'Lost': What ifs and might have beens
When you think about it, "Lost" has always been a show about a bunch of people in moments of crisis who summarily had their lives interrupted by a giant, world-spanning mystery of epic proportions. When the producers of the show say that they're only providing answers to questions the characters would care about or something, it may cause some fans to grumble angrily about not getting the answers they want. And back in the first few seasons of the show, when no one in the cast of characters would ask anyone with any knowledge about anything approaching the "answers" of the Island, it seemed uniquely irritating. When you view the show as a series about people facing down their personal traumas in a unique environment that makes those traumas come to metaphorical life, though, it makes more sense that no one asks Ben what's up with the Monster. (And, yeah, he didn't know. I know.)
The best thing about "LA X" is that it returns to this notion that's been at the center of the show all along, even if it's gotten misplaced a couple of times along the way. There may be no show on the air that's as much pure fun as "Lost," as enjoyable at both playing to and vying against expectations. I mean, at the end of the episode, when Sayid was dead and the camera kept panning over his corpse, you had to have known he was going to return to life (mysteriously). But that still didn't ruin the sheer kick of the moment when he rose from the ground, looked at the others and asked what had just happened. "Lost" is a show where anything can happen, yes, but it's also a series where the anythings that do happen are things that are recognizable on some sort of human level.
The big question heading into the episode was what happened when Juliet detonated the hydrogen bomb at the end of last season's finale. Now, normally, you'd expect blowing up a hydrogen bomb to be a bad idea, but in the "Lost" world, this was seen as a way to potentially rewrite history, a way to put all of those people back on that plane so it would land in Los Angeles. If this were accomplished, no one would care about four-toed statues or the DHARMA Initiative or even the smoke monster. They'd all be concerned with righting the things that had gone wrong in their real lives. The Island, then, could just be an uncomfortable throat clearing in the long passage of life, a small point in time the passengers wouldn't even remember.
And as "LA X" begins, it sure seems like the series is going to head in that direction. The episode opens with Jack sitting aboard Oceanic 815, about to enter the turbulence that caused the plane to crash all over again. This time, though, nothing happens, and the plane continues on its route to Los Angeles. The first season characters -- including long dead Boone and Charlie -- are all there, and they keep bumping into each other, but the plane does continue on its way to land at its destination. It's an intriguing device, giving us a chance to see just how different everyone's lives would have been had the Island never reached up and snatched them out of the sky. It also threatens at various moments to turn just a wee bit boring. (And it's worth pointing out here that the giant CGI journey through the land at the bottom of the sea, finishing at the giant statue's foot, used effects that looked, well, schlocky.)
The plane and Los Angeles scenes in "LA X" occasionally lean a little too hard on our knowledge of who the characters are and their Island journeys as opposed to actual drama. This means that the characters keep getting drawn into situations that are roughly analogous to what happened to them on the Island without actually getting too close to that point as to seem like blatant copycatting. (In this sense, our knowledge of the show itself turns into the show's new flashback structure, and since the show doesn't bother commenting on this too heavily, it makes these sequences quite a bit of fun, even when they mostly consist of characters like Boone and Locke talking about vacation plans.) I like some of these ideas -- seeing Kate manage to escape the marshal's clutches without the help of a malevolent Island was a lot of fun -- but a few too many of the scenes were loaded down with portent without ever managing the leap to actual drama.
That said, I dug how the show used our own knowledge of it against us so much that I ended up not caring. Look at how Charlie nearly chokes to death and how the show almost seems to suggest that he'll start spitting up water until what's blocking his airway is revealed to be a heroin packet. Or check out that last scene between Locke and Jack, beautifully written, suggesting so much about the men that we already know without coming out and saying it outright. Heck, the show even uses its fans' knowledge of spoilers against us. Desmond wasn't supposed to be a regular this season, yet there he is, hanging out with Jack on the plane, suggesting that these people are bound together in ways that can't be blown up by a nuclear weapon. (Yeah, yeah, yeah. I hear you saying that Desmond met Jack at that track in the season two premiere -- well before Jack and Desmond met on the Island -- but in this world where the Island is dead and gone, would Desmond really be training for a race around the world?)
