Lost in Thought: Birthday

The posting of one Lost episode analysis the very day the next episode airs far from ideal, but...

... gave us much food for thought, so once again, thanks to a week's worth of cogitation, that lousy Internet connection you keep hearing about, and my own low reserves of the magical light that is inside of every man, here are my musings on the origins of Jacob and his brother, cutting it close. [Pseudo-Update: Loading pages has actually been so difficult that this is only getting posted several days after the text was pasted into Blogger's little composition window.]

I use the word "origins" advisedly, because we didn't just see the literal, physical birth of Jacob and his brother, known as the Man in Black, whom I took to calling Esau after he was introduced in last season's finale "The Incident". We saw their rebirths, their ascensions to the roles they play in Lost's present-day scenario, very much in the mode of comic-book or filmic superheroes and supervillains. Jacob drank the wine and assumed the mantle of Island protector; in the yin/yang, two-sides-of-a-coin irony that is a Lost motif as well as a longstanding tradition in movie adaptations of superhero sagas, he then empowered his own brother to oppose him by nearly killing him and transforming him into and/or bonding him with the flashing, shapeshifting black cloud known as Smokey.

Since we can't exactly trust anything Island Momma — who doesn't believe that it takes a village to raise a child, but that it's necessary to take out a village to save an Island — tells her foster sons, it's possible that Jacob could and did kill Esau, even possible that Esau and not Jacob is the Island's actual protector. I'll get back to that tantalizing theory later in the post, since the only way to organize my thoughts here is to go through the episode chronologically. Once again I have to thank the commenters at Nik at Nite for challenging so many of my initial reactions to this episode and prompting others; my friend Teebore has an especially good writeup of "Across the Sea" at his own blog, Gentlemen of Leisure.

Perhaps it makes the most sense to let the time-honored great lines and other interesting dialogue guide us through the episode and arrange my commentary that way.

Island Momma: "Every question I answer will simply lead to another question."

And in that line you have Lost in a nutshell. The writers have been not exactly breaking the so-called fourth wall but certainly tapping at it at certain moments throughout the season. Maybe this one was a reference to how viewers have felt to date, including to a surprising degree during this last run of episodes that's promised (at least via commercials and the implicit — sometimes, I think, fairly explicit — contract between the creators and the audience) to answer our questions with, well, answers. Maybe it's an indication that even "The End" will do little more than reveal mysteries inside of mysteries, sure to leave some of us frustrated. There's been quite a debate going about how much, or what, the show "should" answer to be satisfying and within that debate one about what the producers in fact consider questions that are to be answered; there's more on this later in the post, too.

I thought that Allison Janney, best known as C.J. Cregg from The West Wing, did a good job as the tight-lipped Island protector and adoptive mother of Jacob and Esau, a.k.a Brother, a.k.a. the Boy and then Man in Black. The kids themselves were less convincing, at least whenever they spoke; this episode was evidence of why actors usually put on generic British-English accents when playing characters in another time and place (Nazi Germany, ancient Rome, whatever) yet speaking English so as not to have subtitles running for an entire program: Your good old American voices, especially from the mouths of babes, tend to sound weak and whiny.

Screencap from Lost-Media fansite and © 2010 ABC Studios.

Island Momma, after delivering Jacob: "It's another boy."

Claudia: "I only picked one name."

Even at birth, wrapped in what would become their trademark colors, Jacob was serene and the Babe in Black was agitated — as if he knew from the start that he'd live his life without a name or sense of belonging. It seems that the Man in Black's name has never been used not because it would tip us off to some major revelation down the road but because he really doesn't have one. Were it not for the fact that Janney's character asks Claudia "Ago nomine appelarus?" [subtitles: "What are you called?"] and tells her she has a lovely name, it would be easy to believe that the very notion of names is foreign to Island Momma.

I took to calling her Island Momma, by the way, because of how, well, simple Jacob comes across. We get that he's more naive than his brother, but in this episode Mark Pellegrino plays him as only a few rungs up from Lennie in Ben Linus' beloved Of Mice and Men. The official credits simply have his adoptive mother as Mother, which is what he and "Esau" call her, but I easily imagine his plaintive, needy voice falling back on "Momma" — as in one of my invented scene variations of the night, when she intones the baruch atah of immortality and passes to him the mantle of Island guardian:

Momma: "It was always supposed to be you, Jacob; I see that now. Or at least that's what I'm telling y— I mean, uh, One day, you’ll see it too. But until then... You don't really have a choice."
Jacob: "I thought there was always a choice."
Momma: "You don't say that line for centuries, Jacob. Now drink."
Jacob: "Mmm. Wines is tasty, Momma!"

