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'Lost' Wednesdays: 'Every question I answer will simply lead to another question'

 To call "Across the Sea" divisive is sort of an insult to the word, which implies that something has sent people off to two sides of an issue, where they bicker about it. Following some of the discussion of the episode around the Internet today -- and both Metacritic and Myles McNutt have good rundowns of the CRITICAL reactions -- I honestly thought everyone on the Internet was going to break into two camps and start up some sort of TV fan civil war. Lovers to the right! Haters to the left! I'm all about great discussion, but man, sometimes, even I think, "It's just a TV show." But then I read someone saying the episode was the worst episode of "Lost" ever, and I regain my passion. To arms!

In all seriousness, I wonder if we aren't running into something that was always going to happen when the show came down to the end. The series has been skewing toward a mystical answer to most of its questions for quite a while now. Now, as someone who loves when weird mythology and mysticism crop up in his genre fiction (see also my absolute love of the "Battlestar Galactica" finale), this doesn't strike me as the worst thing in the world. But a good number of fans are going to want to have everything make enough concrete sense that they can fill in the other details on their own, rather than spending the next 10 years debating what it all means. I see a glowing cave thing-y and think, "Oh, man, that just ties into all sorts of mythic archetypes." These fans see that and think, "A magic cave? That's stupid."

Here's the thing: I don't think these fans are wrong. (Well, I never think anyone's opinions are wrong. Unless you wish the show had never killed off Boone. Because that? Wrong.) They've been looking for very different things out of the final season than a lot of people have. I want the creators to take me on a great ride, and so far, they have (including last night's episode). Sure, we had the boring "going up the hill on the roller coaster" portion of the ride in "What Kate Does," but we've also had the awesome loop-de-loop of "Happily Ever After" and the weird, dark tunnel of "Across the Sea." But a lot of other fans, if not wanting the show to make complete sense, are hoping that the show will make enough of the pieces fit together for them to make sense of the rest of it on their own. And there's also a vocal contingent (that overlaps with both camps) that doesn't get why we're supposed to be moved by the story of two characters we only really got to know in the last episode of the previous season.

Now, I have trouble seeing the point of view that this episode wasn't moving. I thought the Man in Black's absolute dismay at seeing the village torched was devastating, and the way that both boys just kept trying to impress their "mother," even when they knew she wasn't really even that, was often very sad. Sure, it was all a bit like Medea wandering into the middle of an O'Neill play (as James Poniewozik put it on Twitter last night), but the weird juxtaposition of the mythic story arc and the very modern world of "Lost" just worked for me. If it didn't work for you, I get it. This is just one of those areas where the things I'm uniquely tuned in to like -- big, epic stories of mythic excitement -- are very different from what you are, most likely. And that's OK!

But here's another thing: The more I think about this episode, the more I like the depths it plumbs. I got in a big discussion last night with @TimZila on Twitter last night about how the creators had said that the Man in Black was the primary antagonist in this interview and were now making him deeply sympathetic, while making Jacob seem like kind of a big jerk. But can't both statements be true? The Man in Black is trying to kill our heroes, solely because they're standing in the way of his big goal, but he's also got some pretty believable motivations for doing that. Doesn't that make him a much more compelling character? Doesn't the fact that we sort of want to see him succeed, though not at the expense of losing, say, Hurley, make us that much more invested in the narrative? I would argue yes, but maybe the ambiguity of the scenario isn't working for everyone. 

(I also love some of the issues that are raised by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse in this interview with Alan Sepinwall, where they seem a little defensive and completely taken aback by some of the fan reaction. In particular, I'm impressed with the notion that the Island's secret is so worth protecting that the protector of the Island will eventually have to commit genocide. That's a dark, dark notion, and it takes the end of this story into some wonderfully murky waters.)

