Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Thoughts on the Variable...

Frederich Nietzsche once argued that the mark of true greatness was the desire to live your life over and over again without ever changing a thing. I thought of this concept of eternal recurrence last night as we watched Ms. Hawking knowingly send Daniel to his death at her own hands. She didn't just accept his fate, she actively encouraged it, pushing him away from music and girls towards his destiny as a dead man of science. But this wasn't simply amor fati -- Ms. Hawking seemed genuinely torn by her actions. That tells me she did what she did grudgingly to serve the greater good.

But what could compel a mother to sacrifice her son? Probably nothing short of the fate of all humanity. I believe Hawking and Widmore have been working to save the world with foreknowledge gained from Daniel's notebook. The information therein will lead their younger selves to help our Losties try to avert the Incident. I'm guessing this plan fails because we've already seen the Swan button protocol. In an ironic twist, their failed attempt to stop the Incident will be its cause, resulting in the threat of extinction predicted by the Valenzetti Equation, as well as the crash of Oceanic 815.

By that same token, we know that older Hawking and Widmore eventually do succeed. As we've also seen, they will neutralize the threat from Swan by manipulating Desmond to the Island so he can activate the Fail-Safe. They know it has to be him due to the Desmond Exception -- fate will frustrate anyone else who tries. The catch is that Hawking and Widmore only know about the Desmond Exception because of Dan's notebook. Their whole plan thus depends on completing the causal loop that sends Dan to the Island. That's why Ms. Hawking keeps Dan on the path to death despite her obvious reservations -- she sacrifices him to save the rest of us.

But wait, you might be wondering, didn't Daniel say they were all variables in destiny's equation? He did, and maybe they've all become wild cards by virtue of Desmond's influence on their lives. This seems very possible for Daniel given that Desmond was his constant. But maybe they all have limited free will for purposes of this time loop because they're in the past as an indirect result of Des. Perhaps that's why Ms. Hawking needed to push the Oceanic 6 back to the Island. The loop that delivers Daniel's notebook to her is unstable and must be actively preserved. Otherwise, "God helps us all."

Still, something about Dan's abrupt conversion from "whatever happened, happened" to "anything goes" rang false to me. I sensed he was lying, if not to our Losties, then to himself. It was almost as if Dan's memory problems returned during his time off the Island. I was reminded of Leonard "Lenny" Shelby's self-delusions in Memento, one of my all-time favorite films. Like Dan, Lenny suffers from a condition that prevents him from forming new memories. Lenny often apologizes preemptively to people he meets in case they've met before, just like Dan did when Widmore visited.


And that brings me to an intriguing analogy suggested by Aaron in the comments to my recap of He's Our You. Leonard Shelby compensates for his memory problems by tattooing himself with vital information. These tattoos consist mostly of clues to the identity of his wife's murderer, whom Lenny has sworn to kill. In the film's climax, Lenny learns that this quest, which gives his life purpose, may all be a lie perpetrated by pal Teddy. Furious at being manipulated, and fearful of losing his only reason for living, Lenny tricks himself into killing Teddy by getting a tattoo of Teddy's license number.

Just as Lenny relies on his tattoos to remember clues to his wife's murderer, Daniel depends on his journal to recall what he's learned about DHARMA. So, what if someone, maybe even Dan himself, is using the journal to manipulate him? Say Daniel becomes unstuck in time during his final moments and gets transported back to a point in his life before he went to the Island. He realizes that everything hinges upon him preserving the time loop in which our Losties cause the Incident. So Dan plants a false clue to convince him -- and them -- that it's possible to change the future, then forgets he ever did so.

What might this critical misinformation be? We may never know. If I had to guess, however, I would say it has something to do with the claim that DHARMA will cause the Incident themselves by drilling too deep at the Swan site. In fact, that may be a noble lie meant paradoxically to preserve the future we've already seen by tempting our Losties to try to change it. That's all for the first part of my recap -- here, in the spirit of Herb Caen, are some three-dot thoughts on the Variable:

YOU DON'T BELONG HERE AT ALL. Faraday correctly points to the picture of our Losties in DHARMA uniforms as indication that the past can be changed from what's supposed to happen. They are "variables" because, as Daniel says, they don't belong in the past -- they're not supposed to be there. What I'm not sure he realizes is that the timeline they've all experienced -- i.e., where Oceanic 815 crashes on the Island and is followed by Widmore's freighter -- already reflects the effects of their changes. As stated previously, all of that must still happen for Desmond to save the world. That's why I say our Losties must preserve this changed timeline by playing their parts in trying to erase it in the Incident... Daniel appears to be reading his journal when he says that Dr. Chang is "right on time." I tend to think that Daniel's journal just contains everything he's ever learned about DHARMA. But you have to wonder just how detailed a roadmap is really contained therein...

JUST MAKING SURE YOUR FATHER DOES WHAT HE'S SUPPOSED TO DO. Daniel's comment to Miles can be taken so many different ways. Obviously, Daniel is referring to Dr. Chang's evacuation of some mothers and children, including little Charlotte and baby Miles. But is Daniel doing so, as he tells little Charlotte, in case his plan to change things fails? Or is he deliberately effectuating the changed timeline that will eventually bring Charlotte back on the Freighter? I don't think it's a coincidence that the next flashback is of Eloise deliberately pushing Daniel away from Theresa, toward his ultimate sacrifice on the Island... Some of you were skeptical that Dr. Chang wouldn't believe Daniel's claim to be from the future. But I personally found it plausible, given the foreman's crack about time travel, that Chang would assume Farday was goofing on him... I hate to say it, but Francois Chau isn't the most versatile of actors. He has an exaggerated way of speaking that actually works for the various orientation films, but seems fake when he plays a three-dimensional character like Dr. Chang...

