“A Tale of Two Cities” (originally aired 10/04/2006)

Myles: “It doesn’t matter who we were. It only matters who we are.”

Despite this sentiment, expressed by Juliet late in “A Tale Of Two Cities,” the opening scene of Lost’s third season is all about the past.

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At first blush, this connection to the past is self-reflexive: at this point we’re not shocked that a character’s eye is the first thing we see, the show developing its own visual language we recognize immediately. After opening the second season with a disorienting tour through the hatch with Desmond set to “Make Your Own Kind Of Music,” there’s a winking quality to vinyl being replaced by compact disc as Juliet grooves to Petula Clark’s “Downtown” while her book club muffins are burning in the oven. The situation is a bit different, with Desmond’s solitude replaced by a collection of neighbors who visit to discuss Carrie, but the disorientation is familiar: who is she? Who are they? Where are we? When are we? When we get our answer, we realize the scene’s not just a callback to Lost’s past flourishes: it’s a flashback, showing us the Others in the moments before Desmond didn’t press the button and Oceanic Flight 815 fell from the sky.

As with the opening to Season Two, it’s a stunning way to open the season, although it starts an episode that goes a step too far in using disorientation as a narrative tool. Perhaps fitting for the second and final episode of Lost J.J. Abrams is credited on (co-writing the teleplay with Lindelof), “A Tale Of Two Cities” is as much psychological experiment as television episode. The Others’ village in the cold open—easily our most substantial glimpse at the Others’ day-to-day existence—is completely absent from the rest of the episode, which takes place in a new Dharma station—the Hydra—instead. As Jack, Sawyer, and Kate adjust to life as captives, they each ask exactly the kinds of questions we’d ask, and every time—until the very end, at least—get answers that only serve to frustrate us further. “Where are we,” Kate asks? “You don’t really think I’m going to answer that do you,” Mr. Friendly replies. Juliet walks away when Jack asks what the hell is going on here, and Mr. Friendly similarly ignores Sawyer when he asks how many bears were in the cages.

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All three characters are being run through experiments designed to break them down, each move calculated and purposeful. Ben all but admits this to Kate as he tortures her with breakfast in handcuffs, a not-so-subtle reminder of her criminal past: he says “the next two weeks are going to be very unpleasant,” and he means it. Jack is dehydrated and trapped in an aquarium, flashing back to the last time he was separated from the people he cared about (his divorce from Sarah); Sawyer, meanwhile, is trapped in the bear cages forced to work his way through the logic puzzle of attaining a fish biscuit, a test to see if he can put think his way through a situation he’d normally solve with brute force. The Others know what they’re doing, which is why Kate and Sawyer end the episode in neighboring cages, and why they give Jack just enough answers—in this case revealing they have access to information from off the island, and that Sarah is happy—to earn his trust.

And yet the biggest experiment of all is what “A Tale Of Two Cities” does to its audience by entirely ignoring every other character on the show. Although the second season similarly divided its early narrative between different characters, the isolation wasn’t this extreme, and there was a single uniting cliffhanger—the hatch—that most characters were tied to. In this case, however, there are three characters—Locke, Desmond, and Eko—whose fates are hanging in the balance, and Lindelof and Cuse’s script gives us no insight into what’s happening with them or any other characters back on the beach. Ben’s explanation to Kate that he brought her to the beach for breakfast so she could feel connected to her friends seeing the same ocean is as much for us as it is for her, a cruel reminder that our answers in that area are going to remain a stretch of ocean—or at least an episode—away.

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While it’s true that returning to “A Tale Of Two Cities” knowing what happens to those characters means the experiment doesn’t have the same effect, I still felt the episode was putting me into a subject position, breaking me down much as Juliet was breaking down Jack through his isolation. And given this, then, it seems like a great place to take advantage of having two different perspectives on an episode—and, ultimately, a range of episodes—that have become among the series’ most divisive. Given that we’re converging with the point that A.V. Club contributor Noel Murray began episodic coverage of Lost in its fourth season during TV Club’s early days, it only made sense to bring Noel in to get his perspective on some of the season’s most pivotal episodes, and it pays immediate dividends in being able to get a different point of view on the positioning of this premiere.

Noel: It is strange, I agree, to watch this episode again knowing both what’s going to happen on the show (nothing much for roughly the next dozen episodes) and why (because Lindelof and Cuse were spinning their wheels until they could negotiate an exit strategy with ABC). I’ve come to look at the first six episodes of season three in particular as a meta-commentary on what Lost was going through at the time: stuck in a cage, asking questions with no immediate answers.

