February 18, 2009

Lost: "316"

"We're not going to Guam, are we?"

Well, that was unexpected.

Despite the fact that I generally know better then to guess at where Lost is going in the long run, I really felt I had this whole Season 5/Season 6 thing worked out. Season 5 had to be about getting the Oceanic Six back to the Island. It had to involve different missions taken on by Jack and Ben to convince the Six to come back together. It had to find the Six back on the Island, probably mimicking the results of the original crash, and feature a major character saying something like "we're back" to mirror Jack's cries from the end of Season 3. So far, so good, right? Except for one small additional fact: the return had to happen in the Season 5 finale.

What then do I make of the producer's move to put the Six back on the Island so soon into this young season?

In a word: Genius.

First, the negative. The rapid return of the Oceanic Six would seem to undercut the importance of the show's fourth season. If the Six were going to return to the Island so soon after they left, why were we made to spend an entire season (more if you count the end of Season 3) establishing the epic nature of their flight to freedom? It seems like wasted time in retrospect. The fact that the Six even left the Island seems like it may be little more than a footnote in the history of the show before too long. A footnote that took a full season and some episodes to resolve.

With that small bit of negativity weighing on the proceedings, why then do I still think of the episode as "genius?" First, it truly was unexpected, at least by me. I mean who really thought the Six (minus one) would make it back to the Island so soon. With the mission of what I thought to be an entire season accomplished in little over a month, the possibilities for the remainder of the year seem endless, and that's a really good feeling to have about one's favorite show.

More importantly, at least to the standing of this particular episode, the producers did something really smart. By embracing the ridiculousness of the episode's premise (and really, if this was always the way the Six were going to return it was going to be at least slightly ridiculous) the producers were able to grapple with the very same questions of faith vs. reason that so fueled the show during Season 2.

Let's face it. The "plan" in this one is ludicrous. The Oceanic Six are told that in order to make their way back to the Island they must recreate (at least some of) the circumstances of Flight 815. This includes bringing a dead body (Locke as proxy for Christian) and, as if to add insult to injury, making that dead body seem as much like its Oceanic 815 counterpart as possible. As Faraday said in last week's episode, when it comes to the return of the Six, the show is really leaving the science behind.

But unlike other episodes of the show, where otherwise smart characters (like Jack...most of the time) ignore the very reasonable questions that would flitter through the mind of any sane person in the same situation, here the very theme of the episode is the "leap of faith" being asked of the Six, particularly Jack. Neither Mrs. Hawking nor Ben give Jack or any of the other Flight 815 survivors any reason to believe in the power of Locke's corpse. Or further, why in the world that same corpse having Christian's shoes should in any way impact their fate.

It is this very lack of information that so noticeably distresses Jack (who had, until this point, jumped into the "faith" pool with both feet) throughout the course of the episode, pushing him to the point of scrounging for booze in his darkened apartment (though thankfully Ms. Austen proved to be a more alluring alternative). When combined with the notions of providence that are introduced into the mix (Jack just so happens to stumble into a pair of his father's shoes shortly after being told that he will need such an item in order to make the trip), it's no wonder that he begins to lose it.

But Jack's doubt is the very reason why so ridiculous a plot line actually works to the benefit of the show. Had Jack, and Sun, and Hurley, and the rest simply embraced "the crazy", the creakiness of the premise would have been exposed for the world to see. But instead, by having the show's main character (and audience proxy) balk at what's being asked of him, the show is able to turn a liability into an asset.

As I said: Genius.

Now, in no way am I trying to excuse the episode for being, well, rather mechanical in its attempt to get the point across. In one of the episode's more clunky scenes, the writers have Jack verbalize his doubts to Locke's corpse. Scenes where one person essentially talks to themself are always difficult, but at least here, the show somewhat earned the monologue by earlier showing Jack as tortured by the ridiculousness of the task at hand. Another scene, again with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, features Ben all but calling Jack a "doubting Thomas" as he relates the tale of the famous Christian apostle. These are not the episode's high points, but (and I'm sure Locke would approve) they all work together to serve a greater purpose.

