If Lost’s greatest romance, the one between Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) and Penny (Sonya Walger), is all about a couple that is always connected by some sort of deeper link, even when time and space conspire to keep them apart, then the show’s other fine romance, that of Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) and Sun (Yunjin Kim), is all about a couple that has traditionally been disconnected. Even when Sun and Jin were on the Island together and rebuilding a marriage that had been hurt by infidelity and bad job prospects, they were frequently separated from each other either via language barriers (what with Sun able to communicate with most everyone else and Jin only able to communicate with Sun) or through simple plot mechanics. It’s this quality that drives a lot of Lost fans nuts when they watch Jin and Sun episodes, but I tend to really like that sort of thing. It’s as though Lost takes two hours or less per season to tell a really tiny story about people struggling to overcome domestic issues that may as well be written by John Updike or something (except for the occasional gangster riffs), and it’s in Korean, no less.
“This Place Is Death,” scripted by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz and directed by Paul Edwards, is at least nominally a Jin/Sun episode (or, at least, it starts out as one before going apeshit in its last 20 minutes or so), and once again, it highlights the disconnection at the center of the couple’s relationship. As if to make things any more blatant, the episode’s first cut from off-Island to on-Island comes somewhat abruptly. Sun is pointing a gun at Ben’s (Michael Emerson) face, demanding he tell her how he knows her husband’s alive. It’s dark and gloomy in an industrial area of Long Beach. The shot then abruptly cuts to Jin, facing the opposite direction, in the middle of daylight, only the sand and ocean behind him. These are two people who are deeply in love, but they’re also completely unable to find each other or connect. (The episode actually uses these quick cuts between close-ups to drive home a lot of off-Island connections to on-Island residents in an appealingly visual manner. Sun and Jin are linked quite a bit in this manner, and Jack (Matthew Fox) is connected to his on-Island ghost dad, Christian (John Terry) AND his weird doppelganger Locke (Terry O’Quinn) via the cuts. It’s not exactly subtle, but it gets the point across, and it allows for a minimum of Jin sitting around and saying, “Gee, guys, I wish my wife were here!”)
“This Place Is Death” is probably the most rollicking episode of Lost this season, bouncing as it does from the Oceanic Six gathering to return to the Island to the backstory of Danielle Rousseau (again essayed by Michelle Farman as a much younger woman) to Desmond showing up in LA to find Faraday’s (Jeremy Davies) mother, Mrs. Hawking (Fionnula Flanagan), to Faraday trying to keep Charlotte (Rebecca Mader) from passing away, to Locke moving the Island again in order to save it (even though he knows it will kill him). All of these individual storylines were gripping and involving in the way the best Lost episodes are, but because all of them were in the same episode, it took on a slightly disconnected feeling as it bounced from one plot to another. There was even a visit to what appeared to be a mildly apocalyptic future (if I’m reading the decay of the Orchid right), for God’s sake! This isn’t enough to make one outright dislike the episode or even find it disappointing, but it did leave everything feeling slightly out-of-whack. Then again, maybe that feeling of disconnection is tied in to the episode’s ostensible protagonists. Still, it’s not hard to imagine the Lost of even a couple of seasons ago devoting an entire episode to, say, the Rousseau backstory. Maybe we all would have complained about that more than the much more visceral just-the-facts version we got in this episode (which moved from Rousseau’s team’s immediate arrival to the point when she was forced to kill the others because they, as we learned tonight, had apparently been brainwashed by the Monster), but this plot, in particular, needed just a bit more room to breathe. Especially with Rousseau’s relationship falling apart in view of her team’s disastrous Island jaunt, the whole thing could have been a nice parallel to Sun trying to get back to Jin and Jin not wanting her anywhere near the Island.
