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

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