Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What They Knew

Jim Emerson on his Chicago Sun-Times blog has a piece about how TV shows are better than movies at telling stories these days.  Not exactly news, but worth discussing. However, he uses Lost as an example of how it sometimes doesn't work:

Yes, J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof claimed they sketched out the overall story of "Lost" at the very beginning, but: a) nobody knew how long the show would run; and b) they lied. (If all that latter-season stuff with Jacob and the tacky water feature had been proposed at the beginning, I doubt the show would ever have been greenlighted.)

Point A is correct, but B is a fantasy that some people pretend is true.  The showrunners didn't know absolutely everything, but they knew where they were going.  The pilot has Locke discuss the idea of black and white, good and evil, in conflict.  It would take time to reveal, but that's what was going on with the Island. It was a clash between two sides, who would eventually be personified as two brothers fighting for dominance.

One brothers was physically known from the start--the Smoke Monster.  He also appeared in the first season in the shape of Jack's father, Christian, to guide Jack toward a goal.  For that matter, there was Adam and Eve in the first season, one of whom turned out to be the original body of the evil brother.

The first season also featured shadowy characters known as The Others.  When we got to know more about them, we discovered they worshiped the other brother, Jacob, who was mentioned by name in the second season, and who grew in importance as the show went along.

It's possible some of this was retrofitted, but by and large they had the general ending in mind from the start.  Sure, along the way they decided who would die and what new characters would come along, and they made lots of decisions as to how the brother's plans would be worked out in particular, but there always was a guiding intelligence to the show. (On the other hand, it's possible they didn't come up with the alta-world until well into the run, though I bet they had the last shot of Jack closing pretty early on.)

PS  Here's a recent interview with showrunner Damon Lindelof discussing the ending of Lost.  What's most interesting is the interviewer has no idea what was going on.


Anonymous Lawrence King said...

Interesting interview. You're right that the interviewer had no clue about what Season Six means. I would have liked to have seen a more intelligent interviewer asking the better questions. In particular, someone who agrees with us that seasons one through five were excellent, and the potential for a great ending existed before episode 6.01.

Lindelof makes it clear that mid season three was a turning point in the writing process.

His comments about the Jacob-centric episode are odd. Of course, he's right that a character-centric episode that focuses on a character we barely know is difficult to accept. But isn't the solution to let the viewers get to know Jacob before that episode? Or even better: Instead of an apocalyptic finale focusing on the MIB and the Source (two things we knew nothing about before Season Six), why not an apocalyptic finale that actually uses things we already had been given (Ben vs Widmore, the smoke monster, Dharma)?

I remember the fans thinking it was purgatory, and the writers denying it. But I'm astounded that the Season Six altaworld was actually written in response to the fans' comments about purgatory.

Minor nitpick: Jacob was first mentioned in early season three, not in season two. And his first mention was when one of the Others (Danny?) complained about Ben's interest in Jack by saying that Jack "wasn't on Jacob's list". In hindsight, this seems to be a continuity error, because it was established much later in the show that during Ben's reign all of Jacob's messages were actually forged by Ben -- and Ben knew who Jack was from the first day the plane crashed. So no purportedly-by-Jacob list without Jack's name would ever have existed.

9:37 AM, May 30, 2012  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I wish I could have done the interview (more in sorrow than anger) where I would have explained, chapter and verse, how so many things in the final season went in the wrong direction. Not that there's much Lindelof could do about it. The question is did he really do what he wanted, or does he regret it now, regardless of what he claims. The only solution is an alternate universe where they did the final season in a different way. And for those who say it wouldn't have been easy to do it better, I say maybe, except I can name a lot of specific changes that would have improved things. And ss I've said before, the plot of the sideways world ensured no one would guess the ending, which gave them a moment of shock and a nice goodbye, but was wrong in so many other ways that it wasn't worth it.

The Jacob-centric episode may have been tricky, but I don't think they could have played up the character much more earlier. It's not really his show. But perhaps they could have spent less time in that episode trying to avoid giving us answers and more time giving us answers--you can still explain plenty without being the Architect in The Matrix. I had a similar problem with Richard's episode--80% of the story was what led up to the interesting stuff. Instead, the first act should have been him getting to the Island and the rest should have been dealing with MIB, Jacob and perhaps even the years in between till Widmore.

I also heartily agree, on the imaginary rewrite of Season Six, that it should have been all about the stuff we knew and using it more strongly (rather than having half the character moping around or going nuts). It should have been all the characters (or as many as were left) fighting as hard as they can to save the world, including making sacrifices, perhaps even understanding they needed to die to fuse the two worlds together. And certainly Widmore should have been used better, and Dharma play a bigger part. I recognize it's tough to put on a show of this magnitude, but the paths they didn't take seem unfortunate.

They could have even had a bit about purgatory until they realized the sideways world was a trap they needed to get out of, say. (And I still don't accept it's conventional purgatory, since I find that so unsatisfying. I prefer to think it's a place specifically created by the Incident that they must leave for the world to continue, or perhaps even a trap set up by MIB.)

You say Jacob was first mentioned in season three. I suppose this is correct if you mean by name, but according to the Lostpedia his existence is first referred to in Season Two's "Two For The Road" (and I'd guess the producers knew almost from the start that the Others worshiped someone who ran the island and more). I haven't watched the episode lately, but perhaps that just means Ben talking about how he doesn't run things, there's someone much more important doing it. Around this episode, Sawyer is reading Gary Troup's (anagram for purgatory) manuscript Bad Twin, the title of which also suggests the showrunners knew all about Jacob and MIB from the start.

Early on with the Others there's lots of talk of lists and "good ones" and so on. If it's all Ben, it may still be based on what he believes Jacob would say from the heavy research the Others are capable of doing. Or perhaps somehow Jacob still managed to filter things down to Ben through Richard, even if there were no official lists. I've never been clear on that.

10:41 AM, May 30, 2012  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

Hmm. Checking Lostpedia. We are both half-right. In "Two for the Road", Ben Linus a.k.a. Henry Gale tells Locke, "The man in charge -- he's a great man, John, a brilliant man -- but he's not a forgiving man. He'll kill me because I failed, John. I failed my mission." However, the name Jacob is not seen or heard until Danny says "Shephard wasn't on Jacob's list" in episode 3.06.

I'll gladly sign a petition to let you write an alternate Season Six. I'm sure most of the actors would return for it.

6:53 PM, May 30, 2012  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Ben's line to Locke demonstrates some of the show's back and forth attitude toward Jacob (as the producers try to figure week to week where to go). He's the keeper of light, the savior of the world, but he's also the guy who kills viciously, or at least signs off on massacres. He doesn't seem to care how many die as long as his mission keeps going. At the very least, he's an absentee landlord who let a lot of horrible stuff go on in his name. (Then there's the Island, as distinct from Jacob, which seems quite willing to blow you up when it's done with you.)

I wonder if there could be a project of fan fiction, or something like that, to rewrite the final season and put it up on the web as an alternate to what we saw. The odd thing is I don't think it would be that hard to prevent Lost from going down the wrong road. On the other hand, I'm not sure if anything could save Battlestar Galactica.

10:21 PM, May 30, 2012  

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