Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Talk to the Flocke: Reactions to the "Lost" episode "Ab Aeterno"

I don't know how to write this.

I really don't.

For the last few years, I've considered myself a marginal "Lost" scholar, reading the most important tomes, chasing the more eccentric literary references, trying to wisely and intelligently "read" the smartest show on television. I've studied the show as much as I've watched it. I've tried to predict it, analyze it, approach it from all appropriate angles. Then, somewhere around the moment when Richard Alpert's eyes bugged out and the smoke monster rained down up on The Black Rock, I became simply a fan again. Just a fan. Just a dumb, sit-there-slack-jawed, can't-believe-my-eyes fan.

I've struggled since that closing shot of Flocke staring at us as if to say "You assholes really believed there was a chance I was the good guy?" with how I was going to even do this today or, more importantly, why I should bother. This show is so nuanced, so smart that I either (A) can barely scratch the surface or (B) shouldn't bother.

So why are you reading this? Because later that night I received an email from my cousin, who I mention often in these blogs, and then a text from my "anonymous" friend...and then another... Before I knew it, I was full-on discussing things again. Winging weird and wildly inaccurate and largely unsupportable theories at one another, it occurred to me: You're supposed to do both. You're supposed to enjoy the shit out of the show on a superficial level and then be able to articulately dive into it. My mother-in-law, who has seen maybe 3 episodes of the show ever, watched with us last night in silence. When it was over, she was very entertained. True, her comment was simply "I liked the smoke thing," but I realized then the true legacy that "Lost" is going to leave: It's a show that managed to be both blissful, escapist entertainment on a superficial level and a deep, deep pool of intellectual discussion for those willing to go into those waters. I'm nowhere near qualified to be the lifeguard of that pool, but I'm more than happy to dive in.

Things I liked

Everything. This was my favorite episode of my favorite television show. Thus, this could be my favorite hour in television history. Let's get more specific.
  • His name is Nestor Carbonell - And you should remember that name. It may be "Lost" heresy, but I'm saying it: Just weeks after Michael Emerson set the bar for the best single acting moment in "Lost" history ("He's the only one who'll have me"), Nestor Carbonell set the all-time episode mark. He was pitch perfect from the sad-sack husband to the frightened slave to the confused mortal at play with the Gods. He was perfection, and this episode could not have functioned without that high level of performance.
  • Get back to where you once belong - Setting the entire episode for the most part in the past let us roll around in the whole of it. I love "Lost" for its style, intercutting places and times to chop up the story, but to see them go for a traditional episode structure was awesome. It proves once more that they don't rely on the structure they often use because they can't succeed in doing something else, they do it by choice.
  • Back in black - To see the bad guy we've been fighting in his "true" form (although, after last night, I'm not even sure that is true) was a delight. I loved how his mannerisms matched Flocke's, how his constant bartering and tempting. These things would seem cheesy or easy if it wasn't for the nuanced performance and the detailed writing. Really, hats off. Jacob, too. They did a great job casting these guys.
  • We're in Hell - We'll get to this...but I like it and I think they told us the truth. I feel the endgame coming. I FEEL it.
Things I didn't like

I should say nothing, because that's the truth. If I'm being picky...
  • Hurley words - He shouldn't be used as a plot device, even if I liked the device. It was mostly sold by Nestor Carbonell's staggeringly beautiful performance.
  • Ilana...uh, do something - First off, did anybody else get the impression that Jacob healed Ilana from that hospital bed? Anyway, if she's told Richard has the next step, don't just let him spout shit and run away. Make him talk to you. Or at least run after him quicker.
  • Doctor death - I'm getting real nit-picky here, but couldn't Richard have actually killed the doctor in a better way than the "push death." If this were as common as it is in television shows, the country would have an epidemic. I know, I know, he hit his head on a table, but seriously...why not get into an actual fight. Again, nit picking.

