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'Lost': Happy we'll be, across the sea

May 11, 2010 | 11:22 pm

Jacob
 When I was a kid, I lived in a very small town, population 800-some. The very edge of town was the local recreational complex, where I spent most summers at the local baseball field, being very bad at playing baseball. Inevitably, after one practice was over, another would start up, and the rest of us kids would hang around for that practice, waiting for our rides home, out into the country. This, naturally, was as good a time as any to go exploring, to go looking for hidden treasure and adventure and all of the things kids go looking for. Now, this was small town South Dakota, so we didn't find any of that. Nor did we find pirates or ghosts or, I don't know, ninjas. We just found lots of weeds and the occasional wild animal.

Oh, and we also found a cave.

To be more precise, we found a tunnel. Peering into its darkness, into the earthy walls that made up its bulk, we could see the glimmer of daylight on the other side. Now, there's very little to get a bunch of young boys excited than sticking a tunnel in front of them, a tunnel where they don't know where it ends up, a tunnel where they have to go racing home to get flashlights to go exploring. And that was just what we did. We ran to a friend's house. We got flashlights. We turned them on. We ventured inside. We went seeking the other end. What was there was sure to be better than what we had in our tiny town. Adventure and talking animals and knights and mystical kingdoms. That's what you get at the end of a mysterious tunnel.

The promise of what's at the other end of a mystery is almost always more interesting than what's actually there. You can get all of the solutions or explanations or answers you want, but you are almost always going to want to go back to the moment before you entered the tunnel. This is just the nature of being human, really. Too many shows like "Lost" spend all of their time focusing on what's at the other end of the tunnel, when they should really be focusing on what it's like to stand outside of it and hold your breath in anticipation of the wonder of what might be at the other end. "Lost" has always been all about getting your flashlight and getting ready for the first steps into the unknown. It has put off answers as long as humanly possible, raising them up to the level where almost no one was going to be satisfied with whatever it came up with. We're getting answers, sure, but they're not always the answers we want. And if that's the case, is the problem with the writers, for not satisfying our needs, or is it with us, for not being open-minded enough to jump on board?

I ask these questions because I'm of two minds about "Across the Sea." One part of me, the TV critic part, the part that dissects these things and picks them apart and looks for things to dislike about them, mostly really liked the episode, aside from a few niggling points. It was a bold move, I think, giving over the whole of an hour of TV, so close to the end of the series, to two characters we barely know, and the episode did a good job of turning their pseudo-Greek theatrical drama into something real and psychologically relatable. One of the chief criticisms of the sixth season of "Lost" has come from the idea that Jacob and the Man in Black -- as both characters and concepts -- are too vague, their motivations too unclear. Because I've thought the season has been good about foregrounding the characters we already know and love and keeping Jacob and the MIB's machinations in the background, I mostly haven't minded that this is where the season has been playing out. But I can see where the people who feel that Jacob and the MIB aren't wholly understandable as characters are coming from, at least, even if I simultaneously disagree after tonight's episode and don't think it really matters as we head into the series' end game.

But the other part of me is a "Lost" fan, and the "Lost" fan in me is starting to wonder if Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have ever written any really bad science fiction and/or fantasy. Take it from someone who's written some of this: There is nothing worse than having a friend (or, worse, one of your kids) foist a lengthy, complicated, novel-length epic about some other world you've never heard of, filled with half-explanations and funny names and weird characters that come up out of nowhere and expecting you to not only love it but follow all of it. Exposition is both the enemy of an effective science fiction or fantasy tale and a grim necessity. Sometimes, you just need to have a scene where Giles sits Buffy down in the library and explains the true nature of the latest threat. By and large, "Lost" has avoided having scenes like this. By and large, the show has chosen to show, not tell. 

