Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Lost - Meet Kevin Johnson

With the very strong fourth season of Lost split into two parts, and the current break leaving me saddened and at a loss, I found myself picking this latest episode over for so long that it is now almost a fortnight since it aired. Is there any point in posting about it? Haven't the internet and the massed blogging hordes moved on from it to discuss similarly layered and complex shows like, I don't know, American Idol and I'd Do Anything (To Rid The World Of Talent Competitions). Perhaps. Maybe I should accept that the dual brain-occupying pop culture worlds that are Paradise City and Jack Bauer's eternally threatened LA have distracted me enough to render this post a waste of time. But I got a shitload of screencaps I want to show off! And so I go ahead anyway.

If the season so far has been a patchwork of genres, with The Economist being an espionage thriller, Eggtown and Ji Yeon letting the side down as Hallmark true-life melodramas, and The Constant being a romance-powered sci fi epic, this week was almost a horror film (by way of Peter Weir's magnificent Fearless), and that was down to the oppressive lighting, a brilliant atmospheric choice by the ace director/photographer team of Stephen Williams and Cort Fey, who were responsible for the gorgeous Confirmed Dead. The first non-previously shot of the show set the tone brilliantly. The meeting at Locke's house was preceeded by an unnerving shot of the exterior, shadows and darkness closing in on the porchlight, leaves blown around in the foreground as if the Barracks have become desolate and deserted.

Darkness is definitely the name of the game, with most of the episode filmed at night, and even interiors lit sparsely. This shot shows Locke's band of confidantes (or lieutenants) surrounded by shadows, hiding behind closed curtains from the rest of the camp. For once my bugbear (the lack of visible extras in the Barracks scenes) works well. The band is huddled, scared, hiding from the interlopers from the freighter.

As this episode is mostly about Michael's long, dark night of the soul, with his current situation being that of the morally compromised angel of death hiding from his former castaways, this lighting scheme is perfect. When first spotted on the deck of the Kahana he is hiding in shadows with a hood over his head.

The next scene he is in the murky engine room, where he reveals to Sayid much (though surely not all) of what happened to him after leaving the island. Again what light there is is gloomy and discoloured.

After getting pushed around by a terrifying Sayid (seriously, you really do not want to be killing defenceless women on an island while this guy is around. Or while he isn't. Obviously), we are treated to the longest flashback in the history of the show, as we find out what happened after Waaaaaaaaaaaaalt and his dad left the Pala Ferry dock and followed that very specific heading. Turns out there was a huge, currently unfilmable gap in the timeline where our Lone Wolf and Cub-style survivors made their way back to civilisation and became estranged. How long did that take? I'm beginning to think it was not the short period hinted at here, but I'll get to that soon. Instead of seeing the journey (and a Walt that would be way taller and older than the Walt we remember) we cut straight to Michael's depressing NY apartment, dimly lit in the same way Locke's house was.

Like Jack and Desmond before him, Michael wants to kill himself, leading to the scene that reminded me of Fearless, with a potentially deadly car crash coming to nothing. From this point on I find it hard to talk about the episode with any confidence. There were so many questions raised and peculiarities aired that it falls through the fingers when you try to think about it. That's not a criticism, but it did feature some odd events that won't make any sense for a while yet.

Of course Michael survives, apparently saved by the island, according to information gleaned in a later scene. His suicide attempts with a gun are thwarted by small interventions, either Tom's appearance, a well-timed news bulletin, or the gun failing to fire for no apparent reason.

For a start, if Michael is going to crash into a large object at high speed and survive, the island has to intervene in a big way. Fans more committed than me have tried to work out a timeline for the events here, and assuming there is no time-travel trickery at play (which might well be the case, and I'm just barking up the wrong tree here), Michael's convalescence period would have to be a couple of days, which beggars belief.

