The Functionality of Ms. Dawn Summers
July 19th, 2010
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The conclusion to “Buffy vs. Dracula” is one of those moments where I wish I could go back in time and experience it without any future knowledge: the somewhat divisive introduction of Dawn Summers into the series’ narrative was something which I have known about since I started the series, but I had no idea that it was first introduced like this.
I had the benefit of being able to watch “Real Me” before writing about “Buffy vs. Dracula,” but if I had been a critic at the time, and if I had been following the usual episodic review strategy, I don’t know how I would have managed to really analyze the premiere without diverting the discussion towards “WTF”-like exclamations in regards to the conclusion. Every season begins with an uncertainty about what is about to follow, but the way Dawn is dropped into the narrative is the sort of risk which seems brazen to the point of self-destruction.
Through the first Disc of the season, the details surrounding Dawn’s arrival remain shrouded in mystery beyond a few clues, but her function within the story is much more apparent. She is an excuse to step outside of the comforts of the Scoobies, rethinking what it means to be a part of the group and seeing the existing dynamics in a new light.
And in a way, she’s sort of like Lost’s Flash Sideways.
Lost the Morning After: Critics face “The End”
May 24th, 2010
Writing about the end of a television show is a lot like writing about the end of a war. When a war comes to a close, people want to know the facts of how it came to an end, and they want to understand the legacy that it will leave behind, and the same goes for a television show: people want to “understand” the ending, and they want to see the “big picture” in order to evaluate the series as a whole.
However, for critics who have been reviewing the series episode-by-episode, this is a greater challenge than I think people realize. It isn’t that we don’t have opinions about “The End” in terms of where it fits into Lost’s big picture or how its ending concludes the series’ long-term storylines, but rather that we have been in the trenches, so to speak, for years of our lives. Noel Murray likened writing about Lost weekly to “reports from the field…recording immediate impressions,” but now we’re forced to combine the immediacy of our response to the finale with this desire for closure, both within the viewing audience and within our own expectations. These critics are the embedded reporters, people who have dedicated so much of their time to cataloging their immediate responses that channeling that energy towards the end of the series seems like a different and in some cases counter-intuitive experience.
However, they’re also the people who offer a valuable glimpse into the series’ run as a whole, both in their wide-reaching commentary and in their specific analysis of “The End” and its various mysteries and reveals. Their “reports from the field” may be over, but the final transmission will serve as a wonderful starting point for the larger discussion, so let’s take a closer look at their analysis and see how the process of historicizing Lost’s impact begins.
“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.
May 4th, 2010
For the first half of its running time, “The Candidate” felt like the show was going through a list of the ways in which this season has somewhat struggled with its competing narrative foci. The Flash Sideways structure is thematically interesting, but it feels as if the initial “what’s going on” dynamism has been replaced by a sort of meandering structure as Jack stumbles upon connections that we made weeks ago, and reveals elements of the story which bear emotional weight but which get saved until the episode’s conclusion. This might be fine, perhaps, if there was anything happening on the island to compare it to, but through the first half of the episode the show’s action seemed borderline illogical, leaving me pondering just how cranky this review was doing to sound.
And then, at a certain point in the episode, all hell broke loose, and the stakes of the season went up by roughly ten thousand percent. Life becomes a commodity, trust becomes more important than perhaps life itself, and the show’s poetic style gets turned on its ear like perhaps it’s never been turned on its ear before. “The Candidate” is not an exemplary hour of television, struggling mightily to set up its eventual conclusion, but that conclusion ends up being such a rollercoaster that it leaves the show in perhaps the best shape its been all year while leaving us emotional wrecks.
It’s something the show hasn’t really accomplished thus far this season, which means that we’re officially in the home stretch.
“The Last Recruit”
April 20th, 2010
“You could find yourself in a situation that’s…irreversible.”
From what we can gather, the Man in Black is a man of promises: while he has a certain power of persuasion in general, his greatest tool appears to be his ability to offer the thing that people want most. He offered Claire knowledge about her son’s whereabouts, and promised that he would help her find him, and he promised Sayid that he would reunite him with Nadia so long as he joined his side. In both cases, the characters had clear goals, and in both cases their predisposition to accepting such promises (the darkness within them) pushes them into the realm of the psychotic and dangerous.
