As a general rule when analyzing an episode, I try to refrain from mentioning Lost’s two executive producers, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. There are many reasons that I try to follow this rule. First of all, the two producers are students of the Benjamin Linus School of Truth-Telling. Second, I disapprove of the manner in which they promote the show, essentially by declaring themselves as the definitive authority on its interpretation. No artist has exclusive control over the meaning of his work, especially not in an intensely collaborative process like television. Dozens of artists play a role in crafting each episode: creators, producers, directors, writers, cast, and even crew. Each artist himself rarely becomes aware of the full implications of his work. For better or worse, though, no one now can deny that Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have appointed themselves as the ultimate auteurs of this massive work. Season Five of Lost kicked off at 8 pm on Wednesday with what may prove to be an worrying sight for the future of the show: these two producers on the television screen, telling their viewers what the show is about. I realize that Lost: Destiny Calls was merely another clip show, intended to draw in casual viewers, but the show itself still struck me as odd. I am fairly sure they have done similar things before in the past, but even still, I cannot ever recall a time when Lindelof and Cuse made themselves such a prominent part of the viewing experience.
If the story of Because You Left proved anything, though, it confirmed the age-old wisdom that all rules are meant to be broken. (The show managed to follow Faraday’s immutable laws of time travel only for a few minutes before it introduced Desmond as the exception to the rule. It might not be long before the exception becomes the rule.) Thus, I will break one of my own rules, and begin with a direct quote from Lindelof and Cuse about Season Five: “The show is finally at the point where it can answer more questions than it poses.” Judging by the first two episodes, his statement seems to be true. Over the past few seasons, the storytelling model has transformed steadily from question mode into answer mode. Different fans will disagree about the quality of these different incarnations of Lost. Personally, my heart sank when I heard that statement. The viewers must sacrifice wonder for clarity, and I do not think the trade is even. I have always found Lost questions to be infinitely more interesting than Lost answers.
Of course, I would never mention this clip show, unless I also thought it made some relevant impact on the episodes that followed. One of the most notable aspects of Because You Left (as well as its follow up, The Lie) was the way in which the clip show seemed to continue well past 9 pm. The episode’s opening segment was a mammoth 12-minute effort, which included four scenes in three time periods. One of these scenes literally began with a clip of the movement of the island, images ripped straight from the Season Four finale. The makers of the show prefaced this clip, just one of its many narrative time jumps with a ‘Three Years Ago’ title card. (The second episode begins with another ‘Three Years Ago’ tag, which seems particularly unnecessary because the first scene had not even started yet.) This needless flashback, with its needless time stamp, contributed to quite an awkward opening.
Because You Left’s titular scene between Jack and Ben included not one, but two, flashbacks recycled from the Season Four finale. The first flashback showed Sawyer and Juliet, in a moment that neither Jack nor Ben witnessed; the second flashback reinforced what will likely prove to be another of Ben’s lies about ‘the last time he saw Locke’. Why do I think that he is lying? His lips were moving. (Later, The Lie inserted another superfluous flashback, to the destruction of the freighter, into a conversation between Kate and Sun.) The premiere episode also recapped many past events in its dialogue, most notably in Juliet’s pithy summary of the hatch. (The second episode concluded with Hurley’s succinct summary of the show’s entire plot.) While each of these inclusions can be defended on some level, it seemed as if this exposition was primarily intended for new viewers, or for people who have forgotten key elements. There is nothing inherently wrong with trying to appeal to casual and dedicated viewers at the same time, but no one can deny that such a compromise can lead to some problems. Within a story that moved too quickly for character introspection, the show also crammed in an unprecedented amount of backtracking.