Mount up.
  • The statue - It was smashed by the Black Rock. We've wondered for years if it was eroded or we know.
  • The Black Rock - It was a slave ship. It did come about 150 years ago. It was owned by Magnus Hanso. It did not set out for the island but was pulled there.
  • Richard's life - He's about 150 years old, was given that gift of immortality by Jacob's touch (which seemingly CAN give multiple gifts, not just immortality, as evident by Jacob's discussion about what he can't do). Side note: I love the presentation of Jacob as the ultimate free will guy. It's so great to see. I don't think he's God, but I do think he's been tasked by God to keep the Devil in check. The fallacy in most religious thought is that the Devil is as strong as God. He isn't. God is stronger, so one of his assistants can keep him in check. Anyway.
  • God fight - The fight between the powerful beings has been going on far longer than 150 years. We have speculated that but now know it. We also know that the knives have specific power, that Dogen was repeating instructions that the MiB gave to Richard, and that Sayid is to Flocke what Richard is to Jacob.
  • The island - It may or may not be hell, but it is sure as hell a "cork."

I only have three that I want to include here.

  • Hell it is - This is my big commitment and my major theory: This is Hell. They were not lying. What do I mean? I mean that there are two ways of reading "Lost." Just like I said above, you can go with the entertainment or you can go with the intelligent. What makes it work is that you can enjoy either or both. Same goes for the island's identity. It IS Hell in a literal sense in that two beings of incredible power are pit against one another. One good, one bad. The bad one is being kept ON THE ISLAND. The place where "the devil" or "evil incarnate" is kept, his "home" if you will (even if he doesn't like it) is Hell. It's Hell for him, because he's being kept from where he wants to be (what he considers "home" or "Heaven") and it's Hell for the world because that's where the GODDAMN DEVIL IS. This is obviously Hell in the abstract. But consider that these people all should have died. They didn't. This isn't literally the place their souls went because their bodies are there too. The problem is, we're thinking of this in a Judeo/Christian sense only. In a far more abstract way, they are now trapped in a confined location with a being of ultimate evil after undergoing an event that should have killed them and did separate them from "the living." They're in Hell. Now, the second part, the part that explains the flash sideways is this: Hell is simply the worst of all possible worlds. It may not have started out that way, but now the castaways are obviously in the worst of all realities. Loved ones are dead and everything good has been undone. Name one blessing the island provided that still holds. Even Locke's healing is undone by his death. The island reality, in contrast to the flash sideways, is the culmination of everything going wrong. It is Hell. I may be wrong, but boy did they give us evidence for this one. I love this idea.
  • In the beginning - The episode's title, "Ab Aeterno," reminded me of something more than the obvious reference to Richard's origins. It reminded me to think of where the show started. That first episode, what things did we know: We saw the light/dark motif, we saw John Locke as a creepy/intriguing potential bad guy, and we heard the monster. I believe this show has always been about Jacob versus the Man in Black. It has always been about Good versus Evil, about faith, and about religion in particular without being about a particular religion. I think the creators of this show said "what if we put on an action/survival/mystery show about God and the devil?" And then they got away with it. Incredible.
  • Hurley is not the new Jacob - I know it's a tempting theory. People I respect and love have argued it passionately. I think they're wrong and I think we've been told that it's wrong. Consider (1) Hurley is too nice of a guy, too lovable to be forced to have his send-off in the finale be a confinement to protect an island. Oh, he'd do it. He'd also do a great job at it. But as far as he's come, he's not the guy who can make the mean calls, the hard calls. He isn't the guy who can look down like Jacob did when Richard asked him why he just didn't directly involve himself and fix things and say "it's too easy, what's the point?" Hurley is the guy who lies to protect people's feelings, who would rather take the burden himself. Jack is the guy who has been groomed time and again to learn lessons about how to think beyond himself, how to make sacrifices, how to come to faith over an extended period without being directly being told. Let me bold this to make my point: When Jacob told Hurley that not everybody can be convinced by simply hopping into a cab, he was telling us that Hurley can't replace him and that Jack should. (2) This is simplistic, but don't count it out. The obvious Red Herring for this season, Hurley, is suddenly given a bright red shirt. People have speculated this is either a joke because of the doomed "Star Trek" red shirts or a sign he's going to die. Howsabout something more obvious, he's the giant red herring. (3) It wouldn't be satisfying. Think about it. It would be clever, maybe even cute, but not satisfying. Hurley didn't go through the hero's journey (more on that in a minute). Jack did. Sorry, but this is case closed to me.
I could go on and on and on and on but I need to stop. Instead, I'm going to wrap up and let my cousin James do some of the work. He sent me a DAMN fine piece on the writing for this episode that needs to be shared. I'll leave you with a grade (A+), a promise to be just as geeked next week (come on ACTION!), and a request that you keep talking with me and with each other about this. It's too great not to.

