Friday, January 25, 2008

Recaps for last season's episodes of Lost

Wherein the phone will be unplugged next Thursday so call all you want

Andrew Dignan, writing at The House Next Door, provided some of the most thorough reviews of last season's Lost. An interesting season it was. Started with the six episodes that weren't much more than pointless wheel spinning, then came back after the break with a batch of shows that had everyone in revolt. All was forgiven as they ended with three or four of the finest hours ever on television. In anticipation of the next eight episodes, I'm rereading Dignan's posts. Probably my favorite line: "Some shows are aided by post-viewing discussions and clarifications; this one requires a flow-chart." Heh.

Season Three, Ep. 1: "A Tale of Two Cities"
If the lasting question posed by season two was “Who are you people?”, then Lost seems willing to up the ante in showing us that the so-called “Others” seemed to have been living quite comfortably before that fateful day Desmond chose not to push the buttons. These people could not have possibly anticipated an airplane crash, and yet their level of readiness and focus would seem to indicate otherwise. And why did Ethan and Goodwin forgo aliases and disguises when it was standard practice for Ben and Tom (MC Gainey)?

Alas, in posing tantalizing possibilities and in sheer inventiveness, not much else in the episode matches the opening; instead, "A Tale of Two Cities" regresses into disconcertingly familiar scenarios.

Season Three, Ep. 2: "The Glass Ballerina"
Meanwhile, Sawyer and Kate are stuck toiling away in what amounts to an island rock quarry, working under the hot sun, doing busy work while being observed by a half-dozen armed guards. I certainly don’t want to question the nefarious plans of the Dharma Initiative, but something about forcing our captives to do their best Fred Flintstone impersonations feels like a waste of resources to me. Much of “The Others'” plans thus far have centered around observation of menial, repetitive behavior, so I have little reason to believe that isn't the case here as well. But for a wise-ass like Sawyer to not question why they don’t just bring out a jackhammer feels like the show playing coy.

Season Three, Ep. 3: "Further Instructions"
Of course, Locke wasn’t the focus of the entire episode. After wandering across the island for a couple of days, Hurley returns, injecting some much needed levity back into the show. Giving voice to fanboy skepticism (regarding Desmond’s self-destruct key: “that’s sort of convenient”), Hurley is often the only one on the island willing to ask the burning questions like, how exactly did Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) survive the hatch explosion (“dude, are you like The Incredible Hulk now?”) and how is it he ended up naked? The show has a tendency to take itself way too seriously and is far too willing to overlook obvious plot holes and character machinations, yet I know as long as Hurley is around someone will keep the show grounded. Andrew Johnston was right: Hurley really is the coolest guy on the island.

Season Three, Ep. 4: "Every Man for Himself"
One of the things that makes Lost such a trying viewing experience is its frequently lazy narrative shortcuts. So when a plot point is introduced that stands out as especially difficult to believe, the skeptic in me has a tendency to jump down the show’s throat, only to be retro-actively corrected down the road. Never one to provide easy--or direct--answers, Lost often plays upon viewer distrust, giving us the answer we expect to see, only to conceal its true motives (think of the episode where Locke believes the "Pearl Station" is nothing more than an exercise in social control). But if nothing else, Lost does eventually reward the patience of viewers, even if it means getting around to resolving story-lines we’ve long since forgotten about (welcome back to the show, Desmond) and delivering the information in frustratingly piece-meal fashion.

Take, for example, a snarky claim I made a couple of weeks back where I grumbled about former Iraqi commando Sayid (Naveen Andrews) missing the boat (literally) and allowing a team of “Others” to board Desmond’s (Henry Ian Cusick) yacht because he was apparently facing the wrong direction. But with a single tossed-off line, another piece of the puzzle is put in place: we’re told "the sub is back." Of course. They have a submarine. They’ve got polar bears and clouds of deadly black smoke and a direct feed of Fox’s Major League Baseball coverage. A submarine seems, by comparison, the least bizarre indulgence.

