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?
As with last week, I’ll refer you to my own review so that you have some sense of how I’m approaching the episode. I ended up with a rather sprawling and epic review this week, reflecting the position of the episode as a post-script to last week’s divisive “Across the Sea” and Sunday’s finale, but I was mainly focused on questions of agency within the series’ conclusion (which turned out to be a popular focus, picked up on by many critics)
I think “What They Died For” did a nice job of emphasizing the agency required to make that choice, rendering it both dramatically effective and consistent with what we’ve seen from these characters in the past. The two realities seem to be converging more and more, and yet at the same time it doesn’t feel like they’re necessarily heading towards an inevitable conclusion: we still don’t know what Widmore whispered to the Man in Black, nor do we do know who rescued Desmond from the well (Frank or Miles seem like the only two options), plus we still aren’t sure just what Desmond is planning to pull off at the museum concert. However, rather than those elisions producing a sense of mistrust, I’m choosing to read it as the writers emphasizing their own sense of agency, and asking us to trust in the choices they’ve made.
One of the elements of “What They Died For” that I didn’t focus on in my own review was Sawyer’s position in the episode, which Noel Murray emphasizes as he discusses the transfer of power:
Sawyer jokes, “I thought that guy had a God Complex before,” but neither Hurley or Kate are amused, and Sawyer understands why. I thought the moment where Sawyer says, “Yeah, I know”—like the moment where he watches the life-jackets roll in with the tide, or the moment where he asks Jack if he’s responsible for the sub blowing up, or the moment where Kate talks about Ji-Yeon—were all well-written and well-played. The whole transfer of power was too rushed, but those little emotional beats along the way were fair compensation.
In the fifth season, Sawyer more or less replaced Jack as the show’s lead character, so in some ways it seems wrong that he would be placed in such a supportive and in some ways submissive position at this late stage in the game. While Jack seems empowered by Jin and Sun’s death, and to some degree even Juliet’s tragic end, Sawyer struggles under the weight of those events and the responsibility therein. I don’t know if we spent quite enough time with that in the hour, and it’s something I’ll look for more on in the finale, but Noel’s emphasis on those small emotional moments shows how multi-faceted the episode was. Even when dealing with a pretty big “plot” movement, there was time for moments that brought up the past without feeling like it was in opposition to the momentum at hand.
Maureen Ryan perhaps makes the boldest statement (in a broad sense) in regards to “What They Died For,” as she compares the show with AMC’s highly acclaimed Mad Men:
What I love about great episodes of “Mad Men” is that they carry not only great dramatic weight in and of themselves, but they usually feature several important character journeys colliding in intriguing and unexpected ways. And they often set up even more substantial developments that arrive in subsequent episodes. Something about the weighty developments and the wry humor of “What They Died For” made me think of those key “Mad Men” episodes that often come near the end of a season, the ones that start to pay off all the developments that were set up over the course of the previous 10 or 11 episodes.
While I think Mad Men and Lost are clearly going for different impacts on the audience, Mo’s comparison nicely captures the ways in which Mad Men and Lost both return to basic principles of serialized storytelling. The idea of “paying off” developments which emerged early on is a key value of serialized storytelling, as connecting the dots (or closing the loop, etc.) can reward viewers for paying close attention and actively watching the series in question. While Lost isn’t tying together every dangling narrative thread in its six-season run, it is unquestionably doing a nice job of bringing its weightier developments to an enjoyable conclusion: much as Mad Men’s third season used a caper-style plotline to tie together a chaotic season, Lost uses what Mo refers to as “Desmond’s 11” to bring the chaos of the Sideways into perspective.
Todd VanDerWerff echoes a similar appreciation of the episode at the Los Angeles Times, as he focused on the ways in which this season in particular has been focused on this sort of thematic recall:
There are times that I think that the producers of “Lost” have been tuning this season particularly to the complete DVD release of the series. There’s stuff being revealed even now that will color how we view the earlier episodes, all the way back to “LA X.” This is to say nothing of how the revelations about the series’ deeper storylines might affect how we watch the earlier episodes. Will we find the opening scene of the pilot that much more interesting now that we know Jack is only a few yards away from the very thing he will end up protecting? Will all of the more boring flashbacks to the characters trying to set their off-island lives right play better now that we know these were the pivotal moments Jacob was watching? In some cases, probably not. But if the ending of the story doesn’t tie everything together in a plot sense, it certainly ties everything together in a more thematic sense.
