The Nighttime Novelist...accomplishes more in about 240 pages than a dozen other "how to write" or "craft your novel" books have ever done.

--Helen Gallagher/Blogcritics




Tuesday, May 25, 2010

LOST: Thou Art Redeemed (Part II)

The worst effect, I believed, of introducing the Jacob/MiB thread this season and making it the primary conflict is that it seemed to render the conflict in the rest of the show misdirected at best, completely unimportant at worst. The struggle was between two guys who, again, we didn't have a clue about, and everyone else was just a pawn.

Okay: it's true that, in some sense, this conflict has been at least suggested by the show since the pilot episode, when John Locke holds up his backgammon pieces and says, "Two sides. One light, the other dark." And the continual light/dark imagery throughout the show's run goes back to this conflict, sure. But that's also a rather broad conflict to have: good vs. evil. Right vs. wrong. You could fill in just about any personal (or public, or civil, or uncivil) conflict and put it in these terms if you were so motivated. To say the show is about good vs. evil, and has been from the beginning, would be, perhaps, true...but you could say the same thing about almost anything on television, except for MTV and Fox News and The Biggest Loser, which are only about evil.

Even when Jack took on Jacob's role at the end of "What They Died For," I didn't care. Jack was sure it was his destiny, that he had to do this (drink the magic potion), but Jack was also pretty sure about setting off the hydrogen bomb at the end of S5, too. And getting off the island in S3. And, well...Jack has been sure of a lot over the years, conveniently at the end of each season, and he'd been right approximately 0% of the time. So he was going to take on Jacob's role and fight the MiB, who's of course taken on John's role, or at least his appearance, for possession of the island.

Didn't care.

Then last night: we hit the climactic battle, the highest point of conflict for the season and the series--the battle atop the cliff, the Rumble Near the Jungle--and amazingly not only did I care, but I realized that this was the only possible showdown we could be watching right at this moment. This is what we'd been set up for in those earliest episodes. Not Jacob vs. the MiB, not good vs. evil on some abstract level, but Jack Shepherd vs. John Locke.

Throughout the first season John Locke is the closest thing we have to an antagonist. Sure, mid-season we get some Others to start worrying about, especially when Ethan Rom, played like a zombie Barney Rubble by William Mapother, shows up and then steals Claire in "All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues," one of the best shows of the entire run. And we get the impending threat of this outside presence with Rousseau's crazed warnings about Others and Whispers, a few infiltrations and deaths, black smoke (different black smoke) on the horizon and, finally, the S1 finale kicker, the hillbilly rescuers who instead "take the boy." But even then, when John Locke waves his arm and yells, "They've attacked us, sabotaged us, abducted us, murdered us...We're not the only people on this island, and we ALL KNOW IT" the audience is still looking at Locke, not out at the horizon, and wondering what he's scheming.

Part of the joy of watching Terry O'Quinn's performance that first year was trying to get a read on John Locke: he was either a messiah or a maniac. Call the conflict between he and Jack faith vs. science, or stubble vs. bald, or simply strong personalities clashing in big ways. But from the beginning, that was the clearest conflict of the show: It was Jack vs. Locke.

The problem with this, of course, is that both were really protagonists. And once we hit S2 and really start bringing in the Others, there were many more external villains to be concerned over. Locke simply became a messianic counter-point, until he became a broken man due to his faith being shaken, and then a pawn for a column of smoke, and then dead. But that first season especially, Locke was a force of nature. And you had no idea which was right, which camp you should be in, Jack's or Locke's...but you knew there'd come a time when you'd have to make a choice.

I'd forgotten all about this level of conflict, and how much fun it was, how inevitable the conflict seemed early on, until the climactic battle in the finale, and then I realized it was the battle I'd been waiting these years to see. Not Jack and Sawyer punching it out. (Even that took five seasons.) Not even Ben pulling strings and being devious, and certainly not Jacob and his brother fighting with their magical powers and trying to out-sullen one another. Jack vs. Locke is where we started, and that's where we end.

This was the first time the Old Switcheroo of Locke to MiB made any sense at all to me, other than cynically, with the producers wanting to kill the character but keep Terry O'Quinn. In order for this conflict to finally boil over, both couldn't be protagonists. One would have to become light, the other the darkness, while not betraying who either one was as a character, fundamentally. So, Locke was Locke but not Locke, and Jack was sorta-Jacob but really a better version of Jack. Jack would redeem himself and avenge Locke's death by beating the crap out of, well, Locke. And the rain came down in beautiful Saving Private Ryan film speeds.

