'Lost': In which everyone gets their heart rates up by running all over the place [Updated]
I am rarely a big fan of episodes of "Lost" where the writers just make sure they have all of their characters in the right places to get things humming in the next episodes. Heading into a series of episodes that sound like they'll close out the series in cataclysmic style, "The Last Recruit" had to spend most of its time making sure everybody was in just the right place at just the right time. I don't begrudge the show this. On a series where everyone's playing some sort of metaphysical game, it's a good, sick joke that the characters become literal chess pieces every once in a while. But if I don't seem as enthusiastic about this episode as some are, it's simply because I often find these episodes a little forced, a necessary way to accomplish story business before we get into the big action climax.
Here's another way of putting it: I've largely been enjoying these flash-sideways episodes (but for one or two) just because they've been mostly fascinating character studies. You've probably noticed that I'll often open these pieces with a lengthy discussion of the character at the center of that week's episode and how that character has grown and changed with the series and what the character meant to the story as a whole. For me, an episode where Jack worked out his father issues in a possibly-not-really-real sideways timeline where he has a son (from a mother we still don't get to meet!) served as a nice way to draw connections between the Jack who was and the Jack who could have been without the Island constantly getting into his business and mucking it all up. But if what you were looking for was some hardcore answers or even a fairly straightforward on-Island plot, you mostly got to watch the characters wander around the jungle, talking philosophy, then see Jack destroy a giant metaphor in a move that seemed terribly stupid of him. And half the episode was devoted to some kid we've never even met!
But, see, I really enjoy that kind of stuff. I advanced in the first week that "Lost" is, at its most basic level, a series about a bunch of people who have their lives interrupted by forces they don't even want to begin to understand. It's a show about people who are forced to confront their truest selves when faced with a place that tends to bring out the darkness in them. It's a show about people who, in some ways, can't wait to start over but, in other ways, can't wait to get back to their old lives and figure out a way to improve them. They're people haunted by the past, and the strange Island they've crash landed on never fails to remind them of that past. "Lost," conceived of and dreamed up in a 2004 where many Americans were beginning to question just what their country was doing overseas, is very much a show about what happens after the big event that makes you ask yourself just who you are. It may not be THE post-Sept. 11 show, but literally everything about it is steeped in a decade that started out suffused with loss.
Viewed in this light, even the mostly terrible flashbacks have a sort of poignancy to them (though it can never let me forgive Bai Ling). It's easy to forget some of these storylines, particularly the ones that were, well, godawful, but in their own ways, they were necessary to making the show what it was, to keeping the mysteries flowing and the Island world from getting too static. When the show made its move from being a leisurely paced serial that was more about mystery and small triumphs for our heroes to a tightly plotted serial about people on a mission in mid-Season Three (roughly right around "Enter 77"), it threw away some of this sense of lives interrupted, and I've always missed that, even if I overall prefer the show it's become to the show it was. At one time, "Lost" was a show filled with a real fear of the unknown. Now that so much is becoming known, it's not hard to feel a little longing for what was.
So, yeah, the character stuff is why I'm here. You know it, and I know it. I've harped on it week after week, and I'm sure my returning to it in a week that was so full of big answers and big plot movement is irritating some of you. But I can't help but feel just a little let down by "The Last Recruit," which is a pretty good episode but never makes the leap up to great episode. It feels like a collection of awesome moments with a bunch of characters running around in between those moments. Now, the characters are mostly given good motivations for running around, and the series even manages to turn Jack's big decision to go back to the Man in Black -- something that should have seemed patently absurd -- into a giant linchpin of a character moment for him. But it was still an episode that was so obviously devoted to getting everyone in just the right place that bits and pieces of it irked me nonetheless.
But let's talk about some of the things that were awesome first. I like the sense the show is giving us that these characters are being drawn together in both timelines. What's interesting to me is the fact that the characters are being drawn together mostly by their own choice on the Island and by forces beyond their control in the sideways timeline (well, that and Desmond). On the Island, Hurley is making the calls or Richard is deciding to blow up a plane or Jack is swimming to rejoin the Man in Black, even as he knows it must be a pretty bad idea. In the sideways timeline, as we get closer to what I assume will be its abolishment, every step that brings the characters closer to each other has an added sadness to it. Jack has a pretty good life in the sideways timeline. Is he going to have to give that up to save the world from a black cloud of evil?
As I attempt to think about more of the episode's awesome moments, I remember just how many of them were basically scenes where two characters sit down and talk about something with each other. I'm talking about the scene where Jack and Claire finally discuss how they're siblings or the scene where Locke spits out the name of Helen to Ben in the ambulance or that amazing scene between Sayid and Desmond down in the well (and, again, I'm pretty sure Desmond's not dead and the writers are mostly using the uncertain status of a fan favorite to jerk us around). Before everyone would go running off to Hydra Island or something, the show would give us a very nice little scene where two characters talked about how far they'd come or just why they were making the choices they made, and it made a lot of the running around easier to swallow.
That said, I suspect nearly everyone will be most affected by one of the bigger moments in the episode, a
botched their reunion. I thought the build-up to it was magnificently handled. When the group went over to Hydra, I had basically forgotten Jin was there, and when he came out of the group of Widmore's people to see Sun, I was all ready to go with the emotion of the moment. Instead, the whole thing felt curiously prosaic.
