Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Lost — Season 2

[Warning - contains major spoilers]

The first season of Lost exceeded my expectations, mixing suspense with character development without getting too loopy nor too dense. While the flashbacks started to get repetitive near the end, and the decision to keep ever major character but one alive through the entire season not only prevented some characters from getting the development they needed but was just ridiculous, period: how, on an island full of polar bears, mysterious and hostile inhabitants and some sort of monster, could they all survive? Nevertheless, it maintained a high quality throughout the season, warts 'n' all.

The first season finale ended in disaster, with the raft expedition running into a boat full of Others, who shot Sawyer, took Walt, then blew up the impossibly well-crafted vessel, leaving the men to die. Meanwhile, Locke secured some dynamite from an old shipwreck to blow up the hatch, at the expense of poor Dr. Arzt (played by Daniel Roebuck, which made me wistfully imagine Jay Leno when he exploded). Despite the mishap, Locke got the TNT back to the hatch and successfully blew it up, leading to what I would learn be the first of many major teases as the episode ended with the gang looking down into opened hatch to see only darkness.

Before I move into the second season, I have to warn you: as much as I tried to avoid the more major spoilers (save a few) of the first season, the second is such a dense web of interconnecting plots and endless cliffhangers and reveals, so I'm just going to discuss everything that pops into my head.

After ending on such a cheap cliffhanger, the season premiere needed to prove to fans that the wait was worth it as well as moving the characters forward. Fortunately, that's exactly what it does: Locke makes his way down the vast access tube of the hatch and finds a man inside named Desmond whom, we learn in a flashback, once met Jack back in the "real world." Desmond guards a dilapidated computer, on which he must enter the ubiquitous "numbers" that keep popping up everywhere every 108 minutes (the sum of the numbers) or else. Or else what? The world ends, Desmond claims. Okey-dokey. Obviously, the stress of having to be awake every 108 minutes to input a code to prevent the world from caving in on itself or some such has taken its toll on the man, and he sticks around just long enough to foist responsibility for the situation onto Locke before high-tailing it for his schooner. Aside from the computer, the survivors find an orientation film made by something called the "DHARMA Initiative" – who apparently funded the hatch for the purposes of research free of restrictive laws – as well as a trove of food.

But the most interesting aspect of the first part of the season is surprisingly not the reveal of the insides of the hatch but of the discovery of other Oceanic 815 survivors on the far side of the island. We meet them when Michael, Sawyer and Jin wash up on shore and we assume that they're the Others, but recall a radio communication Boone made right before his death last season, where he told an unidentified voice, "We are the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815," only to hear in response, "No, we are the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815." These survivors were located in the tail section and, we learn, have had a much more difficult time than the group we spent a whole season with already.

The Tailies' story feels more believable than the other survivors', and they've got a hatch too.

Sadly, the introduction of these survivors is handled somewhat haphazardly. The first five episodes tease us at first with the idea that these people might be Others, as they are notably hardened and their leader, Ana Lucia Cortez (Michelle Rodriguez) is downright violent and cruel. When we do find out, they don't tell us anything about the "Tailies" for another few episodes. Back with the main survivors, we get the same old flashbacks that really just flesh out other flashbacks and not the characters themselves. They also start setting up strands that loosely tie characters into others' arcs for seemingly no other purpose than to make the audience say, "Wow! Would ya look at that?"

Things come together when the two factions meet, and tragedy immediately ensues. Shannon was always a terrible character who was useful in the pilot and only grated from then on, so I confess I was overjoyed to see her go. However, when my emotions cooled and I approached the situation with a slightly more level head, I must say I think it's weak writing: Boone's death naturally shook her up, and, even though most of her subsequent scenes simply featured her stone-faced and mourning, she had the potential to become a better person and a more interesting character.

But rather than flesh out her character and make her someone you might care about, the writers kill her off after a pathetic attempt to get us to sympathize with her: not only is she finding comfort in Sayid but her flashbacks reveal that she had an evil stepmother who ruined her dreams and left her with nothing after daddy died. That's just lazy, people. For the writers to have only killed off two major characters in a cast in the dozens and a lead cast of 14 – and for them to have been the only two that were widely disliked – shows how deep a hole they're digging for themselves.

Shannon dies when Ana Lucia mistakes her for an Other and shoots her, cementing that character as someone we're meant to hate even though it makes perfect sense that she would shoot first and ask questions later, especially when we finally get to see the Tailies side of the story. Oh, but they only get one episode to cram in their experiences over the last 48 days, even though they've clearly had a more interesting time. Whereas the fuselage survivors spent 48 days worrying about the unknowns of the island, the Tailies faced them head-on. They immediately fall under attack from the Others, who eventually seize several adults as well as all the children of the group and kill all those who try and stop them.

"The Other 48 Days" does an excellent job of showing how good the fuselage passengers have it, as well as introducing some interesting characters, presumably because the writers were afraid that the loss of a whopping two leads in such a large cast needed to be filled; nay, it needed even more people. What I liked about the episode is, frankly, that we see the Tailies' numbers significantly thinned after the crash. Nevertheless, if they're not going to start killing off main characters for reasons other than being useless (sometimes you just have to break our hearts, Lindelof), at least adding more characters gives us the chance to see some new flashbacks instead of retreading the other characters'.

For example, we finally see what crime Kate committed in the episode called, wait for it, "What Kate Did," but the writers do everything to soften a crime that you'd be willing to forgive anyway – Kate killing her abusive father to protect her submissive mother – that I just didn't care. It didn't shock me, it didn't give me pause; I just sat there bored stiff waiting to get to the next episode.

