Incidents, Accidents, Hints, Allegations

My thoughts on the “Lost” season finale, “The Incident.”

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There’s no talking about the season finale of “Lost” (“The Incident”) without great big spoilers so be forewarned that everything in this post is a spoiler.

In fact, I’m going to include an extra paragraph in here because occasionally people end up here from my company’s blog or from the auto-generated announcements on Twitter, and the “read more” link is removed, making it easier to read ahead and see something you didn’t intend to. I remember before The Crying Game came out, I saw a message on USENET (yes, I’m old) where the poster put in “spoiler space” but not enough for larger monitors, so I accidentally saw the big twist of the movie. Which kind of ruined the movie (not that it was all that great to begin with), but I couldn’t really be angry at anybody because it was unintentional. Actually, though, it was made even more interesting because I knew what the twist was, but I kept expecting it was going to be about Miranda Richardson’s character — after all, she’s on the poster. I spent the first half of the movie wondering how they were going to do the reveal and then hey! there’s a penis I didn’t expect to see. So if you’re still reading at this point, it’s your own damn fault.

What’s most remarkable about the finale was how so much of it has been telegraphed — not just from the beginning of the season, but from the last finale — and yet it still worked. For me, anyway. The stuff that I knew that was coming still felt like a punch in the gut, and the stuff that I didn’t expect I completely didn’t expect.

Just barely 24 hours later, and it’s already made my list of all-time favorite misdirections, with the line about the box: “So they’ll know who they’re up against.” For starters, that’s an expression I never perceived as having a double meaning; it’s a double entendre that got skillfully turned back into an entendre. Second, everybody involved with the show — making and watching — knows how it works at this point; it’s all about being ridiculously vague and opaque. They were being so ham-handedly and blatantly obtuse about not letting on the contents of the box, that they effectively hid it in plain sight: I had another of my “Oh, I’m smarter than the show” moments and just spent the rest of the episode believing it was a bomb. And third: it’s the exact same reveal they did last season finale, and it was still a surprise! At this point, Locke’s corpse is getting more play than Bernie’s.

In the category of stuff that’s been telegraphed: Juliet’s had the Grim Reaper looming over her shoulder the entire season, if not longer. But even knowing it was coming, it was still a pisser, and I was still holding out hope that the series would give us all a pleasant surprise. Having Jack or Kate get wrapped up in the Evil Dead magnetic chains, for example. When the episode ended, I was trying to boost my own spirits with the thought that triggering the bomb could’ve worked and reset everything, and we’d come back next year to find Juliet at her medical practice getting into inappropriate relationships with guys who know to look both ways before crossing the street.

But that really wouldn’t work with the dramatic structure they’ve built up so far, and it’s the rare case where the happy ending would be a cop-out. For every time this season they’ve shown us Juliet being awesome, they’ve also had a moment where they reminded us — practically looking at the camera and addressing the audience directly — that dead means dead. Characters on this series die when they’ve exhausted their last flashback (hers was the only one that didn’t include a visit from Jacob, implying no more destiny left), when they’ve accomplished what they were supposed to accomplish (she hit Jughead with a rock), when they’ve finally and completely won you over (she’s hot and she can knock out a dude with one hit, while wearing handcuffs), and when their actor has been cast in a different series (she traded down). I’d be really, really happen to be proven wrong, but that seemed to be about as close to a final exit as anyone’s ever going to get on “Lost.”

Locke, on the other hand, seems to have gone out like a chump. It was so cleverly done that it didn’t sink in until later, but everything that I’ve liked about his character this season was pretty much invalidated with that one reveal. He didn’t gain the confidence that comes from finding his purpose, he didn’t get to see himself vindicated by finally getting the upper hand over his manipulator Ben, and he didn’t get the satisfaction of discovering that he was indeed special. Instead, he died believing that he’d failed, after leaving the one place on the planet where he wasn’t constantly dicked around for his entire life. And he had failed, since everything heroic he thought he’d done was actually his being manipulated by “Jacob’s Enemy.”