Episode 5.01 borrowed even more elements from the recap show that aired before it. Just as the clip show presented the main characters in a countdown format, the premiere episode also offered a series of superficial re-introductions to each of its characters. To save precious time, characters were grouped in convenient pairs: Jack and Ben, Sawyer and Juliet, Rose and Bernard, Kate and Aaron, Sun and Widmore, Hurley and Sayid, Locke and Richard, Daniel and Charlotte, Desmond and Penny, Miles and Sarcasm. The majority of their conversations consisted of thinly-disguised reiterations of past events. In particular, the Jack-Ben, Hurley-Sayid, Sun-Widmore conversations are little more than carbon copies of scenes from the Season Four finale. Ben tells Jack once more why they need to bring everyone back, Sayid again explains to Hurley his ‘paranoia’ after Bentham’s death, and Widmore even offers the explicit details of his entire exchange with Sun from last season. If there were any viewers that did not know about Sawyer’s sacrifice on the helicopter and the destruction of the freighter, then they heard him discuss it not once, but twice. For those people unclear about Daniel’s role, we got to watch Sawyer’s interrogate him to learn: he’s our physicist, the guy who spent his entire life studying space-time. Why were Rose and Bernard separated initially? So that when they were reunited, viewers would understand that they are a couple. Who’s Charles Widmore, you ask? He’s the-guy-who’s-been-searching-for-the-island-for-like-20-years, of course.
I would even go as far as to argue that the blood test plotline from Kate’s opening scene was merely a pretext to explain to new viewers that Aaron is not her biological son. If so, expect that little story to resolve itself quickly. The writers of this episode (none other than Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse themselves) left no chances for confusion. Because You Left was Lost, Cliff’s Notes style. An even more egregious example came later with the blatant re-introduction of Miles’ abilities during the second episode, rendering his old scenes pretty useless. The final seconds of Because You Left close with one of the weakest cliffhangers in the entire series. After this list of redundancies, the last lines of the first episode finished with yet another one, which offers a microcosm for how the entire episode was written. Desmond: “We’re leaving.”; Penny: “Leaving to go where?”; Desmond: “Oxford.” Anyone watching the episode could have answered that question for him, because his destination had already been revealed about two minutes beforehand. The skipping record metaphor is beginning to make sense for me.
(Why was the episode so repetitive? The show wanted to integrate or re-integrate as many people as possible, because so many people had stopped watching the series. As the esteemed Doc Jensen pointed out, the title of the episode Because You Left doubled as a reference to viewers who abandoned the show. In an ironic twist, though, the Season Five premiere earned some of the lowest ratings ever for the series. Despite all of these compromises to make the show accessible to new viewers, the ratings actually indicate that only the core audience was watching anyway. All those potential newbies were busy watching American Idol.)
This unprecedented degree of re-exposition might be tolerable, if not for another, even more glaring feature of the episode. After the season’s introductory clip show presented a series direct explanations from Lindelof and Cuse about the show’s meaning, these didactic question and answer sessions leaked onto the script pages as well. As the past few seasons have progressed, Lost has introduced more characters that serve as direct mouthpieces for the show’s writers, to deliver information to the audience. Ben Linus has served this role the most frequently, as he has gradually shared his authoritative answers to questions about the island. The use of Ms. Hawking in Season Three’s Flashes Before Your Eyes was the most blatant example of this technique. By all indications, she solely exists to tell the audience information. (Surprise! She’s back for more.) To a lesser extent, Richard Alpert, Daniel Faraday, Matthew Abbadon, and Christian Shephard also filled comparable functions in different episodes. Whenever a character or the audience needs to know how something works, the easiest solution is to introduce some partially omniscient character, who can state the truth.
