Lost's Last Call: Shades of Gray

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May 12 2010, Published 11:39 a.m. ET

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Before we get into this week’s deconstruction, it’s important that we address something: Lost has developed an Ewok problem.

And when I say “Ewok problem,” I don’t mean that next week we’ll see a tribe of cute, buck-toothed, hamster-ish creatures trying to defeat the Smoke Monster with slingshots.


No, the Ewok problem developed in last night’s episode and it’s going to disappoint a lot of viewers. It’s surprising, considering what one of the Lost writers said in the most recent Entertainment Weekly:

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“Right now, it’s like the end of The Empire Strikes Back,” says Damon Lindelof. “Your hand has been cut off, your tail is between your legs, so what do you do now? Our characters can’t hide. There’s only four hours of the show left.  What are they going to do?” After this quote, Lindelof’s interviewer, the great Jeff Jensen, added: “Lindelof only promises one thing: ‘No Ewoks.’ ”


Lindelof lied.

In his book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto, writer Chuck Klosterman mentions his own distaste for the furry guys:  “I once knew a girl who claimed to have a recurring dream about a polar bear that mauled Ewoks; it made me love her.” He then goes on at length about The Empire Strikes Back, the penultimate film in George Lucas’ beloved series.

Klosterman’s thoughts echo Lindelof’s (or inspired Lindelof’s, as he wrote his book years before Lindelof’s EW interview). He explains why people his age prefer Empire to the sci-fi series’ “finale”:

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The Empire Strikes Back is the only blockbuster of the modern era to celebrate the abysmal failure of its protagonists. A movie about the good guys losing — both politically and romantically — is so integral to how people my age look at life. When sociologists and journalists started writing about the sensibilities that drove Gen Xers, they inevitably used words like angst-ridden and disenfranchised and lost.”

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Lost. They used words like “lost.”

What would you say the average age is of our beloved castaways? I seem to remember seeing a 7-year-old Sawyer sitting on the front steps of a church, receiving a pen from Jacob in about … 1977. And a young Jack reeling from a playground fight at around the same time.

And note how in a recent episode, Sawyer didn’t get Hurley’s Return of the Jedi reference. “Who the hell’s Anakin?” he asked. Viewers have been up in arms about this.  “How could the well-read Sawyer not know who Anakin is?” they’ve been asking.  Easy. The name Anakin wasn’t mentioned until the final chapter of the Star Wars films. Up to that point, he was just the dark monster known as Darth Vader. Maybe Gen Xer Sawyer was too distracted by the collapse of his childhood to go out and watch Jedi.

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It was 1983 when the wonderful Ewoks were written into the trilogy. Jedi, while maybe not appealing to Sawyer, was a movie that younger castaways, like Hurley, might have watched in theaters before they even knew The Empire Strikes Back existed.  The Ewoks were a perfect addition for little kids. They fit into McDonald’s Happy Meals. They even had their own short-lived cartoon.

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But as Hurley said in “Some Like It Hoth,” “Dude, the Ewoks suck.” And the reason they suck is this: By the time devoted Star Wars fans made it to Return of the Jedi, they had gone through all those feelings of angst, disenfranchisement and loss along with the main characters. They became attached to Luke, Leia and Han. They were invested in their relationships, in their individual and spiritual development.

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The last thing they wanted was to watch these characters team up with annoying little forest elves.

And what else can you call young Jacob (Kenton Duty) and mini Man In Black (Ryan Hanson Bradford) but little forest elves?

It’s going to be very, very hard for Lost viewers to accept a sweet and simplistic story as the background for everything that has happened on this show. So many literary, philosophical and religious references have been put out there by the writers. So many that, at this point, it’s hard not to want to believe that this island is a very real place, a mythological origin of all of existence.  Viewers want names to go with these demigods.  They want the demigods' story to closely parallel something they understand or have seen before.

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They want answers.

And instead, they’re getting vague illustrations. They’re getting cute little kids. They're getting Ewoks.

And it’s impossible to even think about Ewoks without getting their irritating song stuck in your head. Why irritating?  Because Lucas was so great at telling a monumental story that combined the hero’s journey with action adventure and the space age. As Joseph Campbell used to say, Lucas’ story is a modern-day myth. And stories like that aren’t supposed to include dance numbers with lyrics like “chub-chub.”

