Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Lost Speculations and Observations: March 2010 Edition

I'll put this out there now: "Dr. Linus" was one of my favorite episodes of Lost, ever. It wasn't a great episode in the sense of "Sundown", which had some intense action scenes and a major plot milestone. Nor was it great in the sense of "The Incident", which had more mythology and revelations than you could shake a stick at. But it was a fantastic hour of television, featuring three compelling stories, some excellent acting, and plenty of food for thought as the "second act" of the final season dawns. ("Sundown", then, was the curtain on the first act.)

One of the best things that "Dr. Linus" did was work as an episode of television. Lost is incredibly broad in scope for a television show. Many shows can afford to produce one-off episodes that don't interact with each other (the litany of CBS procedurals, for example). Some rely on the multi-episode or season-long "story arc" model, like the "Michael Scott Paper Company" run at the end of season 5 of The Office, or the search for fellowship candidates that spanned the entirety of season 4 of House.

Lost does have independent motifs (and therefore unique "flavors") for each of its seasons, arising from the thematic storytelling devices and central groups of characters that I mentioned in my "LA X" post. But often, Lost is so tied up in its overarching premise and cast and mythology that it can't see the trees for the forest. (It's why Lost has never won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series: two episodes extracted from the middle of any given season are going to be downright incomprehensible when watched on their own.) "Dr. Linus" is a part of the "forest" of season 6, and it's clear that it's related to the other "trees", but it's also one hell of a tree if you just consider it by itself.

The reason I think "Dr. Linus" is the best episode of season 6 so far (with the obvious outlier, "Ab Aeterno", subject to a different standard entirely) is that it made me care about the flash-sideways for the first (and so far only) time in season 6. You didn't need to be a Lost fan to appreciate the flash-sideways: it was a neatly contained 15-minute plot with a beginning, middle, and end. It had a few main characters and a couple of supporting characters. It made sense and had a satisfying resolution.

For Lost fans, though, how incredibly rewarding were the contrasts, juxtapositions, and ironies that kept showing up? They wasted no time: Dr. Linus had "Elba" on our screen before even "ABC Studios". A story of a man with absolute power, who loses it when he's exiled, and that exile involves an island? Sound familiar? The same fate befell Widmore in the original timeline, naturally at the hands of Ben. Ironically, it also befell Ben, when he moved the Island. The two stories are mirror images of each other with respect to the role of the island: Ben and Widmore lost their power upon leaving the Island, and Napoleon lost his when he was forced to go to Elba, but in all other respects, they're strikingly similar. It was the first mention of what became the theme of the episode: power, its transience, and its gain and loss. And the recall of Widmore's exile is especially appropriate as he's reversed his own exile by the end of the episode.

The slightly-off parallels to the original timeline didn't stop with Elba. One of the most obvious is also the easiest to overlook: Ben's name. In the original timeline, Ben Linus is usually referred to as "Ben". It's a first name, and a nickname of a first name at that. There's nothing wrong with calling Ben "Ben"—it's not meant to be insulting or demeaning. But it is inherently familiar, colloquial. In the flash-sideways, he's always "Linus" (if not respectful, at least professional) or "Dr. Linus" (obviously an honorific). On the Island, despite Ben's frequent power plays, people he interacts with still see him as a peer or inferior; in the flash-sideways, where Ben has been much less concerned with power (at least until his attempted coup), he seems to enjoy greater respect and formality. It's an especially important distinction in an episode so concerned with power.

In both realities, Ben had prominent relationships with two people: his father and Alex. Ben's interaction with his father is cleverly defined by gas cylinders in both realities, but where Ben poisons his angry and abusive father in the original timeline, he helps take care of his ailing and sympathetic father in the flash-sideways. Ben's relationship with Alex is even more significant; he and Alex have a similar relationship both on the Island and off, one where a childless Ben taken on a familial, fatherly relationship with the teenage Alex. Both realities feature Ben caught up in a power struggle with a man who was once his superior, contesting the organization that both were a part of. In that respect, Reynolds becomes a Widmore surrogate in the flash-sideways.

