La mer… Last night’s episode of Lost was supposed to give us all some answers about the show’s central mysteries. Did it? Not really. Instead, “Across The Sea” told us what kind of show Lost was. Spoilers!
“Across the Sea,” like the recent “Ab Aeterno,” jettisons the familiar flashback/forward/sideways structure in favour of the most linear narrative ever committed to television. Sometime in an impossibly distant past, Jacob and a non-smokey Smokey are born. They grow to adulthood. They have mommy issues galore. They quarrel, and the fallout from their conflict sets the stage for the Island as we know it. Which only leaves us with the same question: just what the hell is the Island as we know it?
The writers decided not to answer this question directly. Instead of an explanation, they have given us a reenactment. “Across The Sea” opens with an image of floating wreckage and a pregnant woman picking her way up the beach. She’s rescued by, of all people, a worried-looking Allison Janney, who tells her “any answer I give you will only lead to another question,” which strikes me a message intended for the viewers back home. Janney helps the woman deliver twin sons: Jacob and Surprise! Then she kills the woman with an apology and a rock to the head, for reasons that only the crazy-ass women of Lost could know.
Seriously, why are so many women on Lost crazy? Or boring? Or Juliet?
With the mother out of the way, Janney brings the boys up herself. She's a kind of cuckoo in reverse, an intruder that tosses the mother out of the nest. She goes to great lengths to persuade Jacob and Smokey that the Island comprises the entire world, which Jacob accepts without question. Smokey isn’t buying it. His eyes are forever on the sea, convinced that a world across the sea exists.
The discovery of other people (proto-Others) on the Island prompts Janney-mom to show them the reason for their isolation: a cave mouth with a glow of yellow light shining from its depths. The light, or The Light, is the source of “life, death, rebirth,” and it must be guarded.
Janney-mom is the guardian, and she’s grooming one of her sons, the one she loves best, to be her replacement. Which son does she love the best? Hint: It’s not Jacob.
Smokey is visited by the ghost of his dead mother, who shows him a whole village full of Others and reveals that his Janney-mom has been lying to him. Embittered, Smokey goes to live with the Others. His attempts to leave the Island by manipulating The Light are thwarted by his Janney-mom. She slaughters the Others and he slaughters her. Jacob throws Smokey into the cave of Light, which kills Smokey’s body but appears to liberate his spirit as a column of howling black smoke. And that’s how we get angry Smokey and Faux Locke and all the rest of it.
What does this tell us? Besides a slightly laboured explanation of Smokey’s current vaporous state? Nothing new. The show has taken us back to the very same point around which the drama currently revolves: a guardian of the Island is selecting candidates for a replacement. This is not an explanation. It's the crisis point, the collapse of a system into decadence. It's also an origin story of two of the show’s characters, but there is no real origin for the Island. Even Janney’s character has no backstory. She claims that she arrived as everyone else did, which suggests that she too was once a half-drowned survivor washing up on shore. Who appointed her the guardian? Who died and made her boss? As with so much in Lost, every answer just points to another question.
The false mother motif is a handy way of thinking about the Island. The false mother is a story about the unknowability of origins, a bait-and-switch set so far back in time, in one’s consciousness, that even the revelation of the con cannot compel grief or divulge genuine answers. The con is everywhere but the conman is nowhere.
No television show can get away with this kind of trick forever, though; every so often the audience needs some exposition to keep their appetite in check. Lost gets around this problem by having the dead appear and hand out information. Communication with the dead is a form of literacy in Lost.
The purpose of the Island has been plain from the first episode. It is the Island’s obscurity, its constant refusal to give up its secrets, that gives it value. The Island is a repository for something unnameable but vital. What is beneath the Island (the hatch, the electromagnetic energy, the exotic matter, the Light) boils the waters and heats the surface, and the characters dance. The desire for the unnameable thing transforms the Island into a stage where the basic elements of humanity are tested. That is its purpose: to withhold. But in that absence, character comes to the fore. Lost is a show about the mystery of character, not place.
Next week on Lost: Stuff happens. Hurley says funny things. Jack is probably constipated. Kate probably doesn't die. Can't have everything, I guess.