Look, if I were separated from the love of my life for three years and she had presumed I was dead and we had a child I'd never met, I'm pretty sure that I, too, would say "I love you" straight off and then say a variety of things that would guarantee I would die in a horror movie. But the reason "Lost" has so often played these big reunions with only music to underline the emotion is because, well, there's nothing you can say in a moment like that that will match the sheer emotion of seeing your loved one again. And, honestly, Sun suddenly speaking English again was kind of stupid, particularly when it involved Lapidus standing off to the side with a goofy grin, saying, "LOOKS LIKE SOMEONE GOT THEIR VOICE BACK." It was a moment that should have been tear-jerking, and instead, it was just a nice moment that got dwarfed by some of the other stuff around it, including the non-surprise of Widmore turning on Sawyer and company (and the non-surprise of the Man in Black carrying Jack away from the explosions, about which more in a moment).
We've talked a little about how the on-Island action seems to be rewarding the characters for choosing neither side in the Jacob vs. Man in Black battle, that the two people who choose a side definitively -- Claire and Sayid -- are both pretty clearly crazy or zombies. What's interesting to me, now, is how clearly the show has set up that the true battle for the Island is going on over in the flash-sideways stories, where the show had slowly been conditioning us to pay less and less attention to how they hooked up with the Island (though I'm sure they hook up in many interesting ways). We're getting more of a sense that the characters have some sort of memory of the Island, of what they may have done to make this universe exist in the first place. And we're getting more of a sense that this feeling can grow stronger and stronger, that these people will have to somehow break the wall between the worlds and let them seep into each other. (For necessary reasons, then, Hurley has to sit out the sideways action, since he's the one character Desmond managed to convince of the existence of the "real" timeline.) It's a great storytelling reversal to take the one thing that we think we don't have to care about and make it the Rosetta stone to the entirety of the show's end game. But it's also a risky move, and I won't be surprised if people turn against it.
At times, the flash-sideways timeline has just seemed to be a place for the show to use its many dead characters and remind us of how much we liked having them around at one time. (In which case, welcome to the flash-sideways world, Ilana!) But it's also become a place where the show can truly test some of its bedrock principles. The idea of tabula rasa, a blank slate, has always been one of the show's central ideas, and here's a place to test what the show itself would be with that tabula rasa. Some weeks, it would be an '80s cop show. Some weeks, it would be a metaphysical romance. Some weeks, it would be a high school drama. But it's also a place where the show can stage the battle for the Island, the battle over whether chaos or order, fate or free will will reign, in less lofty terms. It's a place where these battles are fought every day in the way most of us are familiar with them, person by person, moment by moment.
So, yeah, "The Last Recruit" didn't hit me as much as it seems to have hit a lot of you (given how firmly pro-this episode my Twitter feed was), but I still admire it and like it's place within the overall story of the show. These episodes -- the ones where everyone goes to their places, ready to be frozen when the curtain rises and the real show begins -- are a necessary evil. Someday, when I rewatch this whole series on DVD and have the time to enjoy it at my own pace, an episode like this won't stand out nearly as much. But right now, as I want the show to start paying off my investment in these characters over the years, it just feels a little too forced. I'll love it in five years. I like it now.
Some other thoughts:
- * Latest almost certainly wrong prediction about what will happen: The little boy we've seen is either Aaron or Charlie Hume, the two of whom will take the place of the Smoke Monster and Jacob, respectively. Aaron will be raised by a crazy mother and, thus, become pure malevolence (which is what happens, I guess?). Charlie will be the sacrifice Desmond has to make to save his other friends. Not the best idea, I'll admit, but worth a shot.
- * The scene where the Man in Black admitted that, yeah, he was impersonating Jack's dad all these years was another scene where answers were just laid out there for us to have, but I thought it was executed rather better than last week's "THE WHISPERS ARE DEAD PEOPLE!" scene.
- * Matthew Fox is probably having his best overall season in the history of the show, but how sad do you think he is that Josh Holloway has better chemistry with basically every female on the show? Fox's playing of "Sorry I got Juliet killed" is a really nice moment, too, and then is trumped by Holloway's sad tears at seeing Sun and Jin reunited. ACTING FACE-OFF.
- * If they say they killed Desmond this week and then actually show a corpse a few weeks down the line, that's just cruel and unusual, isn't it? At this rate, I figure Sayid just decided Desmond would die in the bottom of that well anyway and forgot about Desmond's awesome powers of climbing. (I like to imagine Desmond's awesome powers of climbing are a lot like "Donkey Kong.")
- * OK, I know I made fun of that Lapidus line, but it was also the greatest moment in the history of television, clearly. It was just so cheesy and ridiculous that it kind of crossed the line over to hilarious. I get that that's not the reaction the show wanted, but I had a good time. (Also good: Sawyer seeing Lapidus again for the first time in a long time and saying it looked like he stepped out of a Burt Reynolds movie.) [For the record: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that this was the first time Sawyer had met Lapidus.]
- * So what do we make of Sun seeming to recognize Locke in the sideways timeline? This better be something more awesome than her having seen him on the plane. She seemed pretty terrified.
- * I was all set to declare this yet another episode where every credited regular appears (after "The Package" was the first in this category since Season 3 or something equally ridiculous) until I remembered that Nestor Carbonell is off getting grenades or something. Is there any chance Richard pops up in sideways-land?
- * And there's no new "Lost" next week. You guys know I love the show, and you know that there's nothing I'd rather do than write up a piece on it every night next week, but I'm also kind of running myself ragged with these pieces. We'll do the usual "Lost" Wednesdays and "Lost" weekend this week (and don't forget those e-mails and Tweets), but I think I'll likely take next week off from the show or just do one post. Unless you guys want a host of top 10 lists or something. See you tomorrow!
--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)
Photos: Above: The "Lost" castaways have a shot at getting off the Island finally, but an unexpected visitor shows up to mess everything up. Below: Frank Lapidus (Jeff Fahey) is a lover, not a player, baby. (Credit: ABC)