“This Place is Death”
February 11th, 2009
Yesterday, I was reading a piece by Devin Faraci over at CHUD.com, wherein he laid out a laundry list of concerns over the trajectory of Lost’s fifth season. To summarize, Devin is arguing that the focus on time travel has them indulging themselves in the show’s science fiction elements, and that it is forgetting about its characters, losing its momentum, and diverting attention from where it should be placed. And, ostensibly, I believe that he is right about every one of these things; the only difference is that I feel the show is better for it.
“This Place is Death” is a reminder that this isn’t just an investigation of the island itself, but rather an investigation of the island and its relationship with these characters. It has given them things, such as a new set of legs, just as it has taken them away, and what we have here is the island beginning to assert its power over them. Charlotte is correct to remark that this island is one where death is prevalent, but we know it hasn’t always been this way: it gave Locke back his ability to walk, it cured Rose’s cancer, and it appears to have given Richard Alpert the ability to transcend the aging process entirely.
But now the island is off its axis, something has gone off-kilter. As the when of the island changes, the what changes with it: it affects different people to different degrees, its only consistency that it has turned against them all in at least some capacity. This episode is about one man’s plan to try to change this, and another man’s concern that if it proves unstoppable it might mean something terrible for the person about whom he cares the most. This, ultimately, is a character-driven story, one that focuses on a central relationship while reminding us that powers stronger than their love are operating here.
And with a single spin of the wheel, anything is possible.
For those who believe that we’re losing sight of the characters in these episodes, I’m not entirely sure what show you’re watching. This was, clearly, an episode that was about Jin and Sun, and about their relationship together. It’s a reunion that the show had literally pushed aside with Jin’s apparent death, and I was happy to be spoiler-free for last week to be able to be surprised for once. Here, they took over the position that Desmond and Penny once held, a story of two lovers divided by space (and, in this case, time) and that barriers that are between them. It’s one of the show’s favourite devices, used quite often: keeping Jack and Sawyer in separate cages from Kate during their time with the Others, or even the current position of Kate and Sawyer separated by similar bounds.
But one of the things that informs Faraci’s complaints is that it doesn’t feel like the show is as focused as characters, but I’d argue here that this is because it is equally focused on the rest of the story, not that its focus on character is in any way diminished in and of itself. While this episode is about Jin and Sun and their need for a reunion, it’s also about how that reunion is being used and manipulated by Ben Linus in an effort to get everyone back to the island. There is a part of us who continues to buy into the romantic side of this, the idea that fate will keep them apart on its own: when they introduced the ring, and Jin suggesting to Locke that he used it to prove that he had in fact died, it was a tragic moment of a character not understanding what they were saying, and it coming back to haunt them. Instead, you realize that fate is not in their hands: their destiny is so intertwined with the agendas of others that the ring was used for the exact opposite purpose, although the circumstances of how it got into Ben’s possession feel sketchy at best.
Nonetheless, I thought that this was strong work from both Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim, especially the former. Sun doesn’t get much to do here, but it was still chill-inducing to see Sun’s phone call from her daughter not to cause her reconsider taking a life but almost making her more determined to do. Jin’s journey with Rousseau meanwhile, and his eventual re-engagement with his old group of friends, was really much like both his original experience on the island (alone, isolated, confused) and like the viewer’s perspective of these varying time shifts. Jin knows more than they do about the dangers that await on the island, however he is recovering from a trauma and as a result can only do what he can to stop the triumphant and destructive return of Smokey begin to pick them off one by one. I like Jin as a character, always have ever since they gave him a slight sense of humour, so my reaction to his return was much like Sawyer’s, an enormous bear hug and sheer elation.
The problem is that Jin doesn’t see it the same way: when he returns to his group, he has just witnessed the Smoke monster take away one of Rousseau’s crew while leaving his arm behind, and saw as a group of them went below to try to find him again. When he returned, he witnessed a scene on the beach wherein Rousseau’s baby Daddy, Robert, is being held at gunpoint but who, once he convinces Rousseau he’s not like the others and still has his wits about him, tries to shoot her. Combine with Jin being shot at by Rousseau for having disappeared in those moments at the Temple (which I’ll get to in a second), and there’s a reason why Jin returns to the group with a whole lot of questions, a whole lot of concerns, and one central question of where his wife is. That he doesn’t so easily buy into Locke’s story makes a lot of sense, and even without Charlotte’s eventual warning abut this island being a place of death Jin would have reason to be concerned about this entire scenario.
