'Lost': the one
"What They Died For" is a lot of things. It's a fantastic episode of "Lost," one that moves like a rocket. It's a big, relatively well-handled infodump that makes sure we know how everything and everyone fits into the big picture, mostly. It's a reminder that even though the show is going to do big mythology episodes now and again, it's always going to return to the characters we loved from the regular cast. It's an episode that makes sure everyone is in place for the finale. It makes a big case for the flash-sideways as being completely necessary to the series' narrative. In some ways, it's an episode that makes last week's "Across the Sea" seem retroactively much more important (and I'll be very surprised if the finale doesn't make it seem even more important). But most of all, it's a thematic episode, an episode that's all about the scary and thrilling process of letting go.
There's a moment in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (and by now, it should be obvious the Indiana Jones movies are huge influences on this series, no?) in which Indy is in the temple that holds the Holy Grail. He's made his way past the first two tests in the Grail temple, the one in which he has to kneel to avoid the whistling blade of doom and the one in which he has to spell out "JEHOVAH" in classical Latin on a giant alphabet in the ground. And now, he comes to the final one, a giant chasm he seemingly has to pass. Thinking over the clues he's been given, Indy decides, at long last, to take a leap of faith, extending his foot and tipping forward into the abyss. And because he does so, he catches something he would have missed had he taken a running leap, a small bridge over the gap that is painted to blend in perfectly. He carefully makes his way across and into the house of the Grail.
I thought of that scene a number of times while watching "What They Died For." This is an episode in which a number of characters have to take that leap of faith, have to let go of everything that's been holding them back. Jack is the only one who can let go of his attachments to the mainland to become Jacob's replacement. Flash-sideways Locke lets go of his reservations and agrees to let Jack perform surgery that might help him walk again. Jacob lets go of his need to be cryptic and just deals directly with the remaining candidates straight-up. And there are others who simply can't let go of their own concerns and needs and end up on the wrong sides or out of the big picture. Ben, for instance, ultimately can't let go of his own need for power and his hatred for Widmore, and he seemingly ends up on the side of Smokey. So it goes.
The letting go is something that also applies to "Lost" fans, people who have been to Hell and back with this show and are hoping the series pulls together an ending that makes a sort of sense or at least doesn't completely embarrass the series and/or fans for investing so much time in this show. I'm on record in a lot of places as saying that I'm more interested in the characters' journey than a lot of other things on the show, and this episode certainly validated for me that this show is going to bring these people to a fitting end, for the most part. (I still have my issues with the handling of Sun and Jin's death, particularly in regard to their daughter. But that's a debate we can have for years after the series has ended.) But I think tonight's episode also suggested that the mythology is going to come to a satisfying end, particularly those questions that directly affect our characters.
I think we could debate over and over whether having Jacob sit the candidates down earlier in the season and have him tell them what the deal was with the Island and its protector might not have been a better idea. At the very least, it could have set up a number of scenes in which everyone argued over who was going to take the job. Although I can see where this would have been tiresome, and I've liked the way the show handled this, simply by showing the candidates displaying on the job, as it were, why they were the right people for the job, I do think that the show made a minor misstep by not having Jacob sit down and at least suggest why the job was important. Protecting the Island means protecting it from the Smoke Monster (or possibly the Man in Black). You've got to keep him away from that light because he wants to snuff it out. And if he accomplishes that or destroys the island or somehow escapes? Everyone and everything on Earth will die, apparently. We still don't know exactly why it's so bad for Smokey to get out into the general populace, but if we'd at least had these hints -- no matter how vague -- about seven or eight episodes ago, it might have been easier to care about just who became Jacob's replacement.
Just having that scene here immediately crystallized why we're supposed to care about the Jacob versus Smokey battle. We don't know everything yet, but we do know that everything that's happened has happened because Jacob has been carefully cultivating people without a lot of attachments, with a lot of grief in their pasts, to bring them to the island. When they form those attachments, he crosses them off his list, as he did with Kate's name when she became a mother (or, presumably, as he did with Desmond's name after he and Penny got married and had a child). But he's also offering these people a choice. They can opt out if they want, though he warns something very bad will happen. Vague until the end, that guy.
I think this scene has the same catalyzing effect on the Jacob versus Smokey storyline that the appearance of Desmond in the flash-sideways universe had on that storyline. When Desmond turned up there, the whole thing suddenly had a sense of purpose, and it made some of the sketchier flash-sideways from before the reveal play much better after the reveal. I don't know if the same effect will happen to the old, vague scenes about Jacob's desire to find his replacement, but I wouldn't be surprised. The scene takes some of the series' biggest mysteries and grounds them in the characters we love. "Across the Sea" hinged almost entirely on whether you could bring yourself to care for the men Jacob and the Man in Black were. Those who couldn't tended to not like the episode. Those who could were able to appreciate it. "What They Died For" works in this regard because it takes these questions and gives them to characters who, at least in our eyes, deserve to ask them.
There are times that I think that the producers of "Lost" have been tuning this season particularly to the complete DVD release of the series. There's stuff being revealed even now that will color how we view the earlier episodes, all the way back to "LA X." This is to say nothing of how the revelations about the series' deeper storylines might affect how we watch the earlier episodes. Will we find the opening scene of the pilot that much more interesting now that we know Jack is only a few yards away from the very thing he will end up protecting? Will all of the more boring flashbacks to the characters trying to set their off-island lives right play better now that we know these were the pivotal moments Jacob was watching? In some cases, probably not. But if the ending of the story doesn't tie everything together in a plot sense, it certainly ties everything together in a more thematic sense.
