Last week, I started an article about the best episodes of the television series Lost. It’s a vacation tradition for me to write about my favorite television series, having previously written about the best of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Farscape and Babylon 5. This week, I pick up where I left off, starting with the strike-shortened season four.
Confirmed Dead: I’m amazed at the way Lost manages to pull me in again and again. They shouldn’t be able to make me care about new characters this far into their run, especially after taking away the Tailies. Yet the rescue crew of Charlotte, Daniel and Miles quickly become integral, interesting and favored members of the cast. I love Charlotte’s combination of fragile confidence. I love Daniel’s quirks, his scattered train of thought and his brutal honesty. And Miles fills a much needed niche with his sarcastic quips. This episode also delivers another punch to the gut when we, along with the survivors, learn of the staged crash site somewhere else. It’s a reminder that Lost crafts great mysteries and even greater characters.
The Constant: Only Lost could turn a time travel story into a desperate fight for survival. Desmond is flashing back and forth in time. He’s losing his bearings and his grip on reality. As Desmond grows more frantic, we’re drawn deeper into the central questions of the show. Are we slaves to fate or directors of our destiny? Yet Lost always asks those questions in personal terms, rather than academic ones. Desmond learns how to direct his past and how to root himself in reality. But the lesson is one of personal sanity and survival. And the answer is one of meaning and love. We all need something important, something that will always be there for us, in order to keep us grounded. For Desmond, it’s his love of Penny. For Daniel, it’s his connection with Desmond. It’s a beautiful realization, statement and conclusion.
Ji Yeon: There are a lot of things that I like about Lost. The way it turns our expectations inside out. The balance between mystery, drama and humor. The moments of pure joy. Ji Yeon combines all of these aspects into one episode. We witness three stories. In the present day, we follow the survivors as they continue their quest to connect to the freighter and escape from the island. In the second, we pay attention to Sun as she gives birth to her daughter after having escaped from the island. And in the third, we follow Jin as he races to the hospital, giant stuffed panda in tow. The pure joy comes from the birth of Ji Yeon. The balance comes through the shifts in scene. And the surprise comes at the end when we realize that Jin’s story has been a flash back while Sun’s was a look forward.
The Shape of Things to Come: Ben grew from an enigmatic enemy to one of the most important characters in the series and this is one of his greatest episodes. He’s not a hero. Yet even though he’s a villain, he hides a deep love for his daughter and he’s willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of the island. Perhaps not surprisingly, Ben is at his most profound when he loses. In The Shape of Things, Ben loses big. In the course of one day, Ben loses a stand-off with Keamy, his daughter and the island. Those losses make him more sympathetic and more determined. Even off the island- in the desert of Tunisia and the cafes of Europe- Ben is devious, vicious and manipulative.
There’s No Place Like Home, Part I, II and III: Season Four continues the Lost tradition of excellent endings and, apparently, explosions. We know who is supposed to survive thanks to this season’s flash forwards but we have no idea how they’ll pull it off. At times, the survivors are spread apart across the island and it seems impossible that they’ll reunite in time. Naturally, there are plenty of twists along the way. Sawyer shocks us with a noble gesture. We’re stunned at the apparent deaths of Michael and Jin. And we’re pleasantly surprised at the unexpected survival of someone who wasn’t a part of the Oceanic Six.
Jughead: The complex history and mythology of Lost paid huge dividends by this point. The remaining survivors and their stranded rescuers were bouncing around in time. Their jaunty journey filled in the chronological gaps and introduced us to earlier versions of key characters. In Jughead, we meet up with an apparently timeless Richard Alpert and the original Others wearing military fatigues. Their suspicious nature creates a difficult environment for the cast and some subtle humor for the audience. Even better, Jughead is the name of a nuclear bomb, adding a significant level of tension and plot point.
This Place is Death: There are a lot of memorable deaths in Lost, but few were as tender as the scene in this episode. Charlotte experiences the rigors of time travel more acutely than the others. She suffers headaches and nosebleeds. Eventually, her mind seems to jump separately from her body. Her nonsensical statements are eerie echoes of Alzheimer’s patients who don’t know where they are or what time they’re in. Despite the urgency of their mission, Daniel refuses to abandon Charlotte. Instead, he holds her in his arms until she dies. Daniel is often aloof. But in this moment, we see the depth of his affection. That relationship would have been enough to elevate any episode. Yet that’s only one reason to love This Place is Death. Jin finds a temple. We meet a young Rousseau. Locke turns a wheel. And the Oceanic Six, the survivors who escaped the island, are finally reunited in Los Angeles.
The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham: If Charlotte’s death was one of the most tender, Locke’s death in this episode was one of the most brutal. It shouldn’t have been shocking- we had known Locke was dead since we had seen him lying in a coffin during the previous season’s finale- yet it was. This episode focused on Locke’s desperate search for the people who had escaped the island and his bitter failure. Then, when it appears that he’d been offered hope in the form of an unlikely ally, that ally immediately turned on him. Locke went from suicidal to hopeful to murder victim in a matter of moments- a sequence of events that surprised the audience with its suddenness and its cruelty.