As things come to a head in each conflict, Ben is faced with a critical decision: submit to the machinations of his hated enemy in order to further Alex, or spite the enemy at the cost of Alex. On the Island, Ben chooses power. He stands his ground, displays a calm fa├žade, and calls Keamy's bluff… and Alex pays with her life. However, in the biggest divergence between the two mostly parallel stories, flash-sideways Ben chooses to relinquish power so he can see Alex benefit. It's a wholly selfless decision, and it's unlike anything that the manipulative, scheming, out-for-himself Ben on the Island has done.

That makes Ben's on-Island actions in "Dr. Linus" even more surprising. It would have been incredibly easy for Ben to have shot Ilana, run off to Hydra island, and probably figured out an angle to work on the Man in Black in the process. Instead, Ben faces his demons, delivers a confession to Ilana, and comes to terms with his role in Alex's death. Incidentally, Ben's affirmation to loyalty to Jacob's side represents the Man in Black's first significant recruitment failure, suggesting that the tide might be turning in the impending war.

When Ben finally opens his heart to Ilana, we see him speaking with more sincerity than he’s ever shown. Ben really was shaken by Alex’s death, and even more so by his role in causing it, but this is the first time when he has no agenda in expressing his remorse over it. In the past, Ben played both sides of just about any conflict he became caught up in with the intent of manipulating them both to advance his own agenda; now, Ben makes a desperate appeal to whichever side will listen. Ilana (who, incidentally, shows for the first time that she actually has feelings) recognizes a reflection of her own plight in Ben’s story: he lost a girl he raised as a daughter, while she lost a man who was the closest to a father she’d ever had. Ironically, it was Ben’s role, direct or indirect, in both of these murders that allowed Ben and Ilana to bond over them.

Is Ben “redeemed” now? That decision rests in the hands of Ilana, who seems to fill the role of Jacob’s next of kin. Is Ben a “good guy”? Tough to say—and I still argue that neither Jacob nor the Man in Black represent absolute good or evil. But Ben is headed down the long path to atonement. His confession to Ilana, and her acceptance of him, is the culmination of Ben coming to terms with his evil acts, a coming-to-terms that started with Ben watching Keamy kill Alex and continued through his own killing of Jacob. It’s also Ben coming to terms with his loss of power on the Island. Ben stood idly while Alex died, and he was manipulated into killing Jacob. He could have seized power for himself again by shooting Ilana. Instead, in a parallel of what flash-sideways Ben does, he voluntarily abandons power for the sake of acceptance and a desire to finally do the wrong thing. It’s a sea change in Ben’s personality, but the era of manipulative, lying, out-for-himself Ben is over.

Ben is not the only character who comes to terms with his loss of power and direction in “Dr. Linus”. Richard faces an existential crisis and becomes the latest in a long line of characters to be de-mythologized. Remember how in the good old days of season 1, Tom Friendly was the most mysterious thing on the Island? Turned out he was merely middle management in the Others. Then, in season 2, the DHARMA Initiative seemed like mysterious past masters of the Island, only to learn in season 5 that they were basically dirty hippies who had less of an idea about what was going on than our people did. Ben Linus quickly fell from master manipulator in the service of Jacob to pawn of the Man in Black. And now, Richard, immortal liaison between the Island and its people, decades-long adviser to the leader of the Others, recognizes that the planned life he’s been living for 60 years or more just got turned on its head.

Learning of Jacob’s death, Richard understandably panics. He rejects an offer from the Man in Black, instead retreating to the Black Rock, presumably where he was “born” as a follower of Jacob. It’s the first time he’s been back there, and it’s a fitting place to return as he now seeks to close the loop and die. Even in his faith-shaken state, to Richard, joining the Man in Black is a fate literally worse than death. (He'll only try to join the Man in Black a few episodes later, after his suicide gambit has failed.)

Richard sees no point in sticking around as Jacob’s man, either, but a couple of kinks show up in Richard’s plan to gracefully exit the Island: first, Jacob apparently doesn’t approve of his chosen committing suicide. And then failed suicides from throughout the Lost saga fall into place: Jack couldn’t jump off the bridge, Locke couldn’t hang himself, even Michael’s gun never seemed to work when he pointed it at himself. “The Island isn’t finished with you yet” actually meant “Jacob isn’t finished with you yet”, though we were hardly ready for that revelation in season 4.

