Thursday, 1 May 2008

Lost - The Shape Of Things To Come

Rather embarrassingly, last Thursday morning Canyon had to remind me that my beloved Lost was returning after a short hiatus, much to my surprise. I had been thinking that the gap between episodes that the strike had caused would be much larger, so when she told me I was wrong, it made me a) doubt that my love is as strong as I make out (surely I would have known it was coming back if I cared as much as I say), and b) scream for joy because it was back early yay! It was like waking up on the 16th of December to find Christmas had been moved up a week.

After seeing it, I was unsure what I could write about it, other than the words, "HOLY SHIT!" several thousand times. Cuse and Lindelof had said that the truncated season necessitated an increase in pace, but I don't think anyone expected something as hectic and shocking as this. Story beats that would have carried over for weeks are being dealt with in no time at all. Who would have thought we would find out how Sayid joined forces with Ben so soon? (N.B. How great was Naveen Andrews again this week? Yet more of his patented vulnerability and badassery, just the way I like it.)

The hostage situation with Alex would have previously lasted half a season. Here it barely lasted half an episode, and was resolved in the most sudden and upsetting fashion.

There was barely any time for the setups for the next episode, with the death of Doctor Ecklie and Jack's appendicitis, which made him grouchier and more pathetic than ever (again, kudos to Foxy for being willing to play someone so easily crushed by fate).

What is most apparent from all of the excitement is that even with a hectic shooting schedule and on-set frustration at the time spent hanging around waiting for the strike to finish, Michael Emerson still managed to crack out a performance that, seriously, has got to be recognised at the Emmys later this year.

How can I join? Is there a People' Choice award for Most Awesome Actor Ever? Can I vote a million times? He's been great prior to this, but the range of his performance in this episode was staggering. Though this week saw action, explosions, death, time-travel twists, revelation and (its natural twin on Lost) deepening confusion, spending time on the internets looking at popular opinion about The Shape Of Things To Come shows everyone is pretty much in agreement; the highlight of this most incredible of weeks was Ben staring out of a window for about a minute. It was heart-breaking, devastating, confusing. That it gave way to one of the most exhilarating moments in Lost history was the cherry on top.

Of course, Ben was the focus of the episode, and ace director Jack Bender knew this, using the visual template employed by Stephen Williams a few weeks back, placing Ben in the centre of the frame as often as possible.

It's probably redundant of me to say it, but I'll go ahead anyway; the directors are working together to establish a consistent tone and visual language from episode to episode, and Ben is the most obvious example of that. For example, in these two shots Ben is like the apex of a triangle of people, the focus of their attention and the one in control of the situation even when, in the second picture especially, he seems not to be.

We've become accustomed to the fact that Ben is always in control no matter what happens, and that is shown via his location within the frame. This week went a little further, and sometimes had him in the foreground while other characters bickered in the back. They were out of focus, and therefore superfluous, while the real drama lay in what Ben would do next.

There were only two obvious moments when this was not the case. Firstly, when he shares the frame with Locke in this shot. It's not because Locke is his equal; he's pretty much following along and pretending to be in control of events, something that he seems to come to terms with as the episode goes along.

The other times were, of course, during his attempts to save his daughter from the evil Keamy. As the scene progresses the camera closes in on his face as he struggles to contain his emotions, swearing to his daughter that everything will be alright for no other reason that somehow he knows that nothing bad will happen.

We have no way of knowing what he knows, but we (I speak for most people, sadly without proof, but I know how we felt) think that everything will be alright. Ben has been a thousand steps ahead of everyone else this season, and so it seemed logical to assume that he had some plan to save her.

We were all wrong, though. When Alex is shot (by a seemingly reluctant Keamy), he falls out of the centre of the frame (knocked from his moorings by shock!)...

...and then sits in the shadow of the curtain, his face fixed as a mask of horror, while Sawyer and Locke run around off camera, yelling at each other in panic.

The camera closes in on Ben, keeping him to the side, but as he comes to and realises his nemesis has "changed the rules", he makes up his mind about his next course of action, and stands, towering over us, back in the middle of the frame.

