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Lost Thursday: Season 2, Episode 21: “?”

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<em>Lost</em> Thursday: Season 2, Episode 21: “?”

Give the producers of Lost credit: they know the pulse of their audience. It may not be the first show to cultivate an internet fan base, and it may not be the most forthcoming with them, but you better believe these people hang out at message boards. They read our weekly griping and, for better or worse, they respond.

When people started combing through their Tivo’s looking for obscured and tenuous clues to the mysteries of the island, the show kicked it up a notch, slapping the shadowy Dharma Initiative logo (or was it just plain shadows) on the shark that menaced the raft at the beginning of the season and burying the Latin word for “polar bear” in the black light map found by Locke (Terry O’Quinn). As theories began to fly that perhaps this has all been a prolonged dream just before the plane crashed or that the survivors are caught in an otherworldly stasis where the living fraternize with the dead, we see characters reach for their nearby copies of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and The Turn of the Screw (and hey, aren’t those malevolent forces traipsing around the jungle referred to as “the others?”) So what have the creative team of Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof and absentee creator J.J. Abrams been hearing as of late from their loyal fans?

Well, mostly that the show’s gotten sort of dull, the characters have become depressingly passive, they’re not revealing enough about the island and that we viewers have been getting restless.

As beleaguered Sopranos fans everywhere can attest, nothing shuts up naysayers like a good old fashion bloodbath. And that’s exactly the sort of curve thrown at us in the closing moments of last week’s episode “Two for the Road” (written by former Deadwood writer-producer Elizabeth Sarnoff and Christina M. Kim) which found the well-liked Libby (Cynthia Watros) and the nearly universally-despised Anna-Lucia (Michelle Rodriguez) inexplicably gunned down in cold blood by Harold Perrineau’s character, Michael. Michael, who up until this point has been one of the most sympathetic characters on the show, then compounds his betrayal by allowing their prisoner, the shifty-eyed (and most likely a murderer) Henry Gale, to escape before giving himself a superficial bullet wound in the shoulder to cover his tracks.

Has Michael been brainwashed? Has he brokered a deal with “the others” in order to get his son, Walt, back? Is he trying to rile up his fellow castaways for war, or are they about to walk into a trap of his making? The answers to these questions will likely have to wait till next week’s Michael-centric episode, but from a “buzz” standpoint the show has accomplished what it set out to do. Everyone’s talking again. And we can probably strike “dull” and “passive” from the list of grievances.

Having sedated the first wave of skepticism with an emotional jolt to the system, the show has next sought to address some of the more academic concerns with last night’s episode, the appropriately titled “?”. Here we find island doctor Jack (Matthew Fox) tending to Libby as she clings to life while most of the cast stands by in a teary-eyed vigil for their fallen comrades. Meanwhile, the island’s two spiritual leaders, Locke and Eko (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), ostensibly search for the missing Henry Gale. A search ultimately serving as a cover story for Eko’s pursuit of a landmark shaped like the titular piece of punctuation, foretold to him by his dead brother in a dream. (Sorry to break the fourth wall here, but I’ve retyped that last sentence five times and it sounds sillier each time I write it. It’s just that kind of a show)

A curse of its own brilliant concept, Lost has never really had much success at truly developing its characters despite a format that relies heavily on expository flashbacks. To get viewers quickly up to speed, the show was forced to populate itself with a series of easily identifiable archetypes (the sleazy Southern con artist, the snotty rich beauty, the fugitive tomboy, the self-effacing fat comic-book geek, etc…) But once you’ve established your character can outrun federal marshals, used to bilk lonely housewives out of their savings or was a Korean mob enforcer, it’s hard to buy their more quiet moments of introspection or believably watch them grapple with everyday insecurities and fears. There’s a reason we don’t see James Bond sitting down for coffee and pie and just shooting the breeze.

One of the few characters to overcome this crutch (ahem) is Locke who not only gets to wrestle with all of the show’s meaty philosophy questions but appears to be the only one who gets to organically grow as the show evolves (the show is blessed to have O’Quinn who, as stated before in this forum, performs miracles with the show’s distressingly on the nose dialogue… more on that in a minute). Operating under the belief that he was part of the island’s grand design, that their plane crashed here for a reason, Locke has spent the better part of this past season confined to the garishly decorated hatch famously stumbled upon last year, fulfilling his Sisyphean mission. His task: endlessly typing the same six numbers into a computer every 108 minutes because… Well he’s not certain why exactly, just that it’s important.

