I knew this episode was coming for a couple of months, with rumors of a deep Jacob backstory in the works, with anticipation that it would deviate from Lost‘s storytelling norms and feature a notable guest star. But it’s worth pausing to recognize how bold and unconventional this episode was, especially coming in the final hours of a six-season series. It features no regular characters, aside from a brief flashback to a five-year-old episode. It takes place in an unspecified time, probably around the time of ancient Egypt Rome.* It focuses on three characters, only one of whom has a name (at least until the end), and one who has never been seen before. And it is one of only two episodes of the series that tells its story in chronological order (along with season 2’s “The Other 48 Days“) – conventional for other shows, but radical for Lost.
* UPDATE: Per Sean’s comment and blog link below, I buy that the shipwreck was Roman era. But that leaves the island’s Egyptian symbolism unclear, suggesting a previous habitation yet unseen.
Thus it’s not a surprise that the immediate reaction, at least on The Twitter, was highly divisive. Some celebrated the revelations, while many decried the lack of answers; while many saw it as a distraction from the main story, others enjoyed its mythic sweep. For me, the episode worked very well – not an all-time classic (yet), but an impressive attempt to fill-in vast swaths of backstory without getting too expositional. What stood out was how it truly embraced its mythological tone – we frequently refer to the longform backstory of serialized television as “mythology” (I believe this stems from X-Files fandom), but this episode was literally mythological. Littered with symbols and drawing upon a range of religious and mythic sources – twins! games of fate! murderous mothers! – “Across the Sea” paints the background for the island setting where we’ve spent so much time, but never knew how to find the glowing core. While the answers it provides may not be fully revelatory, they frame the show decisively as a modern myth, much like the sources that the producers frequently cite as role models: Star Wars and The Stand.
The idea that Jacob and Adam (the only name given to him in the episode) are brothers isn’t a huge shock, although I doubt many people anticipated that they would be twins raised by a murderous island protector looking for an heir. For a show steeped in tales of Bad Daddies, the origin story being centered around a Murderous Mommy (now Eve) was a shift. Though the show’s recent treatment of women has been problematic, a point made eloquently by Mo Ryan on her podcast two weeks ago,** making the island’s previous protector a woman makes me more convinced that Kate will end up in a similar role by the end of the series and that Locke’s willingness to dismiss her candidacy (and Claire’s usefulness) stems from centuries of stewing in his Mommy issues. As it often is with serial narrative, it’s hard to judge a show’s politics (and aesthetics) without the full arc in place.
** UPDATE: Mo continued her gender analysis in reviewing this week’s ep – but avoid the comments unless you want to get infuriated.
Much of the episode’s mythological chatter would read horribly on the page, but Lost‘s frequent ace-in-the-hole has been the quality of its actors being able to make hokum sound sincere. Even though Jacob and Adam are infrequent guest stars, and this is Allison Janney’s sole appearance, all three of them completely sell the stakes of their conversations, making me buy it despite the silliness of glowing streams, enchanted wine, and obscure rules. The tone of the episode was purposely broad, framing the mythic narrative as a pre-modern tale of archetypes and supernatural forces preceding science. I was on board with that tone, but it’s certainly not everyone’s taste – and for the viewers who are primarily invested in the arcs of the main characters, this was surely an annoyance and distraction from the show they thought they were watching.
But what about viewers who claim to want “answers”? I’m guessing for many, this episode was frustrating on that front as well. Rather than the style of explicit answers that annoyed me regarding the whispers, the deep mythology created a sense of understanding rather than explication. I have a much better sense of what the island is, why Jacob is tasked with its protection, and what the smoke monster represents – but I really can’t explain it in any way that would make any sense. Many fans want things more explicitly answered, but if that’s your goal, I think Lostpedia is a better site for rattling off answers – the show’s sense of mythic storytelling is more about grounding the narrative in a consistent world rather than filling in every gap.
Of course some answers were given. The origin of the donkey wheel was alluded to – I assume that Smokey worked with future inhabitants to install the wheel, only to discover that it didn’t allow him to escape, but rather moved the island in time and space. And Adam and Eve were clearly identified in a true surprise – not castaways travelled back in time, but truly the original figures of our story. I found that revelation quite satisfying (although I could have done without the replays from season 1), and the more I’ve thought about it, I think tying island’s the mythic sweep to one of the show’s first mysteries is pretty impressive – I have no illusions that the producers knew all this back in 2004 when we first discovered Adam and Eve, but they planted an open-ended seed that could yield a satisfying narrative payoff in the long-run.
The risk that doesn’t payoff was choosing to place “Across the Sea” as Lost‘s antepenultimate episode (sorry, but I had to slip that in…). It break-ups the narrative momentum from last week’s bloodbath, and risks pissing off viewers leading into the finale. Is there a reason why we couldn’t have known the backstory of Jacob and Smokey prior to now? As the only true stand-alone episode in the series history, it seems better suited to midway through the final season to deepen our understanding of the complex relationship and motivation between the dueling brothers. As is, it seems like Cuse & Lindelof wanted to keep it up their sleeve for a grand reveal, but I doubt it functioned quite as they’d hoped. But I still quite like the episode, grading on a curve for its audacity and degree of difficulty, and finding myself enjoying it even more as I think and write about it. And let’s hope that next week provides a more typical Lost experience to get the haters back on board.
Random favorite fanboy moment: “Every question I answer will simply lead to another question.” Thanks for giving me an epigraph to use in my book!