He is even more imposing when entering his Incredible Closet of Secrets, in which he summons Smokey.

From then on he remains in front of everyone, right in the centre. Of course, this is during the incredible scenes of carnage as Smokey goes apeshit on a bunch of mercenary asses, as shown in this YouTube clip, which also features Michael Emerson's Emmy reel.

In contrast to Ben's isolation within the frame, when scenes focus mainly on him, the other characters appear either in the background or, if Ben is not included, paired up (perhaps this is a visual representation of their solidarity).

It gets more complicated back on the beach, where we got some lovely group shots, either when fishing mysterious time-lost corpses out of the ocean...

...sending a message using morse code (with Desmond's lightning rod acting as an antenna)...

...or, in one of my favourite shots of the episode, standing around chatting.

Jack Bender's compositions are superb, some of the best on TV right now, pretty much single-handedly putting an end to this nonsense about TV shows not being a valid art form. If something as complex, through-provoking, and visually arresting as this doesn't count as art, then art can go fuck itself. If you'll excuse my language.

A lot of speculation has surrounded Ben's comment about "the rules", and whether the antagonism between him and the dastardly Charles Widmore is nothing more than a game they are playing against each other. Certainly Ben has been manipulating people like chess pieces throughout the season. Games have been a common motif throughout the show; this week started off with a game of Risk. There's not much else to do on a island while hiding from murderous mercenaries, I guess.

This theory certainly makes sense, and within this episode we saw Ben expertly playing Sayid, now grief-stricken with the death of his wife, Nadia, who has been popping up as an Easter Egg for a few seasons now (I feel a bit bad referring to someone as an Easter Egg, but you all know what I mean). Was she really killed by one of Widmore's men? We don't know enough of his machinations yet to come up with a proper plan, but it's possible it was just Ben playing games. I mean, look at the smirk on this guy! I will confess, this made me giggle like a baby, even taking into account the dramatic power of that moment.

The only proof he had, after all, was a photo of Bakir driving away from the scene of the crime, but there was nothing on that photo that made it seem like he was in the US. For all we know, Ben took a photo of him driving around Tikrit a couple of hours before. He does like taking photos from rooftops, after all.

Whatever Bakir and Widmore's involvement was, Ben certainly manipulated poor Sayid into joining his cause, but what's most interesting is that, even acting on information that might have been compromised or false, Sayid chose to join Ben. It's like an initiation ceremony, similar to Locke's. To join Ben's group he had to kill his father, though that might just have been Ben putting an obstacle in Locke's way that he couldn't surmount. Here, Sayid kills, and chooses to work with Ben. Oh, and can I say it one more time? Sayid is such a badass!

Of course, that's all very ironic considering how much he hates Ben and is angry at Michael for doing something similar, but the key thing is that it's important to Ben that Sayid makes the decision himself. Perhaps because that puts him in a stronger position, or possibly because Ben is all-knowing and is concerned with maintaining the illusion of free will in a world where there is no such thing.

I think Widmore is the same. He puts obstacles in Desmond's way, stopping him from getting together with Penny for what seemed to be a very empty reason. His obstruction made Desmond choose to sail around the world, and we know that was important on a cosmic level as knowledge of the future made him consider changing his choice, which was enough to get the mysterious Timecop Ms. Hawking to intervene, thus causing much talk of free will and predestination. So, from the shocking finale of this episode we see a vengeful Ben setting his sights on Widmore's daughter Penny (cue many outbursts of shock and awe from us), which would be horrible, obviously. The tragic possibilities are too much to contemplate. Even more tragic than this horrid haircut.

However, we're spending so much time dealing with Ben's amazing ability to prepare for whatever happens next that we have yet to consider whether Widmore is the same. He may not have control over the island, but he too might be able to predict what is gooing to happen, and plan accordingly. The only thing we have seen him do on this show before now is obstruct Desmond in a way that makes him act out by sailing around the world, bringing him to the island and servitude within the Swan station. It was his choice to do that, but only because his most desired option is withheld from him. Now I'm wondering if Widmore maneuvered Desmond to get him to the island in order to protect Penny, knowing that Ben would eventually target her. All of that seemingly pointless nastiness was just to get that chess piece onto the board, and perhaps stop Ben from fulfilling what he now sees as his mission. Bear in mind, Ben and Desmond have yet to meet. When they do, perhaps Desmond will change the rules of the game once more and off our anti-hero. Oh God, I'm hyperventilating at the thought of it!