LaFleur: As I’ve mentioned before, Lost had fun upending the audience’s expectations. In this case, Lost placed Sawyer in a different context and surprised us by showing an alternate side to his character. Sawyer, Jin and Juliet were stranded in the past. In 1977, to be precise. They signed up with the Dharma Initiative. Sawyer took on an important role within the organization as their chief of security, LaFleur. Additionally, Sawyer and Juliet built a life together of domestic bliss. It was a new side to Sawyer and something we didn’t expect from the former con man. Yet the new reality was presented so perfectly that we believed it. More than that, we wanted to believe that Sawyer could have his happy ending.
Dead is Dead: Ben is often at his best when he’s broken. And Lost is often really good when it builds its history. In this episode, we’re treated to both. The flashbacks fill in the relationship and the rivalry between Charles Widmore and Benjamin Linus. We see them grapple and connive over control of the island. It’s fascinating to watch. In the present, we follow Ben as he’s brought face to face with the smoke monster. He’s confronted by the vision of his dead daughter and forced to repent of his mistakes. It’s an emotionally powerful moment.
The Variable: A lot of things work well in The Variable. Lost demonstrates its improved use of flashbacks. Whereas earlier seasons may have focused on a small section of someone’s life, this episode gives us a broad range from the life of Daniel Faraday. There is a consistent theme in the relationship with his mother, yet we’re shown that theme over the course of many years. However, this episode is even stronger when dealing with the current events of the time-displaced characters. Daniel returns to the island with a plan to reset time. But it’s a big risk. He proposes that they blow up the island with the nuclear bomb. Faraday’s announcement brings a lot of elements together and kicks off a strong finishing drive.
The Incident Part I and II: What’s great about Lost? The characters. The constantly changing status quo. The big events. The mystery. They’re all here. There are questions about time travel, magnetic fields and the nature of the island. There’s an escape attempt, a fire-fight with the Dharma Initiative and a nuclear bomb. There’s the shifting allegiances as characters alternately rebuff and embrace Daniel’s plan to blow up the island. There’s the overt rivalry between Jack and Sawyer, made manifest in a brutal fist fight. And there’s the intense love between Sawyer and Juliet, exposed when she is mortally injured. There are also moments of beauty and tenderness, such as the re-introduction of Rose and Bernard, living peacefully by themselves.
LA X Part I and II: We’d seen flashbacks and flash-forwards. Season six introduced us to the concept of the flash-sideways, or the sideways world. It was the big mystery of the season. In the one story, we watched our favorite survivors as they continued to battle the island and each other. In the other story, we watched what might have happened had the plane never crashed in the first place. It is fun to see old characters back again like Boone. It’s satisfying to see so many of our favorite characters get a possible happy ending. It’s a pleasant mind tease. And it’s perfectly balanced by the continuing chaos on the island: the revelation that the new Locke is the old smoke monster, Sayid being brought back to life and Ben murdering Jacob.
Sundown: I’ve had plenty of praise for Lost but I’ll admit that there were things that didn’t work for me. The whole situation in the temple was one of them. Yet, for that very reason, I loved this episode. Locke, aka the Man in Black, and his minions attack the temple. It’s a full-on assault with plenty of death and destruction. Our regular heroes are caught in the middle. Kate narrowly escapes the smoke monster by diving into a hole in the ground. But others sign up with the Man in Black, having become twisted by their experiences on the island.
Ab Aeterno: This is one of the most memorable episodes of any season. We’re treated to Richard Alpert’s back-story. We learn of his lost love, his enslavement and his rescue on the island. We learn of his conflicted loyalty to the Man in Black, the reason for his service to Jacob and the source of his immortality. We see him as master and as pawn. It’s a great story, raising questions of identity, loyalty, immortality and love. It even manages to raise questions of good and evil without being bogged down by philosophical meanderings.
Happily Ever After: Lost generally does an excellent job of brushing up against the impossible while maintaining a believable fiction. We believe in characters who talk to the dead, who live forever and who are somehow resistant to electromagnetic detonations. More importantly, we also believe in the characters and their motivations. We believe that Desmond would be willing to sacrifice himself for Penny. We believe in the fierceness of his love. And we believe in a love that apparently transcends space and time.
The Candidate: The race to get off of the island one last time is on. Sawyer feints for the airplane in an attempt to throw Widmore off their track before heading to the submarine instead. Unfortunately, Widmore isn’t fooled and his men ambush them at the sub. In the resulting firefight, Locke and Claire miss the ride. But that’s only the beginning of the twists. Locke- who is the Man in Black after all- has sabotaged the sub. The new peril results in a noble sacrifice and a bittersweet ending.
The End (I and II): I realize that there’s a wide divergence of opinion on the ending of Lost, with even fantasy master George RR Martin voicing disapproval. But I think it was brilliant. The writers had been left with a difficult choice. They could focus on the mysteries or the characters. The former choice would have most likely been an uninteresting academic exercise. The latter choice was emotionally satisfying. Besides, they had answered many of the critical questions throughout the season. We already knew the source of the voices, the nature of the smoke monster and so much more. What we needed more than answers was closure. And that’s what we got. Jack’s journey came full circle, famously ending as it had started. He also sacrificed himself to save the rest, with many of the regular characters escaping the island for good. And we saw Hurley graduate from being comic relief to the island’s protector.