Honestly, this is completely admirable. It's one thing to have a character sit down and tell us bluntly how the final five Cylons came from the Earth that was to live among the Twelve Colonies on "Battlestar Galactica." Sure, it answers everything, but the longer it goes on, the more the air goes out of the room. You need your exposition to be quick and snappy, and on a show like "Galactica" or "Lost," there's very little room for quick or snappy, since everything has season after season of backstory behind it. So I understand the impulse to err on the side of caution, to have us learn about the sickness by seeing Sayid go through it or learn about the heart of the Island, tonight, by showing it as a mystical, glowing pool that no one can quite comprehend.

Mibbers  But at the same time, as mentioned, I've written a lot of pretty terrible science fiction and fantasy in my time, and what inevitably happens when you give it to someone to read is that they pepper you with questions about things that don't quite make sense. The thing is, you've probably placed the answers to those questions within the story somewhere, but because they're lost in a morass of other information, the reader doesn't know what they're supposed to signify. And that leads to the reader having so many questions that they don't know how to find the answers they don't know they know (if that makes sense). The job of the writer in a situation like this is to make sure the right things get the right amount of attention, to make sure that the readers are always cognizant of just what's important for them to know.

For the most part, "Lost" has done a fantastic job of playing up what we need to know and making sure we know it at just the right time. Even without Jack yelling "WE HAVE TO GO BACK!" you know you're watching a flash forward at the end of "Through the Looking Glass" simply because Kate shows up. The series doesn't need to explain that the world Desmond inhabits in "Happily Ever After" is the "wrong" one because it has the flash-cut to Charlie's hand reading "Not Penny's Boat" to do all the heavy lifting for us. "Lost" has always been exceptionally good at directing our attention one way when it needs to distract us or making sure we pick up just the right pieces of information. Without that guiding hand, the story could become a big mess, just a bunch of information banging up against other pieces of information without any real coherence.

And yet I fear that the final season of "Lost" is courting this sort of problem. I'm not saying that Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse needed to sit down with an extra-critical creative writing teacher who would explain to them just what didn't make sense in their story or anything, but I do wonder if the producers think they've answered some questions without providing us with enough context to realize they've been answered. This is why I fear that the producers think they've solved the question of just what the sickness does to people by showing us how it affects Sayid, when, really, what we want is for someone to sit down and just explain the process to us. Hopefully succinctly, granted, but  we want that explanation.

To that end, as a "Lost" fan, the success of "Across the Sea" is almost wholly dependent on what happens in the three-and-a-half hours that will close out the season. The cave of softly glowing light? I suspect we'll get an explanation for that. What happened to the proto-Man in Black when he went down in there? I hope we'll get an explanation, but I fear the producers think "He became the Smoke Monster! Or something!" will suffice. Who was the Woman who raised the twins? How long has the Island been around? Where did any of these people come from to begin with? I fear that the producers think these questions have been adequately answered. I'm not going to say I need all of them answered to be satisfied with the ending -- I daresay the show could get away with answering none of them -- but by raising all of them at once this close to the end, "Lost" risks disorienting its audience even more than usual, particularly as we still don't have a terribly good idea of just what happens if the Man in Black gets off the Island beyond vague rumblings of doom.

And yet ... there's so much about "Across the Sea" that works, that is, indeed, almost harrowingly beautiful. This is a story of two boys, raised by another. This is a story of two twins, and depending on how you choose to interpret the story, either one could be the Bad Twin. "Across the Sea" takes a very modern story -- the giant, pop culture mash-up that is "Lost" -- and makes it feel like a myth, by boiling all of the elements of its story -- of every story, really -- and making them feel somehow both elemental and new. It's a story that takes a conflict that seemed almost depressingly black and white last week and introduces shades of grey into it all over the place. The Man in Black killed Sun and Jin and Sayid, sure, but he was also once a sad little boy who just wanted to go home, to get away from a mother who would never tell him what he needed to know (and that's a nice little bit of meta-fiction on the part of the writers). And Jacob may seem benevolent and wise now, but he's also someone who seemingly helped his mother kill and burn a whole village, just as he would later cause shipwrecks and even more death. There were answers buried in this story, sure, but even more importantly, there was a sense of origin, of things taking shape that could not be undone, of people who could have possibly stopped the events that are now destroying so many lives in the present, just by being good to each other, by being forthcoming. Maybe these aren't the answers we want, but they're beautifully wrought nonetheless.

