Friday, April 30, 2010

Treme: Right Place, Wrong Time

A toast: "To doing what we love."

Sunday's episode of Treme had an especially poignant significance: it was written by the late David Mills who died of a brain aneurysm on a location shoot in March. The episode on its surface bristles with a theme of the quasi-military occupation of New Orleans after Katrina. Under the dark surface is an unintended homage to David Mills, a story of love — a love for city, a love of culture, a love for music, a love for another. "I need your love so badly/I love you oh so madly," sings Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) to the young street violinist, Annie.

"Right Place, Wrong Time," named for a Dr. John song from the '70s that even I, clueless New Yorker, am familiar with, takes place four months after Katrina, and crime and tempers begin to flare. The heavy-handed police and National Guard presence frustrates city residents: "Cops are wound tight. Guard is on edge." Characters Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) and Antoine both have physical run-ins with authority, Batiste getting the worst of it. You have to worry about how he's going to play his "bone" with a mouth as pummeled as it is. In the first of many references to the title, the military presence is in the right place but at the wrong time - the guard would have been much more useful four months prior - during "the greatest engineering failure in the history of the country," as co-creator David Simon calls it.

In other plotlines, Big Chief Lambreaux continues to gather up his tribe, and big prof Creighton Bernette discovers the joy of YouTube.

The women in Treme continue to have the most interesting stories. If David Simon took to heart that The Wire lacked compelling women characters, Treme would be evidence for his conversion. LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) cares for her grandmother, searches for her missing brother and runs after errant contractors. Her marriage, revealed to be across class lines in the episode, appears strong - a glimmer of hope among some dark stories that cross Treme. A seemingly sturdy marriage is something LaDonna has in common with another character: Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) - married to Creighton and the hardest working woman in law business.

Poor Toni. She runs here and there through Treme. Rescuing people from jail, searching for lost sons, arguing with idiotic authority figures, and pouring love and understanding onto her husband and daughter. So far, she is the manifestation of pure goodness. It may make her one-dimensional, pretty thankless too, but I, for one, am enjoying her character, especially after the shock of the Chief finding his Wild Man.


Another strong female character, Janette has her loves too. In one of the most compelling narratives, Janette struggles to hold on to her number one love — her restaurant. She tolerates her other love, one of convenience to be sure, Davis."Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, Davis McAlary has to open up the expensive wine and piss away all my money," but we all know the real ending of that song.

Davis takes her out on a date from the windfall of his one day of work at the Bourbon Street hotel. The lovely scene when Davis pours her the last glass of wine from their bottle, upon seeing Janette's pain at the thought of losing her place of business, is one of pure tenderness and subtlety. It almost makes up for the awful song he composes.

There are fleeting sexual assignations: Antoine and the stripper from the bar, the boy and his girl in Big Chief's place, Annie? But the heart of "Right Place, Wrong Time" is in the marriages of LaDonna, Toni, the connection between Chief's tribe, Sonny's love for Annie, and Davis coming out of his egoism and thinking for a moment of someone else - Janette.

"This city loves its music. It don't love its musicians." This is a reiteration of last week's "Everyone loves New Orleans, [but] New Orleans people?" from Big Chief Lambeaux. Treme loves its people. It loves its musicians too. As to be expected, Dr. John figures prominently in the episode. "Right Place, Wrong Time" plays when Sonny is shopping for that perfect bottle of Beaujolais for his Annie. Dr. John himself sings his famous "My Indian Red," apologizing to the gangs and hoping the song is performed with the "most love and respect" for the tradition. Jazz pianist Tom McDermott appears as himself - a musician who is appreciated in the city because he is playing the right places. Trombone Shorty - James Andrews - also plays himself. And that brings me to one of my favorite scenes.

The argument on gentrification.

It's not a matter of black and white. Nothing is in David Simon's world. Davis' neighbors confront him on his un-neighborly ways. They turn out not be outsiders and are pretty knowledgeable on things Treme. Davis, in his most sanctimonious manner, refuses to listen. And he stumbles in trying to retrieve the name of Trombone Shorty's cousin (Glen David): "all those damned Andrews." It signifies that he may be right about the gay couple's taste in decorating - fairy lights and overly large glass ornaments in the courtyard - but he's not right in his assumptions about his community.

Another scene full of gray shades — the final scene. I would argue that no one was in the right place at any time throughout the entire episode until the very end when the Katrina tour bus pulls up in front of Chief Albert and his tribe, mourning their Wild Man. The bus bears witness to the devastation and loss, and in a remarkable moment of being in the right place at the wrong time because there is no right time, the bus driver apologizes and pulls away. But snapshots are taken before he does. We can’t criticize this because we, the audience, are an extension of that bus. The situation is unwinnable. It is a more important dichotomy than the foreshadowing argument between Davis and his gentrifying neighbors. The devastation and loss must be looked at but must not be at the same time. We are "trespassing through the narrative" as David Simon says in his open letter to New Orleans found here.

