January 21, 2009

Lost: "Because You Left" and "The Lie"

The answer is time travel.

Those of you who had squares marked "time travel" and "January 21, 2009" in your Lost ultimate answers betting pool, please come forward and claim your very own numbered bunny as a prize. Of course the rabbit in question hasn't been born yet, or maybe it's already died. Who can be sure? Either way, your bunny should be delivered to your momentarily. (Just watch out for those crazed, flaming-arrow wielding Brits while you wait.) Now, on with the show.

In the very first moments of "Because You Left", the opening hour of Wednesday's two-hour Season 5 premiere, Dr. Candle (Wickman/Haliwax) of Dharma Initiative fame (apparently definitively named here as "Dr. Chang") explains to an Initiative employee the importance of preserving the Island's "limitless energy" to allow the Dharma Initiative to "manipulate time". Bam! Revelation! If that's not enough, this whole conversation occurs while a bewildered Daniel Faraday looks on...during a scene in the 70s or 80s. How did Faraday get there, you say? I'm sorry, but it wouldn't be Lost if it didn't have some questions to go with those answers. As the premiere splits pretty evenly after this opening, I too will split up my thoughts.

Let's start with life on the island.

For the first time in a long time, the show makes regular use of a timing place card ("Three Years Earlier") to establish that the adventures of the Oceanic Six (occurring sometime in 2007/8) are taking place a significant time after the events we are witnessing on the island (probably occurring in about January 2005). Interestingly enough, because of the way the flash-forwards worked last year, this essentially means that the narrative retains the split that it bore prior to the end of Season 4, with the island content being the "present" when related to the timeline we had been watching, and the Oceanic Six content being an extended and linear "flash-forward" occurring entirely in the future. Truth be told, though, the timing place cards are soon dropped by the show, as it becomes apparent that they wouldn't mean a thing given what's begun to happen on the island.

You see, apparently Ben Linus' turning of the great frozen donkey wheel of fate in the Season 4 finale caused the island to, for lack of a better phrase, "become unstuck in time". At random intervals, those survivors still on the island experience a white flash and the whole of their reality changes. The camp they had built at the beach? Gone. The Swan station? Blown-up, then rebuilt, then blown-up again. The infamous Boone-killing drug smuggler plane? Bet you didn't know Locke was around to witness it crash did you?

Of course, the rules of this time travel are never very clear. Items the survivors had direct possession of (like their clothes and boat) appear to bounce through time with them, but things like the camp and their supplies do not. One thing that is clear, however (as hinted at in the opening sequence), Daniel Faraday knows a lot more than he is letting on. It is Faraday that explains to an incredulous Sawyer that the Island is skipping backwards and forwards in time (Sawyer does not seem pleased), and also that time is immutable ("Whatever happened, happened.") This dovetails nicely with what little we know about Daniel's background as a physicist and his consistent experimentation regarding time on the island. The fact that last season's "The Constant" ended with the cryptic notion that Desmond was to be Faraday's anchor for time travel (his "constant") also appears to pay off here in what may turn out to be one of the most significant sequences in the run of the show.

Despite warning Sawyer that Sawyer won't be able to meet Desmond in the past because Desmond didn't remember him when they met in Season 2 (stay with me), Faraday pounds on the door to the rebuilt Swan station to discuss the issue with the man himself. In that discussion, he exhorts the younger Desmond to remember those left behind once he's off the island, and to find Faraday's mother at Oxford. Faraday does this, all the while explaining to Desmond that he is somehow incredibly special. In the future, Desmond remembers this conversation in a dream and begins the long trip to Oxford. Just a guess, but maybe the laws of space/time aren't so immutable after all, at least not to one Desmond David Hume (See Pace, Charles). We'll see, but if Desmond can change the past, we may be in for some real twists in the very near future.

