“Every Man For Himself” (originally aired 10/25/2006)

In last week’s comments, someone rightfully noted that for someone who claimed that he would be defending the early episodes of season three, I didn’t have a particularly strong opinion of them.

When I made those comments toward the end of writing about the second season, I did not intend it to be a claim that every individual episode within these six were stellar—that would be wrong, frankly. However, my “defense” comes in the fact that when the third season was coming to a close, there was a push to dismiss these episodes entirely. At the time, for example, I made an impassioned case for the relative value of these episodes in light of the season as a whole, contextualized through the episodes that Lost would go on to submit for consideration once nominated for Outstanding Drama Series at that year’s Emmy Awards. There are tremendous moments and strong performances in these episodes, and therefore the idea that they have might be dismissed due to the way they were scheduled and the audience reaction that understandably created was something I’ve always spoken out against.

What I didn’t prepare for in returning to these episodes, though, was how much the first three episodes rely on purposefully vague storytelling in order to drive audience engagement. “Every Man For Himself,” I would argue, is the first episode that feels like it’s actually telling stories instead of hinting at them, which also makes it the episode I’ve connected best with thus far (if not the best episode—that remains the premiere by a hair). This isn’t to say that its flashback is any less ponderous as those that appeared in earlier episodes, but for the first time this season we get the sense that the episode has something to say beyond the conscious saying of nothing.

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Focused on Sawyer, “Every Man For Himself” has little to add in terms of flashbacks. Whereas the flashback in “The Glass Ballerina” suffered from seeming like a basic continuation of a story we already knew and the flashback in “Further Instructions” never managed to find a nuanced way to relate the action in question to Locke’s previous character development, Sawyer’s time in prison just ends up being a thing that happened. In truth, I had forgotten this flashback even existed, despite knowing details that emerge from it, such as the existence of his daughter, Clementine. The flashback ends up being remarkably procedural, giving the show a brief opportunity to work with the prison genre before quickly revealing Sawyer’s befriending of a corporate thief to be an elaborate con on behalf of the government, resulting in his release. It reminds us that Sawyer is an opportunist with a heart of gold, but that’s not news, and it ends up feeling like the result of the writers brainstorming “Uh, so maybe Sawyer in prison?” and never quite cracking the story.

As meandering as it is, though, the episode benefits from the fact the rest of its storytelling is straightforward purposeful. Back at the beach, it’s a small story, told over only three scenes. We start with a 270-degree turn around Desmond, who watches over Claire, Charlie, and Aaron closely; after his initial effort to convince Claire to move down the beach, we then see Desmond proposition Paulo for a five-iron, before later in the episode constructing a lightning rod and saving them from being struck by lightning in a freak storm.

I have some questions about why everyone is so laidback when Eko has—to Charlie’s point—“exploded” and it’s weird that Locke is nowhere to be seen after his big speech, but I appreciate how economical and close-ended this nod toward Desmond’s sudden omniscience ends up being. We are still a few episodes away from getting concrete answers regarding Desmond’s condition, but the episode isn’t being vague so much as it’s showing us Desmond’s actions independent of his internal monologue, and allowing our confusion to mirror that of Charlie and the rest of the castaways.

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The same goes for Sawyer, who continues to be messed with by the Others but in ways that actually reach a point of resolution. Sawyer opens the episode with a great plan to escape, but it’s clear the Others are two steps ahead: given that they’re watching the cages at all times, it’s no shock they shut off the electricity to foil Sawyer’s plan to electrocute the next person to step in the puddle in front of his cage. The resulting mind game is in line with what they’ve done to date, with Ben tricking Sawyer into believing that he has a pacemaker that will explode if his heart rate goes up. The difference here is that we get to see the entire arc of the mind game: we see the pacemaker allegedly installed, we see the impact that the pacemaker has on Sawyer’s actions (not fighting back, trying to convince Kate not to escape), and then Ben eventually reveals to Sawyer that they didn’t install a pacemaker at all. It was just another power play—this could be frustrating, but Sawyer punches Ben in the face for us, so we get the cathartic release to get over it.

More importantly, though, the episode does some smart legwork to preview the ending, in which Ben reveals Sawyer’s pacemaker is a lie and shows him the real reason why escaping is futile, revealing that the Hydra station is on a separate island. Note that when Juliet goes to Jack for help with Colleen’s gunshot wound, she reassures him that they did nothing to Sawyer, which in retrospect is more honest than we originally believed it to be. Furthermore, Juliet’s interactions with Jack even previewed the second island, referring to “over here” in describing the Others’ power structure. Although Sawyer is still right that the overarching goals of the Others don’t make sense, the episodes are becoming less cryptic, and these hints toward the big “reveals” of this episode do a better job of making them seem like people keeping secrets instead of people who are too deep into their characters at a murder mystery party.