I've got a Big Chief, Big Chief, Big Chief of the Nation
Wild, wild creation
He won't bow down, down on the ground
Oh how I love to hear him call Indian Red

When I throw my net in the river
I will take only what I need
Just enough for me and my lover
I will take only what I need

— "My Indian Red" lyrics

Up for discussion:

It's a redeeming moment when Albert hires the young boy he earlier found hiding in his bar. Does this make up for the beating he gave the young thief — the one he was searching for in the obits?

How funny is the conversation between Davis and Creighton who is hovering over his little girl during her piano lesson: "Don't let your mind get ahead of you Davis. Piano lessons. Don't think about what she will or won't do. That has nothing to do with you." There is a lot of humor in Treme. Enough maybe to bring it the awards that The Wire should have received. And speaking of The Wire...

HBO is using actors from The Wire in their trailers to entice Wire fans into the Treme neighborhood (e.g. Anwan Glover), but I find Wire actors disconcerting during the show itself and have to work hard to distance Chief Albert from Lester Freamon and Antoine from Bunk. A few more episodes and more pouring over the Times-Picayune, and I know I shall be successful. That said, the appearance of Jim True-Frost in the trailers for next week is welcome news! Fresh from Fringe, True-Frost is a member of Chicago's famous Steppenwolf Theatre Company and best known for his role in The Wire as Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski, a great math teacher, not so great police officer.

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Last Recruit: Lies and Misdemeanors


Previously on Lost: confusion, speculation, expectation, dismay, misdirection. Would "The Last Recruit" be any different?

John Locke: "I think we have some catching up to do."

All right. Let's catch up. But in an episode that featured further jostling for position and Jack taking a leap of faith into the ocean, let's first have some awkward exposition:

"What do you really want to ask me?"

"Are you following us, Claire? Why?"

"I think you went to Australia, and you didn't want anyone to know you were there."

"Looks like you two have a lot of catching up to do."

"It looks like someone got their voice back."

All caught up now?

Oh, Lost. Isn't it a bit late in our relationship to be doing this? We've been together six years in a commitment based upon trust, and now all I get are Lies, Lies, Lies. To salvage this love affair, I think it's time to consult a relationship counselor. Jack? What do you think? "Well, I haven't made up my mind."

Lie #1: The well wasn't as deep as Lost led us to believe.

That's really a lie of omission. So let's go on to:

Lie #2 (Smokey): "Yes, that was me posing as your dead father. Why? You needed to find water?"

Question mark? Speaking like a true valley girl, SchLocke is telling Jack what Jack perhaps wants to hear, but the new and improved Jack is suitably distrustful.

Never having been a Jack fan, I'm loving his zen countenance these days. He, of all the candidates, is the only character to have reached some type of enlightenment on both sides of the dial - the Island World: "We're all different now," and the To Be or Not To Be World: "hearing your grandfather's will being read isn't the most fun." To paraphrase Hurley, it's all Jack, dude. He is obviously not the sucker that the real John Locke was. Smokey engages in many deceptions, but he's telling the truth when he states that Jack had been trapped on the island even before he got there. This is a hint of larger themes to come.

Lie #3 (Ben Linus): "You're still going to marry her because you're gonna be okay, Mr. Locke."

I'm sorry Locke fans; it doesn't make me happy to say this. I think Locke's doomed. Whether Desmond is going to eventually succeed in his botched assassination attempt, or there will be a great self-sacrifice on the real John Locke's part in the final episodes (four and counting), his days are numbered. Maybe he will end up swinging from that awful rope once more. And I hope I'm wrong.

Lie #4 (Kate): "I already told you I'm not a murderer."

I'd like to remind you, Miss Katherine Anne Austin, you blew up Wayne and his world. That makes you a murderer.

Lie #5 (Desmond): "I'm going to the 15th floor as well."

He may be the agent of good, but Desmond is very frightening the way he was creeping after Claire. What is it about Claire's sideways storyline this season - when all logic demands she should refuse to get into the car with carjacker Kate in "What Kate Does?" Claire hops in for a ride. When she should run screaming from the eerie Scot following her around town, she gets into the elevator with him. I guess her abandonment issues are getting in the way of good sense.

Lie #6 (Sawyer): Kate: "What was that all about?" Sawyer: "Guy talk."

Sorry, Sawyer. That's not guy talk. I've heard guy talk, and there's very little planning about smoke monsters and sailboats involved. The apple Sawyer offers Kate at police headquarters is very reminiscent of Eve offering Adam an apple, gender roles nicely reversed. Kate refuses the apple (knowledge?), refusing Sawyer. Love triangle finally put to rest? Am I looking too deeply into this? Probably, and besides Sawyer didn't know who Anakin is, and how can that possibly be? I'm taking back the apple of knowledge.

Lie #7 (Sayid): "Everything will be okay for you now."

I'm hanging on to Hurley's hint that Sayid can be redeemed like Anakin was in Star Wars, but then again, we all remember what happened to Anakin. Right, Sawyer? Sayid was very much the lying liar in this episode, but as long as he is lying to Smokey, it's okay. Best use of garden hose in the whole series in this scene.

Lie #8 (Hurley): "Claire, you look great." Self-explanatory.

And the worse lie?

"And that pilot who looks like he stepped out of a Burt Reynolds movie."


Sorry again, Sawyer. Lapidus would have to have a mustache for that honor. I would like to argue that Lapidus looks like he stepped out of Dean Martin movie.

