Here we are, folks: so close to the end of the show that we can see it galloping towards us like an angry polar bear in the jungle. This week we find out who accepts Jacob's mantle, and Ben does some dramaticallly satisfying things. The extra 'l' in dramatically stands for 'Let's enjoy this Lost recap together'.
This week's episode of Lost was kind of like an aperitif to prepare the stomach for the massive 2.5 hour lump of matter (exotic matter!) coming up on Sunday. But it was an aperitif made partly of thawed-out but still tasty leftovers from the first season. Essentially, "What They Died For" could have been called "What You Watched For".
So I think it's telling that we don't get a clear answer to the question posed by the episode's title. Lost just isn't going to clear up all the ambiguities for us, even at this point. Last week's "Across the Sea" may have shown us the origin of Jacob and Smokey and their eternal struggle, but it didn't knock any holes in the show's labrynthine architecture. Instead, Lindelof and Cuse are going to leave it up to us to embrace or reject the show as it is. As always, Lost is a character drama wearing a fright mask, and it's the choices of the characters that supply the real tension.
The episode picks up where "The Candidate" left off, with Jack, Hurley, Kate and Sawyer on the beach, paralyzed with grief and anger and self-recrimination over the deaths of Sun, Jin and Sayid (But not Lapidus. Screw Lapidus. Send him back to the land of direct-to-video erotic thrillers.) Then Jack announces that Smokey threw Desmond in a well, and they'd better go find him. Everyone agrees.
This is the archetypal Lost scene. Each episode must feature at least one moment in which the characters stand around until someone says, "Let's go to another place on the Island, and then they argue about it. Sometimes they split into factions, with the Let's-Go-To-The-Temple committee breaking away from the Let's-Blow-Up-A-Radio-Tower board. The degree of urgency in any episode can be measured by the heat of the argument and the unity of the group. If the group splits up by consent, then we're in a calm, unruffled patch. If the group splits after protacted bickering and Ilana blowing up, then we're in for some major dramatic action. But if everyone agrees and heads off as one, then there's no time to waste. Someone should produce a graph.
Meanwhile, Miles, Ben and Richard are still picking their way through the flora to find the village to get the explosives to blow up the plane to cripple the plans that Locke made. Remember two weeks ago when they started out from the beach? Have they been walking for two weeks? Because it feels like five. Not to mention that their quest for C-4 seems a little superfluous, since the plane was already wired with Widmore-brand explosives. But what do they know of wired planes and Smokey's wheels-within-wheels trickery? They're doing what comes naturally to Islandfolk: picking around through undergrowth.
Once they arrive at the desolate and trash-strewn Dharma Village, Miles sniffs out the grave of Ben's daughter, who was killed by Widmore's henchman a couple of seasons back. Ben takes a moment to grieve, which serves a gigantic signal that Charles Widmore is about to show up. And show up he does, Zoe in tow, in Ben's house. How did he know to find Ben there, and why did he show up in the first place? Because Jacob told him everything he needed to know. In other words, the writers decided to cut several scenes and just have Widmore move from point X to point Y. As James Joyce said, you lay down the bridge to get the soldiers across. The construction and materials are secondary. Joyce was talking about Ulysses, mind you, but I firmly believe he would have enjoyed Lost. If Joyce had written Lost he would have packed the entire six seasons into one television hour and thrown in a musical number to boot.
For a brief shining moment it looks as if Ben and Widmore are about to put away their differences and work together for the good of the Island, or humanity. But Smokey intrudes on the situation, kililng Richard and Ben sells out Widmore with a reptilian, Kevin Spacey-esque ease. Smokey promises the Island to Ben, but I doubt this is much of an inducement, especially since he later tells Ben that he plans on destroying the Island once and for all. Either Ben has a plan in mind to trip Smokey up, or he's finally signed himself over to perdition. At any rate, the sight of Ben sitting on the porch and waiting for the monster that's haunted and controlled his life is easily one of the best moments of the show.