As a result, the fact that the scenes in this episode are somewhat clunky does very little to dissuade me from my belief that the episode is one of Lost's best. Very rarely does episodic television (or mainline movies) deal with the nature of what it means to have faith, particularly in this most metaphysical of contexts. Lost has grappled with this territory quite often during its run, and each time I think the message it tries to deliver is a bit more focused and a bit more powerful. While you'll see below that I am of two minds about just how "mystical" I want my Lost, I think that, without a doubt, "316" is a step in the right direction.

My Quick Thoughts:

Echoes of the Past - This episode features a very provocative opening, with Jack appearing in the jungle much as he did way back in 2004. While this was no doubt the reason that the show's producers elected to include the sequence, I do wonder about whether or not the loss of tension in the plot was worth it. I suppose since we knew that the Six were going to make it back to the Island one day that it wasn't a huge reveal, but it did pretty clearly establish that they'd be making it there in this week's installment.

Lost hasn't used the "X hours/days/weeks earlier" conceit as much as some other shows I could name (cough...Galactica), but I have always thought that if it isn't used for a very specific reason (giving a glimpse of the characters in a chaotic situation, for instance, and showing how they got from some tranquil starting point to their own personal mayhem) the use of the device runs the risk of taking all dramatic tension out of the proceedings. In this one, the vision of Jack's arrival on the Island served no real purpose save to provide a nifty callback opening. I suppose one could argue that it also served to add a sense of importance to the rest of the episode, but that all seems pretty artificial at the end of the day doesn't it?

Raised by Another - As far as intrigue goes, there is little that could match the words of warning Kate gives to Jack when he asks about Aaron's whereabouts. What happened to the little guy? Did Kate give him away? Was he taken from her? Were Ben's lawyers waiting for her when she got home (or to wherever she was going)? And what is Aaron's importance in the grand scheme of things, anyway? The psychic that Claire visited so many years (and seasons) ago was pretty specific on that point. Or is that simply another plot line that fell down the memory hole to sit alongside mentions of Walt's "special" abilities?

Lamppost Station - So the Dharma Initiative wasn't limited to setting up Octagonally marked base stations solely on Skipping Record Island. And somehow the Initiative knew of the Island's existence before they had ever been to the Island itself. Hmmmmm...could a post-Island Charles Widmore somehow be responsible for the whole Initiative project?

Neither the Time nor the Place - Is it just me, or does the scene in which a tearful Kate throws herself at a booze-ready Jack seem more than a little bit out of place? I mean, as far as we know, Kate has either just given up Aaron or had him forcibly taken from her. And Jack, he's having so many doubts that he's ready to turn back to drink. Yet despite this, both are apparently in the mood to do a little something extra. Struck me as odd. I'm sure we (or the show's writers) could justify it in the "two desperate people, desperately clinging to one another" school of character motivation, but it just didn't feel right to me. Anyone else?

John 3:16 - "And God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son..." It would be hard to have a discussion of this episode without making note of the most obvious element of its religious symbolism. While the show has occasionally delved into Christian theology in the past ("Christian Shepard" anyone?) rarely has it name checked anything as well known as this perhaps most famous of Bible passages. In the greater scheme of things it's difficult to put the verse in context within the whole of the show. Is Locke intended to be Jesus? Ben, Judas? Jacob, God? My guess is that no so literal interpretation was intended. Instead, the show's producers likely simply wanted to highlight the theme of sacrifice that was at the core of Locke's mission, and do so in a way that highlighted the concept of faith in a broader context.