Now, I've blathered on long enough. But I received so many great Tweets, e-mails and comments on this episode that I don't know if I could have ever possibly responded to all of them in this space anyway. Instead of our usual question and answer session, let's try something a little different. I'll present three arguments in favor of the episode and three against from the e-mails and comments you guys sent, and then we'll take the continuing discussion down to comments.

First, we have reader Pat King, via e-mail, for the defense:

"Anyways, I was struck in re-watching Across the Sea how much it improved on a second viewing.  This is a bit of a trend this season, I think, and seems to point at some level to the producers' insistence that it's bound to be disappointing as our limitless speculation and imagination ('There'll be ziggurats! Richard will have arrived as an explorer for the Roman Empire! Jacob and the Man in Black will read off a list of answers to Lost mysteries!') give way to their singular storytelling.  Actually, the episode reminds me of those pre-finale episodes in previous seasons, where we spend the episode just walking characters from one part of the island to another (or info-dumping what we need to know for season finales).  And really, as long as some of what we saw last night pays off in the last three and a half hours, I don't count it as wasted time at all.  The second viewing really brought into relief a lot of the thematic echoes that you and Noel Murray touch on -- really, the layering of kids raised by another mother, the burden of protecting a force you don't understand, etc. -- and I think the episode is ultimately pretty strong."

(I'll just say that Pat's take is the one I most agree with here. Like with the similar episode in the final season of "Battlestar Galactica," chronology-wise, this episode's stock will rise or fall based on how well the finale closes up storylines.)

Here's commenter Neil, also for the defense:

"I think it's both dangerous and pointless to get wrapped up in wanting to know the origin of origins. Did we really expect them to trace this thing back to the origins of the universe? The only way to have done this is to have blatantly invoked the work of some deity, which I think we all can agree would have drawn even more outrage. The simple fact is any religion, mythology, or scientific belief structure has question marks when it comes to the 'Beginning of Things.' The Judeo religions say that in the beginning, there was God. But where did God come from? Science says there was the Big Bang, but where did that accumulation of mass come from?

"The bottom line is, that no matter what you're working with, you can't and never will be able to explain The Beginning Of Things. We all must accept that existence, the world, and life 'Simply Is.' Then you pick a point to begin telling a particular part of the story."

And Andrew Hanson pairs his defense with a cool theory of the show as a whole:

"The mother explaining the cave and later that Jacob had to take over for her reminded me of Desmond and Kelvin looking for their replacement in the hatch.

"No one truly understands the purpose or power of the island, but there are always people who feel that the island has a purpose and power. They make up stories about why the island is the way it is, but in reality, no one knows. They just know that it needs to be protected.

"And I'm cool with that. As long as 'Lost' keeps interesting, well-developed characters struggling to do what they think is right, I'll keep watching."

And here are some voices against the episode, starting with commenter OldDarth, summing up one main school of thought on why people didn't like the episode:

"The bottom line is this episode failed to answer to some of the BIG questions that have been six years in the making and brought up new ones about new characters that will never been seen again for which there is no investment in at all.

"Major miscalculation."

And Bucky thinks the show has an awful moral agenda:

"So, evil, according to 'LOST,' is asking questions, being frustrated with laughably cryptic, faux-deep clap-trap, trying to take control of your life and develop agency regarding the things you understand. Individuality and self-determination are evil, apparently.

"Meanwhile, if you're a good little robot like Jacob who always tells Mommy the truth (no matter who it betrays) and follows every order, you're a good guy. Even when you beat your brother to death and throw him in a 'worse than death' pit.

"This is the same nonsense that's been happening all season, where characters that used to be defined by their drive and determination to carve their own destinies now sit around like cabbages waiting for another spooky new character to 'tell them what to do.' That's the problem of 'LOST': bad guys do naughty stuff like try to discover the almost certainly disappointing secrets of the Island and effect real lasting change on the story, good guys sit tight and wait to follow orders, no matter how stupid or delivered by whatever pointless character (i.e. the Temple crew)."

