"Lost" tends to have really strong penultimate episodes each season, in part because the show's natural ups and downs are best suited to the set-up, with the characters at their lowest, and the conclusion, as they band together to fight whatever enemy is currently giving them trouble. This week's episode, "What They Died For," was a solid episode that moved a lot of plot in an hour, but also did it in some surprising ways: The Los Angeles timeline has been the season's main gimmick, and it will apparently now be tied into the series finale in a big way. But other moments -- notably the brevity with which Jacob dispelled certain rumors -- were refreshing in their candor and helped the story feel more real. Overall, another solid set-up of all the pieces for the final play.
The Los Angeles Timeline
The action opens with a close-up of Jack's eye. He wakes to find blood on his neck --another evidence of one timeline punching a hole in reality to affect another -- but washes it off before sitting down to breakfast with David. David's excited about his concert that night, which Jack promises to attend, though he's not wild about running into David's mother. (Her name is once again held back, meaning her identity will be among the many reveals in the finale.) Claire walks in and joins them for cereal as Jack gets a call from Oceanic saying they've finally found his dad's coffin and that it's on its way to the city. But this is just the first of what will be many surprises for Jack: The guy on the phone is just Desmond, screwing with him from right outside in his car.
Later, Desmond's scoping out Locke at his school when Ben shows up and starts shouting and threatening to call the cops. Desmond, who in this timeline does not take any crap at all, jumps out and starts pummeling Ben, triggering Ben to have a flash of being beaten on the pier by Desmond in the other timeline. Desmond tells Ben he wasn't trying to kill Locke, just get him to "let go." He tosses Ben and bails.
Ben gets patched up in the nurse's station and tells Locke about his run-in with Desmond, adding that he believed him when Desmond said he didn't want to kill Locke but change his life. "I think I saw something," Ben says. Locke starts to call the cops but is talked down when Ben mentions letting go, paralleling the conversation Locke had with Jack about his reluctance to undergo surgery. Locke is starting to put things together, too, especially after the way he stopped short when Jack quoted his own other-universe suicide note back to him.
Meanwhile, down at the police station, Miles is getting dressed up for a show at his dad's museum that night when Desmond walks in and turns himself in for running over Locke and assaulting Ben. (So I'm guessing the assault was reported even though Locke didn't call the cops.) Sawyer's a bit taken aback at the surrender but is all too happy to march Desmond back to the holding cell. Desmond's pleased, too, but his happiness makes more sense when his cellmate turns out to be Sayid, with Kate just a couple cages down. Desmond is the non-crash world's Ben: He always has a plan.
A little later, Ben runs into Alex at school, and she's so saddened by his injuries and story of being in a fight that she insists on giving him a ride home with her mom, Danielle Rousseau. (We haven't seen her -- the older adult her, anyway -- since she was killed in the fourth season's "Meet Kevin Johnson.") They take Ben in and insist on having him stay for dinner, an exchange that leads to the most groan-worthy line of the night: Rousseau says Ben's coming to dinner, "even if we have to kidnap you." Ha ha, the symmetry, ha ha. Ben enjoys his dinner at the Rousseau home, but he's moved to tears to learn from Danielle that Alex looks at him like a father. He clearly loves her, too, and it's nice to see them together in a world where no one's been murdered or manipulated by a smoke monster.
Later on, Locke pays a visit to Jack. He comes clean about originally wanting nothing to do with Jack, but then he lays out the evidence -- sharing a flight, winding up under Jack's knife after his accident -- that has convinced Locke that maybe there's a reason he and Jack have met. Terry O'Quinn does a great job at playing Locke as a reluctant believer, and it's nice to see him struggling with the ideas that would become firm convictions for his other world's self. Jack balks a bit, saying Locke is "mistaking coincidence for fate," but he comes around when Locke says he wants to have the surgery and get out of his wheelchair.
