By Todd VanDerWerff
When Lost had the idea to reveal that there was a man living down the hatch, a second season premiere development that emerged from much of the back half of the first season's mysteries, I doubt anyone had any idea that character would prove as integral to the show as Henry Ian Cusick's Desmond already has. If Hurley (Jorge Garcia, not in tonight's episode) is the show's soul, as I argued last week, then Desmond has evolved almost accidentally into the show's wildly romantic heart. This has been quite a feat for a character many fans never thought would turn up again after he split at the end of season two's third episode, "Orientation" (and, indeed, Cusick turned up on a few OTHER series in that TV season), but the amount of pathos the show is able to wring from the Desmond/Penny (Sonya Walger) pairing, a relationship that even the forces of space and time often seem to be against, makes the show's clumsier attempts at relationships seem that much more ham-handed. The interminable Jack (Matthew Fox)/Kate (Evangeline Lilly)/Sawyer (Josh Holloway) triangle was all right in seasons one and two when it was just One of Those Things Genre Shows Are Expected to Do, but the unexpected WEIGHT of Desmond and Penny makes it seem that much more superficial, even in retrospect. It's tempting to just point at this pairing and say to the producers, "Guys? More like that, please."
It's interesting that Desmond has come to fulfill this function, and I think it's as much a case of the writers having planned a longtime love for Desmond that had led him to the Island as it was Cusick and Walger pushing the writing staff to give them material for them to live up to. The reason season three's "Flashes Before Your Eyes" and season four's "The Constant" pack such wallops is because Desmond has messed up and lost the love of his life (established in "Flashes") and then, improbably, the Island, which grants desires almost as easily as it brings nightmares to life, goes to great lengths to bring her back to him. Lost is a show packed with romance in all meanings of the word, from the equally moving Jin (Daniel Dae Kim)/Sun (Yunjin Kim) marriage (one of the few vaguely interesting examinations of a mostly functional marriage on broadcast TV, to say nothing of a "genre" show) to the aforementioned love triangle to the very romantic notion of being lost on a deserted island, of being able to reinvent yourself. Lost's roots lie in the action-adventure genre, and at its best, the show feels like a Victorian potboiler wedded to a vintage, 1950s-era Boys Life cover. Victorian potboilers, of course, had their fair share of romance, but Boys Life covers thrill with romance too. In that case, it's the romance of the unknown, of venturing into new territory, of the very act of GROWING UP, wherein, of course, the more physical kinds of romance become an important part of our lives.
So if Lost's whole premise essentially demanded it be a romance on some level, it would seem odd that the show wouldn't find its beating heart until the second season finale (the first full Desmond flashback and the introduction of the Penny character). Sure, there were the usual attempts to play various actors off of each other to see if sparks flew. (As a commenter last week reminds, remember when it seemed like Michael (Harold Perrineau) and Sun were going to become an item? Or when Sayid (Naveen Andrews) and Shannon (Maggie Grace) briefly WERE?) Doing this sort of thing is a part of the fluid alchemy of building a hit TV show. So rarely in TV can you explicitly plan for which characters are going to spark the sorts of will-they/won't-they chemistry that can drive a successful hit. More often than not, this sort of thing fails, and producers are surprised when a Sarah Michelle Gellar and a James Marsters or a Lauren Graham and a Scott Patterson play so well off of each other (Buffy and Gilmore Girls, for those of you playing along at home). Most of the best TV shows, Lost included, strike a careful balance between the exciting fluidity of figuring out a show as it goes along and fastidious planning. Since love is usually a matter of chemistry overwhelming the rational, it is thus very hard to strictly plan out who's going to pair up with whom on a series (even Lost has had the brief lightning bolt of the chemistry Lilly and Holloway shared in season one). Interesting, then, that Lost's greatest romance was COMPLETELY the result of careful planning—of conceiving of two characters in love, carefully plotting out their love story and then carefully casting the two actors as well as possible.
