Apologies for the tardiness of this post, as last night was only the second time in Lost history that I missed the first run of an episode. Interestingly, I enjoyed having the night and early this morning to think about what I watched in “What They Died For,” and hopefully that makes this post better.
Anyway, pretty great right?“What They Died For” is, at its core, a traditionally chess piece episode. However, it would take a lot of persuading for someone to convince me that this wasn’t the best chess piece/penultimate episode in the series’ history. It transitioned through various tonal shifts beautifully, answered questions in a satisfying way and gave us a number of fantastic character moments. All in all, I cannot see how anyone wouldn’t like this effort. Moreover, it seems to me that it should have calmed the fears of those fans who didn’t care for last week’s “Across The Sea,” as it carried through some of the themes and stories from that episode and made them completely relevant to the surviving members of the A-Team (my main complaint with “Sea”).
But most importantly, this episode presented us with what could be the final piece of evidence in one of the fans’ major concerns with the current story — agency. A lot of us have been wondering about the place of the original survivors amid this centuries-long struggle between the Man in Black and Jacob. There was valid concern about the characters’ lack of agency and ability to control their own destiny? Did they have free will? Was it all just a pre-determined path laid out for them by a mystical being? Were they pawns or other pieces on the board that could make real, important moves that influence their lives and the lives of their friends? Well, after “What They Died For,” it is readily apparent to me that Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Hurley and really everyone else does, in fact, agency. One of the most subtle, but poignant and important “answers” the series has ever delivered came via the sort-of reborn Jacob, who told Kate that her name being crossed out on the wall was “just chalk on a wall.”
Thus, while Jacob did bring them to the island, every choice they made was not dictated by some master plan. He knew that he needed someone to take his place and now clean up the messes he’s made, but he was never going to force it upon anyone. So, it’s all been a choice. Some of them chose to leave the island at one time and because something was just eating at them inside — as Jacob said, they needed the island as much as it needed them — they chose to come back. And Jacob tells them that they can choose to take his place if they want. No one is going to be forced to do anything — although very bad things would happen if they all said, “no thanks.”
It might not seem like one in the shadow of “What is the Smoke Monster?” or “Who are the Others?” but this might be the most important answer the series has ever given us. Not only does it make everything we’ve watched feel more important, but it makes it all worthwhile in the end. When Jack gives his strong speech to Jacob about taking up the mantle because he now understands that John Locke was right all along about the island being a special place and now understands that this is exactly what he was meant to do — but not pre-determined or forced to do — it’s the ultimate choice, the ultimate example of agency. And Jacob’s response to Jack — “Is that a question, Jack?” — is the mythical man’s confirmation of all his hard work over these centuries. He can’t tell people to do anything if they’re to meet their ultimate path, so it’s not a question he can answer for Jack. He can give him the choice and Jack can — and does — choose to accept it.
Though Jack has become the ultimate man of faith — what an amazing arc for a hero, right? — I can’t help but think of poor John Locke. He was the original man of faith, but believed so hard in destiny and a specific path that it allowed him to be manipulated by a man/creature that believes humans are worthless, greedy, destructive creatures. John Locke never thought he had a choice, he thought the island had a “plan” for him — but he was wrong. Interestingly, if he could have been more welcoming to Jack’s more rational thinking and ability to make your own choices, Locke might have became the special man he wanted to be. But he lost his agency once the island gave him back his legs because he never took his eyes of the path to see the manipulation around him.
And if we move over to the flash-sideways universe, it looks like the endgame there is going to come down to choice as well. Here we see Desmond almost play the Jacob role, as he continues to put all sorts of people in the places they need to be, but nowhere is he forcing anyone to do anything. He calls Jack as an Oceanic representative and says that he can come to LAX to his now-found father’s body. He beats the hell out of Dr. Ben Linus until he sees flashes of the dock beating Ben took from Desmond right before he got on Aijra 316. Finally, he turns himself in for said beating and for running over Locke, which allows him to get into contact with Sayid and Kate (and I guess Sawyer a little bit). In the end, Desmond uses Hurley — who is completely aware of everything it seems — to bribe Ana Lucia so that he, Kate and Sayid can be free to attend a concert at Pierre Chang’s museum. The same benefit concert that Jack’s son is playing at, so Jack will be there. The same concert that Miles is trying to (and surely will) convince Sawyer to attend.
Thus, as he said, Desmond wants to put people in the position so that they can “let go” of this fantasy world, and based on the confirmed agency the characters have, “let go” is going to mean, choose. I’m guessing that the choice will be slightly different for everyone, as Locke’s purpose seems to be to have the surgery Jack wants to do for him while Ben’s is clearly something associated with Alex and Danielle. But for the most part, everyone is going to be at this concert…and something is going to happen. I’m still unclear what in the world that will be, but it will involve the characters making a choice to let go, wake up and move on.