This leads to the conclusion that the island is interfering to a greater extent than certainly I thought possible. His later failed attempt in his apartment, with a malfunctioning gun and the newscast shows the island is manipulating matter and perhaps even time itself to ensure Michael stays alive, and in the car is even creating some kind of airbag to keep him alive. That's a pretty significant intervention, and suggests the island has a much greater power and influence over the entire planet than previously hinted at. Previously I thought that its power was just to tinker with the timeline to make things go its way, and that Cuselof's claims that the castaways having pre-island connections is nothing more than a coincidence can be filed under the heading, "They're lying because they're hiding something cool." It's possible that every survivor's life has been manipulated by the island so that they get on the right plane at the right time. But what if the island extended a forcefield around Michael to stop him getting killed?

Apologies for the imminent confused explanation, but I don't believe he was saved like that and then just let out of the hospital a couple of days later as his injuries were superficial. When Michael goes to visit Walt at his mother's house, she mentions the plane, and she complains that he was missing for two months, and we assume both statements are linked. I have rewatched that scene a few times now (like an obsessed crazyman), and she mentions the plane crash, and later says she has no idea where he was for two months, but she doesn't say, "You were on a plane that crashed, and then two months later you showed up again and handed Walt over to me." The way I read that scene, she acts like the plane he was supposed to be on crashed, though he didn't seem to be on it, he hands over Walt, and then disappears for two months, possibly due to an extended convalescent period spent in hospital because of his car crash, and he won't admit it to her because he's embarrassed to admit he is suicidal.

I wouldn't be chasing this potential dead end if it weren't for the hinkiness of the timeline posited by the show and the oddness of the hospital scene preceeding his nocturnal visit to his mother. There we see Libby for the first time since the Desmond flashback at the end of season two, though it's unclear in her first appearance if she is an island visitation like Charlie's appearance in The Beginning of the End, or merely a dream. Whatever the reason behind it, carrying blankets was just cold. Shame on you, island/Michael's subconscious!

In the later scene in the engine room, her arrival preceeded by whispers, it's fairly obvious she's there on island business, but in the hospital, there are odd changes throughout the scene that hint it is a dream. When he first wakes up and surveys the room, Michael's monitor looks like this...

..and the guy lying next to him has a breathing tube in his mouth.

When Libby enters, there is nothing in the hall behind her.

After revealing herself, much to Michael's (and our) surprise, he wakes up. Anther check of the room shows us that the monitor is different...

...and the guy has a normal breath mask over his face.

When the real nurse arrives, the Christmas tree places the time around the US holiday season.

So, if Michael was merely dreaming, he would imagine the room differently. Or, and here is where I get into daft idea territory, his convalescence time was much longer than a few days, and he was unconscious for a month. Perhaps the room looked different when he was originally placed there, and he remembers that and that version of the room is the one he sees in the dream. If this is the case, Michael arrived back from the island much earlier than we thought, and the show is using more narrative cloudiness to hide the temporal shenanigans.

The reason I'm banging on about all of this is that we're still unsure about what happens when leaving the island. We've already seen Frank's helicopter veer off course by a couple of degrees from the specific heading it was supposed to be on, and as a result the three occupants lost a day of their lives (and Desmond nearly lost his life). Did Michael come back early? It seems odd that he would get on a slow put-put boat and get back to New York in a few days. I really believe he came back to civilisation at around the same time as Oceanic 815 crashed, and he has a bad couple of months out of action thanks to the crash. It would also explain how Tom could be in New York for a while when he should by all rights be back on the island. More on my favourite non-Ben Other in a moment.

