At this point, midway through its fifth season, Lost is about as consistently good as it’s ever been. It’s not hitting the highs its capable of (no episode this season rivals anything like “The Constant” or “Walkabout”), but it’s also not sinking into the really stupid lows it used to alternate those highs with. It’s just a fun, poppy show, a blend of pulp, goofy sci-fi and basic character drama. I don’t know how long Lost can keep this up, but episodes like “Namaste,” written by Brian K. Vaughan and Paul Zbyszewski and directed by Jack Bender, have been among the most unbridled fun you can have watching TV. Lost, at its best, is just a terrifically good time, and “just a terrifically good time” describes most of Season Five to a T. When a title came up early in the episode reading “Thirty Years Earlier,” it made me giggle with glee because, c’mon, where else are you going to see that on a TV show?
One of the things that makes “Namaste” so much fun is the way it convolutes itself within the timeline we’ve already seen, some events taking place immediately following the mini-cliffhanger of Sawyer (Josh Holloway) laying eyes on Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly) and Hurley (Jorge Garcia) for the first time in three years from last episode, and some events taking place before the Island framing story of “The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham,” meaning that we don’t get to see Locke (Terry O’Quinn) for yet another week, but, no matter. Lost has been on long enough that it can play around with our expectations about how it’s going to tell these stories as well. When Ben (Michael Emerson) spends most of the episode racing around the smaller island offshore of the main Island, it seems a bit confusing since we saw the guy lying, injured, in a makeshift hospital at the end of “Life and Death.” The natural compulsion, given the way Lost comes up with complicated answers to simple questions, is to wonder if Locke is in some other timestream or if Ben is going to be hurt by the monster or if Ben has spawned a twin or something, but, no, Sun (Yunjin Kim) just smacks him in the head with an oar. Fantastic.
In some ways, “Namaste” functions as a second season premiere, buried within the larger season. If the first seven episodes were about the time-traveling Island dwellers and the Oceanic Six fighting to get back to the Island and “LaFleur” was something of a transitional episode, then this was another episode setting up how things are going to go from now on. Sawyer and crew are stuck in the ’70s, having a pretty good time, but knowing that the end of the DHARMA Initiative is just 15 years in the future, that they’re powerless to stop it and unable anymore to time-skip forward to rejoin their friends. Meanwhile, Sun, Ben, Lapidus (Jeff Fahey) and Locke are all hanging out in something like the present (or, if some of the visual clues in a late scene are any indication, some kind of alternate future), knowing that their friends are somehow back in 1977 but unable to do much of anything about it. It would probably seem that the rest of the season is going to keep up with this divide, but with the way Lost reinvents itself nowadays, I won’t be surprised if Lapidus reveals that he’s built a time machine in an episode or two and everyone goes back to some century B.C. and helps build the four-toed statues or something.
Lost’s talent for reinvention is one of the things that has both ended its status as a big, mainstream hit and one of the things that has made it able to survive. If you try to convince someone who abandoned the show somewhere in the middle of Season Two that the show is as good as it’s ever been at the moment, it’s hard not only to catch them up with what’s going on but also to tell them what kind of show it is in the first place. That first season of simple little adventure tales wedded to small, domestic short story-style flashbacks is long gone, but so is that second season of weird, eerie portents and strange, inexplicable storytelling threads that were dropped as quickly as new ones were picked up (even as the show giddily incorporates as many as it possibly can this season). I know a lot of people who abandoned Lost who might like it again, but telling them to catch up with the series is only the half of it. You also have to tell them that the show is now about as far from a simple little adventure tale as it could possibly get and now involves time travel, the office politics of a 1970s scientific research retreat and Sun following Jack’s dad as a kind of ad hoc spirit guide.
We don’t really expect TV shows to change their stripes very much (and, really, Lost hasn’t changed its stripes all THAT much—it’s still pretty much about the same handful of characters stuck on an Island that externalizes their wishes and nightmares). If you’ve ever tried to write a spec script for a TV series (a sample episode script designed to convince TV producers and agents that you can capture the voice of a program that did not originate with you) or if you’ve ever sat down and really paid attention to TV, you’ll know that every TV series breaks down, almost religiously, to an underlying structure that the show only departs from on very rare occasions (usually season finales and Very Special Episodes). The act breaks are going to come in roughly the same place. The plot points are going to come in roughly the same order. The characters are going to do roughly the same things from week to week. One of the things that makes TV something people get so passionate about IS that predictability, I would argue. It’s one of the few things you can rely on in life anymore. Over on CSI: Miami, Horatio’s going to catch the killer every week, but he’s also going to catch the killer in EXACTLY THE SAME WAY every week. And he’s going to make a groan-worthy pun and remove his sunglasses. Obviously, we mock this sort of thing, but we also secretly love it, as we love all stable things in these uncertain times.
Lost, perhaps more than any other network TV show (and, really, even in the cable spectrum, only Mad Men can really match it), is going out of its way to not establish a predictable template. Used to be it would establish a template for a season or so and then gradually introduce a new one. Now, the series seems to adhere to an episode template for a few weeks and then toss it aside just as quickly. There’s been a lot written in a joking fashion about the addictive nature of the show, but those pieces don’t really even get into how the show’s increasing SPEED replicates the experience of just needing one more hit over and over and over and over.