Tonight's episode, "Jughead," written by longtime series hand Elizabeth Sarnoff and newcomer Paul Zbyszewski and directed by Rod Holcomb, didn't even really focus on Desmond and Penny all that much, but it did use the foundation it had built for that relationship to propel Desmond's character and to use a fairly consistent TV trope against the audience. When the episode opened with a brief flashback (hey, I thought those were verboten now) to the birth of Desmond and Penny's son and continued with shots of a perfectly content Desmond piloting his boat towards Great Britain, his son in his lap, no one in the audience could be blamed for thinking that something terrible was about to happen to Pen. It's a pretty established rule of serialized TV that a happy character usually leads to that character being emotionally destroyed in some way, and this episode made so much of Desmond's connection to his lover and child that even I was pretty sure he'd return from his Oxford outing to find the boat at the bottom of the Thames. But Lost was after something entirely different—Desmond was being forced to choose between helping the friends he'd abandoned and the new life he was building, and when he tried to choose the latter, Penny wouldn't let him. The most popular fan speculation seems to be that Desmond and Penny will turn out to be the Adam and Eve skeletons discovered in season one, and this episode seems to point in that direction somewhat. Penny wants nothing to do with the Island. She hates how it ruined Desmond's life. But she knows that he's bound by his own code of honor (it's not without reason that Desmond has been shown to be a soldier and a monk), and she's going to follow him on this adventure, even if it ends up sucking her into her father's war, something she wanted no part of. (On the other hand, Ben (Michael Emerson), who swore to kill Penny, is alive and well and in Los Angeles, where Desmond and Penny are heading, so I don't think we're out of the woods yet, D&P fans.)
The scene between Desmond and Penny's father, Charles Widmore (Alan Dale) was exactly the kind of scene the show would have bungled back in season two. Instead, Desmond walked straight in, asked for an answer to a question he had and received it ("hallelujah!" say the fans). And where second season Lost probably would have had Widmore explain at length just why he was willing to deal with Desmond, a man he considers beneath his daughter, this episode rather elegantly filled in three years of history in the relationship between the two by having Widmore so acquiescent to Desmond and concerned only with whether or not Penny was safe. Dale can deliver a monologue with the best of them, but the time for every character explaining all of their motivations at length is over, one would hope, and the show is the better for it. (Another welcome moment of this—Penny immediately calling Desmond on his lie at the end of the episode. Earlier seasons would have drawn this lie out over several episodes.)
The episode eschewed Ben and the Oceanic Six, whom much of the two-hour premiere had focused on, in favor of following up with Desmond and finding out just what was going on on the Island, where the various left-behind folks found themselves confronted by soldiers armed with flaming arrows last week. If the off-Island action this week focused on Desmond, the on-Island action focused on Jeremy Davies' twitchy Daniel Faraday. Faraday is rapidly becoming one of the show's best characters, and the way that Davies is able to convey just how tired Faraday gets of everyone not being able to follow his huge leaps of quantum physics logic makes a tired character type (the super-smart nerd who knows way more than anyone) somehow new again. Davies even somehow sells the somewhat improbable notion that Faraday has suddenly realized a deep and abiding love for Charlotte (Rebecca Mader), which was seemingly tossed in to give the soldiers a reason to trust Faraday to disarm the hydrogen bomb he happened upon (which gave the episode its title) and also to make what appeared to be Charlotte's episode-ending death (though in a season focusing on time travel, I'd bet we'd see a character with such an unexplored backstory again) have some sort of emotional heft. To extend my heart and soul metaphor (which is already tortured) even further, Faraday is becoming the show's brain, the guy who's there to explain the tricky time travel theories the show is basing its plots on as quickly as possible. (And in a world where Heroes has so abused the idea of changing the past to save the future, it's a real pleasure to see Lost develop such seemingly rigid formulas for time travel. This gives moments when a character is able to change the timeline, like Faraday was with Desmond last week, that much more heft.)