Michael's suicide attempts work as terrific callbacks to Jack and Desmond's suicide attempts, which were thwarted by fortuitously timed events that stopped them in their tracks (a car crashing and Locke pounding on the hatch, respectively, which are both explainable using the time-tinkering theory). If what Michael is told this episode, that the island won't allow anyone to kill themselves while they still have work to do (is that a Biblical reference?), obviously Jack and Desmond still had work to do too. Does that mean it saved not only Desmond, but Charlie, Locke and Eko when Swan station imploded? However, if that's the case, why has any of them died since? We could argue that Charlie lived long enough to pass on the message about Penny's boat to Desmond, at which point his usefulness was over, and he was allowed to die, partially by his own hand? What about Eko? What was his job? To carve the bible comment about heading north on his Jesus stick? That's some real micromanagement of the timeline going on there.

As for the island's intervention regarding the boat bomb by sending in a Libbyghost, it brings up an interesting question. Stopping Michael blowing up the bomb is one thing, but it's not even a bomb (or it's not yet armed. We'll find out soon enough). How does the island, which many fans had speculated was omniscient and/or omnipotent, not know this?

Is the ghost merely there to stop Michael from losing all hope by pressing the Execute button (which here serves as a focal point of Michael's lack of faith in himself, whereas Locke's button was the focus of his absolute faith)? Or are there just some things it knows nothing about?

As you can imagine, I was thrilled to see Tom back on the show, getting way more screentime than when he was alive. His first few moments onscreen, emerging from those ubiquitous shadows and sparring with Michael, were especially brilliant, with him teasing info about the island, referring to it as if it were omnipotent and keenly interested in Michael's survival. He also provided much confusion relating to what is becoming one of the key themes of the show; who is the bad guy here? Widmore or Ben? Two different explanations for the fake plane have been provided, and there is evidence to suggest both might be true.

Tom also stated the much-inspected fact that Michael couldn't die as he still had work to do. But was it work for the Others? Or for the island? For a long time we have thought that both were working together, but if the Libbyghost is appearing to Michael to stop him blowing up the boat that Ben wanted blown up, then perhaps the island and the Others are working to opposite ends, though the Others might not realise that the island has its own agenda, what with them being all arrogant and stuff.

The other odd thing is that Tom says he is needed in the alley, but that's before the newscast reveals the discovery of Fauxceanic 815. Did Tom know about it because of some time-travel thing? Or was it common knowledge to the Others that the search was taking place? For that matter, did they know about the team of scientists looking for electromagnetic disturbances? Ah, I'm getting sidetracked. Much like the obnoxious homophobic fringe of the Lost fanbase who are bitching about token political correctness in making Tom gay. "It adds nothing to the show to make him gay, so why do it?" they cry? Yes, but it also doesn't take anything away from the show. So, you know, get over it. And go far far away. Because you're letting the side down. The side being humanity in general.

The hints from earlier in the series that Tom was gay were paid off with a fun scene with our now dead hero/villain (delete as applicable) flirtatiously dismissing his boyfriend (a male escort or another Other?) before laying a smackdown on Michael's psyche with his recruiting spiel. As if he wasn't already befuddled by Tom's appearance in NY. Many fans seem to have run with the idea of some people being able to come and go from the island while others can't. Is he talking about some heirarchy thing? Or are some physically incapable? Maybe that has something to do with Desmond's condition. Perhaps this is why only six Oceanic survivors can leave. We've pessimistically assumed lots of survivors will die in the next few episodes, but maybe some are stuck there because the island is a big meanie.

All of this darkness and sadness and moral ambiguity gets to be played out in brightness once Michael gets to Fiji to travel with the crew he has been sent to kill. We finally get the first full day time scene (Desmond and Sayid were seen in a sunrise setting earlier, but only briefly), as Michael emerges from his long dark night of the soul. Is this an ironic comment on his new task being for "the good guys"? Or is it just that he has new purpose in his life? Whichever it is, he makes sure to wear a baseball cap, again keeping his face in shadow.

It's not like he's going to be happy about his new lease of life, and his woes continue almost immediately. Estranged from his son and driven to do terrible things for Ben, his only vaguely friendly interactions with the crew are with Naomi, Minkowski, Frank and Miles, which cloud his confidence in Tom and Ben's task.