While all this is happening, Locke, the island's newly appointed protector, is being bounced around through time like all the rest. Unfortunately for him, he doesn't have the comfort of other travelers alongside him (the "others" to which he was geographically proximate at the time of the first flash do not travel with him, interestingly enough...). In cryptic meetings with a long dead Ethan Rom and an unaged (as always) Richard Alpert, however, we do get to see just how this whole time travel thing can make one look, well, omniscient. Richard, after all, has always looked like he knows exactly what is going on, so when we see Locke say things he simply could not know to a bewildered Ethan, we begin to get a different perspective on just what time travel can do for one's stature. When Richard then gives Locke a compass eerily similar to the one he presented to a young Locke during his boyhood days ("Which one belongs to you?") the pieces begin to fall into place. No doubt this time travel stuff is going to be tricky both for the audience and for the writers, but we sure are going to have fun while it lasts aren't we?

(By the way, if Ethan meets Locke here, well before the crash of Flight 815, why does he not remember him when he joins the castaways in Season 1. I would have to go back and check, but it can't be the case that they were simply never in the same place, can it? And certainly Ethan would remember a person that simply vanished while he held them up at gunpoint, wouldn't he? Unless, of course, something else happened to Locke's body when he "traveled"...)

But island life is only half the story.

Picking up immediately after the Season 4 Finale, the bulk of the action off-island revolves around just three of the Oceanic Six: Kate, Jack, and Hurley. Aaron is, of course, too young to play a major role, and Sayid spends much of the premiere unconscious. Sun has some significant scenes regarding her alliance with "apparent" (big quotes here) series bad Charles Widmore, but overall, the action involves just the big three.

Jack, as we learned last season, has decided to team up with Ben Linus to gather his friends and return to the island, but that goal isn't really moved forward much in the premiere. At episode's end, we still don't know the parameters of his mission (Does he need Desmond? Ben?), nor the reason for it, but we do get a few fun hotel scenes with Jack and Ben suggesting that they could make a mean "Odd Couple" spin-off. There's something to look forward to.

Kate on the other hand, is forcibly knocked out of her idyllic suburban life by the arrival of lawyers (ugh!) working for a shadowy unknown client. When they ask to get a blood test comparing her blood to Aaron's, she does what she does best: she runs. While she eventually contemplates calling ex-fiance Jack for help, she instead jumps at the opportunity to turn to the ever trustworthy Sun, who herself is still smarting over the death of her husband. Though Sun insists that she does not blame Kate for Jin's death, her chilly delivery of the question, "So how's Jack?" let's both Kate and the audience know where Sun feels that the blame truly lies.

Comprising by far the biggest portion of the Oceanic Six's off-island adventures, Hurley's story is mostly one of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. After being "liberated" from the mental hospital by Sayid in last season's finale, Hurley and Sayid make there way to a motel where enemy agents (from Widmore? Ben? Someone else?) are waiting for them. When Sayid is knocked unconscious after killing the two attackers, Hurley is forced to bring his wounded friend to his parent's home. Unfortunately, that home is now being staked out by the cops due to the media seizing upon Hurley's story as that of a mentally imbalanced serial killer. After a series of scenes in which Hurley deals with his parents and the pressure of the Oceanic lie, he is finally approached by Ben to take the journey back to the Island. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on one's point of view), Sayid had earlier given advice to Hurley to do the opposite of whatever Ben says. Seeing no other choice, Hurley runs out of the house and confesses to Sayid's murders.

As has been the case on the series from the start, Hurley plays the role of audience proxy in the Season 5 premiere. From the start of his arc (taking place during the events of the Season 4 finale) he complains about the lie he is forced to tell at Jack's request, pointing out the obvious: that a lie isn't really necessary when the whole freaking island just disappeared. When he breaks down and tells his mother everything (including his confusion over the plot of Season 2) we are right there with him. And when he decides that absolutely anything is better than following Benjamin Linus into battle
we are again right there with him (Ben may be a relatively sympathetic figure as of late, but I don't think we ever really forget that he killed his father and exterminated an entire research team). Hurley has a tough go in this episode, but he is, as ever, the heart of the show.