WHY ARE YOU SO UPSET? I think Daniel cries when he sees the wreckage of Oceanic 815 because he subconsciously remembers what waits for him on the Island. Dan tells Widmore that he tested the time travel device on himself. I'll bet Dan unstuck himself in time and jumped to the moment of his death at the hands of Eloise. After jumping back, Daniel quickly lost any conscious recollection of this experience due to his memory condition. But the subconscious imprint remained and was triggered by the footage of the fake wreckage. The analogy would be to Charlotte, who seemed to jump back to her childhood conversation with Daniel about not being allowed to have chocolate before dinner... So, now we have confirmation from Widmore himself that he staged the wreckage of Oceanic 815. I'm guessing he did so to throw the next generation of DHARMA (i.e., Bram and Ilana) off the trail to finding the Island... I had a rather dark thought when Sawyer says "we belonged just fine" in DHARMA times. Sawyer does seem to belong in the past -- so much so that I wonder if he'll make the trip with the rest of them back to the future... The code for the fence is 141717. That's one of the few numbers we've received that doesn't seem to have any obvious connection to the Numbers...

THE YOU COULD GO ON WITH YOUR WORK. How sad that Eloise had to lie to Daniel. Now we know why she worked so hard to train his mind. She realized from his journal that his role on the Freighter will require him to perform complex spacetime calibrations and calculate bearings to complete the causal loop that's already changed everything... What the heck is in the guitar case Hurley keeps trucking around? I think I read a quote from Jorge Garcia somewhere that it's not Charlie's guitar. Whatever the contents, I'm guessing they have something to do with how Hurley got on Ajira 316... Phil being bound and gagged in the closet is one of many Memento references in the episode. At one point in the film, Lenny does the same to a thug named Dodd... Speaking of Phil, Patrick Fischler's eyes have to be among the most expressive I've ever seen. He manages to convey so much without saying a single word in this episode... Anyone have any ideas how a hydrogen bomb might neutralize a pocket of negatively charged exotic energy?

I DON'T KNOW WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT. Ms. Hawking says this is the first time in a long time that she doesn't know what's going to happen next. This is presumably because her foreknowledge of events comes from Daniel's journal, which only describes the future up to the point that he died. But Ms. Hawking's comment may also allude to an even deeper uncertainty in the timeline. I believe the Desmond Exception is a dual-edged sword. The Oceanic 6 were supposed to stay on the Island, but Desmond changed their destiny by contacting Penny. Her rescue of the O6 mobilized DHARMA: TNG. As stated previously, Charles tried to trick them with the faked crash, but DHARMA: TNG was still able to find the Island by piggybacking on the return of the Oceanic 6. Widmore is having nightmares because the resurrection of DHARMA has restarted the countdown to human extinction. The coming war will be between the Others and DHARMA: TNG for control of the Island with the fate of all humanity hanging in the balance.

As always, you're welcome to post anonymously, but please identify yourself somehow, so I can distinguish between anonymous posters. Thanks!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Lost in a Postmodern World...

Many of my posts pertain to the science and pseudo-science of Lost, but my background is really in philosophy. As my recent analysis of the Desmond Exception suggests, I think of the show as a postmodern work with a particular emphasis on existentialism. So I was a little surprised to find two bloggers -- I'll call them "Dick" and "Jane" -- arguing that the show was building to some unified metaphysical theory of life, the universe, and everything.

What follows are excerpts from our exchange. In fairness to Dick and Jane, I've edited and substantially shortened their posts to focus on the points I want to make, but I did my best to preserve the essence of their claims. I'm reproducing our dialogue here because I think it addresses some basic misconceptions about the relationship between postmodernism and metaphysics, and clarifies why I think of Lost as thoroughly postmodern.

Bigmouth: Lost is a postmodern story about postmodern themes, like Ulysses, Watchmen, and the Brothers Karamazov. Just my opinion, but I don't think the type of metaphysical unification that you both apparently seek is forthcoming.

Dick: I don't think the postmodernism of LOST excludes the metaphysical ambitions of the series. In fact, the clever ways they found to sustain these existential ambitions are a lot postmodern (and these "clever ways" are the entire show, itself).

Bigmouth: How could it not entail rejection of metaphysics? Postmodernism is notoriously hard to define, but I'm with Lyotard that such theories all share a mistrust of meta-narratives. This includes existentialism, which I've always understood to be anti-metaphysical. Why would you expect a postmodern work generally, or one specifically about existentialism, to offer a unified metaphysical explanation? That strikes me as antithetical to the whole exercise...

Jane: One of the reasons that people find such difficulty in identifying "postmodernism" may be the result of there being more than one "postmodernism." We have many postmodernisms at our disposal - the beauty of polysemy! Anyways, the notion that meta-narratives are to be mistrusted may be construed as a meta-narrative in itself - and hence, is to be mistrusted. What do you get when irony folds back on itself? Step through that door and find out.

Bigmouth: That part about "irony folding back on itself" is precisely what differentiates postmodernism from metaphysics, in my opinion. The former deliberately contains within itself the seeds of its own potential destruction. In fact, it's a common pattern in postmodern thought for one thinker -- say Nietzsche -- to attack metaphysics only to be accused of being a closet metaphysician by another -- e.g., Heidegger.

Jane: Postmodernism is quite good at planting the seeds of its own destruction. What about a rubric that's just as effective (if not moreso) in planting the seeds of its own resurrection and rebirth?

Bigmouth: That's postmodernism -- theories contain the seeds of their own destruction and rebirth as something new. Metaphysics, by contrast, seeks transcendent truths for all time, what Putnam calls the "God's-eye perspective." Perhaps it might help if you clarified what you mean by "metaphysics" because I'm not sure we're operating under the same definition.

Jane: By a "metaphysic" I mean a cognitive framework for understanding the world and the place we make for ourselves in it. As such, I would consider postmodernism to be a subset of metaphysics - with its own particular set of strengths and weaknesses.

In general I find postmodernism to be strong in deconstruction, examining power relationships, and pointing out how underlying assumptions often entail the "results" observed from such an assumed position. On the other hand, postmodernism is weak in constructive activities, including rebirth, mostly due to its refusal to establish a foundation of values and intentions to build on. (Some Buddhists would claim that continual death and rebirth can get tiresome over time.)

Whether [metaphysical] theories are "true" or not is beside the point: The world over, people employ categories (kinds) and impute essence/nature/spirit/causation in and from "kinds". At the very least, we have an apt description for human cognition, if not the world around us. It certainly gives me food for thought in considering the ontology of patterns themselves.