The big revelations of the episode focused on one of the young soldiers, who was revealed to be a very young Charles Widmore, and on Locke (Terry O'Quinn, who turned what could have been a pretty weak moment where young Widmore said, "Who could track me?!" into something somehow iconic) confronting Richard (Nestor Carbonell) for the first time chronologically but just the latest time from his and the audience's perspective (got all that?). The Widmore revelation was the sort that raised more questions (something Lost is very good at), but the Locke and Richard conversation made a number of puzzle pieces snap into place, particularly regarding Richard's visits to a very young Locke in last season's "Cabin Fever." For as long as it seemed like the answers the show would dole out had no possible way of matching up to fan's expectations, these plot revelations and missing pieces of the puzzle snapping into place are surprisingly satisfying every time they come around. Maybe I'll always miss some of the meandering mystery of the show's first two seasons, but Lost does this kind of storytelling much better. (Another moment where this happened was when Faraday, confronting the H-bomb leaking radioactivity, had the sudden realization that since the Island still existed in 50 years' time, he didn't really have to deal with the problem and recommended that the bomb be buried in concrete—just like the huge, mysterious concrete block the hatch was built around.)
In so many ways, "Jughead" is Lost at its best. The Faraday and Desmond stories each have a nice emotional pitch to them, but both also offer up plenty of surprising twists and cool action beats. Lost often lives or dies based on which characters it centers episodes around, and it has rarely gone wrong with Desmond or Faraday, two characters who weren't even on the show in its first season. If there's a greater split between what Lost was in its first couple of seasons and what it is now, it's from the fact that the first-season characters so rarely seem as integral to the story as they once did (only Sawyer and Locke even appear tonight, though both get nice moments). This may give the show's first season a bit of a feeling of being unnecessary, but I think anyone who says that is forgetting that the show's most compelling character has always been the Island.
- The review last week got a nice mention from Ross Douthat over at The Atlantic, who points out something I was sadly remiss in not even mentioning (or even really thinking about) last week: how the first two seasons of the show centered on a pervasive feeling of DREAD as much as anything else. As the Island has become better understood, most of that dread has gone out the window, but Lost used to almost be a horror show from week to week, and the feeling of being, well, lost has mostly disappeared.
- I often watch the week's 24 while working on this review, mostly as a reminder of just how far that show has fallen, but that scene this week when the First Gentleman (I can't be bothered learning these new characters' names) watched under the influence of a paralyzing agent as a Secret Service guy framed him for the murder of his dead son's girlfriend? That was pretty cool.
- Man, I didn't miss Jack or Kate this week. Or even Sun, whose "Evil Sun" act is not terribly interesting to me (for that matter, if Daniel Dae Kim is still in the credits, why haven't we seen him yet?). I did miss Sayid, Hurley and Ben, though, so there's that.
- Desmond and Penny's baby is named Charlie? No fair, Lost! No fair!
- Potential column theme I totally couldn't find room to work in this week: Lost has almost entirely turned the driving forces on its show over to characters who weren't in the original show concept. To a large degree, this is because the scope of the show has expanded so much beyond that instigating plane crash, but it also has a lot to do with how the characters created post-season one are MUCH MORE INTERESTING AS CHARACTERS than the pilot characters. I do hope to return to this in weeks to come, but the season one characters are, in general, much weaker than the characters that came along later, even if they were what got people hooked on the show.
- I spent most of the episode convinced that the girl Faraday destroyed by sending her consciousness wandering through the centuries (and, man, Desmond's visit to Oxford was well done, and I didn't say a thing about it) was going to turn out to be the girl he met on the Island, Ellie. Instead, the fan spec, based on the revelation of the first name of Mrs. Hawking, has it that Ellie was Faraday's mother. I'm more fond of this idea than the idea that little Charlie is actually Charles Widmore, making Penny her own grandma.
- Nice polar bear painting, Widmore!
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.