In the premiere's final cryptic scene, Ben meets up with the cloaked "oracle lady" (who, herself seemingly unstuck in time, most recently informed Desmond that he wasn't allowed to buy Penny that engagement ring in the Season 3 standout episode "Flashes Before Your Eyes") whom he asks about what will happen if he can't get Hurley to join him on his return to the Island. The Oracle's "God help us all" reply is surely a sign of good things to come.

As you can likely tell from this short review, the Lost Season 5 premiere is almost the categorical opposite of the Battlestar Galactica premiere I reviewed last week. Where Battlestar was all about character, Lost was all about plot advancement. What is most interesting about this is that this "flips the script" regarding what most people consider to be the strengths of the two shows. Whereas Lost is usually known for its slow methodical character revelations, Battlestar is more prominently known for its whizz bang action and often breakneck pace. It's a testament to both shows that each is able to so successfully branch out into these other areas.

All things being equal, I would have to say that the Battlestar premiere was a bit stronger than Lost's, if only for the raw emotion of it all, but this comparison is not entirely fair. Battlestar is reaching the end of its run, while Lost is essentially setting up for its version of the same. Talk to me during Lost Season 6 and I might be better able to compare the two shows. As for now, enjoy the ride Lost is giving us. There is no question in my mind that it is one of the best on TV.

Other Interesting Notes:

Stopping the Island-Though the question is raised, we never get a good answer as to just how the island survivors are supposed to stop the random time skipping of the island. It seems likely, however, that the editing of the show gave us our answer, as when Faraday is prompted on the subject, the action immediately shifts to an injured John Locke. If Locke is the only person capable of stopping the island, the question is how? Is it possible that only he can leave the island in it's present condition, and that the sorrowful fate he tells Jack of is, in fact, that those remaining on the island simply can't stop skipping in time? My bet is "no", that the time skip will be solved during the season and that Locke will be able to harness the Island's time travel ability sometime towards some end. Non-aging Richard, after all, appears to be in some control of the time stream, without any negative side effects (that we know of).

Ben and Sayid-Though not specifically elaborated on in the episode, it is clear that Sayid and Ben had a falling out sometime after the hitman version of Sayid was employed to so effectively take out Ben's enemies. Since the last time we saw future Sayid he seemed pretty content to be extracting vengeance on Ben's behalf, it will be interesting to find out just what happens in their relationship to cause him to tell Hurley to "do the opposite" of what Ben says. My guess is that Sayid found out that Ben was responsible for Nadia's death. While we have no proof as of yet, it certainly seems within Ben's "by any means" character, and there is little doubt that Sayid would resent Ben to the utmost if he ever found out.

The Client-Kate's flight from suburban bliss is precipitated in this episode by the arrival of lawyers seeking blood samples for an undisclosed client. Who is this client? Well, the universe of people who know Aaron's truth heredity is really quite small. The universe of people with access to the non-island real world, is even smaller. Though Sun guesses that the person in question must want to seize Aaron for some nefarious end (implying Widmore, at least to the audience), I think its far more likely that Ben or Jack is responsible. After all, Kate was happily ensconced in her McMansion prior to the arrival of the lawyers. What better way to get her to come back to the Island? Since the episode seems to pick up with Jack still very close to his pill-popping days (and thus unlikely to have the capacity to hatch so nefarious a plot), my money's on Ben.

Is Sayid Invulnerable?- One of last year's more intriguing plot lines revolved around the inability of an escaped Michael to kill himself, because (as "Mr. Friendly" tells him) the Island wouldn't let him. Michael certainly seems capable of dying by the time the freighter explodes in the Season 4 finale, however, enforcing the notion that he had some task (or "destiny", if you will) to accomplish before the island would let him die. While Michael's story revolves solely around the idea of suicide, I think its fair to question whether the island can prevent others from dying if they too have a certain "destiny." If Ben is correct and the island wants the Oceanic Six to return, then can Sayid (or any of the other six) be killed prior to fulfilling that destiny? My sense is "no" and that this has something to do with the immutable characteristics of time travel expounded upon by Faraday. If, for instance, the timeline requires a certain person to do a certain action in the past that, in that person's linear existence, they haven't done yet, then the timeline, (aka the Island) can't allow them to die. If this is the case, the question then becomes whether or not Sayid realizes that he is invulnerable. Certainly in his scenes in this episode he fights like an absolute banshee. Whether or not that is because he knows that he is unkillable (or because that's just how TV fights look now a days) is open to interpretation.