I also love that the episode directly deals with the question of just why these people have to die. I like even more that the show places these questions in the mouth of Kate. I'm not the world's biggest Kate fan, but she feels -- particularly with her attachment to Aaron -- like the character who might be most offended by everything Jacob has done. I liked the sad look on Jacob's face when he admitted that the deaths were deeply sad but, he believed, necessary. And, to switch over to the other plot, I love the way that Smokey seems to have completely gone around the bend, having come so close to his goal and still have to wipe out a few people. And to do that, he's going to need Desmond, Widmore and Jacob's "fail-safe."
I'm not entirely sure as to whether we should believe Widmore when he says that Jacob came to him, but I can certainly believe that Desmond is the fail-safe, the last-ditch option to stop Smokey should all of the other candidates die. I wanted a little more of Widmore's story, but I also loved the great moment where Ben guns him down, his voice barely restrained as he says that Penny doesn't get to live, not after what happened to Alex. (Alex drifted throughout the episode, something welcome in a season that threatened to lose track of Ben far too often.) Ben, as one of my favorite characters, is someone I hoped would play a bigger role in the final season, but he's been sidelined far too often. Still, the storyline featuring him here was fantastic. He went with Alex and her mom to dinner, and I half expected the knowledge of the other world Desmond bestowed upon him to split open and reveal to him that in that other world Alex and Danielle are both dead. (And were there romantic sparks between Ben and Danielle?) And on the island, he signed up with the bad guys and almost seemed resigned to his choice, as though this were the only thing he knew how to do anymore, the thing that was always going to happen, so it might as well happen now. There's a sense throughout "What They Died For" that suggests fate snapping into place, but sometimes snapping into place because the characters choose to let it. Ben doesn't choose. He simply gives up.
The flash-sideways storyline is maybe the most fun that it's been in quite some time, as Desmond wanders the greater Los Angeles area, tying together people who shouldn't have any reason to be tied together, paying off Ana Lucia to get her to let him, Sayid and Kate out of the prison van and putting a plan in place to crash the benefit concert it seems like every character will be at. There's more portent to this than anything else, a sense that things are moving and snapping into place more than an actual storyline, but "Lost" does portent really well. When things start to move, no show is better at making all of this seem like it is full of significance.
But it all comes down to the letting go, both for the characters on the show and for we patient, faithful viewers of it. The question ultimately becomes if you have the kind of faith in the show that it's pretty much demanding at this point. Without that faith, the prospect of the finale is probably a disquieting one. With that faith, the finale looms as a great closing chapter to what's been a great story. I can still see where I'll be ultimately disappointed by the way the story ends. I don't want the series to unequivocally state that all of this was destined to happen or that the Island needs a protector or anything like that. I'm fine with these sorts of answers, but I like it better when the show leaves some ambiguity. Will I get it? I hope so. But, like many of the characters and like many of you, I'm watching this episode with one foot extended into darkness, poised to drop.
Some other thoughts:
- Hey, I'll bet you missed this list of the 10 best "Lost" regular characters. I did. But I'll reveal to you here who was in spots 11 and 12. Those characters were, respectively, Mr. Eko and Richard. I'll bet you're thrilled you know this now!
- Nice symmetry: The episode opens with Jack's eye opening, just like when he woke up in that bamboo forest at the show's beginning. Jack stitches up Kate, just like she did to him in the pilot. I'm sure there were others I'm missing.
- I have trouble believing that Richard is actually dead. For one thing, I doubt Smokey can kill him. For another, it seems like it would completely go against his deal with Jacob. For yet another thing, it seems like it'd be against the "rules." But if it is the end for the guy, what a shocking moment, particularly for a character who's been so important.
- What do you suppose Des means when he says that Ana Lucia isn't "ready" yet?
- OK, I'm firmly in the "David's mom is Juliet" camp at this point. This means that when Sawyer inevitably comes to the benefit and sees her, he can have his "waking up" moment.
- Nice acting from Josh Holloway tonight. I particularly loved the moment when he was mocking Jack's choice to become the new protector and then ... just ran out of words at the momentousness of the occasion.
- Man, it seems like everybody's going to be in that finale. Here's hoping that Lapidus is the orchestra conductor.
- I liked the explanation of why Ilana was keeping Jacob's ashes around. Whether she knew it or not, it was what was allowing Hurley to see the guy, seemingly. I also liked getting confirmation that the little boy was Younger Ghost Jacob.
- I said it up above, but I think this episode makes "Across the Sea" seem even more important, particularly in its placement within the season. I'm not going to say that those who wish it had come earlier are wrong, exactly, but I have trouble imagining this episode having as much impact if it hadn't come immediately after "Across the Sea," where everything about the transition to a new protector goes wrong. Here, it pretty much all goes right, and the moment is one of quiet beauty.
- I think I'm most sad for Ben when considering what will be lost if the sideways universe goes away. He'll lose his daughter all over again.
- I love the biblical references on this show, so Jacob mumbling over the water to bless it (and, perhaps, turn it into wine) was fine by me. That said, I was really worried he was going to follow up "Drink this" with "in remembrance of me," and I was going to have to roll my eyes. Fortunately, all involved showed restraint.
- And that's it for now. I'll be back ... oh, pretty much every day this week (though "Lost" Wednesday may have to wait until Thursday again, thanks to my traveling tomorrow). If you have stuff you need to get off your chest, check me at my e-mail or Twitter. Have a good finale week!
--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)
Photos: Above: Jack (Matthew Fox, left) and Sawyer (Josh Holloway) have to make some pretty big decisions. Below: Jack (right) and Jacob (Mark Pellegrino) perform the ritual to turn protection of the island over to Jack.
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