Now that Lost is in its final season, I’ve seen more than a few people trying to get caught up, and I’ve taken it on myself to try and explain why the show has such an obsessive following (including myself). The last few times I’ve tried, I’ve mentioned numbers stations, smoke monsters, a dead-on accurate 70s educational movie aesthetic, urban legends, the creation of a genuinely modern mythology, Elizabeth Mitchell, non-linear storytelling, and polar bears.
Now I can just say “they’ve got an episode about a guy who’s on a slave ship that crashes into a statue and then he has to kill the Devil but gets talked out of it and is granted eternal life instead.”
When you think about it, there wasn’t a whole lot of new stuff we learned in this episode. (Except maybe that the Canary Islands in the late 1800s really needed to work on their service industries). But that doesn’t matter at all. It did confirm a good bit of stuff we already suspected — while still leaving plenty of ambiguity — but the most significant thing it did was confirm that Lost is capable of some of the best storytelling on television, when they feel like it. The hour flew by, and I was intrigued the whole time, each commercial break in exactly the right place, and each story development just off-kilter enough to be unexpected. With the way the season had been going up until tonight’s episode (and with the loss of Brian K. Vaughan), I was starting to get worried that they’d lost it.
That’s been the basic appeal all along: with the flashbacks and flash forwards and all the disparate influences, they had free rein to make basically an anthology series, telling whatever kind of story they could think of next. But they’d gotten so bogged down in attempting to form a continuity around everything, that the stories were starting to fizzle out to the point of Cop Haunted By His Past Never Learned How To Love. So we were way past due for a good, old-fashioned story about a poor man taking on the Devil. With ghosts and shipwrecks and horseback rides on stormy nights and all the other stuff they shouldn’t be able to do with a show set on a deserted island.
So now we know basically how old Richard Alpert is, kind of how the four-toed statue got destroyed and how the Black Rock ended up so far inland, the basic idea of why people keep ending up on the island, a reminder of what the black smoke is trying to do via Locke, and a reminder of why the story only remained interested in six of the castaways. And they threw in a little message about ineffability, which I guess is nice.
They also did a good job of ramping up the ambiguity around Jacob and the smoke monster (coming this Fall from Sid & Marty Krofft). Even with one dressed in white and the other dressed in black, they make a point of not explicitly saying who’s good and who’s evil. And in fact, they seemed to go out of their way to put an evil spin on Jacob and a good spin on the “man in black.” After all, the Devil would never admit to being the Devil, would he?
As for the big picture: if in the alternate reality we keep getting shown, the island is sunk; and if the island’s purpose was to keep evil from leaking out into the rest of the world; and if the black smoke’s leaving the island means “We all go to Hell,” then why hasn’t the alternate reality been significantly different? Everybody’s been more or less the same, and Jack and Locke ended up better off, arguably. This episode hasn’t done anything to convince me the “flash sideways” will all fit neatly into context at the end of the series. But it has reassured me that whatever they do for the end of the series, it’s going to be good television.