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'Lost': Jack pursues a career as a lighthouse keeper

February 24, 2010 |  9:57 am

 How much do you like it when "Lost" characters wander around the Island as though on a wild-goose chase, often led that way by the mysterious forces of the Island itself? How much do you enjoy scenes where Jack tries to grapple with just how much his father did him wrong as a kid? And how much do you like it when the characters, faced with the possibility of learning more and more about the Island, destroy the very thing that could tell them more? If you don't like any of those things, you might not have liked "Lighthouse," which has all of them in spades. 

And yet, I'm someone who finds many of the episodes where the characters are led around like gullible goofs frustrating, and I still really liked "Lighthouse," largely because it took a flash-sideways I thought was going nowhere -- the story of Jack and his alternate universe son -- and made it somehow sweetly resonant with the character's journey. It also had a jungle trek that seemed wander-y at points but ended up being fun in a season one way, rather than frustrating in a season two way. And, finally, it had Jin's good times being held captive by Claire and his slow realization that he was way, way in over his head. "Lighthouse" isn't nearly close to "The Substitute" in terms of "Lost" quality, but it does what it does well enough for me to enjoy it.

But, as seems to be becoming our tradition, let's talk about Jack.

Jack, as most "Lost" fans know, was supposed to be killed in the pilot. He was going to be the guy that you latched on to straight off, only to see him taken away, the better to let the audience know that up was down and anything could happen. ABC's executives prevailed, and Jack got to live, played with a rather feral intensity by Matthew Fox at his best moments. But once Jack didn't die, it sometimes seemed as if the show didn't know what to do with him, as if the series was forever stuck on its notion of removing the hero from the story and became more interested in deconstructing the classic hero archetype than it was in building a new spin on that archetype. For every great Jack moment -- his near-torturing of Boone in an effort to "save" him -- there were a dozen clumsy ones, like when the show briefly tried to turn him into a George W. Bush analogue in mid-season two.

But since the end of season three -- "We have to go back, Kate!" -- Jack has become something different entirely. He's a man who now moves with a purpose and a sense of duty. He, in a real way, finally knows why he's alive. To me, the key moment of new Jack is in the season five premiere, when Ben takes him into his apartment and tells him to pack everything he needs or wants, because he won't be seeing any of it again. Jack's quiet acceptance of this fact and, indeed, his sheer relief at hearing these words show him as a man who's given up trying to take on fate and has simply given in to being someone who accepts that he is caught up in something beyond himself, something that is revealing his own weaknesses and fears.

In a weird way, Jack has turned into the flip side of Locke in a way that I'm not sure was wholly intentional (though once the series figured out it was doing this, it certainly made much out of it). If Locke was the man who always believed he was going to be something great, then found a way to be great only to have it stolen away from him, Jack was the man who never dared dream he could be great, despite all of the evidence to the contrary. And, when given the chance to reach for more, he kept throwing it away. It's only when he's off the Island, when he's stumbling through a life that somehow seems less real than the one filled with sentient clouds of smoke and four-toed statues, that he begins to realize what was taken from him and tries to get it back. It's the cruel flip side of George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life," a man who is taken out of a dream and put back in real life only to realize that the dream was so much better.

118260_134_pre Now, I should probably be honest. If you haven't guessed, I'm not a huge fan of Jack. I don't think he's the worst character on the show or anything, and I can appreciate what he brings the series in terms of a conventional hero figure. I'd even go so far as to say that I find seasons four through six Jack largely tolerable, though I found seasons one through three Jack enervating on even his best days. Jack's a big example of one of the things the show does that can be so irritating: creating situations where the show could answer a bunch of big questions and then slowly slinking away from them, tail between its legs. Jack's the guy who is so interested in his own leadership abilities, his own attempts to get everyone off the Island, that he often completely misses the forest for the trees. And that can make him seem like a whiny jerk. (It also doesn't help that that Kate-Jack-Sawyer love triangle is still the worst element of the show, and he's incredibly prominent.)

So I can get the complaints that when Jack smashes the mirrors in the lighthouse near episode's end, he's just helping the show delay and obfuscate the truth for a while longer. (I'm also pretty angry that the lighthouse is obviously meant to bring back Desmond, and a "Lost" without Desmond is a "Lost" I enjoy ever-so-slightly less. Boo, Jack!) But I can see the flip side as well. The lighthouse is just further proof that Jack is not in control of his own destiny, that someone else has been jerking him around all these years. Who wouldn't react with childish petulance at that? And who wouldn't be made utterly despair-ridden by that? (After all, couldn't Jacob just level with him? Why all of this need-to-know stuff?)

It's the need-to-know basis that really trips up a lot of people, I think. Back in seasons two and three, it was a major tripping point for a lot of fans that the series was full of questions that none of the characters seemed particularly interested in having answered. And now that we're in the series' home stretch, it might seem all the more irritating that Jacob refuses to simply tell Jack which way is up and what he needs to do. But I think those who look at the show as a series about a bunch of rational actors trapped in an adventure tale are sometimes missing the point.

