Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Lost - Before You Left / The Lie

The return of my favourite show of the last five years that doesn't feature a team of corrupt cops in LA or a foulmouthed barkeep in the Wild West is normally a cause for celebration. Proper Bacchanalian celebration with enough fireworks to blast the moon out of orbit. And yet, this week's two-episode season premiere happened with barely any fanfare on this blog or in my brain. Partially it's because, as I said in this post, I'm busy and distracted by unavoidable and unpleasant RL stuff, which has dampened my usual enthusiasm, but it's also because Lost, a show whose main attraction, certainly for a lot of its fanbase, is its willingness to spin plates and tease us with answers to questions that turn out to be questions themselves. It's been thrilling to go on this journey, but we're approaching the end, and those questions will now be answered with answers, and my confidence in the show's ability to excite me faltered during the hiatus.

Certainly that is not the only reason to love it, but it's what makes Lost more than just an entertaining sci fi show. The speculation is half of the fun, and as someone said a while back, as we find out more about the central mystery, options for possible answers collapse like eigenstates, leaving us with what will eventually be a much more conventional story than some of us have expected. In the past I've tried to keep my own theories conservative, but even so, and even though I love the show like crazy, I don't expect anything out of leftfield any more. Other than an hour of shirtless Sawyer.

That said, I've been expecting that shift for a while now, and thought last season would feature a closing down of possibilities, but it actually featured even more pleasantly obfuscating craziness than I had expected, including Ben's summoning of Smokey, Richard Alpert and Matthew Abaddon's interest in Locke's childhood, the frozen donkey wheel, and Claire's internment in Jacob's shack, to name just a few. This season, however, I had a suspicion that we would see the show become a little more conventional as the WTFs get addressed in a less mystical manner, and the two episode season opener didn't dissuade me from that belief.

Part of it is the possibility that some of the theories will turn out to be correct, meaning some of our expectations will be satisfied instead of confounded. Lost may be the only mystery story told where the fans will become increasingly frustrated by a story resolving itself with answers (note that I said fans, by which I mean the Lostpedia-surfing hardcore, not the majority of fans, who will almost certainly be thrilled). One theory thrown about that seemed likely was that the whispers heard on the island were from the survivors, that some time-travelling weirdness had thrown them back in time, so that they were observing what was going on and commenting on it from a nearby treeline.

This opener strengthened that theory, though it had the added twist of showing us Dharma activity that we would otherwise never have seen. That was a great use of the time travel dynamic, and the showrunners seem committed to keeping continuity on the table and paradox off it, but then, just to piss me off, we also had Faraday meeting Desmond during his Swan station tenure, which lead to his conveniently timed memory flash back in the present (i.e. three years after leaving the island), which smacked of contrivance.

Why did that memory return at that point? The only reason is because the story needed it for full dramatic effect, which either means some uncharacteristically shoddy plotting on the part of the showrunners, or the satisfaction of the audience has suddenly become a variable in the Lostverse. I know I've said before that I love how the showrunners have made the fans' speculation part of their storytelling process, but that would be a step too far.

To be honest, that part of the show is in danger of running amok. Too many fan in-jokes and winks at the audience cluttered these episodes, which were otherwise committed to rattling off as much backstory and plot as possible. It was a bit cutesy, and while that might have been a corrective against too much downbeat atmospherics, the show drew attention to itself in a way it hasn't done before. That's not to say I didn't find it funny. Ben and Richard Alpert had some funny moments, for instance, and Neil Frogurt's death by flaming arrow jolted a laugh out of me even while I thought it was a bit of a laboured gag. Even so, it was already hard to take Sayid's lengthy incapacitation seriously, in that it seemed like a contrived way to keep Sayid out of the picture while Hurley wrestled with his demons, as well as giving Hurley space to get arrested at the end.

Add to that the absurd sight of him being carted from one location to another like, as many have already stated, Bernie from Weekend at Bernie's, and the traditionally broad Hurley-centric episodes written by Kitsis and Horowitz did a good job of dissipating the suspense of Cuselof's opener (it feels wrong to add that movie to the list of works of art that have influenced this show). Perhaps aired individually the episodes might have worked a bit better, though we wouldn't have had the phrase "Then God help us" uttered by Chang and Hawking at the beginning and end of the two-parter respectively. That's a touch I didn't pick up on first time around. (Check out the candles framing Miss Hawking's face. Lovely.)