But are they friendly? Of the group, I'd say only Minkowski really bonds with him. Naomi, on the other hand, appears friendly, but if she's getting handed big file folders full of info by Matthew Abaddon, played, of course, by the frustratingly absent Lance "Intensity" Reddick (and yes, I'm trying to get that nickname copyrighted), there's a strong chance she knows who he really is.

Miles picks up on Michael's waves of misery as soon as he walks past him (because he's haunted, geddit??!?!), but it's not like he's going to tell anyone his suspicions. His willingness to betray Widmore's cause by accepting a bribe from Ben shows he has little loyalty to the rest of the crew. His comment about not ratting him out strikes me as true.

I also think Frank might know as well. His conversation certainly seemed to be filled with nudge-nudge comments about Oceanic 815, but again, if he suspects, he's not telling anyone. He's got his own mysterious agenda, and has already been helping out Sayid and Desmond, so again, his loyalty doesn't seem to be with Naomi or Widmore (Frank seems to only care for the guy because he's funding the expedition). Seriously, I wonder if anyone on the boat believes he is Kevin Johnson. Even the big shock at the end, with Sayid mean-spiritedly ratting Michael out to Captain Gault, was undercut by what looked like boredom from the Cap'n. It really looked like he wasn't shocked at all. Though again, I stress that you do not upset the former Republican Guard torturer. Just don't!

So, a lot of supposition from me. I might have sounded frustrated earlier when I commented on the show posing a lot of extra questions, or casting certain scenes in an overly-ambiguous light, or complicating things we had taken for granted ass having been settled, but I'm not. That's part of the appeal of the show, of course. Plus, this episode featured a lot of fighty craziness to distract the audience from the particularly slow reveals. Boathands brawling!

Sayid smacking-down!

Keamy killing (something that looks like a clay pigeon)!

Tom something violent beginning with T!

All of that exciting unpleasantness pales into insignificance considering the shocking finale. We were promised a death, and we got one (and it wasn't Sawyer!). Karl, we barely knew you.

More importantly (especially for those of us who have been looking forward to a Danielle flashback for three years now) our Babylon 5 refugee gets blasted too, and while my reaction to Karl's death was minor sadness for Alex, this moment made me shriek out loud.

So is she dead? Was it a trap set by Ben to ensure he would gain his "daughter" back? Or was it Keamy and Omar and his mercenary crew graduating from clay discs to people?

What is apparent is that Alex is slowly (or rapidly, if getting involved in a shoot-out counts) becoming a more important character than first thought. If she is captured by Keamy and the rest, her safety will become a priority for Ben, and a hostage situation might force him to do something that isn't in the best interest of the island (though I have a strong feeling he would even sacrifice her for it). If it's Ben's cohorts at the Temple, then Alex will be our eyes and ears in that area, and we'll be getting to see a lot more of her.

As ever, there were small things that occurred to me while the big stuff churned away in my head. Most prominently, seriously, don't fuck with Sayid. He's one mean hombre.

While my previous suspicions about the timeline could very well be wrong, I think everyone can agree with me on one thing. Ben has a really shitty sense of humour. And I love it.

Though I'm indifferent to Karl, and have not really bothered thinking about Alex much, his murder does mean there's only one stable relationship left on the island (Bernard and Rose).

Who else is there? Kate and Sawyer, Jack and Juliet, Sun and Jin; they all have had their troubles. However, the relationships that seemed to have worked out okay? Not so good. Sayid and Shannon, Claire and Charlie (once they had settled their second season differences), Hurley and Libby; it's a list of death and misery. It's like the show isn't just based on Survivor, it's also an ironic comment on Temptation Island.

The scene in the pawnshop, with Michael trading Jin's watch for a gun, made me absurdly happy. That this small item has had its own history throughout the show fills me with pleasure. If Jin does die (which I hope doesn't happen), what's the betting it will be Michael's gun that does it (if he brought it with him. If not, just ignore me).