Season Three, Ep. 5: "The Cost of Living"
But Eko's death has to be especially troubling for fans of the show, and not just because this was the only episode of the season where he's actually done anything. So many of the characters on Lost are easily pigeonholed by their genre-ready back-stories, which often feel as they're writing themselves, falling into familiar grooves of self-destructive behavior. But Eko, either by virtue of Akinnuoye-Agbaje's performance or the show's writers keeping their cards close to their vest, never had a chance to become predictable. Often pitted against Locke (Terry O'Quinn) as a man of resolute faith in the face of mounting skepticism, Eko was one of the bright spots of a show that seems to lose some of its luster with each passing season. He will be greatly missed.

But hey, on the plus side at least we have Nikki (Kiele Sanchez) and Paulo (Rodrigo Santoro) to pick up the slack, right? The new season's most insufferable new additions keep inching their way closer to the spotlight with this episode. Now that all those pesky "Alpha characters" have been hijacked by the "Others," its time for the dental hygienist and the soccer player (alright, I’m just guessing that that's their respective professions) to shine. And what better way for the show to accomplish that than by making the rest of the cast look like blithering idiots?

Season Three, Ep. 6: "I Do"
It was par for the course for Jack, who remarkably gets dumber the longer the episode progresses. Starting off in a taunting, rightfuly antagonistic mode, Jack informs Ben that the tumor located in his spine is in dire need of surgery but he won’t operate on him. For a moment, he finally seems to have realized that nobody on this island can be trusted. Much of the episode is spent on Ben pressuring Jack by using Kate’s feelings for Sawyer (and in turn, Jack’s feelings for Kate), a ploy that would seem to have hit a brick wall upon Jack catching a glimpse of the canoodling.

For a beautiful, fleeting, second I thought we’d see the jealous rage Jack displayed in the season opener. I half expected him to tell Ben “fuck that hillbilly” (or TV-safe words to that extent), calling their bluff to kill Sawyer. But no, Jack decides then and there that he’ll operate on Ben in the morning, because he’s got a plan. And boy, is it a good one. Basically his plan is to stand around letting Ben slowly die on the operating table (he has roughly the length of an episode to live) so Kate and Sawyer can get a one-hour head start on their escape. That’s it. No negotiating for boats or a detailed map listing the best route back to their camp or a phone call to the outside world. Nope, you got 60 minutes to get the hell out of Dodge before the men with guns come after you. My God, these people are idiots, and the good doctor is the worst of them.

Season Three, Ep. 7: "Not in Portland"
As the majority of Season Three has taken place on “Others’ Island” we’ve gotten a sense of these additional personalities in a relatively short span of time, and it’s been obvious from the outset that Mitchell’s Juliet is the show’s breakout new character. Fittingly, “Not in Oregon” is a tour-de-force showcase for Mitchell in much the same way “Walkabout” was for Terry O’Quinn back in Season One. Like Locke, Juliet has two very different physical sides, with the gulf separating the two posing the rare unknown that’s actually worth pondering. Divorced at a young age after a marriage to an older man, the Juliet of the past is a mousey, unconfident push-over, all fidgety body language and averted glances. She lives in constant fear of her former spouse’s reprisal, at one point apologizing for even wishing him (all too prescient) harm.

In excusing herself from the Mittelos job, she tells Alpert “Whatever you think I am, I’m not. I’m not a leader. I’m a mess.” So what fun that we immediately cut to the present-day, where Juliet roams the halls of the Hydra with the steely-eyed resolve of The Terminator. The Juliet we’ve come to know is confident, duplicitous and -- as we see in this episode -- coldblooded and unafraid of getting her hands dirty. Juliet’s still something of a wild card at this point, and it’s a testament to Mitchell that both elements of her personality are entirely believable.

Season 3 Ep. 8: "Flashes Before Your Eyes"
Time travel has been a sub-theme of Lost since the show’s beginning, with seeming incongruities in the island’s mythology (such as the existence of the 19th century slaving ship in the middle of the jungle as well the giant four-toed foot that appears to have been swiped from ancient Greece) possibly explained by a bending of time and space. As recently as last week there was the anagram Mittelos (“lost time”) and a character reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. There is, however, a simpler explanation for the strange temporal quarry Desmond has found himself in -- one even he begins to suspect.