Even more intriguing are the little hints we get that the lives of the Oceanic 815ers are different from the lives they led before. Boone can't convince Shannon to come back to Los Angeles with him. Sun no longer secretly speaks English. Hurley is the world's luckiest man. And so on. But what's just as interesting are the things that don't change. Locke's still in a wheelchair, even though the series strongly implied in the finale last year that his survival of his fall was directly due to Island dweller Jacob popping up and touching him. And Jack, Locke's counterpart, still loses his dad's body somewhere along the way. (And while we're sorta talking about Jacob, let's discuss what that weird red mark on Jack is supposed to signify. Is that Jacob's touch made manifest? That's where my mind immediately headed.) Yet, at the same time, the major thing this storyline suggests is that even though there are always going to be things that will haunt the passengers, their time with the Island is over.
Would that it were that easy, though! Anyone who's watched this show knows that, well, once the Island wants you, there's little you can do to escape its clutches. Which is why "Lost" answers the question of what happens when the hydrogen bomb explodes with "Both things happen." Back on the Island, the DHARMA gang from last season (Sayid, Hurley, Juliet, Sawyer, Jack, Kate, Jin and Miles) is instantly transported to 2007 somehow, where they will presumably meet up with everyone they were separated from way back at the end of season four (four!) at some point. This episode is not that point, however, as everyone lands in the jungle near the Swan station, then spends much of the episode slowly heading toward the much-rumored, never seen Temple.
The nice thing about this being the final season of "Lost," though, is the fact that the show can finally just do things like come right out and show us the Temple. The Temple turns out to be a vaguely Asian-influenced building with a heavy helping of Meso-American architecture. Living there are all of the other Others, sure (including Sol Star, mayor of "Deadwood"!), but we've also got the flight attendant from the pilot and the kids the Others took from the plane and pretty much every stray plot thread still hanging out there from the whole "The Others kidnap people" plotline from back in season two. There's also gardening, relaxation and a giant bubbling pool that supposedly heals people. It's too late for Sayid, though, who passes away. Until he ... doesn't.
What's great about all of this is that "Lost" has now sort of split into two completely separate shows. There's the story of what's going on on the Island in 2007, and then there's the story of what's going on in a world where the Island is at the bottom of the ocean in 2004. But the two are both explicitly linked and not linked at all. The on-Island action tends to head into alternate universe action that comments obliquely on the characters' journeys or what's happening to them on the Island. The goal, I think, is to create a way to compare who these people were in season one with who they've become on the Island. In this regard, it's probably fitting that the Island action opens with a close-up of Kate's eye, rather than Jack's eye. She's the one who's changed the most from her time on the Island. Instead of always running away from her past, now, Kate's running toward the people she knows to be in her future, willing to head into danger's way when she might have avoided it in the past.
Or look at Sawyer, still a likable rogue on the plane but a brokenhearted man who vows vengeance on the Island before realizing it won't do any good. I have to admit that when we first heard Juliet's voice yelping from inside the wreckage of the Swan station, I had two immediate reactions. I was gleeful to hear that she was still alive, but I was also preemptively angry because I knew there was no way she could live on. Who survives a multiple-story fall down a giant shaft AND a nuclear explosion? Not Juliet, as it turns out, but the story of how Sawyer gets one last tender moment with her ends up being the episode's emotional highpoint. When he grabs Miles and forces him to join him in burying Juliet so he can hear just what she had to tell him that was so important, it's one of the best "Miles talks to dead people" moments the show's come up with. What did Juliet have to say? "It worked." What worked? Well, that's why we're going to keep watching.
If all of the above were the only things that happened in the two-hour premiere, it would still be a terrific episode of television. But there's so much more going on over on the beach with Locke, Ben, Sun, Richard and Lapidus. As you may recall, we learned last season that Locke was the new embodiment of the mystical Man in Black, the one who has always and will always aim to kill Jacob, the Island's closest thing to a genuine god. That goal accomplished (though Jacob shows up -- presumably in spirit form -- to talk to Hurley and still commands great sway over the other Others), the false Locke spends much of the episode gloating about just how well he's pulled off his plan. The way Terry O'Quinn shuttles between the warm, beaten Locke of the alternate timeline and the treacherous boasting of the fake Locke is terrific acting, and it makes fake Locke's boasting about how the real John was a pitiful man all the more horrifying. As we see in the scene where Locke consoles Jack about his dead father, John Locke was 10 times the man nearly anyone on the Island was. (Also confirmed? The man in black literally is the Monster, as he transitions into smoky form in a terrifying sequence where he picks apart Jacob's bodyguards one by one, even as one tries to scatter the powder that will keep him out.)