As for Jacob’s Enemy: somebody in the comments on here said he was looking for a clever bit of magic from the plotting, a sign that they weren’t just “making it up as they go.” I think this is as close as you’re going to get to magic on a long-form American television series. They picked up seeds that were lain down from the first few episodes — Locke’s speech to Walt about black vs white on the backgammon board, the ongoing theme of faith vs. rationality and destiny vs. free will — and personified them, making them the major players in the battle that’s going to form the climax of the entire series. The show’s frequent allusions to philosophy always seemed like attempts to make the show seem smarter than it really was (and that’s probably exactly what they were), but can now be sold pretty convincingly as this is what the show’s been about from the beginning.

Not all of it worked — the re-telling of Jack’s “count-to-five” flashback not only ruined one of the strongest moments of the pilot, but it made Jack seem like an even weaker and more annoying character — but for the most part, they did a masterful job of going through the past four years, jettisoning the bits they didn’t need, and tying everything else together. Did they mean to do this all along? No chance in hell. But that’s not a bad thing, and it’s a shame that people, including myself, have been making it out to be a criticism. The only artistic, non-commercial reason to be doing episodic storytelling instead of movies or mini-series is so that the story can change during the telling.

The most clever part of the Jacob/anti-Jacob thing is how they managed to avoid turning it into a strict Good vs. Evil dynamic. Which is remarkable, since they did it in one episode, while they’ve had 2 years for the Ben vs. Widmore dynamic and never managed to get that more interesting or sophisticated than “Evil vs. More Evil.”

It’s clear that Jacob is all about the free will. Not only did he tell Ben “remember you have a choice” instead of “hey buddy let’s put down the knife there you go,” but he visited each of the characters at moments they had to make an important choice. He taught Kate that she could steal without repercussion, he gave Sawyer the pen he needed to set him on a lifetime of revenge, he made sure that Sayid got to see his wife killed randomly to spark his eventual killing spree, he brought Locke back to life to live as a paralyzed victim of society, he put Hurley on a plane trip that would lead to more misery, he crashed Sun & Jin’s wedding, and he taught Jack to stop being such a whiny martyr and just pay for another damn candy bar already.

Or, if you want to be more charitable, he went through and gave them all the tools or warnings (in Sun & Jin’s case) they needed to make their own decisions at pivotal moments. Except for Jack; I’m still not sure what the point of that one was. It probably would’ve been easier to make it a clearer white vs. black distinction, but leaving him as the personification (or god, or manipulator, whatever) of free will is vague enough to give everyone something to think about for the next nine months.

And if he’s free will, then his opposite must be destiny. Assuming it’s that simple: how much are supposed to infer about the anti-Jacob? Is he a direct opposite, or is he some kind of subordinate? There’s evidence that he’s the smoke monster — he appeared to Ben while Locke was conveniently off-screen, manipulating Ben’s guilty conscience to do anything that Locke told him to do, like for instance, kill Jacob. But was that him, or something else acting on his behalf? (Fake Locke acted surprised when Ben told him about the incident, but there’s little reason to think that’s anything more than an act: we find out later that Ben is being outclassed by truly master manipulators). Was he appearing as all the visions on the Island, or some of them, or none of them? Is he the one who Locke spotted in the cabin? There’s plenty of evidence he’s taken the appearance of Jack’s dad, but was that him? Did Locke & Jack’s dad ever appear together when Ben, Sun, and Frank Lapidus were around?

It’ll be interesting to go back and rewatch the season (if not the last two seasons) at some point, to see if it’s possible to tell where the seeds were planted and when they truly knew where they were going with the rest of the series. There are still huge questions left unanswered, things that the series seems to be telling us aren’t important anymore: What was the whole deal with the Island’s keeping Michael alive? (I’m assuming that one’s going to get written off as a plot thread that went nowhere). How did Desmond get unstuck in time? How much of Eloise Hawking’s reproduce-the-plane-crash theory was total bullshit, and are they really going to say that’s enough explanation for why Sun stayed in the present? I think I can wait a few months to start re-watching, though.

