Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lost Speculations and Observations: February 2010 Edition

All right, children. Calm down a little; we need to have a chat about "What Kate Does". I've seen what the community has had to say about this episode. That it was "boring". That it felt like "filler". That it "killed" the momentum from the premier. Those things are mostly true. Was "What Kate Does" as good as "LA X"? No, not by a mile. Was it even a good episode by the standards of the rest of Lost's body of work? Not particularly. But is it the second-worst episode of Lost from season 3 on? Not even close.

There are least a dozen episodes that are as bad as, if not worse than, "What Kate Does". We'll start with "Stranger in a Strange Land", which the community really really hates. I only sort of kind of hate it, but I'm not going to defend it as anything close to a good episode. It featured probably the worst casting decision in Lost history and definitely the most useless flashback in Lost history, earning the episode its derisive nickname, the "Jack flying kites in Thailand" episode. "What Kate Does" was substantially ahead of "Stranger" in terms of plot development, character advancement, and details that ended up mattering to the overall tableau of the show. But there they stand, clumped alone at the bottom of that poll, a substantial margin between them and the so-called third-worst episode.

I could go on to talk about "Expose", "Eggtown", and the entire abortion of the "mini-arc" that started season 3, and how they're all phenomenally bad episodes compared to "What Kate Does". But at this point, rather than dig up past skeletons, it's more interesting to talk about why "What Kate Does" was so hated. I can think of three reasons.

First, this is season 6. We're sick and tired of characters knowing more than they're letting on; we're ready for this setting to be open with its information for a change. And although you really can't help but like Dogen, it's a little irritating to hear him tell us about the "infection" as if we're untrustworthy, as if we're immature, as if we can't possibly handle the world-shattering truth that he spouts. The "infection", though peripheral, has been one of the most persistent mysteries on the show, and our being strung along by a character who could clearly answer the mystery—if he deigned to—is getting frustrating.

Second, it's a Kate episode. People dislike Kate. Personally, she's my least-favorite "main character" on the show, and even my friends who are more Kate-tolerant than I am have to think for a little bit before they come up with a character they dislike more. Her "flash-sideways" (as the producers would rather us call the alternate universe) was useless—if anything, Kate is even less likeable in the alternate universe than she is in "real" life. And on the Island? Kate chased after Sawyer a bit, giving the much more interesting and developed Sawyer a chance to steal the spotlight.

Third, and finally, the premier was probably too good for, well, its own good. "LA X" was a fantastically good episode. It had character development, tension, drama, action, intrigue, important mythological revelations, and equally-enticing follow-up questions. And I can't help but think that the relative evaluations of the episodes that follow are going to sag a bit, probably until the putative Richard Alpert episode halfway through the season.

All those factors led to "What Kate Does" (while certainly a weak episode) to be saddled with a legacy that's substantially worse than it deserves. And on the other hand, for all the opposite reasons, "The Substitute" is going to fare much better on the minds of fans than it deserves.

Let's be honest: "The Substitute" wasn't that fantastic an episode until about the last ten or fifteen minutes. The Locke "flash-sideways", aside from giving poor Terry O'Quinn a chance to play Locke again, and again reminding us of the theme that certain people are destined to impact each others' lives, wasn't all that interesting. Man in Black and Richard and the mysterious blond boy in the jungle was just confusing. And Ilana pulled the same crap that Dogen is lately fond of, holding back her information even though she clearly could elucidate a lot of mysteries if she really cared to.

But we had a major mythological development, complete with a wholly satisfying answer to one of the show's most critical mysteries: "why these people, and why this Island?" Does one answer balance out an otherwise unremarkable episode? When it's in season 6, and when the answer is one of that magnitude, apparently the answer is "yes".

So we may as well discuss that answer, because it's clear that it matters—a lot—and there's plenty there to dissect. The list of names scrawled on the cave wall (and more carefully inscribed on the lighthouse compass) read like a “who’s who” of the Island over the last sixty years. The crossed-out names start with Mattingly, the name of a hapless US Army soldier (presumably) killed by the Others back in the Jughead era. They proceed through DHARMA times, with Goodspeed and possibly even Radzinsky, highlight Rousseau's science expedition, encompass a litany of 815 survivors, and even include some freighter folk for good measure.

