"Lost" in Translation: Have you heard about the Midnight Rambler?

The shoot-em-dead, brain-bell jangler/The one you never seen before. . .

There’s this badass in your neighborhood named Stagger Lee. He does all manner of wicked shit. Rolls dice. Talks trash. Steals your woman. Slits your throat. But on the other hand he has a really cool hat and slick clothes and does whatever the hell he wants to, virtually all of the time, and so you can’t help digging him. Dude plays by his own rules, yo, and no cop or uptight civic hero is going to mess with his party.

It’s a black thing — an African-American thing, I mean — the by-product of centuries of slavery, institutionalized racism, and more. Centuries of scary badasses, from Stagger Lee to Mick Jagger to NWA to Jack Abramoff to Ticketmaster and on and on. They are the living animation of our own worst instincts and straight-up evil actions. Bombs bursting in air, stolen civilizations, burning villages, crazy-eyed parents, the foreclosing of any pure-hearted person’s free will.

The story of civilization, and now the undergirding of “Lost.”

Which is why Jacob created the Smoke Monster, whose (not entirely ill-placed) anger begat centuries of evil, which begat Jacob’s need for Richard, who created Ben, whose flaws begat Jacob’s need for Jack, whose righteousness infuriated Ben so much he has been pushed to the threshold of becomingm yes, that’s right, the new Man in Black.

follow the jump and go easy on your cloak and dagger

By now you’re either thrilled by, or infuriated with, this increasingly dizzying ride to the bottom of the proverbial glowing cave. Even I, the conscientious objector to all “Lost”-bashing, no matter the occasional cracks in its foundation, felt a little underwhelmed by Jacob’s fireside exposition party. Wasn’t there something just a bit existential about his revelation that our particular group of heroes might as well have been any random selection of screw-ups? (which, btw, doesn’t quite explain all those surprise/coincidencidental connections they didn’t realize they had ’til they got to the island) But on the other hand you could also argue that there’s something reassuring in it, too: We’re all capable of greatness, assuming you can nut up and follow your better instincts. For once.

Until you realize that all your better instincts and best efforts still don’t put you over the top. You get so close to the golden light – maybe even get tossed bodily into it, if only to be shown exactly how much you lack. At which point ambition can curdle and turn wicked. A surfeit of goodness somehow leads to evil. Weird, huh? And yet, somehow, an essential, inescapable truth. The white side must have its dark other side. Yin and yang. Up and down. The Beatles and the Stones.

The Man in Black is, at heart, kind of a cool dude. Jacob can be a bit of a manipulative dick. Jack, as we’ve seen so vividly over the course of six years, is simultaneously heroic and foolish. Ben is capable of kindness and murder, and a stickler for keeping his word. And did you notice when Smokey convinced Widmore to spill his secrets, telling the wicked/good industrialist that he could count on saving his daughter’s life because “I’ll give you my word”?

This is all a very long way of explaining what I realized last night: Jacob will live on in Jack. And when Smokey gets dispatched, as he certainly will come Sunday, he will live on, too. Only now he’ll be Ben.

Which takes us back to Mick and the Stones, and particularly to their great reiteration of the Stagger Lee myth, “Midnight Rambler.” You know, the one you never seen before. It’s an old-fashioned blues riff, played with wicked intent by a smack-addicted Keith Richards, while Jagger (paint it black, you devil!) struts and moans, both warning of and celebrating the awful wonders of the Midnight Rambler, who may also be the Boston Strangler, or Jack the Ripper, slipping down your street in his cap and cloak, climbing your garden wall, leaving his footprints up and down your hall. You never see him, you never hear him, you never feel him. Not until you feel the sudden slice of his blade on your throat (see also: Smokey and Zoe). He’s a monster. But also awesome. And charming enough to steal your missus from under your nose.

It’s a nightmare. Only “Midnight Rambler” also rocks. And when Jagger was at his height he stalked the stage, snarling and sneering and ripping off his sash to whip the spotlight, with a nastiness that was both terrifying and spellbinding. Dude took what he wanted and stomped on the rest. He looked frustration in the face and slit its throat.

