Saturday, September 22, 2007

List of the week: the best of Lost


To celebrate the three-year anniversary of the tragic demise of Oceanic Flight 815 -- September 22, 2004 -- here we have my eight favorite moments of Lost, thus far. (Spoilers are friggin' everywhere here, should you care -- fair warning.)

1. The rattlesnake in the mailbox.
("Through the Looking Glass" -- Episode 3.22) I've raved (endlessly) about the flash-forward ending of the third season, and it's for good reason -- those few minutes inverted the show and redefined everything. And it also provided some astounding narrative gymnastics: the current storylines all somehow became more suspenseful with a view of the future. Who was in the casket? Who else got off the island? Why does Jack need to get back? Who does Kate need to "get back" to? Perhaps one of the greatest cliffhangers ever written.

2. Purely hypothetical.
("The Whole Truth" -- Episode 2.16) Michael Emerson was originally signed only to appear in three episodes for a mini-arc in season two. But how could they lose an actor this electrifying? Jack and Locke have kept poor Henry Gale locked in their vault for days, thinking him a spy for the Others; he claims he's nothing but a poor, stranded balloonist. Offering him a measure of trust, they let him out and hand him a bowl of cereal. Gale then "innocently" mentions the map he drew in secret for Sayid and Ana Lucia -- "You guys really have some trust issues," he mumbles at Jack and Locke's surprise. But then his eyes gleam, and he pontificates on what he would do if he was "one of them." "I'd draw a map to a real secluded place," he says, voice dripping with cool menace. "Good place for a trap -- an ambush. And when your friends got there, a bunch of my people would be waiting for them. Then they'd use them to trade for me." His audacity hangs in the air for a few moments as Jack and Locke stare at him in horror. He chuckles off the bad vibe by saying, "Guess it's a good thing I'm not one of them, huh?" Dropping into total nonchalance again, he gestures to his cereal bowl: "You guys got any milk?" And then, BAM -- Lost title card, episode over, see you next week. Emerson's chilling read of what is on paper a fairly ordinary monologue is all the more stunning for the twisted mind game it plays with the audience. Is it any wonder this guy was promoted to the regular cast and found himself with an Emmy nomination a year later?

3. "Guys...that's not just a bear..."
("Pilot, Part 2" -- Episode 1.02) If you're going to do a show all about weird, inexplicable shit, it's best to get started right away. And while the unseen monster in the pilot was suitable to that purpose, it's somehow not quite weird enough -- it's so out-of-the-blue that it's almost expected. But not to fear -- the writers know exactly what they're doing. And so it is that, is the second half of the pilot, Sawyer guns down a bear. Yes, a bear, wandering around this tropical island. The uncomfortable feeling for both the characters and the audience when they see that it's not just a bear, but a polar bear, is a lesson in narrative cognitive dissonance.

4. Does this count as a Stephen King reference?
("The Glass Ballerina" -- Episode 3.02) Michael Emerson strikes again. Ben's endless series of mind games became a mainstay of the third season, and we see them at work here in classic form. He offers Jack a deal -- do what I ask and I'll get you home -- and is declined, because Jack doesn't believe he can follow through. "You're stuck here just like we are," he says. So Ben offers evidence of their contact with the outside world: he rattles off a few current events, like the results of that year's presidential election, and the passing of Christopher Reeve..."And the Boston Red Sox won the World Series." Jack breaks apart with laughter, of course...until Ben flicks on the VCR and shows him the footage. The look on Jack's face -- the look of a man whose world has been spun counterclockwise -- combined with Ben's repeated offer (performed again with genius by Emerson) counts as another terrific cliffhanger. (And is it odd that, after three seasons, the Red Sox winning the Series is still the strangest, most inexplicable thing to happen on this show?)

5. Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.
("?" -- Episode 2.21) Back in the real world, John Locke worked in a meaningless job at a box company. He was paralyzed. He was ridiculed. He was useless. But on the island, he became a man transformed. He could walk, he could hunt -- he could live the meaningful life he'd always wanted. And when he found the Swan, and the all-important button within, he thought he'd found his purpose. But a trip into the Pearl station with Eko throws everything into chaos -- a training video there reveals the button and the Swan to be nothing more than a purposeless psychological experiment, long since abandoned. Locke's existential horror is profound: he's once again became a meaningless drone, doing a meaningless job. Though the tape was later proved -- in spectacular fashion -- to be a lie, Locke still hasn't quite recovered from the shock.

6. The fine art of staying out of the way.
("Do No Harm" -- Episode 1.20) Oh, Charlie -- he means well. When Claire goes into labor with only clueless Kate to help her, Charlie responds to her anguished screams by trying to run in and help. But Jin -- wise and knowing, even if he can't speak to his buddy -- holds Charlie back with a smile and a shake of the head. It's hilarious, and one of the more touching character moments in a series full of them.

7. The great and terrible.
("The Man Behind the Curtain" -- Episode 3.20) The name Jacob is thrown around only a few times in the third season, which only adds to its mystique -- a rarely-mentioned, never-seen Other, superior even to Ben. So when Locke demands that Ben take him to see Jacob, the suspense is palpable. And boy, does it pay off: the few minutes the pair spends inside Jacob's cabin are disorienting, terrifying, and spellbinding. Evil voices, fire, telekinesis -- the audience is as breathless as Ben and Locke when they finally escape. "What was that?" Locke asks. Ben responds simply, "That...was Jacob." I can't wait for the answers to follow.

8. In medias res.
("Pilot, Part 1" -- Episode 1.01) You should always start with a bang. And so does Lost, beginning with the horrific aftermath of a plane crash. Jack races through the wreckage, saving lives and watching others end. There's no time to learn names or properly introduce characters -- we're too confused to remember, anyway. And so we meet our setting and cast exactly as they do: on the fly, in a panic, with no preconceptions. The show begins with a question mark; the rest of the story is the answer.

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