"Everyone I care about just blew up on your damn boat. I know what I can't change!" -Sawyer
"Look, everything's going to make sense. I promise." -Hurley
"It better!" -Hurley's mom
If, as with "The Wire," the opening scene of each season of "Lost" tells you all you need to know about what's to come, then the series' penultimate season is going to be about time travel, and about what happens when a beloved old record starts skipping a few grooves.
When Daniel Faraday invokes that old-fashioned needle-skip phenomenon, he explains what's happening on the island in layman's terms, as well as providing greater symbolic weight to the way three season (including this one) opened with characters listening to their favorite vinyl selections. In this case, what Dr. Chang (aka Marvin Candle / aka Mark Wickmund / aka Edgar Halliwax) is playing Willie Nelson's "Shotgun Willie," but these episodes as a whole play a little like "Lost's Greatest Hits."
Not only does the time-travel phenomenon lead to return appearances by Ethan, Yemi's plane (and its cargo of dope-filled Virgin Mary figurines) and a younger version of Desmond still waiting for his replacement to arrive ("Are you him?"), and not only does the second episode feature a ghostly (or hallucinatory) appearance by Ana-Lucia and the return of Desmond's time-travel guru Ms. Hawking, but the two episodes are filled with all of the things that can make "Lost" so addictive -- and, depending on your tastes, maddening.
These episodes offered up cool action, like Sayid having a brawl involving pots, pans and a rogue dishwasher, as well as the harrowing sequence of Sawyer, Juliet and the remaining Lostaways trying to survive a flaming arrow attack. They offered strong character moments, like Sawyer's confession of just how much he's hurting, or Hurley finally coming clean to someone about the island. (Much more on both of those in a bit.) It offered more clues -- and, in some cases, plain answers -- about what's going on on this bizarre island, as well as tantalizing new questions like... soldiers? With flaming arrows? And British accents?
But back to that opening sequence, set in the glory days of the Dharma Initiative, before The Others took over, before Chang/Candle/Wickmund/Halliwax lost his arm, before all that unpleasantness -- what is Faraday doing there, and how did he get there? Is this another instance of the current time-skipping problem, and he just happened to wind up temporarily stuck in the island's Dharma era, or does this tie back into his own time travel experiments and the fact that Desmond is supposed to be his Constant?
Whatever he's doing there, it's clear that twitchy Dan is going to be a crucial part of this season, and that Desmond (who really only appears for a few minutes in both these episodes combined) could be almost as important, as the show finally makes explicit what's been speculated on for years: among the unique properties of the island is an ability to bend the laws of physics to send people, things, and even the island back and forth through time. If that's really happening, then not only will the Lostaways need a quantum physicist and an unstuck-in-time Scotsman to save them, but we'll need Dan just to put things in layman's terms, which he does quite nicely with the record analogy.
Now, are the Lostaways moving through time (and possibly space) or is the island? That may be an issue of semantics, or it may be the key to all of this. To get my full comic book geek on, I think of Guardian from Alpha Flight, who had the ability to make himself immune to the Earth's rotation. The planet would keep moving, and Guardian would stay in the same place, but to the observer (who was, in fact, moving right along with Earth), it looked like he had flown away at an astonishing speed. We know that it looked, from the Oceanic Six's perspective, like the island blinked out of existence, and maybe it did. Maybe it goes from place to place, time period to time period, and that's how Yemi's small plane made it all the way from Africa to the South Pacific (and seems remarkably well-preserved years later), how the Black Rock wound up at the center of the island (and how the ship's first mate's journal wound up in Madagascar), how the polar bears wound up in Tunisia, etc. Maybe, in fact, none of these things would have wound up on (or off) the island if Ben hadn't moved the frozen donkey wheel and made the record start skipping. Maybe Locke didn't travel back in time to witness the moment when Yemi's plane crashed, but rather was there at the moment (in relative island time) when it originally happened.
And now as I re-read that paragraph, I wonder if I'm just writing in circles, which is always the danger of time travel stories: even when they make sense to the quantum physicists like Faraday, or the comic book nerds like me, they can still make your head hurt. And to someone without a PhD or a bookshelf full of sci-fi paperbacks, it can be a complete turn-off.
But what made all the time-bending of "The Constant" work so brilliantly, and what makes these two episodes work almost as well (they're trying to move forward a lot more plot than "The Constant" had to deal with, so the focus is by nature not as tight) is that they never lose sight of the human element. Yes, insane things are happening, some of which make sense if you stop to explain them, many of which don't make any sense at all, but there are recognizable characters at the center of them, reacting in a way that seems right to them, and that's moving in some way.
Sawyer's stuck on the island as it skips from era to era (or as he skips from era to era, or however you want to parse it), but he's also trying to process what he thinks is the death of Kate and Hurley and his other friends -- and maybe, though it's never said outright, the guilt that if he hadn't jumped out of the helicopter ("for her"), it might have gone in the ocean (where they could have swam away) instead of landing on the soon-to-explode freighter. Sawyer was pretty marginalized last season, but as Sawyer tries to deal with all the time jumps and his own grief, Josh Holloway does an outstanding job of reminding us why he was such a vital character from the start, and of making Sawyer's anguish clear well before he comes right out and says it to Dan.
Hurley, meanwhile, is on the run from the cops, and Ben, and whomever's been following him and Sayid, and maybe from ghosts (or else just more examples of his own mental problems). As the alliances in the real world ebb and flow and threaten to become as cryptic as the time mess on the island -- What did Ben do to make Sayid break away from him? Does Sun really only blame Ben for Jin's death, or is she plotting some righteous vengeance on Kate and Jack as well? -- Hurley, as he so often, blessedly does, brings it all back down to earth.
