Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lost — Season 5

[Warning- contains spoilers]

As with the Oceanic Six at the start of Lost's fifth season, I fear I spent too much time off the island. For all my sudden and passionate interest in the Abrams-Cuse-Lindelof mindtrip after its fourth season not only pulled it from the brink but turned the series into something finally worthy of its rabid fanbase, I still found myself easily distracted from continuing to catch up with the series in time for its final season. No doubt, some part of me didn't particularly feel like getting up to speed, only to have to experience this often frustrating series in real-time, forced to wait seven days between non-sequiturs and shock reveals instead of simply plowing through to the end. But I've been steadily swayed by the rabid Facebook status updates, the whispered "can you believe what happened?" onslaught in my classes, and if I could stand watching the final, cryptic season of Battlestar Galactica as it aired, absurd, year-long mid-season break included, I could suck it up and deal with the cliffhangers.

The first and most noticeable change in Lost's narrative -- calling it such seems a kindness on my part at times -- is the addition of, saints preserve us, time travel. Sometimes, you just have to sit back and marvel at the inventive ways these writers can spin their wheels. Following the events of the fourth season finale, in which Ben left the island to save it, the entire island vanished into thin air as Jack and the rest of the Oceanic Six looked back from their escape helicopter and finally understood that the place did have a power after all.

Those left behind move with the island, and soon they find that their camp on the beach has disappeared, and everyone's favorite loony genius, Daniel (Jeremy Davies), says that the survivors can't find it because it hasn't been built yet. Sawyer acts as our stand-in in this moment by promptly getting pissed and channeling all our "you've got to be shitting me" rhetorical exclamations. The troubles are just beginning, however, as Locke is separated from the group and finds himself in the '70s, where he learns of his eventual death from Richard before jutting back to the present and sets off to leave the island himself to bring the people who left back to stabilize the island's time-space jumps.

Most of the information presented in this season, be it answers to old questions or yet more queries comes in the form of "not yet" or "It will," as characters pop through the timeline before Locke's departure from the island stops the time jumps and strands our heroes in 1977 while the rest of the survivors remain in the present...I think. A Lost viewer has to expect a certain amount of run-around and nonsense from the program, and at least the writers get it out of the way fairly early this season. We only need to put up with the huge time skipping for five episodes before they stabilize the timeline, regardless of where the characters ultimately end up. I was particularly pleased that the Oceanic Six arc wrapped up so quickly, terrified as I was that the writers would continue to wring out the "We have to go back!" histrionics until the season finale.

Of course, the nature of their return to the island raises further questions, and involves another plane crash that leaves any new characters (as well as Sun, Frank, Ben and a curiously not-dead Locke) in the present and launches Hurley, Sayid, Jack and Kate back to 1977 to find their buddies living comfortably with the Dharma Initiative, having acclimated three years ago and monitored the building of everything they later found in the present. The return of the missing heroes throws off the idyll the other survivors enjoyed, particularly the relationship between Sawyer and Juliet.

This season, more than any of the others, benefits most from a binge-like watching style. It never hits the highs of the previous season, nor the abysmal lows to be found in seasons two and three. It is generally enjoyable all the way through, provided you never let yourself stop long enough to question just how preposterous it's all become. The time travel angle opens typical questions, such as the possibility of changing the future and preventing Oceanic Flight 815 from crashing in the first place. While I often lose myself in the tedium of what can be changed already was changed, the future is determined/not determined and the circuitous logic inherent in a discussion about looping time, I confess a certain weakness for time stories, albeit mainly for the amusement I wring out of their zany hypotheticals (the Bill and Ted movies are still the best time movies because they completely understand how ludicrous time travel is). The writers certainly string us along as they always do, but they manage to use the skewed logic to move us closer than ever to understanding the island, even as each revelation makes it only more of an enigma.