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Lost is a story about morality and philosophy. It talks about the importance of unity, of living together or dying alone. It delves deeply into the power of love. It’s about basic human survival.  It’s about science vs. faith, free will vs. fate.

But people often forget: Not only is Lost a time-travel-obsessed work of science fiction. It’s also a fantasy. And fantasy writers, like Lucas, Cuse and Lindelof, have artistic license to do whatever the heck they want … which might mean introducing totally implausible plot points and pissing off loyal viewers.

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The only way they can make this work is if they can somehow tie together what they gave us this week, in “Across the Sea,” with the very modern-day problems the castaways are experiencing. Lost’s finale could only be deemed a success if it gives a satisfactory sci-fi-type answer to all the mysteries on the island as well as a satisfactory mythological one. Doing both at the same time is not easy. This week, we got neither.  I can only hope that this week’s story is going to be expounded upon as we reach the end.

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Because I’d rather not watch a series finale that features Hurley on a floating wooden throne.

For now, the best we can do with last night’s Lost episode is analyze its symbolism.

“Across the Sea” starts with a view of the sea, appropriately, and a woman emerging from the water, looking much like Botticelli’s "Birth of Venus."

The time period is hard to discern. Is the story meant to take place in the age of the Roman Empire? Is it the Middle Ages, just before the Renaissance? It’s probably the former.

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Whenever it is, people are still speaking in Latin. (And then switching to English suddenly at the sound of a magical flute.)  Did anyone expect Jacob’s origins to at least go as far back as Egyptian times?  When were the Egyptians on the island?

My sense is that the character played by Allison Janney was there in Egyptian times and that’s why she’s appropriated some of their culture. She never says how long she’s been on the island.

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The opening scene of the sea pulls together the symbolism of baptism and woman’s connection to water. What doesn’t make sense is how that woman is able to swim to shore in that condition, especially in that time period.

The shipwrecked woman’s bloody foot that draws the “Earth Mother” type’s assistance (although it’s more likely that the real draw is the sign on her stomach broadcasting “Free Baby!”) makes more sense when you consider the meaning of her name, Claudia. It means “lame.”

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Look at another form of the word: “claudicate.” It means to “give up or agree to forego to the power or possession of another.”

The Earth Mother takes Claudia back to the Adam and Eve caves (where the Losties would reside years into the future). She feeds her patient, who eats ravenously, just like Richard Alpert did when he landed on the island and MIB “rescued” him.

As they’re getting to know each other, Earth Mother gets a sly look on her face. It’s reminiscent of the baby-coveting French chick.

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Claudia gives up asking her anything when she gets this response: “Every question I answer will just lead to another question.”

A line overheard in the Lost writers’ room?

When Claudia goes into labor, Earth Mother seems very happy about it, almost like she willed it to happen. If she is like Jacob (as she tells him later in the episode), maybe her touch or her fertility-enhancing energy did jumpstart the birthing process.

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Just as with Claire, Claudia knows that the baby’s name is Jacob. She doesn’t count on him having a twin.

The name Jacob is Biblical and means “he who follows upon the heels of one.” If only all of this story told the Biblical tale of Jacob and Esau.  But only parts of it do.

For example, in the Bible, Esau was born first and Jacob followed. These two on Lost are the reverse of that.  The second baby, the future Man In Black, doesn’t get a name … but later in the episode, the Earth Mother seems to whisper “Esau.”

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It's only the same in that Jacob takes his brother’s birthright in the Biblical story. And he kind of does the same thing in “Across the Sea,” even if it’s due to a series of miscommunications. Perhaps Earth Mother (EM) names MIB “Esau” because she needs something like this Biblical story to occur. She needs to groom one of them to be her replacement and the other one to get angry about it and kill her. When the Man In Black stabs her, she thanks him.

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I mean, every mother of twins dresses one in all white and one in all black, right? Because that has no psychologically devastating effects whatsoever!

Why it’s okay for EM to kill people but not for the “very bad” humans to do so is never quite explained. One thing’s for sure:  Mothers on this show often have to give birth and then abandon their children. And fathers don’t always leave, but they do generally cause all sorts of problems.

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The next scene of the babies is set 13 years later, long after their adoptive mom clobbered their real mom with a rock (a white rock, by the way). The boys have no knowledge of this — or of much else, for that matter.  All they really know about is weaving and hunting.

