When I interviewed Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse last week, Lindelof said something that stuck in my head while I was watching Season Two's third quarter. Talking about the much-maligned first six episodes of Season Three, Lindelof said that in some ways, the lack of action in those shows was a metaphor for how the writing staff was feeling at the time: locked in a cage by the network's open-ended plan for the series, and unsure when they were going to be able to be set loose to race to the cool stuff they had planned. Kicking that around in my head, I suddenly realized: If there's a personal metaphor at work in Season Two, it's that damn button in the hatch that has to be pushed every 108 minutes. (Or, in episodic TV terms, every seven days.) Can you make any real progress if you have to keep resetting at regular intervals? More to the point: Does the button really serve any useful function?
Given how difficult it must've been to grapple with those questions behind the scenes, it's remarkable that these button-pushing episodes turned out as good as they did. Credit Lindelof and Cuse and company found a way to channel frustration and ambiguity into the story, making wheel-spinning into a sublime artform all its own.
The thorny question that Season Two's third quarter begins to ponder in earnest is: Who are really the bad guys here? The writers use that question as an excuse to mess with the viewers' heads, and to keep setting us back almost as much as they move us forward. So it's no real coincidence that a lot of this section of Lost has to do with deceptions and con games: In Ep.13, "The Long Con," Sawyer bilks a woman he likes in the flashback, while on the island he and Charlie fake-kidnap Sun in order to get their hands on the hatch's arsenal, for bargaining purposes. In Ep.15, "Maternity Leave," Claire, Kate and Rousseau journey to The Caduceus station where Claire was held by Ethan, and they discover The Others' fake beards and raggy clothes. (Why raggy clothes? I still don't get that. Is poverty supposed to be menacing, or are they just trying to distract attention from all the stuff they've got?) In Ep.17, "Lockdown", the flashback is all about the return of Locke's father and how he screws his son over yet again by pretending to be dead.
And let's not forget The Great Deceiver, and the breakout star of this set of episodes: "Henry Gale," the man who crashed on the island in a smiley face balloon and buried his wife when she died of "the sickness." Or, as we now know him: Benjamin Linus, son of a Dharma Initiative peon, who gassed his former colleagues on the orders of "Jacob" and his army of "hostiles," and thus became the leader of The Others.
As I've mentioned before, my memory of Season Two from watching it the first time around was that it was pretty fitful and kind of dull until the fourth quarter, when Michael shoots Ana-Lucia and the whole arc of the season comes to a sharp point. But in retrospect, my struggles may have been a function of the off-and-on scheduling Lost went through back in the spring of '06. After the awful "Fire + Water," the show was off for a week, and then these six episodes aired on the following dates: 2/8/06, 2/15/06, 3/1/06, 3/22/06, 3/29/06, and 4/5/06. (Ep.19 then aired the week after that, completing a rare four straight weeks of all new Losts before the show took another three-week break.) Remember those days, back when the schedule was so knotty that there was a whole website dedicated to keeping track of whether Lost was a repeat that week?
When watched back-to-back though–and I got so into this week's six that I knocked them out in a day-and-a-half–even Season Two's weakest episodes seem a lot stronger. To me, the third quarter's downers are Ep.16, "The Whole Truth," a Jin/Sun flashback so slight in purpose (it's basically designed to intimate that Sun's pregnancy may be magic) that it's overshadowed by the Henry Gale drama, and Ep.18, "Dave," an intriguing Hurley flashback episode that's disappointing in retrospect for two reasons. First off, it introduces a number of ideas–that Hurley has an imaginary friend, and may be hallucinating the whole island experience, and that Libby was a patient in Santa Rosa along with Hurley–which as of today haven't come to much. When and if they do pay off, I may regard "Dave" differently, but for now, it still seems like a case of the writers goofing off a little to fill time. But the more unpardonable sin is that "Dave" comes during the thick of the "Henry Gale" crisis, when all we really want to do as viewers is head back into the hatch and relish the brewing psychodrama between Locke and "Henry." Instead, we're running around the island chasing an invisible mental patient and watching Jorge Garcia eat peanut butter off a leaf.