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It helps that we’re actually seeing some answers. Jack making his way into the surgical theater gives him a chance to see a set of x-rays, and helps him realize why he’s there: someone has a spinal tumor, and thus holding a spinal surgeon prisoner suddenly makes a lot more sense. There are still moments—like Colleen’s husband for some reason really wanting Kate to admit she loves Sawyer while beating his face in, like the most violent shipper imaginable come to life—where the Others seem less like characters and more like catalysts, but they’re coming into focus more, and the stories around them are starting to fit more comfortably into episodic rhythms. While no more essential than the episodes that came before it, “Every Man For Himself” feels more complete, and does a better job of feeling like progress has been made beyond individually strong moments.

Stray observations:

  • “I was building a church before Eko exploded”—I’m not always onboard with sudden reversions to previous characterizations between seasons, but the return of funny Charlie and choosing to forget brooding Charlie is a good choice all around.
  • Lost Book Club: A rare case of flashback and island book continuity, with Sawyer reading Of Mice And Men in prison and then quoting it with Ben, who proceeds to quote it back to him.
  • Nice to see Kim Dickens back, although she didn’t have a lot to do. No one did, of course, given how quick Sawyer’s flashback scenes felt compared to what they would have been in earlier seasons.
  • “Dear Goo-Goo-Ga-Ga” is how I hope to start an email some day.
  • I feel like Juliet admitting she’s a fertility doctor represents the first concrete piece of information we’ve learned about one of the Others, and raises a lot of other questions without necessarily doing any work to connect the dots—at this point, the writers knew fans would do that themselves.
  • Daddy issues alert: Although Sawyer originally denies the fact that he’s a father, he eventually wills her what we imagine to be a significant sum of money, so he’s frankly handling it better than most other characters on the show would.
  • “Live together, die alone”—the fact that they have nowhere to run, and the fact they were being watched the entire time, makes Kate’s escape/non-escape sort of meaningless, but I do appreciate how she returns to this particular idiom in such a crucial moment.

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“The Cost Of Living” (originally aired 11/01/2006

Although Lost has gone down in the annals of television’s most successful serialized dramas, it is important to acknowledge that every such drama must nonetheless rely on procedural storytelling. While Lost may eschew the close-ended journey from Point A to Point B in every episode, it nonetheless moves from Point X to Point Y, with the acknowledgement of a mysterious Point Z somewhere on the horizon.

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“The Cost Of Living” feels trapped in procedure. With Jack’s storyline, this is clearly a bridge episode: after more or less revealing Ben’s spinal tumor in last week’s episode, this week Jack spends more time with Ben and Juliet, learning more information and taking one step closer to performing the surgery. Now, to be clear, it’s an effective bridge: when Juliet wheels the TV over to Jack’s window and plays her tape channeling Bob Dylan, it’s another memorable scene that shows the way the Others’ flair for the theatrical enlivens the show’s storytelling. You can see what attracted the show to expanding the role they play in the story, and you specifically get a stronger sense of Juliet’s agency in the situation at hand.

Those are all productive developments, but they’re also conspicuously productive, and conspicuously isolated given that Sawyer and Kate sit this episode out. I say this not to dismiss the role of procedure—there’s this idea that critics use “table-setting” as a pejorative, but you need to set the table before you eat dinner, and so a good example of setup like this one is in no way problematic. However, it has the unfortunate distinction of coming in an episode that features a substantial case of procedure, in which the writers must work overtime to craft an ending for a character that wasn’t supposed to be reaching his end.

Hindsight is not exactly 20/20 with Lost—although there are a range of circumstances where we can speculate about how real world complications behind-the-scenes created certain story decisions (the drunk driving arrests in season two, for example), it remains largely speculation, never exactly confirmed. But in the case of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, it was plain as day in the reporting following Eko’s death: he asked to be written off the series.

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I unfortunately can’t go back in time to unlearn this information and watch “The Cost Of Living” through fresh eyes. With this knowledge, the episode feels like a hastened exit, working overtime to wrap up Eko’s story arc in a nice bow. The flashbacks in the episode are plentiful and all-encompassing, starting from the episode’s first scene and expanding to an integrated “previously on” segment of the character’s last flashback, justified by Eko’s hallucinatory state. This flashback picks up where that flashback left off, as Eko takes Yemi’s place at the church and works to reconcile his previous life with his brother’s goals and wishes. Hastily, his need to replace the church he desanctified is thrown in to justify all of last season’s church-building, and we see a new set of sins as he ponders whether his actions were justified by the fact that he was protecting his church in the process.

The episode as a whole is structured similarly to a range of episodes in which characters go on spiritual journeys: whereas Locke was following a boar, and Jack was following his father, Eko is following a manifestation of Yemi, and is continually being haunted by other blasts from the past each time the digital noises signal the arrival of the black smoke. His journey of self-discovery is about forgiveness, and about whether or not Eko is willing to confess his sins. The manifestation of Yemi wants Eko to confess, but he refuses, arguing that his sins are what made him who he is, and that was what he needed to do in order to survive. It’s a meaningful answer, but not the one that “Yemi” was looking for, and the smoke monster proceeds to murder Eko in retaliation, with Eko passing along a dying message to Locke that everyone else is next.