Last night, for a brief shining moment, the two camps merged on the island, in the hospital, and, in breathtaking action, the attorney's office. Hello, Alana! How I missed you. The characters, brought together by "do you believe in fate" and by Desmond, are becoming aware of each other in a context outside the immediate event.

The argument between Jack and Sawyer about their roles on the island, the "get off my damned boat" moment, not only echoed many previous conversations on whether or not to leave the island but foreshadowed past (and future?) conversations between Jacob and the Man-in-Black ("do you have any idea how much I want to kill you?" and between issues of pre-determinism vs. free will.

A few minor discussion points:

Who the heck was that eating with Sayid at the camp? A time traveler from Dances With Wolves?

Who drew SchLocke's map — Aaron?

It's your turn to speculate, that's why we called you. We're a bit over our heads here. And remember, kind reader: "All I've ever been interested in is helping you." Believe me. Til next time and "The Candidate," starring Robert Redford, keep an eye on the camp for me.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Treme: Meet de Boys in the Battlefront

DJ Davis McAlary: "Ladies and Gentleman, a live chicken in the studio!"

Not for long.

New Orleans' famous Coco Robicheaux appears in the introductory scene of Treme's second episode, having the dubious distinction of being the first to sacrifice a chicken in the series. The moment was a nod to the significance of Haitian voodoo and more than a nod to the importance of Haitian society to New Orleans culture. Summoning Ezili Dantor, mother and protector, Mr. Robicheaux pours the Barbancourt Rhum, lights the spirit candles, and hypnotically strokes a rooster's feathers with a fearsome knife. Slaughter thankfully takes place off camera. More on Ezili later.

In a recent radio interview Treme creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer posed the question: "Can you do a show about regular people - [a show] not about doctors saving lives or gangsters killing people or people making decisions about the fate of democracy in the West Wing?"

Apparently, the answer is yes. You can.

After just one episode, HBO announced it was picking up a second season of Treme. "I can't think of another show that is more emblematic of what we aspire to be as a network than Treme," Michael Lombardo, HBO's programming president, said Tuesday in announcing the renewal. "We are thrilled that the press has recognized the profound artistry and intelligence of this show and are eager to see where David Simon and Eric Overmyer take us in a second season."

In last night's "Meet De Boys on the Battlefront," named for a famous Mardi Gras tune, Simon and Overmyer take us to the music as New Orleans song moves to forefront of the story, as important as any character. I would argue, sometimes sacrificing forward movement of the narrative for the color and atmosphere of New Orleans. "Music was the raison d'ĂȘtre of the show, the heart of the show," explains Overmyer. "We've been learning how to do the music in such a way that it doesn't stop the show cold." The music in the episode soared; the story wasn't cold but started and stalled through its carefully paced, building and rebuilding storylines.

Simon describes Treme as a "fictional story but we're trying to be rigorous about what has happened in New Orleans since the storm." Trying to be rigorous forces a lot of exposition into the narrative. There is a lot of preaching and high-handedness as well in Treme so far. Moments with Steve Zahn's character thankfully balance all this out. Davis McAlary's (Steve Zahn) storyline was one of the more entertaining of the episode. Losing his DJ job over the bloodletting in the radio studio, an historic event "just not in the positive sense," he returns home, and we get a glimpse of Davis' sheltered childhood. Antiques? Garden District? McAlary is fast becoming one of my favorite characters with his mixture of bemusement and intelligence and his own self-mythologizing.

Summoned by Coco Robicheaux's ritual, the vodou persona of Ezili, subsequently and in a fascinating and successful motif, appears throughout the episode in the guise of many mothers. Some we have already met: civil rights lawyer Toni Bernette mothers her daughter while trying to find another mother's missing son; Ladonna (Khandi Alexander below) struggles to maintain her family business, Gigi's Lounge in Treme, while also trying to care for her sons in Baton Rouge; Desiree, Antoine's girlfriend and mother of his baby, is living hand to mouth: "There is a difference between a gig and a job, Antoine, you gotta get a job."


Other mothers make their first appearance in the series: Davis' mother Ramona McAlary (Ann McKenzie, looking very much the New Orleans society matron) is a business owner who must deal with her adult child coming home for a handout. Restaurant owner Janette Desautal must turn to her mother for a loan to keep the restaurant in business

The battlefront noted in the title, to some extent, is between the writers of Treme and its audience: those in the know about New Orleans and those who only know New Orleans from popular culture and maybe a little social studies in high school. There was a smugness in this episode that I hope disappears as the series finds its feet, a smugness personified in the introduction of Sonny (Michiel Huisman), a busker who has no patience with the tourists for whom he is playing. From the beginning of the show with Coco Robicheaux talking about the "tourists and the tee-shirts" to Sonny mocking the do-gooders from the visiting church missions to Antoine's reluctance to play Bourbon Street, there is an "us vs. them" mentality that in all likelihood stems from real, inevitable emotions in the follow-up to the storm.

