By Todd VanDerWerff
Back when I reviewed the first part of the Battlestar Galactica two-part coup series, "The Oath," I introduced a critical conceit called "8-year-old Todd." Now, 8-year-old Todd comes from the idea that an episode of television can be so skillfully, perfectly, shamelessly entertaining that it leaves you feeling like a kid, grinning goofily at what just went down. There's time for critical analysis, sure, but what you really want to do is just break down the episode in order of awesomeness. "The Incident" was so entertainingly winning for so much of its running time (a few minor character caveats aside) that I'm pleased to reintroduce the 8-year-old Todd rule and say that it is most definitely in effect. "The Incident," written by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse and directed by Jack Bender, is a hell of an end to what's been Lost's best season, the perfect capper to a season that wandered all over the map of space and time and then wandered even more.
So before we get to the deep stuff, let's just talk about the awesome. Check it. The episode began as though this was a backdoor pilot for a Waiting for Godot/Lost spinoff, introducing us to the actual factual Jacob (Mark Pellegrino) and his counterpart, dressed in black (Titus Welliver). (Also, because I am just that unoriginal, I am going to calling him Esau for the time being, which beats "Man in Black" or "Blackie.") Jacob then wandered through a long series of flashbacks, as though he were Billy Crystal in an Oscar-opening clip montage. Sayid (Naveen Andrews) dismantled a hydrogen bomb! There were shootouts galore, and just when you thought the last shootout was not going to significantly improve on the earlier one, everybody rolled up in a van and started firing away! Sayid might have died! Locke (Terry O'Quinn) turned out to be not who he said he was, and the "What lies in the shadow of the statue?" folks had the corpse to prove it! Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) was ripped away from her love and then blew up a hydrogen bomb with a rock! (A ROCK!) And, most importantly of all, Sawyer (Josh Holloway) kicked Jack (Matthew Fox) in the nuts!
So with that out of the way and our reptilian brains properly tickled, let's turn to matters of more thematic import. Lost is a show fairly obsessed by notions of duality. It's right there in the "Pilot," where Locke takes young Walt (Malcolm David Kelley) aside and discusses backgammon with him, how it has its pieces, light and dark. From there, we've tiptoed through dualities drawn between science and faith, good and evil and fate and free will. Hell, most of our characters are defined largely through the various ways they form tiny little dualities of their own with other characters. Jack is the polar opposite of Locke until he isn't. Jack and Sawyer war for the affections of the same woman, just as Kate and Juliet do for the affections of the same man. In the world of Lost, we are not so much independent human beings as we are potential pawns in various games where we only think we can choose the side we play on. All of those backgammon pieces in the "Pilot"? They're pretty much us, in the worldview of the show.
That said, "The Incident" latches on to these ideas of duality and keeps trucking past the point where it makes a thematic point and eventually seems as if it will gobble up the show entire. What else are Jacob and Esau, in their white and black clothes, but the backgammon players made incarnate? And in their short discussion, they tie together a lot of disparate thematic elements in the show in a rather satisfying way and also suggest that the series is going to be more like BSG than I think anyone on either writing staff realized. The entirety of the speech between the two could be boiled down to "All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again," and the two of them lay out that the conflict for the Island has been a truly ancient one, stretching back well before the 20th century battles between Ben (Michael Emerson) and Widmore (Alan Dale). As the two watch an approaching ship (most likely the Black Rock), they hope that this time, it will be different. This time, death and sorrow won't follow immediately. And, of course, we know they're wrong. They're stuck in an eternal loop, unable to break out of it until something changes.
To some degree, grounding the entire story in two characters we only meet 19 episodes from the end of the story is a risky gambit. There's no guarantee that we'll embrace these characters enough to justify the show's abrupt shift to including them as major characters. That this scene works as well as it does speaks to Pellegrino and Welliver's performances (playing concepts more than characters) to be sure, but it also speaks to just how giddy it makes us to see Lost try something so off-the-wall and ambitious. Even in answer-giving mode, the show can completely throw you for a loop.
