The Lost Weekend: "The Candidate," "Across the Sea," & "What They Died For"

Posted by Charles Reece, May 23, 2010 04:31pm | Post a Comment
The scorecard. Note that Desmond wasn't included in this pic, either.

Welp, "The End" is tonight. I've been less than enamored with Lost's final season, not because of unresolved mysteries (which is how I wanted it), but poor story construction. Rather than the forceful movement towards the finale that all the other seasons possessed, there's been too much dicking around, deflating the momentum. It wasn't until the third to last episode that the reason for all the castaways being on the island was revealed through the origin of Jacob and his nemesis, the man in black (MIB), aka his twin brother. 

"Across the Sea"  is one of the season's best episodes, as it takes the old prime mover argument for a god's existence (that everything has to have a beginning, so there must be an ultimate beginning) and narratively plays out the problem with that: the positing of a first cause runs counter to the reason for it's use, that everything has to have a cause. Thus, we find out how Jacob and MIB became who they are, but we don't know squat about the one they call Mother who condemned them to the island -- so goes the most quoted bit from the episode: answers only lead to more questions. Ontologically, that makes me happy. Likewise, I like the way Jacob doesn't have any real possession of the Truth, either. He just chooses to believe the ad hoc mumbo-jumbo of this woman who admittedly killed his real mother, because that's really all he's got. He's learned something over the subsequent 2,000 years about the island's mystical mechanics, but seemingly very little about the what for. That he has to protect the island and keep his brother's smoggy avatar imprisoned are matters of faith. At its core, the show demonstrates the blurry distinction between faith and its seemingly more rational counterpart, inference to the best explanation. Thus, Jacob is following the law of his Mother, a person who believed it necessary to not only kill his real mom, but murder the other people on the island, because they were trying to harness its central power source. Or, then again, derailing the MIB's attempt to get off the island by razing the village was just a ruse to get him pissed off enough to end her eternal drudgery as protector. She even thanks him for killing her. ( And, I could be mishearing, but it sure seems like she calls him José as she lies dying. Being a variant of Joseph, favorite son of Jacob, that would fit this Oedipalized passion play. Joseph's dying wish was to have his bones returned to Israel, the MIB wishes to return home as a disembodied spirit of sorts. The inspiration for the character's names never determine their arc, but just allude to some analogical similarities.) It's all perfectly ambiguous, but it does provide what's at stake for the remaining candidates should they find the faith to make the same decision as Jacob. 

However, the placement of that backstory felt like a drag on the main storyline, coming right after "The Candidate," in which we witnessed the deaths of Sayid, Jin and Sun. (Lapidus is still alive, since his death wasn't shown and his piloting skill is the most logical way off the island for whoever survives.) Why wasn't Jacob's origin story placed somewhere at the beginning of the season, where it would've added some dramatic point to all the characters flailing around in both timelines? Instead, it's been more characters and mysteries introduced with viewers waiting to see what the point of it all is. The dramaturgy behind the sideways timeline has been little more than reminding the viewer what the characters were like at the beginning of the journey with inverted twists on their lot in life -- sometimes surprising, but who cares? Although I admit that the interactions between sideways Locke and Jack deepen their characters (so it definitely hasn't been all bad). Had "Across the Sea" come earlier, the creators could've restructured the narrative so that all the decisions being made had some relevance, were contingent upon, the primal act established therein. When said deaths occurred, it felt haphazard, like a gimmick just to convey that this UnLocke guy, whoever the hell he is, meant business -- whatever business that might be. Which brings me to the problem of rule-following in a fantasy.

It doesn't matter why vampires incinerate in sunlight, only that once it's established that they do, you don't see any tanning on a beach. Earlier in the season, Jack proved his hard-earned faith that he's on the island for a reason by lighting a stick of dynamite in front of Richard and watching it fizzle out. Similarly, in a previous season, Michael couldn't kill himself with a pistol. As the rule goes, the island wasn't done with them yet. Considering this rule, alongside all of the convenient coincidences, is what makes "The Candidate" one of the clumsiest and most poorly told episodes of the season, if not the entire series. 