I could write about agency and the battle between free will and pre-determined destiny forever, but let’s move on and come back to that once the series comes to an end THIS SUNDAY. Tear. It’s not like the rest of “What They Died For” was full of aimless fluff. Oh no.
If I can for a moment return to the conversation between Jacob and the remaining candidates, because those scenes more or less verify that we needed “Across The Sea.” Not only does it allow us to watch this final once-the-fire-goes-out-I’m-gone version Jacob with a critical eye, but without some of those scenes from last week, crucial scenes this week wouldn’t have been as effective. Without “Across the Sea,” people would have been screaming, “WHAT DO YOU MEAN HE CREATED SMOKEY?” so there’s that. Also confusing without last week: Jacob whispering over the water, giving it to Jack to drink and then saying “Now you’re like me.” People would have lost their minds if those events would have occurred without any context or other information.
Additionally, this Jacob’s heartfelt remorse here for his part in turning MIB into the Smoke Monster was a needed and wonderful shade of humanity to the wise and all-knowing Jacob. This wasn’t the time to have Jacob be coy or withholding with any information, and while he definitely gave the A-Team answers, he also connected with them on an emotional level. He admitted that the reason he chose them for island duty was because they were just like him — alone and broken. It was compelling to see this Jacob, completely self-aware and knowledgeable of all his mistakes and actions, just one week after seeing a man-child version that created this whole mess in the first place because he was way too reactive. And again, for the endgame to be relevant and important to the remaining candidates, he needed to admit that this was all his doing and without them, bad things would happen. If this is the last time we see Jacob, I’m happy with his final appearance.
It’s possible we saw some other characters for the last time in this episode as well. RIP Zoe, well, not really. Richard got Smoked Monster’d, but since we didn’t see anything body-wise and Richard is more important than someone like Frank, I have to image we will see him at least one more time. Widmore also dies at the ends of Ben after revealing to NotLocke his plan with Desmond and noting that he came back to the island because Jacob came to him with a new purpose. It is definitely disappointing to see Widmore go out so quickly, but we all knew that Ben would kill him eventually and I guess the battle between the two of them was just one of those things that was cut out by the WGA strike in S4. I don’t feel like we’re missing a whole lot there, especially since the writers smartly added in the little bit about MIB killing Penny. That allowed Ben’s murdering of Widmore to be more connected to their original conflict, buttoned by Ben’s “he doesn’t get to save his daughter” line. I’d almost want to say that I would have been more okay with Widmore’s story if he just wouldn’t have came back to the island at all in S6, but I guess we needed Desmond.
Before we get to Widmore’s plan with Des, let’s talk about Ben, because he was back for the first time in awhile and back with a vengeance. Though he joins up with NotLocke in this episode, kills Widmore and vows to wax some more fools in the future, I have to believe that the decision to give Ben a more sympathetic turn wasn’t just because — he’s playing NotLocke. He would have killed Widmore no matter what, and Ben is always smart enough to look out for himself, so even though he was ready to be murdered at the beginning of the episode, he understands that playing along with NotLocke’s game for a little while keeps him alive and gives him the ability to meet up with people who might be able to help him. I’ve said from the beginning of the season that I thought Ben would have some sort of hero turn this season and I still believe it. And I believe he can con NotLocke because Ben is the best con man on the island. We were all worried about Sawyer’s decision to mess with NotLocke and we were right, but if we go back to season three’s “Every Man For Himself,” Ben tells Sawyer that he is a good con man, but he and the Others are better. So here’s to Ben getting the job done in the end.
Widmore tells NotLocke that Jacob wanted to use Desmond as a fail-safe, which requires an ability to withstand electromagnetism. We still don’t know the specifics of this plan, but it’s surely going to require Desmond going to the center of the island and doing something very heroic. Remember, Widmore told Desmond that he would have to make a sacrifice. Maybe that directive from Widmore really came from Jacob and we’ll see that conversation in the finale. Probably not though. But now, NotLocke wants to use Desmond to destroy the island. I assume that destroying the island doesn’t allow NotLocke/MIB to actually leave does it? Is he just so fed up with all this that he’s ready to let it all go? Or maybe destroying the island DOES let him free?
That means NotLocke and Ben are on their way to the center the island, just as Jack and company surely are. Somewhere out there in the jungle a freed Desmond is running around, waiting to be found. And Miles is also skirting around from danger out there somewhere — but he surely won’t last long. Claire too! And in Sunday’s final episode, Desmond and Jack are going to have to make some tough choices about how to save the island and how to kill NotLocke. But at least we now know that they will have a choice.