I really don’t want to give Lost TOO much credit. To some degree, the show’s reliance on changing up its underlying template in previous seasons masked a lack of confidence in some of the storytelling, a real concern over just how long this story was going to have to stretch out already. To that end, characters would do really stupid things, wouldn’t ask questions pretty much any real human being would ask in a given situation and would just be randomly moved around the show’s chessboard by the writers. Even in the show’s much-vaunted fourth season (in which awards bodies and media critics re-fell in love with the show), there was a sense that some episodes were slight stalls and that some of the plot points were being tossed in to satiate certain portions of the fanbase (like the episodes fixating on the Sawyer-Kate-Jack triangle). The fifth season, though, has mostly avoided a lack of confidence and has managed to make the characters behave like real people EVEN WHEN the show is just blatantly moving them around the chessboard (as when it got all of the Oceanic Five on board Ajira 316). In Season Five, the show is just plunging ahead with all the brio in the world, as if it knows that the story it has to tell is going to interest us and that it’s worth telling. Furthermore, the characters are being tossed together in new and unexpected ways—think, for example, of Jack having to just bite his tongue and submit to Sawyer’s authority, a new twist on their previously tiresome alpha male huffing—and being given the kinds of interesting little scenes and moments that tell us about their relationships in ways that don’t rely on heavyhanded flashbacks—think, for example, of Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) and Sawyer discussing where he could find his sweatshirt, a conversation that told us so much about their relationship without ever actually clubbing us over the head with it.
Lost’s also incorporating so many different tones skillfully at the moment. When the show shifts from the eerie horror of Sun and Lapidus coming across the ghost of Jack’s dad (though they don’t know this) in an eerily abandoned DHARMA village to the easy, lighthearted drama of the DHARMA initiates taking the picture that Sun will look at in the future, it doesn’t come with whirring of gears. It just feels natural. Lost is really playing on a sprawling field at the moment, but you don’t see people really complaining about how the series is apparently going to keep large portions of the cast separate from each other when that very thing led to a lot of grousing in the infamous early episodes of Season Three. I think it’s because Lost now moves like it has a plan, and everybody on the show finally has something interesting to do, even though, really, there’s probably going to be no satisfying explanation for why the two groups are separate beyond “We just needed to keep Sun and Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) separate for longer” or “Can’t have Jack and Locke squaring off again right away.” It’s a blatant plot complication, but we accept it, because it looks like it’s going to lead to interesting drama.
Yeah, even in “Namaste,” there’s some clumsy stuff. That plane landing, for instance, was terrifically tense (the sudden jump from night to day was nicely discombobulating) until the camera cut to an external view and we saw just how bad the visual effects of the plane landing were. And, sure, some of the plotting in the DHARMA sequences was a little soap-y (though the show mostly combated this by not giving us big speeches or people getting in big fights but, instead, showing us the characters dealing with this in a low-key manner). Hell, I’ll even allow that at the moment, the character of Radzinsky (Eric Lange) feels a little over-the-top, though we really haven’t gotten to know him at all.
But, even with those caveats, I’m having a hell of a good time with this season of Lost. It’s combining everything the show has always done well with a lot of paints I didn’t know it even had on its palette. It can stack scenes of Sawyer’s casual, confident swagger up against things like an imprisoned Sayid (Naveen Andrews) meeting the young Benjamin Linus. It can bounce around a thirty-year period of history and have two time periods inform and comment on each other. It can have Juliet cradle a sweet little baby, then reveal that baby’s going to grow up into someone who kills a lot of people. Watching Lost often feels like sitting on the floor of the local drugstore to crack open the latest issue of your favorite comic when you were a little kid or ducking under the covers with some adventure novel with a goofy title. That it can inspire these feelings in grown adults is no small accomplishment. Will Lost ever be as deep or profound as some other shows? Probably not. But it’s always going to be a lot of fun.
Some other thoughts:
• Bender again shows why he’s this series’ go-to director with a long series of cool directorial choices, from lens flares to the eerie shadows of the dystopic Island sequences to the sharp-eyed shots and cuts in the plane crash sequence.
• Something I’m pondering: Did the scene with Sun and Lapidus visiting the DHARMA barracks take place in a future that’s different from the one we’ve seen before? Hadn’t the Others removed most sighs of DHARMA’s time there when we saw the barracks in Seasons Three and Four? And yet, in this episode, a sign from the DHARMA days was still hanging up, and the big hall was still decorated with old DHARMA photos. Maybe the future CAN be changed ...
• Lapidus may be my favorite character in the history of anything ever, and I really have no idea why. He’s just the kind of formerly grizzled pilot that more shows need, and he always comes through in a jam. I’d congratulate him for finding the smaller island runway, but we all know that was just the writers trying to justify those throwaway bits of early Season Three.
• Loved the assignment of the haughty Jack to a janitorial position, Kate to serve under Juliet’s watchful eye in the motor pool and Hurley to the kitchen. In general, this episode continued the trend of taking Jack down a peg or two, which I wholeheartedly support, even as I know the show will eventually restore him to being the leader somehow.
• So just where has Faraday (Jeremy Davies) gone off to? When Sawyer says he’s not there, do you think he’s headed off to the mainland on one of the subs? Or is Sawyer just saying that he’s not “all there”?
• Desmond’s (Henry Ian Cusick) still in the opening credits. How long before he once again crashes on the Island while taking part in a sailing race around the world, thanks to the help of Mrs. Hawking (Fionnuala Flanagan)? Though you’d think he wouldn’t do the same thing twice ...
• Sayid has barely gotten anything to do this season, but that little look of happy recognition when he first spotted Jin that darted so quickly across his eyes almost made up for it.
• And, yes, there was a girl in the background of that scene. I think it’s Claire. What do you think?