Now here's James:

Taken from Christopher Vogler's "The Writer's Journey."

1. THE ORDINARY WORLD. Canary Islands, 1867, Richard living a poor man's life with his sick wife, Isabella, who is gravely ill.
2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE. After accidentally killing the doctor and being captured for murder, he is handed off to a slave trader, who wants to purchase Richard as a slave.
3. REFUSAL OF THE CALL. When he asks Richard if he speaks English, he doesn't reply, thus refusing the call.
4. MEETING WITH THE MENTOR. This step is missing, but in place of this some screenwriters (like me) call this the "debate" moment, where the hero realizes that if he stays in his world as is, he/she will die, and they must take this call to adventure, or die. For Richard, when he refuses to speak English, he's ordered to be hanged. Upon facing imminent death, he decides to answer the call, knowing this is his last chance to leave the old world behind. -Always an important step. Your hero must be willful and choose their journey.
5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD. Richard sets sail as a slave chained to the lower level of the Black Rock slave/trade ship. He has left his old world behind.
6. TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES. Richard struggles to survive at the hands of Whitfield, the Smoke Monster, and hunger/abandonment. He's scanned (tested) by the smoke monster. He sees Isabella again, and is tested by what appears to be his love, his biggest ally.
7. APPROACH. Richard is approached by MIB, sent on a task that will test his current flaw of believing he is in hell, and that flaw will be called into question when he approaches what he thinks is the devil's lair, and tries to find Jacob to kill him (only to get his ass handed to him by Jay Ninja)
8. THE ORDEAL. Richard is beaten senseless by Jacob, who baptizes him in the ocean (debatable), and tells him he can't absolve him of his murder sin or reunite him with his wife. Richard, as it appears at that moment, is in hell. No hope. All is lost.
9. THE REWARD. He tells Jacob then he wishes he could live forever, and Jacob gives him that gift, as well as job on the island. A new chapter begins, and he now sets forth as Jacob's representative. He hands the rock to MIB, and sets off. Act III has begun.
10. THE ROAD BACK. Cut to present. Richard's flaw is not yet fully healed. He's back to thinking he's in hell again. (testament to the best thing a writer can remember: a hero is his own worst enemy, and creates his own conflict) He wanders to the (beautiful) garden where he digs up his wife's necklace. He takes a step back into darkness. The battle isn't over. He calls out and surrenders to MIB.
11. THE RESURRECTION. Which is when Hurley appears, with a message from Richard's wife. She's standing right next to him. He needs to have faith. They are together now, and will be together always (or something like that). Richard faces his flaw and apologizes, and at the climax, chooses to be with her, knowing now she's by his side. His faith is restored. Richard has been resurrected. Flaw healed.
12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR. Richard expectantly will now go back to being a man of [Jacob] faith, and he will no doubt return back to the camp with the permanent revision of his flaw, and the reward of knowing now that his purpose on the island now continues, and he must take part in stopping MIB from ever leaving.