From what we see, Davis' mother's livelihood is selling to tourists, Sonny's is too. His annoyance with the tourists may be understandable but not watchable: "Have you ever even heard of the ninth ward before the storm? So why are you so fired up about it now?" Some characters in Treme rail against the lack of attention to New Orleans' problems (John Goodman's character, Creighton Bernette) and some characters rail against the help. In Sonny's case, it's hard to imagine what his fellow musician Annie (violinist Lucia Micarelli) sees in him.

There are many famous musicians throughout "Battlefront." Some are world famous like Allan Toussaint and Elvis Costello. Some are New Orleans famous like Mr. Robicheaux and Kermit Ruffins. And then there are so many more musicians ducking in and out of scenes; it's disorienting to the viewer without a scorecard. I knew I should know some of these musicians, but, to misquote Donald Rumsfeld, I do not know what I do not know.

Much of Treme is in a secret language that can be frustrating to the audience. The non-New Orleans resident is constantly reminded of what they don't know about the Crescent City, but patience, as I said in last week's column, patience. "It's a beginning," as Albert Lambreaux, having returned home to clean up and gather up his Mardi Gras Indian tribe, says when only one person shows up for tribal practice.

I appreciate David Simon's refusal to ever talk down to his audience, trusting that they will follow these immersions into unique urban cultures. I also understand those who may be put off. A little patience by the writers with their audience would help. After all, isn't everyone a tourist somewhere? Isn't the audience essentially a tourist buying a tee-shirt, a story a souvenir hawked by a writer?

To their credit, there is acknowledgment of the other side. Creighton Bernette is hesitant to finish his book on prior New Orleans flooding. "I don't want to be accused of cashing in on the storm like some other schmucks I can mention." Just who are the schmucks?

The Wire still casts a heavy shadow on Treme, hopefully to dissipate with time, or maybe it won't. Perhaps that's what is inevitable to the follow-up series to the greatest television drama of all time.

It was disconcerting to see Clarke Peters (below) as Chief Albert Lambreaux beating up a young thief in a scene so dark I couldn't quite figure out what was going on. Lester Freamon would never do that! And the scene when the missing Daymo Brooks is found and to be reunited with his family doesn't quite work for The Wire fan. In a case of mistaken identity, David Brooks turns out not to be the vanished Daymo Brooks. "This is not my son" says the mother. "There's been some kinda mistake," says the attorney.

Well, yes, it's a mistake. He was Slim Charles. "Tell them your name." I more than half-expected Anwan Glover to say "Slim Charles." David Brooks turns out to be not the missing son, but one of The Wire's few heroes (if there was any.) Okay, so he's not your son. Isn't Slim's appearance a consolation, though? I joke, but it is an indication of how deeply ingrained characters from the prior series can disrupt Treme's drama.

The pilot was so glorious; some letdown in the second episode is inevitable. Still in love with the concept of the series, my complaining, I suspect, has something in common with the owner of Davis' radio station, with "no sense of theatre - so few do." Word is that Harry Shearer has much to say about Treme and that actor David Morse will soon join the cast. Now I'm off to steep some tea and burn some toast.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Everybody Loves Hugo: Just Ask Ilana

"How do you break the ice with a smoke monster?"

I'd like to write an insightful, amusing, not-so-long-as-last-time article on yesterday's episode of Lost, but I fear I may not. You see, I'm suffering from Post-Rousseau Stress Disorder, hereby known as PRSD. Here I was, happily coasting through an exciting television year of Lost, enjoying the ending of a great television series, when suddenly, ten minutes into "Everybody Loves Hugo"… BAM… Ilana explodes. And now I will have flashbacks of Rousseau for the rest of the season.

It may be my PRSD that makes me see it this way, but once again, the writers of Lost have taken a fully functioning, independent woman character and blown her up. Perhaps it is because the writers don't know what else to do with her, but I'll let Ben Linus explain further: "The Island was done with her. Makes me wonder what will happen when it's done with us." Me too. Makes me wonder too.

I'll get to the recap soon, bear one more moment of this whining. I've never gotten over Rousseau's death (obviously) because of the manner in which it was done (how many "h"s in haphazard?) and because of its seemingly little impact in the larger arc of Lost's generously-sized narrative. Now in season six, we lose the only female authority figure unless you count the frighteningly hammy Eloise Widmore/Hawkins. Ilana, who has trained her whole life for this mission, throws water bottles on top of unstable dyn-o-mite and does herself in. With Ilana's demise, the rest of the women characters, who all season long have been wandering around either crazy (Claire) or clueless (Kate and Sun), will have to depend on the kindness of the men.

Ilana's apparent role on the island was to enable the redemption of Ben Linus, by more compassionate means than gunpoint. Without Ilana to be both Ben's salvation and his watchful guardian, Ben's story is sure to get more interesting. He's never been much of a follower after all.

But wait a minute, there may be hope for Ilana. Her death might not be in vain, as Richard insists it must not be. If you'll remember back to "The Incident, Part 1," Ilana is heavily bandaged with burns. Perhaps due to explosives? Later on in that same episode, she is miraculously healed. Sigh. Maybe I kid myself. I've been holding out for Rousseau's return a long time too.

The last word I have on the subject of Ilana's departure: "All the Single Ladies!" As a woman, unless you have a steady beau on Lost, you're doomed. Seems a lot like high school.