For a show so self-reflexive, I sometimes fear it will break its back staring into its own asshole, here is the perfect metaphor for Lost. Like Locke, we go through our weekly routine, sift through the obtuse clues (which now extends to fake television advertisements with creepy websites to visit and phone numbers to call interspersed into commercial breaks), devour what little morsels we’re given, pray the show may finally give something away and dourly pledge “well next week has to be better.” Just keep punching ’em in, every Wednesday at 9pm. And like many of us, Locke has finally had enough.

“?” written by Cuse and Lindelof, finally confirms what has been hinted at for weeks now: that the numbers are nothing more than a BF Skinner-like experiment in control (“rats in a maze… with no cheese” as Locke puts it). There is no looming danger; no imperative in pushing the buttons despite the blaring alarm. This one act will not explain the meaning of life or why we’re here. In short, the islanders (and by extension, we the viewers) have been scammed.

Or have we?

I knock the show quite a bit, but I’ll give it credit for not only fessing-up that this particular storyline is most likely a dead-end, but also allowing us (through Locke) to vent our frustration. Considering a good 75% of the plot this season has centered on those damn numbers and what’s going on in the hatch, this is sort of a kick in the pants. O’Quinn, who spent last season hunting boar, throwing knives, and in general playing the part of the island’s Yoda, has spent the better part of season 2 parked in front of a computer screen with a bored look on his face. A part of me wonders if Locke’s tirade in this episode wasn’t at least informed by the actor learning it’s all been for naught.

Granted the ensuing speech which finds O’Quinn practically spitting as he yells and punches the wall is the sort of grandiose, embarrassing moment of capital D “drama” that represents the worst tendencies of the show. I still admire the effort on this one. Just as I begrudgingly admire the way the episode whacks us on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper, forcing us to reprioritize why we watch this show.

“The reason to do it, push the button, is not because we are told to so in the film” says Eko, referring to the hilariously dated instructional video conveniently placed within the hatch. He continues, “we do it because we believe we are meant to.” While Locke (ie: more pragmatic viewers) clearly considers this latest discovery a setback, Eko (standing in for those watching the show for the overall experience) still views the events that have befallen them, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding their survival as a sign of something larger and quite wonderful; after somehow ending up on the same island as his long-dead brother, inexplicably reunited at last, how could it not be?

Perhaps he’s right, and Lost isn’t a math problem to be solved. And maybe obsessing over clues and pouring over evidence is beside the point. There are no easy solutions here and you can either fixate on trying to draw conclusions or you can go with the flow. Am I nuts, or is the show telling us to just chill out and enjoy ourselves?

I realize I’ve gone on for quite a bit (apologies, I’m still getting a feel for format here at “the House”), so I’ll try to summarize my thoughts on the rest of the episode quickly. Like most of the flashbacks this season, I found Eko’s Father Merrin-like quest to debunk a miracle rather pointless; a roundabout way to establish the character’s belief in the otherworldly, culminating in a clumsily written exchange in an airport terminal that played like an outtake from the John Edward show (also did we really need the appearance of a still animated Lilly to hammer home the conversing with the dead point?) The one interesting component of the flashbacks, I thought, was the reappearance of the roly-poly psychic who last season convinced Claire that her unborn baby was in danger and sent her off on that fated plane to LA. That he confesses to being a fraud seemingly negates much of the mythology swirling around the cute little tyke (baby Aaron is a central component in many of the fan theories that exist about the island), mirroring the bad news about Locke and his numbers. Red herring or the real McCoy? Oh those crafty writers. I thought it was a wonderful bit of acting by Jorge Garcia as Hugo, stoically telling Michael he and Libby were about to go on their first date and then (here’s where it really starts to hurt) expressing his gratitude that Michael wasn’t badly injured in the “attack.” At the same time I could have done without the Hannibal Lecter shot of Michael: we truck in on Perrineau standing against a wall, the actor breaks character and stares menacingly into the camera as the episode (and Libby) expires. Ewww, how ominous!

Still, with its creative batteries recharged and (hopefully) freed of its slavish dedication to the hatch plotline, maybe now’s when things get really scary.