I give up.
After years of serving as a de-facto apologist for Lost simply for clinging to the eroding bedrock that everything might come out in the wash, doggedly believing that there really was some sort of a master plan that would retroactively justify hours of wild-spitballing and endless digression, I now concede that the people behind this show are completely winging it. I’ve always suspected that the show was making itself up as it went week to week; I’m now convinced that during the commercial break a team of frantic young writers is quickly churning out pages, faster than my Tivo can advance, in a desperate attempt to get to the end before I do.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the ad hoc approach to long-form storytelling; the writers of 24 freely admit they’re rarely more than two-episodes ahead with the plot at any given time and Stephen King has made a long and lucrative career out of feeling his way around as he goes. But when the seams begin to show, as they clearly are here, it becomes awfully hard to look the other way. A couple months ago a viral video circled the net (making a pit stop here at the House) which offered a comical take on a “typical” writer’s room meeting at Lost that, amongst others, introduced the expression “magic turtle” into our vernacular and probably cut uncomfortably close to the behind the scenes process. Last night’s episode, “The Man from Tallahassee” didn’t have a “magic turtle,” it had a “magic box” that according to Ben Linus (Michael Emerson) was able to conjure up for the person who possessed it anything they desired. I think I would have preferred the turtle.
And yet, the episode, for all its faults, couldn’t help but underline how compulsively watchable the show remains even as it remains insultingly obtuse. No matter how much eye-rolling the show may generate, the “what happens next” factor remains as compelling as ever. Intellectually, I grow weary of the show’s innumerable, and wholly unaccountable rug-pullers and yet I revel at the sound my jaw makes as it hits the floor, an occurrence that happens on average once or twice an episode.
Take for example the titular man from Tallahassee, Anthony Cooper (Kevin Tighe), who more importantly is the con-man father of John Locke (Terry O’Quinn). Over the years Cooper has tricked Locke into giving him one of his kidneys, embroiled him in an embezzlement scam and cost him the woman he loves. In last night’s episode, Cooper cements his status as “worst dad ever” (which on this show is saying something) as he’s revealed as the cause of Locke’s one-time paralysis, putting to bed a mystery slightly more pressing than “hey, how did Jack get that tattoo anyway?” but still relatively low on the list of head scratchers.
The particulars behind John’s ailment have been teased out like a piece of salt-water taffy; throughout the show’s history we find the character at the center of an escalating procession of physically fraught situations (earlier in the season he somehow ended up in the middle of an F.B.I. sting that played-out like a mini-Waco). Even the show’s opener plays on the audience’s familiarity with the character’s disability to have a little fun at their expense. Yet nothing can really prepare the viewer for the sight of sexagenarian Cooper bum-rushing Locke, sending him flying through a floor to ceiling window and hurtling towards the cement eight stories below. Impractical? Highly so, but you better believe they’ve got my attention.
Ultimately, how Locke ended up in the wheelchair is less interesting than how he got out of it, and par for the course, Lost sniffs around the answer while safely skirting around a definitive answer. Holding a wheelchair-bound Ben (who’s still recovering from the spinal surgery he underwent a few weeks back) at gunpoint, Locke possesses a misplaced and unjustified arrogance, accusing his hostage of being unworthy of the island and its mystical properties, citing the man’s slow recovery-time as proof. Yet Locke never takes this once in a lifetime opportunity to demand answers from a prone Ben, instead falling into a familiar, lecturing tone that reminds us that as enlightened as he comes across, no character underestimates those around him more often than Locke.
The present-day action remains confined to “the Others’” barracks, most recently glimpsed at the end of last week’s episode. Furnished with pianos and foosball tables, the compound more closely resembles a Christian youth center than the nefarious base of operations for the sinister DHARMA initiative, but that very same disconnect lends a Stepford-esque quality to the surroundings where behind every door seems to lurk an assault team waiting to pop out with guns raised. Speaking of being a robot, what to make of the good doctor Jack (Matthew Fox) who has settled all too easily into his role as “co-conspirator” with “the Others?” Only a day away from a long submarine ride (read into that whatever you will) with Elizabeth Mitchell’s radiant but largely silent Juliet, Jack has become uncharacteristically compliant and docile; reluctant to jeopardize his ticket back to the wonderful real world where the Red Sox are still basking in the afterglow of the World Series and there are no polar bears and smoke monsters to deal with.
