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

May 12, 2010 | 11:39 pm

 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 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 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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