While searching out an engagement ring for Penny, Desmond “returns” to a quaint jeweler where the kindly Ms. Hawking (Fionnula Flanagan) helps him pick out the perfect ring for a man of limited means. Yet when he expresses his desire to purchase the ring, she recoils, informing him that he’s not supposed to propose to Penny. His destiny, she reminds him, is to break Penny’s heart and push the buttons or the world will end. Poor Flanagan: she spends most of the episode stuck in the lecturing, Morpheus-like role, revisiting the show’s theories about fate versus free-will and the futility of trying to change the future as the universe “course-corrects.” Desmond accuses Ms. Hawking of being a manifestation of his subconscious -- an astute observation, but not in the way I suspect he intended. Ms. Hawking may in fact be a figment of his imagination, but not one that simply externalizes his fears about marrying Penny. Rather, I see the whole flashback (which occupies roughly 80% of the episode) as a Jacob’s Ladder-like alternate reality, conceived of by Desmond as he lay concussed in the wake of the Swan’s meltdown.

Season 3 Ep. 9: "Stranger in a Strange Land"
Conversely, “Stranger in a Strange Land” is already the second Jack-centric episode of this still young season which would make it (by my count) his ninth overall. After watching Jack save numerous lives, rage against his alcoholic father, struggle in vain to maintain his failing marriage and now getting himself a bad-ass tattoo, it might be time to admit to ourselves that the character has officially played itself out. What’s so irritating about the show is the disparity created by casting a “star” in the middle of what’s supposed to be a true ensemble. The fickle nature of the medium demands that Fox gets as much face time as possible, meanwhile a character portrayed by a less visible performer, like Cynthia Watros’ Libby, can be killed off with nary a flashback to call her own. Dramatic opportunities are constantly squandered in favor of returning to well-trod touchstones.

Season 3, Ep. 10, "Tricia Tanaka is Dead”"
The show’s producers have historically relied on Terry O’Quinn’s Locke and Fox to push along the show’s heavier storylines, but this episode was a reminder that Garcia’s not only a wonderful (and much needed) comedic outlet for the show but a fine actor who specializes in intimate dramas of anxiety and self-realization. It’s been so long since we had an episode that wasn’t dedicated to Jack saving somebody, I’d forgotten how much I missed watching Hurley who, above all else, seems to have a better sense of who he is than anyone else on the island (something that’s all the more ironic when you consider the character is a schizophrenic).

Season 3, Ep. 11, "Enter 77”
For fans of the character, “Enter 77” is an especially disconcerting episode, as it finds the once sage-like Locke doing some incredibly stupid things purely to satisfy his curiosity. Always prone to following his instincts and blind faith above all else, Locke’s judgment has been especially questionable of late (earlier in the episode when Sayid and he discussed Eko’s “Jesus stick” serving as their map, Sayid looked like he wanted to strangle him), and this episode isn’t likely to convince viewers that the character is anything other than a fool in philosopher’s clothing. Despite all the screaming and crashing in the next room, Locke conveniently (or is it cowardly?) waits for the smoke to clear before poking his head out and lending a hand. Later on, while given the simple-task of standing over the restrained Bakunin while Sayid and Kate explore the rest of the Flame, Locke somehow botches the job by returning to his video game, allowing his hostage to not only escape but to get the drop on him. The episode also ends on a potentially disastrous note as Locke blindly follows the prompting of the computer’s automated relay program, triggering a self-destruct mechanism found within the Flame (and, in the process, destroying perhaps their only means of phoning home). Locke has skirted the line of madness in the past; I fear the writers are now using the character’s island tunnel-vision as an easy way to advance the plot.

Season 3, Ep. 12, "Par Avion”
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the show’s become a victim of its own format, as it’s forced to come up with a new mini soap opera each week to eat up half the episode’s run time while never really expanding upon the bedrock of the characters we picked up in season one. There’s really very little left on the shelf, especially for second-tier character such as Claire; the mind boggles at how they’re going to keep this up for another couple years at least.