But there are a few notable omissions from the list. Granted, we haven’t seen the whole thing yet, so maybe these names are around and just hidden. It's odd that there’s no Alpert, no Hume, no Eko, no Lapidus… but my antipathy toward her aside, the most surprising placement of a name on the list is Austen. “The Substitute” made the connection between Jacob touching a person and his or her candidacy explicit through the superposition of flashbacks over the Man in Black’s speech. Locke, Reyes, Ford, Jarrah, Shephard. There’s still the ambiguity surrounding “Kwon”, but regardless of whether it was meant to represent Jin or Sun (or possibly even the longshot Ji Yeon), it seems like Jacob had to touch both to get his selected candidate to show up on the Island.

So if Jacob paid as much attention to his remaining candidates as he did to Kate, where’s the “Austen” on the wall? 51. Not 4, not 8… 51. 51 is a partial sum of the Numbers (51 = 4 + 8 + 16 + 23), but there are dozens of partial sums of the Numbers. Does it matter that Kate is attached to a "lesser" number? That’s a question that needs to be addressed soon, and incidentally, it’s the most interesting thing to happen to Kate’s character in a few seasons. Whatever the answer, it's clear that Kate is still very much in play.

It ties into the deeper mystery of the significance of these candidates. Are any of the candidates "better" candidates than others? Has Jacob identified some as being more loyal, having more potential, or being easier to sway? If so, do these line up with the Numbers that we know and love?

Here's another way to think about it. It takes a little setup, but it's interesting to consider. In the universe that we're familiar with, there is a known set of Numbers (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42). The most recent significance assigned to the Numbers is that they match up with a known set of candidates (Locke, Reyes, Ford, Jarrah, Shephard, Kwon). But that's not the only known significance of the Numbers. They're also the core values of the Valenzetti equation, a mathematical effort born out of the Cold War to try and predict the exact date and time of mankind's extinction.

One of the purposes of the DHARMA Initiative's research was to alter the core values of the equation. As far as we know, they failed. But say there was another reality (possibly even the flash-sideways timeline we've been watching) where that research came to fruition. In this hypothetical reality, the Numbers are now (6, 10, 17, 18, 25, 44). In the known reality, these numbers also corresponded to a set of candidates (including our friend Mattingly). In the new reality, what would the candidate-number mapping look like? Would Locke now be associated with 6, Reyes with 10, and so on? Or would we instead have been following the adventures of Mattingly and friends for five seasons?

In other words, it's a sort of chicken-and-the-egg problem: did Locke, Reyes, and the rest become the "most important candidates" because Jacob aligned them with the Numbers? Or did the Numbers become important because they were the values associated with our survivors? Then again, maybe we only know the Numbers that we know because we know the candidates we know; if we had been following Mattingly and company, we would have seen a surprising prevalence of 6, 10, 17, 18, 25, and 44? Is there such a thing as a "more important candidate" at all?

Yet another intriguing bit from the lists of names is the handful of people not crossed out that we've never heard of. Hansen? Kysea? Who are these people? Are they characters we know, and just don't know their last names? (Ilana could very well be one of them.) Characters we're yet to discover?

For its recency in insertion into the Lost mythos, the candidate list is nevertheless very important. It raises a few questions that are notable to the mythology as a whole, and particularly central to season 6. First, hitting on the motif of free will versus determinism: what does Jacob’s touch really mean? Is it, like the Man in Black alleges, tantamount to the destruction of free will and an invisible though irrevocable shove toward the Island? Or is it merely an assurance during a crucial juncture in a life?

Second, and even more important: does the Island really need protection? Does it deserve it? Will bad things really happen if Jacob doesn’t crown a successor? Or is Jacob just using the Island as a laboratory to conduct experiments on the human condition? As grave as these questions are, Lost would be far better served by not answering them. Proponents of Jacob and proponents of the Man in Black can have this argument now. By the end of the show, both sides will be armed with better facts and more compelling reasoning, but the mythology deserves to retain as much of that ambiguity as it reasonably can.

Currently listening: "Jewel to Sparkle", The Juliana Theory

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Salsa Connoisseur: Happy Jackal Hell-Fire

Yep, I admit it: I bought this salsa just because it was called "hell-fire". There's a howling jackal who's on fire on the lid (he doesn't look too "happy" to me...), and if the whole message was still lost on you, the burning jackal is sitting at the middle of the sun. So I was prepared for this salsa to be maybe a little on the warm side. I don't mind a salsa that has heat as its main focus as long as it at least pays to lip-service to flavor too.

