became legitimately angry at the off-hand dig. Personally, I laughed, but only because I don’t feel as if I am particularly defensive of “The End” (even if I totally understand why some people are).
I loved “The End,” which should be obvious considering that it’s on this list, but I love the fact that people hated it perhaps even more. I think that Lost, as a television series, will be remembered not so much for its story but for how its story was told; as a fan, this disappoints me, but as a critic and scholar it makes the series’ legacy far more important to the future of television. “The End” was a finale that was never going to please everyone, and so Lindelof and Cuse’s decision to not even bother trying was admirable, reckless, and ultimately one of the most affecting episodes of television of the past year.
Official Ballot Miscellany
June 4th, 2010
Earlier this evening, Emmy voting officially began; this isn’t particularly important to us non-voters, but it does mean that the official ballots were released (PDFs: Performers, Writing, Directing), which means that we know who submitted their names for Emmy contention and can thus make our predictions accordingly. In some cases, this simply confirms our earlier submissions regarding particularly categories, while in other cases it throws our expectations for a loop as frontrunners or contenders don’t end up submitting at all.
For example, Cherry Jones (who last year won for her work on 24) chose not to submit her name for contention this year, a decision which seems somewhat bizarre and is currently being speculatively explained by her unhappiness with her character’s direction in the show’s final season. It completely changes the anatomy of that race, removing a potential frontrunner and clearing the way for some new contenders (or, perhaps, another actress from Grey’s Anatomy). Either way, it’s a real shakeup, so it makes this period particularly interesting.
I will speak a bit about some surprising omissions and inclusions in the categories I’ve already covered this week, but I want to focus on the categories that I haven’t discussed yet, including the guest acting categories, writing, and direction, which are some interesting races this year.
In Defence of “Exposé”
May 21st, 2010
As we come to the end of Lost’s run, people like to write lists: most of these lists will feature “Favourite” characters, episodes or scenes over the past six seasons, but there’s a chance that many of them will focus on the “Worst” of the same. I don’t know if I’m really up for making lists of my own (especially since I put together my own list of important episodes before Season 6 began), but I do want to say one thing:
If I see “Exposé” on a single “Worst Episode” list [like this one, which is even more despicable since it uses "Pointless"], I am going to be incredibly angry.
I may not have loved the episode initially (my “review” from three years ago is a little all over the map), so I can’t say I’ve always held this belief, but over time I have become part of the minority who feel that “Exposé” was an intriguing episode which successfully made lemons out of lemonade. While there are bad episodes of Lost (see: “Stranger in a Strange Land”) which in their failures elucidate some of the show’s growing pains at various points within its narrative, “Exposé” is precisely the opposite: it is a confident hour of television, entirely sure of its function of bringing to a close an intriguing, if failed, experiment in the series’ narrative in a meaningful and memorable fashion.
As Lost has continued, and we’ve learned more about the island and the central themes to the series, I’ve become convinced that there is no way anyone could argue that “Exposé” is not a pivotal episode in the series’ development. Whether you choose to view it as hidden foreshadowing or (more likely) as successful retroactive storytelling, the episode captures in a single episode the complex morality plays which have been unfolding for six seasons, crafting a compelling standalone narrative that we can now see as a microcosm for the series’ larger conflicts.
In other words, I’m tired of the haters, and I’m here to tell you why.
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).
“Happily Ever After”
April 6th, 2010
Early in “Happily Ever After,” Charles Widmore tells Jin that it will be easier to show him what he intends to do with Desmond than it would be to tell him. Normally, this would make me quite excited, as I’m a strong supporter of the “Show, Don’t Tell” mode of storytelling when it comes to shows like Lost. However, if I have a single complaint about the show’s sixth season as a whole, it’s that the flash-sideways narrative device has remained frustratingly opaque – while there is value to mystery, and some of the season’s episodes have nicely played on our uncertainty, there is a point where the mystery needs to be solved in order for the show to move on.
Solution, however, is not the end goal of “Happily Ever After,” despite its title. Rather, it is an episode filled with multiple revelations and philosophical conversations which tell us something very important about what, precisely, is going on in this all-important half of the show’s narrative. It neither confirms nor discredits any of the running theories about what the flash-sideways are supposed to mean, but it establishes key parameters by which we may be able to figure things out, for good, in the future.
While some may feel that a lack of “answers” makes this yet another mysterious episode in a vague and unfocused season, I would argue that it’s the perfect “turn” of sorts: Desmond Hume’s journey into a new reality tells us enough to make us reconsider everything we’ve seen up to this point in the season but not so much that there aren’t still some mysteries to unlock in the future. While “why” and “how” remain complex questions that we still can’t entirely pin down, both questions have become more practical as we head towards the series’ conclusion, and I strongly believe that we now have all the tools we’ll need in order to connect the dots towards Lost’s “Happily Ever After” – so long as “love” is not the only answer, I’m pretty gosh darn excited about it.