Enough of my ranting, this story is about Hugo, not Ilana after all, and you're here for an entertaining recap, right? The death of Ilana (oops) sets the tone for the whole episode: to expect the unexpected explosion. Subverting the title "Everybody Loves Hugo," last night's story endeavors to flesh out some of Hugo's previously one-sided, likable but slimly drawn, characteristics. Puns aside, everybody usually loves Hugo, everyone except his mother who is pretty damn tough on the poor dude. "Everybody Loves Hugo" introduced some of the - let's face it - unlikable aspects of his persona. The Hugo we saw last night was manipulative and a little light on the truth-telling.

The episode begins in the Sideways World with Dr. Chang giving Hugo an award for his philanthropy - a Man of the Year award that makes Hugo's mom, his date, roll her eyes loudly in her head. If there is any substance to the theory that the "candidates" on the island represent the seven deadly sins of Dante's Purgatorio, Hugo's gluttony in the Sideways World would support it. His "lifelong love affair with chicken" and his building Mr. Clucks in the shadows of the Eiffel Tower and the Pyramids seem hardly admirable accomplishments. It was hard to watch all that chomping down on the Mr. Cluck.

On the island, we have the not-so-surprising appearance of Harold Perrineau as Michael amidst the whispering of trapped souls (again with the Dante.) What is Hugo doing listening to Michael's admonishments? Repeating the ironic theme of the title, Michael doesn't seem particularly fond of Hugo despite his stated intentions, and what would anyone would be doing taking advice from the historically hapless Michael. I would much rather consult with "Wallllltttttt."

Divide and conquer!

Hugo took on a different facade during the island story last night. In a stare down with Richard (which he is doomed to fail because who can withstand those eyelashes), Hugo says "I don't have to prove anything to you Richard. You either come with me or you can keep trying to blow stuff up" with an air of menace that is uncharacteristic to this beloved role. And it's Hugo who just blew something up. Richard can see he was lying. As a consequence, the small group is fractured. Miles and Ben go off with Richard. Hugo takes Jack, Sun, and Lapidus to Smokey which is exactly what Smokey hoped for: "What Smokey Wants, Smokey Gets." Anyone familiar with Damned Yankees will see where I'm going with that allusion.

Libby, Hugo's great love on the island until she was cruelly shot down on the eve of their first date by … Michael, seeks out Hugo at the Spanish Johnny's restaurant while on leave from the mental hospital where she is voluntarily admitted. The welcome appearance of Libby (Cynthia Watros) enables Hugo to bridge the two worlds much like Charlie did for Desmond, albeit in a kinder, gentler manner. In the Sideways World, Hugo is able to take Libby out on that long-promised date, and with their first kiss, the two worlds appear to merge, if only momentarily. With that connection, we now have at least five island characters who are aware of an alternate reality and that there must be some kind of amalgamation between the two worlds if anyone is going to live happily ever after: Desmond, Charlie, Hugo, Libby, and Daniel.

Speaking of "Happily Ever After" brings me to Desmond and the flight manifest that George Minkowski apparently was able to procure. Desmond, shadowing first Hugo and then John Locke in the Sideways World, seems to be shedding light on some murky situations, encouraging Hugo to take Libby's "we're soulmates" protestations seriously. Desmond is also making some light situations rather murky: running over John Locke in the school parking lot. That might be useful for the Island plot line but must have caused some real PTSD in the onlooking high school students. I look forward to seeing what Desmond has in store for us in the next, final, five episodes.

On the Island World, Desmond walks calmly to his own supposed death. It was a mood carried over from last week's "Happily Ever After," when Desmond cooperated with Sayid with the same beatific grin on his face that he greeted Papa Widmore with after being electro-magnetized or "having his brain fried" as Zoe the scientist describes it. His trip down the well... rabbit hole.... wormhole came as no surprise because I think it's quite clear by now that SchLocke is up to no good.

My time is up. A few thoughts before I go:

Nora's theory of the week and I love it: Viewers are being asked to make a choice, much like the characters are or will be, upon how to define this story. Will it be a story of great mythological import, full of good and evil archetypes? Or will it be a story based upon reason, upon science, with equations of quantum physics and fields of electro-magnetism? You decide.

Perhaps Ilana had a premonition of her messy end at the beginning of "The Incident" hence the tears and her turning away briefly.

There is a cyclical nature to some of the characters' injuries that denote a non-parallel nature to the two dimensions - Island World and Sideways World: Ilana's injuries, Mikhail's eye, John Locke in his wheelchair. I do hope this will be explained further!

What was in Ilana's bag that Hurley pocketed?

What did Hugo mean by "I'm protecting it" upon blowing up the Black Rock? Did he mean the plane or did he mean the island?

Despite what SchLocke says, I do think Charles Widmore is interested in answers. He obviously knew what was coming for Desmond and was preparing him for a trip down electro-magnetic lane.

See you next week for "The Last Recruit." In the meantime, keep an eye on the camp for me.

The Package: Jin Asynchronic


Sawyer: "I have a feeling that this is almost over."

