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.
“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.
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 25th, 2010
While 30 Rock is a show that rarely has a great deal of forward momentum, I always like it better when it seems like it’s taking me someplace in particular; Jenna’s best story was when she was dealing with her weight, Tracy’s best recent story was when he confronting the uncanny valley, and Liz and Jack are almost always at their best when it feels like they’re confronting something that could last a few episodes or have some sort of ramification for their future.
This does not mean that I don’t find episodes like “Floyd” funny just because 2/3 of the episode is pointless, but it does mean that I prefer the parts of the episode which feel like they have history and a future. I know it’s not typical for the show, and I know it’s not really going to last, but there’s something about Liz Lemon doing something which seems mildly important that just makes me like the show more.
February 23rd, 2010
“I guess we weren’t looking for it…”
When Lost adds new elements to its world, acts of expansion that have been quite common early in the show’s sixth season, there’s always a question of why we’ve never seen it before. Why did they wait so long, for example, for us to meet Benjamin Linus, and why did we never learn about the Man in Black until the fifth season finale? They’re questions that have some merit, certainly, but which perhaps miss the point: the reality is that sometimes things sneak up on you, and things that have existed for centuries are only able to be found when you know where to look (and sometimes Michael Emerson blows away the producers and becomes part of the show’s expansion).
“Lighthouse” is a cross-reality investigation of this idea, of what people are able to “see” with the right information and how those viewpoints change those characters. For some, their perspective is clouded by an infection taking over their mind and body, while for others their perspective is clouded by a life filled with self-doubt and personal struggle. And while we’ve yet to be given the proper coordinates to full interested what the show’s flash-sideways structure represents, it continues to offer a unique perspective on who these characters could have been, which remains a compelling counterpoint to the characters they are and – perhaps more importantly – the characters they are destined, or not destined, to be.
“What Kate Does”
February 9th, 2010
I sat down to watch two early Kate flashbacks from the first two seasons of Lost earlier tonight, and I was struck by a moment in “Tabula Rasa,” an episode that reads very different with hindsight. The episode’s title refers to “blank slates,” and Jack (who just found out about Kate’s criminal past) says that he doesn’t need to know the truth about what she did, because the island offers them all a fresh start. However, the show’s flashbacks were based on the premise that what happened in the past did matter, and the fact that so many characters struggled to live down their past lives makes “Tabula Rasa” a particularly portentous episode in retrospect.
Of course, with the new flash sideways structure the show is taking on, getting a fresh start has taken on a new meaning. Rather than starting a new life, the characters are returning to their old ones without the seasons of development we’ve witnessed, stepping back into the same problems that made the island as much refuge as isolation for some of the castaways. “What Kate Does” is the first episode to go beyond small character changes to ask what would have happened to these characters if Flight 815 had never crashed, and while some seem to have turned on Kate as a character I strongly believe she is the perfect vantage point to usher the show into this new era.
February 2nd, 2010
“Nothing is Irreversible.”
To say that I am excited about the final season of Lost is an understatement, but it doesn’t tell the entire story.
I was excited, for instance, for the final season of Battlestar Galactica, but that season had clear expectations in terms of dealing with the identities of the final five Cylons, and was divided into two halves so as to stretch it out further. With Lost, there is no such clarity, as the show could be headed in any bloody direction we could imagine, and it will be completely over in only a few short months. And this is a show that I started watching on day one, that I remained devoted to throughout its run, and that was an important part of my transition into TV criticism.
So “LA X” is the culmination of a six-year journey, and my only hope going into the premiere was that it would feel like the beginning of the end without feeling like the end of the beginning, that it would seem like it was the same show that came before while clearly marching towards a conclusion.
And what we got was an episode of television that turns the show’s world upside down while simultaneously fitting pieces together to work towards that conclusion, and by balancing the two almost to perfection Lindelof and Cuse have made this just as exciting and eventful as I hoped it would be, all while making me even more confused than I was before. It starts a season that promises to probe the above question in terms of an abstract impression of these characters and the journey they have taken on our television screens, a ballsy move that promises another year of complex but precise television.
Welcome back, Lost – we missed you.
November 19th, 2009
This is “Green Week” on NBC, which means that every show has some sort of environmental sustainability storyline in it. And while the shows did similar episodes a few seasons ago (The Office did its “Survivorman” parody and 30 Rock did the great “Greenzo”), it’s a well that has quite a bit of content in it, depending on how the shows wants to go about it.
While The Office (which I won’t be reviewing tonight, although I’ll probably throw some thoughts onto the end of the page) simply used it as a theme for the cold open (as it did with Halloween), 30 Rock takes a more continuous and as a result scattered approach. Giving Kenneth the task of “greening” 30 Rock felt forced, and while the episode wanted to try to make it seem subversive and clever the show has done too many similar things before.
However, continuing last week’s improvement on the season as a whole, this week had a cohesive point of view if we ignore the environmental side of things, presenting two stories that allowed for both some brilliant absurdity and actions which are driven by character rather than plot. And, just when you think that the environmental story is entirely worthless, the show spins off a few random parts of other scenes into the storyline and helps bring everything full circle in a sequence that actually is as clever as it wants it to be.
Plus, Teddy Ruxpin was a frakkin’ lawyer.