Furthermore, these episodes that focus on half-hearted rescue attempts are always a bit of a drag. While lending a small element of verisimilitude to the castaways day-to-day lives, from a plot stand-point they’re counter-intuitive and give off the faint odor of wheel-spinning. These people may someday be rescued, but I doubt anyone believes it will be because of a giant “S.O.S.” in the sand or some birds flying south for the winter, especially the show’s writers.

Season 3, Ep. 13, "The Man from Tallahassee"
I give up. After years of serving as a de-facto apologist for Lost simply for clinging to the eroding bedrock that everything might come out in the wash, doggedly believing that there really was some sort of a master plan that would retroactively justify hours of wild-spitballing and endless digression, I now concede that the people behind this show are completely winging it. I’ve always suspected that the show was making itself up as it went week to week; I’m now convinced that during the commercial break a team of frantic young writers is quickly churning out pages, faster than my Tivo can advance, in a desperate attempt to get to the end before I do.

Season Three, Ep. 14: "Exposé"
And that’s the end of that. Last night we said farewell, I hope, to the worst idea in the history of a series that’s given us “the magic box,” a couple of polar bears on a tropical island, and entire episodes dedicated to Rose and Bernard and Ana Lucia. I am, of course, referring to the presumed passing of the much derided Nikki and Paulo, a couple of photogenic Cousin Olivers, uncomfortably shoehorned into the Lost universe last fall, instantly earning the scorn of the show’s fans across the world.

Two “red shirts” if ever there were ones, Nikki (Kylie Sanchez) and Paulo (Rodrigo Santoro) represented the show at its absolute laziest. Desperate to replace the void on the beach created by actor exits (Cynthia Watros, Rodriguez, Harold Perrineau) and plot necessity (the abduction of Jack, Sawyer and Kate), the producers clumsily dropped two attractive but bland characters into the middle of a highly exclusive setting and prayed no one would notice. Unprepared for the immediate backlash, the show froze in its tracks. Afraid to enrage fans further, the show seemed to go out of its way to ignore Nikki and Paulo, affording them less than a combined two dozen lines over the course of the first 13 episodes of the third season, quickly reducing them to walk-ons. Yet all along, show runners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof assured fans that there was a master plan for the characters that would justify all the hand-wringing.

If last night’s episode was any indication of how the show plans on executing its future “master plans,” we’re in for a long ride.

Season Three, Ep. 15: "Left Behind"
Far from feminist doctrine—the hour contained multiple “catfights,” a t-shirt drenching rainstorm and a romp through a mud pit—the episode was still unmistakably committed to re-establishing its two de-facto female leads as strong-willed, driven women who are unafraid to slit a throat if push comes to shove. Deep down, they may ultimately be jostling for position with the good doctor Shepherd, but these two are no damsels in distress. With none of the men around, we see glimpses of both women’s personalities that have been stifled as of late, with Kate’s heart on her sleeve impulsiveness contrasting nicely with Juliet’s deliberate steeliness. By the time we get to the scene where Juliet has to pop her dislocated shoulder back into its socket Mel Gibson-style, with Kate doing the popping (and reticent to do so at the risk of losing a strategic advantage), you start to realize just how much macho-posturing we get on a weekly basis from Sawyer and Jack.

Season Three, Ep. 16: "One of Us"
“One of Us” offers circumstantial evidence to fans of the show who subscribe to the “Noah’s Ark” theory that goes that the island is a bio-preserve and testing grounds, created in anticipation of an impending global disaster. This could possibly explain the emphasis on keeping tabs on the island’s children (a future generation of breeders) as well the imperative in insuring island procreation and the importance of keeping around those who are “worthy.” It’s fun to speculate, but I find myself reversing my long-held critique that the characters of Lost are of secondary interest to the mechanics of the plot. While I still feel the show largely moves its cast around like chess pieces, over the past few months my sympathies towards these people (and the actors behind them) them has grown, while my interest in “getting to the bottom of things” has dwindled.