"Mama" is a short, simple word, and the variation of spelling I'd normally use, but "Momma" to me is pronounced by lingering on the initial M with a less open "ah" sound — the way Elvis would say it, the way it's invoked by John Travolta's Bill Clinton doppelgänger during the "Mommathon" in the film version of Joe [Anonymous] Klein's novel Primary Colors.

Now back to the analysis.

Momma: "Jacob doesn't know how to lie. He's not like you."
Esau: "Why? What am I like?"
Momma: "You're... special."

We've heard that word on this show before. But does she mean "special" like "Momma's favorite" special, or preternaturally special like Desmond, Walt, and others are special (if not all in the same way)?

It makes sense that Island Momma appreciated Esau's inveterate ability to lie, because she practiced controlled, profound deception with regularity. She professed there to be nothing "across the sea" and no other people on the Island, which was big-time untrue. I don't think she really left that game for Esau to find, either — as we've seen both Ben and the Man in Black do many times, I think she picked up on the answer most beneficial to her and gave it; her strange examination of the game right before her death, as if seeing it for the first time, reinforced my interpretation.

The game turns out to have been senet, which dates back to ancient Egypt — as does backgammon, also played with black and white chits or stones, and seen in Lost's very first episode as John Locke introduces a recurring concept when he describes it to Walt as "Two players. Two sides. One is light; one is dark." I got all Jeff Jensen recently telling blog buddy Teebore that Senet is clearly meant to invoke Mack Sennett, slapstick-comedy film director of the early 20th century, and thus lead us to "Mack the Knife" — a.k.a. Mackie Messer of The Threepenny Opera; obviously this means that there are actually three separate universes at work in Lost, each with their own Penny, and that the knife used by Esau to kill his mother (and later given by Temple master Dogen to Sayid) should be called "Mack". This is what Lost does to people.

Now that we've seen Jacob and Esau with that game, by the way, we have confirmation that when the Man in Locke tossed the white stone into the ocean from the seaside Cave o' Numbers and dismissed it to Sawyer as an "inside joke" he wasn't just winking loudly on behalf of the writers.

Esau: "Did you know about the people?"
Momma: "Yes."
Esau: "Why didn't you tell us about them?"
Momma: "Because they're dangerous ... They come, they fight, they destroy, they corrupt — and it always ends the same. ... If they found you, they would hurt you."
Jacob: "Why would they hurt us?"
Momma: "Because they're people, Jacob, and that's what people do."
Esau: "But we're people. Does that mean that we can hurt each other?"
Momma: "I have made it so you can never hurt each other."

We still don't know for sure whether this is part of, even the beginning of, the so-called Rules that seem to govern Jacob and Esau's relationship to one another and their interaction with the Candidates. Frankly, we don't even know if Island Momma was telling the truth about this, although I tend to believe that she was; it would be reckless to say such a thing and have the boys think that they could roughhouse without fatal consequences (granted, also without a concept of "fatal" since they'd never seen other people before the Island villagers and thus never seen people die) — and Esau has to have tried beating, stabbing, or otherwise doing in his brother in their millennia together, especially given that we now have some context for why, in "The Incident", he said to Jacob, "Do you have any idea how badly I want to kill you?"

Now that I think about it, Momma was clearly either lying or speaking sloppily when she said that the boys could never hurt one another, because Jacob really does a number on Esau before tossing him in the stream that leads to the Cave o' Light. There's hurting and there's hurting, of course, and in context it does sound like she's talking about mortally wounding, but maybe she was indeed trying to steer them away from trying to hurt one another by fibbing that it would be to no avail; after all, when Esau had earlier asked Momma "What's dead?", she replied "Something you will never have to worry about." That's against the spirit if not the letter of her concerns above that the other people on the Island would hurt the boys.

Screencap from Lost-Media fansite and © 2010 ABC Studios.

Esau: "What is this place?"
Momma: "This is the reason you're here." ...
Esau: "What's down there?"
Momma: "Light. The warmest, brightest light you've ever seen or felt. And we must make sure that no-one ever finds it."
Esau: "It's beautiful."
Momma: "Yes it is. And that's why they want it. Because a little bit of this very same light is inside of every man. But they always want more."
Jacob: "Can they take it?"
Momma: "No. But they would try. And if they tried they could put it out. And if the light goes out here... it goes out everywhere."