It's a fresh salsa, so it starts off with a few points in my book. It's also organic, which is cool if you're into that sort of thing.

Texture: pretty excellent. Small bits of peppers and more peppers and garlic in a slightly-thicker-than-water tomato base. A nice, uniform layer sticks to the chip--no gloppy chunks of tomato or onion, but not so thin that it runs off either.

Heat: oh goodness, hot. Not the hottest salsa or hot sauce I've ever had, but it's up there, and it might very well be the hottest fresh salsa I've ever had. Does not relent--starts hot and stays hot even after you've finished your chip. And you'll feel it all throughout your mouth. Plenty of jalapeno and habanero action in there.

Flavor: overwhelmingly garlicky. It has the scent you might expect of a Maggiano's built on the Yucatan. If you try really hard, you can pick out the scent of cilantro (purportedly the second ingredient... right) and cider vinegar. The taste is a brick wall of garlic and capsaisin that desperately needs something else to balance it. In Chinese cooking, garlic and chiles are both yang foods, and we could really use a little balancing yin in the form of more tomato or vinegar.

Available at Berkeley Bowl; a 10-oz tub was $2.89 (29 cents per ounce). Probably available at other California locations; I doubt you're going to find it outside the greater Bay area because it doesn't make sense to ship fresh salsa too far.

Recommended if you're in the mood for a very hot fresh salsa. Stay away if you prefer milder salsas, and don't get anywhere close if you're not a garlic-phile.

Currently listening: "Sherry Fraser", Marcy Playground

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Reaction to xkcd 703, "Honor Societies"

Here's an idea: how about you stop being such a stuck-up douche, join the damn honor society like all the rest of your peers, and try to make the most of it. I understand the honor society situation is really just a lead-up to the tautology joke, but it exposes an ingrained and infuriating pattern that's shown up in some recent xkcd comics.

I have very little patience for this sort of xkcd. The Holden Caulfield-esque, "let's pretend we're precocious even though we're really just rebellious," "I have noticed an inconsistency in the system, therefore I am allowed to flout the system," "I am so extraordinary that the rules do not apply to me" mentality is tiresome at best and dangerous at worst.

But it's with this mentality, and characters who have this mentality, that loyal xkcd fans identify best. It's especially prevalent among xkcd's high school characters, and therefore the high school fans of the comic. 519, "11th Grade" strikes me as an egregious example. I've made my feelings toward 588, "Pep Rally" abundantly clear. There are probably others.

As I mentioned in my discussion of "Pep Rally", teaching math and science and history and language is but one of the tasks of primary and secondary education. The other, equally necessary, side of the coin is to socialize. The education system is as much about preparing children and adolescents for their careers as it is about preparing them to exist in society, to follow the same norms and mores as those around them, to sign the same social contract as everyone else they'll be dealing with once they're out in the "real world".

The characters in these xkcd's don't seem to have gotten the message yet. The behavior of these xkcd characters, and those hypothetical high schoolers who act the same way that these characters do, only reinforces the need for that socialization. Granted, rebellion is an integral part of the teenage experience. Virtually every teenager rebelled against something at some point in their teenage years, some more aggressively, or loudly, or destructively, than others.

And virtually all of those rebellions were ultimately fruitless. That's an important part of both socialization and the teenage experience as well: gaining the understanding that just because you find fault with something doesn't mean it's without value. It's a lesson that xkcd would do well to learn.

Currently listening: "Born for This", Paramore

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Lost Speculations and Observations: LA X Edition

Every season of Lost has had two iconic, overarching motifs: the first and most important is a unique storytelling device. The first three seasons told the survivors' stories by flashbacks, and while flashbacks have persisted through the fifth season, the pre-island stories of Jack and Locke and Kate and all the rest were just about finished. In season four (actually, at the tail end of season three), we were introduced to the flashforward, and season five gave us time travel and parallel timelines.

These devices weren't arbitrary. In Lost, as in any great story, every single detail has a meaning. The season one flashbacks have the comparatively mundane task of acquainting the audience with the characters; the flashbacks in seasons two and three emphasized the characters' prior relations before coming to the Island, resounding the Lost theme that certain people are destined to be connected to each other. Season four's flashforwards continued that same theme, raised another: that the events on the Island have implications that reach much farther than the South Pacific, and subtlety hinted at all the time travel we'd be seeing a season later. Finally, the time travel in season five fulfilled functions both narrative (to tell the story of the DHARMA Initiative) and thematic (that the conflict on the Island is bigger than any single era).