For all of the complaints Lost gets about flogging certain parts of its mythos to death, particularly The Others, who started out as creepy and somewhat ghost-like Island dwellers and were eventually revealed to be something approaching a bunch of pseudo-mystical middle-managers of the paranormal, the Rousseau sequence highlighted one of the show’s elements that it HASN’T ever managed to destroy through overfamiliarity. Lost has always used the smoke monster very, very sparingly, and while there was some hue and cry about how it turned up too rarely in Seasons One and Two, it was probably the right call to keep it just on this side of a devilish deus ex machina. The monster is a wild card, always prowling the Island and turning up just when you’ve essentially forgotten about it. What we learned about it tonight (that it can apparently make otherwise well-meaning people turn murderous against those they love) is about as much as we’ve learned about it since that memorable moment in season two when we saw the smoky beast in its full glory for the first time. The smoke monster has always been the least explicable thing on Lost, the initial tie it always had to science fiction and young boys adventure tales, pointing the way forward to what the show would become. Since the show has not bothered to explain why the monster is the way it is in all this time (and will presumably save these revelations for next season sometime), it’s the one element of the show that still carries that kicky fear of the unknown that the first two seasons had in spades. Any sequence with Smokey is bound to be one of the highlights of the season, and watching him rip off a guy’s arm tonight was no exception.
Just as soon as Jin had met up with Rousseau’s team and wandered to the Temple (which we saw for the first time tonight) with them, he was whisked off into their near future and then into another, non-specified timeline, where he once again met up with his old friends. Seeing Sawyer’s (Josh Holloway) joy at Jin’s return was a nice reminder of the camaraderie that the two shared with Michael (Harold Perrineau) back when they were all embarking on their raft voyage at the end of season one. From there, the episode abruptly shifted gears to a race against time to get Locke off the Island so he could gather the Oceanic Six and stop the time flashes, which will slowly bump off those still remaining on the Island through means we have yet to completely understand (though I’m assuming it will have something to do with the concept of constants). To drive home the point of what would happen if this was not accomplished, Charlotte was sacrificed to the story gods, but not before offering up a heaping helping of exposition to explain why, exactly, she had said she grew up on the Island. Mader and Davies really played these moments well, and they managed to make us care about the character who got the shortest shrift thanks to the writers’ strike suspension of Season Four (originally, all of the freighter people were going to be much more fleshed out than they ended up being, since the strike suspension meant that eight episodes’ worth of material had to be crammed into four or five hours). But, again, this all felt a little centerless.
Any serialized television series faces a problem in how to structure its episodes. Because a serialized story on TV is essentially a very long one broken up into equal-sized units, each of those units also must, necessarily, contain a smaller story that carries us along from point-to-point. This kind of storytelling has gotten much more sophisticated over the years (the sort of mythology episodes/stand-alone episodes storytelling model The X-Files pioneered feels positively quaint now—look at how EVERY episode of Fringe or Supernatural—the two most obvious X-Files descendants—contains small mythology elements designed to move along the master-plot), but the shows where the episodic chunks are not terribly elegant are the ones that tend to fail. By and large, most serialized shows follow the 24 model. In short, there’s a big, overarching plot, but every episode involves one smaller goal in seeing that plot come to fruition. Jack Bauer’s goal is to stop a nuclear bomb from going off, but in this particular episode, he has to track down a missing informant, say. Too many shows that followed in the serialized footsteps of 24 and Lost forgot this point, choosing instead to just break up the story willy-nilly, leading to a situation where a viewer felt completely discombobulated by the developments on screen. Lost, for its part, chose to combat this problem through its flashbacks and survival stories. Even if the on-Island stories were deeply interconnected and full of mythology, the flashbacks or, say, the stories of Sawyer hunting a boar would tell a small, simple story that could end within that episode. The disappearance of the flashback model (which has largely been a positive thing) HAS created a situation where the episodes don’t have a unifying purpose AS EPISODES this season. The first three did, particularly “Jughead,” where Desmond and Faraday each had important, episode-specific missions, but these last two have bounced all over the place a bit too blithely. As a master-narrative, they’re humming along, but as mini-narratives, they’re a bit messy.