All of these constructions share something in common, and this might be the Unified Field Theory for Metaphysics: They all rely on metaphor. That is to say, we perform a translation of something very abstract (the Essence of Being) through something more concrete - in particular, through our direct experiences. Metaphor, of course, is foundational in Lost.

Bigmouth: Postmodernism is not a subset of metaphysics. I'm oversimplifying here, but the two approaches are pretty much opposed -- belief in one entails rejection of the other. (Unless you're some kind of Straussian, but that's a whole other can of worms.) Is it possible you and Dick mean something different when you say "metaphysical"?

You complain that postmodernism is weak on constructive activities. But whom do you have in mind with this claim? Existentialism and American pragmatism are both constructive postmodern responses to nihilism. You build on a foundation of "values and intentions" as you put it, but that foundation is always contingent and historical -- never metaphysical -- and therefore open to change.

You mention that metaphor is fundamental to Lost. I quite agree, which is why I think of Lost as a quintessentially postmodern work. Metaphors expand the realm of linguistic possibility -- a realm that's closed and fixed in a metaphysical worldview. At one point, rivers and bottles did not have mouths. You would have been speaking metaphorically to say they did. Now, of course, that metaphor has become literal truth.

Jane: Like I said, I consider a "metaphysic" to be a cognitive framework, not a transcendental truth, so we are already on different grounds. (I do this because regardless of whether "transcendental truths" exist or not, they can only be known to us through our cognitive frameworks.) And then there's the sticky matter of defining postmodernism. Perhaps you'd like to give that a go?

Because I view all cognitive frameworks as limited, I have adopted the strategy of employing multiple frameworks, which allows me to take the position of considering metaphysics (as you've defined it) and postmodernism as both true, to their respective extents. Postmodernism serves some intents and purposes well; metaphysics serves other intents and purposes well.

Bigmouth: I'm not sure what you mean by metaphysics as a "cognitive framework," but if it doesn't include transcendent Truth with a capital T, you're not talking about metaphysics. I'm reminded of a bit from the Howard Stern show, where they call and order a pizza, hold the sauce, cheese, and crust. You're basically saying "I believe in metaphysics, minus the metaphysics."

Jane, you may be the most postmodern person I know. Your whole approach to theorizing about Lost is postmodern, particularly the way you embrace ambiguity, which is a thoroughly postmodern value. When you say that you employ "multiple frameworks," you are speaking in postmodern terms. It really surprises me that you resist this characterization -- I assumed you were being deliberately postmodern!

As for defining postmodernism, I would reiterate Lyotard's claim that it is, by definition, the rejection of metaphysics. Really. For example, the American pragmatists called themselves the "Metaphysical Club" as a joke -- they were devoted to critiquing the nonsense of metaphysics and developing an alternative.

Dick: You said it right - "For example". We can only agree on one point: there was Modernism. What happens after that - now, for example - is still a rich field for multiple points of view. There are some good guys (contemporary philosophers) that even discuss IF we are in postmodernism. We don't need go that far, I agree, but this is just to give an idea about the giant task in defining the term. The cellphone is postmodernism. Gongora is postmodernism. Flash Mobs are postmodernism. And the point of view of the pragmatists about what should be the most venal definition of the postmodernism, well, I say it's like the pragmatists see the postmodernism - there's a thousand of another possibilities being discussed.

Bigmouth: My example was illustrative. What I said about rejecting metaphysics is equally true of Continental philosophers like Nietzsche and Heidegger. Again, this is the most basic definition of postmodern theory.

I think you're confusing postmodernity (i.e., what comes after modernity) with postmodernism (i.e., postmodern theory like Nietzsche and Heidegger). This may seem like a semantic distinction, but it's not. When I say Lost is "postmodern" I mean in the sense that it actually embodies the values of postmodernism, such as ambiguity and irony. The flashbacks also do a great job of illustrating a core tenet of postmodernism -- that we are historical beings through and through.

All of this is antithetical to a unified metaphysical account, which is why I have such a problem with the question you've posed. If anything, I expect Lost to mock such metaphysical pretensions, as Douglas Adams did by positing that the meaning of life, the universe, and everything was 42.

Jane: [The idea that metaphysics is about Truth with a capital "T" is] what many metaphysicians would have you believe! What they are actually doing is constructing "maps" of "being". For me, the question is not whether the map is "true" or not, but rather to what extent is this map apt? Furthermore, what value I can gain from employing such a map, and what sorts of systemic entailments unfold from its use in a population?

So, I don't know whether what I'm doing is "postmodern" or not, because I'm surely taking something from metaphysics (the maps produced) but I'm rejecting its a priori notions of how to use or consider the maps. So when you say postmodernism is the rejection of metaphysics, I do get a bit confused, because my approach is not to reject metaphysics but rather to use it differently. Take what works and turn the rest - I'm not sure that this is what postmodernists advocate.

I won't limit myself to a strictly postmodern approach - I won't limit myself to a single map of any kind! And isn't that ultimately the entailment of postmodernism - to come to a place of taking on perspectives that are antithetical and contradictory to postmodernism itself? The negation of negation leads to embracing.

I see in Lost an extension of the work begun by Joseph Campbell. Campbell's work was pretty much about creating a "unified field theory," that of myth. He goes to great lengths to describe how so many myths the world over share a common structure, that of the Heroic Journey. It should be quite clear that the Heroic Journey has been employed throughout Lost - from the very first episode, and throughout the series, for a variety of characters.

Bigmouth: Again, there's nothing particularly "metaphysical" about your approach. If anything, you have just deconstructed metaphysics. What you advocate is precisely what (some) postmodernists believe. Taking what works and abandoning the rest is philosophical pragmatism in a nutshell. Ideas are true because they are useful, not because of their correspondence with some underlying metaphysical reality. Welcome to the Metaphysical Club!

Joseph Campbell was what's called a "structuralist" because he sought one final framework for evaluating all myths. Lost is definitely influenced by Campbell's insights, but I disagree that the goal of the show is a "unified field theory of myth." Rather, Lost is paying homage to Campbell as one intellectual influence among many -- i.e., minus the baggage of his structuralist ambitions.

Lost similarly refers to aspects of Plato's philosophy (e.g., the cave parable) even though the show doesn't subscribe to his metaphysical world view. This hodge podge of references is partly what makes Lost -- like Ulysses -- a quintessentially postmodern work.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Desmond Exception...

