February 3, 2010

Lost: "LA X"

"It worked."

If the big mystery at the end of Season 5 was whether or not detonating a hydrogen bomb on the Island would change the timeline, "LA X", the first episode of Season 6, in true Lost fashion did little to answer the question. That's quite impressive given the fact that setting off a nuclear device, I would assume, usually settles most things one way or the other. Not in Lost world.

Now, I had a vested intellectual interest in seeing that the timeline did not reset (see here and "Paradox Prime" below), so the opening sequence of this one, featuring Oceanic 815 circa 2004 NOT crashing on Paradise Island, was basically terrifying for me. You know you're into a show when your thoughts begin to border on the fevered: "Jack's dreaming. That's it. He hit his head on a rock back in 1977 and he's dreaming. It must be a dream, right? I mean Desmond definitely wasn't on that plane. Oh good, it's definitely a dream. Wait, well, wow, that's an odd thing to dream. Why would the island be underwater? Doesn't that mean...? Oh no... LOST."

Never before have I experienced a show like I was watching a live sporting event, rooting for team "Consistent timeline" to beat back the favored "Reboot" squad. Fortunately, despite apparently losing the match-up in the episode's cold open, Lost was able to snatch victory (or at least a tie) out of the jaws of defeat in the very next scene.

That is because the very next scene takes place not on Oceanic Flight 815, but on the Island, probably around 2007. (This is just pure speculation on my part, but I'd be willing to guess that the time travelers are now on the same timeline as Ben, Not Locke, Sun, and the rest. Hence the 2007 date.) The time travelers' plans have failed, though they have time traveled to the present (as I guessed was a possibility last year - hey you have to get it right sometimes). Antics ensue, from a dead Jacob asking Hurley to take a dying Sayid to the "Temple", to the rest of the crew moving parts of the exploded Swan station in an attempt to extricate a mortally wounded Juliet. Despite the randomness of the time jump (which was at least implied by the white flash at the end of Season 5) this is the timeline that I can accept. So what exactly is the deal with the Oceanic 815 footage?

The meaning of the alternate timeline is the real question now. Throughout the rest of the 2 hour premiere we see various flashes to this timeline showing the survivors interacting with each other in new and interesting ways. Boone becomes friends with Locke. Hurley tells Sawyer he's the luckiest man in the world. Sun passes up a chance to save her Husband from the TSA. Kate escapes the U.S. Marshall and hijacks a taxi with a frightened Claire inside. Jack shares a moment with the once-again crippled John Locke. And so forth, and so on. What isn't explained is just what this alternate timeline is intended to represent.

Narratively speaking, I can see how the new timeline is useful: seeing Boone and John interact, remembering Kate as the fugitive she was, seeing Jin and Sun revert to Jin's misogynistic conception of marriage. All these things remind us of the characters as they were back in Season 1, and echo the choices we know they would make on the Island in the future. These echoes resonate for us and give the "primary" proceedings weight. If that was all it was, then we could view these looks at an alternate timeline as being a useful narrative device and nothing more. The alternate timeline would lack importance in so far as it would be a complete fabrication, but it would be similar in its ability to illuminate specific characteristics to the flashbacks used in Seasons 1-3 of the show. All that being said, a useful narrative device is most definitely not all that these views are intended to be. That fact is made clear by Juliet (or rather by Miles).

When a tearful Sawyer finally frees Juliet from her metal prison, she states what is no doubt obvious to Sawyer at the time: "It didn't work." The nuclear device did not reset the timeline, did not save the survivors from their Island-bound fate. As she inches closer to death, however, she tells Sawyer that she has something important to tell him, a message which she fails to deliver before her end. When Sawyer confronts Miles in the jungle and forces him to find out what Juliet intended to say, he says simply: "It worked." The only thing this could be in reference to is the nuclear detonation, the timeline reboot. A fact known by Sawyer, and which clearly puzzles him seeing as he is standing on Craphole Island at the time.

We the audience are privy to something Sawyer is not, however: images of an alternate timeline. Since Juliet claimed that "it worked", in other words, that the nuclear detonation prevented Oceanic 815 from crashing, we know that, in the framework of the story, the alternate timeline is now something real, something tangible. The primary versions of the survivors may not realize what it is yet, but it is most definitely going to influence this final season of the show. How can something both "work" and "not work"? How can a nuclear detonation change the timeline without changing the timeline? Now that's a question worthy of Lost.

