A review of the next-to-last "Lost" episode ever coming up just as soon as it's Coq Au Vin Night...

"You should get your friends. We're very close to the end, Hugo." -Jacob

There was a lot of anger last week, over both "Across the Sea" and the interview I did the next day with Lindelof and Cuse. Now, I liked that episode and felt my actual conversation with Darlton was much lighter and less hostile than it came across in the transcript - for instance, Damon was cracking a joke when he asked, "Are there any readers who like the show?" - so take my opinion with that grain of salt. But I found "What They Died For" to be one of the strongest episodes of this season, and a perfect set up for Sunday's finale.

Like "The Last Recruit" from a few weeks ago, "What They Died For" didn't focus on any one character, but bounced around through both the real and sideways worlds, moving characters into place for the big finish.

In the sideways(*), Desmond opens both Locke and Ben's eyes to the idea of the real world (and gets to beat on alt-Ben the way he did our version), then recruits Sayid and Kate to join him and Hurley in his grand, mad scheme.

(*) And now we see that the writers have saved the explanation of the sideways universe for the finale. Even with all that extra time to play with, that seems like an awful lot to squeeze into the finale. But even though Darlton are apparently taunting me about closing the time-travel loop with the outrigger shoot-out, I still find myself oddly trusting that they know what they're doing with this finale.

And you know why? Because a year and a half ago, I did a long interview with Lindelof before season five started, and after we finished, we got to talking about the show in more general terms, and I went on some long rant about my dislike of Jack. Damon looked at me, a gleam in his eye, and said, "Okay, I accept that challenge. By the end of the series, I'm going to make you like Jack." And I rolled my eyes at that, but damn it if he hasn't lived up to that boast. If he can pull a reversal like that on one of my least favorite TV characters of all time, explaining the sideways universe and bringing an end to the series in roughly 100 minutes of story should be a piece of cake. 

In the real world, the mysterious blonde boy we've seen running about the island is revealed to be a kind of ghost of Jacob himself (from a younger age than we saw him at last week), who's able to briefly return to life with the help of the ashes Ilana saved. He clues Jack and the others in on much of what we learned last week(**), and in a nice moment demystifies the notion of who is and isn't a candidate by telling Kate (who was disqualified because she became a mom and he figured she wouldn't want to do it - and which therefore suggests that "Kwon" was referring to Jin), "It's just a line of chalk on a cave," and that the job is still hers if she wants it.

(**) And, again, I realize I'm out on an island (pardon the pun) with "Across the Sea," but I don't think Jacob's speech is half as interesting if we haven't already seen the story in greater detail. In general, the explanation we've gotten only through expository dialogue (for instance, Hurley and Michael discussing the nature of the whispers) have been far less interesting than when we've learned things through story. Your mileage obviously may vary on whether "Across the Sea" told an interesting story.

Even with these two godlike figures manipulating their lives, sometimes as far back as childhood, our characters still have free will and agency, all the way to the finish line. Jin can choose to drown with Sun (which I understood, even if I didn't agree with it), Sayid can choose to blow himself up to save his friends, and Jack Shepard, man of science, can choose to give himself over to the mystical powers of the island and become Jacob's successor. Sawyer jokes about Jack having enough of a God complex already, but Jack isn't doing this out of arrogance, or even out of his usual savior issues. He's doing it because he's been around this island for too long, and seen too many things, to not finally accept that John Locke was right and he was wrong, and that if Jacob needs somebody to step forward to stop the monster with John Locke's face, he may as well be the one to do it. And that (along with some of Matthew Fox's best, most understated work of the series) is why I've come to like Jack again.

And after being off the board for weeks (dating back to "Everybody Loves Hugo"), Ben returns to the narrative in a big way, appearing to return to the dark side, replacing Sayid as Smokey's wet worker. It's easy to assume that the return to the site of Alex's murder (and, through Richard, burial) and then the appearance of Widmore turned him again - that even if he didn't have the nerve to kill Penny at the marina, he's okay letting Smokey do it - but with Ben Linus, there's always far more than meets the eye. He kills Widmore because as far as he's concerned, Widmore deserves it, but the Ben who wanted Ilana's respect at the end of "Dr. Linus" was the most sincere we've seen him. I don't think he throws in with Smokey out of self-preservation or bloodlust. I think he's playing an angle, and hope he does a better job conning the monster than Sawyer did earlier in the season.