Back at the station, Sawyer opens up the cages so Sayid, Kate, and Desmond can be escorted out for their trip to county. Kate tries to get him to let her out, insisting that her claims of innocence ought to be enough for a sworn officer of the law to spring her, but Sawyer turns her down, though he does hesitate a bit. Out in the van, traveling to the jail, Desmond starts telling Kate and Sayid he can get them out of their predicament. Sayid tells Kate not to listen to the crazy guy, but they both half-seriously agree to do what Desmond says when the van stops and give him their trust in exchange for freedom. To their surprise, the van does soon stop. The rear door pops open to reveal Ana Lucia standing there, asking loudly which one of them is Hume and who's got her money. She is the world's shittiest corrupt cop. They've arrived at the docks, as likely a place as any for a casual prison break. She lets them all out as Hurley pulls up in his big yellow Hummer; he and Des are now apparently pretty tight, and he calls Ana Lucia by name, though she doesn't recognize him. Apparently, Hurley's remembered more about the other timeline than anyone else so far. Desmond tells him Ana Lucia's "not ready yet," which implies that some of the characters are ready to be turned and others won't be. Hurley gives Ana Lucia an envelope with $125,000, and she takes her leave. Desmond sends Sayid off with Hurley and takes Kate to the car he's got waiting, procuring a dress for her to wear. "We are going to a concert," he tells her. So it looks like Desmond and the people he's visiting will wind up paying a visit to the concert taking place at Miles' dad's museum and at which David Shephard will play. That's gonna be a busy party.
The Island Timeline
Lots going on here, so I'll move through it quickly.
The scattered remains of the castaways are a ragtag, pathetic lot in the dawn light, with Kate suffering massive blood loss and Sawyer and Hurley staring out at the ocean in a depressed daze. I liked how Jack had to sew up her shoulder on the fly, mirroring the job she did for him in the pilot episode. Kate and Jack agree that the thing passing as Locke must be killed, and Jack's plan to go find Desmond and go to the mattresses rouses Sawyer and Hurley back to action.
Off in the jungle, Ben, Miles, and Richard -- not seen since they split from Jack, Hurley, and Sun in "Everybody Loves Hugo" -- are headed to the Barracks to get some C4 from Ben's secret closet. Miles has some flashes when they hit the village, and it's revealed that Richard buried Alex in a shallow grave near Ben's house. Ben believably thanks him for this kindness before leading them inside the house and then the hidden closet full of cash and clothes, as well as the door to the chamber where Ben would go to summon the monster. "That's before I realized it was the one summoning me," Ben says. They grab the C4 and leave to find Zoe in the kitchen with Widmore appearing from around the corner.
Widmore sends Zoe to go sink the outrigger they used to get there while he and Ben do some typical verbal sparring. Learning of their plan, Widmore tells Ben he's had the Ajira plane wired for days now -- meaning it was his bomb that wound up killing Sayid and wrecking the sub -- adding that he came back to the island because Jacob visited him and made him see the error of his ways. Zoe radios that the Man in Black just showed up at the dock.
Jack's group hikes through the jungle toward the well Desmond is apparently trapped in, which is when Sawyer realizes his complicity in his friends' deaths and Jack tells him that the accident was MIB's fault, not Sawyer's. While hiking, Hurley sees a vision of Jacob as a boy that disappears and then springs up behind him. He asks for the ashes Hurley took from Ilana's stuff that she'd taken from the foot of the statue after Jacob died, and when Hurley produces the bag, the boy grabs it and runs. Hurley chases him to find the adult Jacob sitting at a fire. When the fire's gone, "you'll never see me again," Jacob tells him, adding that it's time to round up the rest and do some talking. "We're very close to the end now, Hugo."
Back at the Barracks, Ben gives Miles a walkie-talkie and tells him to stay in touch, and he takes off to hide in the jungle. Widmore and Zoe hide in Ben's enormous closet of deception and explosives while Richard heads out to try and talk with MIB and distract him by feigning allegiance to him. Richard strolls into the deserted courtyard but is promptly knocked who knows where by the smoke monster. I don't think he's dead -- not so suddenly, not like that -- but for now, he's gone. Ben sits on his porch as MIB ambles into view. MIB offers to give Ben the island in exchange for killing some more people, which is apparently all the prompting Ben needs to turn on Widmore. He leads the Man in Black inside and into the secret room, where Widmore and Zoe are nervously standing. MIB cuts Zoe's throat after Widmore tells her not to talk -- which thank goodness, because she was pointless to introduce this late in the game -- and then threatens to kill Penny when he gets home unless Widmore cooperates. Widmore tells MIB he brought Desmond to the island as a "measure of last resort" because of his resistance to electromagnetism; he leans in to whisper more at MIB's request but is soon shot by Ben. Widmore drops to the ground, dead.