In anticipation of the Variable, which marks 100 episodes of Lost, here is my take on what I like to call the "Desmond Exception." According to Daniel Faraday, the general rules of time travel include whatever happened, happened...except for Desmond David Hume. But what exactly makes Mr. Hume this miraculous exception to Faraday's rules? The answer touches upon quantum mechanics and existentialism, two subjects that seem increasingly central to the show. To understand why, it helps to have a brief background in some relevant philosophy and science.

When I studied philosophy, the apparent conflict between free will and determinism fascinated me. I was surprised to learn that most philosophers (including David Hume) have a very limited conception of free will. I had assumed that true freedom must mean stepping outside the causal chain of events to make a choice that is not the effect of any prior cause. I never considered Hume's claim that such an undetermined choice would be completely random. There's a great riff in Waking Life about why probabalistic quantum mechanics, despite its indeterminism, doesn't really help us understand freedom for this very reason:

What Waking Life doesn't mention is that some existentialists actually celebrate freedom in this random and irrational sense. Nietzsche espoused a kind of "radical freedom" that finds expression in Sartre and Heidegger's writings, as well as Kierkegaard's famous "leap of faith." Under this view, you liberate yourself from history's influence by acting contrary to prior reason and experience to embrace a totally new system of beliefs and assumptions. That's basically what Jack did in 316 by becoming a man of faith for purposes of returning the Island. Remember the shoes?

Really, though, nothing on Lost exemplifies radical freedom better than the Desmond Exception. His physicist friend Donovan put it perfectly: "The wild card part is unpredictability -- run the same test 10 times, you'll get 10 different outcomes." Des has become an unpredictable wild card in the otherwise orderly operation of destiny, analogous to the Mule in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. Chronology Protection Agents like Ms. Hawking have been watching him because his deviations from whatever happened risk randomly changing the "picture on the box" of history.

So how did Desmond gain this miraculous ability? It has something to do with bathing in the Island's exotic energy following activation of the Fail-Safe. In the Key to the Whole Game, I suggested that the Island is a place where the rules of quantum mechanics, which usually apply to very small things, govern everyday existence at a macroscopic level -- like in physicist Brian Greene's Quantum Cafe. As we discussed above, quantum mechanics entails indeterminism. That's why DHARMA chose the Island for their efforts to alter the Valenzetti Equation's grim mathematical prophecy.

That may also be why DHARMA -- or at least the writers -- chose a black swan for the Initiative's most famous symbol. The Black Swan theory, as articulated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, describes the type of rare and unpredictable event -- e.g., the rise of personal computing or the start of World War I -- that alters the course of history. The name refers to the seemingly impossible coming to pass -- all swans were assumed to be white until the 18th-century discovery of black swans in Australia. DHARMA sought to break fate's harsh decree by using the Island to create a Black Swan event.

Desmond, in others words, is not the only exception to the rules of time travel. The Island itself is also a variable in destiny's equation. What makes Des miraculous -- perhaps uniquely so -- is that he's the living embodiment of this exception. (In that regard, he resembles Miles, whose ability to scan minds makes him a kind of living version of Smokey.) The original DHARMA's efforts were hindered by the need to bring key players to the Island. By contrast, Des can go where he wants limited only by the law of course correction, which minimizes the effects of his deviations on history.

This makes Desmond a powerful but potentially dangerous piece in whatever game Ben, Widmore, and DHARMA: TNG are playing. I've previously discussed the undesirable ways that Des changed the picture on the box by delaying Charlie's death. Faraday's attempt to exploit the Desmond Exception backfired as well with Ben mortally wounding Des. To paraphrase Chekhov, however, you don't introduce a gun unless you plan to shoot it. By the end of Lost, therefore, I predict the Desmond Exception will yield some kind of causal paradox -- or a parallel timeline that avoids it.

So, there you have it -- the Desmond Exception in a nutshell. Ago gratias tibi to Team Darlton for 100 mind melting episodes of Lost! As always, I welcome you all everybody to post anonymously, but please identify yourself somehow, so I can distinguish between anonymous posters. Thanks!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Thoughts on Some Like It Hoth...

Some Like It Hoth once again showcased the hilarious and surprisingly moving Miles and Hurley Show. Which is fine with me because Ken Leung has become one of my favorite actors on Lost, despite his relatively limited role thus far. As my friend MB observes, Leung brings a compelling "everyman" quality to Miles. After his most recent round of flashbacks, however, the spin-off I'd really like to see is "DHARMA: The Next Generation."

In my recap of Dead Is Dead, I speculated that Ilana and her burly friend Bram might work for DHARMA. Now we learn that Bram previously kidnapped Miles and asked him the same question that Ilana did Lapidus. This time, the query -- "Do you know what lies in the shadow of the statue?" -- took on a more mystical air. When Miles didn't, Bram said this meant he wasn't ready to go to the Island. But the big guy invited Miles to "come with us," promising he would learn the answers to burning questions like who he is, why he can speak to the dead, and "most of all" who his father really was.

The revelation that Miles's dad was indeed Dr. Pierre Chang seems to confirm Ilana and Bram's connection with DHARMA. In fact, the latter two may themselves be the children of DHARMA members just like Miles, Charlotte, and Ethan. The big question is whether any of these DHARMA children were born there besides Ethan. We know that most of the DHARMA births took place on the mainland, but I'll bet Miles was an exception to this rule.

That possibility brings me back around to one of my favorite speculations. In posts like the Island of Lost Children, I've suggested that certain children, particularly those born on the Island, are capable of channeling its exotic energies. The children of DHARMA were removed from the Island at some point, probably to save them from the Purge. Someone is now recruiting them as adults with the aim of reconstituting DHARMA.

So what precisely is Miles's power? We've been led to believe he's a "ghostbuster" who can communicate with the dead, but this episode clarified some important limitations on his ability. Miles can't actually converse with ghosts. Instead, he learns "who they were and whatever they knew before they died" by scanning their minds like Smokey. (This may be why Miles was also able to tell Michael was lying about his name in Meet Kevin Johnson.) For that to work, however, the brain must apparently be intact as it was in the case of Widmore's courier.

