Tuesday, May 11, 2010

LOST: From Inside a Glowy Yellow Cave, Making Sense of a Broken Mythology

LOST Thoughts:

- When we all look back on LOST years from now, I think tonight's third-to-last episode is going to be viewed as the "make or break" episode where the show, quite simply, had the opportunity to silence its critics, but instead dropped the ball, bigtime.

This was the big one. The flashback to the origins of Jacob and The Man In Black. The true story of the "Bad Twin." The episode that would, in theory, blow open the entire Lost mythology to date. The episode that would, if nothing else, justify why, after years of buildup - of the Dharma Initiative, Polar Bears, time-travel, alternate timelines, and nuclear bombs - why, after all that, the story of Lost ultimately comes down to two magic brothers guarding the Island's mystical, life-giving energies. At the least, this was an episode that could have made us care about Jacob and his brother, that could have lent that final, important layer of dramatic weight to the final episodes. It could have set up the series' endgame in a way that would keep us invested in all of the vague plot points that we've been exposed to of late - the candidates, the "rules," the Temple. If this entire season has been building towards, say, Jack "replacing" Jacob as the island's chosen guardian, then *this* was the episode that could have given that succession true weight and meaning.

But, I'm not sure if this episode accomplished much in the way of anything. Instead, it followed the type of two-steps-forward, three-steps-back style of storytelling that has come to characterize Lost at its worst: Someone makes a very vague statement that begs about a thousand different questions, the question is answered with an even more vague statement, or perhaps with another question, and the cycle continues. The result isn't heightened mystery or dramatic tension, just stilted dialogue and circular logic that is ultimately 90% meaningless.

Here's the thing though - over and over, people say "it's not about getting answers." And in many respects, I agree. But Lost, time and again, tries to have it both ways. In this episode, everything was deliberately vague. There was even a sort of meta-reference to the question/non-answer/question structure that this and other Lost episodes have utilized, when Jacob's mother said something like "every question you ask will just lead to another question." in a dismissive manner, as if to tell viewers "don't bother asking for more specifics, just go with it." Well, Jacob's mother turned out to be something of a secretive %$@&, and this episode mirrored her disposition in some frustrating ways.

Think about it though - on one hand, this episode left dozens of important, relevant questions wide open - what is the nature of Jacob's powers? Why and how did he end up travelling off-island to intervene in the lives of the castaways? At what point, and why, did he and his brother begin engaging in their cosmic game of human chess? - On the other and, the entire episode was structured in such a way that so as to build towards one big "answer", that being the reveal that the two mysterious twin skeletons on the island, dubbed Adam and Eve, were in fact the remains of Jacob's mother and brother. Not only did this reveal serve as the climactic end of the episode, it was also served up in a way that hammered us over the head with the idea that, "Hey! this is an *answer* to one of Season 1's biggest questions! Don't you get it? Don't you see we've been building up to this all along?"

Thanks, but no. Don't *they* get it? A mystery isn't exciting if it is ultimately revealed as being completely tangential to the main storyline. At this point in Lost's timeline, with mere hours left in the series, do we really need whole episodes predicated on giving us "answers" that have no bearing on the in-progress action? The Adam and Eve reveal was basically meaningless - it could have been ANYONE, and it would have had the same dramatic impact, for all it mattered that Jacob's mother and brother were the mysterious pair. I don't want to get too caught up with this, but I think it's a great example of how Lost this season has essentially buckled under the weight of its mess of a mythology. This is what happens when you write to create mystery rather than dramatic impact. This is what happens when you don't write with the bigger picture in mind. Look at FRINGE this season. While that show has some very different obstacles to overcome, it's succeeded smashingly this season in paying off the mysteries set up in Season 1 and earlier in Season 2. And those mysteries weren't just fed to us at random - they were introduced *because* the potential to address them via great dramatic payoffs was there. Look, you have to admire Lost for being so ambitious, for daring to spend it's third-to-last episode with two new characters in a time thousands of years removed from the main story. That, in theory, is really ballsy and cool. But I was waiting for that "aha" moment, that reason to care about Jacob and his dysfunctional family, and that reason never quite came.

Then, we find out that the power of the island basically boils down to a glowing magic cave that contains the life-force of the universe. Apparently the cave harnesses the same energy that allows ghosts to walk the island, and, if you get thrown into the cave, you become an immortal smoke monster who can inhabit the bodies of dead people. Also, there is a wine on the island that, if you drink it, makes you immortal and magic and the designated protector of the cave and its secrets. Also, there is a wheel that somehow channels the cave's energies, built by Smokey and his human pals. If you turn the wheel, somehow, the island moves. For some reason though, moving the island, while you're still on it, is perceived by Smokey as a way to get off the island. Yeah, makes perfect sense ...