Jacob and Esau get down to another famous duality, really—that of God and Satan. But they're not really representative of those characters as we think of them. They're much more like the very basic concepts of God and his opposite that we see in the earliest known monotheistic writings. The discussion between the two feels, for all the world, like the opening passages of Job, where God and the character that will later evolve into Satan place bets on what will happen if Satan is allowed to do whatever he wants to the titular character. Here, the two aren't betting about making some guy's life a living hell, but they are betting that eventually, the cycle of violence and despair will break, will lead to some new sort of understanding. There's also a sense in this scene of the relationship being so old, so outside of contexts we understand that it takes on a sort of mythic feel of its own. In this case, less is definitely more.
And when we understand Jacob and Esau in that context, it makes so much more of what happens in the episode's 2007 storyline—where Locke leads Ben, Sun (Yunjin Kim) and assorted Others to meet with Jacob, though he does not tell anyone but Ben he's going to kill him—take on a strange, ethereal quality. Ben, when he confronts Jacob, is confronting the Island's absent God, the one who left them all and issues bizarre directives through Richard (Nestor Carbonell). In his absence, as he wove a tapestry that seemed to depict much of what had happened, Esau was allowed to wander the Island and cause mischief. Jacob made random visits to the various Losties at pivotal points in their past, always touching them (not for nothing did the tapestry depict its central figure radiating out beams of light to touch numerous smaller people), but never stepping in and directly interfering. He even gives Hurley (Jorge Garcia) the option of not returning to the Island if he so desires. (And good God, that Hurley flashback scene was just a tremendous piece of acting and writing.) Esau, then, who may as well be the Devil in our little passion play, does what he can to cause mischief, to undermine Jacob's authority (indeed, the episode suggests that HE may have been the man in that mysterious cabin, NOT Jacob, who lived beneath the statue). And when he returns to take the form of Locke, he manipulates Ben into finally killing Jacob, the one he has wanted out of his life for so long. It's an impassioned and moving scene, featuring some of Emerson's best work, and it resonates with the cries of millions of people who ask God why he seems so silent in their suffering. When Ben thrusts the knife into Jacob's heart, Lost signals that it's left any concept of explicable science fiction behind. We are firmly in the grasp of religious fiction now, and only our passion and faith will save us.
There's another famous duality reflected here, though not in the way you'd think. The duality of Jesus Christ—both god AND man—is a central one to the story of Western civilization. Lost has seemed to flirt with making every single one of its characters into Christ figures at one point or another but has always stopped short of doing so. Perhaps that was because they were saving their ultimate Christ figure for the final season. John Locke died and was resurrected, yes, but we've found now that he was resurrected not as himself but as an image of Esau, the murderous demigod hoping to bump off the benevolent Jacob. Much has been written about how sad it will be if this is the end of Locke's storyline, if the poor guy really was as much of a dupe as he always thought (since most of Esau's plan hinges on convincing a whole mess of people that Locke is more important than he actually is), but I don't think Locke is now merely a villain. He is a god, yes, but he is also a man, since Esau has clearly downloaded most of Locke's emotions and thoughts into himself. Somewhere in that soul is a duality that will struggle, I think, for the soul of the man who attempts to encompass BOTH sides.
The other half of the episode dealt with events in 1977, which were where the episode got most of its action-adventure rocks off. Here, we saw Sayid take a gutshot but keep on ticking, so intent was he on helping Jack rewrite the future. Here, we saw that great shootout at the Swan station and the terrifyingly cinematic sequence where the drill poked through into the pocket of electromagnetic energy (whatever that means) and touched off the incident. As metal tumbled into the hole, killing regular cast member, recurring player and extra alike, the show caught a bit of the magic that it had in that amazing sequence when the Hatch imploded in the season two finale (and, come to think of it, that whole sequence was mirrored in its entirety here, right down to how it all ended).