I'm not sure what to say about the Cave o' Light at this point. Some folks wanted a real, nitty-gritty explanation of what that light was, others don't find further explanation necessary, and still others feel that the explanation we did get is pretty much irreducible — it's clearly more than just electromagnetic radiation, an energy that is if not magical or divine then probably far enough beyond our scientific ken that it may as well be magical or divine. I tend to think that we won't get and don't need a breakdown of what it is or even why the Island is apparently its sole font of concentrated exposure on Earth, just as I don't think it's necessary to be told Island Momma's own origins or trace the history of Island protectors.

Every story has its beginning, designated as such by the storyteller for the purposes of the narrative at hand. I think the birth of Jacob is as far as we'll go on Lost, and far enough. Absent further information I assume that Momma's story, and her mother's story and her mother's (or father's story), is very much like Jacob's — with at some point of course there being a First Protector, perhaps Momma herself and perhaps generations before her, something I'm certainly curious about but not knowledge that I feel is integral to the story.

What I would like is some lip service paid to how the light is responsible for healing, time-traveling, and if applicable some of the Island apparitions, and whether the exercise of those powers is controlled in any way by some consciousness on the part of the Island, but I'm not confident that we'll get anything on that.

Esau: "There are very smart men among us — men who are curious about how things work. Together we have discovered places all over this Island where metal behaves strangely."

I love Titus Welliver's utter commitment to this line and his performance in general. He and Mark Pellegrino have real chemistry (which they've carried over to some hilarious parody videos for Jimmy Kimmel Live and elsewhere). My big question in this scene was why the lodestone totally loses its pull as soon as Jacob wrenches the knife off of it even though continues to hold the knife in his hands, gingerly, mere inches away.

Jacob: "What's down there?"
Momma: "Life. Death. Rebirth. It's the source, the heart, of the Island."

Years after Esau asks about the Cave o' Light during the boys' first trip there, Jacob repeats his question verbatim when Momma takes him to it for his inauguration, and she's just as enigmatic — although she may not know much more than she's saying; it's also possible that any explanation would be redundant to whatever arcane knowledge he might receive along with immortality when he drinks the hoodoo-charged wine.

The closed captions when Momma made the incantation read only "(speaking Latin)", but the episode's transcript at Lostpedia has it as "Nam non accipimus hoc quasi vulgarem potionem, sed ut ille sit quasi unus mecum," which elsewhere is translated a bit more poetically than in the transcript as "For we do not accept this just as a common drink [or simple potion], but so that he should be one with me." And Momma does say, "Now you and I are the same." Does she simply mean that they are now alike, both ageless, both carrying the responsibilities of guarding the light, or does she in fact mean that they are somehow the same being?

Since Momma had earlier told the boys that they would "never have to worry about" death, I didn't take the wine as conferring Jacob's immortality, or at least not only that, so much as the overall recognition and abilities as Island protector. Or perhaps since Momma may have been lying about the not dying earlier it does grant immortality – and it's through drinking the wine, not through his touch, that Jacob made Richard ageless in "Ab Aeterno". If so it's rather sneaky of Jacob to imply to Richard otherwise; he clearly learned something about guile from his mother and brother in that regard, because while earlier in life Momma taught him how to be crafty with the weaving only Esau learned how be crafty with the deceiving. As we saw Esau break the bottle, which Jacob used as a metaphor for the Island and the evil it supposedly contained, in "Ab Aeterno", for the sake of the next Candidate one assumes that the incantation would work on whatever imbibement was at hand to be imbued with the properties of eternal life and Cave o' Light lore. Hurley might be needed to translate from Invisible Dead Guy if he's not the chosen one himself.

One also has to wonder just how much Island information the spell grants, however, since Jacob clearly didn't know what would happen to Esau after his body drifted into the golden grotto. It's possible that full awareness had yet to take hold or that his anger blinded him in the moment, but post-incantation Jacob doesn't seem markedly more with it than pre-incantation Jacob.

After thinking back on the episode and how outright mercenary Island Momma seemed — from taking the babies to manipulating them as she did while raising them to thanking Esau after he stabbed her as though not only grooming a successor but ending her life was all part of her game plan — I wasn't sure that had Esau not defected, whichever of the two Momma chose to replace her (and it felt like Esau was her first choice), she wouldn't have killed the other son herself rather than let the "winner" have the companionship that she likely never had.

Screencap from Lost-Media fansite and © 2010 ABC Studios.

Island Momma: "Just promise me, no matter what you do, you won’t ever go down there."
Jacob: "Would I die?"
Island Momma: "It’d be worse than dying, Jacob — much worse."