As I said before, Stephen Williams and Cort Fey did a great job on Confirmed Dead, in which one of the visual themes was light, sometimes refracted, always colourful. This week they did wonders with shadow, but they also managed to capture some gorgeous shots of a daybreak.

Jack Bender rightly gets a lot of praise for his episodes, but Stephen Williams is currently operating without the same level of adoration. Fie upon this, I say! His work has been consistently incredible from the beginning. I can't wait to see what else he has up his sleeve.

I especially liked how he blocked and filmed the conference scene in Locke's house at the start of the episode. While Locke tries to gain support for his actions by coming clean to the gang (a sentiment punctured by Hurley, unimpressed by the revelation that the freighter crew are after Ben), he is small in the frame or pushed to one side by other characters.

The frame, instead, is dominated by Ben, calmly observing those around him try to figure out his motives and machinations. Like ants trying to understand a rocket scientist! Over and over again we see a character hypothesising about him...

...but while they are in the distance, the foreground is taken over by his head...

...or is taken from his point of view...

...which is yet another visual clue that he is always in charge, always the one pulling the strings, while our "heroes" desperately try to understand him.

Just to ram this point home, when it comes time to look at him, no one else gets into the frame. He completely owns it. There's no ambiguity about this foreshadowing anymore. These guys are doomed.

Did I mention not pissing Sayid off? Let me reiterate that; do NOT piss Sayid off.

So, we don't get any more scenes with Zoe Bell? That sucks. We did get a bit more Minkowski, but we got sold short on the Zoe Bell thing. I gather there was going to be more about the freighter folk when the series was going to run for 16 episode, but now the season has been truncated due to the strike, we're losing that episode. Let's hope we get to it in a later season, where we can finally see Zoe Bell and Fisher Stevens doing their thing properly.

If I've not said much about the return of Harold Perrineau so far, it's because his performance was the episode highlight, even above and beyond Tom's boytoy reveal, Danielle's shock "death", Libby's return, and Ben's sick bomb joke. For a while I thought Perrineau was not returning to the show, and even though he didn't get to do much for the majority of season two, his final two episodes were incredible, with Michael becoming a totally compromised moral traitor.

The thought of him not being able to come back, possibly due to anger over how his contract was organised, scared the crap out of me. Any time the smooth running of the show is jeopardised by real world events (the strike, the weather, ratings woes, repeated traffic violations on Oahu, etc.) I get anxious. Alan Dale's current appearance on the West End stage is jeopardising his return to the show in the final half of the season (surely they can think of a way around that, though), which is bad enough, but Michael, who was always seen to be an important part of the Lost jigsaw, hinted strongly that he wasn't coming back. This made me very anxious.

Turns out it might just have been contract negotiation talk, because he came back with a vengeance in this episode, like a hard-acting maelstrom of angst and talent, showing the guy could hold a movie together if he ever got a lead part. His performance was one of the highlights of the season so far, and I add his name to the ever-expanding list of Lost actors who should be seeing some award recognition next year.

In particular, the scene on his mother's doorstep, echoing Christian Shephard's visit to Claire's home, was Emmy worthy, and that's before we get to his post bomb breakdown, as Ben's plan comes into focus and Michael realises that the only way to redeem himself is to become an even worse person, all the time manipulated by the one person he hates most (other than himself). What a performance.

By now Michael has become so morally compromised that it could only be the intervention of a sentient island/supercomputer/godbeing that could save him from himself, a fact brought home by Perrineau with full and convincing force. It is SO GOOD to have him back, and (obviously) I can't wait to see what happens next now that Sayid (who you do NOT want to upset) has blown his cover.

But will we find out if Danielle is dead or not? The fate of our favourite intense French hunter-mom is foremost in our minds. Roll on episode nine, which has the wonderful H.G. Wells inspired title The Shape of Things to Come!

Please don't be dead, Danielle!

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