What I do find wearisome -- what I have always found taxing about the show -- is the writers' predilection for killing off interesting characters or dull characters just as we're given a reason to care about them. Daniel was far and away the best addition to the show since the loss of Mr. Eko: we could see he was fundamentally a good guy under his fried brain and that whole "turning his girlfriend into a vegetable then leaving town" chestnut. He was sympathetic and interesting naturally in a way that so many other characters on the show never were despite desperate attempts on behalf of the writers to make them palatable or at least fleshed out. Even the writers seem to understand and appreciate his appeal, choosing as they did to use his death for the milestone 100th episode, appropriately titled "The Variable" to balance out the first Daniel-centric episode, the mini-masterpiece that was "The Constant." But "The Variable" lacks much of the power of its predecessor, with a weak reveal and a death that's meant solely to move the plot forward. Daniel isn't the only high profile character to die this season, but he appears to be the only one who doesn't come back (oh, what a long story).

Still, even when some characters do return in flashbacks, different time periods, apparitions and other odd events, we're still seeing less of them and thus devoting more, more, insufferably more time to the Jack and Kate Show. At what point do the writers admit that these characters hit the wall of development before they even left the first season and stop acting like anyone cares about them. The most ardent Lost fans I know mock Jack and his endless flow of "jears" and nobody likes Kate. That is a generalization, one I cannot remotely prove, but I will adamantly state it because I cannot bear the thought that people in this world find Kate a compelling character.

I have already drawn up a preliminary list of things I will and wont miss about Lost when it comes to an end this year. While I'm still no über-fan, I will miss its interesting plotting and its hypnotic effect (though the constant series of reveals and cliffhangers breaks up that mood). In the "what I won't miss category," I wrote "Kate episodes," then I wrote it again and again until I wrote over existing "Kate episodes" and eventually the page fell apart from the amount of ink on it. In this season, Kate at last moves from being an uninteresting, cumbersome character into the worst the series has ever seen. "But Jake, what about Shannon?" I imagine you saying. "You've been away so long that you've forgotten about her." No, no I remember. But Shannon had the good grace to waste our time then die an honorable death. She didn't stick around for five seasons gently harshing everyone's buzz. Kate has become petulant and selfish, making the off-island Oceanic Six arc unbearable with her outrage toward Jack for wanting to return to the island and also undercutting the captivating stuff with the Dharma Initiative. I don't know which aspect of her trouble-making persona annoys me more: the trouble she causes by dint of being a woman in-between the two most prominent male characters on the show, or the trouble she causes by demanding that she get her way at all times and glaring when someone dares suggest something she finds distasteful despite usually being wrong and simple. I cannot even fathom what it is about her that so attracts the men that Sawyer's relationship with Juliet, an interesting, three-dimensional actually human character, should be threatened by her re-emergence. I do not even mean to suggest that Evangeline Lilly is a bad actress, and even if she is, no actor deserves such an atrociously written character.

At its best, Lost successfully taps into that self-mythologizing, ever-mysterious vibe of Twin Peaks, the series it so desperately wants to emulate. At its worst, it is a platform for regressive, one-dimensional scripting from writers who appear to be under strict command to neither show nor tell. The fifth season has the same broadly enjoyable vibe as its first season, albeit filtered through the "WTF?" prism of what's since come. The finale isn't as striking as the previous season's, and its big emotional moment is undermined by intrusive musical cues, but its a damn fine capper on a season that, to my great surprise, held my attention even when it didn't seem to hold the writers'. The increased burden of Kate's vacuous, egocentric pouting notwithstanding (it's downright understandable, given the degree to which everyone on the show has bent over backwards for her), there's some fine character growth, especially concerning Miles, Linus and Locke, who takes an abrupt left turn that is explained only in the finale and raises very interesting questions indeed. Most welcome is the added focus on Sawyer, easily the most interesting of the top three protagonists (though a stuffed animal has more personality than Jack and more requisite cute than Kate); James Ford has been biding his time for five seasons for the chance to take front and center for an extended period of time, and he makes the most out of every second. The fifth season, as one would expect, serves mostly as a warm-up for the current and final season, but the generally high standards of the episodes -- if a step down from the last batch -- points to something suitably big, weird, rewarding and infuriating in the future. For reasons I can't quite explain, I can't wait.


  1. Nice piece, Jake. I'm someone who started getting really into this show around the middle of the third season, when the storytelling really jumped into high gear and the writers started throwing one high-concept twist after another into the show's by-then-established structure. So needless to say I loved this season's time travel conceit, sucker that I am for heady sci-fi and time travel stories. And I loved that rather than dodging the issues they made much of the season's drama about the actual concepts and mechanics of time travel, about paradoxes and timelines and whether things can be changed or not. The show's big picture idea is destiny vs. free will, and time travel is of course a perfect vehicle for exploring that theme.

