Remembering the mythological drama's strangest episode ever.

By Darren Franich
May 11, 2020 at 11:57 AM EDT
Advertisement
Mario Perez/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

It was not so common back then to see a woman give birth to twins right before getting her head crushed by an Emmy-winning actress. Lost was always a violent soap opera of the mind, complicating multiple sweetheart heroes with flashback killings, flavoring fourth-dimensional excursions with justifiable homicides. And the ABC serial’s final season trended brutal and sappy and demonic: necks slashed open over temple hot springs, dear departed loves resurrected in sunny sideways neverwhere, the god-ghost haunting a statue-shattering slave ship. A couple dead guys died again. Heroes returned with murder in their eyes. On May 4, 2010, a single submarine explosion killed three beloved characters.

None of which prepared anyone for "Across the Sea," the Dead Sea Scrolls version of Lost that aired one week later, 10 years ago today. It is the most controversial hour from one of the most controversial seasons in TV history. At a climactic moment, showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse delivered an episode without any main characters and lacking even the barest hint of cheeky self-awareness. Today, you expect the seventh or eighth part of a Netflix drama to indulge a breakaway gimmick, and the anthology model encourages structural experimentation, and everybody wants to cameo on everything. Lindelof and Cuse were serving up Allison Janney as the devouring Earth Mother of fatal love — on broadcast television, between commercials, in full burning view of a six-year viewership demanding Answers to Questions. The script settles one big mystery, mostly casts dim light on brand new puzzles. Lost was almost over, and here was a journey back beyond the beginning, eradicating any hope of straightforward explanation. “Across the Sea” is totally unique, obviously misconceived, and endlessly fascinating.

The third-to-last chapter of the series begins when a woman named Claudia (Lela Loren) washes ashore on The Island. She’s costumed for Ancient Times, with a pregnant belly wrapped inside a lipstick-red toga. She meets an ethereal local (Janney) with a double-dagger glare. They both speak subtitled Latin, before the language phase-shifts into English. Claudia goes into labor immediately; Lost was that kind of show. She names her first son Jacob. Before she has time to name the second, the ethereal woman slams a rock into her face. The camera moves toward the crying babies, one swaddled in black, the other in white. ABC still had standards, so the scene cuts before any blood spraypaints their cheeks. The sound effects tell the story: Smash, smash, smash.

Years pass. Jacob (Kenton Duty) and his brother (Ryan Bradford) grow up Dogtooth’d in paradise, with Janney as their never-named Mother. She styles her boys on the dark-light theme, cuts their hair so they look like the nicest and meanest dudes on 2006’s championship water polo team. Young Jacob comes off like a sap, even a tad simple. The other kid is dreamier, adventurous, smirkish. Mother warns them from interacting with The Island’s other inhabitants. "What makes them dangerous?" Jacob asks. "The same thing that makes all men dangerous," Mother says. "They come, they fight, they destroy, they corrupt."

She takes the boys to a secret place: A cave at the end of a river, with bright rays cascading outward. "A little bit of this light is inside of every man," she says. "If the light goes out here, it goes out everywhere."

At its brilliant best, Lost’s production design conjured bygone eras of enigma: a nuclear bunker’s exercise room, that book club brunching in leftover utopian ranch houses, the cabin in the woods where the empty chair isn’t. So the terrible cave effect carries a shocking silliness, reflecting the not-quite-there quality of the whole episode so far. Was there a budget problem? Everyone’s dressed for community Bible theater. The dialogue sounds like dueling liturgies. Janney, one of TV’s most charming stars, exudes blinkless monotone.