Little Zac Efron finds the Egyptian game of Senet (a backgammon precursor) washed up on the beach. He tells his more innocent brother Jacob that he “just knows” how to play it, kind of like how Walt used to “just know” things.

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After MIB discovers the game, it’s like he’s found the tree of knowledge. He starts asking important questions.

He asks his mother what it means to be dead, for example. She tells him mysteriously that it’s something he will never have to worry about.

This questioning is crucial to his development. That game teaches him how to strategize, to think ahead. When he gets a little visit from his Ghost Mom, Claudia, he stops trusting anything on blind faith. Eventually, he gets so desperate to leave the island and satisfy his curiosity that he’d even kill his adoptive mother.

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For the loyal Jacob, that’s a step too far.

Note how when MIB goes to live with “the people,” he agrees with EM that they are “bad.” He says they are “greedy,  manipulative, untrustworthy and selfish.” They’re a means to an end, he says.

Jacob disagrees with this. He says they don’t seem so bad.

An important thing about Jacob in this story, what we finally learn about him, is why he’s always talking about making choices.  He’s essentially forced into the job of protecting the light. He’s chosen by default. His mother feeds him “live forever” wine (does that cup have an ouroboros on the bottom?) and he reluctantly agrees to do her job — albeit in a rather bratty speaking voice for a 43-year-old (“Why do I have to?” he whines. And then he shouts, like a teenager: “I don’t care!”).

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Jacob’s mother doesn’t give him a choice. So when he picks his replacement, he wants them to choose the job themselves.

Despite this episode’s simplicity and propensity to disappoint viewers, a few very interesting mysteries emerged — and so did some much anticipated answers.

For example, how can EM insure that Jacob and MIB never “hurt each other”? Does this have more to do with her magical powers, the same ones Jacob later uses to protect the candidates?

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What are we to make of her description of the light (probably the electromagnetic energy) at the core of the island?  “It’s light. The warmest, brightest light you’ve ever seen or felt. And we must make sure that no one ever finds it. A little bit of this very same light is inside of every man.  But they always want more. If they try, they could put it out. And if the light goes out here, it goes out everywhere. And so I’ve protected this place but I can’t protect it forever.”

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Later, she tells Jacob the light is “life, death, rebirth.  It’s the source.”

How much can we really trust EM?

Just before her son stabs her in the back, she finds his Senet game. She examines a black stone like she had never really looked at the game before.  What does this symbolize?  Is that the first time MIB uses his dark rock as a “calling card”?

We finally know now where the donkey wheel came from.  But how did the mechanism get finished if the Man In Black was turned into Smokey (which was unbelievably awesome, in a very comic-book villain way — probably the best part of this episode!) in the middle of construction?  Should we assume that Jacob went down to the well and built it himself?

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Maybe Jacob got other people to do it for him. As his mother’s replacement, he is definitely much better at delegating tasks.

Also, about that donkey wheel – is that how Jacob later gets off the island? Is it the only way to do it? If he leaves the island to visit candidates, who’s protecting the light? Did it have the temple built around it by then?

Another mystery answered: We now know that when MIB crushed the wine jug, he was crushing Jacob’s everlasting life, which makes him furious.

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Did anyone find themselves feeling kinda sorry for MIB in this episode? Regardless of how he became evil, he was mostly just angry and misunderstood. He might have killed his own mom, but does that mean he should have to exist as a lightning bolt-filled, destructive cloud of smoke forever?

For a series that revolves around the notion of light versus dark, this episode had a lot of shades of gray.

Do you think the reason Jacob chooses candidates with dysfunctional families is because he wants them to overcome what he couldn’t?

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I’m not convinced that the candidate/protector of the island can exist without the Man In Black, his opposite. As the physicist Niels Bohr once said, “The opposite of a great truth is also true.” Interestingly, Niels Bohr had a lot to do with electromagnetic activity theories.

Hopefully we will get a better explanation of that in the next two weeks, of what this “light” truly is.

John Locke once said, “I’ve looked into the eye of this island and what I saw was beautiful.” Why was he the only one who could see that light-filled part of the Smoke Monster?

Allison Janney was fantastic in this episode, despite having to play such a vague, confusing, deceptive, unnamed character.  Her concern over her children definitely felt real.

As usual, all comments, questions and answers are welcome below. Especially if you found that Adam and Eve skeletons flashback (the one where Jack and Kate find the caves) as unnecessary as I did.


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