The second iconic motif is the central group of characters. In season one, almost all of the action revolved around the middle-section survivors of Oceanic 815, and season two introduced us to the tail-section survivors. Season three told us about the Others. Season four was the freighter people, and season five introduced us to the DHARMA personnel we'd heard so much about over the past few seasons.

As early as the premiere, it's obvious to see that the storytelling device du jour in season six is an alternate reality, where Oceanic 815 landed safely and all the former castaways got on with their lives. (Or, who's to say there's only one alternate reality? There could just as easily be dozens.) Previous seasons have opened with an eye opening; the first thing we see in season six is an airplane window, an eye of sorts, a means of looking out at a world that is not quite the same as what we've been accustomed to. That's fitting for the alternate universe. When we're back on the Island, in the superficially "real" universe, it's back to an eye opening. That sets the tone for the entire season: the deliberate juxtaposition of two realities, one we know, and another that's similar to what we know but speckled with a few sharp contrasts.

The thematic significance of this storytelling device is much trickier to pinpoint so early in the season, however. Is it going to be an elaborate validation of "whatever happened, happened"? That is, are we going to see the same sorts of character developments and interactions that we've already seen, and is course-correction going to be able to steer the characters' lives in the same directions as they went on the Island? Might we see instead an exposition on destiny; a reality where our characters' lives are significantly worsened because they never made it to the Island like they "should have"?

Contrarily, we have absolutely no idea who the central group of characters is going to be. Early rumblings and speculation wondered if it might be Bram and Ilana's mysterious Jacob fan club, but our old friend the smoke monster pretty well put that to rest less than an hour into the premiere. I'd lean toward the simple and elegant: that our "central characters" are going to be Jacob and his nemesis, white and black, progress and stagnation, optimism and pessimism. (But not ever "good and evil".)

Yes, we do need to talk about Smokey. The big reveal of the Man in Black's masquerade as the smoke monster (or is it the other way around?) gave us the biggest mythological revelation of the season so far, and it may well continue to hold that distinction for the next several episodes. We even got a glimpse of the Man in Black's history with Richard; apparently the last time the two of them interacted is when Richard was "in chains". Are those literal chains, suggesting that Richard was at one time a prisoner or slave? Or is he being figurative and comparing Richard's dedication to Jacob and the Island to servitude?

In classic Lost fashion, every revelation is actually a litany of follow-up questions in disguise: is the Man in Black actually Christian Shephard? Yemi? Dave? Kate's black horse? What (if any) are the limits to his power? Why does DHARMA's sonic fence stop him? Does it stop only the smoke form, or the human form as well? Does it work in a manner similar to the circle of ash? How much does Jacob know about all this? Does (did) Jacob have a handy alternate form too? Where is "home"? Did Jacob being alive present an obstacle to his going home? Not all of these questions will be answered—the domain of season six is not explaining the mechanism of various means of restraining the smoke monster. But it is resolving the plots and conflicts surrounding our main characters.

Lost is and has always been a show about the characters, so the greatest success of the alternate universe is the contrast it provides between the characters' personas. We see a direct juxtaposition of 2004 vs. 2007, LAX vs. Island, season 1 vs. season 6. And it was surprising to look back and remember just how much the Island had changed people. Some are subtly different, if at all; others are entirely new people—and mostly better people, at that.

The biggest changes came from Sawyer and Sun. When we first met Sawyer, he was a charismatic con man, superficially charming but entirely lacking a moral center. But his time on the Island gave him an entirely new direction. The alternate universe highlights two of the biggest differences between the "Sawyer" side of James Ford and the "LaFleur" side: he's a shameless flirt pre-island and a passionate lover post-island; and more significantly, while he defies the law pre-island, he is the law post-island.

Sun has also found a sense of self after living on the Island. On 815, she's a submissive and obedient wife to an overbearing husband. But on the Island, she's insightful and gutsy—not to mention a loving partner and mother. Jin, for his own part, has become dedicated to his wife rather than his perception of a proper marriage, not to mention becoming a trustworthy friend rather than an aloof stranger.