The reason I'm so stuck on the idea of Ben and Widmore manipulating events to serve their own ends is that I recently read The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, the first book of his that I've tried. Though the shows have referenced Slaughterhouse 5 in recent weeks, I haven't got a copy of that lying around, so in the midst of a terrible mania recently during which I could only read sci fi, I figured I should at least read something by him.

I got lucky. While many try to add Slaughterhouse 5's plot to the Lost theory pile, The Sirens of Titan provides just as much food for thought. It concerns a space-faring multimillionaire, Winston Miles Rumfoord, who has been spread throughout time and space after flying into an astronomical anomaly called a chrono-synclastic infundibulum. He simultaneously exists as a wave phenomenon on a spiral vector traversing our solar system, meaning he appears on Earth every 59 days for one hour only,while existing on Titan as a constant presence, accompanied only by his faithful dog Kazak and a shipwrecked alien called Salo, who is originally from the planet Tralfamadore.

Rumfoord's peculiar condition also allows him to know everything that happens in the cosmos, and as a result of his omniscience sees that many of the events that shape the future are the result of his actions. Over a period of years he manipulates the actions of thousands of people in order to shape history, merely to get three people to Titan; his wife, a trust-fund industrialist, and their child, who has in his possession a piece of metal that allows the Tralfamadorian to fix his vessel. Oh, and the name of the industrialist? Malachi Constant. I think it's fair to say the book is an essential part of Lost lore. OMG! Miles is as astonished as I am.

Though I wasn't crazy about Vonnegut's prose style, the book is, nevertheless, amazing. Addressing the problems surrounding the issue of free will, Vonnegut's absurdist take satirises the military, religion, inheritance, and humanity's inability to see beyond its own solipsism. That lack of perspective is often what dooms us, though of course even omniscience doesn't free Rumfoord, instead trapping him even more in the role of world-shaper. Even without its apparent connection to the world of Lost, it's a superb, thought-provoking read, and comes highly recommended.

It was only after finishing it that I became convinced that it holds the key to what Lost will ultimately be about. I'm not the only person who thinks that the show will ultimately be about how history is being shaped either by the island or someone connected to the island, but it was only after finishing Sirens that I saw how well that theory fits the show.

From Ben's startling arrival in Tunisia, as well as his curiosity about the date, it seems obvious he has travelled directly from one part of the world to another, and almost certainly through time as well. Also consider Desmond's mindtrips and the presence of the doctor's corpse; it's beyond question that somehow the island exists outside time as we know it.

Once you add time travel into the equation, even if it is constricted by rules, we can then accept that Ben's seeming omnipotence and ability to manipulate every circumstance to his benefit is a consequence of his travels through time. He knows more than anyone on the planet (except maybe Widmore), and is either using that knowledge to alter events to his own advantage, or is operating as a time agent in the same way that Ms. Hawking is.

There are arguments for either theory. Certainly Widmore's statements that the island belongs to him suggest a petty squabble over power between him and Ben, and if he is little more than an aggrieved power-hungry jerk then, if the visual coding linking him and Ben together is anything to go by (see following images for incontrovertible proof), Ben is probably the same. Note their faces are lit in opposite ways, but the background lighting in is in the same place, meaning they are opposite sides of the same coin.

That said, Ben has often acted as if he is fighting for a greater good, so perhaps he is trying to save the world from the machinations of an unscrupulous asshole who would use the immense power of the island for his own petty ends. However, we've seen Ben's youth, and his stunted emotional development. He may be an absolute badass and all-round Macchiavellian genius, but omniscience doesn't equal moral perfection. For all we know he was chosen by the island because he was able to help it rid itself of the threat posed by the Dharma Initiative and not because he was in any way blessed. His insistence that he is the good guy might just be him framing his role in the game from his point of view, and not because of some higher calling.

