Is it too soon to wonder if Lost's latest gimmick is falling a bit flat? At the very least, last night's episode was the second in a row that Sawyer stole, and that feels significant. Spoilers below.
I'm not sure whether it counts as a spoiler that Lost is showcasing two different realities this season - one in which the castaways are still stuck on the island, and one in which their plane never crashed. But there are already rumblings that the "flash-sideways" reality, featuring the same old characters in a new context, is more of an interesting exercise than a thrilling storytelling device.
Fancast's Matt Webb Mitovich even asked Locke actor Terry O'Quinn about it yesterday:
Q: If there's been one knock on Lost's new season, it's that the alternate reality where Flight 815 didn't crash has left people a bit cold. Are those storylines going to get more compelling?
A: I have no way to read that kind of thing; I simply do my best when I'm performing it. But I've been told by one person who's seen it that in the episode coming up, [the "sideways" storytelling] really kicks in.
In any case, the "flash-sideways" format was especially jarring last night, since we weren't even watching the same Locke in the Island-verse as in the LA-verse. The Island-verse version of Locke, of course, died at Ben's hands a year or so back, and since his corpse was brought back to the island, he's been impersonated by the Man In Black, aka the Smoke Monster, aka Smokey. Meanwhile, the LA-verse version of Locke was never healed by the island, and thus still grapples with his disability.
So last night, the two Lockes went two different ways. Smokey, who's apparently stuck being Locke forever, railed against the restrictions the island wants to put on him, shouting Locke's famous rallying cry, "Don't tell me what I can't do!" twice for good measure. Meanwhile, the O.G. Locke, back in L.A., went through a slow (and painful to watch) process of realizing that people should tell him what he can't do, partly with the help of a slightly patronizing Rose.
A big part of the "flash-sideways" segments seems to be the puzzle-hunting aspect, looking for all the stuff that's different in this world, plus the chance meetings between Oceanic 815-ers along the way. For instance, not only is this Locke still with his beloved Helen (and planning their wedding), but he's also friends with his dad, judging from Helen's remarks, plus his cubicle wall:
We get to see Locke interact not only with the still-cancer-stricken Rose, but also the happy-go-lucky Hurley, who gets major points for correctly identifying Randy Nations as a douche. And then, of course, all of this culiminates in Locke getting a substitute-teacher job at a school... where a very different Benjamin Linus is a teacher.
The mind boggles! So this version of Ben either never went to the island, or got off before it sank. And Locke somehow managed to screw up his spine without having the huge confrontation with his dad. And maybe his dad isn't a con-man in this universe — which has huge implications for Sawyer. It's fascinating to watch the dominos fall.
And yet, for some reason, both this "flash-sideways" and Kate's, last week, seem to be lacking in narrative energy. I mean, people go places and do stuff, and make defining choices. Last week, Kate made the choice to be altruistic and help a pregnant woman (not realizing the connection they shared in another reality). And this week, Locke made the choice to accept the limits people want to put on him. (This came at the end of a long string of disability-porn moments, including the never-ending malfunctioning chair-lift.) But since we don't know how these incidents relate to events back on the island, or to the characters we've been invested in all this time, they feel a bit like digressions, in a way.
Put it another way: There's a reason why "Elseworlds" comics staring DC Comics characters never sell quite as well as the regular comics. People want stories that are in continuity, that are at least theoretically going to resonate with the character's history, going both backwards and forwards. So far, at least, the "flash-sideways" segments feel less weighty than either flashbacks or "flash-forwards" did.
But like I said, that may be more of a problem with last night's episode in particular, because they weren't even the same John Locke in both segments. So it felt like while Sawyer and Smokey were saying things to reinforce our sense that the late, lamented Locke was a bit of a loser, the "flash-sideways" segments showed us the "other" Locke accepting his limitations. And that wasn't entirely compelling.