Time Travel is Hard- One of the coolest concepts featured in the first season of NBC's Heroes was that show's notion of time travel. Throughout that first season, the main characters of the show would discover some horror either in comic book form or, in the case of character Hiro, by actually visiting the future. The characters would then try to prevent that horror. They would fail and paradox would be avoided. That all changed in the series finale, however, when, instead of blowing up the City of New York, the main characters banded together and changed their fate. This, of course, was silly, as the rest of the season had been predicated on the notion that a future character traveled back into the past to warn the main characters about the explosion. If the explosion never happened, then this character never had cause to travel back in time, and if this character never traveled back then the explosion was never avoided. It was a quintessential paradox, and Heroes' falling for it essentially changed that series' rules. By creating such a cataclysmic motivator for their action, the creators of that show could see no way of resolving their plot line without jettisoning all logic and reason. And it has hurt that show ever since.

Lost, by comparison, seems to have embraced (at least at this early juncture) the difficulties connected to trying to create a non-paradoxical time travel story. As Faraday explains, "Whatever happened, happened." We the audience just may not be privy to what that might have been. And the Island certainly has enough unanswered mysteries in its past to allow the producers some flexibility on this score. Whose to say, for instance, that Jack and Kate didn't end their long lives on the island in 20,000 BC? The fact that the 815 survivors found ancient embracing skeletons in their camp certainly leaves open that possibility. Whether or not the series show runners can stay true to their implicit promise to avoid paradox will be an interesting question. It's no doubt a difficult task, but if anyone can do it, Lost can.

Changing the Rules- Midway last season, Ben's "daughter" Alex was killed by armed forces sent by Charles Widmore. While that in and of itself was not unusual, Ben's response was. During the flash-forward in that same episode, Ben approached Widmore in his London apartment, incredulous that Widmore had "changed the rules." At the time, it seemed that Widmore had simply violated some kind of prearranged Geneva Convention governing the duel for the Island. With the introduction of time travel, though, it now seems more likely that "changing the rules" could have an even more profound meaning. Was Alex not "supposed" to die? Did Widmore somehow change the timeline? Was Desmond the cause? As the producers of the show promised, the pieces are beginning to fall into place, and the results are starting to look mighty special indeed.

"We're the Good Guys"-When Ben detailed Jack's mission at the end of Season 4, we the audience took that mission as our own. But in this episode, Sayid's apparent souring on Ben's leadership once again raises the question of just who the good guys are in this morality play. To be sure, Ben claimed the mantle of "good" when responding to Michael's inquiry at the end of Season 2, but since then we've seen Ben cajole, manipulate, theaten, and (in flashback) commit mass murder. Would it really be so much of a stretch to belive that the producers of Lost have one more major trick up their sleeve. After all, Hurley is generally right about these things. If he is willing to submit to life imprisonment rather than follow Ben, shouldn't we be giving greater thought to just what we know about this man? Maybe at the end of all this, Sun and Widmore will be in the right. I don't think it especially likely, but it is fun to speculate, especially with a show that seems to so revel in these layers of ambiguity.