Of course, though Ben and possibly Widmore have been manipulating those around them to do their bidding on the "gameboard", there is also the possibility that the island itself has been manipulating everyone for years. The format of the show, featuring flashbacks to events prior to the arrival of the Losties, has long been criticised by insane haters who think the meat of the show has long been the island moments, and the flashbacks are a distraction from that. According to Cuselof, next season will feature another perspective change, perhaps on the same scale as last season's flash forward introduction, and I'm beginning to believe we will see the flashbacks return, but this time we will see those events from the point of view of the island or the agents of the island who have pushed our heroes' lives until they end up on Oceanic 815. There is a rumour the island is already intervening more than we thought. Claire may have been saved from this explosion, as a deleted scene apparently features her hallucinating, which is a sure sign the island is showing an interest in her.

For the island to survive the machinations of Widmore (and possibly Ben), it needs "players" to get to the island in a certain frame of mind and with particular types of psychological baggage, which means they will be easily manipulated into doing what is necessary to help whatever the island is, in much the same way that Rumfoord and the Tralfamadorians manipulate humanity in order to help Salo get that part for his ship. Of course, Vonnegut's novel shows that all of human history is based around an absurd alien goal (Salo needs to deliver a pointless message from Tralfamadore to another race, and we humans exist only in order to facilitate that), but the ultimate goal of Lost will almost certainly not be something so trivial, unless it has an absurdist streak we have not yet witnessed. That said, it's odd that Doc Jensen's latest theory in EW mentions that he believes Smokey is an alien who is trying to leave Earth. Perhaps he's finally caught up with Sirens, and is being influenced by it.

Of course, I could be very wrong, but this is the first theory of the show that I've come up with that I'm really really confident about. The format of the show suggests the history of the characters is not only interesting in a narrative sense, but is crucial to understanding the ultimate destination of the show. Everything these people has done in their lives has led them to the island, and though Cuselof have said in interviews that the connections between the characters are mere coincidences, I don't believe them at all. It's the whole point of the show.

Okay, I doubt I've said anything new, but I feel better for putting my cards on the table. Time will show if I am on the right track, and hopefully the imminent introduction of the Orchid Station with its time machine (maybe) will answer more questions (prior to posing about fifty more). Time to make random comments about the episode in general, as is my way. Firstly, who is Kate fooling?

Her come hither looks were hilariously inept and obvious. And no, that's not just my pro-Kawyer/Jackliet, anti-Jate bias talking. She was just being really crap at it. It was quite endearing, actually.

Way to hit on a guy while his appendix tries to explode, Kate! I guess it was inevitable she would make a move soon, and I'm not actually upset about it, no matter how often I go on about it. I've seen how Jim/Pam fans lose their minds and ruthlessly slander innocent daughters of Quincy Jones when talking about The Office. The troubles of fictional lovers interest me solely as fictional characters. I am able to maintain some perspective, even when talking about Lost.

Speaking of Juliet, she keeps hanging around in the background looking bored. It's very odd. She got one line of dialogue this week, asking Faraday about his sat-phone project. Also getting one line was CS Lewis, who similarly hangs around looking annoyed whenever the Losties figure out their evil plans. I'm still pissed at her for beating up Juliet (again with the proviso that yes, they are fictional, and I'm not crazy, okay?

Holy shit! Sayid might not actually be the show's top badass! All along it was Ben, either whipping out a shotgun at the mere mention of a weird code denoting imminent invasion...

...or using someone else's AK-47 to blast some brigand off his horse. I guess he doesn't have qualms about getting his hands dirty after all.

What pleased me most about his desert encounter is that it was a perfect example of him using his feeble exterior to hide a warrior heart. His sneaky ploy to draw in his prey was brilliant (note the collapsible baton, possibly a nod to writer Brian K. Vaughan's also-badass Y-The Last Man character 355, as many internet commenters have noted).

