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.
When we open on Jack sitting on Oceanic Flight 815, we wonder what precisely we’re seeing: we recognize Cindy the stewardess, and we recognize Rose, but the scene is not the same as what we saw in the “Pilot.” At first it’s little details, like Cindy only giving Jack one bottle of vodka as opposed to two, or Jack being the one afraid of turbulence while Rose is helping him deal with his white-knuckled fear (in the pilot, it was the other way around). And then, of course, it becomes about the big details, mainly that the plane goes through a short patch of turbulence before evening back out. In this world, Flight 815 never crashed, and when the camera pans out the window and down into the water to reveal New Otherton, the fourt-toed statue, and Ezra James Sharkington III, you jump to the conclusion that the plan worked, and things will never be the same.
And then, moments later, we find Kate in the jungle, and slowly she discovers Miles, and Sawyer, and…Jack. And all of a sudden, what seemed like a simple statement of “it worked” suddenly becomes something entirely different. The show doesn’t want to tip its hand too early on that it is now operating with two narratives, one on the island in the show’s “present day” and the other an alternate reality of what would have happened if the plane hadn’t crashed, so it plays with our expectations over what that white flash truly meant. For a while, it even seemed like there were three narratives, before the conclusion confirmed that Ben and the Man in Black’s discussion was happening simultaneous to Hurley’s trek to the temple. Lost knows that we expect this kind of shiftiness, and so it limits clarity until absolutely necessary. The result is that while we start out asking broad questions of what these individual stories are, by the time the episode ends we’re asking questions about the specific narratives in an obnoxiously smooth transition. I don’t know if I can pinpoint the exact moment, but there was a point where I stopped worrying about “when” or “where” or “how” and started trying to figure out “why,” which is the far more important question but one that’s touch to achieve with the show’s recent forays into time travel fresh in everyone’s minds.
The alternate reality, presuming that’s actually what it is, started out with our attempts to tie it into the show’s normal narratives. When we see Desmond on the plane, which we know is incongruous with the plane as it originally was, or when we hear from Boone that Shannon didn’t come back to L.A. with him, we try to connect the dots to figure out how that could have possibly happened, and we make the logical argument that Shannon only isn’t there because Maggie Grace hasn’t been as quick to jump at the chance to return to the show as Ian Somerhalder has. I spent a lot of the episode theorizing ways that Lindelof and Cuse could change the timeline, whether Locke could potentially use his legs (when he was explaining to Boone about the Walkabout as if he were on it) or whether Kate wasn’t in handcuffs, but by the end of the episode we got that fantastic scene with Locke and Jack as they meet over their lost luggage. And I realized that the changes are not big but small, the characters themselves mostly unchanged: Jin and Sun are still hiding things from each other, Kate is still running from the law, Claire is still pregnant, and Charlie still has a drug problem. What the show is dealing with has nothing to do with the island, which is what makes it so novel: it asks the question of what would happen if the same flawed characters we saw get subjected to the insanity of the past five seasons had to deal with the real world, had to deal with what John Locke was so desperate not to return to.
It’s a damn bold move considering that the narrative truly does take us back to Season 1, but in an even more disconnected fashion. In the old “flashbacks,” there was at least one character who was being directly affected by the memories we were seeing. Here, these aren’t memories at all, but rather a thematic rumination, a big ol’ stylistic “What if?” that creates a dual-narrative of determining each character’s fate on the island and how that compares to what would have happened if none of it (being the five seasons of the show) had happened. There are still mysteries to be found in these stories, like what would put Desmond on that plane for example, but they are mysteries that are almost entire non-science fictional (at least right now). While the device may have been created through the assistance of a crazy science fiction story, and while (as I’ll get to in a moment) the stuff on the island is as off-the-wall as ever, what happened at LAX is simply characters whose lives, as we saw for three seasons, were totally messed up trying to find a way to put the pieces back together without the distraction of being stranded on a tropical island with a crazy smoke monster. What the show wants us to do with it, I presume, is ask ourselves whether the life that they were “destined” to live on the island is better than that they would have found if that plane had never crashed.