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But during my years of reviewing the show—and in the years since—I always argued that what ultimately mattered was whether the writers were producing entertaining, thought-provoking hours of television, not so much whether they had some ingenious long-range plan. I’m not going to pretend that the way Lost ended (which I still mostly like, by the way) doesn’t affect the way I process, say, the machinations of Ben Linus, a character who will turn out to be less of an evil genius than he’s made to seem at the start of season three. But nothing that ever happened on Lost diminished my affection for these characters or my fascination with the weird place they landed. So watching “A Tale Of Two Cities” now, the only relevant question to me—again, that’s to me—is, “Is this episode enjoyable, in and of itself?”

The answer? Sort of.

As you note, the opening is one of Lost’s best-ever. Aside from giving us our first look at Otherton, in all its cheery exurban normalcy, the first scene offers a new perspective on the big plane crash (as jaw-dropping as ever), followed by that stunning series of pull-backs that position Juliet and her friends and colleagues on the island. Lost’s greatest asset from week to week was its ability to knock the viewer sideways with images and ideas—and damn it, most of them are still as exhilarating as they ever were.

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Also amusing: Ben’s curt “I guess I’m out of the book club” to Juliet, Mr. Friendly’s mocking “You got yourself a fish-biscuit” to Sawyer, and a handful of other lines and gestures that at the time were a fine welcome back after a long, Lost-less summer. But “A Tale Of Two Cities” also hints strongly at the troubles to come in its flashback sequences, which already show that Jack’s pre-Island storyline was pretty well played-out by this point. You’re right Myles that the flashbacks serve a thematic purpose, reinforcing Jack’s stubbornness and his insatiable, downright destructive curiosity. But man are they a drag to sit through. Shouty Jack was never the best Jack, and the whole red herring about Sarah possibly having an affair with Jack’s father Christian is unproductive both as mythology and as drama.

I have to confess something here. Although I just said that nothing that happened on Lost has changed the way I still feel about the show, I can’t include what’s happened since the finale. I mean that both positively and negatively. My distaste for Shouty Jack is influenced significantly by the unpleasant stories of Matthew Fox’s private life, which have painted him as something of a brute. As a result, it’s not all that fun to watch him yell at women and shove men around, even in character.

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On the positive side though, Lindelof’s subsequent stellar work on The Leftovers makes me feel a smidgen more charitable toward to the Jack flashbacks here. There’s clearly something personal to Lindelof in stories about impulsive men who feel alienated from their spouses, from their parents, and from any sort of spiritual comfort. I don’t think that Lindelof conveys those feelings as effectively in “A Tale Of Two Cities” as he has in The Leftovers. (This episode is way, way too histrionic.) But I see some of Lost as a kind of rough draft for its creators’ later work, which I think is a fruitful way for even those disenchanted with Lost to look back on the series. In the end, even more than its impressive world-building, this show was an ambitious effort by Lindelof and Cuse to dramatize the big questions of life—not just “What was the Dharma Initiative?”

Myles: I think you hit on one of the big issues with the third season here: while it ultimately goes into the books as the season where Lindelof and Cuse made the decisions necessary to dramatize Lost’s long-term mythology, the road there is fraught with friction as the way to move the “story” forward struggles to find place for meaningful character development. While Lost’s greatest strength in its first season was the way the basic setup served as a natural source of momentum, the second season began the process of revealing it as exhaustible, and “A Tale Of Two Cities” confirms that while the show is still in comfortable territory teasing us with new reveals, they blew up the narrative engine that kept the second season relatively on the rails—the hatch—and have yet to find the replacement. While the refusal to sketch in a clearer sense of the narrative framework for the season serves the thematic goals of the episode, it elides an entire section of the conflicts facing the show’s characters while simultaneously eliding—as you note—the looming problems facing the show as a whole.

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There’s always been an inherent self-reflexivity to Lost, and so your description of the opening six episodes as a meta-commentary is certainly apt—we see it during the book club’s discussion of Carrie, when the book’s shift into science fiction is met with derision. But while this was largely successful back in season one—I’m thinking of the constant mixing up of Scott and Steve, for example—as a source of levity, its presence risks indicting the creative vision of the show. It suggests the writers are selectively self-reflexive, aware enough of certain concerns while visibly struggling to come to terms with others. If the writers know the delicate balancing of genre elements is crucial to the series’ long-term viability, should they also know that yet another repetitive Jack flashback featuring a hackneyed paternal cuckold red herring isn’t something that serves the character or the show?