To be truly weird, you have to be just a little stupid. Lost was usually a product of post-ironic self-awareness, ladled with philosopher names and literary shoutouts, reflecting co-creator J.J. Abrams’ preference for witty action cuties quotemarking their own plots. This was, I think, the first popular TV show where a villain admitted to using a metaphor. "Across the Sea" brazenly scrapes all the meta away. There are no subplots, no sense anyone has any history. We learn just enough about Mother to know we’ll never learn anything about Mother. The only people with speaking roles are members of this diagonal family: Dead Mom, Murdering Stepmother, Cute One, Bad Boy. Even the thematics are akimbo. Lost was all about emotionally distant dads. Here, the men are boys, even when they grow up. The matriarchs might kill each other, but they’re still matriarchs, dominating their sons entirely. You note, maybe, Mother’s gendering statements: "makes all men dangerous," "inside of every man." Television wasn’t so obvious with political points back then, though, so any subtext is subliminal. There is love without lust. The characters are literally color-coded. All moral motivation constructs along a simple binary: Will you stay or go?

The specter of Claudia appears to the dark-haired child. She never stops smiling: Was death an antidepressant, or is she planning vengeance? (Jacob can’t see her; Jacob can’t do anything, man.) She reveals the maternal switcheroo. "It was all a lie!" the boy in black tells Jacob. Blondie can’t handle the truth, and beats his brother bloody. The dreamer goes prodigal, promising to flee across the sea. Jacob stays with Mother: A very forgiving son, or the world’s first documented case of Stockholm syndrome.

Mario Perez/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

———————————————————————

Some context might help. Jacob and the Man in Black first appeared in the season 5 finale, played by Mark Pellegrino and Titus Welliver. Or maybe the characters appeared earlier and forever, via discipled proxy and gaseous chicka-chicka, their presences tormenting castaways through crucibles of flagellating redemption. "Across the Sea" is their origin story. Watching it on May 11, 2010, the longtime viewer thrilled to cross-references and callbacks: Stolen Children, Black and White Rocks, Something Something Magnets.

Seen today, the episode is remarkably rebaffling, a distillation of everything that was ever good, bad, and strange about the series. "Across the Sea" holds a love-it-or-hate-it place in the Lost canon, and partially explains why Lost itself is a bit unsettled in the current rewrite of TV history. "Every question I answer will simply lead to another question," Mother says — and, okay, there’s a piledriver of meta, a warning (or an apology?) from the writers for anything unexplained. A couple weeks later, the series finale would turn frantic zealots into raging apostates. It was easy, for jilted lovers, to blame the glowing cave of important importance.

The fan rage has died down, or found new targets. Lindelof’s acclaimed later TV work grade-inflates "Across the Sea" into a mythic dry-run. Leftovers season 2 begins in another prehistory with another disaster-tossed pregnancy nightmare. Watchmen’s fantastic seventh episode indulges a breakaway gimmick with its own Garden of Eden imagery.

And yet, it’s impossible to recapture the feeling of Lost’s miraculous original run. It is one of the great TV shows, but it was crucially great as a TV show: The recurring weather event that was a network timeslot, released gradually enough to carry you from winter to summer. A binge can’t replicate one whole year spent pondering Mr. Eko’s essentiality, or how it felt waiting nine months to find out if a nuclear bomb exploded. The best episodes of Lost would simply become that week’s whole pop culture, deconstructed on an internet of friends. Sorry, kids, you had to be there.

———————————————————————

Three decades pass. Now Pelligrino is Jacob, and Welliver is the Man in Black. Mother hasn’t visibly changed, so they all look about the same age — another goofy effect, producing a helpless undercurrent of Oedipal flirtation. Jacob watches The Island’s humans from far away. "They don’t seem so bad to me," he says, always serene, or just absent.

The Man in Black isn’t some distant watcher. He’s reporting from the front lines of the human condition. "I’ve lived among them for 30 years," he tells Jacob. "They’re greedy, untrustworthy, manipulative, and selfish." He’s only using the tribe to help him leave The Island. Oh, they must be building a boat! would be the logical thought, and then he starts talking about digging holes where metal acts funny.