And what made all the different stories hum is that this wasn't just a plot-mover episode. Yes, the characters are chess pieces, but they're human chess pieces.  Even in the midst of all the action and death and destruction, the episode still found time to pause for emotion: to show Hurley and Sawyer numb with grief as they stared out at the ocean, waiting for the additional survivors who would never come; to show real Ben grieving his Alex even as alt-Ben is overcome with joy to know how much he matters to his; to see Alt-Claire so content with the new family she never knew about; to see Kate demand an explanation from Jacob for why her friends had to suffer and die for his cause; etc.

We can all argue over what the right ratio is, but "Lost" is a show that's about plot and about people, and "What They Died For" didn't lose sight of either part of that equation. It gave our heroes a chance to confront the being who brought them there - essentially, to ask God why He allows suffering in the world - and it set up final confrontations in both universes, and it gave us a rampaging smoke monster flinging an immortal man into a tree. In other words, it was an episode of "Lost" - a damn fine one, and one that has me very excited for Sunday night.

Some other thoughts:

  • Speaking of said immortal man, I hope Smokey's attack isn't the last we've seen of poor Richard, because that would be as ignoble a fate as suffered by Ilana, Lapidus (apparently) and, here, Zoe. But if that was finally his time, I did at least like the Old West atmosphere of him walking out into the center of the ghost town that is New Otherton, the earth crunching under his boots.
  • Sawyer took a backseat to Jack in this one, but Josh Holloway had that great moment on the beach where Sawyer is completely empty inside, and then Jack talks about finding Desmond and using him to fight Smokey, and those are the magic words Sawyer needed to hear to come back to life.
  • Nice full-circle moment: Jack patches up Kate's wound, just as she did for him in the pilot. (Also, Jacob says that the infamous golden spring is located not far from where Jack woke up after the crash.)
  • I doubt we'll ever get an answer to this, but if Ben never saw or heard from Jacob, then who exactly told him about the super-secret room from which he could summon Smokey? Or is the idea that Smokey himself told Ben as part of his elaborate ruse?
  • I remember Mira Furlan from "Babylon 5" years ago, but it's been so long since I'd seen her as anything other than the crazy, ratty, island version of Rousseau that it was startling to see her all cleaned up and feminine and sane in the sideways universe.
  • I want answers to what the sideways universe is, obviously, but I have to say I could watch at least another month of just Desmond playing Jacob to the sideways world, knowing more than anybody else and flashing that infectious grin.
  • Ana-Lucia! I've always enjoyed her much more in her post-death appearances, I have to say, even here where she's a bent cop in the sideways. I like that Hurley knew exactly who she was - that once the knowledge of the real world started, the flow of information didn't stop - though I find it interesting that Desmond says she wasn't "ready." Does that mean none of the characters who are dead in the real world are ready for whatever Desmond's plan is? Or will Charlie, Libby, Charlotte, etc. figure into the finale?
  • And more full circle, sort of: once again, the man with the plan (Ben once before, Desmond here) has a nice dress for Kate to change into. Though Desmond's has a more practical purpose, as they'll be crashing David Sheppard's concert (which will, hopefully, give us some closure on the identity of alt-Jack's ex-wife).

So, gameplan the same for Sunday as it's been all season - just later. I'm going to watch the episode, then start writing as soon as it's done - and as soon as I've gathered at least my first impressions - and post whenever I'm done writing. In an ideal world, I'd have more time to ponder what I'd just seen, and perhaps I'll do a second review later next week or the week after, but I know everyone's going to want to respond to the finale right away, and I'm with you on that. And since Damon and Carlton are going into radio silence after they do Kimmel later this week, we're going to have to parse this one entirely on our own.

I can't wait.

What did everybody else think?