It’s undoubtedly an exciting story, insofar as we get our clearest look yet at the smoke monster and learn quite definitively that it is responsible for at least some of the mysterious dead people our characters have seen in the jungle—Yemi’s body disappearing is awfully similar to Jack’s father’s body disappearing, for instance. But the episode’s other goal—to write off Eko—is more complicated, and suffers from being perceived as procedural due to Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s presumably earlier-than-intended exit.

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There’s two basic impulses operating in “The Cost Of Living.” The first is an effort to make Eko’s story resonate more effectively, piling on flashbacks and heightening the themes of sin and confessions that were always at the heart of Eko’s story. This is a character that grew to be central to the island’s mythology, and when the hatch exploded he was in the midst of having been proven right about having faith in its intentions, but the episode doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring this because it doesn’t have time—they only had two episodes to work with his story, and so everything is forced into shorthand to make it seem like this was the climactic end for a crucial character when the expediency makes it seem more like a rushed end for a character that’s expendable. In an effort to make a grand final statement regarding the character, the character feels reduced to a discrete set of ideas that can be fit into a single episode, which lacks the kind of depth of characterization that the show is capable of (and which the show would handle better in other deaths as it moved forward).

The other impulse acknowledges this, to an extent, and works to craft Eko’s death into a larger statement about the island and its power. Although the flashback works hard to tie the events in the episodes to Eko’s past, on some level the themes at play here—confession, sin, forgiveness—are general ones, positioned here as important to whatever force is behind that black smoke. The episode doesn’t want to diminish Eko’s place in the series’ mythology, but it also needs to remove him from that mythology, and the episode never quite finds an elegant way to manage both. In fact, as far as procedural challenges go, I’m not convinced there’s a way to make a rushed character exit simultaneously a testament to the character’s importance and a reassurance to the audience that this in no way impacts the show’s future.

Characters die on Lost throughout its run, but Eko’s death feels like the first that has been consciously choreographed. Boone’s death had the benefit of a long buildup and a powerful denouement, while the shock of Ana Lucia and Libby’s deaths marked the show stepping up the body count and signaling darker turn of events for the castaways. However, as much as those deaths might have been procedural in their own right, Eko’s death feels like a procedure, unable to shake the sense that this is all happening for reasons that exist outside of the world of the show. This may not have been as apparent when I watched it for the first time, but it’s an example of an episode that has been changed dramatically by rewatch, and which feels like the anti-climax is was inevitably going to be.

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Stray observations:

  • Whereas we know that Eko has only ever seen the black smoke, Locke reveals here that what he saw in the jungle under similar circumstances was a white light, taking us back to Locke’s love of Backgammon.
  • The slow pan across to Eyepatch Other is one of those moments that feels entirely designed to feed the show’s fanbase, and I don’t mind one bit, because it’s just so badass.
  • Real talk for a moment: Wouldn’t Ben have been in considerable pain from the tumor during his time in the hatch? I realize that they probably hadn’t thought that far ahead (Michael Emerson wasn’t always planned to be a regular), and that’s fine frankly, but that’s one slight plot hole that results from their decision-making.
  • Hey, It’s Nikki and Paulo!: Paulo uses the toilet! Nikki, somewhat strangely, is the only person to think about the possibility of reverse-engineering the other feeds in the Pearl Station! We still know almost nothing about them!
  • There’s a few dodgy moments of effects work when the black smoke first appears at the river, but the attack on Eko itself is visceral, and pays off the monster’s earlier appearances.
  • Lost Film Club: I wonder if The Others actually have a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird lying around that Juliet taped over, or if she was just hoping no one would inspect the VHS at any point. Notably, the film represents one of my first experiences with media criticism, as I wrote a review of it in my High School English class (as part of a group, who I did not allow to contribute, because they didn’t like the black-and-white).

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

  • We’ve talked a bit previously regarding what the plans had been for Eko originally, and there’s been discussion of Desmond and Locke’s respective journeys collapsing into what the plan for Eko may have been. Overall, though, I feel pretty comfortable that there’s no 1:1 relationship, and we might never have a clear accounting of where Eko would have gone. It seems like they would rather us not have access to a counterfactual reading of the series based on this particular turning point, which we sort of know was not something the writers chose of their own volition.
  • I alluded to it above, but I really think the biggest issue with Eko’s death in hindsight is how effective Charlie’s death is.
  • Maybe it’s just me, but “The Cost Of Living” really does end up feeling like the first episode on this rewatch that feels the most changed by our understanding of the Man in Black and the island as a whole. I still don’t know if I have a clear grasp—if I’m being completely honest with you—on the Man in Black’s specific goals with Eko, or why his specific answers result in this death, but we see the first roots of the Man in Black’s agenda here in retrospect.

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