Good to see Miles turning up again, though his arrogant demeanour has obviously taken a knock not just from Keamy's brutality but also the arrival of Smokey. It's a shame he didn't go to Jacob's Moving Shack with Locke, Ben and Hurley, as it would have been interesting to see what he thought of that ghostly figure.

One of the things I enjoyed most in this episode was the number of random heroic moments littered throughout. The Losties have often seemed morally compromised and eager to follow their own shady motivations at the expense of others, but this week, with death and 'splodey and gunfire all over the place, their altruism shone through. Most notably, Sawyer ran through lots of picket-fence-shredding gunfire...

...all to save Claire from certain death. His efforts to do the right thing without cynicism are all the more appealing knowing that once he was the jerk who barely ever did the right thing, but has been cured of that failing since killing Anthony Cooper. I'm not suggesting everyone will become a better person after throttling someone, but it obviously works for some.

Hurley has continued to be the moral centre of the show, looking after Aaron and standing up to Locke in order to stop the crazy violence, even if it means he has to go Jacob-hunting.

Even though Locke turned into a bit of a dick at that point, he pre-redeemed himself with his expression of sympathy over Alex's death. He might still hate Ben, but he has enough humanity to understand his tormentor's pain.

It was a small moment, but it might have been my favourite of the episode (next to Michael Emerson's aforementioned award-worthy scene at the window). Locke's quiet nobility was more charming than anything else he's done this season, and seems to suggest he is coming to terms with his place on the island. Or maybe it's because his frustration after finding out that Ben's seeming lack of knowledge about Smokey was in fact yet more subterfuge. Perhaps Locke knows he is closer to the answers he seeks than ever.

Speaking of answers, remember when the snotty psychiatrist Harper commented that Ben was interested in Juliet because she "looks just like her," leading many to assume she was talking about either Annie or his mother? Is this a picture of his mother (which seems likely, considering the likeness)?

That looks as much like Juliet as anyone else. It's a bit murky so I can't tell, but the similarity to Elizabeth Mitchell struck me as notable.

Is this the most exciting non-pr0n swing set in history?

It's seen gunfire, death, captivity, ghost hauntings etc. I guess now the Barracks have become a charnel house for the millionth time in its history, we won't be going back there, at least for a time. Bye, Swings of Excitement!

Check it out! Ben was in London! The actual real London, according to reports.

Jack Bender and Michael Emerson flew over here just for one scene? That's dedication to the cause. Or maybe there is more to come. Who knows?

Of all the revelations of the episode, my favourite might have been the news that Doctor Ecklie is alive on the boat while dead on the island. That said, how is the sat-phone working? The time differential stuff is already making my brain hurt trying to understand it all without that complicating matters. Though it's a useful bit of gear to keep the show going, I really hope they don't fluff the reveal of how it works, though I can't imagine they will spend too long explaining it. I do expect to find out it was designed by Faraday, though.

It's a pity we didn't get to see more of the amusingly named Ishmael Bakir, played by Faran Tahir, soon to be seen in Iron Man. Perhaps we will get to see whether he was indeed responsible for Nadia's death in future. Or perhaps I'm just blowing smoke out of my ass.

Speaking of actors departing the show, sad to see Tania Raymonde leave in such an unpleasant manner. I was never really sure what to make of her character, but her final scenes were heartbreaking, and not just because Michael Emerson really acted the shit out of them. Raymonde was great too, really selling her fear.

I was glad we didn't get to see her face as Ben told Keamy he wasn't her father. The scene was already too raw for me to have coped with the sight of her hearing that information.

Right, time to wrap this up, with the next episode about to air in the US. I'll leave you with this, Sawyer in full on action effect bitches! Check out the multiple redshirt deaths, and Sawyer's hilarious efforts to save them.

1 comment:

johnilf said...

Thats got to be up there with the best best of them Admirsl, not because of the obvious reason but because of what you wrote. Less episodes means more pace and story cramming, which has suited this series down to the ground so far and the reason why it is topping the previous 3 seasons. Oh, man. Wgat a bloody top episode, ticked all the boxes why i love Lost.