There were a number of brilliant scenes in the episode, but the two that sold it both featured Terry O’Quinn in completely different roles. In the aforementioned airport scene, he was quiet and calm with Jack, while raising the important point that the airline may not know where his father’s body is, but they certainly have no idea where “he” is. The idea of the afterlife has been playing into Lost for a while now, but this season it’s increasingly coming to the forefront: while Locke’s dead body and his image being utilized by the Man in Black is perhaps a deeper example, we also have the fact that Miles can speak to the dead, and the fact that Claire is back in our narrative full time (and, let’s remember, presumed dead). While it’s clear the island itself is not a form of purgatory, we saw Sayid rise from the dead at the end of the hour, so that scene within the alternate reality offers an important thematic commentary on the island story. It was also, at the same time, just a great chance to see Locke and Jack interacting again, something that hasn’t happened in a long while thanks to the fracture narrative. While the two narratives are unlikely to ever “meet” or speak to one another directly, seeing characters we know interacting with each other in new ways is satisfying in ways that go beyond nostalgia, and which feel a real grounding force for the other side of the story.
O’Quinn’s other big scene, his epic teardown of John Locke’s psychological state, was equally important in terms of establishing the link between the two realities. The idea that Locke was the one who never wanted to leave, the one whose life was so sad (and whose life on the island was so improved physically/emotionally) that he had no interest of going back, resonates both to the character’s tragic end and the show’s current themes. It’s a brilliant scene in that it’s being delivered by a doppelganger of the man in question, creating a fantastic bit of representation, but it also works as a way to remind us about how the island changed people, and how they responded to it. At the same time as it tells us part of the Man in Black’s plan, with his desire to go home (to the temple? to somewhere else entirely?) and all, it also reminds us who John Locke was when the show first began. Despite the story getting bigger than ever before, and that scene being tied to the mythology, it still boils down to these characters, even those who are technically dead in the “present.” And that’s a brilliant way of using narrative complexity in order to simplify rather than confuse, and that the episode’s initial “WTF” reaction eventually came to something so simple and precise is a sign of some truly great writing and performance from the usual crowd.
Especially since, as noted, the stuff on the island wasn’t particularly normal. First and foremost, to get it out of the way: I do not believe it was entirely necessary to re-kill Juliet. While her final scene with Sawyer was emotional, and while her speaking from the dead raised that nice question of “What worked?” that will likely run through the season as we see if the two realities eventually converge in direct ways (my money’s on Desmond as their Constant – quote me on that), it seemed like an unnecessary bit of emotional story. The rivalry between Sawyer and Jack spilling over gave the affair a sense of continuity, but Juliet re-dying felt distracting – perhaps if she hadn’t already gotten another show, and there was actually a chance of her surviving, it might have been worth the return, but it seemed unnecessary. However, they would likely make the argument that giving Sawyer closure helps to keep Juliet’s memory from dominating the rest of the story, and since there seems to be a lot of that I will give the benefit of the doubt in this case.
As for the rest of the story for our newly twenty-first century dwelling castaways, once Juliet died things went from 0-60, and the show started to answer some questions while at the same time posing some new ones. We finally got to see the infamous temple (having only ever gone up to and under the outer wall protecting it), where we saw Cindy for the first time since Season Three, and where we got to meet two mysterious new characters. A lot of it was seeing things first hand that we had always heard of: we knew the temple offered healing powers (See: Young Ben), and that it could do quite more (See: Richard’s eternal youth), and we knew the rest of the Others had to be stationed elsewhere considering we hadn’t run into them in quite some time.
And so the real test becomes whether they lived up to our expectations, and for me they did, and in a big way. Not only is Sol Starr involved (John Hawkes, playing the translator), but then you have the awesome Japanese (I presume) leader (Hiroyuki Sanada) who refuses to speak English – despite understanding it – because he doesn’t enjoy how it sounds on his tongue. They’re not an entirely unfamiliar group, as we find Cindy and the two kids from the beach (good thing I rewatched “The Other 48 Days” last night) there, but they’re just unfamiliar and odd enough to sell the Spring and its healing powers, and to sell these people terrified of what will happen now that Jacob has passed away. While there was a sense of danger in Sayid’s near death, or the ominous way they requested to speak with Hurley (or Jack, at episode’s end), I’m more curious than concerned, and the fun nature of the head honcho does a lot for that.