In the Beginning Is The End
But the fight scene is not what saved the season or the show for me, nor was it the rumbling island and $10 million special effects, though I enjoyed all of these. Those big booming moments are in no way the reason I'm still thinking about the finale now, or why I emptied hankies'-worth of snot into Kleenex last night in front of my television.

It was the hour of rather quiet denouement, doing what denouement is supposed to do: remind us of where we began and what was at stake, remind us of what's been gained or lost in pursuit of the goal, and offer us an ending that concludes the journey in some satisfying way but also keeps the story open, makes us want to go back and enjoy the world of the story longer. In the denouement the story did what I was afraid the season had forgotten to do: look to the beginning at what was really important, where we began, and make sure the ending, whether win or lose, pointed straight back.

The biggest way this was done was fulfilling Jack's arc as a character. We see him in the last shot as we see him in the first, on his back in the bamboo and looking up at the sky. But if the starting and closing images look similar, we understand there's a world of change between them. I don't know why it never occurred to me that the last shot of the series would be Jack in this position, now closing his eye. Because as soon as I saw it, I realized it was the only ending possible. I should've seen this from a mile away, and I was delighted I didn't.

That speaks not only to how denouement works, or to how a character arc is completed in an artful way, but to the use of surprise, period, in the end of a story. When it works, surprise, or the "twist" ending, catches us completely off guard in the moment it happens, but in the very next we realize it was an inevitable turn, that we can work backwards from it and see that the surprise was in front of us all along.

Case in point is the flash-sideways, perhaps the thing I hated most (at the time) about this season...and which, now that it's been revealed for what it truly is, has a wonderful poetic justice and symmetry.

Again, I ought to've seen coming. Even before the pilot episode aired, when it was shown at the 2004 Comic-Con in San Diego to rave nerd reviews, the first, most persistent theory was that the Lostaways were not on an island at all but were dead, in--dare I say it?--Purgatory. (It pains me even to use the word, because it's so absurd that it's become a LOST punchline.)

So, at what point did I realize that's what the flash-sideways actually was? That it wasn't a completely new reality, created by denotaing the hydrogen bomb, but was in fact the souls of these troubled characters trying to come to terms with their lives and move on to the next world?

Never. Not even when I saw the stained glass window in the church which held not just the cross but the Star of David, the Om, the yin-yang; I simply thought, Oh wow, I'd like one of those. It wasn't until Jack, standing in front of his dead father, said, "I died, too" that I realized what the flash-sideways was. And as soon as I realized, I felt like a dope that the thought never once occurred to me, and felt exhilarated for the same reason. Suddenly all that time wasted on the new timeline was never wasted at all but was, in fact, a part of the metaphysical questioning that's been a feature of the show since the beginning (especially the beginning, as each new season has taken the story in a different direction, to the point where, if you had seen S3 and your friend, S2, you couldn't even have a conversation about it). All those "separate" lives in the alt-world that looked pointless to me throughout the season suddenly looked meaningful. All those cameos that bugged me in the alt timeline--too winking, too random, too unbelievable, I thought--now seemed believable and necessary. The alternate timeline wasn't alternate, or a timeline, but a continuation of the internal problem of the characters, all of them, from the beginning: letting go of the past. Finding peace. Moving on.

Not a deviation from the beginning but a continuation. Not a breaking of the rules but following them through and fulfilling them in unexpected, inevitable ways. I thought S6 had very little to do with S1 until the finale, and now I see S1, the beginning, all over it. It feels full circle, complete.

Of course television is a collaborative medium, and so this feeling of full-circle-ness, of arcing back to the beginning, was achieved by more than the script alone. Credit, for one, Michael Giacchino's gorgeous score which was full of themes and leitmotifs not heard since the first season (and which put me right back there as soon as I heard them). The same goes for the direction of JJ Abrams, the first episode he directed since, yes, the beginning Jack Bender* that visually framed moments from past seasons into the present in subtle, graceful ways: the shot of UnLocke and Jack lowering Desmond down the cave; the shot of Locke wiggling his toes after surgery, combining two moments from two different seasons, S1's "Walkabout" and S2's "Man of Science, Man of Faith" into one; too many shots besides to list.

Just on an emotional level, the relatively quiet moments or reunion, redemption, and completion did the same, Charlie and Claire's reunion, especially. Look back at the major questions and conflicts in that first season and you see them, finally, resolve in a way that's quiet and understated, sure, that takes some unanticipated turns (and some willing suspension of disbelief), but which was in almost every big way satisfying.

Read PART III of this rambling blog.

*ON EDIT: Now where did I get that idea? At any rate, correction made.

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