I do too, James Ford. Actually, more than a feeling: "when I hear that old song they used to play." There are only six episodes of Lost left. And the old song they, the writers of Lost, used to play is the separation of Sun and Jin who have been trying to find each other, at least on Island Life, since season four. And after last night's episode, the song remains the same.

"The Package" doesn't offer any more enlightenment as to who may be wearing the white cowboy hat, how things may end up, and there are no "pointless, embarrassingly elementary references to literature and philosophy" (side note to New York Magazine, those were my favorite bits!). "The Package" is not a what, it's a who.

The episode was another character-centric one, with more action (rhino darts, long chases through the jungle) and no beach-side musings over a bottle of wine between Good and Evil, unfortunately. Jin has been recovering from an old college bear trap injury and is mostly a passive observer to Feral Claire and Undead Locke. Sun has been part of the Ajira detachment. She hasn't had much to do except for the occasional gloat: "Ilana says I'm a candidate." Ah, not so fast, little lady. Is Sun indeed one of Jacob's candidates — someone to replace him? We don't know any more about this upon conclusion of the episode, but we do get to see Sun playing hard to get with Smokey and not so hard to get with Jin (reference gratuitous camera shots of Yunjin Kim's breasts).

In Sun and Jin's lateral life - introduced briefly in the season opener - they were caught at customs coming into L.A., having been on board the 815 flight that landed successfully on the tarmac rather than the ocean. Jin is detained at Checkpoint Charlie for having a little too much undeclared cash, $25,000, in his suitcase: "If you want it back, you'll have to fill out the necessary paperwork."

Oh, the horror!

In Sayid's sideways story, "Sundown," we briefly saw Sun encased in duct tape in a walk-in freezer, waiting on a Keamy judgment. In "The Package" we find out just why Jin was in the freezer.

Sideways Sun and Jin are not married. They are Kwon and Paik on an excellent adventure - Jin is running errands for Mr. Paik, Capo de Korea, and Sun has designs of making the romantic trek into a real elopement. Things go wrong, like they usually do, when Keamy enters the story - doing some of Daddy Paik's dirty work. They go wrong for the characters, not the television viewer because who doesn't love watching Keamy?

Keamy, in whatever incarnation - on island, off island - is like the glamorous monster he invokes in his frustration over communication issues: "Stop that. I feel like I'm in a damned Godzilla movie." Actor Kevin Durand roams the countryside of Lost, chewing up scenery like that Japanese icon: "Martin, who did this to you?!" "Look behind you, you idiot."

It doesn't end well for Godzilla or Keamy. Or Omar. Or Mikhail for that matter. We've already seen this. There is a danger in repetition - it kills the suspense. There is, however, a small twist at the end of the shootout. While Keamy lies bleeding, Sun appears to be caught by a stray bullet, and as Jin picks her up to bring her to help, she tells him that she is pregnant - a pregnancy in the Sideways World in contrast to her pregnancy while on the island.

Like Sayid's sideways story, Sun and Jin's libretto seems darker, contrasting with Jack's and Sawyer's lives off-island which may be a bit brighter than previously conceived. This brings me to the debate: are these alternate story lines really an improvement? With Kate's life basically in neutral, in either incarnation she's on the lam, only Sawyer and Jack seem moderately better off in the new timeline. As we are discovering in the duality of Man in Black and Jacob, it's not just black and white (New York Magazine!)

Back to the island, there is more positioning and posturing. Smokey woos Sun. She is understandably alarmed about the deaths at the temple, but he assures her that the dead people were "confused, they were lied to, I didn't want to hurt them." I'm not sure why confusion and being lied to are grounds for capital punishment, but it seems that everyone on the Island of Misdirection can be defined in those terms. Sun, tempted by the Serpent's promise, doesn't play Eve. There's some unfortunate pushing and shoving on the playground, but it's not clear who did what to whom, so there'll be no detention, except we all know that Ben is probably lying about everything. Sun runs into a tree limb in her fright, injures herself and knocks the English right out of her brain. It's interesting that in her unconscious state, Smokey was not able to just pick her up and bring her back to the camp. He must truly need cooperation from his recruits.Unlike Sawyer, she hightails it out of there, getting a good knock on the head for her efforts.

And speaking of extremes, we get a Clash of the Titans moment in a showdown between Charles Widmore and Schlocke. Not as dramatic as its potential - no Kraken was released, but soon, soon, soon, we hope. War is promised. SmokeyCainHalf-Locke seems to need all the candidates with him on the plane in order to leave the island. I think Frank Lapidus better start rehabbing that plane - stat. Widmore plans to challenge Locke with the Package. It's a draw for now. And sounding more like a World Wrestling Match.

Sun ends up with Daddy Widmore. Getting mauled by angry father-figures is something that Sun should get used to, but who can really get used to Room 23 in the Hydra Station - a study in Clockwork Orange craziness. Ask Karl. Oh no, you can't. He's dead. The protestations of Widmore that he is only protecting his daughter parallel the actions of Papa Paik who is protecting his daughter, Sun, via assassin Martin Keamy. I do believe we will see more of a connection between Paik and Widmore in the coming weeks.

