Lostwatch: Original Sin

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, tell your brother not to sit too close to that brightly glowing TV set, and enjoy a nice episode of Lost together.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is going to be a divisive episode of Lost. What you think of the “Across the Sea” probably comes down to how you answer the question: Did we need to know all this?

Or put another way, it comes down to which answers you think we do need from Lost, and which answers we don’t need. Is it really, really important that you end the series knowing who Adam and Eve were? Where the black and white stones came from? Who built the frozen wheel and how it got underground? Where Jacob and the Man in Black came from and why they are rivals?  Why the Others speak Latin? If so, then “Across the Sea” let you check a whole lot of items off your list.

On the other hand, if what you want most for the last few hours of Lost is to complete the emotional and story arc of the characters whom you’ve been invested in for six years (as opposed to ancient, pre-psychological, quasi-divine figures you met at the end of last season), then you may have, as I did, spent too much of “Across the Sea” checking your watch, waiting for a scenery switch, or—and Lost does not often make me do this—rolling your eyes.

I say this knowing that there was a lot of the episode that worked on paper—that fit into the empty puzzle spaces of the show, and that expanded on its themes and mythical/Biblical allusions. (More on that in a bit.)

One thing you could argue that the episode did was that it complicated our moral view of Jacob and MIB. After last week’s episode, Cuse and Lindelof were on record saying that the submarine bloodbath happened in part to establish that, unambiguously, Locke/MIB was the antagonist of the remainder of the series. After this episode, though, we see that he’s not an entirely, thoroughly, uncomplicatedly bad guy. He has reasons for his behavior; he didn’t necessarily start out bad. And Jacob—well, not an entirely good and selfless guy. A bit of a sap, actually.

I like the idea of showing that. I like it a lot—on paper. (I have maintained from the get-go that a guy who, for instance, basically caused Nadia to get killed by a car to serve his interests is not my idea of a saintly figure.) Is an entire flashback episode the best way to show that, though? To answer, as with so many things Lost, we have to go back to Star Wars.

Darth Vader was the antagonist of Star Wars. He was the bad guy. He choked people with his mind. And yet… he was not bad at his core. We learned this not through flashbacks but through the action of characters in dramatic context. Luke believed that Vader had good in him. Obi-Wan said that he’d once been a great Jedi. And in the end, he saw Palpatine trying to kill his son, and he rose against him. That was all we needed to understand Darth Vader’s character.

But then George Lucas also created an entire three-movie prequel to further explain it. Tell me this: would Return of the Jedi have been better if, somewhere before the final battle at the second Death Star, Lucas had added an extended flashback showing us how Anakin was born in slavery, was in a podrace, lost his mother to murder, and had a dream that his wife was going to die?

I’m going to say no. And that’s why, for me, at this point, an entire episode of “Across the Sea” seemed unnecessary—better dealt with in the context of the action and dialogue, even at the risk of possible ticking off some fans who really had to know who Adam and Eve were and where that wheel came from.

I’ll go farther, in fact, and say that the episode is an argument for leaving some questions unanswered, answering them cryptically, leaving them shrouded in mystery. Sometimes you’ve just got to say “A wizard did it” and leave it at that. Jacob and MIB’s mother had it right: “Every question I answer will simply lead to another question.” How did she herself get to the Island? How does she know what she knows about the light? You could pursue that line endlessly—and we don’t need to know it.

I had to contort myself a little in writing that last paragraph, because, as far as I know, the Mother does not have a name. Nor does MIB. And that gets to what may have been a problem with “Across the Sea”–it took a series that is deeply and richly psychological and character-based and moved it into the realm of the allegorical. Which means that, whatever you thought of Allison Janney’s performance or the Clan of the Cave Bear visuals or the acting of the Justin Bieber-like Young Jacob and MIBs, it was simply a jarring fit with the series we’ve watched to date.

Lost, after all, is a show that’s distinguished by its richness of character. It’s fleshed out peripheral figures like Rose and Bernard, and although there were plenty of nameless redshirts and one-note characters like Frogurt, it at least was dedicated to the idea that, theoretically, it could pull any person out of its lineup and make them a wholly realized person. Now we’re learning about some of the most important figures (apparently) in the endgame and they are literally archetypes without names.

That’s not an invalid form of storytelling, any more than Greek drama or oral folktales are. But it’s an odd fit; it’s as if you had suddenly stuck an chunk of Medea in the middle of a Chekhov play. And again—in theory, I like the daring of it. In practice, I don’t yet see why I needed it. Maybe—and I certainly hope—that will become clearer over the next week and a half. And it goes back to a concern I’ve voiced all season: I don’t want the endgame of Lost to become too much about Jacob and MIB, because they’re simply not people the way the Losties—or for that matter Ben Linus—are. They’re not characters as we recognize them in the sense of modern drama, any more than Athena or Apollo are. (The Greek kind, not the BSG kind.)

Now having said all that, the episode did play on and elaborate on a lot of important Lost themes in interesting ways. It was maybe the most overtly Biblical episode of Lost yet. And yet it didn’t just recreate a Biblical story; it took several and mashed them up, complicated them. There are elements of Cain and Abel, but the son kills the mother—and cannot kill his brother. There’s Esau and Jacob, but as we now learn, Jacob is the one who feels insecure about his birthright and the love of his mother. There’s the prodigal son—but he does not exactly get welcomed back with a fatted calf.