That said, it almost feels silly to complain about how overstuffed an episode was when all of the stuff going into it was as compelling as what happened in “This Place Is Death.” Locke’s storyline, in particular, was terrific TV, wedding the big, pulpy, epic moments Lost does so well with O’Quinn’s remarkable work as the always-driven (sometimes to the point where he seems completely nuts) Locke. Locke, trying to climb down into the ground via an old well (that Charlotte somehow knew about from what seemed to be her time-drifting consciousness), fell after an ill-timed time jump and broke his leg. Seething in pain, he came across Christian, seemingly speaking on behalf of the Island, in the caverns below. The moment when Locke said that he was told he’d have to die to get everyone back to the Island and Christian said, “I guess that’s why it’s called sacrifice,” and then O’Quinn conveyed all of the pain of his Island journey solely through a grim nod while Michael Giacchino’s score quietly echoed Locke’s theme from season one was Lost at its best, to say nothing of when Locke slowly hobbled across the cavern on his broken leg to turn that giant wheel to move the Island yet again, even though he knows it will only bring him pain and death, solely because he believes it to be what he’s meant to do. Lost works best when its characters are behaving in a larger-than-life fashion, and no one brings that larger-than-life quality better than O’Quinn.
The off-Island shenanigans weren’t quite as compelling, as per usual, but at least they were slightly better this week than they had been in the last few. Desmond turned up at the end out of nowhere (even Ben seemed surprised to see him), and, for once, I’m buying that maybe not everyone will be going back to the Island. Intellectually, I know the show’s not going to write out Sayid (Naveen Andrews), Hurley (Jorge Garcia) AND Kate (Evangeline Lilly), but it makes sense that they’d be completely reticent to do ANYthing Ben told them to do, even if Jack was completely on board with the plan. Again, this is some more tap-dancing around sending everyone back, which everyone knows will happen, but it’s Michael Emerson doing the tap-dancing. As long as Ben is at the center of the Oceanic Six plotlines, they’re going to be a lot more interesting. (Also, we all get to look forward to Desmond meeting up again with Mrs. Hawking, whom he met previously in series standout “Flashes Before Your Eyes.”) But, really, this off-Island stuff all played better than last week’s Kate storyline because it was Sun at the center of the story. The show still hasn’t totally earned Sun’s brief turn to the dark side, but Yunjin Kim’s going to try to earn it all on her lonesome. And in an episode like this, where her husband is trying to keep her far, far away for her own safety, when Sun tries to overcome that separation at the core of their very relationship, it’s the kind of grand, romantic gesture only a show with smoke monsters and an Island-moving donkey wheel could pull off.
Some other thoughts:
1. I think one of the inherent weaknesses of the on-Island plotline (which, again, I am liking substantially) is that we just don’t buy the time sickness as that menacing of a threat. Seeing Charlotte die horribly from it went a ways toward rectifying that, but it still doesn’t feel as menacing as, say, the smoke monster.
2. I love how persnickety Ben gets when the mundane things in life stand in the way of his grand master plans. His failure to account for LA’s traffic was a nicely wry character moment.
3. So when Ben moved the wheel to move the Island, it sure seems like he broke it somehow (perhaps causing the flashes?), and now it would seem that Locke’s moving it has knocked it back on its right course (as always, Jacob knows just what to do, and everyone would do well to listen to him). However, this still doesn’t explain why the O6 are needed to save everyone on the Island. I sure hope this ends up making sense in a way that isn’t completely lame.
4. While I liked the cutting tonight in general, some of the lines preceding some of the cuts were kind of painful, particularly Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) saying, on arrival at the Orchid, “GEE IT’S GREAT WE’RE IN A TIME WHEN THE ORCHID EXISTS” only to have a flash take them to a time when it DIDN’T exist. However, I DID like the visual of that rope from the well disappearing down into the solid ground.
5. Phew! It sure SEEMS like Faraday and Charlotte aren’t father and daughter (or, at least, Charlotte sure seems to remember both her father AND Faraday, which would seem to preclude them being the same person). Since most time travel narratives inevitably end up introducing as many paradoxes as you can shake a stick at, fans can be forgiven for thinking this was the way the story was going (and scaring the hell out of me in the process), but the Lost folks seem very dedicated to their “This is the timeline and I’m stickin’ to it” theory of time travel.
6. Wait. Isn’t anyone ELSE troubled by the fact that little Ji-Yeon and Charlie sure seem like they’re going to be stranded off-Island while their parents return to the Island? And how’s Penny going to feel about all of this? Come to think of it, how does DESMOND feel about all of this? He sure didn’t sign up to go back to the Island. He just wanted to go talk to Mrs. Hawking.
7. This week’s speculation question: What’s in the Temple that’s so worth protecting?