Friday, January 30, 2009

1/30/09 - Lost: Season 5, episodes 1-3

I'm a huge Lost fan, and I have to say that for all of its easily identified flaws (an overreliance on surprise reveals, a certain stinginess with revealing secrets, a really weird balance between its invisible redshirts and prominently displayed prime time players, and some large logic/plot holes), the show is attempting to pull off something that is insanely ambitious for a network TV series with over 10 million veiwers: namely, to tell a narratively complex sci-fi story with consistent, 3-dimensional characters while narrating in a a variety of nested flashbacks. That's a damned hard task to accomplish in a novel, let alone a series running for multiple years.

One interesting thing to me that I've noticed from discussions with friends of mind that watch the show is that they're not into the time travel angle, they're tired of Lost introducing mystery after mystery with no solution in sight. Which just illuminates the problem that faces the creators and writers of the show - the mystery is always, always more interesting than the resolution. So in a season that sees Lost actually driving towards answering some of the overarching questions that its been posing since day 1, people are losing interest because the resolution is coming into view, or erroneously asserting that the show is only piling on more mysteries.

My counter to that is to say look, watch, and see how many things that the writers are actually pivoting to address now that there's only 2 seasons left:

1. A huge question about the island in the first couple of seasons was succinctly summarized by Charlie as "Where are we?" and could be extrapolated to a greater question of "Why do fucked-up things happen on this island?". Without doing the big speech of exposition (yet), the writers have started filling out the outlines of an answer to this question - the island is a place where time is unstable, and where time has been messed with.

Also, an aside: for people asserting that the time travel is too arbitrary, I would second Alan Sepinwall's excellent recommendation to rent 12 Monkeys. That movie and Back to The Future capture the two competing theories of time travel, as far as I understand it. The Back to the Future model is the butterfly effect theory of time travel.

This is seen in the Ray Bradbury short story A Sound of Thunder that holds that making small changes in the past have a huge effect on the future. Thus, if Marty's parents don't fall in love with each other, Marty will be wiped out of existence.

12 Monkeys, on the other hand, ascribes to the linearity theory of time travel that basically states that the past cannot be changed because it has already happened. Thus, if you went back in time and tried to kill Hitler, for example, you would be unable to do so - maybe the gun would jam, maybe you would be killed en route, but because Hitler survived to start WWII that could not be stopped.

Lost is operating on somewhat of a hybrid model - Desmond has a limited ability to move in time and change things from happening (limited because Charlie eventually had to die), as, it is suggested, does Faraday as a result of his experiments, but the rest of the characters can't change the existing timeline.

2. Why do the Others know so much about the castaways? This question was posed in S1 and deepened throughout S1-S3, and now it seems clear that it has something to do with the time shifts on the island. We are now seeing that Locke has made contact with Richard in the past, which explains all those mysterious assertions in the first couple of seasons that the Others were waiting for Locke to show up.

3. The polar bear? Clearly, related to the Dharma Initiatives experiments with the big wheel. If Ben can be transported to Tunisia and back, so too could a polar bear.

4. Why does Widmore care so much about the island? We don't know yet, but we have now been shown how he first got there by way of the U.S. military.

5. What is the Dharma Initiative doing? We don't know the full details, but the big time wheel is clearly something that has prompted their scientific interest.

6. Who is the con man that caused Sawyer so much pain? Anthony Cooper, Locke's dad, and he's toast.

There are more, but that's just a representative sample to rebut the idea that Lost never answers the questions that its raising. Since they pinned an end date to the show I'm a lot more confident that they are moving toward resolution, which parodoxically seems to make people less interested.

Thoughts on Eps. 1-3:
  • Faraday is a great character. A strength of Lost is that for the most part they have been able to effectively introduce new characters and fold them into the existing ensemble if they take the time and care to do so. We're starting to get hints that Faraday has some dark secrets in his past related to the whole knowledge over morality dilemma portrayed in so many stories of the tragic scientist. In addition he's shown as being present at the discovery of the time wheel by the Dharma initiative - looks like Dan's actually the man with the answers. Just don't expect him to give any since he's terminally twitchy and stressed.
  • Charlotte is not a great character. A weakness of Lost is that with such a large ensemble sometimes they can't get a character defined before they have to be a part of the action, the way that the first 2 seasons had the luxury of fleshing out the main players through all the flashbacks. Charlotte has a perpetually pissed-off look on her face, and Faraday cares about her, but that seems like all we know about her. So who cares if she gets the time travel disease?
  • Jack and Kate have moved from compellingly tortured to really, really uninteresting. Ep. 3 was the best episode of the season so far partially due to the fact that Desmond was the protagonist of the main story, Sawyer and Faraday took the lead in the secondary story, and Jack and Kate off-island were nowhere to be found.
  • Sun slipping into the morally ambiguous realm is a great move. We've seen the pain that could underpin any destructive course of action she might choose to pursue.
  • They're going to milk Ben's good/evil ambiguity for all that its worth. Although I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't wind up the Wizard of Oz figure, the small man behind the curtain. Now that we're seeing that Richard is really the power behind the Others, it gives more perspective on the leadership conflicts between he and Ben once Ben came on the scene.
  • Are the whispers we always used to hear in the woods related to the unstuck in time nature of the island?
More after episode 4 - I'm still all in.

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