Major spoilers for Lost’s latest episode follow.
Last night’s Lost episode, Across the Sea, sealed the show’s fate for me – an awful, poorly written shitheap of an episode, it guaranteed that I am sitting through the show’s final three hours only out of a sense of obligation to finish what I started. I’m a guy who cheered the end of The Sopranos and who thinks the finale of Battlestar Galactica is essentially brilliant, so it isn’t like I’m put off by shows not meeting my expectations or going where I want them to go. I’m put off by shows being bad, and then being kind of dickish about it (“Every question you ask will just lead to another question” is an actual quote from one character blowing off another last night).
But I don’t think it had to be terrible. I may never be happy with the limited answers we were given – the cave of urine, the origins of the Smoke Monster, the contrivance of never giving the Man in Black a fucking name – but this hot carl of an episode could have been handled so much better.
1) Don’t make the episode. This is the simplest one. Across the Sea didn’t need to exist. It actually gave us very little new information, and what we did need to learn – Jacob and MiB’s relationship, the origins of the donkey wheel – could have been imparted with a line of dialogue or two within a normal episode. After all, MiB already gave us the meat of his origin story in off the cuff remarks, only leaving out “My twin brother hurled me into a cave of urine.”
A lot of people have been comparing Across the Sea to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace not only because young Jacob superficially reminded us of Anakin Skywalker but because it’s an example of a story we didn’t need to hear, and a story whose banality undermines the foundations of everything else.
2) Make the episode a flashback. It’s been twice this season that Lost has broken format and given backstory to ageless characters by simply having exposition-filled episodes where people stand around and talk about who they are, where they’re from and what experiences they’ve had off-camera that make them who they are (which is the least dramatically satisfying way to get across information, and one that this show keeps falling back on). Why not have both Ab Aeterno and Across the Sea be flashbacks… you know, since the show was built on a foundation of backstory being given out through flashback? They could use a flashback episode to tell us how Jack got his fucking tattoos but not to explain the origins of the cosmic beings in whose game our characters are but pawns? And I know there are no flashbacks this season, but Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse could have earned their paycheck by spending an extra hour figuring out how to tell audiences they were seeing flashbacks, not flash-sideways.
3) Make it a story. Across the Sea was a poorly written series of expository scenes that contained little drama. The episode feels like someone giving someone else the Cliff Notes of a bigger, more epic tale… so make it exactly that. Have the Man in Black relate his story to Claire, or have the Losties discover a parchment or a cave painting or a tablet in the Lighthouse that explains this tale. By having the narrative gimmick of making this episode a legend/myth, the writers wouldn’t need to have characters in it behave like normal humans as we expect to see them behave in modern TV shows. And the elements of mystery they’re so gung-ho to preserve – like what’s in the urine cave and why the hell did the Smoke Monster come out of it – could have been preserved because the writer of the legend wouldn’t have the answer. Plus it would put in an element of the unreliable narrator, and since Lindelof and Cuse never met an answer they wanted to leave unmuddied, it would have allowed them to give us info but continue obfuscating. And it would have felt natural, a result of a tale being passed down over thousands of years – and since half the heavy-handed allusions in last night’s poorly written episode were Biblical in nature, this would have fit right in. The grotesquely simple-minded metaphors and symbolism would have also felt more natural in a legend – otherwise we’re left wondering why no one would ever give Man in Black a name simply so they have something to call him besides ‘Hey you.’
4) Go back in time and change the way the characters deal with the mysteries. Hear me out. Lindelof and Cuse have said again and again that the show is about the characters, not about the mystery. The last two seasons feel like they contradict this statement totally, but let’s take it at face value. So the show is about the characters… why not have the characters care about the mysteries? If the characters cared about the Island and what it was and who Jacob and Man in Black were the story we were given last night could have been told organically through discoveries made by the main characters. By making the characters not care about the mysteries the show is essentially forcing itself into two halves, and I don’t think it’s servicing either properly. The characters are stuck in an irritating loop of escape the island/go back to the island/stay on the island arguments and endless walks in the jungle to get from one scene where they’re passive to another scene where they’re passive. By making the characters active participants in the Island’s mysteries, they would be driving the solutions to the mysteries as well as being much more active in the final episodes as the Man in Black’s plan comes together.
I get that at one point it made sense that survival was what motivated these people, but now they’re motivated by… well, it’s unclear from episode to episode. Season five should have seen the Losties taking a role in figuring out what is going on and who is manipulating them, as opposed to just trekking across the jungle and occasionally pointing guns at people. Their lack of curiosity has come to the point where it’s in direct opposition to their need to survive – they need to understand what is happening around them so they can know how to deal with it. And if they were searching for the answers the story of Jacob and Man in Black’s origin could have been delivered in a much more dynamic, satisfying way – a way that felt earned, not like an hour of crammed-in backstory.
But more importantly it makes the origin of MiB and Jacob have a bearing on the main Losties. Yes, the conflict between these two is what our characters are caught up in, but I have still never been able to care about Jacob or his brother because they’ve been personality-free late additions to the mythos. By having Jack or Sawyer or Kate care about who Jacob is, suddenly I care more because I have been following them for six years and, on some level, I automatically care about their goals. Lost has tried to do what The Wire did – keep pulling the frame back and include more, and make the scope bigger. It’s failed because unlike The Wire Lost has not successfully showed me how the different layers of the scope – ranging from Aaron to Jacob and from Jack to Widmore – are connected beyond “They’re all on or have been on the Island.” The Wire showed us an invisible web that made every element of Baltimore life interconnected; the way Lost has handled it would be as if Cheers had three different sets of characters at the bar, none of whom really interacted except by being at the same location.
And by the way, here’s a bonus way to have saved last night’s episode:
5) Write better.