(And I'll step in to say that while I get where Bucky's coming from, I think the moral situation on the show is a lot more complicated than the producers painted it in that interview. This is why it's often better to trust your own judgment on a work of art, rather than what the artist tries to tell you is going on.)

And I love Craig's snark about the show, even if I disagree:

"Apparently this is the island Scientology was talking about and the glowing light is the rest of the alien souls that didn't escape into a body like they're friends...help us out 'Lost'....did Jacob learn everything he needed from fake mom in a scene not shown between them? did he just become "apart" of her and therefore know the answers? and since he's dead and was the only one remotely aware of what was going on back then...how is the rest of the cast going to know? MiB def. doesn't know since he couldn't even find it alone...

"I'm just gearing up for mild to moderate disappointment come the 2.5 hour Sunday showing...for a show that really heavily, if not entirely, of what came before or happened before...why is it ok to forego such monumental backstory for the island?"

And that's where I'll leave you this week. Keep the discussion going, and I'll see you over the weekend with another "Lost" 10 and the "Lost" weekend. Keep those Tweets and e-mails coming!

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

Photo: Allison Janney is just sitting there, watching the wheels go round and round. She really loves to watch them roll. (Credit: ABC)

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Comments () | Archives (13)

'Every question I answer will simply lead to another question'

And therein is the producers' answer to the viewers who want a tight, neat ending, like the brilliant 'Six Feet Under' had - showing how the lead characters would become damaged (illness, robbery, old age) and how they died. (With some spark, too, like Clare re-finding her lover in mid-life.)

I too thought 'BSG' has a wonderful, wonderous ending - but especially from the moment Kara Thrace had the stunned look on her face when she spotted Earth, and Africa, in the monitor.

I don't feel we need to know the exact meaning of The Light in 'Lost.' It's enough to know it hold Divinity of some kind, and that it can keep our bodies, souls, even planet, alive - or cross us with a vengeance. And this leads back to the Mother's quote, 'Every question I answer will simply lead to another question.' This episode squarely came down on the side of Faith.

Now that I've had a couple nights to think about it, I am softening a bit on my initial anger over that episode. I didn't like it - fine. Let cooler heads prevail.

I've come to sort of zen-like acceptance that this is Darlton's story. Whatever they choose to tell us, it's up to them. When elders sit around a camp fire telling a story, you don't jump up right before the ending and scream "no way! tell us more! a cave light doesn't make any sense!"

I will admit I was underwhelmed by this episode, but after reading your review and Noel Murray's excellent analysis at the AV Club, I warmed up to it some. I don't want to seem defensive, but if it takes multiple reviews to bring me around to liking anything, then I think the subject has fallen short of hitting the mark (for me, at least). In the context of the series I'm hoping this episode works a bit better and with time and repeat viewings, I might end up loving it. But as many have noted, the acting was wildly uneven (mostly in the first half) and the narrative was clunky. I love how they've made Jacob and MIB contradictions to what we know of them and I like the idea that a villain can be completely sympathetic and completely evil at the same time, but I just don't think this story completely works on its own. The ending was clunky and not nearly as satisfying as the Richard-centric episode earlier in the season.

I'm completely supportive of them swinging for the fences and taking a big gamble (and I tend to add a letter grade just for trying), but this just didn't stick the landing for me.

The natural reaction of dissapointment (and loss for that matter) is anger. I think many people are dissapointed because the 'answers': 1) aren't coming fast enough and therefore they're 'scared' that their particular questions won't be answered 2) aren't what they were expecting or had created in their own mind.

This also is a natural response for many in regards to other art forms. 'THAT doesn't look like art to me.' 'The ending of THAT BOOK/STORY was wrong, stupid, etc'. It's hard for many people to accept that the art they're experiancing was created by somone else - therefore it's not going to be what's in their OWN head. Learning to appreciate what someone else has created for you - isn't easy for everyone.
The writers and creators of this series have really slaved and worked on this for US (maybe money too). But I think the proof of their desires and concerns are in the product we're enjoying. Enjoy the ride everyone.... it's not what YOU would have done - but it is what the writers/creators have done - and it's really special indeed.