But “The Last Recruit” asks us to reevaluate these characters, or more accurately asks us to reconsider whether their situation is truly irreversible. While Sawyer is right to be wary of Sayid and Claire due to their allegiance with Locke, other characters have the ability to promise them something more, or to force them to fully consider the nature of what the Man in Black is promising and the complications therein. On a show marked by the overwhelming power of fate, this week’s episode demonstrated a lot of characters charting a new path for themselves just as soon as it seemed everyone was in the same place for the first time in ages, with most choosing to chart their own path amidst the unclear motivations which define the island’s politics.
It becomes an instance where short-term convergence leads to long-term, and ideological, dispersion, just as the Sideways storyline begins to bring the whole gang back together again in a way which seems just uncanny enough to overcome a somewhat problematic short-term focus.
“Everybody Loves Hugo”
April 13th, 2010
“There’s a difference between doing nothing and waiting.”
Ah yes, that eternal question: a week after finally getting something close to answers about the Sideways universe and what it means for the series, “Everybody Loves Hugo” appears at first to be the start of another waiting period. The Man in Black is right when he says the above, of course: there is a difference between the show sitting around wasting time and the show waiting for the right moment to introduce something that will truly change the direction of the series.
I’d argue that “Happily Ever After” gave us the momentum required to (hopefully) negotiate the difference between these two approaches. While early episodes lacked the context necessary for us to view the flash sideways as something that was building to something larger as opposed to just the show twiddling its thumbs to toy with our minds, the new details about how the Flash Sideways work means that there is now a function to the “waiting,” making it seem more purposeful and goal-oriented.
It’s one of the things which makes “Everybody Loves Hugo” a particularly intriguing episode; after creating the expectation that it would be a quiet episode of waiting and wishy-washy motivations, various characters get tired of waiting and take things into their own hands, creating some rather explosive moments that punctuate a philosophically intriguing hour.
And that certainly doesn’t qualify as “doing nothing,” even if we’re still waiting for the big answers.
“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.
March 30th, 2010
There are plenty of reasons to be apprehensive about “The Package.” It’s coming off of an epic mythology episode of romance and intrigue, it features a vague title that seems to refer to some sort of MacGuffin, and it has the unfortunate task of “filling in the gaps” in its flash sideways as opposed to telling its own story. Because we saw a small glimpse into Jin’s fate in “Sundown,” we can be fairly certain that the show will be colouring in the lines this week, and after a week when the show was willing to go off the page entirely it means that the show is facing an uphill battle.
Like the season’s weaker episodes, “The Package” struggles with a flash-sideways that proves completely inconclusive and an island scenario which feels like pieces moving on a chess board, but it ultimately works because it doesn’t feel like those pieces are being moved. When things stall in the episode, it feels like they’re stalling for a reason, and everyone involved knows why they’re making the choices they are. While things may not be moving as quickly as some fans want them to be, they seem to be moving faster than the characters were prepared for, and there’s a nice tension there which bodes well for the remainder of the season.
And, let’s face it: the reveal of just what “The Package” is was way too good for me to be too cranky.
March 16th, 2010
There are only so many ways that we can talk about the “Flash Sideways” structure of Lost’s sixth season before we discover its deeper meaning, only so many ways that we can pass judgment while technically reserving judgment.
However, I will contend that those who suggest that the structure is meaningless without a sense of the big picture are overstating things: yes, episodes like “Recon” might become more interesting with a rewatch once the pieces start to come together, but the structure is capable of being interesting in its own right. Like the original flashbacks, the segments are more dependent on individual characters than the show has been in a long time, and so we love episodes featuring Locke and Ben while we become frustrated with episodes featuring Kate and whatever other character we don’t tend to like very much.
I’ll be curious to see how people respond to “Recon,” a Sawyer episode that threatens to rewrite the character’s fairly popular transformation during the “LaFleur” story last year. Part of what made Kate’s flash so problematic was that it felt regressive: it’s one thing to hearken back to an earlier structure that focuses more on these characters, but it’s another to show them more or less exactly as we’d seen them before. Some even argued that Sayid’s flash had the same problem, in that it didn’t show us anything new, or really change our perception of the character.
Personally, I think that we can take a lack of change as a fairly substantial clue to the deeper meanings at play here, but what makes “Recon” work is that the changes we’ve witnessed on the island feel as if they have heavily influenced the James Ford we meet in the flash sideways. The changes between this Sawyer and the one we saw in the first season are not dissimilar from the changes between the Sawyer who crashed on Oceanic Flight 815 and the Sawyer who was known as Lafleur, and it’s the sort of change that says more through simple character drama than any plot-based exposition could ever accomplish. The scenes are as much a reminder as they are a reveal, and while that might not currently seem fitting for a final season I think it’s all going to work out in the long run (or the long con, if you prefer).