We saw a "return to form" for other characters as well. Kate is back to being the vengeful outlaw. Locke is something of a special case as we haven't seen the real John Locke for half a season, but compare the timid, wishful-thinking Locke on the plane to the self-assured, spiritual Locke who led the Others, and the distinction is profound. And while Jack is still the man-of-science spinal surgeon, the "Dr. Fix-it" urge seeming to be as much a part of Jack's essence as his brown hair, this Jack isn't about to spout any lines about destiny, much like he was hesitant to do through the entire first half of Lost.

While most characters have "reverted" to their pre-island personalities in the alternate universe (and a few, like Sayid and Claire, we haven't seen enough of to know), there are the characters whose presence or personalities were entirely off of what they should have been. Desmond should never have been on the plane but was. Eko, Libby, Michael, and others should have been on the plane but weren't. Hurley's personality is the same blissfully-ignorant as ever, but him being the luckiest man alive strikes us as deeply wrong. Maybe other characters have had stark contrasts to their personalities as well, and we just haven't experienced them yet.

All of this (except for Hurley's newfound chi, which at least for now sticks out like a sore thumb) does so far seem to be a ringing endorsement of both the reset and course correction. In this existence, where Jughead was detonated (and the Island apparently sunk to the bottom of the ocean to hang out with miserably-animated CGI sharks), the characters don't know each other. But those bonds are already starting to re-form, and by the middle to end of season six, I fully expect Sawyer to regain his LaFleur-like bearing, Sun and Jin's romance to rekindle, and John Locke to assume his mantle as confident man of faith.

Back on the Island, a interesting new motif has developed over the last two episodes: the divorce of the spiritual form from the physical body. We've actually gotten hints of that motif for a long time now: Hurley and Miles have been speaking to the dead, and even the whispers suggest the idea of out-of-body consciousness. But now we have explicit confirmation that the "man in black" entity can take on both human and incorporeal forms. Jacob's direct and immediate appearance to Hurley after his own death reinforces the motif.

Then there's the question of Sayid. Is he, too, now a body divorced from its spirit? There are at least four possibilities here:
—The Sayid whom we know is dead; the Sayid that stood up at the end of “LA X” is actually the Man in Black, making him the new John Locke;
—The Sayid whom we know is dead; the Sayid that stood up at the end of “LA X” is actually Jacob, making him the equal and opposite John Locke;
—The plan to heal Sayid worked like it was intended and Sayid never died; or
—Sayid did die but was restored to life by the Island or some other unknown agent or mechanism.

Despite the blatant hints that “The Incident” and “LA X” screamed about corporeal/spiritual disjunction, the third possibility is most likely. Though the first and second possibilities have mythological potential, they don’t work from the standpoint of the narrative. Lost is a show about characters. Having one of our beloved original characters die and be replaced by a mysterious superhuman entity strained the character-driven nature of the setting enough. To have the same thing happen to a second, equally as significant character would be disastrous.

The reason that I say the plan to heal Sayid did work comes from the reactions of the Japanese Temple dude (apparently his name is Dogen) and his merry swashbuckling band. At first, they were a split second from shooting Jack and Kate and Sawyer; when they opened the magic ankh and read Jacob's secret message, they instantly and completely became convinced that shooting our survivors was a very bad idea. "We're all in trouble" if Sayid dies, proclaims Japanese pirate's bespectacled translator (evidently called Lennon). And suddenly, it was in everyone's interest to heal Sayid.

Why, then, were Dogen and Lennon so dispassionate when it appeared to everyone else that Sayid was dead? Simple: they knew he wasn't. Or perhaps it was a test; Sayid really would have died if Jack hadn't attempted to save him. Then, Sayid's healing became the product of both Jack's resuscitation and the time in the spring; a product of science and faith.

Faith is of course a necessary prerequisite for any Temple. And this one doesn't want for any religious images. Its architecture is Mesoamerican, bearing particular resemblance to the temples at Tikal. If you look especially closely, you can see a Hindu icon in one of the niches on the exterior of the temple. This being Lost, Egyptography is everywhere. Dogen strikes me as rather Zen (although his readiness to have his men shoot people is far from Buddhist). And of course, the spring in the middle of the Temple interior mirrors a baptismal font, an essentially Judeo-Christian installation. "We can take him there", Richard Alpert tells Kate about young Ben, "but he'll never be the same," promising a figurative rebirth in that font of water.

Now it appears that we're headed for a confrontation at the Temple, and it seems fitting that it pits Jack, man of science, against an intractable enemy taking the form of Locke, man of faith.

Currently listening: Highly Refined Pirates, Minus the Bear