That line along with the previous dialogue indicating that Momma had somehow made it so the boys couldn't kill each other leads us to conclude that, however badly Jacob beat up his brother after their mother's murder, Esau wasn't actually dead when he was dropped in the stream and went floating into the Cave o' Light. Yet many viewers believe that Smokey was a preexisting condition within the light that simply sucked up the dead Esau's memories and was able to take his form, just it later took the form of dead John Locke and accessed his memories (ditto others, probably including Christian Shephard). I think that at the most there was an entity within the light that absorbed Esau's soul, bonding with him, because just about every chronologically later scene involving Jacob and Esau together or Esau discussing his past life with the castaways indicates that they both consider Smokey in the form of Esau to be Esau; yes, the Man in Black lies, but like the Devil he knows that the truth is often the most powerful, most damning weapon, and he echoes Esau's old desires with great conviction.

What confused me about Smokey's debut was the burial of Esau next to Island Momma and the revelation that they were the Island's "very own Adam and Eve," as Locke put it in the scene from "House of the Rising Sun" flashed back/forward to at the end of this episode. Not because I was convinced the pair would be Rose and Bernard or Jack and Kate but because, despite the revelation at the end of "The Incident" that the Man in Black had merely taken Locke's form but not taken over his actual body, it seemed to me upon Smokey's emergence from the Cave o' Light that Esau had literally transformed into the creature; when Jacob later came upon Esau's body laying lifeless in tangle of branches, I figured that he'd merely resumed his human form and collapsed — but no, Jacob buried that body and it decomposed over the next couple thousand years, despite the fact that we only ever saw Smokey, and not the body, exit the light, so either Smokey was carrying the used-up Esau body inside of it in a way that we couldn't see or the light mystically ejected it into the branches the way it dumps people into the Tunisian desert after they turn the Frozen Donkey Wheel.

The argument that Island Momma may well have also been like Smokey is a compelling one on many fronts. One is that her having gone into the Cave o' Light, voluntarily or otherwise, and been smokified herself would provide certain knowledge of why and how entering it was a fate worse than death. Another is that it would explain how she was able to waste the entire village of Claudia's people herself while Esau was unconscious, although based on Jacob's serious fighting skills in "Ab Aeterno" it's also possible that either the mantle of Island protector or centuries spent practicing ninja moves make one a virtually unbeatable opponent. Working against this theory is that her body seemed quite human decomposing next to Esau's original body, and that she was able to be stabbed at all when we've seen Esau in John Locke's guise impervious to both bullets and to the selfsame dagger in Sayid's hands in "Sundown". That dagger was given to Sayid by Temple master Dogen, who told him that if he let the Man in Locke speak it would be too late to kill him; there's been debate on whether this is actually some kind of rule, as Esau says the same thing to Richard in "Ab Aeterno" when telling him to stab Jacob yet Ben successfully stabs Jacob in "The Incident" after considerable conversation, but it's hard to discount the fact that Esau stabbed his mother from behind without a word.

Given that Esau probably saw his share of death in the village but Jacob may not have had any first-hard experience with the concept, since despite killing boars for dinner the only two people he truly knew were still alive, it was strange that when Esau stabbed their mother Jacob even realized the ramifications. "Momma! Wake up, Momma! You never told me how to make babies, Momma! Momma?... Brother! Helps me wake up Momma! How you make Momma go so hard asleep, Brother? We gots to wake up Momma!"

Screencap from Lost-Media fansite and © 2010 ABC Studios.

Jacob: "Goodbye, Brother."

This was touching but also tied with considerable aggravation as it felt like the episode ended too soon. We got plenty of answers, including big ones about the light at the Island's core, Jacob's role as its guardian, and the nature of Smokey, too plain or blunt for some viewers and too vague for others, but I felt that the episode itself brought up questions that it promised to answer and didn't. It would have benefitted greatly from one more jump ahead after Jacob's burial of Momma and Esau's bodies in the last act, if not an outright tie into the present-day Island adventures, as "Ab Aeterno" had, with more than clips from a previous episode.

Clearly Jacob thought at the time that he was burying his brother, and indeed he had no way of knowing that Smokey contained Esau's essence when he saw it roar out of the Cave o' Light. What did he think when he next encountered the creature? What did he think when he first saw his brother again? Did Jacob ever think about trying to revive Momma by casting her into the light? I think we deserved to see the first two, but the last is just potentially rich story-based speculation — although part of me thinks that there will yet be a showdown between Esau's impersonation of John Locke and the real thing, when someone gets the bright idea to dig up the real Locke's dead body and float it into the Cave o' Light to transform him into the only thing that might stand a chance against Smokey. Perhaps throwing the bones of Esau's original body into the light, or just burying them, would also work some kind of spell trapping or neutering his Smokey identity; we've seen references to the urgency of burying bodies on the show, presumably because this prevents Smokey from taking the forms of those bodies.