Around the episode's mid-point, the Man in Black's real mother -- the one who was killed by the Woman who raised him -- tells the young boy that "there are many things across the sea." The boy has always believed this not to be true, believed that all he saw was all he would ever know. You can sense that ache in the way his mother says it, in the way the grown man later tries to build an improbable machine to move himself off the Island (the machine that would become the frozen donkey wheel). There is always a hope for something else, for another world just across the sea or at the other end of the tunnel. By making the Man in Black a boy who just wanted to find his true home, the series has made him at once recognizably human and a mythical archetype. By making Jacob a boy who yearned for his mother to love him like the prodigal son who spurned her, the series has done the same. The stories this episode takes its basis from -- both Biblical and mythological -- seem so cut-and-dry to us now because we've heard them for millennia. What this episode does is restore them to a place where they were about people with conflicting motivations, a time when these stories still had ambiguity.

When my friends and I entered the tunnel, we found a local farmer's field on the other side, and after a few rainy days, the tunnel mostly closed up. But we had our moment of possibility, of wonder. "Lost," at its best, evokes that possibility and wonder. But the Man in Black, one of that show's major characters, still stands on the shore of his prison, adrift from possibility, and he still looks for a way off, his anger calcifying into bitterness and maybe even evil as the years go on. We are all hoping for something Else, something better, even if you have all of the secrets of humanity buried at the heart of the place where you live. What makes "Across the Sea" work is how it taps into that very human desire, how it remembers that before he was the Man in Black, he was just a man.

Some other thoughts:

  • *Here's the one thing I KNOW I didn't like: When it was established that the body of the Man in Black and the Woman were Adam and Eve, I REALLY didn't need the crazy flashback to Season One, and the discovery of the bodies. I got it, show. Thanks. I don't need the answer to every mystery to be accompanied by Lindelof and Cuse marching across the screen with a banner that reads, "ANOTHER MYSTERY SOLVED!"
  • *The episode, to a degree, is only going to work insofar as you're willing to buy the performances of Mark Pellegrino and Titus Welliver, and I thought both of these guys hit it out of the park. The kids, though, I wasn't as sold on. Though I never would have guessed the mini-MIB would look so much like Justin Bieber.
  • *Great shot: Jacob tumbles backward as the Smoke Monster emerges from the cave, soaring into the sky above him. 
  • *Also worth praising: Michael Giacchino's score is always good, but it was on some other level this week. I particularly love the music when we first see the cave and when Jacob realizes that the body that housed his brother, at least, is dead. (I'm a sucker for mournful piano.)
  • *So what do we think happened to the MIB when he disappeared into the cave? Was some part of the Man in Black absorbed into the Monster, leaving the body behind? Or did his soul somehow co-mingle with the Life Force of the Island, meaning that, in a very real sense, he IS the Island, and if he were to leave, it really would mean the end of all things? The latter is my wife's interpretation, and I sorta think she's right. (Added evidence: The light in the cave goes out.)
  • *More food for thought: Would a lesser-known actress than Allison Janney have helped make the Woman easier to handle as a late-breaking very important character? And should this episode have aired earlier in the season to give Jacob and the Man in Black more context?
  • *Finally, why are so many important things in this show nameless? The Island. The Monster. The Man in Black. The Woman. Discuss.
  • *And if you're tired of hearing me jabber but still have ideas and thoughts, comment on this post or e-mail or Tweet me before tomorrow's "Lost" Wednesday.

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

Photos: Above: Jacob (Mark Pellegrino) just wants to get his mom, the Woman (Allison Janney), to love him best. Talk about dependency! Below: The Man in Black (Titus Welliver) just wants a name. Thanks a lot, mom! (Credit: ABC)

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