Sunday, June 28, 2009
[Warning -- Contains spoilers]
At last. After enjoying the first season and suffering through chunks of the subsequent two, I couldn't see what any of the fuss was about over this show. Oh, it was ambitious and mad, all right, more so than any other series ever made. But hype and cliffhangers do not a show make, and with only a few exceptions the show could not compete with even the weakest of Sorkin-era West Wing, Whedonverse TV and certainly The Wire or The Sopranos. The third season in particular wasted so much of my time that when I stumbled across a good episode, I felt it was just the writers' attempt to keep ratings afloat over a quality shift. Nevertheless, the final four or five episodes kicked things into a higher gear than ever before, and the absolutely perfect season finale for once earned a nail-biting frenzy instead of just forcing one on the audience.
But that's nothing compared to the fourth season. When my friends and seemingly the entire Internet stressed the show's brilliance to me, I can only assume the fourth season is what they had in mind. I haven't seen such a turn-around in a series since Angel made up for its dead-end of a fourth season with its transcendent final season, and this may top that as a mea culpa (I'd still pick Angel S5 for quality). The establishment of a concrete end following "Through the Looking Glass" split the proposed final 48 episodes into three seasons of 16 episodes each, though the writer's strike cut this season down to 14. In my review of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, I cited the web miniseries as the greatest thing to come out of the 2007-08 WGA Writer's Strike. That proclamation may have been somewhat premature, as this is the only true television series that actually benefited from its truncated length, as each episode sprints forward with great new twists, characters and situations that add more story per episode than the entire second season and most of S3.
The last season ended on an uneasy note, with the promise of rescue from a boat that Charlie -- right before his tragic demise -- discovered had ulterior motives and the knowledge that at least a few characters indeed made it off the island and that the strange little patch of land still exerted a pull on them. It was heady stuff that needed to be tackled as soon as possible, so I was nervous that the writers would do their usual shtick and answer a few questions while raising too many too quickly, only to pull it together in the final stretch.
Not so, as "The Beginning of the End" rivals the preceding finale for rich storytelling and emotionally involving character drama. Chief among the changes it brings are the four characters from the freighter Kahana sent to the island to retrieve their fallen comrade, Naomi, and ostensibly to rescue the survivors. They are physicist Daniel Farady (Jeremy Davies), psychic Miles Straume (Ken Leung), archaeologist Charlotte Lewis (Rebecca Mader) and Frank Lapidus (Jeff Fahey), a pilot who was supposed to be the one flying Oceanic 815 the day of the crash. It's a strange crew to be sure, but they acclimate in no time.
Ben's desperation to keep people on the island last season seemed more borne out of megalomania than concern for the island, but the Kahana crew slowly divulge that their freighter is not here for rescue: they're paid by Charles Widmore, father to Penny (Desmond's on-again off-again girlfriend), and they're on the island to find and capture Benamin Linus. The four who interact with Jack and Locke's branches of the survivors are not there for destruction but research, their reasons for coming to the island explained in the excellent "Confirmed Dead," easily the best flashback episode since "Walkabout."
Not only are these new character given compelling stories, however; for once, the old characters don't fall into their usual tricks while we wait to see more of the new guys. Linus in particular grows from his calmly sadistic self into a sort of tragic figure; he knows the real fight is with Widmore, so he devotes all of his attention to convincing the Oceanic survivors of the impending danger and starts scheming for the inevitable fight.
So, it's wartime yet again for our poor characters, this time against a team of mercenaries led by the ruthless Keamy (Kevin Durand), who actually manages to surprise and even hurt Ben through his disregard for any sense of morality. Jack just wants to get off the island, but now Locke sees that, underneath Ben's selfishness and egoism, he's right to fear the arrival of this freighter (and not just because they're after him). Widmore built a mock-up of Oceanic 815 to place at the bottom of the ocean to make the world believe that all hands were lost, so why would he want any of the actual survivors to make it off the island in his efforts to purge the Others.
This gripping new conflict splits old factions and joins new ones, and it's juxtaposed wonderfully with the new flashforwards, which make episodes like "The Economist" and "Ji Yeon" all the more interesting. The writers know how confusing it can all get, and that's why they made their trippiest (and greatest) episode yet, "The Constant." The island is still the great mystery of the show, with no explorations of what is is, only what it can do. One of those things is apparently bending the time-space continuum, as Frank must be very careful to follow an exact bearing as he pilots his helicopter to and from the island. When he goes slightly off-course, Desmond, already the victim of some temporal displacement, becomes "unstuck in time." Upon reaching the freighter with Frank and Sayid, he alternates between the 2004 present and his '96 past in the Royal Scots Regiment.