Despite his mental problems, Hurley has always been one of the most rational characters "Lost" has. (Ditto Sawyer, which makes them appropriate centerpieces for these first two episodes.) Hurley's the only one who sees from the start that the Oceanic Six lie is going to be more trouble than it's worth, and as we saw when he charged through a mine field to ask Rousseau about the numbers, it matters an awful lot when he can find people who believe him when he speaks the truth. So the scene where he finally comes clean to his mom and gives her a summary about what happened on the island -- sounding totally insane even to those of us who watched all this stuff go down -- and she believes him because he's her son and he wouldn't lie to her... well, that provided more than enough emotional ballast to the rest of it. It can never be said enough how wonderful Jorge Garcia is at showing Hurley's vulnerability, and how valuable Hurley's perspective on things is to keeping this whole bizarre enterprise from flying off the rails.
With these episodes -- really, going back to last year's three-hour finale -- the show has changed up its narrative format once again. Rather than the simple structure of intercutting events on the island with one character's flashback, or flashforward, we now have two parallel narratives -- one on the island at the end of 2004 (or did the new year begin before the freighter blew up?), the other in the real world in 2007 -- that are both constantly moving forward. This late in the series, this kind of global plotting is necessary, as it allows all of the stories to advance each week, rather than waiting for, say, Kate's spotlight episode to fill us in on what's happening with her and Aaron and these shady lawyers (working for Claire's mom, maybe?) who want a blood test to prove maternity. Yet despite having much more forward momentum than all but a handful of episodes from previous seasons, both "Because You Left" and "The Lie" still manage to find an emotional anchor (first Sawyer, then Hurley) so that they can feel like original-recipe "Lost" while dabbling in time travel, espionage, mergers and acquisitions, and all these other new elements.
Needless to say, I am very, very happy with where we're at with the new season. And next week's episode, which I got to see on a big screen back at press tour, may actually be the best of the three so far.
Some other thoughts and questions to ponder:
• In case you missed it yesterday, I did a long interview with Damon Lindelof when I was in California last week. In it, we discuss not only the new time travel theme, but key elements from season four and from the series as a whole. If you don't have time for the whole thing, I'd suggest scrolling down to the parts about "Stranger in a Strange Land" inadvertently saving the series, and about how the master plan relates to Michael Emerson being promoted from day player to central character.
• Another link you might have missed: Isaac Spaceman's recap of the previous four seasons. It's a bit longer than Hurley's, and doesn't have the pathos, but it's wicked, wicked funny.
• Interesting that, in the end, Hurley takes Sayid's advice (no matter what, do the opposite of whatever Ben suggests) over Ana-Lucia's (no matter what, don't let the cops catch you). Given what we know about Ben, Sayid's was probably the wiser piece of advice, and it's rare to see Ben as thoroughly foiled as he is in that moment -- which only made my Hurley love grow more.
• What exactly is going on with the pendulum in Ms. Hawking's office? And why does she have a computer that looks to be the same vintage as the one from the hatch?
• In addition to the Willie Nelson song, the most notable tune playing over these two episodes was Cheap Trick's "Dream Police," which was the Muzak playing as Hurley bought a t-shirt at the gas station.
• One more thing to ponder about what's moving and why on the island: The Others -- at least, the native Others (as opposed to an immigrant like Juliet) -- don't seem to be traveling when the Lostaways do. One minute, Locke's in the jungle with his flock, and the next he's in the pouring rain by himself.
• And speaking of The Others, one of the benefits of the deal to end the series after next season was it gave Cuse and Lindelof the ability to sign people like Nestor Carbonell to firmer deals. We don't need to worry anymore about Richard disappearing again from the narrative because Carbonell (who apparently is not wearing eyeliner) got cast in another series.
• The compass Richard gives to Locke -- to give back to him at their next meeting in Locke's future and Richard's past -- would seem to answer the question of which item the young Locke was supposed to recognize that he already owned during the '60s flashbacks from "Cabin Fever," right?
• While Dan has jumped to the center of the narrative, the other surviving freighter folk are still around to varying degrees. I'm not sure if we'll be seeing Frank again past the flashback to the origin of the Oceanic Six lie (which was hatched while he was still hanging with them and Desmond and Penny), but Miles gets to prove that Locke isn't the only guy on the island who can catch boar (though, admittedly, John had the tougher task of doing it with living ones, where Miles just uses his psychic powers to find already dead ones), and Charlotte appears to be more profoundly affected by the time travel than the rest of the gang, judging by her nosebleeds, memory loss and Dan's obvious concern for her.
• Carlton Cuse has brought in a bunch of supporting players from his "Nash Bridges" over the years, whether it's Cheech as Hurley's dad, Daniel Roebuck as the amazing exploding Arzt, and now Mary Mara as Jill, Ben's contact at the Others-run butcher shop. (Those Others, always diversifying: they run a butcher shop, and a biotech firm, and a time-traveling island, and...)
• Like father, like son: Cheech also enjoys the occasional episode of "Expose."
• Between Keamy's assault force, the explosion of the freighter and now the fire arrow attack, Cuse and Lindelof have now gotten rid of most of the anonymous remaining passengers (or, as the producers call them, The Socks) of Oceanic 815. As Lindelof put it, half tongue-in-cheek, at a press conference last week:
The last character that anyone ever asked us about was Frogurt, and you saw how we dealt with his reintroduction. The show is now moving into a phase where the presence of The Socks was no longer directly necessary. So we killed them with arrows. And that’s just what you do.• Getting back to the rules about time travel, how do you feel about Dan's assertion that Desmond is "special," and therefore immune to all the rules? Interesting idea that makes one of the show's most popular characters even more important, or a magical get-out-of-jail-free card for whenever the writers paint themselves into a corner over these last two seasons?
What did everybody else think?