Speaking of which, I think we now know who really faked crash of Oceanic 815. Recall that Tom blamed Charles, who denied responsibility. I'm guessing it was actually this next generation of who DHARMA who dug up those bodies in Thailand and purchased that old airplane in an effort to hide the location of the Island. Widmore's man was probably returning with proof that the crash was fake when the Others intercepted him. They found this evidence, which Tom later presented to Mike, and erroneously concluded that Widmore was the one behind the deception. So much for this speculation -- the clip show seemed to confirm it was Widmore who faked the recovery of Oceanic 815...

One thing's for sure. The coming war that Widmore mentioned to Locke will be between the Others and DHARMA for control of the Island, which is the key to the whole game. Here, in the spirit of Herb Caen, are some three-dot thoughts on Some Like It Hoth:

HE'S STILL TALKING. The microwave reads 3:16... I love how the editing and camerawork when Miles finds the dead body evokes the style of Asian horror films... Miles could "hear" the dead man's last thoughts -- his loneliness and cries for his dead wife -- but couldn't actually talk to him... Horace sends Miles to a grid inside Hostile territory, suggesting to me the Others and DHARMA have closer ties than we've been led to believe. In my more whackadoo moments, I wonder if Charles Widmore was actually playing both sides of the sonar fence. Maybe, during one of his many trips off the Island, Widmore invested in the Hanso Group, which partnered with DHARMA to create the "DHARMA Initiative Hanso Group" (i.e., the abbreviation "DIHG" on the Blast Door Map). What was Widmore's motive in doing so? Because of his interaction with Locke and Co., Charles realized the Island was capable of sending people into the past. He funded DHARMA's time travel experiments to complete the causal loop. Perhaps, once the Swan and Orchid were built, he had no further need for DHARMA and had them purged...

SOMEWHERE YOU CAN NEVER GO. That's what Miles's mother replies when he asks where his father is buried. It's telling that she lied and otherwise discouraged him from trying to find the Island, much like Charlotte's mum did whenever Charlotte asked about her father and childhood home... This seems to confirm that both daddies died in the Purge... Love EMO Miles. I wonder if his spikes were a shout out to the Kid Omega character that Ken Leung played in the third X-Men film... I had no idea that the actor who portrays Roger Linus was the same guy who played crazy Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite until JLes pointed it out. Perhaps I'm too quick to dismiss Roger's much maligned wig, which successfully hid the resemblance...

HOW DO YOU SPELL BOUNTY HUNTER? When Hurley asked that question, I immediately suspected he was trying to write the Empire Strikes Back... Miles learns that Alvarez died when a filling was yanked out of his mouth, presumably by the Island's powerful electromagnetism. This suggests Alvarez was working on the Swan Station, as confirmed by the Swan insignia on the uniforms that Radzinski and Co. wear. The death harkens back to Desmond's comment in Orientation that his fillings hurt every time he walks by the concrete barrier in the Swan... I'm a big fan of the actor Dean Norris who played the despondent father, Mr. Grey. Norris also plays one of my favorite characters on one of my favorite shows, Breaking Bad, which I featured in a recent post. Which reminds me -- I'm actually moving my non-Lost related posts to a new blog about television called I Hate My DVR. Stay tuned for more info... Miles visibly cringes when Mr. Grey mentions that they cremated his son's body, further confirming for me that he can't simply talk with ghosts... I'm with KoreAmBear that Naomi looks hot, especially with long hair... Roger's mistrust of Kate struck me as implausibl. Given his hots for her, I would expect him to give her the benefit of the doubt. Their confrontation seemed forced for the purpose of moving the story forward... Hurley's comment about playing chess with the dead was a reference to his line in There's No Place Like Home "Checkmate, Mr. Eko"... I'm guessing Dr. Chang had the corpse brought to the Orchid for use in time travel experiments...

SO WHAT CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THIS MAN? All of the scenes where Miles actually reads the minds of dead people, as opposed to faking, are done in the Asian horror film style that I mentioned above. This was also true in past episodes-- e.g., when Miles scanned the minds of the dead soldiers in Jughead. Notably, the scene in Confirmed Dead where Miles spoke to the ghost of the drug dealer was not done in this telltale style, suggesting he was faking... The "significant number of dead bodies" that Naomi mentions presumably refers to the Purge. But I suspect the real reason Widmore wanted Miles on that expedition was that they had already met in the past... The sum $1.6 million marks another appearance of the Numbers (i.e., 16)... My friend MB can't get over the speed and stealth with which Jack erases the blackboard. Perhaps that's Jack's special power? ...Roger sure likes to kick things. Why wouldn't he report Kate to LaFleur? ...Hurley explains that the Swan Station will eventually be responsible for crashing their plane. Could the Incident be his attempt to change the future and avert the crash by sabotaging the Swan?

YOU'RE PLAYING FOR THE WRONG TEAM. Bram calling Mile's as "my friend" brought to mind Cesar's verbal tick. Was the latter a member of DHARMA: TNG as well? ...What do you suppose were Hurley's "improvements" to the script of Empire Strikes Back? ...Patrick Fischler is perfect as nosy and obnoxious Phil from security. In fact, it's testament to the success of Fischler's portrayal that I felt such satisfaction when Sawyer punched Phil's lights out... Miles refunding Mr. Grey's money reminded me of when he gave back half his fee to the mother of the dead drug dealer in Confirmed Dead, suggesting to me Miles was faking in both cases. His conversation with the drug dealer was just for show, in case the mother was eavesdropping. Miles found out about the stash the same way he learned the kid was murdered -- by scanning his brain at the morgue. The only wrinkle in this explanation is that drug dealer's ghost seemed to respond to Miles by bumping the bookshelf that hid his stash. My hunch is this is simply a plothole, but it's also possible the dealer's ghost really way there even if Miles couldn't actually see or hear him... I think Hurley has that backwards -- Vader cuts off Luke's hand before revealing he is Luke's father... How badass does Faraday look all dressed in black? Apparently, he really was absent from the Island, not simply out of his mind as many, myself included, had assumed...