First, let's take all the contingencies that UnLocke would've had to consider in advance (foreseen?) for his plan to kill the remaining candidates to work: (1) Jack had to change his mind about not leaving the island, an idea he was so committed to that he jumped off a boat in a previous episode, willing to let his friends leave without him. (2) Jack had to take off his backpack at the right moment, so that UnLocke could switch it out with one containing a C4 bomb hooked to a timer. (3) Because UnLocke can't directly kill the candidates (just as he couldn't kill Jacob), the timer going off without anyone's awareness would've have amounted to diddly. Thus, Kate had to be conveniently shot, so that Jack would need the medical supplies in his pack, thereby discovering the bomb. (4) Related to 3, UnLocke had to count on the group not finding any first aid kit in the sub. (5) Sawyer had to be counted on to not trust Jack's faith in not dying should the bomb go off, so that he'd mistakenly try to dismantle the bomb, making him the direct killer of the surviving candidates. Okay, maybe that last one wasn't so hard to predict given Sawyer's opinion of Jack, but it points to the problem of rule-following I mentioned.

Second, why should it matter if one of the group tampers with the bomb? If Michael could be off the island, put a gun to his head and pull the trigger, only to have nothing happen, then Sawyer's pulling the wires should've had the same result. I guess the island could've been done with those that died, but it's unclear why the bomb would've gone off even if true, since at least some of them were still needed (cf. the Richard and Jack scene alluded to above).

Finally, even granting all of that as part of the rule system, why didn't UnLocke allow for the group to get aboard the plane that was wired with C4? Lapidus isn't a candidate, isn't beholden to whatever rules UnLocke, Jacob, Whitmore et al. play by, so if the island was done with the group, his starting up the plane would've accomplished everything the bombing of the sub was supposed to do, but in a simpler, much more efficient and easily predicted manner. Even if UnLocke can't fly far enough to escape the island (he supposedly can't fly over water, although Jack proved he's not harmed by it), he would've had the submarine with which to leave. In other words, all of this was some piss-poor plotting on the writers' part.

So, back to what's this all about, or, as the penultimate episode puts it, "What They Died For." As it turns out, not much that we didn't already know. A whole episode pretty much wasted on explaining to the four remaining main characters that they're candidates for Jacob's job. (These are the same characters who were selected by the Others in exchange for Walt back in season 2: Hurley, Kate, Sawyer and Jack). Why did he select them? Because they were like him, alone. He fails to mention the fact that he's been with them at various times in their life. How did he know back then that they'd always be alone? This line only works if the show remains committed to determinism. That is, how could Jacob have known to have picked them otherwise? This leads to another question (big surprise): why not just select the guy you know is going to work out, rather than having all those other deaths on your hands? Perhaps Jacob's prescience is limited in the same was as Desmond's, seeing different possible futures. But that doesn't really work, since metaphysics according to what Desmond learned is that all possible paths lead to a single predetermined outcome. He knew Charlie was going to die, just not exactly how or when. So, applying that to Jack as the new protector means that it was a foregone conclusion that he'd "choose" and all the others who died are pretty much meaningless casualties. It's possible that Jacob is simply following orders, taking whomever the island sends his way without seeing anything himself, but that goes against his statement that he was the one who chose them. And Jacob, according to Mother, isn't capable of lying. My guess for how the writers will attempt to get out of this depressing worldview, or at least its miserable effects, is to let UnLocke blow up the island, shifting all the original timeline consciousnesses into the parallel bodies on sideways Earth. But who knows? I'm rooting for miserablism.

I still don't trust Jacob. He might not lie, but sure does leave out a lot of crucial information (much like this season's writers). He's seen walking with Mother right after the village was destroyed. He was there when Locke was thrown out of an eighth story window. He distracted Sayid just before Natya (the latter's wife) was hit by a car. And, although he wasn't present, his right-hand man, Richard, had a big part to play in Ben's slaughtering all the DHARMA members back in the early 90s. (Speaking of which, was all that DHARMA stuff nothing more than the world's most elaborate MacGuffin, something that just kept us watching for a few seasons until the real narrative point is finally revealed?) Jacob has sensitive eyes, but he's a real bastard.

I've rambled enough. I'll be back after the finale to see if my skepticism was justified. I do still have hope that all the piddling about turns out to be more significant than the show's let on so far. 

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Lost (13), Television Criticism (12)