The result is some truly inspired storytelling that makes the best sense of time travel as any other show or film you're likely to see: he vacillates bewildered from a freighter full of potential hostiles to basic training where he inadvertently earns the ire of the drill sergeant, much to the chagrin of his buddy Billy -- and if that isn't a reference to Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse-Five, I'll eat my hat. For a show that spent much of the last season adrift in terms of internal logic, seemingly at the mercy of the writers' imaginations, it's impressive how this episode can leap into that death trap that is time travel and emerge unscathed. I didn't think "Through the Looking Glass" could ever be topped, and certainly not by an innocuously placed episode in the early section of the season.
For the first time, I really have to struggle to come up with anything solid to critique on the show, and anything I can pinpoint generally only applies to one episode and is not some thematic or character flaw that runs through the season. The flashforward of Kate's trial in "Eggtown" and her subsequent relationship with Jack in that episode and "Something Nice Back Home" only show the worst aspects of those characters -- Kate's uselessness as a character, Jack's need to be in control -- that we've seen time and again. Still, the latter episode is worth watching for the subplot involving Jack's appendicitis and makeshift operation, giving the show its first real survival scenario since the first season.
The only episode that stands out as truly weak is "Meet Kevin Johnson," which brings back Michael at the expense of all continuity. In an episode comprised mostly of flashbacks, we see Michael and Walt get off the island after the events of S2, only for Michael to go mad with guilt and try to kill himself. The island won't allow him, however, so he begins taking orders from Ben via off-island communications by a then-alive Tom. Ben assigns him to the Kahana, where he plays mind games because, well, I guess it's the old story about the frog and the scorpion, innit? The problem with this episode is that it crams all of Michael's inner turmoil into about slightly more than a week, and it sullies a once-interesting character. Michael's guilt could (and should) have been a fascinating arc, but it's instead relegated to this episode that shows, not tells -- and not well, at that.
Lindelof responded to the criticisms of this episode by mocking "nitpicking" fanboys and defending the script thusly: "it's television." That is everything that was wrong about Lost at its worst moments in the second and third seasons: a total lack of effort in making the show obey its own logic in favor of simply doing things the writers think are cool. It's that mindset that kept me from fully investing in the series for so long, and to see an episode obeying this half-assed notion of screenwriting in the middle of such brilliance is grating.
Happily, that's the one episode that falters in an otherwise outstanding season of television. The three-part finale, "No Place Like Home," does not reach the same heights as the previous season ender in terms of future plot implications and character moments, but it makes up for it in pure craziness that, in contrast to some of the stranger elements of the previous season, works. I mean, you can move the damn island? For such a revelation not to mean jumping the shark in a lead-lined fridge that survived a nuclear detonation takes finesse, and the writers pull it off with style.
Of the 14 episodes, (or 8, depending on how you count multi-part episodes) -- the first three episodes, "The Constant," "The Shape of Things to Come" (which will likely land Michael Emerson an Emmy) and the finale -- are on the short list of the series' finest moments. With the exception of "Meet Kevin Johnson," the rest are all high-quality.
Apart from Cuse and Lindelof, who are on fire this season, the best writers are mainstay Drew Goddard and comic book writer Brian K. Vaughan, author of several of the best comic series of the decade. Vaughan came aboard last season as a story editor and wrote the solid "Catch-22," but his scripts with Goddard demonstrate the best character exploration the show has to offer. With Vaughan producing, the lines seem sharper, the characters more defined outside of their ubiquitous father issues and the plots don't get ahead of themselves, even as they take some of the boldest steps yet seen. Showing us who got off the island might have robbed a lesser series of the intrigue of the increasingly apparent evil of the Kahana, yet the show is structured in a way that makes it obvious that the "Oceanic Six" aren't the only people who lived through the ordeal, and that those people must return to the island to save the ones left behind.
As much as I'm a fan of Vaughan, though, it would be a disservice to pin the upswing in quality entirely or even mostly on him: the deadline might have been a stunt to convince wavering viewers that the writers had a plan, but Cuse, Lindelof and their team of writers clearly display a set goal with these episodes, and the show excels because of it. Lost's fourth season, quite frankly, belongs on any sensible list of the greatest seasons of television of the last 20 years and, given the proliferation of ambitious, cinematic TV in that time, in the medium's entire history.