That said, the saga of Henry Gale provides a real anchor to the third quarter. Coming after "The Long Con"–a mostly good episode that nevertheless teases us with the nefariousness of The Others only to reveal that it's actually our "heroes" who are jerking each other around–the arrival of Henry/Ben in the superior episode "One Of Them" gives the viewers something to chew on. Is this guy telling the truth or not? And if he's not, what are the stakes here? And are those stakes worth imprisoning and torturing a man, even if he does turn out to be an enemy? The writers play this game out masterfully through the episodes that follow, especially in the cliffhangers that end "The Whole Truth" and "Lockdown." In the former, Henry/Ben draws a map to "his" balloon, then suggests to Locke and Jack that if he were a bad guy, he might be leading the castaways into an ambush. Then in the latter, after Henry/Ben appears to save Locke's life and prove his trustworthiness, the balloon-hunting party returns to camp and reveals that the real Henry Gale is buried out in the jungle, and that this "Henry" is an imposter. Man, who wouldn't want to tune in next week after that?
Of course "Lockdown" is a pivotal episode for a lot of reasons, in that introduces "the map" of the island painted on the blast door, as well as the Dharma supply drop that keeps the islanders from starving to death. It's also got Jack playing poker with Sawyer for medicine, and belittling him with a "When I want the guns, I'll get the guns" exit line. And it has the tension of Locke trapped under a door while the button-pushing countdown begins. Unlike the fake tension of the Season Four episode that had Daniel and Charlotte stopping a genocide that we already knew wasn't going to happen, this was actual drama, because we didn't know what the button did, or what the consequences might be for not pressing it. Great stuff.
And yet "Lockdown" isn't even the best episode from this batch. I'd call that a split between "Maternity Leave," with its jarring shock-cut flashbacks to Claire's surprisingly gentle treatment at the hands of Ethan, and "One Of Them," which contrasts Sayid's origins as a torturer with his attempts to extract info from his new prisoner. And I'll give the edge to "One Of Them," because it so perfectly sums up the themes of this season (as well as introducing Kelvin, soon to become a part of island lore in the season finale). The younger Sayid feels shame at having to extract information from one of his own commanding officers, until Sayid learns that the Iraqi military gassed his hometown, killing friends and family. So again: Who's good? Who's bad? And even if you can't tell which is which, doesn't it feel good to knock someone around the hatch, just because you can?
-It was hard for me to make the switch from calling Benjamin Linus "Henry" to calling him "Ben" last season, but I managed. I'm having a tougher time letting "Mr. Friendly" go, though.
-Because the above recap/review ran long, I'm going to breeze through the Clues, Coincidences and Crazy-Ass Theories, episode-by-episode:
*"The Long Con" Sayid and Hurley manage to tune Bernard's radio to a big-band station. Is it from the present, or the past? Locke flips through the books in the hatch, looking for more loose pieces of film, just as we fans are encouraged to scour the show's reading material for clues. Sawyer's coffee-shop waitress is Kate's mom, Diane. I have a theory that the whole of Lost's plot is a "long con," but I don't want to get into it yet.
*"One Of Them" So does Rousseau know who Ben is or not? If she does, she's sure not giving anything away when she leads Sayid to him. Sawyer gets tormented by another animal–a frog this time, not a boar–and this time, he squashes it. Funny, yet thematically resonant too. The castaways find a stranger in the jungle and immediately start torturing him, just as the Tailies did to Jin, Michael and Sawyer.
*"Maternity Leave" There's a sign in The Caduceus that reads: "Escape Hatch." I wonder where it leads? Rousseau's never seen this location either. What's she been doing on this island for the last 15 years?
*"The Whole Truth" Henry/Ben becomes this week's audience advocate when he mocks Locke and Jack for knowing nothing about their Dharma supplies. "If it was me I'd be asking all kinds of questions," he says. "You guys don't even seem that curious."
*"Lockdown" Will Ben's almost fiancée Helen ever return on the show? What did Ben do when it was time for the numbers to get pushed? The next episode, he'll claim he didn't do anything, but if he didn't, wouldn't that have caused the ker-flooey-nation of The Swan, as it will in the finale? Great Kate line, as Jack and Sawyer are trash-talking each other during poker: "Should I go get a ruler?"
*"Dave" Is it possible that Ben lets himself get caught and almost killed because he knows the island won't let any real harm come to him? So is Hurley's vision of Dave caused by the smoke monster? Or does that even matter? Maybe Dave urging Hurley to jump off a cliff really is meant to move him on to "another life," as he says. I have a feeling we'll find out about all that sometime in Season Five. An ominous line from Ben: "God doesn't know how long we've been here."
-I'm taking a mini-vacation from Wednesday through Sunday of next week, but I'm so fired up to finish Season Two that I'm going to try to get through the remaining episodes before I leave, and then post on Thursday as usual. But fair warning: I may be a little late, and the post may be a little curtailed.