As always, you're welcome to post anonymously, but please identify yourself somehow, so I can distinguish between anonymous posters. Thanks!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Thoughts on Dead Is Dead...

The County of Los Angeles rates the cleanliness of restaurants using letter grades. "A" is the best, or at least the cleanest, but I often joke that "B" is for burritos, my all-time favorite food. After the delicious combination-plate of revelations in Dead Is Dead, I think we need to create a new grade of "M" for mythology where Lost is concerned. Highlights included Charles Widmore's usurpation and exile, Ben's judgment by Zombie Alex, and solid confirmation of the Island's suspected connection to Anubis. Mmmm... mythology!

Let's begin with Anubis, whom we saw depicted as both statue and relief. In my recap of LaFleur, I noted that the ancient Egyptians believed this jackal-headed deity to be responsible for weighing the hearts of souls seeking entrance to the underworld. What I didn't mention is how Anubis fed hearts that failed the test to the demoness Ammit, whose name means "devourer of the dead." (Taweret fans take note: Ammit is sometimes linked with your favorite fertility goddess!) Notice how Anubis seems to be feeding something to the demonic figure in the relief.

The figure being fed resembles a snake or dragon, albeit jagged like a lightning bolt. Ammit occasionally takes the form of a serpent, but she's more commonly depicted as a chimera of crocodile, lioness, and hippo -- hence the Taweret connection. For this reason, I wonder if the relief figure is actually Apep, another demonic eater of the dead in Egyptian mythology. Apep lived in the underworld and is usually depicted as a snake. Of particular relevance, Apep is closely linked with darkness, lightning, and whirlwinds -- I've previously described the Smoke Monster as a cloud capacitor like a lightning cloud.

So, is the relief figure -- and, by extension, Smokey -- Ammit, Apep, or some mixture of the two? It's tempting to conclude the latter since the two demons share certain characteristics (i.e., eating souls and living in the underworld) but no ancient Egyptian would have conflated them. Despite her appetite for the dead, Ammit was seen as a force for goodness and divine order. Apep, by contrast, personified pure chaos and all that was evil to the Egyptians. Whether Smokey is Ammit or Apep, therefore, seems to depend on whether it's a force for good or evil.

To help decide that last question, let's consider Ben's judgment by Zombie Alex. When Ben revealed that he had returned to be judged for his daughter's death, I was pretty sure Smokey would take her form. The whirlwind of images that surrounded Ben in Wizard of Oz fashion seemed to confirm that his relationship with Alex was the subject of Smokey's inquiry. But when she actually appeared, Zombie Alex didn't seem very interested in Ben's apologies. She was much more intent on ensuring that he followed and refrained from killing John Locke.

I was reminded of Mr. Eko's fatal encounter with Zombie Yemi. Both scenes are ostensibly about atonement for sins committed against loved ones whose form Smokey takes. In both cases, however, I can't shake the suspicion this repentance is really about compelling the sinner's submission to Smokey -- the rest is just a convenient ruse. Smokey seems to have a plan and doesn't take kindly to insubordination. During Ben's exchange with Zombie Alex, I half expected her to echo Yemi's line and warn: "You speak to me as if I were your daughter!"

And that raises another relevant question: Was Ben supposed to exile Charles Widmore from the Island? There are hints throughout the episode, particularly Ben saving baby Alex, that Widmore wasn't completely in sync with the Island's wishes either. It seems, moreover, that Charles led the Others during the Purge and their occupation of the Barracks. I'm starting to suspect it was one or both of those decisions that triggered his exile. Dharma may even have operated with the blessing of the Island, which is why the Room 23 film includes the line "God loves you as He loved Jacob."

Here, in the spirit of Herb Caen, are some three-dot thoughts on Dead Is Dead:

JACOB WANTED IT DONE. When Charles admonished Richard for saving little Ben, Richard answered that the Island chooses who it chooses. The suggestion, later confirmed by Charles, is that the Island saving little Ben was not a foregone conclusion. That it did so indicates that Ben was indeed special and not merely some mistake as I've sometimes wondered... I let out a lusty BOO(urns)! when little Ben confirmed that he didn't remember being shot or rescued. Charles tells him not to worry -- that he'll be back with his father soon enough. But how will they explain little Ben's absence and miraculous recovery? Even if Ben doesn't remember the wound, Roger certainly will... Charles also mentions that little Ben can still be one of them even if he's living with Dharma. I wonder if there are other Others living among the Dharmies. Like Lantz Dogg, I've got my eye on Amy as a possible double agent, which could explain her willingness to give up Paul's body...

I CAME BACK TO BE JUDGED. I'm still torn over whether Ben actually lied about the "rules" prohibiting him from returning to the Island. Locke accused him of lying, and Ben eventually admitted he was really there to be judged for Alex's death. But later we learn that Charles Widmore has been trying to return for some 20 years since he was exiled for breaking the rules... Ben's comment that his people don't have a word for the Monster reminds me of religious proscriptions against speaking the true name of God. For example, people sometimes mistakenly assume that Jehovah or Yaweh is God's actual name. In fact, such names are simply the pronunciation of JHVH, YHVH, and YHWY, which were letters used by the authors of the Old Testament to symbolize the sacred and incommunicable name of God... When Locke mentions he was just "hoping for an apology," his look reminded me of the character Stanley's hilarious expressions on the Office.

I DON'T REALLY REMEMBER HIM FROM THE PLANE. I loved how Ben stoked Caesar's paranoia over infiltration, which harkened back to Ethan and Goodwin's infiltration of the tail section and fuselage camps... Ethan wanting to kidnap baby Alex was another eery parallel to events we've seen -- i.e., his kidnapping of Claire... Wise move by the writers having Ben take Alex at night, which explains why crazy Danielle didn't recognize him many years later when they met again. I can buy that memory lapse more than I can her implausible failure to recognize Jin... I half expected Caesar to mutter "et tu, brute" when Ben shot him... I wonder if Caesar is really dead. It's possible but my suspicion is that Zombie Christian still has work for him to do... Does Caesar know John McCain? Because he sure shares the same verbal tick of calling everyone "my friend"...