How is it possible to care about this anymore? A long time ago I resigned myself to being, at least, disappointed or, at most, livid at the end of this show. The problem is that the powers that be in "Lost's" universe, and by that I mean the writers, are great at coming up with intriguing questions. Maybe they are a little too good at it because the only answers they have are variations on "God did it" or "It's mystical." These answers are ultimately unsatisfying to one such as me because they assume that the question being asked is "How?" when it is, in fact, "Why?". We know, now, that the island is a trap and that any and every person who has contact with it, no matter how remotely, is permanently and irreversibly screwed. What we don't know is why this is so. Without an answer to that fundamental question the stories of all the people who have encountered the island are rendered as nothing more than incidents which, ultimately, have no meaning. I find it disingenuous for Cuse And Lindelof to use the word mythology to describe their creation. Mythology includes, by definition, meaning. That is the one thing they've failed to add to this kitchen sink inclusive oleo.

It is quite clear that the island exists in the mother of all moral grey areas and, I agree that, that is interesting. I do like never being absolutely sure which is the straight and good path. I like that the characters experience tremendous doubt and guilt regarding their actions even as they are absolutely sure that they are doing what they must do to bring about the best outcome. Never knowing with absolute certainty whether or not one has done the right thing is an undeniable part of adulthood. But so is being accountable for ones actions even if one is an omnipotent deity, aka a writer of fiction.

Lost started out so promising and one of those promises was a meaningful story. As I feared, it did not deliver on that promise. It merely manipulated us into watching week after week while continuing to dangle the tantalizing carrot in front of our noses. I admit that I was foolish for continuing to believe for as long as I did. I couldn't resist the, please forgive the pun, mirage of that beautiful island in the distance.

For such an epic series, Lost has managed to keep so much suspense over 6 years. In addition to the obvious mysteries and storylines, it’s also done an incredible job at throwing small clues and hints at its viewers to pick up on. Many of these have gone missed, and many have been spotted. I think that a big part of the show is putting the pieces together like a puzzle – the answers aren’t going to be explicitly stated ever on the show. It’s wrong to expect that. For a show that’s kept us guessing so long, who wants a simple answer. Here’s what I’m talking about regarding the hidden clues/hints along the past 6 seasons: http://thesmogger.com/2010/05/13/looking-at-lost-the-things-you-may-have-missed/

Katharine: Mythology is an all-purpose word used by TV creators to refer to their show's back story. As with so many things, it stems from the X-Files.

I posted this in the previous article by accident, sorry for the dupe.

This episode was the whole show for me. "Your questions will only lead to more questions", the black & white game between Jacob and MiB, "You can make your own game and make up your own rules". All that stuff was all the answers. Honestly I'm not sure I need any more explicit answers, except in a nerdy "That's cool" way.

Jacob's brother died, killed in releasing the darkness at the heart of the island. The smoke monster has been impersonating him the whole time the same way it impersonates the other dead people and knows things about them. Is it that worse than death? It is for everybody else.

The only reason I think they will explain more about the gold light is that it's one of the most in-your-face capital-F Fantasy elements of the show. There's no hatch, no vague mumblings beyond "It's the heart of the island" (another answer). It's a straight-up Magical Golden Light In A Tunnel so I think introducing it this late in the game means they'll say more about it.

Anyway, I really really liked this episode and the answers that were more on the literary versus nerdy end of the scale. Everything after this is gravy.

I just reread what I wrote and I want to apologize for using the word completely more than was necessary, as in I completely need a thesaurus.

