By Todd VanDerWerff
When I was a young kid, probably around 9 or 10, I was on the town baseball team (and the town I grew up in was small enough to field a "town" team), despite all evidence that I should probably give up on my athletic dreams. I sat on the bench through most of the games, and once they were over, the next-older team of kids would take the field and we younger kids would have to make our own fun. This usually involved watching the next game, but it occasionally took on other forms of general kid excitement. One week, somebody said, "There's a CAVE in the woods behind the park," so, naturally, we being young boys, we went to take a look. The cave was more of a hole in the side of a big hill, dirt encrusted on all sides, but it yawned before us, dark and foreboding and slightly terrifying. The idea of what might be on the other side, what worlds might be opened up by entering it, was, honestly, more exciting than the actual expedition, which only revealed that the cave (or, more accurately, a tunnel) opened up in the field behind the woods. When I think about why I like sometimes shoddy genre entertainment like Lost, I think it's because I want, more than anything, to recapture that sense I had as a kid growing up in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by empty space and millions of possibilities. What makes the show speak to me, more than anything, is that sense of standing on the cusp of something unexpected, torch lit, ready to go.
This is not to say that I don't like the interesting character-heavy episodes the show does, like last week's "The Variable." Indeed, I mostly prefer things like that to the more plot-heavy or mythology-heavy episodes. But the reason I stuck around through the long and short periods when the show mostly just moved its characters around, often seemingly at random, was because the series has always evinced that promise, the unease of the unknown. Tonight's episode, while very decidedly a "let's get everyone into the place they need to be for the finale" kind of episode, was also one that paid off that sensation in spades, whether it was Jack (Matthew Fox) and Sayid (Naveen Andrews) descending into the tunnels BENEATH the Island or Locke (Terry O'Quinn) leading what was left of the Others on a voyage to figure out what was up with the mysterious Jacob anyway.
I say all of this as preamble because Lost's "putting pieces in the right places" episodes are often among my least favorite episodes of the show. Last season's first hour of the three-hour finale ended up being a lot of people running around in various directions we knew they had to be going, and it was pretty dramatically uninteresting. Season two's "Three Minutes" had a pretty good Michael flashback but was a mess otherwise, forcing characters to do things they might not normally do solely to set up the finale that would follow. Lost doesn't do terribly well with moving its characters around for grand, master plot reasons, simply because it so often follows the path of least resistance just to move on to other stuff. (A good example of this is in season two when Hurley (Jorge Garcia) goes along on the expedition to meet with the Others solely because he's mourning Libby, which sort of makes sense in the moment but falls apart the more you think about it.) This is not to say that I begrudge Lost (or any serialized narrative) some degree of this, so long as the payoffs are worth it (and they generally are on Lost). It can just be terribly irritating in the moment.
"Follow the Leader," written by Paul Zbyszewski and Elizabeth Sarnoff and directed by Stephen Williams, plays less like an individual segment of the show and more like a long prelude to the two-hour finale, which airs next week. It's the first episode since the season premiere (I think) to feature almost all of the series regulars—even poor, dead Faraday (Jeremy Davies) turns up as a corpse. Only Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) was nowhere to be seen. The episode was also sort of ruthlessly about moving the plot along and getting the characters into the places they need to be. Fortunately, it was pretty good for this sort of thing. It's not my preferred method of storytelling that Lost employs, but as this sort of episode, I enjoyed it well enough because it was playing heavily off of that sense of mystery I talked about above.
Basically, the episode follows three separate stories. On the Island in 2007, Locke is wrapping up a few loose ends and utilizing Ben (Michael Emerson) and Richard (Nestor Carbonell) to lead the Others to meet with Jacob, whom he apparently intends to kill. On the Island in 1977, Jack, Kate (Evangeline Lilly) and Sayid all pick up the torch of blowing up a hydrogen bomb to save the future from Faraday (to varying degrees—Kate quickly cools on the idea), while Sawyer (Josh Holloway) and Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) withstand beatings from their fellow DHARMA members, then give up the location of the Hostiles' camp that they might get on the sub evacuating the Island. There's also some business with Hurley, Miles (Ken Leung) and Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) hanging out on the edges of DHARMAville in an attempt to avoid what's befalling Sawyer and Juliet, but it's mostly superfluous. Since every Lost finale ends up involving the characters splitting up into a handful of smaller groups to pursue a variety of different missions, we're effectively at that point now, and the only question will be how they're all reunited, something that often takes some doing. At this point, the "small groups working on separate goals" thing feels a bit overdone, but it's also built into the fabric of the show's template to a degree, so it's hard to complain too much.
The episode's ostensible focus probably turned its eye on Richard, though it didn't do anything so bold as flashback through his long history on the Island (that, I'm sure, will be saved for season six and its many infodumps). Richard's been one of the show's better recurring characters over the years. He's one of those guys who probably knows all of the answers we so wish to learn, but he seems to keep most of them to himself, even as he's entrusted by, presumably, the Island to be the right-hand man and advisor to whoever happens to be in charge at the time. When we first met him, he was laconically helping out Ben but also planting the seeds that would lead to Ben being ousted in favor of Locke. In this episode, we see him helping the younger Widmore and Ellie as they lead The Hostiles AND Locke as he begins the first days of his leadership of the people on the Island. Richard clearly has his own opinions on how things should go, and he's able to assert some degree of authority over things (shown most vividly in how he managed to get Ben out of the way), but he's mostly the trusted confidante, the guy you want helping you puzzle out your next move. He's the Island's consigliore, I guess.