WHAT WAS I SUPPOSED TO DO? When Charles sent Ben to kill Danielle, was the former trying to taint the latter in the eyes of the Island? The look of disapproval that Richard gives Charles makes me think killing baby Alex was not something the Island wanted. I was reminded of Ben's attempt to taint Locke with the murder of Anthony Cooper. Indeed, Ben presenting Alex to Charles paralleled the way Locke presented Cooper's body to Ben... There seems to be a repeating cycle where someone is chosen by the Island, but falls out of its good graces, then is usurped by a new chosen one. That's what seems to have happened to both Charles and Ben. I wonder if Locke will face the same temptation to deviate from the Island's agenda in Season 6. Perhaps he will realize that he's being used for some nefarious purpose and turn on the Island...

YOU DON'T HAVE THE FIRST IDEA WHAT THIS ISLAND WANTS. The Risk game they were playing when Keamy and Co. attacked is still where they left it on the table. So any butterfly effect on the Barracks didn't change things all that much... They made a point of emphasizing the painting of the blonde woman in Ben's house yet again. Unfortunately, my prediction about it being Juliet is probably wrong. After all, how can little Ben have a crush on her when he doesn't remember her being part of the Dharma Initiative? And while we're on the subject of amnesia again, BOO(urns)! ...What's with Lapidus looking like Siegfried and Roy with the unbuttoned shirt? Ben claims that his house is the only place he knows to summon the Monster. But he obviously must know about the Temple -- that's where he sent the Others when Keamy and Co. invaded the Island. Why didn't Ben just proceed there directly? ...How bizarre was that method of summoning the Monster? If there's some larger significance, it's eluding me...

YOU CAME HERE TO GLOAT. Ben says that Charles was the one who wanted Alex dead, the latter smugly replies that, if the Island wants her dead, she'll be dead. I think the implication is that the Island wanted Alex to live originally. That's why Ben was so convinced that he would be judged for his culpability in her murder. What Ben failed to realize is that the Island only wanted Alex to live long enough to serve some purpose in its plan. Once she had done so, she was free to "go now" like Michael on the Freighter. At that point, the Island didn't care whether she lived or died, which is why Zombie Alex wasn't particularly concerned about Ben's culpability in her murder... Ben tells Charles that he's being exiled, in part, because he left the Island regularly, but that's something Ben apparently did himself as leader of the Others... Widmore warns "you cannot fight the inevitable," yet another reminder of Lost's fatalistic theme...

DEAD IS DEAD. It's hard to figure out where Ben's lies end and the truth begins. But I think he was dealing in the latter when he told Sun that dead is dead and insisted that Locke's resurrection was unprecedented. After all, we've seen no indication that the Others can be resurrected. Death seems as final to them as it is for everyone else on the Island. No effort was made to reclaim Ethan or Goodwin's corpses, and they immolated Colleen's body in a funeral pyre. That makes me wonder if Locke's resurrection is related to Zombie Christian and Yemi's -- i.e., the result of body snatching by Smokey. I was struck by the way Locke disappeared during Ben's encounter with Zombie Alex. I wonder if that has something to do with why the Monster didn't appear in the Barracks. Maybe it needed to leave Locke's dead body to judge Ben, and the Temple was the only place that could be done safely... Interesting that the chamber where Ben gets judged was apparently one he'd never seen. I'll be very curious to see how it compares with the Temple above...

WHAT LIES IN THE SHADOW OF THE STATUE? My first thought was that the Wheel Well lies in the shadow of the four-toed colossus. As a number of you noted, however, the question may be a code like "what does one snowman say to another?" In that regard, I wonder if the answer is "Ozymandias" in reference to the Horace Smith poem of the same name, which begins "In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone, Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws, The only shadow that the Desert knows." ...Ilana and her buddies didn't seem the least bit interested in Ben, which tends to suggest they don't work for Widmore. What if they work for Dharma? It will be interesting to see if any of them hail from Ann Arbor, Michigan... I'll bet there's a big drill in that metal crate, which Ilana and Co. will use to access the Wheel Well.

ONE LAST THING. If Desmond does die, it's possible that Our Mutual Friend will indeed be the last thing he ever reads -- on the side of his sailboat. I wonder if getting shot will be what drives him back to the Island. After all, I can think of no better place to recover from a gunshot wound...

As always, you're welcome to post anonymously, but please identify yourself somehow, so I can distinguish between anonymous posters. Thanks!

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Fork in the Outlet...

Each year, Team Darlton come up with a clever code name for some mind-blowing scene in the season finale. In Season 1, the code name was "The Bagel" and referred to Walt's kidnapping by the Others. In Season 2, the bread theme continued with "The Challah," the code name for detection of the electromagnetic anomaly by Penny's listening station. In Season 3, "The Snake in the Mailbox" referred to bearded Jack's encounter with Kate at the airport. Last season, "The Frozen Donkey Wheel" described Ben turning the Wheel behind the Orchid teleportation chamber.

In a recent podcast (SPOILER ALERT) Darlton revealed that this year's code name is "The Fork in the Outlet." But between you and me, I think we can do better. My own suggestion would be "The Exploding Santa Belly." As a small child, I was terrified of department store Santas -- the result of a nightmare that remains vivid in my mind's eye. I'm in a room that's empty except for Santa sitting in a chair. As I approach, his belly begins to ripple and swell like an enormous balloon. Finally, Santa's belly explodes showering me with candy like a giant human pinata.

Okay, it's a little hard to convey the creepiness of my nightmare on paper. For me, however, the Exploding Santa Belly connotes the kind of disturbing surprise we've come to expect from season finales on Lost. What's your suggestion?

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Thoughts on Whatever Happened, Happened...

I have to admit, I had mixed feelings about Whatever Happened, Happened. We got plenty of mythological sugar, and the Kate-centric medicine turned out to be surprisingly sweet on its own. I also liked Miles and Hurley's hilarious discussion of time travel. And the scene where Ricardus took little Ben into the Temple to lose "his innocence" was powerful and disturbing. Still, Alpert's comment that Ben would conveniently "forget this ever happened" struck me as potentially problematic. I'm curious to see how the writers avoid the narrative trap they've apparently set for themselves.