Welliver is incredible, incredible, incredible. The future Bosch was still a rising character actor, blessed by David Milch and Ben Affleck with small roles in big productions. His previous Lost appearances were quietly malevolent: You could tell the big note was Simmer More. He has to carry the episode's whole desperate emotion — which, by the transitive property of prequel logic, means he’s Atlas-ing the whole Lost saga on his back. In just a few scenes, he vividly proves this nameless nobody is The Island’s first prisoner, and the most imprisoned. He’s more desperate to escape than anyone on Oceanic Flight 815. Yet he has no home waiting for him, and the only thing he knows is that everything he knows is a lie.

The script’s not always there. At one point, he has to map out an escape requiring a big wheel, gleams of radiant subterranea, and "a system that channels the water and the light." (God, to be in that ancient architect planning session!) But Lindelof and Cuse craft him speech for the ages, rendering a whole broken life in a few immortal images:

I spent 30 years searching for that place you brought me as a child, that waterfall with that beautiful light. I’ve walked this island from end to end, not once coming close to finding it. But then I began to think. What if the light underneath the island... what if I could get to it from someplace else? Figuring out how to reach it took a very long time.

Welliver sells every turn here: A man’s memory of unrecoverable boyhood innocence, an impossible quest, that kickturn from victimized despair to predatory villainy in the line "But then I began to think." One overarching late-period Lost problem was how it reduced the main characters to pawns in a duel between two immortals in burlap. Welliver makes you believe the sudden-onset cosmology. He captures your attention, and sets up the hour's stunningly unreadable final act — an end-of-the-beginning climax way more compelling than the eventual finale’s worldsaving punchfest.

Mario Perez/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Pelligrino has less to work with. He might honestly just be confused by Jacob, like the rest of us. And his nonchalance pushes your sympathies further toward Welliver. Who, shockingly, only share one proper scene with Janney. The scene's a comet, though, and the West Wing star finally has real emotions to play. When Mother visits the Man in Black, Janney's trembling delivery suggests fear, and sorrow. They reconcile, hug — and then Mother bashes his head against a rock. (That was Lost’s final season: So many heads, so many rocks!)

Things are moving quickly now. Mother conducts a sacrament with unlovable Jacob, explaining that he has to "protect this place for as long as you can." The Man in Black discovers his escape well decimated beyond repair. Somehow, the whole human village has been destroyed, too. How did Mother do all that? He stabs her before she can explain. Dying, she says: "Thank you."

Then Jacob — the nice guy with the saintly face, the good son who loved his Mother, the protector of all that is shining in the hearts of men— beats the living hell out of his brother, throws him headfirst into another rock, and lets the (dead?) body float into the sunlit terror cavern. Black Smoke emerges: The Man in Black, Monstrified. And then the Man in Black’s body randomly appears downstream: Not dead, yet so dead.

Jacob puts his mother and brother side-by-side in the cave that was their home. A clip from season 1 recalls their discovery by the Lostaways. "Our very own Adam and Eve," says Locke (Terry O’Quinn), who was always so wrong about so many things. (Or maybe he's picking up on something? If this aired a few years later on HBO, the incest wouldn’t be implicit.) In the past, Jacob says "Goodbye" to the man he killed. We know they will spend centuries together, a shapeshifting ghoul and an immortal who never quite lived, playing a game where everyone else winds up dead. Does Jacob even understand what he’s done to the only person who never lied to him?

The biblical allusions bring up intriguing points of analysis: Adam and Eve, sure, in the garden with a devilish snake. Mother is all three: First human in the beautiful place, ruinous temptress, monster patrolling the mystical totem of power. The name "Jacob" conjures the early Hebrew patriarch, who stole a blessing intended for his brother. Certainly, it’s clear that Mother really wanted her non-idiot dark-haired boy to take over the family business. Yet her final “Thank you” implies that Welliver was embodying some enlightened notion of Judas, the traitor whose actions are a necessary backbone for a religion built on sacrifice. Any battling brothers conjure Cain and Abel, and that’s a complicated connection. Cain killed his brother out of spite. Here, Jacob is the violent killer, attacking his brother twice without provocation (and murdering him worse than death).