Once the show establishes that we will be visiting the alternate timeline on a regular basis, flashback-style, the rest of the episode becomes fairly routine, at least by Lost standards. Hurley leads his crew to the Others' Temple where, after proving themselves with Jacob's Ankh (don't ask), the Others lead them to where they've been stashing a Fountain of Youth. It figures. Unfortunately Jacob's death has apparently limited the ability of the Fountain to do its job, and so Sayid dies, at least until the very least shot of the episode.

All in all, a fantastic night of television, if only because Lost provides what no other show really does: mental stimulation. I love Chuck, and Friday Night Lights, and 24 (mostly), but none of those shows make you think the way Lost does. It's good to have it back, and it will be sad to see it go.

17 Hours remain...

Quick Thoughts

Paradox Prime: Okay, so I know I've been over this before, but I think it's worth doing again. My objections to the concept of a timeline reboot aren't based on the fact that I think it would hurt the characters or because the producers wouldn't be able to find a way to make it interesting. I object because it doesn't make any sense in the world of time travel the show has set up. Putting aside that the entirety of Season 5 was based on the notion of "Whatever Happened, Happened" and that a timeline reboot would betray that notion (despite what a crazed Daniel Faraday has to say), the simple fact of the matter is from a logic perspective, the one thing in a time travel story that can't change, is the thing that causes the time travelers to begin their time traveling in the first place.

In other words, why were Jack and company able to time travel? From a broad perspective, it was because they crashed on Time Travel Island. If, in 1977 they detonated a bomb causing them to not crash on Time Travel Island, how then did they make their way to 1977? And if they don't make their way to 1977 how did they detonate a bomb to prevent themselves from crashing on the Island? It's a paradoxical loop. If they crash on the Island, they prevent themselves from ever crashing on the Island. If they never crash on the Island, they can't prevent themselves from crashing on the Island, and thus crash on the Island. Logic cannot exist in such a scenario. That is the primary reason I was rooting against a timeline reboot, and why I'm willing to accept (for the time being) the effective tie that the show's producers have so far put in place. Time (no pun intended) will tell...

A Hint of Recognition: Okay, so if we are to assume that the alternate timeline is (as Juliet intimated) somehow real, it's worth analyzing the little things that the show's producers have put into these scenes. Most notable to me was the fact that Jack appeared to recognize, in some small way, Desmond Hume when he sat down beside him. Now in September 2004, this would have been the second time he met Desmond (if we are to assume that his encounter with Desmond at the stadium before his wedding would remain unchanged in the rebooted timeline), but I sensed that there was some greater form of recognition there. And, of course, what was the meaning of the welt on Jack's neck? Was it a syringe mark? Had he been drugged? Do the other survivors also have welts on their necks? I really have no idea on this one.

Man of Faith: I thought it was a nice bit of character acting by Matthew Fox when Hurley demanded that Jack help him take Sayid to the Temple. In almost all other contexts I would have expected Jack to rail against the idiocy of that plan and Hurley's talks with the dead, but here, after utterly failing in his attempt to reboot the timeline (as far as he is aware), and after justifiably feeling that he caused Juliet's death, he effectively steps down completely from his leadership position. You can almost see it in his face: "Who am I to argue with Hurley's plan? How has my leadership been any better?" Jack is a completely humbled and chastened man. Perhaps just the kind of man who is finally ready to be redeemed.

Wherefore art thou, Juliet?: Interestingly, falling down a tunnel and detonating a hydrogen bomb with a rock had left me under the impression that Juliet essentially died last year. So when she was alive in this one, I was intrigued, but all too ready for her to be killed off mere minutes after she was re-introduced. Why bring her back at all? I think the show's producers were setting up some strong motivation for a very intense conflict between Sawyer and Jack this year. Clearly the Man in Black is coming for the Others, and I think he's going to be assembling a team of cynical and defeated people to help him. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if Sawyer (or Jack for that matter) winds up on the wrong team, before being redeemed in the end.

Also, I believe they needed someone near death to deliver the message to the audience that the alternate timeline was something tangible. I don't know what proximity to death has to do with perception of the alternate timeline, but it seems important. We shall see.

Pet Cemetery: It goes without saying that a Fountain of Youth that can effectively restore the dead would be an attractive thing for many of the Oceanic survivors. Add to that the fact that we got a very deliberate showing of Juliet's grave in this episode, and I think it sound to assume that Sawyer may just become a man on a mission very soon. Be careful they don't come back changed, Jim.