The most impressive thing about these opening six episodes—which I’m on record defending circa 2007, although we’ll see how I feel in 2015—is that they pick up the premiere’s lead and push us to ask these tough questions of the show and its shepherds, questions that could easily sink a lesser series. Here, though, these questions end up being crucial to the audience and the creators each coming to formative conclusions about what, who, and when Lost is at the end of the day, conclusions that will eventually serve as the foundation for the end of its journey.

Stray observations:

  • I’m incredibly thrilled to have Noel joining me to bridge our TV Club Classic coverage with TV Club’s initial coverage of seasons four to six. He’ll be dropping in periodically, at which point we’ll be focusing on a single episode—in-between those crosstalks, I’ll be covering two episodes at a time as per tradition, including for the next three weeks. Noel will be back to discuss “Flashes Before Your Eyes” on April 1, and will—schedules permitting—be back six more times as the season progresses. [MM]
  • Whereas the opening to season two left Desmond’s identity largely obscured throughout, we get to “meet” Juliet pretty early here, and her incredibly charming head nods to “Downtown” are an early sign of the character’s warmth. [MM]
  • Speaking of positioning, Michael Giacchino’s score gets to play a bit in this episode, particularly in Kate’s purposefully surreal breakfast with Ben on the beach—the production job does some nice work bringing the physical dimension to the experiment beginning with the three captives, but Giacchino has more access to the psychological side, and uses it effectively (if sparsely). [MM]
  • Can I also give a thumbs-up to director Jack Bender’s work on this episode, which was far more visually dynamic than I’d recalled? In the Sawyer scenes in particular, he does some interesting push-ins and perspective shots that really bring home the character’s disorientation. [NM]
  • I would add to this that the episode also brings back the “first-person” camera work that we saw at the beginning of the second season, this time with Kate as she’s walked to her breakfast date with Ben. [MM]
  • I saw someone tweet recently that Josh Holloway was an expert at making PG-rated swearing sound like real swearing, and so his pointed “son of a bitch” early in this hour stood out more than usual. [MM]
  • Two of my favorite Lost conceits pop up in “A Tale Of Two Cities:” worn-out technology, and Alice In Wonderland references. I love the big Knife & Fork button in the polar bear cage, and the little “WEAR THIS” note on the summer dress Ben picks out for Kate. [NM]
  • Lost Book Club: So, there’s literally a Lost book club in this episode, which I feel makes this feature redundant (and yet also justified); throw in the Dickensian title, and it’s a jackpot. [MM]
  • Daddy Issues Alert: I’m not even going to bother filling in the rest of this. You saw the episode; you know what I’d write here. [MM]

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Spoiler Station (only read if you’ve seen the entire series):

  • I feel I should clarify my “Ben’s not an evil genius” comment. Ben’s obviously a smart, resourceful guy who sees several moves ahead and manipulates people for his own oft-nefarious ends. But for Lost’s narrative purposes, he’s initially made to seem like the man with all the answers, and as the story plays out, we’ll learn that he’s actually either incurious or openly disdainful about Dharma, and about the ancient history of The Island. I actually like this about Ben, that he’s figured out how to use all these scientific gizmos and supernatural forces to make himself into a petty despot. But like a lot of elements that the writers introduced to Lost to add dramatic spice, Ben’s puppet-master persona in “A Tale Of Two Cities” is less meaningful than first-time viewers may think. [NM]
  • I enjoyed that Sawyer and Juliet’s first meeting involved a taser—I had forgotten that their origins, already complicated by the love rhombus of it all, were so charmingly violent. [MM]
  • Also good to get an early glimpse at Juliet’s keen understanding of what makes the men on The Island tick, be it Sawyer, Ben, or Jack. Though I’m not crazy about Jack in this episode, I do think Juliet immediately diagnosing his stubbornness and saying “I know it feels like you’re giving up” is a useful bit of insight. [NM]
  • One of my most difficult tasks in these reviews has been trying to decide what to call Tom if I’m staying true to what we knew at this point in the story. Do we know his name is Tom at this point? Has the Mr. Friendly name spread as a result of the official podcast? Did anyone pick up on the meaning of “Kate, you’re not my type” at the time? [MM]

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