@Mike: I'd agree they've done a great job of maintaining suspense over the course of six seasons, but any well-written show should accomplish that and all the best in my lifetime have (Buffy, Angel, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, West Wing, Sopranos, even Six Feet Under, etc), so kudos to Lost's crew but that's a mark of quality, not *the* mark. I think the writers get a lot of suspense mileage (if you will) out of the many mysteries on the show, but if you're not going to pay off those mysteries then they become a narrative device rather than a thematic element. That is a weakness to me.

Thanks for your link, but I don't think you listed anything that explained or hinted at any of the buring questions I have about the show.

Katharine: Mythology is an all-purpose word used by TV creators to refer to their show's back story. As with so many things, it stems from the X-Files.

Posted by: Todd VDW | May 13, 2010 at 12:31 PM

Yes, I know, thank you. Chris Carter was wrong in many. many ways when he used the word mythology and everyone who had the misfortune of speaking to me about it knew how I felt about it way back then.

I know now that my mistake was in thinking that, when we were promised answers, those answers would correspond to my questions.

What I find interesting and not a little frustrating is the fervor with which people are defending the failures of the storytelling here. I know it isn't a popular opinion but, what the heck, I'm going to go ahead and say it anyway. Storytelling is an art not entirely free from rules. Some of these rules are:

1. If the story only works when the characters are stupid or so wallbangingly stubborn as to be indistinguishable from stupid, the storyteller has failed. Example: Anyone trusting Ben Linus, for even a moment, ever after their initial encounter.

2. If the audience can see clearly that the writer is stretching or stalling so as to make the story last longer, he is failing. Example: Any of the thousand and one times a character has steadfastly refused to explain himself or the situation or answer any utterly reasonable question while simultaneously asking for another's cooperation or help. As to the characters' unerring willingness to cooperate or help said individual, see failure #1.

3. If the story only works if key characters are complete jerks (not the word I have in mind but the Times won't allow me to use that word) the story has failed. Example: The thousand and one times characters have refused to explain, to the best of their knowledge, in clear terms, what the bleep is going on! BTW, "I don't know" is an acceptable response from time to time.

4. If a storyteller raises a question and does not, subsequently answer it the story has failed. Example: Where did the bloody polar bear come from? How about the magic box which produced Locke's father on request? Why did Kate risk so much to retrieve a toy airplane? Seriously, who really thinks that next few hours are going to answer all the questions the show has raised? Anyone with their hand up should examine rule #1. Point is, it is incumbent upon the storyteller who raised the question to answer it.

Cryptic responses and enigmas for enigmas' sakes are fun in the writers' room. For the audience, they are a good way to make us feel jerked around.

The "you have to piece it together like a jigsaw puzzle" theory is of no use to me because it is simply not possible to do at this point.

I liked the show at the beginning because it seemed to be about the individuals who survived the crash. They all had stories from back in the world. Some of the stories were epic in scale and some were small and intimate. I liked that a game of golf could take on such importance. I liked watching these people try to form a society and come to grips with the fact that they had to form a society, complete with laws and leaders and enforcement if they were going to survive. All of that was cast aside in favour the increasingly nonsensical "mythology". Mythology which carried with it promises which would not be kept.

Posted by: Katharine Saavedra |

"In particular, I'm impressed with the notion that the Island's secret is so worth protecting that the protector of the Island will eventually have to commit genocide. That's a dark, dark notion, and it takes the end of this story into some wonderfully murky waters."

I think there's an even darker idea there: that the protector of the Island believes he or she has to commit genocide to protect that secret, but the genocide itself is purely an act of faith. Or perhaps that the protector of the Island has to commit that genocide in order to prevent an eradication of faith that would come with understanding that secret.

BTW - kid MIB didn't look like justin bieber, he looked like Jodie Foster. And as he killed his mother all I could imagine was him saying "You should have given me a name! If you'd just given me a name I'd have been good."

It's a one horror show which simply can be like bind you to scareness and i like this show and almost see that every day..


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