Of course, it wasn't all bad. Having the remaining survivors a-bippin' an' a-boppin' through time removes one of my concerns about season five; that we would see the Oceanic Six get exclusive screentime for a couple of episodes before heading back to the island, where we would then have flashbacks of what had happened on the island during those three years. That could have been confusing, as we would be getting on-island footage from two time-periods at once, which has never been a problem before.

Also, after having the show's format shaken up last season, the possibility of on-island flashbacks would have seemed like a step back even though the content of those flashbacks would have been exciting. Instead, we've got the entertaining twist that the characters are now experiencing those flashbacks firsthand, participating in them and commenting on them. The best parts of this two-parter were spent trying to figure out what was going on and where everyone was within the chronology. The off-island stuff didn't excite anywhere near as much, especially Hurley's long-drawn-out crisis of confidence, which seemed contrived and inconsequential despite some terrific work from Jorge Garcia. I especially liked his Flying Hot Pocket of Death maneuver.

In terms of "what the hell is going on?", my Sirens of Titan theory (scroll down) is still viable, though it is hinted here that it's not time agents trying to maintain the temporal status quo but time itself, which brings back nostalgic memories of Sapphire and Steel, where Time was sentient and evil. Here it seems like it is somehow patching itself up when damaged by the obnoxious actions of humans who are either trying to harness the power of the Frozen Donkey Wheel Chamber, or are unstuck in time like the few remaining Oceanic survivors.

In fact, just a quick look through the online speculation about the most recent "revelations" (can anything on this show ever be considered definitive enough to be referred to as a revelation?) shows that many people consider this season to be more in debt to Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5, with its timelost protagonist Billy Pilgrim skipping from time period to time period. As I've yet to read that, I can't comment, and so will stick with my main theory for now. Certainly, that amazing opening sequence, with Pierre Chang being shadowed by Faraday, suggests there is going to be a lot of the back-history of the show caused by our protagonists.

But, as I said, any satisfaction I will get from correctly predicting what is going on (if indeed I am on the right tracks) will be tempered by my frustration at not being surprised by the mystery. I'd much rather be caught out by something than suss it out. Puzzle narratives often frustrate me, even though I love them. I remember desperately hoping that Gabriel Byrne really was Keyser Soze, as postulated by Chazz Palminteri at the end of The Usual Suspects, as I'd figured out it was Kevin Spacey early on and wanted to be proved wrong.

That's why Lost's emotional drama is the thing that will separate it from the usual puzzle narratives. Whatever the mystery turns out to be, the truly important answers will concern the fates of the characters. Is Charlotte doomed to die in horrible pain like Minkowski? Will Penny be murdered by Ben? Will Jack find peace? Is Jin alive? Is anyone actually dead? What's going to happen to Walt? Is Locke really going to lead anyone at any point, or is he doomed to be throwing knives from the bushes for the rest of the series? I'm sure when the final episode airs non-fans will be carping that the final revelations are not that impressive, but to the fans, that won't be what we take from it. We care about these characters, and we'll be alternately happy and upset depending on who prevails and who dies. Knowing that the final mystery revealed is the identity of Adam and Eve, I expect there will be tears.

A lot of these concerns have been rattling through my head for a while now, and a lot of it is pointless worry that will be rendered moot as the show progresses. However, the two episode opener was still a little disappointing on first viewing, though a second viewing and reading fan feedback on the net has made me fonder of them. My upset is obviously a symptom of my current malaise, as I took some silly things way too seriously, allowing them to fester in my mind until they all added up to proof that the show had finally gone off the boil. ::sigh:: This is all because I got depressed upon hearing Drew Goddard had left the show to make Cabin in the Woods with Whedon, you know.

So what were the things that bugged me? There's an absolutely terribly written and performed newscast at one point that shocked me, for one. It always amazes me how often news broadcasts in shows or films come off as unconvincing facsimiles of the real thing. There's a template for news pieces that anyone with even the most fundamental knowledge of journalism could emulate, but so often it doesn't happen. For Crom's sake, the news-speak on The Day Today is the best example of a fake news programme sounding just like a real one, even though that features news stories about John Major beating up the Queen and a horse infestation in the London underground. Why can't anything else get it that right?

Sorry, personal bugbear. There was also some dreadfully on-the-nose dialogue, which might have been a consequence of the show rushing through so much plot, but even so, something like Charlotte responding to Faraday's enquiry into her health by cheerfully commenting that she had forgotten her mother's maiden name fell from our screen with a dull clang. Hurley's sudden obsession with the truth and his vow to never help Sayid again (prior to seeing him help Sayid) was another example that irked. Though, as I said earlier, it's tempered by my respect for Garcia, especially during his tearful confession scene, which was one of the highlights of the opener.