    Anyway, I more or less agree with you about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the characters. Some of the show's best characters have been introduced after the initial seasons: Ben, Juliet, Desmond & Penny, Daniel, Miles, Richard, Eko (even if the whole tail-end storyline was pretty much one big dead end, totally pointless in retrospect), and now Jacob and his opposite number. It's amazing, for a show about plane crash survivors, how many of the people I want to be watching on it now weren't even on that first plane, way back when. Meanwhile, the show-runners' continuing attachment to Jack and Kate is frustrating since they're among the least compelling characters in the whole cast, and any time the plot circles back around to their supposed romance the whole thing grinds to a halt. Season 5 developed more genuine chemistry and emotion between Sawyer and Juliet — two characters who had previously hardly ever even interacted — than it ever had between Jack and Kate, or Kate and Sawyer, in all 4 previous seasons put together. Oh well. I loved the way Sawyer came to the forefront this season, and his arc was especially affecting, the way he was finally able to find some stability, to step forward as a strong and competent leader without Jack around to screw things up, to find some love and happiness. And then to lose it all because of a bunch of confused, depressed people convinced they're fulfilling their destinies.

    It's not a perfect show, by any means, but I do find it pretty much consistently fascinating and exciting, which is more than I can say for 99% of everything else on TV, so it's in rarified company there. I'm curious, are you going to be watching the 6th season in real-time now? Have you caught up on the first few episodes yet? It's been interesting so far, though oddly enough, not quite as propulsive or fast-paced as the past couple of seasons have been in general.

  2. I finally caught up all the way today. Barring the Kate episode (siiiiiiiggggghhhhh), the other two were fantastic and compelling despite not rushing to get to the answers. I called the smoke monster reveal after what we saw in the finale (as well as Ben's ordeal with the monster a few episodes prior). The most recent episode is one of the better eps of the series.

    I too loved Sawyer's time at the helm. I thought it was funny that Hugo tried to write The Empire Strikes Back, as Sawyer has always been the Han to Jack's Luke (although, if anything Jack has regressed where Luke matured, going from a competent leader to an impulsive douche). I can't believe the writers would mess with the Sawyer/Juliet relationship for even a second with Kate. The ultimate development of their relationship was quite touching and emotional, but to waste a moment of our time with the notion that Sawyer would leave a far more interesting and compatible person to put up with Kate's incessant glaring and selfishness irked me to no end.

    It is indeed more interesting than most anything else on TV, which is why I return to it despite the ever-present suspicion that the writers do what they do just to maintain viewers (which of course hasn't worked as the show has bled viewers since the start, so that theory likely holds no water). But sitting back and letting yourself get caught up in the nonsense is great fun, as opposed to the endless speculation on the web that I find tedious despite my inclination toward analysis; Lost is a show that benefits most from not switching off your brain but still "accepting the mystery," to take from A Serious Man.

  3. Not surprisingly, the time travel business got to be a little much after a while, and the final cliffhanger kinda bugged me, but an awesome season all in all. New season is kicking ass so far!

  4. Great review, Jake. You pretty much sum up perfectly all that is good and bad about the show.

    I likely would have quit watching the show after season 3 if I wasn't assured of a stopping point for the show. The wheels were definitely spinning at that point, so it's been nice to watch the last two seasons knowing that things are working toward a resolution somehow. And with all that said, and I rag on the show's lazy writing a lot, it really is a one-of-a-kind show on TV right now with it's plotting and style, truly "event television."

    As for Kate -- AMEN! Watching lots of TV continually reminds you that a majority of TV cannot write strong female characters. LOST has always had that as an issue.

    Plus, Kate and Jack suffer from "Poochie" syndrome with the LOST writers. Dear God, they are the two most annoying, sanctimonious characters on the show, do we always have to be reminded of just how important they are to everyone on the island (And with that venting done -- isn't it nice that they at least gave Jack a bit of hubris in the first episodes of the current season).

    Of course the best development from a character standpoint was the whole Sawyer/Juliet thing, which you noted. Great acting and writing in that entire arc.