Eko and Ana, on the other hand, have some of the most intriguing backstories of the series so far, even if Ana's is so transparently meant to win some sympathy. A cop for the LAPD, Ana was shot on duty while pregnant and lost her baby. This helps explain her harshness towards Michael, Jin and Sawyer and her hatred of the Others, as she lost not only her own child before the crash but failed to protect those surrogates on the island. Lost really starts to get too on-the-nose with the character stuff this season, but this is a wonderfully understated development that actually makes a character more engaging without begging us to care. As for Mr. Eko, well, the more you learn about him, the more he becomes the most fascinating character since Locke wiggled his toes on the beach.

The first season was all about the fear of the unknown, and that's true to an extent this season as well; yet the introduction of these new, toughened, paranoid characters as well as the emergence of the Others narrows the scope of that fear. It's still not, thankfully, a post-9/11 commentary, and the more we learn about the hatches and the DHARMA Initiative the more the vastness of the actual island and its machinations increase, but now mistrust is at a fever pitch.

The show bogs down in the middle, seemingly going out of its way to make Claire, who should be given some leeway as a mother to a newborn she never even wanted, and Charlie two-dimensional and annoying (Boone and Shannon's shoes must be filled, people!). Charlie takes some Virgin Mary statues from a crashed plane full of heroin –which also has the corpse Eko's brother; yeah, it's like that during this stretch – leading to what is meant to an agonizing self-conflict but instead plays out like the most unintentionally hilarious "will they won't they?" relationship on television. And Claire just whines and gets easily outraged, and when she finds out about the heroin she stops associating with Charlie even though he's the only one who ever speaks to her – though Locke steps in for this, because someone has to humor her.

Things pick up in the end run, however, when Henry Gale arrives on the scene. Danielle finds him in the jungle and alerts the survivors, who take him back to the hatch for interrogation. Gale claims to be a wealthy balloonist who crashed several months ago, but Sayid sees the holes in the story immediately. Michael Emerson is wonderful as the increasingly unsettling Gale, mixing a certain doe-eyed innocence with the sort of look in his eye that suggests sociopathy. His best moment is his not-so-subtle confession to Jack and Locke when he hypothesizes that an Other might use Sayid's expedition to confirm his story to lead survivors to capture in order for a prisoner exchange, all before asking if they have any milk to go with his cereal.

Gale is indeed an Other, and he mainly tries to get under Locke's skin by claiming not to have entered the numbers into the computer when Locke was trapped by a blast door that came out of nowhere; this causes Locke to doubt his faith in the island for the first time. When Locke and Eko discover another hatch that was built to monitor the other hatches on the island, he doubts the importance of the button even more, and Locke angrily pledges to let the timer run out to see if his belief was manipulated.

There are many loose threads in the season, and I must say that the finale does an excellent job of consolidating them and addressing many of the more glaring questions. We see in a brilliant, gut-twisting moment that it is the monitor hatch that's the ringer, not the Swan. Desmond, who initially agrees to help Locke with his plan to run down the clock, discovers with horror that the logs Locke holds as proof of the hatch's lies actually prove that there is a massive patch of electromagnetic energy and that, the one time Desmond didn't press the button, the release of energy is what forced Oceanic Flight 815 to crash. We also see Michael further betray his friends after killing Ana Lucia and Libby, who was forming a relationship with Hurley, to free Gale. His treachery earns him back his son as well as a boat off the island, but you can see in his eyes that Michael will never really be saved for what he's done.

Yeah, I have no clue what all of this is supposed to mean.

Yet for every thread tied up, the finale asks us several more, deeply intriguing questions: if there really is that level of energy on the island, what do the other hatches contain? If the DHARMA Initiative isn't receiving the logs from the Pearl, are the monitoring these things at all? If so, how? Either way, their purpose remains a mystery. And what's up with Desmond's love appearing in the final shot being informed of the energy discharge. is she monitoring the island because she heads the initiative? Is this her way of tracking down Desmond? Who knows, but I'm eager to find out.

The second season of Lost is, unfortunately, a step down from the first: the flashbacks, already a cheap tool for character insight, become little more than an excuse to try and surprise us and to hammer home the idea that these people were destined to end up here. There are also some big plot holes, notably: if Desmond knew that not pressing the button resulted in some terrible stuff happening (even if he doesn't find out about the plane until the 11th hour), why would he go along with Locke's plan? Why didn't he tell Locke about it earlier? It also thins the Tailies to manageable numbers, only to focus on about 4 of them for any appreciable length of time while we still have to put up with a cast the writers already can't keep track of.

Nevertheless, it is a captivating season, if for no other reason than the producers and writers are shamelessly manipulating us into caring more than we should. Eko and Ana Lucia are great characters for entirely different reasons, and Locke and Hurley benefit from their flashbacks. Ana Lucia's death shows the writers are willing to be a bit bolder with the characters, even if most people would be glad to see her go, and Libby's death was the only genuinely emotional one of the show so far. Gale is a great villain already despite doing very little that could be described as "villainous." And when the show deigns to reward your patience with an explanation (usually found in a hatch), it feels satisfactory, unlike that damn smoke thing that's supposed to be the island's monster.

In the end, it may not live up to the first season, but it's almost as good in its own way. It can't find the right balance between character and mystery, which makes some episodes feel plodding and others full of empty thrills. It's also getting ahead of itself with some of its loose ends, several of which need to be addressed quickly in the next season. But, hey, I still liked it, so what can I say?

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