I think there is an important distinction here between plot and theme, and I’ll be curious to see how it affects the flashbacks in particular. People like to pick on episodes like Stranger in a Strange Land due to their lack of connection to the show’s plot, but isn’t the episode’s real problem that it feels like it adds nothing to our understanding of Jack as a character and the themes which define the character? There’s a sense that Jacob’s speech was meant to give meaning to past events, to explain why it is that we (and thus, perhaps, Jacob) spent so much time watching characters mired in difficult circumstances when the sum total of “facts” we knew about the characters did not seem to increase, but it provides only thematic meaning. I think we’re at the point in the show where we feel like the plot should be wrapping up, but right now the show is focusing more on reveals which throw light on the themes key to the series as a whole – I don’t think people were clambering for the answer to “Why did people have boring flashbacks which seemed to repeat previous themes,” but Todd is right that there is the sense now that anything could connect with anything else, and the sheer depth of that potential is certainly unique to a mythology-heavy show of this nature.
It’s fitting, then, that James Poniewozik makes my favourite observation of the week when he adds yet another log to the “The start of Season Three was totally important” fire with some great observations about the Others and choice:
We have to go back to the beginning of season three. Hydra Island time. Meeting-Juliet time. Polar-bear-cage time. An interlude at the beginning of the season that was roundly criticized by fans, before and since, as a meaningless diversion, a waste of time. The climax of that arc, you’ll recall, was that Ben was found to have a tumor on his spine, and Jack agreed to operate on him. Agreed to being the operative term.As I recall—and I don’t have the other examples at my fingertips, but there were other occasions when the Others had referred to the need for the Losties to accede to them willingly. And now it seems we know why. The Others, through Ben, and therefore through envoy Richard, had been taking orders (or, at least, guidance) from Jacob. And the principle that they share in common with him is that–however urgent their plans and however devious their means–ultimately they need people to act of their own free will. There are rules.
Admittedly, James is aiming to capture my heart with this particular comparison, as I’ve ranted on various occasions how important these episodes really are to the show’s narrative and in particular Ben and Juliet as characters, but he picks up on the same narrative of choice and agency that I focused on in my own review and sees it through to its origins. At the time, the Others’ unwillingness to use force or coercion seemed like an extension of the “weirdness” surrounding their culture and the ways in which mystery and omission defined their position in the show to that point in time. In fleshing out Ben and Juliet, the show started to move away from that simple sense of mystery, but James points out how the show’s themes can similarly highlight the meaning of past events. The show isn’t answering questions about the Others directly, but it is introducing ideas that take events we once read as somewhat “bizarre” and turning them into something meaningful. As James notes, it’s not clear if this is just some clever retronarrative function or something they purposefully buried within the story, but it doesn’t really matter so long as the end result is as satisfying as my experience reading James’ analysis and putting the pieces together.
In terms of putting the pieces together, Jace Lacob chooses some interesting (and I think valuable) language in his analysis of the emphasis on characters over mythology at this late point in the season.
The island then isn’t just a mystical place but a prism through which to see ourselves, to witness our flaws, and to strive to be better human beings. While the mythology of Lost might involve a millennial battle between two sibling deities for control of an ancient power source that we all have within us, at its heart, it’s about the mythic journey we each take over the course of our lives, the quest of the hero, whether we’re a doctor, a fugitive, a con man, a rich kid, an absent father, or a failed rock star. It’s the human journey, our collective story, that endures.
When I wrote my thesis about the relationship between Medieval Romance and Battlestar Galactica, I focused on the idea of quest narrative, in particular how both the Grail Quest and Galactica’s central storylines centre on indeterminate goals. The quests were not so much about the final destination (the Grail, Earth) so much as they were about what the characters experienced throughout the quest. Jace nicely captures the sense that Lost has gone to great lengths to make the same argument, always focusing in on individual characters’ journeys within the larger story through flashbacks, flashforwards, and now the Sideways storyline. The episode’s ties to a larger view of humanity, arguing that the characters were chosen as definitive examples of humanity’s struggles to overcome flaws, make the impact of this story larger even while in some ways shutting the door to more complex mythological explanations, grounding the story by connecting it to something with infinite meaning and potential for audiences who share similar experiences.
However, this isn’t to say that Lost is simply retelling previous quest narratives; Jason Mittell points out that Jack’s redemptive storyline this season is one of a long series of evolutions which position the character as a reinvention of heroic archetypes.
I’m not going to claim that there was a master arc in place for Jack throughout the entire run, but looking back, it’s pretty impressive how he’s developed from arrogant surgeon trying to take control and fix everything, to a crushed addict struggling to find meaning, to a passive follower looking for a leader, and finally to a man of faith taking responsibility for himself and his community without being motivated by ego or proving himself. Given that he was initially slated to die in the pilot, Jack has surprisingly reinvented the hero figure for a serialized story.
I think Jason’s key point is the idea that this was a surprise. There’s the potential for Jacob’s explanation to feel like it’s robbing us of surprise as it uses human nature and basic observation to explain why the candidates have been chosen (as opposed to some sort of complex mythological meaning or connection), but Jack’s character arc has not been a clear archetype. He may have at various points in time embodied certain human responses, but the way in which he transformed at various points in the series makes his conclusion that much more powerful. It’s a reminder that no conclusion can rob these characters of their sense of purpose along their journey, and Jack’s journey in particular will feel satisfying regardless of how the “plot” of the show comes together.