If there was one thing I didn't like in the episode, though, it was here, where the characters made some illogical choices that leaped out of character, solely because the show needed them to be in a certain place at a certain time. I just never bought that Juliet would be so angered by Sawyer looking over at Kate at a certain point in time that she would essentially abandon her common sense, much less that she would try to give him the old, "I love you, and you love me, but you love someone else more" speech (even with that awkwardly shoehorned in flashback to her parents' divorce). Nor did I buy that Jack would try to blow up the Island because Kate was no longer his girlfriend (well, OK, THAT I kind of bought, but I found it baffling that Sawyer didn't call him out more for it). The silly stuff with this love quadrangle nearly dragged down this entire 1977 plot, but it was more than saved by the sequence when Juliet, dragged by chains into the abyss, is saved by Sawyer and as the two tearfully proclaim their love to each other, forces beyond their control drag her out of his grasp. This was a terrific scene, one that paid off the Juliet and Sawyer relationship while still allowing the show a chance to refocus on the Jack-Kate-Sawyer triangle if it really wants to (sigh).
There's much more that could be said about "The Incident," but the highest praise I think I can pay is that it's finally brought me around to the idea that the producers have known where this story was going for a very long time. If they didn't know exactly at the very start, they had a damn good idea of what they were headed toward. There was a lot of stalling in the middle there, and the story was very much saved by the ability to set an end date, but "The Incident" is the kind of episode that steps back and lets you get a look at the whole tapestry for a moment or two and lets you realize just how well-woven it really is. "The Incident" isn't my favorite episode of the show (I skew more towards the weird, hyper-personal episodes like "The Variable" or any Desmond opus), but it's the kind of episode that enriches and deepens nearly everything that came before. It was good TV and a great capper to a wonderful season.
Some other thoughts:
- Rose (L. Scott Caldwell) and Bernard (Sam Anderson) returned with Vincent the dog, probably for the final time. What I absolutely loved was that the show realized neither had much of a role in the show anymore but also didn't really have the heart to kill them, so they gave Rose a monologue that essentially played off of the Jacob and Esau dialogue AND boiled down to, "Man, screw this show. We're retired."
- Some interesting thoughts from a friend: Esau (presumably via his Christian proxy) recruits Jack and (indirectly) Kate to return to the Island. Jacob recruits Hurley but allows him a choice. He has Sayid taken to the Island forcibly, however. The only one neither attempts to get, really, is Sun, and she's the one that ends up in the present day. I'm sure there's nothing to this, but it's interesting nonetheless.
- Michael Giacchino's score continues to be one of the best on TV. The music during the scene with Sawyer's parents' funeral was hauntingly beautiful.
- I, for one, am glad that Lapidus! (Jeff Fahey) lives to fight another day, and I'm also glad that we got a bit more backstory on the "shadow of the Statue" people, who seem to be in league with Jacob. I don't think they're REALLY going to be the good guys (the Jacob/Esau dynamic seems more nuanced than that), but their motivations make more sense now.
- As I watched Jacob step into important moments in the past of various characters, I found myself, for the first time, really looking forward to the chronological Lost experience, which will probably make absolutely no sense but should be fun anyway.
- I kind of didn't buy Sawyer's organ freakout there in the middle (when he beat the hell out of Jack and then got really mad at Juliet), but it makes more sense when you consider how many times the guy has just about gotten to leave the Island and has then had to come back.
- Come back, Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick). All is forgiven.
- Finally, it's been a damn pleasure talking about Lost with you people week in and week out. I wasn't sure I was up for adding ANOTHER show to my recap docket (at one point, I was doing four shows at once), but you folks always made it a good time. If you liked my writing and want to see more, I recap Rescue Me and In Treatment over at The AV Club, and I write about Breaking Bad, among other things, here. I've also got a sporadically updated blog and a podcast. If you just read this because you liked Lost (and, believe me, I know that's most of you), well, I'm hopeful I'll be covering the show in season six. And if I'm not, the House will, and we'll find someone worthy of the great commentors we have. See you all in January 2010!
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.