The best thing about Richard is just how calm he is in essentially every situation. Because he's been on the Island so long (thus making him, apparently, deathless), he knows that these things tend to sort themselves out, and he's accustomed to all manner of weirdness. Carbonell has Richard's preternatural calm down pat at this point, and nothing seems to surprise him much. He reminds me, in many ways, of those people you'll see on the local news every Halloween who insist they live in a haunted house but the presence of the ghosts doesn't bother them much and they've just gotten used to it. Richard has been on the Island so long, has it in his blood to such a degree, that he's perfectly fine with weirdoes from the future enlisting his help to go blow up a hydrogen bomb beneath its surface, in a misguided attempt to rewrite the future.
Because, let's face it, Jack's plan, as Kate quickly starts to put together, is a pretty classic Jack plan. He thinks he more or less has the right idea—and maybe he does—but he's pursuing it without really sitting down and considering the alternatives. Jack's been Lost's main character for most of its run (he's been sidelined quite a bit this season, where the Island might as well have been the main character), and he's been an insufferable idiot for much of that time. Most Lost fans, myself included, have kind of gone all over the map with Jack. At first, he was relatively charming, but his insistence that he knew the right way to do things on any occasion quickly grew grating, especially on a show with so many alpha male leader types who seemed like they had more of a temperament for the job. Jack was brash and always pressing forward to do his own thing (much of season two was spent by fans and critics trying to figure out if he was a George W. Bush analogue, a line of discussion that proved mostly fruitless), so he pretty much became the leader by default. Jack, however, has cycled back around to being an interesting character as the show has learned to mostly poke holes in his self-certain pomposity. I'm sure that Jack will eventually be redeemed and shown to be one of the good guys in the final season, but seeing how people have learned that sometimes his ideas don't pan out. Kate's skepticism of his H-bomb plan was a nice nod to this, though Sayid (returning for the first time since he shot young Ben) seems on board.
My favorite stuff here may have had to do with the way that the episode paid off just why it was so important Faraday come to the Island to die in the first place. His journal, as theorized, appears to be mighty important, and he was merely the delivery system for it, so far as the Island was concerned. Similarly, he was needed to plant the idea of evacuation in Chang's head, so he would get everybody off of the Island and onto the sub, setting up the nice scene where Miles learned just why his mother would always speak of his father as a mean, heartless man. It's the little mythology moments like this one, which underline major points in the backstory of the show but also effectively double as great character moments, that make Lost a pleasure to watch when it's humming along (as it has been all season long). And even the beautiful little moments between Sawyer and Juliet, where their love felt real for the first time since those earlier episodes before Kate returned, were well-played, until the show went to the love triangle well for the thousandth, enervating time. (For one thing, I don't even BUY that Kate would get on the sub, even as a prisoner. I think she'd scream and kick and fight and try to alert SOMEone that Jack was going to blow up an H-bomb. But whatever.)
So, yeah, this wasn't Lost at its best. As an episode setting up the finale, though, it gave me some hope that we might get an awesome piece of action-adventure TV (like season three's "Through the Looking Glass") instead of a flaccid fait accompli, like last year's "There's No Place Like Home." It feels as though the show is really heading somewhere as it readies for next week's episode, in a way it rarely has heading into the finale. Few of the characters acted monstrously out of character here, and though you could feel the writers offstage, moving their chess pieces around, they weren't making their presence felt blatantly. All of this seems like damning with faint praise, I'm aware, but Lost has been so entertaining this year that these episodes where necessary plot wheels are spun feel more perfunctory than usual. I'm standing with Lost outside of that cave, torch lit, and I'm ready to plunge on in. Here's hoping that most of the throat clearing is out of the way and that next week's episode is worthy of the season that preceded it.
Some other thoughts:
- The scenes beneath the Island and the water-filled tunnel leading to it best exemplified the kind of adventure stuff I most appreciate from Lost when I'm just watching it for kicks. There was some pretty great underwater photography, a queasy swim through a flooded tunnel and a little Raiders of the Lost Ark-lite style set design in the chamber surrounding the bomb.
- Lost in all of the time jumping is just how little actual time we've seen dramatized. It seems like Sayid's been off living in the jungle by himself for seven months, but he's really only been out there for a matter of days. Similarly, Locke was only dead for, at most, a week.
- Some great non-verbal acting tonight from Lilly, when Jack admitted to the Hostiles that they were with Faraday, and from Fox, when Kate was telling Sayid that young Ben wasn't actually dead. Their facial expressions were priceless.
- There was lots of hype about how important to the plot Jin and Sun (Yunjin Kim) would prove to be this season, but they've mostly gotten lost in the shuffle since the Oceanic Five returned to the Island. Sun, in particular, seems to have entirely turned into a one-note character. Assuming they're reunited in the finale, I hope they have more interesting storylines going forward.
- That was a cool little moment when Locke directed Richard to heal the wounded Locke from the past and give him further instructions, even if I wish we had gotten to actually SEE Locke disappear, so we could all get an idea of what the various folks who encountered our time-tripping castaways saw when they traveled through time. That said, this season's obsession with time loops has me a bit worried that this entire series is going to turn into a giant time loop, a la Planet of the Apes.
- The scene where Chang got Hurley to admit that he was, yeah, from the future was one of my favorites of the season, a nice bit of comedy in an episode filled with drama.
- I'm not sure I'm ready to have Lost gone for another eight months (assuming it returns in January of 2010). I don't think it's the best show on TV or anything, but there is no show I look forward to watching more week to week. When Lost is clicking, as it is right now, there's no show more adept at pulling you into its world and making you think about nothing else besides what's on screen.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark and co-host of the podcast TV on the Internet. His writing also appears at The AV Club.