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'Lost': Sayid loses himself in the dark

March 2, 2010 |  9:21 pm

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 Sometimes you watch "Lost" and think about the philosophical conundrums it presents or the way the characters interact. Sometimes you watch it and come away impressed by the show's rock-solid direction or great acting. But sometimes, oh, sometimes, you watch the show and end up feeling that there's just nothing else like it on TV, nothing quite so, well ... awesome. When "Lost" is on, there's nothing quite like it for bringing big, epic moments, and there's never really been anything like it in the history of the medium. It's a big, bold show when it wants to be, and when it pays off a whole bunch of setup with a big, action payoff, it usually delivers.

A good case in point is "Sundown," which starts out as sort of a philosophical treatise on whether man is inherently good or evil and then becomes one of the most ridiculously fun-to-watch action sequences the show has ever turned out. For its final 10 minutes or so, "Lost" unveils the television equivalent of an Indiana Jones movie or the battle at Helm's Deep in the "Lord of the Rings" series. To be sure, the series is still dealing with the things that it's most interested in, as the whole sequence revolves around what will be the final decisions of Sayid in regard to which side of the Island battle he'll be on, but even as this whole sequence is incredibly, incredibly dark, it remains fun, somehow, until its surprisingly sobering conclusion.

"Lost" has always done big action well, often reducing me to a giddy 8-year-old boy while watching it, simply thrilled to be watching fun action-adventure on a grand scale. Think, for example, of the whole final sequence in last season's finale or of Hurley emerging from the jungle in the DHARMA van or of pretty much any fight scene featuring Sayid. But the show is often pretty bad at conveying the scale of the violence involved in this bloody battle over the Island. It's good at making you feel the pangs of sadness over the death of a main character, but it often has trouble dropping us into the sheer waste involved in this global battle over what amounts to a piece of real estate. (A piece of real estate with mystical properties, but still.) And "Sundown" delivers on that front in spades.

Those final moments -- of Sayid emerging from the Temple's inner sanctum to see the havoc that he had helped wreak, "Catch a Falling Star" strumming away on the soundtrack -- were both downright eerie and somehow poignant. If there's been something the whole Jacob vs. the Man in Black storyline has been missing, it's that human element, that sense that these demigods are playing around with real, live human beings. The series tried to get at some of that with Jack's angry reaction to realizing he'd been jerked around in "Lighthouse," but that was far more existential and didn't have the visceral impact of seeing this happen, of seeing those dead bodies and the rather callous look on Sayid's face as he drifted past them.

But for as much as the show seems to be hinting that the Man in Black is pure evil, it sure feels to me as though this is kind of a fake-out. I'm not ready to jump on the "Jacob is evil!" fan bandwagon just yet, since I think the show is heading in a direction where neither Jacob nor the Man in Black is pure evil or pure good, but Dogen's warnings that Sayid would turn pure evil turned out to be rather overstated. Even when he's drowning Dogen and slitting Lennon's throat, he's still pretty recognizably Sayid. If he's infected or if that infection has reached his heart, everything he's doing has a rather complicated human motivation. He's not just a chess piece being pushed around on a game board. He's a man who loved a woman and would do anything to have her back from the clutches of death. And that's infinitely more understandable than some botched mystical medical procedure turning him dark-hearted or something like that.

While watching this episode, I'm reminded of that aphorism that history is written by the victors, that you can see things portrayed as absolute goods -- like the Allies winning World War II -- as things that are less than positive when flipped to be viewed from a different angle -- like the Allies ending up winning it by dropping atomic bombs on two cities. The real world is never as simple as we'd like it to be. Stopping the Axis in World War II was unquestionably a good thing, but to do it required resorting to things that can be seen as very bad without too much squinting. People can't be all good or all evil. We're simply not built that way. So when Dogen is telling Sayid that the balance of the scale indicates he's become more evil than good (and, really, I'd love a machine that would tell me that), you can take his statement literally, or you can take it as the point that Dogen is making from the point-of-view of the guy who's guarding the Temple and has signed up with Jacob. All you need to do is visit a comments section on a partisan political blog to remind yourself of how easy it is to demonize the other side, and I wonder if that isn't some of what Jacob's followers and the followers of the Man in Black are doing to each other here.

Is it easy to say that the Man in Black exacts a horrible toll in this episode? Absolutely. He kills many, many people. But we have to remember that Jacob has manipulated the lives of hundreds of people to bring them to the Island, for reasons we're still not entirely clear on, and that in the process of that manipulation, he's allowed many, many people to die through inaction (even if he doesn't seem to directly kill people). I'm starting to wonder if these two don't symbolize good and evil as we're led to believe but, rather, if they symbolize destiny and free will. Jacob is down with the idea that everything in the world has a plan and that in some cases he will be the author of that plan. But he's less able to understand just how that plan will appear from the outside to people who aren't let in on it from the first. He's been alone so long on the Island that he's grown rather aloof. He's also seemingly unaware of how much thwarting he's done of people's free will to get the results he desires. He may say that he wants Jack to come to the realization of his destiny on his own, but he's still clearly pulling the strings to get a desired effect.

On the flip side, I wonder if the Man in Black isn't supposed to represent free will. He wants to be free from the Island, and he's willing to take anyone who wants to go with him. He wants free of the game he and Jacob have been playing all this time, and he's not above convincing others they're just pawns if it will help him achieve his ends. But he seems sort of oblivious that one of the offshoots of true free will is that just about anyone can do whatever they like. Without some sort of structure in place, things fall apart pretty quickly, and the strongest win out. From his point of view, it's hard to be stronger than a Smoke Monster. From the point of view of his followers, I wonder if it won't become apparent soon that his way will lead to chaos, just as Jacob's way could lead to an order so strict that it cuts off everyone's room to breathe.