Not the sort of thing I tend to do. But a nice, middle-classed boy can dream. Especially in a traffic jam. When stuff doesn’t go his way. And all he wants, for once in his life, is his own damn way.

So go easy with your cloak-and-dagger, he’ll stick his knife right down your throat, baby. And it hurts.

"Lost" in Translation: Cry Me a River, "Lost" Maniacs

Don’t leave the island without it!

As the end of “Lost” approaches every previously-accepted point of the show’s fact, history and fancy seem to pirouette, somersault and get blown to smithereens.

Sayid – dead. Sun and Jin – dead. Lapidus – vanished and presumed….well, your guess is as good as mine. Hurley – weeping uncontrollably. Alt-Locke – revealed as the loving son of a vegged-out Anthony Cooper, wracked by guilt because he crashed the plane that not only shattered his own spine, but destroyed the life of his beloved old man. Leaving the bald boy so wrought by guilt he won’t even consider Alt-Jack’s offer of a near-surefire cure for his paralysis.

Did I mention that this post might include some spoilers from last night’s episode? Maybe I should have noted that earlier.

Questions are answered, stories resolved. Satisfying or not, an ending always means the foreclosing of options. The collapse of some possibilities in favor of others. Which leads just as inevitably to disappointment and outrage. It’s like the show’s creators have pillaged your imagination, kicking apart your dreams and contradicting your own sense of logic and reality.

No surprise then to turn on the Twitter this morning and see some of my favorite tweeters (James Poniewozik; Tim Carvell) already engaged in a what-if-the-ending sucks-does-it-wreck-the-whole-series exchange.

Which reminds me of why I think series conclusions, particularly in long serialized shows full of myth and mystery, will always be roundly loathed. And why the final answers to “Lost” shouldn’t matter that much to anyone, anyway. . . .

1. The show’s mythology is just that: a groovy overlay of narrative to draw viewers from episode to episode. OMG, the island is capable of anything – polar bears; meandering spirits; antagonists behind every palm tree; monsters, instant healing and more. The easiest question – what the hell are these things and where did they come from? – is way less important than the realization that it’s nothing more (or less) than an animation of our own internal consciousness. I’m not sure what you think about at 3:15 a.m. when you can’t sleep and your skin seems to chafe against your bones, but when I close my eyes it’s all monsters, torches and the ghost of every disaster I ever created, accidentally or not.

2. Ordinarily I kick the crap out of anyone who tries to tell me that the journey matters more than the destination (consider every airline flight you’ve ever suffered) but in “Lost”‘s case, it’s actually true. No matter how the show ends what I (and you?) will remember through the years will almost certainly be the revelations about the characters’ origins: the headwaters of guilt, grief and anger that put them on the island in the first place. Why and how they’re “lost” on the island can’t come close to competing with the revelation that they were all spiritually “lost” even before they got there. Because eventually 3:15 a.m. comes calling for all of us, and isn’t it awful how you can by safe in bed in your comfy 1st World home and still see nothing but jungle, torches, bears and whispering spirits?

3. Consider Locke, in new Smokey form and original alt-Locke recipe, and his perpetually fraught relationship with air travel. Even his hollowed out shell can’t seem to get off the ground, now that you mention it. I’m hesitant to toss in a reference to Icarus right here, but no matter how you slice him he sure does want to get closer to the sun. And when he falls (from Oceanic 815; from his daddy’s apartment window; from his own airplane with daddy in the co-pilot’s chair) he smacks the earth pretty hard. Too bad Smokey-Locke’s only apparent way off the island is yet another airplane, eh? Situations change, but the essential character and flaws of a human soul hold true. (see also: the endless blackness of Tony Soprano’s soul, as animated so brilliantly by the wonderful, yet despised, cut to black at the end of “The Sopranos”‘s finale).

4. Notice when the about-to-be-blowed-up Sayid told Jack that he is “it”? If that’s not a clue about the essential roles control and heroics (no matter the cost) play at the heart of his character – even when he’s determined to move past them – then I’ll have something else to feel awful about the next time 3:15 a.m. rolls around.