I'd have liked to see more of Esau's exploration of his abilities as Smokey, including his first assumption of another form. How unable to grasp the vastness of land and civilization he must have been before that, even after all he discussed with the villagers on the Island, and how overwhelming it must've been the first time he was able to absorb someone else's memories or each time he encountered knowledge of new technologies and philosophies.

Early on in this post I broached the theory that Esau and not Jacob was actually the Island's protector, in keeping with the references to Smokey as its "security system" by Danielle Rousseau and its being called Cerberus on the blast-door map in the Dharma Initiative's Swan station. I don't know that I actually subscribe to this theory, but the more I mused on Island Momma's deception the more I wondered if her incantation over the wine did not grant Jacob enhanced immortality and Island awareness but rather recant some of that immortality so that he would continue to be ageless but also be vulnerable to death by Smokey's dagger. Separate from but tied to that thought was whether Claudia was not actually pregnant with twins, the Island instead manifesting Esau inside her as Jacob was born; given the times in which they were living, their lack of technology, and Island Momma's presumed dearth of experience in midwifery, it's of course totally plausible that the women were simply unprepared for more than one child, but this is Lost. While these seemed like interesting ideas when they occurred to me, though, at this stage I very much hope that at this point the show is wrapping up mysteries instead of launching new ones, even if not as satisfyingly as the quality of the series to date suggests, and that absent any serious indication of further explanation to come the most simple, most obvious extrapolation of any answer is the right interpretation.

I can understand why the producers chose to hold this episode until so late in the game, but also why many viewers wished that it had come earlier. There's a pretty good case to be made for it airing at least a week earlier, flopped with the devastating events of "The Candidate", because it makes Smokey's motives sympathetic even as his machinations in the previous episode suggest that his ends can't possibly justify his means. Maybe the same could be said for Jacob, who despite appearing in "The Incident" as representing choice and free will comes across much like his mother as a knows-better above-it-all righteous force of nature this season. While I don't read much in the way of outside interviews or listen to the producers' podcasts, however, sometimes I see or hear about something from friends, and I couldn't escape learning that the showrunners gave us the submarine deaths in "The Candidate" in part to reveal the true depths of Smokey's evil — not just desperation, but evil; that's hard to reconcile with airing "Across the Sea" one week later.

The producers' pre-finale media blitz and its almost bizarrely qualifying content have been the subject of much discussion over at Nik at Nite, as it feels to many of us that they've changed their tune in terms of what's going to be answered (and what was ever going to be answered) before the series ends. Particularly galling is their framing of Lost as a show about characters, as if those of us expecting revelations about the mythology care about those details to the exclusion of characters and aren't expecting those revelations largely because the producers practically gloated about how we'd all be blown away by the grand scheme of things when this epic reached its conclusion. A great television show or novel does not have to be about characters at the expense of being about its form or technique or plot, and the reverse is also true; it seemed, for a while, that Lost was going to be many if not all of those things.

Lost's mythology is inextricably tied to its characters and its innovative structure; even the most seemingly ordinary interpersonal details of the Castaways' or Candidates' lives seem to be bound up in their strange connection to one another and to the Island. And it's not just that we the viewers deserve to know a good deal about what's going on because of the time and brainpower we've invested in this tale, promised through wild tangents that things do not fall apart and the center does indeed hold. It's that anyone who cares about the characters wants them to know why they have this strange connection, for what purpose they've been put through this ordeal, and how it's all cosmically possible.

I liked quite a bit about "Across the Sea" and until the end figured that the biggest hurdles for most viewers would be the outright "fantasy" feeling of the whole chapter and the Cave o' Light in particular. Most folks still watching Lost are probably prepared for almost anything, but I can see some followers long leery of the more out-there aspects of the show wincing at this episode's stilted speech, Renaissance Faire vibe, and glowing tunnel by the stream with swelling strings. Despite my thrill early on how deeply we were going into Island mythology, by the end I was distracted by the questions I posed several paragraphs above; once I realized that we were getting major revelations there was something of a big fat grin on my face during at certain moments, but I also felt like the episode as it was unfolding promised to give certain us things that we didn't ultimately get. On the eve of this season's premiere, in my first 'Lost' in Thought post, I said with double meaning that it was about time, and time is running out.

1 comment:

nyrdyv said...

I think your analysis has intrigued me enough that I might actually watch my first episode of this series...


Steven G. Willis