Which of course sets up a tragic ending ultimately for Richard, and I doubt he ever makes it back to camp in the coming episodes. I think he's a dead man walking, mainly because it's a writing technique now to feel good as audience that he's redeemed and has a new purpose, and the higher we feel now, the more it will hurt when the writers smash this all to hell and kill him in the coming episodes. He doesn't have a chance. Richard's a dead man walking. And it will hurt when he dies.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Flippin' awesome episode! I felt like we were let in on so much, but still not enough to feel like I know what the heck is going on.
I like how the writers have been tongue-in-cheek addressing and disputing popular fan theories this season- like why Richard doesn't age ("Vampire?")- and the whole "they're in Purgatory" theory has been around since the beginning. I had the feeling they were teasing us a little bit with that- this is Hell, no it's not, yes it is, etc. You REALLY think it's Hell? Or is it really more of an in-between, like Purgatory? Because like you said, Hell is where the Devil is, but he wants to go home, presumably back to Hell. So confused...

March 24, 2010  
Blogger Ryan said...

First off, I agree with most of what you're saying. Second, YES I REALLY THINK IT'S HELL. At least in terms of the whole various different realities part, with this being the worst. The reason it's not Purgatory, or "in between," is because it is the residence of pure evil. In Purgatory, you aren't tortured by being eaten by a smoke monster, you aren't further poked, prodded or killed. That's hell baby. The Devil doesn't want to be in hell. The Devil was a former ANGEL, so "home" in his eyes is Heaven or at the very least not hell. Hell is a cage.

March 24, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah yes, you're right. Devil wants to get the hell out of Hell. I get it, and I have to agree with your assessment. Brilliant!
Now, tell me what you make of the Sideways world as it applies to what we now know of the Island. Do you agree with Doc Jensen that it has something to do with MIB's promises? This makes zero sense to me- what do you think?

March 24, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought it was interesting how quickly & easily Jacob prevented Richard from killing him. It was a stark contrast to the situation with Jacob & Ben. It proves that Jacob could have easily stopped Ben, but chose not to.

In ancient times, Hell was referred to as a place away. It was being outcast from the clan. In this sense, the island could fit with the idea of Hell nicely. In modern times, Hell is generally either viewed as 1) a place absent of God, or 2) a place of fire and damnation. In the modern sense, I don't see how the island could fit with either of these.

March 25, 2010  
Blogger Ryan said...

First point, dead on. I totally agree.

As to the Hell stuff, you're 100% right about Hell being defined as "a place absent of God," but I think that still works here. I think that's the sacrifice that Jacob makes. As much as we want him to be God-like, and he is, I don't think he IS, in fact, God. I actually think the second definition holds too, other than the fire. This IS a place of damnation. Being damned to hell is more or less like saying "being confined to prison." Again, I think the idea works more as a metaphor (the worst of all possible alternate worlds) than as literal hell...but it's interesting.

As to the question above about the sideways world being linked to the MiB's promises, I totally disagree. It's more likely to be the result of Jacob's non-promises. What I mean is, it could be the world that is created by people who finally complete Jacob's plan. It's a flawed world, but one that may be earned? I am a little unsure about it, to be honest. It's the one thing this season that just doesn't quite fit for me...

March 25, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think Jacob is set up to be God either. As religious parallels go, he acts much more like an angel or prophet. In the Bible stories, angels can be harsh & ruthless, but also guardians. They have a great amount of powers, but nothing equal to God, and certainly wouldn't have the power to forgive sin. Of course, it seems strange to me that a person could replace Jacob, if Jacob is truly supposed to be someone like an angel. The replacement part would make much more sense if Jacob, instead of being an angel, was more akin to a Moses like figure. In the Bible stories, God granted them great powers too, including very long lives- but in the end, they were still just people doing God's work.

As for the Hell question. Didn't Jacob say that it WASN'T Hell? Did I miss-hear that? Just like he said he wasn't the devil?