Meanwhile, there is nothing more satisfying than the Man in Black taking the form of the Smoke Monster, killing a bunch of Ilana’s cohorts, and then using his environment in order to knock Ilana’s partner out of his white ash circle in order to be able to kill him. As Ben sat there and watched, we realized that this was evil being undertaken, and yet it was just so gosh-darned fun we couldn’t help but enjoy it, and Terry O’Quinn’s delivery of “I wish you didn’t see me like that” was just badass. And yet, that story managed to sell the terror of Jacob’s passing, first with Ben slowly coming to terms with being used (Emerson was not the star here, but he did some fine work), and then with Richard’s shocked reaction and eventual punishment at the hands of the Man in Black, who proceeded to carry him off into the jungle. I wanted a bit more time with Ilana, to be honest, but between the aforementioned scene featuring MiB and Ben inside the statue and the image of Locke’s dead body sprawled in the sand, there was more than enough in the story to sell me on its future.
I could go on at length about all sorts of subjects: how the characters are adrift without a leader in both realities (with Jack taking a back seat, Jacob dead, and the other characters not having that connection which kept them alive on the island within the alternate reality), and just where Ben, Juliet and the rest of the Others are in the alternate reality (clearly not on the island), and all sorts of other theories. But if there’s one thing “LA X” achieved, it is the fact that I feel as if they have built a structure that will address these subjects, and which seems uniquely adept to tackling both these types of thematic concerns and the desire for “answers” that so many people seem to be hanging onto. I want a satisfying ending, yes, but I want its revelations to have meaning beyond connecting the dots. And this was an episode that connected some dots without filling in all the gaps, leaving new mysteries that aren’t vague or strange but rather complex and begging to be addressed by a narrative device that feels ideally suited a march towards the finale that never forgets where it came from without losing sight of where it’s going.
And I’m damn excited to see how it turns out.
- If we’re getting ahead of the game, I’d say that Terry O’Quinn is likely to be a major contender for the “Lost performers who get a ‘Final Season’ Boost” at the Emmys – he got the most material here, but Matthew Fox and Michael Emerson also did some nice work, and Josh Holloway has Sawyer at a nice place emotionally as well.
- In other news, perhaps it’s just that he’s been in my head so much with his recent slew of awards wins, but Michael Giacchino’s music sold this episode to perfection. His emotional themes were right where they needed to be, and sometimes I forget how action sequences are elevated by his musical style and how much that keeps scenes like Jack running around in the dark from seeming repetitive. He’s the show’s not-so secret weapon, and if he doesn’t pick up at least an Emmy nomination for the show’s final season I’m going to get frustrated.
- I was disappointed that no one in the alternate reality was rocking a stylin’ goatee.
- Greg Grunberg returned as the voice of the pilot for the alternate trip on 815, so it will be interesting to see how Lapidus fits into the whole equation (since, if you remember, he was supposed to be the one flying the plane that day).
- The premiere is over, and my most anticipated moment of the season remains unchanged: I desire to see the history of Richard Alpert, and I desire to see it immediately.
- Nice to see Somerhalder and Monaghan return, although I wonder whether we’ll be seeing any more of either of them: Boone’s life sounds pretty boring, but Charlie’s is somewhat more interesting, especially since the idea of Charlie being “fated to die” came into play again. Combine with Claire’s return, and I hope we might be seeing him again (plus, we know we’ll be seeing Michael and Libby in time as well).
- The one bit from the alternate reality that’s intriguing but never quite got explained: Hurley is now the luckiest person alive as opposed to the most unlucky. Does this mean that he never used the numbers to win the lottery? Or did he use the numbers, but they were never used as part of the Hatch, and as a result never became cursed in any capacity? That’s perhaps the biggest question mark I drew from those scenes (outside of Desmond, which is pretty obvious).
- Are we to presume that Sayid is waking up as Jacob, placing Naveen Andrews in the same position as Terry O’Quinn, or was it some other form of magic that we’re unaware of?
- I’ll update this with more links once they go up in the morning, but for additonal reading check out reviews from Todd VanDerWerff, Alan Sepinwall, James Poniewozik, Maureen Ryan, and Noel Murray, plus Damon and Carlton’s interview with Doc Jensen over at Entertainment Weekly (where they refer to the alternate reality as a “Flash-Sideways,” and actually condemn the use of alternate reality – sorry guys, I’m not editing, deal with it).