Tuned In

Lostwatch: Your Mission, Should You Decide to Accept It

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, grab yourself a nice, cool refreshing cup of water—NOW YOU’RE LIKE ME—and watch last night’s Lost.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about how much of Lost its creators planned out long ago, and how much they’ve made up as they went along. Of course, it’s impossible to know the difference between careful planning and elements that were elegantly retrofitted to seem preplanned. But let me kick things off by noting a theme that I had noticed way back in season three, something that intrigued and bugged me, something that seemed inexplicably prominent, that I knew had to be important—and yet I had no idea why.

Tonight we found out why, and it was very important indeed.

We have to go back to the beginning of season three. Hydra Island time. Meeting-Juliet time. Polar-bear-cage time. An interlude at the beginning of the season that was roundly criticized by fans, before and since, as a meaningless diversion, a waste of time. The climax of that arc, you’ll recall, was that Ben was found to have a tumor on his spine, and Jack agreed to operate on him. Agreed to being the operative term. As I wrote then (sorry for the long excerpt):

More intriguing in the larger scheme, though, is another issue that, at first, looks like a plot misstep but probably holds a key to the Others and their beliefs.

Haven’t you wondered why, if Benry [what I was calling Ben, whom we'd just known as "Henry Gale"] is so desperate to have Jack operate on his deadly tumor, he doesn’t just coerce his prisoner? It’d be easy enough, after all, to point a gun at Jack’s head, or better yet, to Kate’s, to get him to co-operate. Instead, however, Benry tells Jack that there was an elaborate plan to brainwash him into sympathy. “I want you to want to save my life,” Benry says–if we can believe him, and in this case I think we have to, since if the Others had wanted to threaten Jack, they’d have done so long ago.

Why is volition so important to the Others? It seems Benry doesn’t just want Jack to want to help: he needs him to want to. Whatever The Others’ core beliefs are, free will must be a cornerstone of them: Juliet referred to free will in the season opener, and again in her cover speech to Jack last night. Of course, there are good TV reasons for the Others to believe they need Jack and company to convert of their own free will–that provides the excuse for their baroque and entertaining psych games. But it also, after five episodes, may provide the essential chink in the Others’ armor that the castaways can exploit: something in their self-conceptualization as “the good guys” means that they must achieve their goals by persuasion, not force.

As I recall—and I don’t have the other examples at my fingertips, but there were other occasions when the Others had referred to the need for the Losties to accede to them willingly. And now it seems we know why. The Others, through Ben, and therefore through envoy Richard, had been taking orders (or, at least, guidance) from Jacob. And the principle that they share in common with him is that–however urgent their plans and however devious their means–ultimately they need people to act of their own free will. There are rules.

Jacob set that rule, as far as the Candidates are concerned, because he himself had no choice in becoming the guardian of the Island. “I want you to have the thing I was never given.” Because it’s his rule, it’s the Others’; hence, Ben’s need in season three for Jack to want to help him.

Now, maybe that was in fact just a plot device back then, and maybe it’s been retrofitted in the form of Jacob’s free will fixation now. But if so, it’s retconning so elegant that it serves as well as advance planning, and I give credit either way.

OK, so the fact that Jacob’s focus on free will is reflected back in polar-bear time is neat. But what’s really important about it is how it reflects on the endgame as we move to the finale on Sunday. Because as I’ve said over and over, we’re simply not invested in Jacob or MIB as characters. Their fate and their rivalry matters not in itself but in how it is reflected in the actions and choices of our characters. Which means that Jack’s becoming New Jacob has to be just that—a choice, and one that finally comes not out of some thousand-year-old fight over glowing water, but because he is Jack, and Jack Fixes Things.

This is a return, in a way, to the old-school Jack of the first season. And that’s paralleled in this week’s flash-sideways, in which once again, Locke is trying to tell Jack that fate has brought them together, and Jack tells Locke that he’s mistaking coincidence for destiny. But this is a Jack who’s trying to fix things for the right reasons, who’s been through the wringer and questioned himself and is surrendering not out of a need for control but out of a true spirit of self-sacrifice.