If I did- how could the island be a place "absent of God", while there is still good? How could good happen in the absence of God, if God is all that is good?

If the island is a place of damnation- why can so many people freely leave? Why would people try to find it and get back? Why would it be scientifically studied?

As a metaphor, I can follow along with this idea to a point. As a reality, I think there are too many things that don't fit with the idea to make it workable.

March 25, 2010  
Blogger Ryan said...

(A) - Looooove the Moses example. I think that's a way better way to think of it than Angels.

(B) - Jacob DID say it, but he said it in that long-sigh way that sounded like "okay, well, it's KIND OF hell...but..." Again, I think the show pretty much detests literal, easy answers. I grant that. But I find this compelling.

(C) - I think you're using Hell and God in strict Judeo-Christian ways. I think that if we're a bit looser, the devil lives in hell, it's the most evil place conceivable, and the island is at the very least part of that.

(D) - This is tricky. I think the bumping together of science and religion is what makes this MORE interesting. If we found hell, wouldn't we study it? Maybe hell isn't right...the more I think about it, I think it does work just metaphorically. That said, what if it's something like hell...what if it's the remnants of Eden? The devil appeared there?

I really don't think we're going to get a literal "here's what the island is" definition. Of course, that won't stop me from trying to say that there is an answer. I'm wacky like that.

March 25, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You seem to have a much darker view of the island in general than I do. Rose was cured & is happy. Kate was granted freedom. Love has happened & been restored- good things have happened to people. If that is part of Hell, it certainly is a lot nicer than I'd ever envisioned it. And yes, this is a very Judeo-Christian view of Hell, but that is because it appears to be the driving view behind Lost. Come on, "Jacob"? I don't think a Wiccan or Buddhist religious philosophy is the driving force here.

The idea of Eden has been around since we first saw the two corpses in the cave. I would be disappointed if it turned out to be true. I guess I just want something less obvious. I hope it IS unlikely to be a black & white answer as to what the island is. I would rather be left with some unsolved mysteries than told unsatisfying answers.

I agree that the combination of science & religion has been a compelling element of the show. I do still have fears however, that it will fail us in that realm, alla BSG. [Fingers crossed that they do a better job than THAT horror-show of a finale.]

And (no pun intended) to play devil's advocate: Who says the MIB is the Devil anyway? Couldn't he be an emissary for the Devil instead of the Devil himself? Maybe he is a big bad, without being the biggest bad. (Or maybe I just watch too much Supernatural.)

March 25, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the idea of it being Eden- that would fit with the "garden" where Richard buried Isabella's cross...I may be grasping at straws, but I just don't want it to be HELL. Childish, perhaps, but I agree with the previous Anonymous- good things have happened on the Island. Yes, there has been a lot of death/destruction, but love, healing, and redemption, too. And on that note, what exactly did John Locke do in his life to deserve Hell? And Jack? Hurley? I can't figure it out. Now, Kate, Sawyer, the Kwons, maybe. Those were some major commandment breakers. But Hell for an unlucky/slightly crazy lottery winner? Hell for an unlucky/paralyzed man?

March 25, 2010  
Blogger Ryan said...

In terms of darkness, I didn't before, but I do now. Kate's freedom has come with isolation, Locke is dead, Rose and Bernard are nowhere to be found, Sayid is resurrected as pure evil, etc. I don't know that it was before, but it is very dark now. Now, Eden doesn't bother me, I like it. But you have to admit they have other influences than Judeo-Christian, or do I have to point to the giant statue they crashed into and that Jacob lives under? Yeah, BSG looms over all of us. The producers keep talking about "Sopranos" but we aren't worried about a fade to black...we're worried about a shitting of the bed. I do think the last shot of Flocke in the last episode was the final cherry on the "who is the big evil" question for me. He is. If there was another, deeper reveal, it would suck.

March 25, 2010  

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