And it kind of sucks that we didn’t get some greater hint of what was happening next season, like we did with the “We have to go back” season finale (still the best one, even if the results didn’t quite live up to the promise). Unless I’m missing something, everything that happens next year depends on one question: did it work? Did the bomb cause “the incident” or correct it? (By the way, it was indeed awesome that they used Miles to acknowledge what everyone in the audience had been thinking). Every other question about who died or who survived seems pretty meaningless unless you know how much has been reset. Since the next season, according to the teasers, is going to be called “Destiny Found,” that would imply that the anti-Jacob’s plan worked, at least at the beginning of the season. Since they’ve gone on about “The Constant” and “The Variable,” it would seem like the series hasn’t made its stance on temporal paradoxes and causality 100% clear.

I don’t like the thought of having to wait until 2010 to find out did Jack eat that candy bar?

8 thoughts on “Incidents, Accidents, Hints, Allegations”

  1. The only reason to be doing it is so that the story can change during the telling? Huh wha? Say more now.

  2. Lost is always better after reading your analysis. More proof that you’re just smarter than me. I mean, I couldn’t even finish “Day of the Tentacle”.

  3. I kind of took Jacob’s “it just needed a push” thing with Jack kind of literally. Hasn’t that always been Jack’s problem? His inability to just let things be? He’s always got to push it and try to fix things. For most of this season, he’s been the opposite of his usual character, just chillin’, being all que sera.

    So perhaps it was Jacob’s comment that lead him to a life of pushing, and never letting things alone…

  4. The only reason to be doing it is so that the story can change during the telling? Huh wha? Say more now.

    I don’t get the confusion; I’m saying that if it’s important that the course be charted out from the beginning to end, then that’s what movies and novels are for. If the time between installments is important, then you can do miniseries or limited series. But the appeal of long-form episodic television (or comic books, or other serials) is that the story can change while it’s in progress.

    I’ve trotted out the “they’re making this up as they go along!” complaint myself, and I’m realizing now that it’s pretty silly. On “The X-Files,” they were smug about not having a “show bible,” and it ended up blowing up in their faces. But if you have a general direction in mind when you start off, then there’s no reason you should have to have every detail mapped out. Half the fun is putting all the pieces together and making something that works with and builds off of what came before.

    I can imagine their plotting out the season finale of “Lost,” going through the series from the first episode and deciding what to emphasize (and what to ignore), and putting it all together to make it “mean” something they didn’t intend at the beginning. That shouldn’t be a criticism; it’s actually pretty cool.

  5. Hasn’t that always been Jack’s problem? His inability to just let things be? He’s always got to push it and try to fix things. For most of this season, he’s been the opposite of his usual character, just chillin’, being all que sera.

    So perhaps it was Jacob’s comment that lead him to a life of pushing, and never letting things alone…

    Yeah, that’s pretty much the only way that flashback makes sense. When I first watched it, I thought the whole message was just “Jake has issues with his dad,” which is obviously nothing new. But if Jack’s problem is he always has to fix everything and he freaks out when there’s anything he can’t control (like a vending machine, or his ex-wife, or Kate), then the flashback kind of makes sense.

    Except “giving it a little push” doesn’t quite jibe with that. Unless it’s a strained way of saying “lay off your Dad” — i.e. that Jack got stuck in the operating room, and his dad wasn’t trying to undermine his authority, but just to get him back on track. In which case Jacob gave Jack the vaguest, most obtuse advice possible, which would make me have a little bit of sympathy for Jack, which I don’t want to do.

  6. Still don’t get you. Even if I grant that it’s wrong to expect them to have everything figured out–which I’m not sure I buy, but for the sake of argument, okay–I can’t see how not having a plan is the exclusive justification for the storytelling format. Seems a leap.

  7. Um… anything? I mean, you seem to be using the phrase “artistic justification” rather empirically. If you want to go to the mat on this, we’re going to end up with Duchamp and the toilet: “art is anything an artist says it is…”

    Rather than open that can of worms, I’ll turn the question back at you: why on earth should lack of preparation be a virtue for any art form besides improv?

    I mean, look, I’m intrigued by what you’re saying. I don’t really want to argue it, I want to understand it. It’s an unusual and somewhat provocative proposal. But even if I come to see what you mean to some degree, I doubt I’ll come to believe that there’s any artform with only one single artistically defensible reason for existing.

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