Two Roads Diverged in a Wood: As I stated above, the alternate timeline provides at least one useful narrative device in so far as it provides the long-term Lost audience with a good way to reflect back on the beginning of the show as it nears its end. Since Juliet's words strongly imply that the alternate timeline is something real, however, the timeline needs to be something more than that as well. For that, I see the alternate timeline as doing one of two things. It will either converge with the timeline we are seeing as the "primary" timeline, leaving the various versions of the survivors in the same position with or without their Island adventures, or it will show that without their journey to the Island the survivors' lives would be left to utter desolation.

If convergence is the game, then notions of fate and predestination come into play. For many years the show has given voice to certain characters' theories that they "are all there for a reason" and that they have a "destiny." If that is the case, then with or without the Island they should all arrive at the same place. The universe has a way of course correcting after all.

If the alternate timeline is meant to show us how the survivors' lives would be destroyed without the Island, however, then my guess is that the device is being used primarily to illustrate the negative ramifications for the world if Jack and company refuse to do what is asked of them by the Island (whatever that may be). In this conception, I imagine that towards the end of the season (or in the finale), Jack (or the survivors as a whole) will be asked to make a choice, between saving the Island and taking on some terrible burden (perhaps becoming the new Jacob, forever bound to the Island and its cosmic significance) or forgetting that any of their adventures ever happened. Not only would this choice illustrate one of the main themes of Lost, that of the importance of free will, it would also allow us to adjudge the ramifications of the "wrong" choice through the use of the alternate timeline.

At this point, my guess (judging by the number of interactions between the survivors at the alternate LAX) is that the timelines will converge, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the opposite.

Little Things Mean a Lot: Again, since we are to assume that the alternate timeline is basically real, the small changes in Oceanic 815 that are not obviously addressed by the lack of an Island may have significant meaning down the road. For instance, how does the lack of an Island change Boone's adventure in Sydney so much that Shannon does not accompany him back to LAX. How, if there is no Island and there are no numbers, does Hurley win the lottery? What was Desmond doing in Sydney and why was he traveling to LAX? Finally, why did Charlie swallow the bag of Heroin rather than just taking a hit? The Charlie we knew from Season 1 was an addict but he wasn't a drug mule and he wasn't suicidal. How does the lack of an Island affect him so?

Time Contraction: This is a very minor observation that is probably as much about keeping the audience from getting bored as anything else, but did anyone else notice how short Oceanic Flight 815 felt. We see Jack experience turbulence (which should put the plane somewhere near Fiji), then be called up to help Charlie Pace (which should have been at or around the time of the turbulence unless he was in the stall for hours). Shortly thereafter, we see Jack return to his seat and the plane is announced as coming up on Los Angeles. Seemed like a short flight...

The Fountain of Youth: I've never liked it when the show delves too far into the mystical, from Miles, Ghosthunter, to Jacob's cabin, but all in all I think the fact that the Others have a fountain of youth makes a modicum of sense. After all, we've been aware for some time that Richard Alpert doesn't appear to age, so the fact that there is something on the Island allowing him to retain his youthful splendor is not altogether surprising. Since we're already expected to accept that the Island (through it's magnetism or what have you) has the power to cure cancer and heal the paralyzed, it doesn't seem too far afield to assume that the fountain is just a concentrated version of that. Now, what does the fountain actually do to the people that are submerged in it? That's an entirely different question. Richard, remember, warned the survivors that if he took Ben to the Temple, Ben would never be the same again. I assume the same is true for Sayid (and did you see the Christ pose he struck as he was being exhumed from the water... I'm just sayin').

Always a Day Late: This has as much to do with keeping conflict on the show as anything else, but isn't it interesting that whenever the survivors have been shown a particularly cool part of the Island's abilities or technology it is inevitably broken down or out of order. Other's communications, submarine radar? Nonfunctional after Desmond turned the failsafe key. Freighter equipment? Saboteur. Frozen Donkey Wheel of Fate? Came off its grooves from Ben's unceremonious handling. And now the Fountain of Youth is running fallow (or at least unclear) after the death of Jacob. The Losties appear to always arrive just as all the cool bits cease functioning.

I See Dead People: Why can Hurley see dead people? I know it's been established for some time, but now that it's definitively not just his latent craziness, what makes him so special? Is this just a matter of some latent Lost-style mysticism (like Miles) or is there something else there?