Second, Jack also doesn’t so much approve of Richard’s death. Though this scene was nominally about Richard, to set up the big reveals of “Ab Aeterno”, it was equally as much about Jack and his ultimate conversion to “Man of Faith” status. Would season 1 Jack (or LA X Jack, for that matter) talk this much about belief and destiny and things happening for a “purpose”? It appears that Jacob’s plan that he explained to Hurley in “Lighthouse” worked: sometimes you do have to bring people all the way to the lighthouse and let them figure out their destinies for themselves. Jack didn’t seem anywhere close when he visited the lighthouse, but a few hours of staring at the ocean later, and now he believes.

“Ab Aeterno” finished the de-mythologizing of Richard that “The Incident” and “Dr. Linus” took important steps in furthering. We see Richard’s origin story—at long last—and we learn that Richard is not special, or supernatural (save for the intervention of Jacob), or really mysterious at all. That said, he is a very good man—hardworking, faithful, and pious—who nevertheless faces a difficult moment retaining his sanity after his life appears to cease having any meaning. Jack’s intervention back in “Dr. Linus” saved Richard for a moment, but he has demons yet to confront before he accepts his “purpose” once again.

The first part of “Ab Aeterno”, enlightening as it is to Richard’s story, is hardly good material for discussion because it breaks from Lost tradition and delivers more answers than questions. We now know how old Richard is—if he’s about 30 in 1867, then he was born around 1837, making him 170 years old in 2007. He’s been on the Island for 140 years. We now know how the statue got broken—giant wave plus Black Rock. And we now know Richard’s raison d'etre: his wife, coming to terms with not being able to save her, and atoning for killing the doctor while trying to help her.

That’s where things get a little more interesting to the “observations and speculations” realm. Richard ostensibly is made to choose between the Man in Black and Jacob, but because of their offers, he is really choosing between seeing Isabella again and repenting for his sins (real and perceived) in her death. Richard’s requests that he makes to Jacob when trying to choose which side to join contain some of the most telling lines of the episode, both for Richard’s character and the Man in Black/Jacob conflict.

Everything that Richard requests of Jacob relates directly to his wife. First, he asks to be with her again. Jacob says he can’t do that. Then, Richard asks that his sins be absolved, and Jacob replies he can’t do that either. Finally, Richard wishes for immortality, which Jacob grants with a hand to Richard’s shoulder. Out of context, it seems a spurious request at best and a downright selfish one at worst. But remember what the priest told Richard: he didn’t have nearly enough time to be absolved of the sin for murder. Then Richard’s request of Jacob becomes more about repentance than immortality: he wants to make sure he’s on Earth for long enough to do his penance, even if that takes an eternity.

Jacob’s replies to Richard’s requests are equally as important, describing both Jacob’s philosophy and the extent of his supernatural powers. Jacob says he can’t bring someone back from the dead, and he’s right: one of the core “rules” of Lost is “dead is dead”. But it’s a proscription that comes with about a thousand asterisks. Dead is dead, unless the smoke monster decides to assume your form, or unless Hurley starts chatting with your apparition, or unless you turn up in an alternate timeline very much alive, or any other manner of “coming back from the dead”.

We don't know if Jacob denies this request because he is unwilling or unable to make a dead person appear alive. The Man in Black, though, doesn’t have any such qualms about circumventing the death rule. Most likely, that's because he can so effectively mimic anyone who has recently died. He could pretend to be Isabella all day long—and he did, in fact, pull that very trick on Richard—and nobody would be any wiser.

Next, Jacob tells Richard that he can't pardon his sins. This is both "unwilling" and "unable". Jacob is no god—at least not in the Christian sense that Richard wants him to be, one who can validate morality and make judgments on the immortal soul—he's "merely" some supernatural being with powers over life and death. Even if Jacob could actually do it, he wouldn't have. We know that Jacob is big on the whole idea of "help you help yourself". If he simply told Richard his sins were absolved, then Richard would have no incentive to continue on in Jacob's employ. Instead, Jacob tacitly and implicitly frames Richard's "job" as penance, and Richard is eager to accept the deal.