He is, in a way, exactly where he was when we met him; and in a way, he couldn’t be farther.This is important. Whatever choices our characters make in the finale, whatever they do right or wrong, it must be them doing it, and not Jacob acting through them. Because Jacob, frankly, is a stiff, and we’re right not to care about him. (His sit-down with the Final Four, by the way—in which he acknowledged that MIB was a monster of his own making—made me wonder if his entire history with MIB, from “Across the Sea,” couldn’t have been handled in a sit-down like this, or at least a briefer flashback.)

Much of the rest of the episode was scene-setting for the final showdown. But what scene-setting! It was a delight to be back with Ben, and his long-awaited final showdown with Widmore was both tense and surprising, as Ben—the ultimate survivor—used Locke as a weapon to exact revenge for Alex’s death. (I like, by the way, that even if Widmore had been converted to Team Jacob, he still retained the all-around tool-ishness that was his downfall here, as he high-handedly demanded Ben’s assistance without so much as a “Sorry about that whole killing your daughter thing.”)

And now Lost sets up a race to its climax, with Desmond as the double fulcrum of action. In one universe, will he be the tool Locke uses to destroy the Island? (However that happens and whatever it does?) In the other, will he bring the band back together at Little Jack’s concert and convince them to see their true reality (and, I’m guessing, give up the lives they’ve known—and in Jack’s case, his own son)? Will the one act negate the other?

Oh, and supposing everything goes well: with the sub blown up and a plane rigged to explode—how the hell does anyone get off this Island? Tune in Sunday for… “The End.”

Now for the hail of bullets:

* Maybe some of you would rather move on as if “Across the Sea” never happened, but it must be said: love that episode or hate it, absence made the heart grow fonder, and I think “Why They Died” was all the more pleasing for it.

* Rousseau is back! And day-um, but she cleans up nice. Was anyone out there expecting / hoping for she and Ben to kiss? Or too creepy even in an alternate universe?

* Speaking of Ben, I hope and expect Michael Emerson will get another suitable showpiece before the finale’s over (this is not based on any secret set-visit knowledge), but I love his reserve and his cool delivery after he saw Smokey dispatch Richard and steeled himself to meet the monster on his porch. “Can I get you a glass of lemonade?”

* Inevitably, any answers we get from this point on will satisfy some people and not others. I could see the argument that Jacob’s explanation for choosing the Candidates was inadequate: why pick them out of all the miserable people in the world? But in fact I like the idea, or the implication, that it could have been any number of other people besides these characters. They happened to get plucked to represent humanity, and now they have to do as best they can.

* On the other hand, I couldn’t see why Jacob wouldn’t tell the Losties why it was so important that the light at the center of the Island not go out; but that may fall under the category of answers-that-will-only-lead-to-more-questions.

* Clearly alt-Hurley is now solidly on Team Desmond and ready to help the others renounce (or not)* the sideways-universe. But it’s funny that we never actually saw the moment when he decided to give up his current life, in which he’s rich and beloved, in favor of a universe in which he was unlucky and loved by only one woman, who died. I’m guessing—again on no special knowledge—that next week we’ll see Sideways characters wrestling more directly with that hard choice.

*[Update: By the way, as Teresa' comment below notes, this assumes a lot. I don't know if renouncing or obliterating the Sideways universe is actually the endgame here—but presumably the endgame involves the Sideways characters somehow changing their existence beyond recovering their memories; otherwise, what exactly is the purpose of their remembering the Island universe at all? Maybe they need their memories of the Island universe to be truly whole people within the Sideways universe. In any event, I trust that whatever resolution Cuselof come up with will be better than what my puny brain can conceive.]

* And nice to see you Ana Lucia! What does it mean that “she’s not ready yet”? Does Desmond need only a handful of the central Losties to be “ready” to become aware of the other universe? When is alt-Frogurt’s turn?

* “And I thought that guy had a God complex before.” Doctors! Whaddya gonna do!

* Alpert: Dead? If so, why suddenly mortal? Did Jacob’s death void the warranty?

* Finally, goodbye Zoe, badass geophysicist. Am I the only one who’s going to miss her? And just who is going to get to survive this thing?

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