- After last week's disappointing Jacob / Smokey origin story, I predicted that the final two episodes of LOST would end up being, practically by default, an improvement. Even if LOST was poised to end on something of an unfulfilling note, there was no question that the show would to some degree rebound from the low point that was "Across the Sea." And the reason for that is simple: Lost's achilles heel in this final season is its coming-apart-at-the-seams mythology, but its strength has ALWAYS been, and continues to be, its characters. The high-concept of the pilot episode caught our attention, but it was the examination of what made John Locke tick in "Walkabout" that quickly solidified Lost as something truly special. Even as the show's once-captivating mythology devolves into indecipherable mumbo-jumbo concerning magic caves and immortal candidates, we still can't help but care about Jack, Kate, Hurley, Sawyer, Locke, Miles, Ben, Richard, and Desmond. Those are some of the best characters on TV. At this point, we're watching more for them than for anything else. Who would have thunk it? Lost's ultimate trump card isn't some uber-secret about the nature of the island. No, it's "what happens to Ben?" "What happens to Jack?" That's both a testament to some of the great character work that Lost has done over the years, and a knock against how much the show's overarching storylines have failed to come together in any meaningful way. But hey, this penultimate episode was, for the most part, about character. And for that reason, there was a lot to like.
To me, the star of this next-to-last Lost was Ben Linus. It goes to show how much of an MVP Michael Emerson has been in this already-legendary TV role. He made Ben so oddly likable that at every turn we wanted to make him sympathetic. We wanted to believe he was headed for some sort of redemption. But even as we felt for Ben's remorse over his falled adoptive daughter, we were quickly reminded that Ben is the ultimate evil lackey. He's a snake in the grass, a liar, a cheat, a backstabber. We smile in recognition as Ben's true colors are revealed, even as we express disbelief that he suckered us in once again. In this episode, Ben once again sided with the Smoke Monster, not only using him to get his ultimate revenge on Whidmore, but gleefully doing his bidding with the mindset that the more murderous, the better. The dynamic reminded me of Stephen King's THE STAND - a story that Lost has often borrowed from and paid tribute to. But the endgame between Ben and Smokey had a similar feel to the way in which a character like Harold Lauder (similarly snivelling and conniving as compared to Ben) was ultimately forced to reveal his true colors in the name of serving the Dark Man - siding with the devil even after trying in vain to fit in amongst the angels. In any case, I loved all of the Ben / Not-Locke interaction in this one. For me, it was the scenes between them that made the episode.
That said ... WTF with regards to Widmore?! I mean, I guess in a way we all saw it coming - this whole season has in some ways been a slap in the face to those of us who felt that LOST was at its best when it brought in the great Alan Dale as Widmore and built him up as the show's Big Bad - a formidable rival to Ben and an arch-nemesis for Desmond. This season, Widmore has been one giant plot device, and it's been frustrating to watch. But ... to have Widmore's story end with a quick, half-assed explanation of how Jacob came to him and "showed him the error of his ways" ...? To have that one, almost throwaway line of dialogue followed by Ben shooting his rival dead before Smokey had the chance to off him himself? THAT was the dramatic end of Lost's would-be uber-villain? And THAT was the explanation for Widmore's involvement in this season? He had a change of heart? Not the dramatic send-off I had hoped for ... not at all. It made the entire character, and all of the plot threads that stemmed from him, seem like a waste of time. And that, I'm sorry to say, is a shame, and a major, major misfire as we head into the finale.
While I'm ranting, I may as well go ahead and talk about the campfire scene with Jacob, who, despite having been a ghost that can only appear to Hurley for a long, long time now, was now back in the land of the living, even if his remaining existence was intertwined with a fire that was burning on the island. When the fire goes out, Jacob is no more. Umm ... okay? More magic, I guess? I don't know, it seemed more like lazy writing to me. But yeah, Jacob was back, and he has a sitdown chat with Jack, Sawyer, Kate, and Hurley that was "classic" Lost. And by classic, I mean emblematic of the show at its hair-pulling worst. Jacob plays "20 Questions" with the castaways, and of course none of them has ever heard of the concept of a follow-up question. It speaks to the fact that we've now been through this same rigamaroll on Lost countless times that, at this point, I was barely fazed by the ridiculous manner in which the whole conversation played out.
Let's see: Thousands of years ago on the island, Jacob threw his evil twin brother into a magic cave and turned him into a monster. Jacob then assumed the role of the island's protector, making sure that the monster couldn't get back into the cave which birthed him, even though the monster, we think, was not so much interested in the cave, because, really, he just wanted to get off the island. At some point, Jacob started bringing random groups of flawed people to the island, so that one of them could assume his role as island protector / Smoke Monster-fighter when he was gone. Even though Jacob put the various candidates through all sorts of tests and trials and waited in the shadows for years as they killed each other, travelled through time, etc., eventually, Jacob declares that ANY of the castaways could become his successor - whoever wants the job has it. Jack wants the job - no surprise there. He drinks some holy water, is granted magical Jacob powers, and lo, the island hath a new protector. Meanwhile, the Smoke Monster's updated list of goals include: killing Jacob, getting off the island, and destroying the island.
Hmm ... what was that I was saying in my opening about how Lost's mythology has sort of broken down of late?
In any case, a lot of this episode's action happened in the flash-sideways world, which had a nice sense of urgency to it this week thansk to Desmond's frenzied quest to bring the various castaways together again. There were some interesting moments in the alternaverse - Jack's domestic life with Claire and his son, and Ben's budding relationship with Alex and Danielle Rouseau. But, here's another situation where we've had SO much buildup with these sideways flashes that its unlikely if not impossible that the payoff will be proportionate. It's another instance where you have to seriously question the show's sense of pacing. Just as it made little sense to hold the Jacob origin until the third-to-last episode, why wait until the series finale to reveal the nature of the sideways world? If we knew the stakes earlier, then all of these sideways scenes would be infinitely more dramatic. But oh no, Lost has gotten so caught up in the idea that "everything is a mystery until the cold, bitter, end" that it stubbornly refuses to show any of its cards until it literally has no choice but to fold. Sunday is it though - the series friggin' finale. What can LOST do at this point? The fact is, the show has spent a whole season deliberately putting its eggs in the Jacob/Smokey basket. That's where we are now - I don't see any reason to expect a trademark "game-changer" to end it all, but hey, I'm also open to being pleasantly surprised.
Ultimately, this episode worked because it was a showcase for the likes of Michael Emerson, Terry O'Quinn, and the rest of the show's stellar cast. I really dug the Ben Linus stuff in this one. I liked a lot of the little scenes as well - Miles' cracks about Ben's secret room, Desmond's zen-like pursuit of cosmic harmony in the alternaverse, the parallels between good-Ben in the sideways world and bad-Ben on the island. On a grander thematic level, there was some really nice character stuff in this one, some real food for thought. At the same time, I think back to Widmore's change of heart and hasty demise, to Jacob's inexplicable return and transfer of power to Jack, and, well, you really see the cracks in the proverbial armor.
My Grade: B