Also, as a result, I don’t blame him for not discussing the temple, or Smokey, or Rousseau with any of the others. Faraci noted in his editorial one of the show’s problems since season one, people not talking about what they’ve actually seen go on and instead making it into some sort of secret. I think that this is an exception: not only is Jin’s English limited, but he would be driven to find his wife and not to relive what he just experienced. The revelation that the Temple as a structure exists, and that Smokey appears to be the person guarding it, does raise a lot of questions: when Robert and the others returned from the Temple, did they turn on Rousseau because of some sort of virus, or is it simply out of an interest in protecting the Temple, they having been chosen as some sort of guardians? Something happened beneath that temple, we know that much, and getting a small taste of it here was a traditional Lost caveat: we’re given a small bit of information, but then we’re leaping away into another time and we’re left to sort out the pieces.
To be fair to the episode, though, outside of Jin’s storyline there was actually a fair amount dealt with on the island itself, much more than you’d normally have in a heavily orchestrated island episode. First and foremost, we have the episode’s proof that the island is death, Charlotte finally succumbing to the injuries sustained during their various leaps through time. She confirmed before her death, however, two things. First, that she had once lived on this island before, opening the door for her to have been Ben’s childhood friend or at the very least on the island during a similar time as Ben. I personally don’t buy this theory, for reasons I discuss below, but it’s finally confirmation of what we’ve assumed all along. Meanwhile, her other revelation is again largely confirming what we’ve gathered, but nonetheless it’s good to have sorted out: she remembers that she was once traumatized as a child by a scary man who told her that if she ever came back to the island she would die. That man, of course, was Daniel Faraday.
At some point, the show is going to have to show us more of Daniel Faraday’s Adventures through Time and Space, because the season premiere just isn’t going to cut it: it is clear that he has now been to at least three periods in the island’s history, and for specific reasons. Unlike this uncontrolled time travel they’re currently trapped in, it felt like Faraday has reasons during those other times: in the premiere it felt like he was in the mine for a specific task, with Charlotte he was trying to save the woman he would eventually come to love, and with the ComicCon footage it appeared that he was trying to out something about the Dharma Initiative. All of this remains entirely up in the air: none of these various time warps have taken them into traditional Dharma territory, and as a result we’ve yet to get the complete picture.
For that reason, this is not the end of “Charlotte” as a character, even if this is the last we see of Rebecca Mader herself. She was ultimately the least interesting of the various people who were part of this expedition, never quite feeling as relevant as Miles (who, since the island is all about the death, is perfect for this environment) and of course never rising to Faraday’s level of importance. Still, her death does have some meaning here: she is the first to die of the time warps, and if they don’t stop sometime soon things are only going to get worse for everyone else. Juliet is in the most trouble, but with Miles and Sawyer now bleeding also the group doesn’t have much time if things keep going as they are.
The episode’s other major storyline was, of course, John Locke trying to keep this from happening. There’s something problematic about Locke’s storyline here, because he really doesn’t actually know what he’s doing here: he’s going based on a feeling, and little more, and his conviction feels like organic than it does the writers using John Locke shorthand (his determination forming the basis of his persona as early as “Walkabout”) in order to convince both us and the other characters to follow him. I do like, though, that Faraday got to voice his concern: while he says that it is quite logical that fixing the time travel problem would be done at the Orchid, Locke’s plan of bringing everyone back doesn’t make any sense, particularly when you consider that the people who came back are dead or dying. At this point, it again comes down to the question of what the island is making these people do: it’s making them throw logic out the window, and following the only person who appears to have a plan is really the only option here.
The one thing about the episode that feels kind of off in the end is that this is Locke’s big, triumphant moment, and usually there would be another piece of Locke’s back story to go along with it. The Flashback model wasn’t entirely broken, and the fourth season still gave us some compelling stories about these characters. Part of me wanted to see more of Locke here, especially when he gets trapped in the cavern wherein the donkey wheel is located and is suddenly visited by the one and only Christian Shepherd. We’re told a lot of things in that section: that the island is where it is right now because it was Ben who moved the island and not Locke, that Locke is in fact being asked to sacrifice himself, and that Locke is to find Eloise Hawking when he returns to the outside world.