Here, then, let's consider where this is all headed. John Locke, I posit, is a Christ figure in a show filled with them. (Witness, for example, Sayid's outstretched arms as he is pulled from the pool, dead.) But he's not a traditional Christ figure. Jacob and the man in black are both religious figures, yes, but so old and so primal that they predate ideas about God and Satan (like the proto-versions of both characters who turn up in the book of Job). Jacob is "good," sure, while the man in black is "evil," but those terms don't have the traditional meanings we're looking for. On the Island, everything is so relative that five or six different people can legitimately declare themselves the "good guys" and mean it, leaving our castaways (the chess pieces caught in the middle of all of these forces) ever more confused about where they stand, about who they are.
Christ, of course, overcame his humanity with his divinity. He was able to not sin because he was both God and man. Locke, of course, is now both God and man as well. The real, actual Locke is dead, but to maintain the illusion, the man in black has been forced to download all of his memories and thoughts. So while fake Locke may be in control right now, his divinity may prove no match for Locke's humanity. Locke's such a good man, a man so frustrated by life and so taken with the notion that this Island gives him a new start, that I don't think his spirit will be kept down. He's an inverse, a new paradigm, the loophole that will bring the Island's games to an end.
But there are plenty of inversions in tonight's "Lost." It's not just the idea that there can be two timelines butting up against each other or the idea that a man can be both dead and alive all at once. It's present even in the way the show uses light and shadow (watch fake Locke leaning back in satisfaction in Jacob's lair, his face flickering between light and shadow) or in the way the show uses its music. The piece that plays when the plane lands in Los Angeles is almost a perfect inversion of the recurring theme from season one that was meant to suggest all the characters had, well, lost. "Lost" is a show about a series of lives interrupted by forces beyond comprehension. But it's also a series about how an interruption can bring you back to a truer nature, a better self. But that's a process. You can't just do it. You have to grow and change first. "Lost" is obsessed with duality, yes, but it also understands that human beings aren't switches that can be flipped. They're continuums.
Some other thoughts:
- I was reading over some of this just now, and I cannot imagine anyone who's never watched the show making any sense of it. Good luck if you haven't seen the show!
- I'll be your weekly "Lost" recapper for the season here at Showtracker. But in addition to that, I'll be presenting links to some of my favorite additional recaps and fan theories on Wednesday evenings and links to fan stuff on Friday evenings. Though I read a lot of "Lost" material, I am but one man. So if you see something you'd really like me to include, send it to me on Twitter or e-mail it to me. I'll be sure to take a look.
- Also, be sure to let me know what you'd like from these recaps. Less? More? Would you like a post to go up the second the show starts airing on the East Coast to talk about the episode? Any or all can be accomplished.
- One of the things I like about the alternate timeline is that it incorporates a lot of the side characters from seasons past. Why, there's Dr. Arzt! And Neil Frogurt!
- So what are we to make of the alternate timeline? Is it just there to show us that these people were actually improved by their time on the Island? Or will it hook up with the main timeline in some way at some point? I have to assume the latter, but the former would also be intriguing, provided the show doesn't just lean endlessly on the notion that these people knew each other in another timeline.
- Also, it's good to have you back, Claire. You were missed.
- Oh, and, not to gloat, but I called it. (Look for the comment toward the page's bottom under my name.)
- Check out Mary McNamara's review of the sixth season premiere here. (Well, watch this space. It'll be linked as soon as it goes up!)
- One final point: Which long-gone "Lost" character -- living or dead, regular or recurring -- are you most excited to see turn up again? I'll confess I was thrilled to see both Desmond and Juliet, but if Faraday turns up at some point, I'll be just as thrilled.
-- Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)
Photo: Jack Shepherd (Matthew Fox) thinks he's better off without that blasted Island. Or is he? Credit: ABC