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

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