Ankh You Very Much: So the guitar case that Jacob gave to Hurley at the end (or the beginning, depending on your "point of view") of last season contained a wooden ankh which itself contained some kind of note to the new leader of the Others. The ankh is a fairly common symbol, at least in pop culture, for the kingdom of ancient Egypt, and so should be looked at in the same way as Jacob's living in the foot of what appears to be an ancient Egyptian statue. Is Lost merely a stage for two ancient Egyptian gods to do battle?

Jacob's Last List: What was actually on the note Jacob enclosed in the Ankh? The Other that speaks to the survivors indicates that it says that they need to save Sayid, but I think he was just playing coy with the note's true contents. Just before the Others take Sayid, they make the survivors state their complete names. The Others then go find Sawyer and Miles in the Jungle. Throughout the series we have heard mentions of mysterious lists being created by the Others for Jacob. Presumably these lists indicate who is worthy to be a part of the Others (Cindy the stewardess' name was on one of the first lists, for example). For the longest time we were told that the survivors we were following were not on any of Jacob's lists (this fact was even used by an Other in Season 3 as a reason to not trust Jack before Ben's spinal surgery). The note in the Ankh, I would guess, was Jacob's last, posthumous list, and it contains the names of most if not all of the survivors. Finally, they are worthy to be Others, though I don't know what caused a change in their status, other than Jacob's need to counter the Man in Black.

A Third Faction?: For a while, I was thrown by the presence of the people at the Temple. Their dress did not match that of the Others we had seen in seasons past, nor had their leader been previously introduced. Even more confusing was the fact that Cindy, who was last seen as a relatively happy looking Other, was part of the Temple crew. I was moderately upset by this turn of events, because I thought the show was introducing a new faction at a very late stage of the game. After Kate told Sawyer that the Others (i.e., the Temple crew) were protecting them, however, it all became clear. I had forgotten that these scenes likely take place in 2007, and that both Ben and Locke had effectively abandoned the Others back in 2004 (with Ben telling them to head to the Temple). In the absence of Ben and Locke, the Others must have taken this new person as a leader. These were the Others, just dressed slightly differently, and now having a throughly asian flair.

The "Real" Smoking Man: I think the show has been relatively honest about this since "Dead is Dead" last year, but this episode provides definitive confirmation that Not Locke, the Man in Black, and the Smoke Monster are one and the same. Why the Man in Black acts like a raving lunatic when in Smoke Monster form (throwing himself at sonic walls, and what have you) is anyone's guess. Perhaps more interestingly, what is the implication of having the Island's Prime Evil (as we are clearly meant to see the Man in Black) also be it's agent of judgement? Throughout the previous seasons of the show we had been lead to believe that the smoke monster was judging people's lives by looking into their pasts. Was this actually the case, or was smokey simply sparing those that it felt would be most helpful in its plans to murder Jacob?

Black Rock: A small bit, but worth a mention, Not Locke's telling Alpert that it was nice not to see him in chains, all but confirms that Alpert was an original slave on board the Black Rock back when it crashed on the Island in the 19th century. This had long been hinted at, but it was nice to get some more definitive confirmation.

Locke's Redemption: If anyone got absolutely screwed in the primary timeline, it was John Locke. The man of faith consistently looked to the Island gods to direct him and was time and time lead astray both by his own doubts and the manipulations of Benjamin Linus and the Man in Black. He died not understanding what any of this was about, at the hands of a person who was himself being manipulated by what is an apparently greater evil. If the alternate timeline offers hope for any of the survivors it is John Locke. It was striking to see just how nice and personable he was in his scenes with both Jack and Boone, especially when contrasted with the Island-obsessed survivor type we know he would have become.

E.T. Phone Home: And of course, what is Not Locke talking about when he says he wants to go "home"? The Temple? Tunisia? Egypt? The world at Large? This question will likely have a major impact on events to come.


  1. Well done as usual Rick. I agree that the timelines will converge and demonstrate as Carlton Cuse said in an interview "the consequences of attempting to change the past" Just one additional thought (much like the white was a flash and not the bomb,) maybe Sayid was not revived by the tainted pool at all but is really Jacob like smokey is Locke.

  2. Thanks, Anonymous. I like the thought that Sayid could be Jacob particularly since they were clearly striving for Christian allegory in his exhumation and revival scenes. That being said, if Jacob did return in Sayid's body, it's worth noting that Jacob and the Man in Black would be shown as having very different powers. The Man in Black didn't revive Locke after all, he just took over his shape.