Meanwhile, the Candidates are diverted from DesmondQuest by Jacob, who announces that he's finally leaving (because getting stabbed to death doesn't suffice to get rid of people on this show) and that the time has come for a replacement to step up. He offers Kate, Hurley, Jack and Sawyer what he did not get: a choice. Who wants to win an Island full of light, with bonus murder smoke? I'm not certain that the past six seasons of plot twists and diversions and Bai Ling can be bought so easily with this token, but it's what we get. And now that I think of it, Lost would not have been as satisfying if it went like this:
EVERYONE: Wah, we've crashed on some kind of tropical island.
JACOB: Hi guys. Who wants to live on this place forever with a bunch of freaks for neighbours and a really angry campfire for a pet?
EVERYONE: That sounds terrible.
JACOB: Well, talk to me in six years and see how you feel then.
Unsurprisingly, Jack steps up to the plate. Jacob enacts the ritual that we witnessed in "Across The Sea," and poof! Jack is the new Protector. For something so momentous within the framework of the show, the scene is strangely subdued. There a few reasons for this. "What They Died For" is primarily concerned with getting everything ready for the big blowout on Sunday, so it's not going to hog any of the action for itself. Clearly, Jack's assumption of the mantle isn't nearly as important as what he's going to do with his new responsiblity. Will Jack be all super-powered? Will lightning bolts spit from his fingertips? Will he crap C-4 explosive? Or will he agonize about his responsibilities and finally do the right thing, even though it may look like he's doing the wrong thing? My money's on finger lightning and boom poop.
The real fun of "What They Died For" all goes down in the alterniverse, where Desmond is in full Puppet Master mode. We first see him waiting for Locke – again! – in the school parking lot, obviously there to hit him – again! – with his car. Terry O'Quinn and Henry Ian Cusick need to star in a spin-off called Get Him With The Lexus, in which Locke travels to exotic locations around the globe, meets people, samples the local cuisine and gets run over by Desmond. Ben stops him from carrying out his scheme, so Desmond explains his actions by beating the living tar out of him.
The fallout from the beating splits the alterniverse plot into three branches, each with its charms. Desmond tells Ben, in between savage punches, that he isn't there to hurt Locke but to help him "let go". This cryptic comment inspires Locke to seek surgery from Jack, which you knew had to happen. Jack is the healer in both worlds. How he heals the Island is probably the linchpin of the show's resolution.
Ben ends up having supper at Alex and Danielle's house, and it's a pleasure to see Mira Furlan play Danielle as a happy and well-adjusted character. Plus there was some major chemistry going on between the characters. The alterniverse has done great favours for Ben's character, allowing us to see what sort of person he would have become if the Island never gone to work on him. If Danielle and Ben don't end up together in the finale, I'm going to be sorely disappointed.
Desmond himself, in the funniest turn of events so far, turns himself in to the LAPD and gets himself in a prisoner transport with Kate and Sayid. His plan? To spring them with the aid of Hurley and 145,000 of his dollars to bribe the driver (who turns out to Ana Lucia). Hurley and Sayid go off in one direction (a yellow Hummer, which I think is a shout-out to season one and to Reyes' appearance in Curb Your Enthusiasm). He tells an uncomprehending Kate that they're going to a concert together, which is probably the concert where Jack's creeptastic son is playing.
Next week: Smokey and Jack battle it out for the Island. In the alterniverse, we finally get to see who Jack's ex is. Could it be… Juliet? Or will it be Bai Ling and her Tattoos of Exotic Mystery?
Sawyer is going to die in the finale. There's just no way around it. He's not the Island's protector and he's coming to terms with the fact that his actions inadvertently caused the deaths of Sayid, Sun and Jin (and possibly Lapidus. But screw him.). In TV land, death is the only possible redemption for good people who bring death to others. This is why Ben will survive, because his redemption will be denied by having to live with his sins on his head.