5. No amount of C-4 can liquify the impact Sayid made when we realized – at the height of the Iraq war, you’ll recall – how his story was such an evocative micro-portrait of the amorality of war, and the way larger powers play so fast and loose with the lives and spirits residing under their influence. On a human level the paradoxes seem endless. Sayid, after all, was made into an Iraqi torturer despite his conscience. And even when his warring was done his conscience dictated that he take up torturing again to restore justice somewhere else. How could he reconcile these two irreconcilable facets of his character? He couldn’t, so eventually his only option was to go boom.

6. Also on the go-boom list: “Lost” itself. But no matter how things end on May 23rd the real story has already been told. If you really watched the show I hope and trust it was because you could sense how the show had seen into you. That’s the series’ significance, that’s what matters. May 23rd could add another layer of magic, or maybe it’ll be just one more in a chain of way-more-engaging-than-usual primetime TV. Seems like a no-lose to me, particularly since the real battle for your tv-watching soul was fought and won way back in season 1.

"Lost" in Translation: He's a zombie and she's nuts.

They got the same greeting at David Geffen’s place…

So many stories, so many characters, multiple realities, intertwining crises. And maybe the one thing they all have in common is that no one is telling the truth, exactly. Particularly when they look you in the eye and swear to creation that everything they say is real.

And while it’s true that some people can, and do, tell a lie in pursuit of a moral end, the creation (or perpetuating) of a reality that is nothing but a hall of mirrors serves mostly to throw dirt in the air and turn everyone, good or bad, blind.

If the subject is “Lost,” which it is, I could be talking about anything now. About Sawyer reneging on his deal with MIB/Locke. About alt-Desmond tailing, and steering, alt-Claire to the meeting with the alt-Ilana, alt-Jack. About alt-Desmond’s bumper car exploits with altLocke. And on and on. About alt-Sayid’s murders of Keamey & friends; about Sayid’s non-murder of Desmond (if you don’t see the body….), and more.

But what’s really got me shaken up, after several weeks of thinking it was coming, is the news that the post-death Christian Shepard, seen so often in various stations and moods on the island, was always Smokey, animating yet another dead person’s body. Which implies that Smokey was the guy in “Jacob”‘s moveable jungle cabin; and the guy helping Locke push the wheel that sent the island spiraling back and forth in time; that Smokey was the one appearing to Jack in various places during his first L.A. sojourn….except, wait a minute. That COULDN’T have been Smokey, because that was in L.A., and guess who can’t travel over water?

So does that mean all those Smokey-seeming Christians weren’t Smokey after all?

At this pace “Lost” begins to resemble a kind of sci-fi version of Whack-A-Mole, where each successfully whacked plot twist only sends a dozen other rodents leaping out of the dirt.

I feel like Sawyer, the increasingly logical, and thus impatient, leader of the get-out-of-Dodge gang. He has no time for bullshit, and even less time for anyone still drifting through an existential crisis. See also his curt, and extremely accurate, dismissal of two longtime friends and compatriots: “Sayid’s a zombie, and Claire’s nuts.” Indeed. And when Hurley counters this with more movie logic — that Anakin Skywalker proves the perpetual possibility that anyone, even Claire, can cross back from the dark side, he is having none of it: “She lost her ticket when she tried to kill Kate.” Just so.

Like Sawyer, the logical part of my brain is getting irked by what it perceives as the intractability of this bottomless plot tangle. But the cooler part of me is still entranced by this ever-engaging, and always moving, collision of dramatic realism and dream-like surreality swirling just beneath the surface. The endless coincidences that make no literal sense, but score instantly in the viewer’s emotional understanding of the transcendent natures of the characters. Our inescapable suspicion that the more a person denies the existence of fate, the more he (or she, Mrs. Hawking) is actually trying to bend the direction of that mysterious, all-powerful force.