By my count, Because You Left incorporates a grand total of four of these mouthpiece characters for its two writers. First, Pierre Chang explains the source of the time travel phenomenon to a construction worker. Then, Ben must explain to Jack more rules for returning to the island. Next, Faraday explains the principles of time-jumping to Sawyer, and the explains the exception to Desmond. Finally, Richard Alpert must explain hastily to Locke why he needs to die. (The Lie concludes with a fifth, Ms. Hawking herself, who actually serves a mouthpiece behind another mouthpiece, Ben. Perhaps she is in turn a mouthpiece for Jacob, who is a mouthpiece for the island. In the end, it makes no difference, because Lindelof and Cuse are the real ventriloquists here, dictating down to us from the top of this hierarchy.) Perhaps I suffer from nostalgia, but I do not remember this style of writing in Lost’s formative years. Are the days gone, when Lost episodes showed mysterious things and allowed the audience to craft their own explanations for them? Has Lost become a monotheistic experience instead, where all answers must stem from the same divine authority? Lost fans have been placed into the same frustrating experience that of John Locke’s entire life: just waiting around for someone to tell us what he’s supposed to do (or think) next.
The wall between writers and viewers nearly collapsed during the season’s opening scene. The initial monologue from Pierre Chang has a great deal of audacity (as Charles Widmore loves to say). Chang’s response to the discovery of the frozen wheel is notable not only for the reasons mentioned above, but also as a declaration of Lost’s new direction.
CHANG: This station is being built here because of its proximity to what we believe to be an almost limitless energy. And that energy, once we can harness it correctly, it's going to allow us to manipulate time.
FOREMAN: (Chuckles) Right. Okay, so, what? We're gonna go back and kill Hitler?
CHANG: Don't be absurd. There are rules, rules that can't be broken.
Within the very first scene of the season, the show leaped farther into the realm of conventional science fiction than it ever has before. Later in the scene, the foreman turns to Faraday, a confirmed time-traveler himself, with the comment: “Time travel. How stupid does that guy think we are?”
In general, I think it is a good idea for the Lost writers to mix some humor into its time travel mythology. The Season Four scenes inside the Orchid station offered a nice example of how to accomplish this goal. However, I was not comfortable with the tone of this entire exchange in the Season Five opener. The intended humor did not strike me as light-hearted, but as an almost malicious attempt to defuse potential criticism. The role associations in the scene make everything clear. If you want to be a cool person, an intelligent person, an important person (like Faraday and Chang), then you must embrace physical time travel as part of the story. If you want to complain about the ridiculousness of things, and be the type of person who asks annoying questions like “Why do their clothes and backpacks move with them when they time-jump?”, then you must be an uncool, unintelligent, and unimportant person (like the lowly foreman), who is barely worthy of being in the same room. Lindelof and Cuse were not even trying to sell the idea of time travel here, but they were presenting an ultimatum, in a manipulative package. Just listen to the guys with the lab coats and the buzz-words and the watered-down metaphors, and keep your mouths shut. I think a significant portion of the audience still needs to be convinced that time travel stories will improve the show. The scene replaced persuasion with coercion.
Depending on the direction of the story, the method of time travel on display in Because You Left might explain any number of past mysteries. Are the ill-fated Adam and Eve skeletons from characters we know? Are the whispers voices from other times? Is Jacob a man from the past (or future)? Richard Alpert’s apparent lack of aging seems to be the result of time travel. Perhaps the indigenous hostile population just appeared mysteriously out of nowhere, in a jolt from the future. Maybe Ben and the Others knew so much about the crash survivors, because time jumpers sent intelligence from the future. Perhaps they always behaved so strangely, because they could only interfere in certain ways consistent with those future events. Has Ben already interacted with an older version of Charles Widmore, and thus he knows that any effort to kill him will fail? Will Walt soon jump back in time to deliver a message to kill Naomi? Will Locke jump across time to bring Anthony Cooper to the island? Locke’s power of foresight (drawing the smoke monster as a child, vision of the Nigerian plane, etc.) seems to be a residual effect of his new journeys into the past. The possibilities here are as limitless as the energy source buried under the Orchid. Time travel could even be used to explain time travel (i.e. advanced four-toed people from the future traveled back and manufactured the frozen wheel). This new story element might be the little push that knocks down all the dominoes one-by-one (unless another Lie or two blocks its path). The more valid question now might be: what mysteries left can not be explained by time travel? The ghosts, the smoke monster, the button, and the pregnancy problem do not easily lend themselves to time-based explanations, but some creativity might do the trick.
