When I was easing my way back into the TV criticism game late last year, I started thinking about how many shows on the air right now balance a sense of inevitability against the unexpected to generate their conflict. A large portion of the conflict on, say, Mad Men derives from the fact that we, the audience, know what’s coming for the characters, but they do not. We also know that the characters are on the wrong side of history, and that throws most of their actions into a new light. Or look at Breaking Bad, where we usually know the end before we know the beginning, and the ride is all about seeing how the characters try to escape the fate laid out for them but are unable to. There are shows like this all over the dial. All of it had happened before on Battlestar Galactica, and all of it would happen again. Even something as disappointing and all-over-the-place as Damages balanced its storytelling with flash-forwards that let us know (sort of) what was to come. I tentatively grouped Lost in with these shows after its fourth season, since its flash-forwards also offered this sense of inevitability, but it was only a supporting piece of evidence in my case for the new TV fatalism. Interestingly enough, however, Lost’s fifth season is practically all about inevitability and fatalism, in a way that very much casts a new light on events from earlier in the show. A show that purports to be all about the unexpected has become very much a rumination on the futility of trying to escape your predestined fate.
Fatalism has always played a role on TV, of course. What is the formula that drives most TV series but a pleasant form of inevitability, designed to lull the viewer into a lazier state of mind to let the advertisements sprucing up the show have the most effect on that mind. Columbo’s always going to get his man (and, actually, that show really embraced these notions of inevitability by letting us know the killer right off the bat); the pleasure is all in how we’re going to get to the moment when Peter Falk waggles his eyebrows and trips up the guilty party with just the right question. So much of TV comedy is based on the idea that after we get to know the characters and their personalities, we’ll laugh as much at the anticipation of what they’ll do in a given situation as we will at what they actually do. If Archie Bunker meets Sammy Davis Jr., will his prejudices or his starstruck manner win out? The laughter is all in the giddy moments of anticipation.
A drama with continuing characters, ostensibly, should be more interested in surprising the audience than a comedy with continuing characters. Sure, great comedy involves surprise at some level, but TV comedy often invites us to welcome the characters into our lives as our special friends. TV drama bears some of this relationship to the audience—sure, we’d like to hang out with Hurley (Jorge Garcia) and Miles (Ken Leung) and talk time travel theories if given the chance—but because of the expanded storytelling frame, we also expect a few twists and turns to the storyline.
So much of TV drama in the wake of Hill Street Blues (which broke with older formulas in so many ways) is about wrestling with the sense that the truly unexpected can never happen on TV, where the basic nature of the medium requires certain constants at a structural level (Lost may kill a character now and then, but it’s not going to kill Jack (Matthew Fox) for a good long while yet, I don’t imagine) but where our love of drama makes us call out for the unexpected. The new TV fatalism is all about balancing our expectations for exciting twists and turns against the fact that things can never change all that much. If we know where this is going, the storytellers can use that information against us in ways that make us sit on the edge of our seats, even if we know where this story is headed all along. Lost’s flashbacks and flash-forwards have always played off these ideas, and that’s one of the things that makes the structural conceit of the show work as well as it can.
All of this is a lot of rambling preamble to say that “Whatever Happened, Happened,” written by series masterminds Damon Lindelof and Carleton Cuse and directed by Bobby Roth, was another solid hour in what’s shaping up to be a very well-done middle run of episodes for this show’s fifth season. It’s rare to have a show have a creative renaissance this late in its life, but Lost, most likely reinvigorated by knowing where it’s ending and roughly where it’s going, is crackling along like it never has before. Here’s a measure of just how much fun I had with “Whatever Happened, Happened”: Basically nothing HAPPENED in the episode, but I still was completely engaged throughout. And, after all of my complaining about how boring and useless such episodes were earlier this season, this was a KATE (Evangeline Lilly) episode that not only managed to tell a compelling story but also utilized flashbacks to Kate’s off-Island life about as well as they can be used. I haven’t looked into it all that thoroughly, but I daresay this was the best Kate episode of them all. Granted, it’s kind of a low bar, but the show took an awfully big step over that bar.
Furthermore, to tie this all in to the earlier discussion, the episode had basically little-to-no actual drama (since we know that Lil’ Ben (Sterling Beaumon), despite my fervent speculation last week, couldn’t actually die), but it utilized balancing our knowledge of the future against what was going on in the past to such a degree that it still wrung genuine drama out of something we already knew the endpoint to. Ben lives, yes, but the actions of our putative heroes, Sayid (Naveen Andrews) and Jack, end up creating the genocidal madman they so dislike in the future. It’s a fairly classic by-killing-baby-Hitler-you-actually-created-the-real-Hitler story, of the sort so popular in science fiction anthologies of the mid-20th century, but it’s a well-executed one, by and large.
The chief criticism of Lost’s flashbacks is that they’re heavyhanded in laying out character backstory and motivations. Frankly, the flashbacks in “Happened” probably could have fallen apart in showing how Kate’s raising of Aaron off-Island resulted in the new, more maternal Kate who risked life and limb to save young Ben, even though he would turn into a man who would lock her up in a cage in the future. The flashbacks, however, stayed just on the side of being too heavyhanded, perhaps because they also took the time to fill us in on a few story points we had probably guessed already but still were nice to see dramatized. For example, Kate’s mission from Sawyer (Josh Holloway) that was given to her when he leapt from the helicopter in the season four finale was, as expected, to go and look in on his daughter Clementine. Clementine was born after a fling with Cassidy (the always welcome Kim Dickens), who just so happened to be a former partner of Kate’s (from back when the show was trying, seemingly at random, to tie together every character’s backstory in haphazard fashion). Watching the two women bond over the man both of them loved, even as they both sort of feared that he had left the helicopter because he didn’t want to be a dad or a boyfriend. Even Sawyer admitted, in the on-Island action, that he had done a lot of growing up since Kate left, particularly in regards to being a fairly good romantic partner for Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell).