The more sure someone sounds, the less he actually seems to know for sure. The future is up for grabs. And when it comes to zombies and nuts, no one is beyond contention. Not the characters, not the producer/writers, not the viewers. Certainly not the ABC execs and their blood-red, ticking V’s. And don’t even ask about the “Lost” bloggers.

"Lost" in Translation: The lust for power, principles, principals and a better parking spot

academic politics are always the most brutal…

The contrasting lives and travails of our two Bens – alt-Ben in L.A. and original recipe Island Ben – takes us back to the headlines in the morning newspaper right here at home. In a land where partisan battle takes precedent over policy; where each side is so convinced of its own moral authority that they can focus only on destroying the other side; where it’s not just expected, but perfectly acceptable for ordinary folks to shed blood and even die while their leaders feud among themselves…suddenly the struggle for the “Lost” island seems far more familiar than its population of monsters, polar bears and walking, talking dead folks would lead you to expect.

The common thread, of course, is the seductive, often destructive, quest for power.

Island Ben, the leader of the Others and the acknowledged conduit to the God-like Jacob, never actually met his leader, and thus could only interpret His wishes and demands to protect the island. Most often, this led to carnage – the slaughter of the Dharma gang (including his own abusive-but-still father); bloody fights against other Others, perpetual war against Widmore & co (who may in fact deserve it) and the insta-persecution of the Oceanic survivors.

But to what end? the feud between Jacob and the Man in Black, in all their forms, continued unabated. Sacrifices were made – including Ben’s own beloved daughter. Lots of blood, lots of suffering. And nothing ever changed. For al the talk of power and glory, for all the brutality meted out in pursuit of being proven right — how many factions were led to proclaim, at one point or another, “We’re the good guys”? –  each character’s internal struggle continued unresolved.

Until we got to the alternative life in L.A. Unsurprisingly, the alt-life of Ben Linus — a high school history teacher, rather than a leader of men – takes a particularly sharp turn. Away from the grand stage of Island leadership he can focus on his own humanity. Now he’s a caring son for his elderly, sickly, but no longer abusive, dad (Roger, who he personally gassed to death back in the Dharma initiative slaughter). He flirts with a grand power play – using a sex scandal to oust his truly odious high school principal – but backs away when the boss threatens to take vengeance on favorite student (if no longer his adoptive daughter) Alex.

Away from the allure of glory, Ben opts for the smaller, yet arguably more fulfilling, victories of tending to the specific needs of the people he values the most.

I’m still not certain if all of “Lost”‘s many philosophical/political/subtextural themes will ultimately add up to a tidy moral package. It could be that these threads serve only as dramatic enhancement: the conceptual fuel that pushes the action to a higher emotional pitch. But what seemed particularly evident to me last night was the deepening shadows surrounding all of the show’s leaders. Jack’s heroics often seem triggered by a combination of impulsiveness and stone-cold suicidal tendencies. Locke was/is driven by fear. Jacob, for all his fair-haired sweetness, comes off as manipulative and, possibly, wicked. The man in black, now best seen as NotLocke, simply destroys everything in his path. And God (or Jacob) only knows what Widmore and his submarine crew have in store for the Island and it’s paranormal powers.

Whatever’s going on between the Island reality and the Los Angeles reality, the quest for enlightenment seems far less complicated, and more fulfilling, the further you get from attempting to define, and control, the terms of right, wrong, truth and justice. Where the debate over health care policy matters less than rolling up your own sleeves and comforting the person nearest you.

"Lost" in Translation: "I always do what I say."

Definitely not a sunny-side-up kind of guy.

Mercenary, mobster, whatever, Martin Keamey has got the real evil flowing in his veins. During his island days a couple of seasons back he tromped the underbrush like a squared-away psychotic. Killed everything in sight. Murdered a terrified little girl while her father watched. Blew up the boat and crew that had delivered him, as a kind of backwards gratuity. (he had other reasons too, but still)  Q’uest que ce? Run, run, run away.