Let's start with the Miles and Hurley show, which made me laugh out loud. ("Hey, ask me more questions about time travel!") Last week, my big mouth whined about the tendency of Lost to over-emphasize new character names and introductions. But give credit where it's due because the writers have handled explanations of tricky subjects like time travel with relative aplomb. Humor helps, as do clear metaphors. Miles's exposition got a little convoluted, but his exchange with Hurley culminated in exactly the right question: Why didn't big Ben remember Sayid shooting him?

Unfortunately, the answer suggested by this episode -- i.e., Ben simply forgot -- seemed like kind of a cop out. It's not that amnesia is an implausible explanation. There are hints -- e.g., Mikhail's notations in the Flame -- that at least some of the Others suffer from memory loss. This could even explain how someone like Amy might join the Others despite their habit of murdering her husbands. The problem is that amnesia completely negates any impact the shooting can have on Ben's motivations as an adult, which strikes me as a tremendous opportunity squandered.

It really seemed as if the show was building naturally to the revelation that little Ben's shooting was the defining event of big Ben's life. In my recap to Namaste, I suggested that Juliet might be the blond woman in the painting that hangs in big Ben's house. Last week, I speculated that she might save his life, explaining his adoration of her and insistence that she stay on the Island. This week, we learned that Kate, too, played a pivotal role in little Ben's survival. For most of the episode, I was sure this explained one of my favorite scenes from Season 2 -- Kate's creepy breakfast with big Ben.

Speaking of Kate, I want to say a just quick word in praise of Evangeline Lily. I dare say this was the best Kate-centric episode in the series thus far. Lily may not be the best actress on the show, but her moving performance in Whatever Happened, Happened is probably her best shot at winning an emmy or golden globe. She was assisted by a top notch script written by Team Darlton themselves. What I really loved about the episode was that I finally understood and believed why Kate wanted to adopt Aaron. I totally bought her desire to use him to fill the void left by Sawyer's sacrifice.

I guess I'm just disappointed that we apparently won't get the same insight into big Ben's behavior. I'm also curious to see how the show will explain little Ben's return to Dharmaville. He presumably goes back eventually and lives there up until the time of the Purge. How will Ben's miraculous recovery be explained? Won't people wonder about his disappearance? And perhaps most problematically, what will little Ben make of their confusion and suspicion given that, according to Richard, he will forget this ever happened? It seems like amnesia actually creates more problems than it solves.

Okay, enough complaining about Ben's amnesia. Here, in the spirit of Herb Caen, are some three-dot thoughts on the episode:

HEY YOU! YEAH, YOU! How creepy were Kate's interactions with Roger Linus? I loved the moment when she first realized who he was and forced herself to keep smiling. And the way he hit on her totally gave me the douche chills. Poor Roger's creep factor wasn't helped by that awful wig he wears. I haven't seen one so disturbing since the dead animal worn by Michael C. Hall during flashbacks on Dexter... Roger made another reference to the stratified power structure of Dharma with his rueful comment about janitors and grease monkeys. I wonder whether other disgruntled Dharmies will betray the Initiative during the Purge... Last week, we learned that the Initiative is governed on a day-to-day basis by ruling council, though it's unclear whether members are elected democratically. This episode gave us a glimpse into the Others' power structure. Apparently, Charles Widmore and Eloise Hawking are in charge, but all of them serve a higher power...

Jack's fatalistic attitude fascinates me. I've previously characterized Lost as an Anti-Christmas Carol -- the moral is to embrace your destiny because fighting the future inevitably backfires. Unfortunately, hearing Jack finally say so sounded awfully ugly and craven when a little boy's life was at stake. Is this just another example of Lost tweaking our expectations by having unsympathetic characters speak difficult truths? Or are the writers actually critiquing Jack's complete abdication of moral responsibility in the face of immutable destiny? Juliet and Kate's reaction reminded me of the existential response to nihilism. Just because you believe the world is devoid of intrinsic meaning isn't an excuse to do nothing. Rather, the onus falls on you to create meaning and to take moral responsbility for your creation... Jack says they came back to save the Lefties, but Juliet is correct that they didn't need saving -- Locke did so by restoring the Wheel. So what is that purpose? I'll bet it has something to do with getting everyone back to the future...

MOMMY, I'M FIRSTY. The only thing creepier than randy Roger Linus in a wig is sinister little Aaron, who looks more like a Midwich Cuckoo with every episode. As Hank Hill would say, that boy ain't right... One of the more provocative speculations bouncing around the interwebs is that little Aaron may be invisible to everyone but Kate. There is defintely a Sixth Sense feel to her losing him in the supermarket. Kate is with Aaron when she asks the clerk where the juice boxes are. Yet when she asks the same clerk later if he's seen her son, he looks at her like she must be crazy. In another scene, Clementine answers the door and acknowledges Kate but not Aaron. Frankly, Aaron being invisible is a little too whackadoo even for me. Besides, other people -- including Cassidy -- repeatedly allude to Aaron's existence. Still, it's kind of funny to watch some of the interactions with this possibility in mind -- there are some really ambiguous encounters.

HIS INNOCENCE WILL BE LOST. Richard's comment worked like a kind of Jedi mind trick distracting us immediately from the problems created by little Ben's amnesia. ("He will forget this ever happened...and so will you!") At first, I figured he meant that Ben was going to be corrupted physically, spiritually, or both. I had visions of Smokey as an alien symbiote, sweeping over him like Venom did Peter Parker in Spiderman 3. But then I remembered the Gnostic perspective, which sometimes seems to inform the show. Gnostics believe that the Old Testament deity is actually flawed, imperfect, and something of a poser. Some of them go so far as to venerate the serpent in the Garden of Eden as a heroic figure who sought to provide knowledge and wisdom to humanity. In that regard, I wonder if little Ben will become privvy to some dark secret that only those exposed to Smokey know -- one so terrible that those who know it are willing to kill their wives and unborn children in service of it...

Why did Ben seemed surprised to see Locke alive? When I saw the reaction of the former, I wondered if Ben is still, even now, trying to usurp Locke's place in some sequence of events crucial to the future of the Island. Perhaps Ben keeps trying to pound the square peg of himself into the round hole destiny, only to be rebuffed by course correction every time...

As always, you're welcome to post anonymously, but please identify yourself somehow, so I can distinguish between anonymous posters. Thanks!