And there’s an original sin, but it’s not only a murder. It’s a theft—a mother stealing another’s babies, something that we’ve seen repeated down the history of the Island, with similar results of madness and murder. And really, there’s another original sin, one that brings these characters closest to the psychology of the contemporary Oceanic 815 characters: parents passing their issues, deceptions and mistrust on to their children.

It’s a fair guess to say that Lost is, in part, about whether people can break cycles of behavior and avoid repeating their parents’ (and their own) mistakes: in this case, Mother’s belief that people who come to the Island will inevitably (echoing MIB’s words exactly) fight, destroy, kill, over and over again. It makes me wonder if MIB/Smokey/Locke will have the chance, through our favorite characters, to finally see that he and Mother were wrong.

It’s neat, if nothing else, to see all these themes tied together retroactively here, to see that, just like with Adam and Eve, every sin of the Island that we’ve seen was enacted in miniature thousands of years ago. I’m finding, as I said to Todd VanDerWerff in our Twitter discussion of the episode, that I’m enjoying writing about “Across the Sea,” and its mythological themes, more than I actually enjoyed watching the episode. Which could well mean that it will end up being exactly the set-up that the remainder of Lost needs.

With two more episodes to go, I’m hoping so. As Lost has told us, you’ve got to have faith.

Now the hail of bullets:

* As mentioned above, Cuselof had been saying last week’s episode was meant to establish that Locke was the bad guy from here on out. Misdirection? Maybe a little, but not necessarily; as in our Anakin/Vader example, an antagonist doesn’t have to have always been bad, or be purely bad. That may have been what they were getting at.

* So among the Island’s magical powers: enabling people to suddenly learn English! Seriously, I wasn’t expecting subtitled Latin for the entire episode, but the switchover took me out of the moment. Of course, we needed to hear it to explain the Others’ preference for Latin—maybe another, small, example of the urge for answers getting in the way of the greater needs of drama.

* Whatever causes all the doings on the Island, the existence of ghosts apparently predates MIB’s transformation into Smokey. So there must be more ancient forces behind the ghosts, forces whose nature we’ll never know. And I’m fine with that. A wizard did it!

* That ur-backgammon game that MIB found? It’s the Egyptian game Senet, which the Tuned In Jrs. and I learned how to play on a recent visit to the Brooklyn Museum; and in fact, Lost’s set looks remarkably like one in the museum’s collection.

* I thought Allison Janney did a fine job getting across Mother’s febrile if misguided love for her sons, although she could only do so much with lines like, “A little bit of this light is inside every man. But they always want more.” Again, on paper it’s believable dialogue for someone with her character’s worldview, but a little of it goes a long way.

* Speaking of the light, Mrs. Tuned In and I had a long discussion about the episode after it was over. She is much more firmly in the sci-fi camp of Lost than I am, and to her resolving the Island’s power with a bunch of mystical mumbo-jumbo about light and warmth seems to sell out everything the show established about the importance of the Dharma Initiative and the science of the Island. That part doesn’t bother me so much. To me, it’s natural that someone thousands of years ago, who’s never heard of atoms or radiation, will look at something as a magical life force; and someone in 1974 will see electromagnetic radiation. But all this makes me think we could be headed for a split, as with the BSG finale, between fans who like a “spiritual” ending and those who see it as a betrayal.

* Any of the women in the Tuned Inland Lost audience disturbed by the fact that the show features so many insane mothers? (Rousseau, Claire and now Mom.) It’s redeemed for me somewhat by the fact that the show’s dads are no picnic either generally, but it’s mostly the moms who carry the crazy.

* So why did Mother thank MIB when he killed her? See—another question! It never ends!

[Update: Well, here’s a thought, after sleeping on the episode—suppose Mom is a  smoke monster herself. Perhaps, whenever she got to the Island, she too was intrigued by the light, got lfushed down the same glowing toilet that MIB did, and was transformed. Unable to die, and “tired” of life, she welcomes death at her son’s hand. This would explain how she knows so much about the nature and effects of the light. It would explain how she managed to take out that entire village of Bronze Age Others. And it might explain the idea of there being a special blade, like Dogen’s, that one is to use to kill MIB—a magnetized blade, perhaps? It does not, on the other hand, explain why she would leave a second body behind, assuming she left behind her original as did MIB. Make no sense? Hey, I’m trying here.]

* Finally, as for Adam and Eve: I wasn’t as bothered as some viewers (see Alan Sepinwall’s post) by the heavyhandedness of flashing back to the discovery of the bodies—in a way, I find the seasn 1 callbacks this year kind of sweet—though I agree we didn’t need to include the “our own Adam and Eve” cherry on top.

* The light that turned MIB into Smokey looked a lot like the light that didn’t destroy Desmond, no? I am going to guess that this is important.

* Maybe all this episode needed was: more humorous nicknames. Anyone have some for MIB and Mom?

Update 2: Wow, early the next morning and the Internet is discussing the crap out of this episode. This is one of the things I love about Lost—the way it invites unpacking and meaning-making. And whether “Across the Sea” fascinated or frustrated you, I’m guessing we’re going to do more talking about this one than any episode yet this season. (Plan to call in sick the day after the finale.) And for more “Across” talk, see Jeff Jensen’s instant reaction (“Grade A ideas in a grade B package”), Mo Ryan (who expands much further on the point about Lost’s female characters), Myles McNutt (who had a great discussion about how the revelations worked, if not as answers, then as metaphors), and Noel Murray (who makes a strong case for many of the elements of the episode I had issues with).