Alan Sepinwall also focused a lot this week on the way Jack has been transformed from one of his least favourite characters on television into one of the show’s most effective characters, but I want to highlight his comments on the role of “Across the Sea.” I hate to return to last week’s debate, but it’s inevitable in light of this week’s events. There are two camps of people who didn’t like the episode: those who believe it wasn’t well-executed, and those who believe it wasn’t even necessary. James Poniewozik made the latter point in his own review, but Sepinwall disagrees:
And, again, I realize I’m out on an island (pardon the pun) with “Across the Sea,” but I don’t think Jacob’s speech is half as interesting if we haven’t already seen the story in greater detail. In general, the explanation we’ve gotten only through expository dialogue (for instance, Hurley and Michael discussing the nature of the whispers) have been far less interesting than when we’ve learned things through story. Your mileage obviously may vary on whether “Across the Sea” told an interesting story.
I’ll take Alan’s thoughts one step further, and argue that fans would have been as frustrated with this speech without the greater context as they were with the context itself. I don’t think it goes so far to entirely redeem “Across the Sea” in people’s eyes, but I think that “explanations” are dangerous at this late stage in the game. If the episode hadn’t existed at all, perhaps replaced by a discussion earlier in the season, Jacob’s already vague language would have been referring to another vague speech, and I think fans would have gotten caught up in questions that the show isn’t actually interested in. The way this was organized, the show very clearly sets up where we should be going: they showed us the back story, and Jacob’s speech and Jack’s decision showed which of those elements are going to be important going forward and which were simply additional information we can use as we see fit. Regardless of whether “Across the Sea” was interesting (I’d personally argue it was), it is now unquestionably valuable to the series’ characters and their conclusions.
Of course, we’re reaching the stage in the season where some people are likely getting frustrated that the answers are vague, or at the very least less clear than they might be looking for. Jeff Jensen at Entertainment Weekly nicely lays out the ways in which Jacob’s speech is a test of sorts for Lost viewers:
As for shruggy answers and Jacob’s whimsy, I take Jacob to be something of a spiritual rorschach test. How you feel about Jacob probably says something about how you feel about the whole concept of a personal God, most likely the God of The Bible, a thoroughly Good dude prone to expressing himself in ambiguous and troubling ways (think: Job, Jesus, and that whole Abraham/Isaac thing), who doesn’t feel obligated to explain or justify himself. If you feel that isn’t any way for a god to be a god, then Jacob probably bugs the bejeezus out of you. If you’ve come to peace with that, then Jacob is probably a little easier to accept.
This episode focused a great deal on faith and trust, so it’s interesting how Jensen captures the echoes of religion within Jacob’s actions. The idea that fan’s relationships with serialized narratives in some way mirrors their relationship with God or some other religious figure may be sacrilegious to some, but it seems ideal in terms of how seriously some fans take these narrative questions. I think there’s some who equate belief with “drinking the Kool-Aid,” and it makes me wonder whether we judge Jack for so quickly believing Jacob and quite literally drinking the kool-aid (or, you know, river water) to solidify their pact. While we have “come to peace” with certain facts about this world, there is still so much uncertainty that any sense of faith or trust feels in some way false.
Placing our trust in Lindelof and Cuse to tell this story is never too easy as a critic: the job is to break down and consider the trajectory of the series at any given point, so to sort of just go along for the ride is at points challenging. With Lost, I believe the show’s quality has been strong enough that they have earned our trust, but the subject matter has always been complex enough that it has also earned a certain sense of unease. At this late stage, all of our narrative anxiety is coupling with the pleasures of narrative closure to create a response that is ultimately positive but which nonetheless has us all on edge – “What They Died For” seems like a great setup for the finale, but with only two and a half hours remaining we wonder whether it can truly come together. For the same reasons that Lost has earned our trust over the past six seasons, it continually places that trust in jeopardy, and part of the fun of it all is experiencing those transformations (not unlike Jack’s journey) and still feeling it has all been worth it.
- For more thoughts on the episode, I suggest checking out Mo Ryan and Ryan McGee, of the Orientation: Ryan Station podcast, on AOL TV’s Instant Dharma, a roundtable discussion of each week’s episode which they record immediately after it airs.
- One thing I found interesting about the reviews is how some focused more on the island narratives, while others focused more on the Sideways storyline – the two are at this point completely interconnected in my eyes, but yet there’s still this sense that we should be dividing them for the sake of analysis. I’ll be curious to see how this changes when viewing the season in retrospect, but only time will tell on that front.
- As always, for a directory of reviews, head to Metacritic.