I’m standing in the shadow of our local god’s four-toed statue, so consider investigating my former colleague Jeff Jensen’s "Across the Sea" recap for more rigid analysis. To me, the obvious-yet-obscure haziness of interpretation is the ultimate unfathomable terror of “Across the Sea.” It turns out that the beginning of this whole elaborate tale is its own impossible web of confusion. How can something be too on-the-nose and too abstract at once? Mother talks and talks and talks, revealing priestly Island secrets — and we never learn a single proper fact about her. She is a lonely person, maybe, stealing the children as companions — but that kidnapping dooms them, and herself. Meanwhile, everything the Man in Black ever says or does is purely sensible — a young boy should not live with the woman who killed his mother; one ought not imprison people against their will. For his complete lack of sins, he is punished with an infinity of ruination.

You can almost spot the alternate version of "Across the Sea" where Mother’s dialogue nailed everything to the wall: I am an alien and The Island is my crashed spaceship, say, or The Glowing Cave is a psychotropic engine built in Atlantis where I was Chief Engineer, or even just I am a polar bear and so are you. Lostpedia’s “Across the Sea” theories deserve to be carved into tomb walls; one true believer claims Mother is a 20th-century time traveler because Janney speaks Latin with an American accent.

Would that have been preferable? Ten years later, "Across the Sea" offers another route for interpretation. Is this what Lost would have looked like if it never had to end? Could the saga extend backwards and forwards across time, different characters in different circumstances, sharing only a single location built on imaginatively flimsy logic? There are so many things wrong with “Across the Sea”: The lemme-pull-out-this-foam-rock set design, the other humans’ vacant presence, the inescapable sense that a multicultural adventure has become a duel between white dudes. But what a sheer last-minute burst of imagination, what an anthology unto itself! You have to respect the sudden insistence that Lost could be something utterly different from everything Lost had ever been.

———————————————————————

I’ll be honest. When I started this essay, I was going to make a point about how "Across the Sea" is a forgotten curio, sunk away into the depths in tidal wave of Lost’s contentious finale. Unexpectedly, the opposite is true: It was prophetic in the worst way.

Lost was mostly about people who didn't understand what was happening to them. They didn’t know where they were, or who to trust. They wanted to get home, and then they wanted to get away from home. This confusion was the show's point: A reflection of post-9/11 malaise, maybe, or a direct translation of how it felt in 2004 to be thrilled and scared of the internet.

Oh, you’d hear dialogue about saving the world from mad hermits or devious malefactors. But only in "Across the Sea" does the mission statement turns planetary. "If the light goes out here, it goes out everywhere," says Mother. (Here again, an incoherence that is both infuriating and tantalizing: How does she know this information? Why would she care if the world she spurns ended?)

One unavoidable bummer of "Across the Sea" is the palpable sense of grasping for gravitas, the writers struggling to justify their saga's success with moral value. The fatal flaw of Lost’s final act was how every character’s complicated individual journey wrapped up into an uncomplicated story about saving the world — and this has become the fatal flaw of Hollywood storytelling, period. Now it’s always Earth that must be saved, or the universe, or the multiverse. Lost’s moral confusion has been replaced by freakish certainty, a creepingly propagandistic insistence that superheroes or messianic zombie-killers or royalist space-knights are good people doing good things for good reasons.

All of which only heightens the elemental power of "Across the Sea." In this silly, eerie, unforgettable hour of television, God is the violent idiot son of a murderous maniac who never even trusted him with the secrets of the universe. The light is a lie. The Heart of The Island is a shadow.

———————————————————————

Postcript: It’s impossible to write about “Across the Sea” without addressing about the single most important piece of “Across the Sea” ancillary material. The fact that this happens to be an episode of Entertainment Weekly’s recap series Totally Lost should not be read as outlet bias on my part. You mean you haven't seen Titus Welliver and Mark Pelligrino argue over donkey wheels and cry about the seashell in Mother’s hair? The time is now:

Related content:

Comments