Some plot mechanics were equally contrived. Considering Hurley is supposed to have killed three people, the police did a lousy job of looking for him. The visit to his house was awfully polite, with a bit of a chat with Cheech Marin before leaving without turning the place upside-down, and again, later letting Cheech drive away without searching the car, or getting someone to tail him. Of course, if I turns out they are agents of Widmore I take it back, though surely they would be even more ruthless.

Also annoying was the show's sudden over-reliance on last minute reveals. A door opens. Someone pulls Hurley over and... It's Ghost-Ana-Lucia! WTF? Kate says hi to someone who is not facing us and... It's Sun! Dun dun duuuuun! Someone gets some beer out of a fridge. He walks up some stairs and... It's Frank! OMG! A man gets out of bed, listens to some Willie Nelson, gets ready for work, walks in front of a camera and... Holy shit, it's Dr. Pierre Chang! Outrageous! By the end of the second episode it was getting ridiculous, even though the reveals of Ana-Lucia, Ethan Rom, and Miss Hawking were surprising (less so for Michelle Rodriguez, as her appearance had been spoiled for me a while back). If the show is going to rely on this kind of silly delay-and-reveal stuff for the rest of the season, I'll be seriously pissed.

Speaking of Pierre Chang, aka Fran├žois Chau (who, bizarrely, played Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze), he sure as hell delivered his dialogue at an outrageous acting volume. Until now he's only been asked to intone Dharma info for the initiation videos, but here he gets to bellow warnings about dangerous time-energy leakages. It was hardly subtle. But enough of this carping. There was much to praise, as there always is. If Chang was performed at an inappropriately hysterical pitch, the performances from the huge main cast was invariably spot on and filled with character.

Kudos especially to Yunjin Kim, who only had a couple of scenes but performed them brilliantly. Her transformation into creepy angel of vengeance is complete, her conversation with Kate brimming with barely suppressed rage. Her role in the outcome of this story is completely up in the air right now, but if I were Jack, I'd be worried. And probably crying about something or other.

I'm now completely over my dislike of Jeremy Davies and his seemingly bottomless bag of acting tics. He grew on me in the fourth season, and in these episodes, trying to keep his scattered brain in check and presenting a face of calm to the survivors even as Charlotte's fate becomes unclear, he was fantastic. Seeing him hanging around in the cave that will become the Orchid station will be remembered as one of the great Lost WTF moments, though I suspect this means he's doomed to do something incredibly bad in order to save Charlotte. Some online speculation has brought up the possibility of his actions bringing about The Incident, even though that seemed localised around Swan station, not Orchid, though it's telling that Chang is filming his Arrow orientation video while wearing a Swan coat.

There's talk this is a continuity flub, but I'm not so sure. Time will tell. (Geddit?!?!?)

Terry O'Quinn had some great moments too, abruptly left alone only moments after inheriting control over the Others. His terror was especially affecting, as even the visit by Alpert could do nothing to calm him down. Only a spot of murderous knife-flinging in the final scenes seemed to restore his equilibrium. Now that he's saved Juliet and Sawyer I think I can forgive him for killing Naomi. Speaking of Locke, his scene with Alpert was surprisingly unambiguous, but has thrown up several interesting questions about where Lost is heading, and it all revolves around a compass.

Lostpedia maintains that this compass, that Alpert gives Locke to give back to himself at a later date, is indeed the same one shown to Young John Locke by Alpert in the episode Cabin Fever, though it does look a bit different so who can say, but of course, if this compass is indeed the same one, then Locke will probably go back in time to before that moment, hand the compass over to Alpert, tell him who he is, and then disappear again. Following that, Alpert will track Locke down, and show him this compass in the hopes that he will recognise it. That struck me as odd at first. Wouldn't Alpert realise that Young Locke has no way of recognising an object that he doesn't yet own? However, it's entirely in keeping with what's going on, and only confused me because I'd been so distracted by the connection between the multiple choice question Alpert asked Locke and its similarity to the ceremony used by Panchen Lamas to find the next Dalai Lama. It was actually a very straight question; Alpert thought Young Locke already had a compass like that one. Instead Young Locke just picked up a knife because... what? He wants to be an adventurer? He's a potentially violent guy with serious issues? Who knows.