Season Three, Ep. 17: "Catch-22"
“Catch-22” briefly addresses one of my favorite pet-theories, first introduced in the episode “Flashes Before your Eyes” from last February. I speculated then that Desmond’s adventure in time travel was actually a lucid dream meant to justify a lifetime of poor choices, specifically using his own low sense of self-worth to run away from the woman he loves. While the episode is taken by most at face value, something about the way Desmond engages with his own psyche, the way fate can be conveniently substituted as a scapegoat, struck me as very David Chase-like. The lightning rod at the center of this theory is Ms. Hawking (Fionnula Flanagan) who makes a brief, uncredited cameo in last night’s episode, appearing in a picture frame during Desmond’s flashback. This would seemingly refute my theory (she is in fact, a real person as opposed to a creation of Desmond’s mind) while also lending credence to my belief that Desmond is digging deep into his subconscious, recalling a kindly old woman from a photograph to give voice to his feelings of doubt and defeatism.

Season Three, Ep. 18: "D.O.C."
Sun and Jin’s entire relationship can be distilled down to maintaining appearances. Sun spent years concealing not only her infidelity but her secret unhappiness, her desire to escape her marriage and even her knowledge of the English language. Jin lied about his working-class past in order to be accepted into a different social caste and later kept his feelings of unhappiness to himself at being a slave to Sun’s father, letting it eat away at their marriage instead. Even the uncomfortable truth that it was Jin who was infertile, and not Sun, was kept away from him so he would not lose face. To that end, Sun can clearly see how much Mr. Kwon loves his son and how much embarrassment his past causes him. With tears in her eyes, she agrees to never tell her husband about this encounter or the revelation that his mother is still alive.

So much of the Sun and Jin back-story (once upon a time, these two were considered separate characters) has been dedicated to the declining years of their marriage with the former pouting and petulant, the latter brooding and standoffish. It’s therefore a bit of fresh air to watch them behave as newlyweds madly in love with each other. Like all good screen couples, they’re cute without being cloying; devoted to one another, yet still fiercely individual and proud. Yoon-jim and Kim have been sadly sidelined this season (although at least Jin has been matched up with Hurley as a stoic comic foil). “D.O.C.” allows them the opportunity to stretch for the first time in months.

Season Three, Ep. 19: "The Brig"
So much of Sawyer’s (the younger one) character has been building towards this moment—his very identity is tied towards killing this man—yet I was impressed at how vulnerable Holloway comes across, even as he builds to a murderous rage. His voice reduced to a low whisper (as though anything higher and it might crack), he forces Cooper to read the letter Sawyer wrote as a child, enacting a bizarre ritual he’s no doubt played out in his head hundreds of times (the formality of the act reminded me of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride), yet only snaps when Cooper tears up the letter in lieu of finishing it. It’s a bit of an obvious metaphor (in an episode filled with them), but an effective one all the same. Confronted with his proverbial “Rosebud,” Sawyer fulfills his life-long goal of revenge, but in the process must leave behind the very identity he’s cultivated over a lifetime. What does a man who’s lived for nothing but vengeance have to live for after he’s taken it?

As I hinted earlier, I fear Sawyer’s days are numbered. Over the past few weeks we’ve watched the character evolve into something resembling a leader, his shiftless self-serving demeanor slowly receding into a mere personality tick. Now that he’s come full circle, destroying the man who has created him, where is there left to take the character other than making him a mangier version of Jack? With the show’s producers warning of an impending blood bath in the next few weeks I can’t help but think the character is being set up for a heroic fall.

Season Three, Ep. 20: "The Man Behind the Curtain"
If Hurley (Jorge Garcia) has often stood in as an audience surrogate for skeptics then Locke (Terry O'Quinn) is the voice of the show’s true-believers, long clinging to the hope that all of the show’s divergent threads will somehow come together in an elaborate tapestry. Lost has a strong grip on the pulse of its audience and, I suspect, as viewer enthusiasm is tempered it can be reflected in Locke. The more he invests himself in the search for answers, the more frustrated he becomes at their lack of availability. The Jacob situation is a perfect example of the way even the most devout of believers grow restless over time, with the futile pursuit of a single, concrete truth turning even the most open of hearts to stone.