118383_203_pre  There's been a lot of talk this season over whether the Man in Black or Jacob is "right," in the sense that we're supposed to root for one over the other as we head into the end game. But I wonder if the real answer here is that, from the point of view of our characters, both are sort of right and both are sort of wrong, that the true option here is to opt out and live your life the way you want, trying to be as free of the influence of the Island and these two as you possibly can. I think we've been getting clues about this all along. When asked to choose between resetting the series to the pilot and continuing the action on the Island, the writers chose both. And when Juliet is having her vision (where she says it "worked") in the season premiere, she tells Sawyer they can go out for coffee and go dutch. To do that would be, really, to have it both ways, to be in a relationship but also maintain some freedom (not to mention that it would involve both of them getting the check).

As far as Sayid is concerned, though, the darker side of life always exerts its hold over him in either timeline. In 2004, he gets dragged into a situation where his brother -- who's married to Sayid's beloved Nadia -- owes a loan shark and wants Sayid to get the bad guys off his back. In 2007, he's turned (rather quickly) by the Man in Black after a promise that his love will return to life. (And let's remember that Jacob knew Nadia would die but still did not bother to save her, perhaps realizing only a grief-stricken Sayid would fit into his plan.) The common denominator here is Nadia, the love that keeps him grounded but also a woman he believes himself unworthy of in the alternate timeline, which is something he had less of a problem with in the original timeline. Hopefully all those who had trouble getting invested in Jack's suddenly appearing son last week will have an easier time getting reinvested in the story of Sayid and Nadia, which has been around since Season 1. I've gotta admit that when those kids ran out and called him "Uncle Sayid" and he gave that sad little smile, it was kind of a punch in the gut. (These flash sideways plots are reminding me of yet another quote, this time from the movie "Magnolia": "We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us.")

But so much hinges on those closing moments on the Island, which work as a payoff both for the episode (which actually felt a bit slow for a while until it started building up to the climax) and the first seven hours of the season. And brutal as they are, those final minutes definitely work as payoff. They bring Ilanna, Ben, Lapidus and Sun back into the plot almost as suddenly as they left it. They offer up an awesome special effects shot of Kate dangling from a cliff as the Smoke Monster roars above her. They give us even more creepy from Claire. They somehow make the patently ridiculous notion of Miles and Kate running from the Smoke Monster seem like it makes perfect sense. (And while we're at it, Miles is spared to fight another day!) And they create a sense that the stakes, which have always been pretty darn big, are rapidly skyrocketing toward huge. I don't know that "Sundown" is a perfect episode, but I love the way it raises big questions while still providing an awesome action payoff. It's an episode of "Lost" that many others could aspire to.

Other thoughts

  • * VERY interesting that everyone's asking where Jack and Hurley are when they arrive at the Temple. I wonder just how important those two are going to prove to be? (Also interesting that Sawyer sits another week out, apparently still hanging out in that cave.)
  • * I have to admit that I like Kate a lot more when she's seeking Claire and inadvertently making a new lifelong enemy by telling ol' Crazy Eyes (a phrase I believe Maureen Ryan has trademarked) just what really happened to her son.
  • * That scene between Dogen and Sayid on the edge of the pool -- right before Sayid killed the guy -- was very well done, and it laid out just how Jacob and the Man in Black cut deals with people. Jacob will give you what you've always wanted, but you'll never get to experience it again, as with Dogen's son, whom he will never again see (and for that matter, Juliet's sister getting to live). You will give your life in his service, but Jacob will make sure what you most wish for happens on the mainland. The Man in Black, however, will give you what you want and let you experience it directly. He'll just exact a huge toll from all of the people around you.
  • * Naveen Andrews has always been one of the under-praised actors in this terrific cast, and this episode was another good reminder of just how well he wears the world-weariness of the man who can never escape the cycle of killing he so longs to put behind him.
  • * I feel like I should stop praising them unless they inexplicably let me down or so exceed themselves that I must single them out, but it was another very good week for Terry O'Quinn -- who brought a twinkle of malevolence to every deal he made with the castaways -- and Michael Giacchino -- whose inversions of classic "Lost" score moments continue to drive the narrative in interesting directions.
  • * Jack's one appearance this week? Passing by Sayid in the alternate universe hospital. Similarly, Jin's one appearance comes when Sayid happens across him locked up in a freezer at Keamy's place. Can't wait to see what those two will get up to in the sideways-verse.
  • * Also worth noting is that Keamy returned. He's probably one of the characters I had the least expectations for seeing again, and I can't say that I'm exactly thrilled to see him, since I never much cared for his character one way or the other, but I did like his daffy little monologue about eggs. If we really need a "Lost" spinoff, that sitcom about Ben Linus and John Locke teaching at a middle school would be good, but I'd also love to see "Cooking with Keamy."
  • * And don't forget that I'm always looking for your theories and links in comments, in my e-mail inbox or at my Twitter account. See you tomorrow!

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

Photo: Top: Sayid (Naveen Andrews, front) and Claire (Emilie de Ravin) have signed on to the Man in Black's plan in "Lost." Kate (Evangeline Lilly, background) isn't so sure. Bottom: Kate and Miles (Ken Leung) have to run from a monstrous threat in the "Sundown" episode of "Lost." Credit: ABC.

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