So no surprise that parallel Keamey, now a gleeful mobster in Los Angeles, has his goons deliver parallel Sayid to some kind of spotless industrial kitchen, where he greets him warmly, offers to make him eggs any way he likes, with toast. Sayid refuses, so Keamey shrugs and eats alone, promising to murder his guest’s brother, sister-in-law, children and dog (implied) if he doesn’t see to brother’s ongoing debt payments. So this isn’t going well at all for Sayid, particularly since he already turned down brother’s earlier plea that he mete out some two-fisted justice to these same thugs in order to avoid this very eventuality. Parallel Sayid said no way – he’s a different man now, no longer close to the Iraqi Republican Guard torturer he once was, hey, didn’t he set up his brother with his own beloved Nadia? For whom he still visibly, painfully, yearns?

The point: Parallel Sayid has kicked the darkness. He doesn’t do evil shit anymore, not for any reason, not even to protect his loved ones.

But may be he really doesn’t like eggs? Sayid certainly didn’t want to be threatened by Keamey and friends, he’s got this survival impulse like no other. And so whiz-bang-boom, suddenly things go quickly sideways for Keamey: Sayid thumps one mobster, snatches his gun and kills the other guy while said other guy accientally drills mobster #1. Keamey, no longer hungry, seems to kneel: Slow down! Let’s just forget about this, okay? Debt forgiven. Life goes on. We’ll just forget about this, okay?

Sayid: “I can’t.”

Kablammo.

So that’s it for Keamey, again, and that’s interesting enough ’til this muffled thumping comes from a walk-in freezer, in which alterna-Jin is inexplicably tied up and walk-in-freezing. WTF?  A real bad-ass would just drill this mystery Korean and get on with his far-less-complex life. But you just know he’s going to rescue this stranger, and give him his freedom.

Thus the essential conflict in Sayid’s soul: He’s extremely good at violence, and has used it against legions and legions of people, not always in the service of the most moral ideals. But Sayid is a moral person at heart. Or at least he really, reallly wants to be: He knows right from wrong, he yearns to save the innocent. It’s just that life keeps throwing him Keameys. When bad people come to town the good ones turn to Sayid and ask him, pretty please, to do some righteous ass-kicking.

For most of “Lost” Sayid served as a human animation of the US’s war against Iraq and (arguably) every armed conflict any self-described moral society has entered. We all know war is essentially brutal and ugly. Once you unleash the darkness you can never keep it from destroying the innocents.  And yet we do it again and again, cloaked in vibrant red, white and blue, with spotless white hats and the true conviction that God is on our side.

You aleady know the contradictions at work here: Can anyone use darkness in pursuit of justice? And once you do it once, is it ever possible to scrub the blood from beneath your ragged fingernails?

One of the most compelling things about “Lost” is that it doesn’t seem to know for sure. It’s a dramatic thriller that certainly wields the catalytic thrill of redemptive violence. But it also understands and makes (painfully) clear that the true toll of those battles can’t really be known or understood. Because even the victors lose something when they take out their antagonists. You kill a piece of your own soul when you extinguish someone else’s. And as Island Sayid — already pegged by Guru Donen as unredeemably evil — lost all grasp on his moral compass, eventually opening the gates of the temple to the true embodiment of evil (NotLocke/Smokey, Crazy Claire and probably worse) he really did believe he was acting as a liberator: Saving the innocents, killing their leader and his aide-de-camp (Lennon, whose round glasses and center-parted hair were clearly intended to evoke the peace-singing Beatle whose own divided heart was pierced by another psycho killer).

“I always do what I say,” NotLocke/Smokey promised crazy Claire. So does the USA, we like to believe. We storm in, kill the leaders, burn the villages and wait for the terified locals to shower us with flowers and thanks. And when they don’t — often because they’re too busy suffering the consequences of our redemptive violence — we shrug, declare victory and forget about it. It’s morning in America: Time for eggs, toast and a long, hot shower.

As if you could scrub the shadows from your soul. As if you really were light and verity, free of even a wisp of darkness.

I quote again from my song of the moment, Kasey Anderson’s beautiful, cihlilng “I Was a Photograph.”: “I was numb back then/I ain’t even numb no more.”