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Thursday, February 12, 2009

'Lost' episode 5: A farewell to arm

Usually The Televangelist handles the weekly “Lost” recaps, but she disappeared in a flash of white light while paddling on the Zodiac boat, so I’ll be stepping in for last night’s episode, which has the charming title “This Place is Death.” To temper your disappointment, here's a funny clip that proves that "Lost" almost aired in the 1960s, but was retooled as a comedy and titled "Gilligan's Island."

As luck would have it, "This Place is Death" put the spotlight on one of my favorite characters, someone who's been MIA for months but made a strong return to form last night. I’m talking about, of course, the smoke monster.

Part of the show going back to the original pilot, "Smokey" has always been one of the weirdest recurring elements on "Lost." It could be a gaseous predator, or possibly, as one of young Rousseau's doomed French buddies said last night, "It's a security system guarding the temple." Why a security system would make T. Rex sounds is a question that will probably never been answered. Nevertheless, the scenes with Jin, the French team and the temple were deliciously creepy (reminiscent of the horror film The Ruins), with the severed-arm shtick upping the show's gore quotient. I suspect that the temple and Smokey's subterranean lair will be a major destination later in the show, probably next season.

"This Place Is Death" also offered a welcome episode about married couple Sun (Yunjin Kim) and Jin (Daniel Dae Kim), two of the show's strongest yet least utilized regulars. Jin had been presumed dead for some time -- three years by Sun's reckoning -- yet had one of those where's-the-body? deaths that seemed probably impermanent. (Whether Faraday's beloved Charlotte, who seemed to succumb to fatal time-travel sickness last night, will have a similar resuscitation, remains to be seen.) In the first season, Sun and Jim offered a study of marital stress and hostility, but now they've turned into star-crossed lovers analagous to Desmond and Penny. Apart from Faraday and Charlotte's big scene, the emotional fulcrum of "This Place is Death" appeared to involve Jin's wedding ring. Jin gave it to Locke as a kind of noble sacrifice, so Locke could "prove" Jin was really dead and keep Sun from risking her life by returning to the island for him. Instead, Ben used the ring for exactly the opposite reason: to convince Sun that Jin was alive, to induce her return.

"This Place is Death" confirmed that Benjamin Linus wasn't just behind the legal challenge of Kate's relationship to Aaron, but apparently employs the mysterious goons who've been harassing Sayid and the Oceanic Six. One might have guessed that Charles Widmore had hired them, but instead they seem part of Ben's scheme to manipulate the Oceanix Six back to the island. One of last night's highlights was Ben's tantrum in the van, "What I'm doing is helping you. If you had any idea what I've had to do keep you safe, to keep your friends safe, you'd never stop thanking me." Of course, the great thing about Ben (particularly from the writers' point of view, I suspect), is that any and everything he says may be a lie. Widmore may be a standard-issue spy movie evil industrialist, but Michael Emerson's unnervingly calm, cat-with-mouse performance makes Benjamin Linus a great antagonist. (In the future, Emerson might just steal all of Kevin Spacey's roles out from under him.)

Next to the smoke monster, the recent time-skips have been some of the most overtly sci-fi elements of the show, but they've conveniently filled in some of the blanks in the island's history. I was wondering if they'd get around to referencing some other seemingly-abandoned details, like the four-toed statue or the bodies in the cave with the backgammon tiles, but I'll bet the time-skips stop after Locke's work with the frozen donkey wheel. (By the way, does anyone know how many times Locke has been shot, broken a limb or suffered a horrible injury since the plane crash?) One thing the internet pointed out to me was that the van that Ben, Jack, and Sun drive in is marked with the words "Canton-Rainier," an anagram for "Reincarnation." Clearly the Oceanic Six may make it back to the island sooner than expected. I wouldn't be surprised if Walt joined them -- the three-year delay could explain his growth spurt -- but I don't think they're going in that direction.

For me, "This Place is Death" demonstrates how "Lost" has changed since its initial seasons. It's still an exciting, fascinating, at times frustrating show with few if any precedents on television, but it's not quite the same program it used to be. "Lost" started as an adventure series survival in a hostile environment, marked by ingenious twists and increasing levels of supernatural influences. The twin themes of first and most of second season could be "You can't escape fate" and "Character is destiny," and the flashback structure fleshed out the characterizations, exploring not just why they were on the fateful plane, but how, perhaps, they couldn't have been anywhere else. The different points of view increased the show's depths. In the first season Sun episode, we discovered the strains in her marriage and her belief, upon seeing blood on her husband's hands, that he was in reality a vicious thing. When, a few weeks later, we saw the events from Jin's point of view, we learned that he only beat up someone two prevent the victim from being murdered: a vicious act hid a kind of heroism.

Thanks to the often self-contained flashback plots, "Lost's" early years felt almost like an anthology series with a cool framing device. It also featured floated red herrings and avoiding giving away its secrets so often that it could make maddening viewing. By late in season three, however, "Lost's" creators seem to have found their groove, in which they don't reveal everything, but provide pieces of the puzzle at a satisfying rate. (They've also made the puzzle much bigger.)

The show no longer seems to be about mysteries that speak to free will, predestination and the meaning of life, and more about untangling the complicated conspiracies about The Others, Widmore and the Dharma Initiative. "Lost" currently resembles an espionage show with mystical overtones, and overall, it's more satisfying than it used to be on a week-by-week basis. Episodes like "This Place Is Death" sometimes remind me what we've, uh, lost.

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