Despite all of the disappointments I have outlined earlier, Because You Left still included one main bright spot, our always-reliable John Locke. Although technically, the premiere episode did not follow the traditional character-centric format, John Locke seemed to stand out, as the only character to move into any novel territory. Due to last year’s ending, the Christian symbolism was virtually a given, both here, and in upcoming episodes. Locke’s unexpected encounter with Ethan in this story, however, accomplished something quite remarkable. Currently, one can interpret this scene in two ways: either Ethan forgot the event, or he remembered it. I think the second possibility is more likely. Daniel was adamant that the ordinary rules do not apply to Desmond. The Scotsman’s mind does not operate in a linear fashion: he can often remember things that have not yet happened, and now it seems that he can forget certain memories until a future period. If Desmond is the exception, then Ethan must follow the rule, which is that he remembers things according to the Arrow of time. I suspect that Ethan watched Locke disappear from before his eyes, that he never forgot the event, and then he related the experience to Ben and the rest of his people. In essence, Ethan witnessed a miracle, and received a prophecy from the future.
If this possibility pans out, then it adds layers of meaning to Locke’s journey. Locke’s message to him then becomes a twisted example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Locke might have interacted with the Others in their past (and his future) several times. The Others had been waiting for Locke to lead them, simply because he himself told them to. The effect preceded the cause, much like in Alpert’s backwards proverb states, “What comes around, goes around.” In his past, Locke has always been a self-made man, and one who reinvented himself many times through his life. The power of Locke’s belief in himself, in his greater destiny, propelled him forward. The island, with its metaphorical magic box, offered him the ability to manifest his dreams into reality. In Locke’s case, he literally made his chosen destiny for himself become reality. He became destined for greatness, because he believed that he was destined for greatness. In Deus Ex Machina, Emily Locke referred to her son as an immaculate conception, and at the end of The Brig, Locke claimed that his past with Anthony Cooper was not true anymore. In a unique way, Locke may become his own creator, his own metaphorical father. When the elder Locke interacted with the island’s past, he set off a chain of events that somehow resulted in the nurturing of the younger Locke, which Cooper never provided. That unbreakable steel blade we know as Locke was forged in the fire of his own will. I would not be surprised to learn that when Matthew Abbadon approached Locke during Cabin Fever, he acted as a messenger from Locke himself.
Each new season of Lost begins with an overarching question that defines its purpose in the overall narrative. Charlie’s “Guys, where are we?” (Pilot) launched the first season. Hurley’s “What do you think is inside the hatch?” (Exodus) set the tone for Season Two. Michael’s “Who are you people?” (Live Together, Die Alone) introduced the third season. The latest, Season Four, closed the gap between island events and flash forward events, in order to answer Jack’s woeful question “How did this happen?” (spoken in both premieres The Beginning of the End and Because You Left). Our newest season opens with Locke’s existential cry as he slips through existence: “When am I?”. Time will tell whether this question, and the time travel storyline, can sustain momentum for fifteen more episodes. After this chapter is complete, fans will be free to debate which of this series of Where, What, Who, How, and When questions they found most compelling. Of course, all that remains afterward will be the Why of the story, possibly the most complex and rewarding one of them all.
The clock is ticking (32 episodes remain), and each passing episode moves Lost closer to its conclusion. Inevitably, some episodes will excel, and some will disappoint. Despite some major content differences between the four seasons, each year contains a few undeniable classics. The common element between all the show’s greatest achievements cannot be found among its content (some sci-fi and some straight drama), but in its storytelling form. The beauty of Past Lost, Present Lost, and Future Lost will reside in how the stories are told rather than what stories are told. I can only hope that a handful of great episodes will emerge before the end, which can live up to the high standard set in past seasons.