"Lost" has always been a series that's almost better read as a long string of religious symbols that add up to something like a narrative. To that end, having faith that you are on the right path is almost more important than knowing exactly why you're on the path you're on. Accepting that the Island has a will of its own and that you defy that will at your own peril is vastly important, too, as is accepting that the Island has two demigod types who will tell you things but color them with half-truths and blandishments about how you have to discover your own destiny. Sometimes, you have to accept that to see a lighthouse, you have to be looking for it in the first place (a declaration that's deeply religious in and of itself). And other times, looking into a mirror is to see your true self, to see all of the ways you disappoint yourself and all of the ways you can't match up. And that can be the most awful thing of all. In that instance, who wouldn't get a little glass smash happy?

So while I quibble with some of the stuff in Jack and Hurley's big, exciting walk -- like just how long the storyline seemed to take and the mostly pointless stopover at the caves (which mostly seemed designed to remind us the caves existed) -- I mostly enjoyed it in the spirit I think it was intended to be taken. Ever since he got off the Island, Jack's journey has been something akin to a religious pilgrimage. He's taking the steps toward becoming a true believer, that he might better do what the Island needs him to do. Never mind whether what the Island needs him to do is right or wrong. He's on his way to giving up his own free will to serve its ends. (Again, the series has flipped Locke and Jack in regard to their positions on the destiny vs. free will debate.) It also helped that this whole thing was filled with some really cool mythological beats, like seeing the names on the giant lighthouse wheel or Jack seeing what appeared to be the alternate universe in the mirrors, Hurley only able to shrug and say he had no idea what was going on.

Jack's also learning to let go and give in to something greater than himself over in his flash-sideways, which I thought started a little slow but picked up as the episode went along. The scenes of Jack frantically searching for his alternate universe son, followed by him finding the boy at the conservatory auditions and telling him that he would always love him were sweet, but they hearkened back to last week's storyline with alternate Locke. Just as Locke learned that embracing his destiny meant giving up the giant one he thought he had in store, Jack is learning that the best way to wash away the sins of his father is simply to be a better dad to his own son. Like most of these flash-sideways plots, this is a relatively simple story that feels more like a short story than a massive science-fiction behemoth, but it has a nice resonance with the on-Island action, and Fox plays his part well. (And, of course, we get the mystery of just who David's mother is. I'm guessing Sarah, Jack's ex-wife, but just wait and find out that it's Rousseau or someone.)

Back on the Island, as Jacob is warning Hurley that the Temple is about to be heavily attacked, we're spending time in the jungle with Jin and Claire. I loved the way this storyline played with the various meanings of the word "infected," and I'm pleasantly surprised by how well Emilie de Ravin, who hasn't had the world's most interesting character to play all these years, plays bugnuts insane. The big reveal that Claire's secret pen pal friend was fake Locke was fairly obvious from the get-go, but the pleasure here was in being reintroduced to crazy Claire and having Jin slowly realize just how deeply into it he was now that he was stuck with her. (A viewing companion compared this storyline to "Misery," and I can absolutely see that.) This was the extra bit of Island mystery to go along with the heavy religious and philosophical overtones in the Jack story, and it worked splendidly as a side dish of pure fun.

It's easy to spot the flaws in "Lighthouse," but it's also nice to see the show is slowly reconciling the many different faces of its hero as it heads into its final twists and turns. Jack has maybe never been my favorite character on the show, but it's arguable that the show would work as well as it does without him there to butt heads with the other characters or continue pushing forward on his own bull-headed plans. Jack is a guy who ignores the bigger picture in favor of his own selfish pursuits. He's a guy who'll blow up a hydrogen bomb to get a girl. He's maddening and infuriating precisely because of this but also precisely because, in a weird way, he's the "Lost" character who -- in all his preening and venality -- is the most like one of us.

Some other thoughts:

*Yeah, yeah, yeah. Dogen turns up in Jack's flash-sideways. I'm not sure this is meant to signify anything beyond, "Isn't that cool?!" so I didn't bring it up. But if you have alternate theories, go crazy in comments.

*Sorry this piece went up later than the others have. I was delighted to be a guest on "Instant Dharma," and hopefully you'll check out my guest spot when you have time.

*What are we to make of Claire's skeleton baby thing? On the one hand, it feels a little too much like something out of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" or a young adult "coming of age in 1930s upstate New York" novel. On the other hand, I found it weirdly hilarious.

*Name spotting on the big wheel. Turns out Kate's still around (at 51!), but I didn't catch a whole lot of other names. Did you?

*Two personal things this episode managed: I have a big affinity for lighthouses, and I was in a bunch of piano competitions as a kid. I would have liked it even if the rest of the episode was just Jack smashing things.

*So is there anyone who could be coming to the Island besides Desmond or Charles Widmore? They're pretty much the last two puzzle pieces that have yet to be fitted into the big picture this season.

*I liked the lighthouse and all, but something about it put me in mind of that based-on-a-mysterious-island computer game "Myst," as well.

*Remember to send me your theories and links! You can post them here in comments, or you can e-mail me or contact me on Twitter. See you tomorrow!

--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photos: Above: Hurley (Jorge Garcia), left, and Jack (Matthew Fox) must go on a top-secret mission on "Lost." Below: Has Claire (Emilie de Ravin) just lost her mind, or is something more sinister going on? Credit: ABC

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