Season Three, Ep. 21: "Greatest Hits"
This week won’t find me tripping over the show’s numerous paradoxes (with one self-aggrandizing exception in a little bit) or spinning far-flung theories which may or may not come to fruition before the show’s 2010 sign-off. Nor will I be dusting off my argument in favor of the show scrapping its musty flashback structure. Quite the contrary, “Greatest Hits” found Lost willing to toy with its own format a bit, borrowing a page from High Fidelity (take your pick, book or film) by focusing on a series of self-contained “high points” from Charlie’s life, as opposed to presenting a prolonged and self-contained b-story meant to dovetail thematically with the present. One of the problems with Lost’s flashbacks has always been the way they reduce its characters into a series of cause and effect scenarios, distilling every action into a result of a single event from their past, like placing a thumbtack in a map. Shorter on incident than we’ve come to expect, “Greatest Hits” instead gives us fleeting snapshots from Charlie’s life devoid of all context, other than that they were times in his life when he was happiest to be alive. It’s amazing how much more human these people feel when they’re not reduced to walking algebra equations.

Season Three, Ep. 22: "Through the Looking Glass"
With all the talk of the island as purgatory, could the show truly be as cynical to posit that life outside the island is actually hell, a destination these characters are on a collision course with as a result of their actions in the present? Pre-determination being such a predominant theme on Lost, is the future set in stone with the very idea which gives them hope ultimately what tears them apart? Throughout the hour we see Jack emotionally distraught after reading of the death of an unidentified person in the newspaper (based on fleeting evidence picked up upon with my freeze frame and the reaction of the characters, specifically Kate, I’m going to begin the speculation that the deceased is Locke) to the point where he’s self-medicating and contemplating suicide. Now that they’re free of their island prison has the oft-quoted “live together, die alone” become more relevant than ever? With the shared experience of life on the island safely in the rearview mirror, have their lives lost all meaning? At least when Adam & Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden they knew they were leaving paradise.


Blogger XWL said...

As long as fluffy bunny Dr. Jack is less fluffy bunny like, and John Locke (assuming his aliveness) is more Doc Savage like, then I'll be happy.

I expect much disappointment, but I'll watch anyway.

(I also expect Sawyer's neutering to be complete by the end of the 8 episodes about to air)

1/27/2008 03:24:00 PM  
Blogger bill said...

For whatever it's worth, Alan Sepinwall says it gets off to a good start.

For me, I'm excited. I've spent the last month or so changing the channel when any Lost commercials come on and I've taken to squinting at the internets hoping to avoid spoilers. Three more days to go.

My excitement/anticipation is tempered knowing there won't be a Jack scene. They were able to redeem Charlie, I don't think there's a writer on the planet who could do the same with Jack.

1/28/2008 12:47:00 PM  
Blogger bill said...

^Jack scene = Jack death scene.

1/28/2008 12:47:00 PM  
Blogger XWL said...

I noticed the Sepinwall post, and chose not to read it, I also thought about renting the most recent season to refresh, but then read the recaps and remembered how annoying many of those episodes were.

But, it's still one of the more imaginative shows on broadcast tv, and it's not like there's anything better on.

You can only read so many books, or play so many videogames, or type, edit, mull over, then delete so many blogposts (out of the 100+ blogposts I've managed this month, there's another 100 not posted).

So I'll watch, I'll discuss afterwards, and I'll get sucked in once again, only to be cut off at the knees when the remainder of this season doesn't trickle out till some time in Oct/Nov (at the earliest).

Fluffy Bunny getting a permanent death scene would be pretty sweet, but I think he'll be on this show till the better end.

Speaking of Matt Fox, Vantage Point looks especially craptacular in a variety of ways.

1/28/2008 06:43:00 PM  

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