The flashbacks also re-raised the specter of Claire (Emilie de Ravin), a character the show has mostly shuffled all the way to the back of the deck, which may seem odd when one recalls just how much it seemed as though much of the show’s mythology might rest on her shoulders back in the first season. Aaron, of course, is actually Claire’s son, and a moment when Kate loses Aaron in the supermarket and sees him being led away by a woman who looks freakishly like Claire, particularly from the back, takes the all-too-real fear of losing your child in a public place (was she really taking Aaron to report him missing or was she heading for the so-close front door?) and crosses it with that slight touch of the almost-supernatural that Lost does so well. Claire is no longer a regular character on the show, even though many, many questions hang around her nature after her spookily spectral appearances late last season, so whenever the show brings her up again, it carries with it the charge of one of the show’s few remaining big, character-based mysteries. The idea that the reason Kate returned to the Island had to do with her desire to bring Claire back to both her son and her mother (who is caring for Aaron after being stunned to learn she HAD a grandson) was actually a nice little twist and not something I had anticipated. All Lost has to do with big questions like “What happened to Claire?” is simply remind us that those questions are still hanging out there and that it intends to answer them at some point.
The flashbacks also managed to make the relationship between Kate and Aaron, which had felt a little sketchy prior to this episode, take on some gravity that it sorely needed. Making Kate’s maternal nature come forward is a good deal away from the dangerous femme fatale the character was in the pilot, but it’s a good move for Lilly, who plays the scenes where she’s trying to do the right thing for her son with a good deal of compassion and sadness. It also makes Aaron’s ultimate fate that much more undecided. If Claire’s able to be rescued, will Kate simply step aside to let her raise Aaron? Will Kate continue to allow Claire’s mom a place in Aaron’s life? How does Cassidy play into all of this? The Kate and Aaron relationship merely felt like a plot contrivance before this episode, and now it feels much more organic.
But the best thing about the episode was the way it played with our expectations about how the show’s theories of time travel worked. Just because Daniel (Jeremy Davies, still sadly absent) says that the past cannot be changed and because this is how it has seemed to play out so far, are we supposed to accept that that’s always the case? Or can things actually change (as Hurley argues, using Back to the Future, of all things, as precedent)? Obviously, the episode ends on the note that the past is a constant that cannot be altered (hence, the title), but seeing how the characters fell along the arc of whether or not to save Young Ben told us just as much about them as it did about time travel or anything like that.
Juliet wants to save Ben, perhaps because she knows that he’s going to be saved anyway (after all, she knew him as a much older man) but also because she seems to really think it’s the right thing to do. Her argument with Jack over whether or not to save Ben (as well as Kate’s argument with Jack) laid out both characters’ views on the situation with a minimum of fuss and expressed some of the show’s underlying thoughts on the way things work in our universe today. And then there’s Sawyer, who may not have a great deal of interest in Ben’s survival but wants to help his lover and his former lover, so he goes along for the ride anyway. Jack and Kate and Sawyer and Ben have been playing out this story over and over and over (they did, roughly, early in season three), and the Island seemingly exacts crueler and crueler punishments from them every time they play it out.
It all ended with that terrific moment of Richard Alpert (Nestor Carbonell) taking the young Ben into the temple to fix him up, even though he insisted that it would forever change Ben, making him into the man we know, a man who wakes up in the future, seemingly after a bad dream. Lost’s view of the universe may feel a bit too deterministic (we are the way we are because of tiny events in our past, and we can’t change, really), but this moment had a real heft to it. By trying to change the future, our heroes just played even further into fate’s plan. Now, we get to see if there’s any way out.
Some other thoughts:
1. I try not to bring the previews into this thing, but man did that preview for next week’s episode look like a humdinger or what? If that is not the greatest episode in the history of television, it will be a letdown.
2. I’ve rather missed Terry O’Quinn and Michael Emerson, so it was great to see the two of them playing off of each other in the episode’s last scene, particularly Locke’s absolute glee at being able to hold a surprise over the head of his murderer.
3. Whatever’s in the Temple takes away people’s innocence and forever alters them to the point where they are not mere human beings anymore? I kind of think they’re setting up that reveal to be something that is just much too huge to ever be satisfying, but it could be incredibly awesome all the same.
4. Everyone else has mentioned just how much fun having Miles and Hurley debate time travel in the kind of geeky way a lot of us would were we trapped in a situation where we were time traveling, but I’ll pile on. It was terrifically goofy and the way I wish more science fiction shows treated their goofy central conceits.
5. Listen, I tried to avoid the Life on Mars finale, but after I read about its final moments, I had to watch it live, and I kind of think the last ten minutes are going to be one of those things TV fans talk about for years to come. And not in a good way.
6. I’m also late to the party on this one, but I do hope that we get a good explanation for just what happened to Rose (L. Scott Caldwell), Bernard (Sam Anderson) and Vincent in the middle of all of those time jumps.
7. All is forgiven, Daniel and Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick). Please come back.
8. Sorry for the lateness of this, folks. There was confusion over who was editing it, but here it is!