After risking life and limb to liberate him, Kate (Evangeline Lilly) is disheartened by Jack’s chilly response, especially now that she and Sayid (Naveen Andrews) seem destined to take his place. Under constant surveillance, Jack appears to have found happiness in slavery and offers up a “thanks but no thanks” to Kate’s valiant rescue mission. Like the transfer student who’s abandoned his old friends for more well-off (they have a pool table!) new ones, Jack’s hasty alliance with “the Others” adds a fascinating new wrinkle to the group dynamic the show’s spent three years cultivating. Just as Michael (Harold Perrineau) infamously cut his own deal for escape at the expense of his friends, Jack can’t help but come across as opportunist and craven no matter how practical he’s being. Fox’s scenes with Lilly, as he tries to rationalize his deal with the devil, represent some of the best work done by both actors all season, deftly balancing class divide and betrayal, complete with inopportune interjection by Juliet.
The rest of the episode’s high drama came from Ben’s in-plain-sight manipulation of Locke, playing into the latter’s feverish desire to remain on the island and guiding him towards a scenario where the island’s submarine (aka the only means of escape) is destroyed. Much of Locke’s questionable behavior can be linked to his unwavering belief that the island is his salvation, having returned the use of his legs to him. Viewing any contact with the outside world as a threat (let us not forget, only two weeks ago he “accidentally” blew up the only means of communicating with the mainland), Locke wires the sub with the C-4 he’s been carting around with him, stranding Jack and Juliet indefinitely and carrying out Ben’s Machiavellian plan for maintaining control of all that surrounds him. Now that Locke has destroyed Jack’s means of going home, Ben succeeds in foiling his escape without breaking his promise.
The back and forth between O’Quinn and Emerson was a wonderful forum for two of the show’s best actors, with power shifting subtly between the two men. Even confined to a wheelchair and at the end of a gun Ben maintains the upper hand, guiding Locke along with false motivations and facile stabs at psycho-analysis, goading him into doing his dirty work for him. While some have criticize this season as being overly reliant on “the Others” at the expense of some of the original characters, I always relish the opportunity to watch Emerson work and am pleased to see him up and about again (in a manner of speaking). The actor seems to specialize in using his confinement to disarm more physically imposing antagonists (he somehow made being strapped to an operating table menacing); I can only hope they don’t have Ben getting out of that wheelchair too quickly.
So much of what makes these scenes effective is we suspect Ben is working an angle (he’s every bit the con-man Cooper is, only less slimy about it) as does Locke, but we’re never certain exactly what is. Ben spins a half-hearted yarn about his workers uprising should their only means of returning home be demolished, practically daring Locke to seal his fate. He even makes a play on Locke’s animosity towards Jack, telling him if he waits an hour the sub will sail never to return again (one suspects the threat of Jack returning someday with the cavalry is a chance Locke is unwilling to take). But then of course the show spells out explicitly what Ben’s motives are as well as externalizing Locke’s inner-most motivations destroying the smoky haze of paranoia and double talk with a stream of on-the-nose analysis. The show seems to alternately want to mock this sort of dime-store psychotherapy, while embracing it when it allows for a pat explanation of every behavioral tic, reducing the characters once again to a bunch of walking “connect the dots.”
Which brings us back to the “magic box.” Detained after blowing up the sub, Locke is walked down a long corridor to a storage room by Ben and Richard Alpert (Nester Carbonell, reappearing after convincing Juliet to join up with DHARMA a few episodes back) where he finds, most improbably, Cooper, bound and gagged, a gift we’re told from the “magic box,” just waiting for Locke to exact his revenge upon. No doubt a metaphor of some sort (or at least I hope to God it is) this “box” is scary development for those few remaining viewers that have held out hope that the show wasn’t simply pulling rabbits out of its hat whenever the story required it. The show will no doubt contort itself to explain how Cooper arrived on the island and came into the possession of “the Others” but I remain dubious as to how the show can retain any form of integrity now that they’ve introduced this all purpose dues ex machina. Every plot hole now has a built-in answer: if they can bring Locke’s father to the island they can bring… a satellite phone? A Bengal tiger? A Cessna? Where’s the line? Is there a line?
I hope I’m being alarmist, and like many of the show’s puzzling developments, it’s much ado about nothing, but this strikes me as a potentially disastrous development. Locke makes a joke about the “box” being large enough to produce a replacement submarine, but in the back of my head I remain fearful the show may have found a sort of lazy fix-all it can dust off anytime it’s written itself into a corner. So much of the show relies upon characters misdirecting one another to hide their real agenda; I’m praying that’s the case here.