The appearance of Desmond, welcome to most, was anti-climactic. A lot of blogspeculation about that locked door pointed toward Charles Widmore's son-in-law. Desmond doesn't look so good. You have to wonder why there was so much security on the door when Desmond seemed catatonic from beatings and medication — don't let a geophysicist administer drugs to your captives — and you have to wonder what kind of threat Desmond offers Man in Black in such a weakened condition. Apparently just Desmond's breathing body is necessary.

My time is up; like Locke, I'm leaving for a little while, I have an errand to run, but before I go, I want to leave you with my favorite overheard theory of the week: Jacob, knowing the future, manipulates the past, picking those people most likely to prove to Man in Black that man is essentially good. My prediction then? We will see some more time travel before/in the series finale; back to Jacob's Choice, Kate was in the convenience store, Sawyer at his parents' funeral, Jack at the hospital — all a convergence that will then dissipate into the candidates' distinct, unrelated story lines. And they will all live happily ever after. At least that's what Keamy wants. His money and to live "happily ever after."

Discuss among yourselves (or with me!)

Schlocke told Feral Claire that Kate was not a candidate, but Jacob did touch her. Smokey only seems interested in how she can help him with his planepool. After that "what happens, happens," seemingly giving Claire the okay to do Kate in. Will Jacob's touch keep the "what happens" from happening?

We love the new and improved Jack, showing in every respect that he might make a good candidate indeed. He's patient, empathetic, resourceful. Redeemed?

Did you know that the tomato used to be known as the "love apple?" A hopeful sign that Jin and Sun will prove Keamy wrong when he said that "some people just aren't meant to be together."

We see another mirror sequence for Sun but not Jin. As for Jin, he appears a bit spooky sitting bolt upright in bed when Sun wakes up - perhaps a little premonition.

The exchange between Widmore and Jin offers an elaboration on what we already know. Widmore backs up Jacob's claim that if Smokey goes Full-smokey off island, everything will "cease to be." Are we talking destruction or a time change?

It was good to see Richard Alpert back as a man of action.

Til next week and (I'm not making this up) "Happily Ever After," keep an eye on the camp while I'm gone.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Ab Aeterno: Suddenly Ricardo in Purgatory

"It's good to see you out of those chains."

Tantalus, the Greek mythological figure who dared eat and drink with the gods on Olympus, was imprisoned in Hades, punished with an unquenchable thirst and with water just out of reach of his chained hands. From Tantalus comes the word "tantalize" as in Lost tantalizes us with the promise of answers in each episode, and all we get is more confusion. But we also get Nestor Carbonell in the performance of a lifetime. A very long lifetime.

This was an episode many fans were waiting for after five long seasons of wondering just who that man of mystery with the great eyelashes was. Melodrama and period piece, the story of Ricardo begins on the 1857 Canary Islands where he was a poor farmer with a consumptive wife. Desperate for help, Richard travels far to the nearest doctor who turned out to be a scum bastard — the beginning of a long line of malevolent authority figures in Richard's backstory.

When the doctor refuses to help, Richard gets angry and the doctor suffers an unfortunate accident. Things get worse. The beloved wife, Isabella, is dead upon Richard's arrival home — it was all for nothing. Richard goes to jail for murder with a sentence of hanging. The priest, not up on his St. Thomas Aquinas who stated that all sins may be forgiven with true repentance, refuses to grant absolution. We encounter yet another evil father on Lost, one of the cloth kind this time, and because his sin of involuntary manslaughter is not forgiven, Richard becomes a slave of sin, a common metaphor in the New Testament.

At the last moment before his capital punishment - it is Richard's "lucky day" after all - he is sold into slavery by Mal Padre to another bad man, the ominous Captain Whitfield. Richard's subsequent sea voyage raises new questions in a series with only eight Tuesdays to explain: 1) how did a ship traveling from the coast of Spain to the New World end up in the Pacific Ocean? 2) how tall was that wave the Black Rock was riding into land? The tsunami was Four-toed Statue-high and traveled presumably so deep into the jungle it took the Oceanic 815 survivors many episodes to find it.

Chained to the wreckage of the ship, thirsty and just out of reach of fresh water dripping into the boat, Richard is passive witness to horrible tragedies (like a television audience, perhaps?). His fellow prisoners are mercilessly run through with a sword by the panicky Captain Whitfield. The Captain's logic for killing everyone seemed a bit dubious: something about not having enough fresh water and supplies (and how does he know this?). This exchange was an example of some pretty clunky dialogue, but there was so much exposition in "Ab Aeterno," 137 years worth, that an occasional "what do you mean by that?" or "so that's great, what do we do now?" or "if I freed you, it would only be a matter of time before you tried to kill me" is excusable.

Captain Whitfield becomes a victim of Smokey, just in the Old Nick of time, before Richard becomes just another casualty. The Prisoner receives a visitation from Isabella, his deceased wife who, with this appearance, adds another level of mystery. Why is she on the island? If it is a momentary Hell, why would Isabella, with her apparent faith, be in Hell? Who does she identify as the Diablo? There is a lot of misdirection, but then again, what should we expect from a hallucination?

In a surprising turn of events, while I was waiting and waiting for Jacob to rescue Richard, the Man in Black ends up the one who sets Richard Hell free from his chains. "As luck would have it - I just happen to have these keys on me - they fell out of the Captain's pocket while I was ruthlessly tearing him limb from limb." Warning, fake dialogue.