Memory Issues-While I didn't address it above, one of the other plotlines of the premiere dealt with Charlotte experiencing both a nosebleed and memory loss. While the nosebleed is clearly a call back to the problems Desmond (and the short-lived Minkowski) experienced in "The Constant", there is little evidence here to support the notion that Charlotte's consiousness was bouncing through time like Desmond's in that episode. Instead, she is simply physically bouncing through time like the rest of the survivors (that's normal right?). When combined with the throwaway revalation that she momentarily forgot her mother's maiden name, however, her issues become much more closely tied to Faraday's, who we've seen unable to remember the order of a mere three playing cards (as well as crying inexplicably over the wreckage of a fake Flight 815). While I could only guess at this point as to what the producers have in mind with Charlotte, it seems likely to me that whatever it is, it will have to do with the time travel already introduced on the show and will be primarily for the benefit of the audience.

Think of it this way, Faraday has already explained that time is immutable. In other words, there is but one timeline. If you meet someone in the past, you should remember them when you meet them again (this is the exact explanation Faraday gives for why Desmond can't open the hatch and meet Sawyer; he didn't "remember" him in Season 2). But if a character (like Faraday, and possibly Charlotte) is known to experience significant memory loss, then the "blank spots" in their memory can be new (to the audience) and mysterious meetings which "change" the past (or at least the way we perceive it) can occur. A similar conceit was used in the movie The Butterfly Effect, though admitedly that movie didn't even attempt to maintain a non-paradoxical consistency of timelines.

Cameos of the Dead-With time travel now taking its rightful place at the center of Lost Island, I'd say it's time to prepare ourselves for cameos from many of our dead friends. First among those tonight was the return of long-dead original other Ethan Rom. This was immediately followed by an unexpected cameo from long-dead super cop Ana Lucia, though the circumstances of her appearance are in considerably more doubt. Was she just a figment of Hurley's overworked mind or was she something else?. Either way, it's nice to see familiar faces. Who knows? Maybe someday soon will see Charlie, Eko, Libby, Goodwin, Boone, Shannon, Klue, Patchy, Mr. Friendly, Christian, or anyone else that's passed on during the show's run. Assuming that the producers can keep such cameos quiet, it's going to be quite the season.

Return of the Oracle Lady-Seeing as, in my opinion,"Flashes Before Your Eyes" is one of the highpoint episodes of the entire series, it was nice to see the Oracle Lady pop up again. While many suspected she was significant (she also appeared in photo form in the Abbey in which Desmond tried on monk life for a short while), we never knew how significant until this episode. Judging from her scene and apparent expertise, I think it's highly likely that she is the mother Faraday sent Desmond to meet (and that her scene in this episode takes place at Oxford). The pendulum drawing lines on the floor and the corresponding world map look very much like bearings to me. The fact that this mirrors Faraday's self-appointed task on the island is too much coincidence for me to believe.

The Naming of Dr. Wickman- Dr. Candle/Wickman/Haliwax is Dr. Chang! Now I can finally sleep at night. Seriously though, though it's not independently significant, it's this kind of "fan" service that gives me hope that the the producers of this incredible show truly know what's going on and will answer all (or almost all) of the questions which they have spent the last five years raising.

Not as Flashy-Interestingly enough, though the premiere certainly proceeded at a breakneck pace, something did seem to be missing: the trademark Lost flashes. In a first for the show, the parallel storylines basically moved in linear fashion, without any interuptions for flashes into the past or future of specific characters. While I suspect that this is a long awaited change for some (we clearly didn't need any more episodes discussing the origin of anyone's tatoos), it does seem to change the nature of the show. Where before, Lost stood primarily as a character piece, with often more than half of an episode's running time devoted to exploring the motivations of a given character, the premiere could best be characterized as an action adventure. Admittedly, as I mentioned previously, all of the adventures of the Oceanic Six could be viewed as a kind of flash-forward, but as the characters on and off the island are completely separate, such "flashes" don't give us any kind of greater character insight into the lives of these people. Whether or not this change for the better remains to be seen, but in the meantime it certainly creates a different kind of show.

What are your thoughts? Anything really interesting that I missed? Let me know.

1 comment:

  1. Your comments under "Changing the Rules" provide the most room for interest and speculation. I am eager to see how this time travel plays out and especially how it will impact the return to the island...if they make it there at all.