Out in the jungle, it's for some reason dark when Jack's crew all reach Jacob at his fire. Jacob tells them he brought them all there to remedy "a mistake" he made a long time ago, and that he's responsible for the monster being the way he is. Now that he's dead, someone else will have to step up and protect the light at the center of the island from the monster. Kate asks why she's not a candidate, and Jacob highlights the arbitrary nature of his system by telling her he only did that when she became a mom, and that the job's hers if she wants it. "It's just a line of chalk in a cave, Kate," he says. It's the perfect way to get at the heart of the issue while brushing aside some of the narrative's red herrings. Jack, as he's been preparing himself to do for a while, steps up and says, "I'll do it. It's why I'm here." He and Jacob head down to a stream while the others watch and wait. These are some of the most human moments they've had recently, with Sawyer making an awkward joke, Kate hushing him into compliance, and Hurley expressing gratitude that he's not the chosen one. Down at the water, Jacob tells Jack that the light to be guarded is just past the bamboo trees where Jack woke after crashing in 2004. Jack doesn't remember the light, but Jacob assures him it's there. Jacob then performs the ritual his mother did centuries before, scooping up some water, speaking a chant, and letting it drop down to the stream to be scooped up again in a cup from Jack's pack. As Jack takes the cup, he asks how long he has to do his new job. "As long as you can," Jacob replies. Jack drinks, and Jacob says, "Now you're like me."
On another part of the island, Ben and MIB reach the well only to find Desmond isn't in it, so they can't send their love down to him, and they also see a rope leading up out of it the well. The Man in Black is surprisingly upbeat about this turn of events, explaining to Ben that before he shot Widmore, Widmore had already told MIB that Desmond was there as a fail-safe if nothing else worked. The Man in Black says he's going to hunt down Desmond and use him to do the one thing he's never been able to do: destroy the island.
And that's that. Like I said, tons of solid set-up for what's going to be a packed series finale. I liked seeing Jack step up to protect the island, bringing the central conflict in a way back to the Jack-Locke head-butting of the first season. The island's been calling him ever since he left. I also liked the way Ben pulled another 180 and helped the Man in Black mow down Zoe and Widmore. But weren't there rules governing that? Ben seemed to allude to being unable to kill Widmore in the fourth season's "The Shape of Things to Come," but he lit the old man's ass up this time. Why the change? I also think it's highly likely that Ben is willing to kill his enemies but that he's also no friend to the Man in Black. Ben's sorrow and desire for acceptance were so strong and legitimate earlier this season that it'd be a shame (and too easy) for him to just go back to being a ruthless killer.
There's not much more to say before we head into the finale. It airs Sunday and runs two and a half hours, and while I'm sure it will cover a lot of ground, many mysteries will remain just that. (Movieline had a great round-up a few weeks back of major questions still unanswered at that point, and though some have since been addressed, like Jacob and the Man in Black, there are plenty of others that might never be dealt with. Vulture had a similar rundown of the series' most pointless episodes, too.) I'm not even sure what I want answered and what I can accept being ignored, but I'd like to have some semblance of a rough timeline charting the arrival of DHARMA and their importance. It feels a lot like they've been given the shaft this season. Also, what was up with Taller Ghost Walt? And the people who shot at Sawyer's time travelers in the outrigger last season? Will Miles show back up? Will one timeline destroy the other, or reset it? Can the Man in Black ever be killed, or merely contained? Why did Cindy join the Others? Where did the numbers come from? What's with the Hurley bird? Etc., etc., etc.
Finally, some among you might have noticed a theme among the headlines I've been using for this season's recaps. I've used different themes for each season I've done, purely for the fun of trying to scare up a little extra meaning from existing sources and tie the season's posts together. For the fourth season, it was Beatles lyrics and titles; last year, it was epigraphs from "The Wire" (a show whose dimension, characters, and impact puts "Lost" to shame in such a gigantic way it's barely worth talking about, if we're being honest); this year, it's been something else. The first commenter to name the theme of the headlines wins -- you guessed it -- a warm feeling of self-fulfillment that's beyond any price. (UPDATE: We have a winner.)