The suspicion among Lost speculators is that Locke was visited by Alpert because he is somehow destined to be leader of the Others/Hostiles because the island willed it to be so. Instead, mysticism is not part of it at all. Alpert had already met Locke, and was chasing him down to find answers to this peculiar riddle in his past. That's all. At least, that's how it seems right now. This is the first time in a while that the idea that the island is somehow sentient, something speculators had been taking for granted, is off the table. Are we now entering a period when we visit the idea that the scientific anomaly that lies within the island has inspired different kinds of religious awe in the gullible population? Do the Others and the Dharma Initiative represent the battle between religion and science for the minds of the world? Seeing Miss Hawking doing very complicated maths in the basement of a church suggests there is maybe a reconciliation between the two.

It strikes me that these two episodes, despite featuring a lot of new information, didn't leave as much room for speculation as usual. They were pretty straight forward, which is probably why I have been complaining about how the possibilities are closing down. Instead of the curious meandering that has thrilled me and a number of other crazed fans, it delivered more pace instead, either through expositiony dialogue, which pissed me off, or with action, especially a thrilling night attack with flaming arrows, of all things.

Anyway, I'm not really that worried about the show, especially after seeing the first two again. It's just where my head is at right now, tainting almost everything I watch with sour emotions. Hopefully I can get myself together and properly appraise this season as it unfolds. Word has it the next episode, Jughead, is a corker. I hope so. Before then, some observations about miscellaneous moments from the opener.

Kinda weird to find out that Ben's League of Time-Travelling Commandos includes a butcher. Later on we see Miss Hawking surrounded by candles. It's only a matter of time before Ben visits a baker and says something cryptic like, "The yeast is rising. If we're going to stop Widmore, I need you to make a batch of Death Ciabatta. Or some Maim Bagels."

I didn't see the credits on this episode, but I was wondering if anyone was listed as Jack's Sweat Wrangler.

Perspiration Spritzer? Withdrawal Emulation Expert - H2O? A shot of his back made Canyon speculate on how stinky Jack is right now. I didn't need to be thinking about that. Kate is very upset to find out that she is no longer the stinkiest person on the show.

I love how Hurley's house is full of absolute crap bought using his winnings. A lovely touch. I could have shown about twenty screengrabs of that location, all cluttered with horrible out-of-place tat.

Awesome cameo work from William Mapother as everyone's favourite anagrammatic Other, Ethan Rom. His hair was also very entertaining. It looks about ten shades darker than it did before. Real life vanity? Or just a way to try to make him look younger?

Would you buy a used chance-at-redemption from this man? Look at that smile! It's more insincere and unconvincing than Gwyneth Paltrow's efforts to portray herself as the upper-class white Oprah.

Yay it's Frank! They got him back for this episode, so hopefully that means we'll get more of him. If not, the United Brotherhood of Frank Lapidus Fans (UBFLuFf) will have something to say about that.

Is everyone with me on the, "OMG Sawyer, Juliet is a way better fit for you than Kate!" thing? Look at them! The combined hottness is almost impossible to comprehend.

Though Sawyer really needs to cool down. His barely suppressed fury over what he thinks is the death of his beloved Kate was a sight to behold. It's a testament to Josh Holloway's evolution as an actor that he managed to be funny, scary, and tragic, all while wearing nothing but a pair of jeans.

Cheer up Desmond and Penny! It might never happen, though if it does, there's always a chance you'll have to experience it twice, what with all the time-travelling and whatnot.

Who the hell is Jones? And how did he like having a Locke-rock right in the chops?

In the "previously on" we see Sayid with his post-island straight hair, which looks like it took a long time to style. Look what happens once he's killed two men using gravity and a fully-loaded dishwasher; instant Jarrah curls.

Yet again Locke falls off something, and is rendered unable to move, though thankfully it wasn't an eight-storey drop this time. I guess the show will still be having echoes of echoes even though the original format has been ditched for this meta-format.

Is Sayid the baddestass badass in the world of TV? Okay, so Jack Bauer beheads pedophiles, breaks people's necks whilst having a heart attack, and enjoys snacking on terrorist-throat, but Sayid kills a man - using a dishwasher! - after being hit by two tranq darts. I think that counts for something. If he had the chance, Sayid would eat all the throats, I bet.

Speaking of badasses, there is evidence that Juliet is becoming a badass. What evidence I hear you ask? Here is a picture of her with a gun.

That is all.

1 comment:

sjwoo said...

I really enjoyed the ride. The whole time shifting thing reminded me of the last episode of STTNG, where Picard jumps through all of those different time periods. I just really dug seeing bits and pieces of the show's past -- it made me love the story that much more, remembering all those plot points.

At this point, I have no doubt that in the end, the show will disappoint me. I doubt the showrunners will pull a David Chase on us, but explanation or no explanation, the trip will be over and one of the most involving shows in the history of television will be over, and I'll be sad.