This is a nice feint here. Expecting Jacob to be the savior, it is Smokey instead.

The release could have been an Amazing Grace moment: "My chains are gone, I’ve been set free, My God, my Savior has ransomed me." It would have been in keeping with the Christian imagery of Isabella's cross except that neither Smokey nor Jacob are willing to ransom Richard. The Power Players both ask Richard for payment rather than payoff — penance before absolution.

In a parallel narrative to Dogen's tasking Sayid to kill Schlocke, Smokey charges Richard to kill Jacob in the same manner, with the same knife: "Don't let him say anything to you." Just as Sayid was unable to keep Locke from having him at hello, Richard can't keep Jacob's silvery tongue from persuading him to turn the table on MiB. Without much thought, Richard strikes a deal with the devil, Jacob. Flippantly asking for life everlasting, or ab aeterno, because he cannot face the thought of eternal life without his beloved Isabella, Richard gets what he wants, bringing to mind the old adage: be careful what you wish for.

And we, Lost fans, should be careful what we wish for. We wanted more answers re Jacob and his Jacobeans, but are we happy with the Jacob in "Ab Aeterno?" This is definitely an Old Testament Jacob rather than the touchy-feely New Testament, Jesus-like Jacob that touches young Kate gently on her nose. Repeatedly holding Richard under water (a rather violent baptism, wouldn't you say?) Jacob is an angry deity when dealing with Richard's grief and confusion. Jacob is literally a "fisher of men" in taking Richard out of the water, forcing him to choose life. In contrast, Man in Black is gentleness, understanding, and promises.

There is a lot of doublespeak on both sides. Blackie calls Jacob the Devil. Jacob denies it. Who do we believe? Their claims and relationship invoke the Liar Paradox (among other things!) of Eubulides of Miletus: "A man says that he is lying. Is what he says true or false?" Is the Man in Black really the Devil and when Jacob denies being the Devil, is he telling the truth? We haven't seen Jacob do any lying, but for that matter, Blackie has been pretty honest in all his dealings too, even as homicidal as they have been.

Although Lost writers have denounced the theory that the island is Purgatory, there is a pronounced Dantean theme to "Ab Aeterno." In The Divine Comedy's "Purgatorio," Dante, having worked his way out of the Inferno, comes to an island mountain, created from Satan's fall from heaven to earth. The cries of the condemned are replaced by the sighs in Purgatory (the forest whispers perhaps?). Dante the hero encounters lost souls who represent the deadly sins (is that why Hurley cannot lose weight?) and the caretaker of the island, the stern and father-like Cato, a replacement for God. Sound familiar? In the second island appearance of Isabella, she is no longer the frightened, directionless character she appeared to be on the wreckage of the Black Rock. She now resembles a Beatrice to Richard's Dante.

In the "Letter to Can Grande," Dante himself explains Purgatario: "the subject is man, in the exercise of his free will, earning or becoming liable to the rewards or punishments of justice." This is Jacob on the Beach talk: "I wanted them to help themselves. To know the difference between right and wrong without me having to tell them. It's all meaningless if I have to force them to do anything."

"Ab Aeterno" is an episode big on action and existentialism, no easy balance to strike. Written by Melinda Hsu Taylor and Greggory Nations, and directed by Tucker Gates, the conflict centers about hapless Richard who is tossed around like a badminton birdie, action defined by that ultimate Man of Action, Blackie: "You and I can talk all day long about what's right or wrong, but the question before you remains the same: do you ever want to see your wife again?" If so, then let's have some murder and mayhem.

The philosophizing in "Ab Aeterno," served up by Jacob on the beach, is on the nature of original sin: "the man who sent you to kill me believes that everyone is corruptible because it is in their very nature to sin. I bring them here to prove him wrong. And when they get here, their past doesn't matter." In this speech, we get very close to what may be the sign of things to come — closure. There's every indication now that the island, the cork in the bottle of wine, is a gate of hell being guarded by forces that use people as playthings in their spare time. And if that is how this series ends, it's okay with me because the dialogues between the Man in Black and Jacob are among the best television moments in history.

My time is up, but first a few questions:

What do we make of the narrative context of Jacob's visit to Ilana? The episode opens with the heavily bandaged, weeping Ilana. We can only assume that she sustained those injuries in the service of Jacob. She seems so upset by Jacob's assignment — did she also make a bad bargain with Jacob? Is Jacob her Cato?

What do we make of Richard's insane laugh at Ilana's question of "What do we do next?" and is he telling the truth when he explains to Jack that they are all dead and living in hell? The writers seem to be having fun here with viewers' theories, but even in the face of writerly scorn, I can't quite shake my Dantean theory.

Captain Whitfield's homicidal ways are pretty extreme. When he says "it's only a matter of time before you tried to kill me" could he be the voice of Jacob? Or the Man in Black?" Isn't there anyone we can trust on this island? Even Hurley seemed a little shaky with his "oh and another thing..."

And finally, what good is a cork to a broken bottle?

'Til next week and "The Package," keep on eye on the camp for me.