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?
“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 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).
February 16th, 2010
In Esquire Magazine’s fantastic feature on Roger Ebert’s struggles with cancer and the surgeries which have left him unable to speak, there are a myriad of passages which are emotional and poignant. However, the one that resonated with me most is the section where Chris Jones talks about Ebert’s dreams:
“In his dreams, his voice has never left. In his dreams, he can get out everything he didn’t get out during his waking hours: the thoughts that get trapped in paperless corners, the jokes he wanted to tell, the nuanced stories he can’t quite relate. In his dreams, he yells and chatters and whispers and exclaims. In his dreams, he’s never had cancer. In his dreams, he is whole.”
Ebert’s story is hugely powerful, and while a fictional character can’t possibly compare I feel his story offers valuable perspective on the narrative arc of John Locke. For Locke, the island was like a dream (but not actually a dream, at least we presume), a place where everything he was unable to accomplish confined to a wheelchair became possible. When John Locke woke up on that beach able to move his legs, it was his miracle, and he went forward in the rest of his life as a believer, someone who felt renewed faith towards whoever was responsible for his miraculous recovery. He was “whole” in a way that he had never experienced before, as if his kidney and his legs hadn’t been taken away by his spiteful father.
But John Locke was always scared: he was scared that it would all be taken away from him, desperate to solve the puzzles of the island so that this dream wouldn’t end. Locke became a believer not because he felt safe, but rather because he felt deathly afraid of what would happen if the dream ended, and the tension that defined his life before arriving on the island never truly left him even when he was able to move his legs.
“The Substitute” is about John Locke, who he was and who he might have been, but it is also about what John Locke was searching for. At the end of the day, he wasn’t searching for faith so much as he was searching for a purpose, and we learn in this episode that Locke was no more chosen than anyone else, which in some ways would have given the man a sense of peace before his tragic end.
“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.
May 13th, 2009
“It only ends once. Anything that happens before that…it’s just progress.”
After last week’s penultimate episode, there were two paths moving forward: one was John Locke leading a group of Others and Benjamin Linus to kill the man known as Jacob, and the other was Jack Sheppard heading out to drop a hydrogen bomb into the Swan Station and rest the entire show as we know it.
What was so fascinating about these two paths is that you are convinced, at about the halway point of “The Incident,” that neither will truly happen. The latter is far too big of a series reboot for them to risk this late in the series’ lifetime, and the former seems premature considering that we haven’t even met this mysterious Jacob who runs this island and now we’re just going to kill him, just like that? But the episode just kept going: the closer you got to its conclusion, the more you realized that there really wasn’t anything standing in the way of these events at all except for our own expectations.
What Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof did with this episode was toy with the viewers in a way that they only can, and in one of the only ways I’ll admit I downright love. In an episode where the first scene was the most important, and where the inevitable became questionable and the predicted was thrown entirely on its head, they managed to take a scenario that sounded too simple and complicate it beyond any reasonable expectation. In one fell swoop, they rewrote the events of the entire season, opening up a metric ton of new questions just as the final shot in many ways made everything fair game for the show’s final season, all the while situating the show’s characters in the right place for the action to come.
There are some key reasons why this isn’t quite Lost’s best finale, but in terms of its technique I’d say that Lindelof and Cuse have certainly tapped into something that will yield some fantastic results in the show’s sixth and final season.
“Follow the Leader”
May 6th, 2009
There is something very jarring about “Follow the Leader,” which isn’t really that surprising. As, essentially, the season’s penultimate episode before next week’s two-hour finale, it was bound to be a transition episode, but in the second half of this season it felt like a more substantial transition than we’re used to. The show has been doing a lot more traditional episodes in the back end: Sayid, Ben, Miles and to a certain extent Faraday all had quite simple episodes that relied on the show’s old flashback structure to deliver character pieces for their individual focuses.
This week’s episode didn’t do anything even close to this, in many ways proving one of the least connective episodes in quite some time. The episode was almost entirely without a key theme, and ended with a cliffhanger that was less a huge shock than it was a subtle ramping up of tension. Episodes that only move pieces around are not that uncommon in this series or any other serial drama, but this one in particular felt really vague and distant: this isn’t to say that it was a bad episode, but rather that the big picture never really became any more focused as time went on.
If I had to draw attention to one element of the episode that perhaps explains this, I’ll point to Richard Alpert, who was the source of almost every cut between past and present. It’s no coincidence that this character unaffected by the flow of time would be the one constant in these two stories, and the one man who has always remained an unsolvable enigma that, even with a few clues dropped here and there, has never become more focused in his own right. He also sits in a unique position as it relates to the episode’s title: he’s never actually been the leader, always remaining nothing but the advisor, and it raises important questions about his role in this legacy.
And yet it doesn’t answer any of them, or really any of the questions we have: rather, it puts all the pieces into place for a finale that might get around to some of those pesky questions.