Guitar Hero - Though we are never explicitly told how Hurley winds up booking some 70 odd tickets on Flight 316 (a really nice touch by the way, showing Hurley as someone who is trying to save as many people as possible from death or Island doom), we are given a rather big hint in his carrying of a guitar case throughout the episode. Don't we know someone who was good friends with Hurley and prominently carried a guitar? Hmmmm...I can only guess as to why Charlie would have asked his friend to return his guitar to the Island (or maybe it was necessary to "recreate" the circumstances of Flight 815), but I think it's clear that that he paid another visit to our favorite cursed lottery winner. This of course raises the question of who or what Hurley's ghost visitors really are. If they have real outside knowledge of current events (such as the location of the Island and the flight that passes through the window necessary to get there), then they can't simply be figments of Hurley's imagination. Are they truly spirits from the beyond? Smokie somehow made manifest off the Island? The Head Cylons from Battlestar Galactica? Time will tell.

Ben's Enemy - As an intriguing aside to the main events of the episode, Ben is forced to ask Jack to recover Locke's body due to the fact that Ben was otherwise incapacitated running an errand the night before. We are never told what the errand was, though we get to see the byproduct of its completion in Ben's bruised and battered face. What happened? Since I think that Hurley's guitar case basically answers the question of how he found his way onto Flight 316, I think the answer to Ben's injuries lies with the remaining mystery guest on the doomed flight: Sayid. When we last saw Mr. Jarrah prior to the flight, he was busy abandoning Operation Island for parts unknown. When we next see him, he is in the custody of what we can only assume is a U.S. Marshall (though why he would be being extradited to Guam is a mystery). My best guess is that Ben somehow framed and called the cops on Sayid before "detaining" him until he could be taken into custody. There is no question that Sayid could have inflicted the physical harm we saw on Ben's face, the only question is why he wouldn't have finished the job if given the chance. Maybe the Island is protecting more than one ex-Island inhabitant...

Now I'm Bathed in Light - I think the most interesting decision the show's producers made in this episode is with respect to the actual mechanic that puts the Six (minus one) back on the Island. Flight 316 doesn't really crash per se, its simply that the Six experience a white flash and arrive on the Island (in Jack's case in a circumstance almost identical to the one he found himself in after Flight 815). The whole thing takes on the feel of the divine, dovetailing nicely with the theme of questioned faith pervading the entirety of the episode. Still, what makes a good theoretical discussion on the show (the concept of faith) does not necessarily make a good plot point. Are we just to assume that the hand of God returned the Six to the Island? Is Mrs. Hawking's previous statement that the universe has a way of "course correcting" to be taken as literally true?

I like the mystical elements of the show as much as the next guy, but only in so far as they can be serviced by the very real rules that the show's producers have so far put down. That's what makes the show's slavish observance to the "closed loop" theory of time travel so interesting. If the whole of the show winds up being encapsulated in Faraday's previous warning to Charlotte that we were going to "leave science behind" I am going to be mighty disappointed.

A Score to Remember - In truth, I have very little to add on this point, I simply wanted to make mention of the absolutely wonderful score put down by Michael Giacchino in this one. A beautifully themed score is a weakness of mine, and I will generally feel quite differently about a show or movie with excellent musical themes than I will about one with without. As a matter of fact, the Lost score is perhaps one of the first things that I really loved about the pilot back in 2004. As in the past, the producers of the show really let Giacchino soar in this one, particularly in the scene where we get to see the faces of the Six (minus one) taking off on fated Flight 316. It without doubt adds an air of gravitas to the proceedings, really heightening the notion that "epic things" are afoot.

Future Imperfect - With the presence of the Ajira water bottle in the longboats earlier this season, we can now be all but certain that the Island's time travelers found themselves in a post-Flight 316 future during the events of "The Little Prince". This leads to the inevitable question of why the survivors of Flight 316 were shooting at the fleeing Islanders. Were they simply mad about the stolen boat? Do the non-Oceanic Six members of Flight 316 harbor some grudge against the current Islanders, or perhaps a deeper connection to the Island? One thing's for sure, given the fact that the show's producers love to "loop" time to show us known events from different perspectives, we can be pretty confident that we will again see the boat chase, this time from the other side.

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