All of this has more bearing on Ben, really, than it does on Locke. There is a moment when he stops the car while driving Sun and Jack when he just flips out, telling them that they have no idea what he’s been through to make this happen and that they shouldn’t talk of him like the enemy. I’m starting to piece together why Ben is doing all of this, when in reality it doesn’t feel like he should be at all. While part of it is likely an attempt to get back at Widmore, another part of it might be that Ben actually feels sorry for what he did: if Ben did speak to Locke (as opposed to just picking his pocket of the ring), perhaps he learned that he was in some way responsible for the fate of those people, and feels like he needs to correct it. Ben remains one of those fascinating characters: we should know at this point that he is going to be holding that ring, manipulating people at every turn with whatever means he has at his disposal, but I can’t help but feel like there is something more complex operating here.
It’s almost frustrating that all of this double meaning of Locke’s actions take the focus away from how poignant a moment that was, Locke with injured legs and in great pain but struggling and crawling towards the wheel. It’s like the island, before it lets him leave, has taken away the ability to walk which it gave him, just as it has done in pivotal moments before. Locke’s journey is not yet over, not by a long shot, but it felt like the power of his final moment was lost on this episode (at least): did he actually stop the island’s skipping? What effect did it have, and what time period will it end up in? All of it is left undecided, this final moment for Locke feeling less triumphant and more almost futile as we see manipulative Ben, who caused this problem to begin with in some ways, the one who is pulling everything together.
My brother was commenting to me after the episode that this new structure really makes everything feel like one story, and that’s a great thing in many ways, but there are points where you feel like we’re just getting little tastes where once we got a whole meal (hmmm, I must be hungry). Here, I thought the balance was struck fairly well: we got the glimpse into the island’s mythology with the temple, into the human story with Jin and Sun, into the time travel with Charlotte’s death and Locke’s final moments with the wheel, and into the events of the future with the final visit to Eloise Hawking, Desmond showing up to join Sun, Jack and Ben at the church where apparently we’re going to see the first group of people return to the island. There was enough for each storyline to feel like we’ve gone somewhere (taking everyone but Sayid, Kate, Hurley and Aaron to the point of wanting to go back, explaining how Locke got off the island, establishing Jin’s status as one of the living) with most major linear storylines despite the non-linearity of the current narrative structure.
And that’s what makes it all come together for me: yes, I think that there is something disruptive about all of this, but we’re at a point where simple resolutions are not possible, and shouldn’t be possible, thanks to the mired circumstances they all find themselves in. The show has slowly unraveled this complicated time structure, and I feel like they deserve some time to investigate it in earnest. Now, with a turning point apparently reached five episodes in, one begins to wonder what comes next, and what (precisely) these people will do with their newfound knowledge of past, present and future.
- It’s been ongoing ever since Ben promised he would hunt Penny down and kill her, but Penny Death Watch is officially in earnest: not only is Desmond in Los Angeles at the same time as Mr. Linus, Penny likely off in the boat somewhere, but now Sun and Jin have become the new couple separate by time and space and as a result breaking up Desmond and Penny won’t leave such a gaping hole in the show’s narrative. The show hasn’t yet established whether or not Desmond, in fact, has to go back to the island: while it is implied that he obviously has a special relationship with time, the fact that he wasn’t on the plane makes his status (as it did as to whether he was part of the Oceanic Six) problematic.
- As for why I don’t believe that Charlotte is the grownup version of Ben’s childhood friend, I have two quibbles. First, I don’t think the ages match up, although you could explain that one away with time warp theories and the like. Instead, my bigger problem is that they originally wanted Kristen Bell for the role, and she looks nothing like young Annie did. It’s all circumstancial, though: Lindelof and Cuse have indicated Annie was important, so it would make sense that (at the very least) Charlotte would have something to do with bringing her back to the forefront.
- Great little throwback: as she begins to die, Charlotte talks about how she hears Geronimo Jackson. It can’t be a coincidence that a Geronimo Jackson record was one of those discovered and played by Charlie and Hurley when they were going through the hatch in Season Two.