I don't know, I read some reviews of this episode online that are semi-glowing, and have heard some similar comments from friends. Honestly, I think there is this sort of mass-delusion that certain Lost fans have fallen victim to. It's like the very idea of a TV show that is open to interpretation is so appealling that people like the show more for their own interpretations as opposed to what's actually on the show. I get that, to an extent. Lost is one of the most fun shows to talk about ever. I was right there with everyone else at the beginning - theorizing on what it all meant, looking for hidden meaning in the dialogue, searching for callbacks and parallels between episodes - the whole thing. But at this point, the man behind the curtain has been exposed. That Season 1 magic is, to me, mostly gone. The episodes of Lost that work best, at this point, are the self-contained eps that simply tell an awesome, one-in-done, character-driven story - the episodes, like the Desmond-centric ep from earlier this season, that live in the here-and-now and not in the past. That said, I'm surprised that some people are still so entranced by the Emperor That Has No Clothes. Not to diss Lost as a whole - read my reviews of this season, and you'll see some glowing comments mixed in with the criticisms. But I just don't think Lost has ended up in the place it was supposed to. If nothing else, I dare anyone to tell me that this Jacob episode was best served airing as the series' third-to-last episode. Would it have been more effective and less frustrating had it been, say, the second or third ep of the season? Definitely.

At the end of the day, I just wanted Lost to deliver a mind-blowing story in this episode. What we got was a simplistic fable that probably could have been delivered as two or three sentances of exposition, or even as a short flashback, and still been just as effective - given how little actually happened. I think it was just frustrating to watch in a lot of ways, because we never really "got" the characters' motivations. Alison Janney was this mysterious island woman who thought it justified to take a pregnant woman who washes up on the island, help her deliver her twin babies, and then bash her head in. Later, she tries to do the same to her own son (obnoxiously, we find out that the Smoke Monster has no name, just because ... talk about contrived!). And yet, Jacob plays the part of naive mamma's boy, staying on the island with his mother, and then condemning his brother to a horrific fate (who, granted, had just killed his mother in a fit of rage). Didn't I just read an interview in which the producers said that these last couple of eps were supposed to prove that the Smoke Monster is "definitely evil?" After this ep, Jacob seemed like sort of an ass - the prodigal son of a murderous and conniving mother. I'm all for moral ambiguity, but this just served to further muddy the already-confusing storyline of Jacob.

Plus, some of the most important questions remain unaddressed: why does Jacob need a replacement? Why would he pick from some random group of island castaways, as opposed to raising his own replacement from childhood? What's so bad about the Smoke Monster leaving the island, and why can't he? Where did the "rules" come from, and how did they come to be? Again, I don't need answers for the sake of answers, but having some context might help me be a little more invested in why, say, Jack is willing to stay on the island, basically hell on earth, because he might be a candidate to "replace" Jacob.

Conversely, there was also a feeling of "if this is the best you've got, then maybe it's better to leave things mysterious". Know what I mean? It's sort of the whole Star Wars / midochloridians thing. The relative blah-ness of this episode, with its reveal that everything boils down to a glowy cave, made you wonder if at some point during Season 1, someone from the show should have just said: "you know what, it's a mysterious island with supernatural properties, let's leave it at that and move on." And that would have been fine. In King Kong, do we need a drawn-out explanation for *why* Skull Island is still home to all manner of prehistoric monsters? No, it just has 'em, and it's cool-as-hell. Did we need to know more about The Force, other than that it was the embodiment of the universe's mystical energy? Nope, but, damn, when Luke used the force to blow up the Death Star, it still kicked ass. The whole glowy-cave thing was basically the embodiment of Lost's "hey, here's another mystery for ya'!" storytelling style coming back to bite it in the ass.

In addition, the wide-eyed child actors didn't do the episode's stilted and hamfisted dialogue any favors. The episode looked great, and the music, as always, was fantastic, but at times while watching this episode I felt like I was tuning into some early-90's syndicated fantasy show or something. It wasn't what I expected out of LOST.

As disappointing as this episode was, I am pretty confident that the next couple of weeks' worth of LOST will be better. The writers will have Jack and Locke and Ben and Desmond to fall back on. At this point, and its to the credit of some of the series' best episodes and moments, we have A LOT more invested in those characters than we do in the mystery of the island. Look, the producers have always been adamant that the show is more about the characters than the overarching plotlines and mysteries. And hey, in the end, they were right. I wish that Lost was able to treat both aspects of the show with equal care, but that hasn't been the case, and the lackluster nature of this Jacob-centric episode did indeed confirm that earlier sentiment. There were times when the state of Lost's myth-arc was strong. The foray into sci-fi centric storytelling in the last few seasons showed a lot of promise, teased a lot of tantalizing and imaginative possibilities and directions. But in this season, that's given way to a cosmic game of magical chess between two demigods. It's not just sci-fi vs mysticism though, it's the fact that those episodes with Faraday and quantum physics and time travel were tightly plotted and brilliantly written. Now it's "hey, he got thrown into a magic cave and came out the Smoke Monster!" This episode made clear that it was a poor direction for the show to take. I love ya', LOST, but this episode came up short in the clutch.

My Grade: C-

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