It's manipulative, but then again nobody ever accused Jacob of being forthright. His tactics and those of the Man in Black repeatedly mirror each other's. The "he can be very persuasive" speech that Dogen gave Sayid was the exact same one that the Man in Black gave to Richard when each was supposed to assassinate the other guy's enemy. And both Jacob and the Man in Black claim to be on the "free will" side of the central philosophical conflict in Lost. It's gone under many different aliases: science versus faith, coincidence versus fate, decision versus destiny, free will versus determinism.

The Man in Black says that Jacob brings you to the Island whether you like it or not, but that he won't involve himself in your life without you choosing to let him in. He has a point. Everyone whom Jacob has touched off the Island made their way to the Island whether they liked it or not. Jacob brought the Black Rock (and most likely other vessels) to the Island presumably against its will. And Jacob argues that no, he's the one who lets you choose your own path, tabula rasa style, while the Man in Black has already decided about you beforehand—and chances are that you're evil. He has a point too. Jacob and his associated faction gladly welcome anyone who can prove they're genuinely interested in redemption and starting their lives over.

It's fitting that Richard has this discussion with Jacob at the statue, because appearances of the statue are almost always associated with big mythological revelations. On the Island, within the setting, the statue is of course symbolic of an old god, presumably worshipped by some ancient Egypt-esque civilization. But in the narrative, the statue is a symbol of mystery, of the unknown, of everything we don't understand about the Island. The "shadow of the statue" is just as much about our confusion as it is about Jacob's residence, and our witnessing the statue's destruction comes at a watershed moment as answers start arriving faster than questions.

While Richard is discussing the terms of his service to Jacob, Jacob also mentions the "cork" analogy. It's a nice piece of imagery, but the important thing to remember is that it's Jacob's spin on the Island, not the gospel truth of what's going on there. The Man in Black would probably argue that Jacob is the cork, keeping him unjustly imprisoned on the Island, when all he wants to do is go home.

A few theories: I've said it before, and I still think that Jacob's presence (and presumably the Man in Black's) on the Island dates from Roman times. The Man in Black mentioned to Richard that he'd been there a long time, even in the 1800's. And even more convincingly, Jacob has a penchant for Latin phrases and names—why call the clearly Spanish Richard "Ricardus"? Why make the Others learn Roman Latin?

Second, it's starting to look like the Man in Black and Jacob are, if not different halves of the same entity, then yin/yang opposing elements of a dualistic pantheon. Here, Jacob has power over life (e.g., granting Richard immortality) and the Man in Black has power over death (e.g., being able to take the form of the dead). Maybe they're the result of one omnipotent power splitting into two—that would explain why the Man in Black accuses Jacob of stealing his body, and why he seemingly has no name.

Third, if I had to guess, I'd say that Jacob's "candidate" business dates from around 1870, when Richard showed up on the Island. It's when Jacob became aware of his own... well, "mortality" isn't the best word, but maybe fallibility. It's around this time that Jacob began taking seriously the Man in Black's threats of killing him, and that prompted Jacob to begin the search for a successor. Construction of the lighthouse soon followed, with Jacob adding names as he identified possible candidates. It explains why there's no "Alpert" in the list of candidates: Richard already had his job when Jacob started his search for a replacement. Also, it explains why Jacob defended himself against Richard's knife attack, but he didn't seem particularly perturbed at Ben's: he knew that the wheels were already turning looking for his successor.

Final note: some people are already calling "Ab Aeterno" the best episode of Lost ever. I disagree—for me, it's still "Through the Looking Glass"—but it was pretty fantastic nevertheless. Being a Catholic, I found that all the talk of sin, penance, and reconciliation had a beautiful emotional resonance, and Nestor Carbonell's facility in playing entirely different facets of his character (English, Spanish, Spanish-accented English; modern times, 1800's; losing his mind to finally coming to terms with his loss) was truly impressive. What do you think? Best episode ever? A letdown? Somewhere in between?

Currently listening: "Come Back Margaret", Camera Obscura

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