The Island segments of last night's episode, on the other hand, were pretty thrilling and gripping - although as I mentioned, Sawyer stole the show for the second week running. The grief-stricken, wife-beater-wearing, booze-hound Sawyer seemed to make his own defining choice last night - he's going to join up with Smokey to rebel against the island's dictates and get the hell off this lush tropical rock. For someone who just wanted to be left alone last week, Sawyer is suddenly eager to get out and discover answers and get all proactive. But this isn't the first time we've seen Sawyer flip-flop.
And you pretty much can never have too much Steinbeck-quoting, gun-toting Sawyer, totally holding his own against the entity that's overawed and outsmarted Richard Alpert and Ben Linus all last year. Plus Sawyer climbing down the hazardous cliff ladder and snarking his way through the Major Revelations about Jacob and the Island.
It's great to be seeing a new side of Sawyer on the island, instead of having to go to an alternate L.A. And Sawyer's grief and rage continue to be the most compelling emotional beats on the show.
So what did we learn from/about Smokey last night? Let's start with the last thing: Jacob had this weird cabin, in which he'd written a ton of names, including the names of all the people he'd touched off the island in "The Incident." And each of those Oceanic 815er's names corresponded to one of the infamous Numbers. These people were candidates to replace Jacob as the island's sole protector, which makes you wonder why he didn't just come and tell them that right away. (And why he "chose" Hurley so much later than the others, in that L.A. taxi.) Also, if the Others, Jacob's supposed followers, had known Sawyer was a "candidate," maybe they wouldn't have roughed him up quite so much?
In any case, presumably there's a selection process for Candidates, which tends to kill them. (Judging from all the other names.) And because Locke was a Candidate, as Smokey tells Alpert, he was able to get inside the statue and bring Ben "Stabby McStabberson" Linus.
But even though Smokey managed to kill Jacob, he still hasn't won his freedom, which is why, as Ilana puts it, he's "recruiting" for his little gang. First he tries to recruit Richard Alpert, which doesn't go that well, and then he has better luck with Sawyer. I'm seeing echoes of season four, when the castaways split into "Team Jack" and "Team Locke," based on whether they believed the Freighter People were friendly. (The division between the two teams seemed a bit random back then, based on moving chess pieces around as much as anything else. Wondering if it'll be the same this time?)
Smokey also tells Sawyer, "Before I was trapped I was a man... i know what its like to feel joy, pain and betrayal, and lose someone you love."
And there's the shining child, whom Smokey and Sawyer can see, but whom Alpert apparently can't. (I wonder if this is related to having been touched by Jacob?) Is this Aaron, somehow back on the island? Jacob reincarnated? Or someone else? Whoever it is tells Smokey, "You know the rules. You can't kill him." (Does this refer to someone other than Jacob?) And this occasions Smokey shouting Locke's catch phrase in anger. Oh, and Smokey also tells that Jacob has been manipulating his chosen candidates, giving them nudges at the right times, to bring them to the island — and his manipulation of Jack appears to have consisted of giving him a candy bar at just the right moment to accentuate his defiance of his father.
Oh, and I loved the Smokey-cam point of view at the start of the episode. That was a lovely bit of horror-movie-esque monster-camming.
And finally, Ben Linus was just as conniving and awesome as always, carefully telling Ilana one lie - that Smokey killed Jacob - amongst a host of truths. And I loved his little speech at Locke's funeral: "Locke was a believer. He was a man of faith. John Locke was a much better man than I will ever be, and I'm very sorry I murdered him." (As Frank says, strangest damn funeral ever.) And then the other Ben, the prissy schoolteacher who instantly sees Locke as a kindred spirit, looks like he'll be a fascinating character to watch.
So all in all, the island segments added some pretty intriguing pieces to the puzzle and delved a lot deeper into Smokey's character. Plus Sawyer seemed to make a choice that looks like it'll reverberate for the whole rest of the series. Meanwhile, the off-island segments were fun for Easter-egg-hunting purposes, but mostly seemed to be designed to reinforce a pretty damning view of poor, dead John Locke. Here's hoping the "flash-sideways" device starts to show more narrative drive in the upcoming episodes.
But that's, of course, just my opinion. What did you guys think?