Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Lost Speculations and Observations: It Only Ends Once, Part Four

To conclude my discussion of Lost, I'd like to give another retrospective, this time talking about my favorite episodes of the show. Two themes I've noticed are that these episodes are either ones that fundamentally changed our notion of what was going on, what to expect, and how to interpret what was going on, and/or they're ones that provide intense and satisfying moments for some of the show's greatest characters. In order of original airdate:

"Walkabout", season 1 episode 4, John Locke flashback

"Walkabout" was the first truly great episode of Lost. The Pilot was what got us hooked, but it was necessarily more expository than narrative. "Tabula Rasa" got the ball rolling with the character-centric format that would carry more than three quarters of the show, and its title foreshadowed one of the most important philosophical debates that the show tackled... but it was after all a Kate episode.

But with "Walkabout", we get the first iconic centric episode. In the same way that "The Man Behind the Curtain" is essential Ben, "The Constant" is essential Desmond, and "The Long Con" is essential Sawyer, "Walkabout" is the defining John Locke moment. It also offered the first big twist of the series, when we find out that Locke used to be in a wheelchair.

At the same time, it showed the first Island miracle: John Locke's healing. Until "Walkabout", the Island was dangerous, and the undercurrent of each discussion was the hope of rescue. "Walkabout" dared to introduce the possibility that the Island was beautiful, and it added an element of purpose and destiny to the conversation. In doing so, it began the exploration of science versus faith, coincidence versus fate... and Jack versus Locke.

"Through the Looking Glass", season 3 episodes 22 and 23 (season 3 finale), Jack flashforward

"TtLG", as it has come to be known, is the pinnacle of Lost, its pièce de résistance, the first-among-equals in a collection of excellent episodes. Just when everyone had thought Lost was settling into a routine, just when we were comfortable assuming that the series finale was going to involve these people finally getting rescued, the entire directional temporality of Lost gets turned on its head.

In one fell swoop, we learn that there was (or is, or will be, or will have been) a rescue. Even though we don't end up seeing the rescue itself until the end of season 4, it becomes immediately clear that there is life beyond the rescue. And even more shockingly, that off-island life isn't exactly the fulfillment that that survivors of Oceanic 815 thought it would have been.

We finally understand why that is: as Jacob pointed out in his fireside chat, he brought those people to the Island because they needed the Island as much as the Island needed them. The quest to find a purpose--for all the castaways and especially for Jack--becomes the cornerstone of the next half of the show.

And that's not even to mention all the rest of the episode that often gets overshadowed by the brilliance of the flashforward. Charlie's heroic death. Alex meeting her mother. The culmination of the "us versus them" conflict of the survivors of 815 against the Others. Hurley's DHARMA van "moment"... and that's barely scratching the surface.

"The Constant", season 4 episode 5, Desmond flashback

"The Constant" is probably the biggest cliche of "best of Lost" lists. Practically every one you see has glowing praise for this episode, so before I committed it to my own list, I decided to go back and re-watch it, to make sure it was as brilliant as everyone says it is and as I remember.

Don't worry, it is... but here's the thing about "The Constant". The plot is basically irrelevant to the macro-story of Lost. Sure, we see some advancement of the freighter story line, and we see some development of Keamy as a villain. But mostly the plot deals with some pretty esoteric stuff: the time discrepancy on the Island? Faraday's 11-hertz oscillator? Eloise the rat's nosebleed? Even Desmond's consciousness traveling through time, which looked like it might become an important installation, didn't pay off until the second half of season 6.

"The Constant" was light on mythology too. The auction scene established some tenuous connection between the Hanso family, the Black Rock, and Charles Widmore, but that was pretty much it. Finally, for a show so ostensibly focused on characters, the only main characters besides Desmond that did much of anything were Sayid, Charlotte, and Faraday.

In short, this episode has no apparent reason that it would be any good, and it doesn't have a "turn the perception of the show on its head" moment like "Walkabout" or "TtLG" did. Why was the episode so beloved then? Simple: the Desmond-Penny relationship is one of the most sincere and inspiring ones in the show. The writing, acting, music, and editing all come together beautifully, especially in the climactic phone call scene at the end, to create the most genuinely emotional moment in the entire series.

"Jughead", season 5 episode 3, Desmond flashback

If "The Constant" is the biggest cliche of my top five list, then "Jughead" has to be the biggest surprise. It's admittedly a little esoteric too: let's watch Locke and Sawyer traipse around 1954 and run into a hydrogen bomb? Uh, okay. But unlike "The Constant", and much like "Through the Looking Glass", "Jughead" is instrumental in changing the way we look at time and its passage through the story.

Prior to season 5, our understanding of the timeline was discrete and simplistic: our people crashed in 2004, the DHARMA Initiative did their thing in the 70s and 80s, some ancient civilization built a statue and a donkey wheel thousands of years ago, and the Others showed up somewhere along the way. It would be impossible and uninteresting to fill in every year or even every century along the way, but Jughead takes the step of starting to bridge the gaps.

Even though it's technically a Desmond-centric episode, and Desmond is one of the best characters on the show, the parts that made "Jughead" so great didn't involve Desmond at all. Instead, the on-Island 1954 plot made the episode intriguing. The Others have been here for at least 50 years, and possibly a whole lot longer if that Latin is any indication. The whole "Richard/Locke/compass" arrangement makes sense now! Widmore was an Other! And yet another layer of the "mythological onion" is peeled back.

"Dr. Linus", season 6 episode 7, Ben flash-sideways

Amidst an exceptionally strong slate of episodes in season 6 ("LA X", "Ab Aeterno", "The Candidate", and "The End", just to name a few), it's all too easy to forget "Dr. Linus". And that's a shame, because "Dr. Linus" is Ben's finest hour. We don't realize it as we're watching for the first time, but it's not Ben's confession to Ilana that ends his story, it's him realizing in his afterlife that he still has some making up to do with Alex before he can truly "move on".

But the confession is probably the most important thing that happens to his character. It directly follows the climax of his character arc, which happened in "Dead is Dead" and continued through "The Incident", where Ben realizes he has done some truly terrible things in supposed service to the Island.

Michael Emerson himself said that if you never saw Ben's character again after "Dr. Linus", you would still be wholly satisfied. It's high praise for the episode, and completely deserved. Unlike many episodes of Lost, "Dr. Linus" manages to be relevant and important to the plot and characters, but also a hell of a television episode in its own right, something that you can watch by itself and get something out of, even if you're not a fan.

And just like that, we've come to the end... at least as far as the series proper is concerned. I'm sure I'll find ways to work Lost into future blog posts, of course, and there's a good chance I'll do a rewatch sometime, which is bound to generate all sorts of crazy ideas. To all the fans who have read what I've had to say, thanks for the support and the comments that added to the conversation. To all the non-fans that have read my posts anyway, or at least put up with them, I appreciate that too--and having been through the whole experience of Lost, I vouch for the show's quality. Watch it. You will not be disappointed.

Currently listening: "A Winner Needs a Wand", Sufjan Stevens

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