“I Do” (originally aired 11/08/2006)

The year was 2006. Lost was entering its third season, and although it was still a success for ABC, it was also creating some significant problems.

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Broadcast television was not built for Lost. The show’s heavily serialized narrative demands progress and eventually closure, but broadcast shows are supposed to run for as long as possible, so as to maximize their profitability in after-market syndication markets and offer a launching pad for other programming. Broadcast television also relies on repeats to fill out the extended eight-month schedule, but those repeats were a point of frustration among the show’s fans, without the standalone value that makes reruns of episodic procedurals or sitcoms good schedule fillers. The show’s breakout success—sustained through the second season—meant that Lost was still a hit, but it was a hit that was operating against the grain.

The first problem would be a protracted conversation between producers and the network, solved when Lindelof and Cuse made a deal in early 2007 to bring the show to an end after three additional, shortened seasons (although not before it took its toll on the show’s storytelling). The second problem, meanwhile, was a larger conversation the networks were having at this time. In the Fall of 2005, Fox debuted Prison Break, another highly serialized show drafting off the success of Lost the previous season. That show made the decision to split the season in two: 13 aired in the fall, before a November cliffhanger ending sent the show into a lengthy hiatus, returning in mid-March to complete the last nine episodes of its run. Ratings dropped slightly from its mid-season peak, but it stayed stable, and built out a franchise for Fox (that the show itself would eventually run into the ground, but we don’t have time to get into that here).

It was an effort to extend cable scheduling models into the realm of broadcast, and ABC saw it as their chance to solve one of the show’s two problems. The plan was foolproof: create a short six-episode arc that would satisfy fans’ anticipation for more content, while building anticipation for the show’s full season starting in the new year. ABC could still get to launch their new shows with the halo of their juggernaut franchise, and the show’s fans could enjoy uninterrupted scheduling without the repeats that had proved infeasible with such a serialized show.

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The plan was a failure. Although it worked for Prison Break the year before, CBS’ Jericho tried the same thing and failed, suggesting the model was not as foolproof as they imagined. For Lost, meanwhile, two miscalculations proved troublesome. First, six episodes is a lot less than 13, and the short arc didn’t have enough time to build up the requisite level of suspense that came with Michael Scofield’s first major attempt to escape from prison. Meanwhile, the second problem ran headlong into the first, and the show struggled to live up to its own creative standards to make these episodes work not only as teases of the season to come, but as satisfying hours in their own right.

These reviews benefit from hindsight, and yet this history has undoubtedly colored our perspective on them. This is particularly true for “I Do,” which carried the heaviest burden of all: not only does the episode need to make it seem as though this arc has been meaningful and worthwhile, but it also needs to build suspense to carry the show into a three-month hiatus. The challenge comes in the fact that the climax here is more contemplative than explosive, relying predominantly on the bubbling over of sexual and psychological tension between Jack, Kate, and Sawyer that the Others have cultivated. With the Smoke Monster having its big coming out party the week before, this hour relies on the Hydra Station to construct a climax, and the result is an incredibly effective emotional arc that was bound to frustrate those whose engagement with Lost hinged on the forward momentum of its central mysteries.

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As Locke lays Eko to rest in the place where he died, he tells him “I’d like to think you died for a reason, Mr. Eko. I just hope it’s not too long before we find out what it might be.” That line feels like a tip of the hat to the show’s slowing pace, like the writers prodding ABC to let them start pushing the show toward its conclusion. You can feel that tension here, with the writers unable to commit to moving stories forward without knowing how they’re going to be resolved. These six episodes are defined by ideas being introduced as vaguely as possible, whether it’s Desmond’s sight or the Others’ motivations. We meet Juliet, but we don’t know anything about her, that early tease in the premiere the most we’ll get in terms of answers regarding the Others and their goal.

And yet there are moments where the show plays at that. There’s the point during the climactic scene where Danny tells his partner that “Shephard wasn’t even on Jacob’s list,” which is a pure easter egg: Who is Jacob? What list? Why wouldn’t Jack be on it? Does this imply that Kate and Sawyer were? Despite the fact that Lost was always a show that predominantly revolved around its characters, enough of its big and small moments were built around mysteries like these that there was a contingent among the audience who craved easter eggs like this one, and saw them as the point of spending an hour of their week watching the show.

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But there’s not much along those lines in “I Do,” which shifts away from the mythology to showcase how our characters confront an impossible situation. After watching “Henry Gale” as the castaways’ captive last season, the tables were turned in these six episodes, and we get a sense for how Jack, Sawyer, and Kate individually face their captivity. What does Jack do when confronted by Juliet’s plan to have him leave Ben to die? What does Sawyer do when he finds out that their plans to escape are futile, given they’re miles offshore? How does Kate respond when Sawyer’s life is put in danger, or when she sees Jack for the first time? After having built these characters over two seasons, positioning them in a classic televisual love triangle, these six episodes feature the Others putting them through their paces, consciously manipulating them to their own ends.

We see this happening with Jack’s would-be escape, the episode’s turning point. At this point Jack has refused Ben’s polite request to operate on him, and was even unmoved by being able to see Kate for the first time, but when he hears Alex’s voice over the intercom and opens his door, the nearest room houses the video screens, and he sees Kate and Sawyer in their post-coital state. It’s the show’s love triangle laid bare, and Jack—we presume—responds emotionally, agreeing to Ben’s surgery as long as he can get the hell away from his heartbreak (and, you know, being imprisoned).

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The cliffhanger of “I Do” undoes this presumption somewhat: rather than agreeing to do the surgery to move past Kate, Jack does it to rescue her, cutting Ben’s kidney and refusing to stitch it up unless Kate—and only Kate—is set free. It’s simultaneously selfless and selfish, sacrificing his own shot at freedom while simultaneously separating Kate from Sawyer. It comes amidst an emotional and visceral set of scenes, where emotions are running high. Sawyer gives up his attempted escape when Kate is at gunpoint, and Giacchino’s “Life and Death” theme ramps up as Danny holds a gun to Sawyer’s head. It is Lost at its melodramatic peak, as a woman loved by two men watches as both prove they are willing to risk their own lives to save her.

The melodrama of “I Do” is undeniable, although I think it’s to the episode’s strength. The Others are cultivating melodrama, separating characters and creating reunions that heighten their emotional states (and thus their pliability). The Others have no plans to actually kill any of the people involved, with Danny’s desire for blood a deviation from Ben and Juliet’s plan—the threat of violence is their strongest weapon, creating the circumstances that would lead the trio to take action in ways that serve their larger goals (in this case, Ben’s surgery). As Ben says in “The Cost Of Living,” he wants Jack to want to do the surgery, and that’s more powerful than any form of direct coercion.

That’s why I find the flashbacks in “I Do” so effective, given that there isn’t actually any direct threat against Kate. The Marshal is still hunting her, but there’s no sign that he’s closing in, and it’s not like Kate has a close run-in with a wanted poster while grocery shopping for taco night. The flashback begins with what we presume is the cops discovering her hiding in a hotel room, but it turns out it’s her cop fiancé, Kevin. “Monica” is living as normal a life as you can imagine, with a mother-in-law who treats her as a daughter and a husband who gives her the honeymoon of her dreams, but through all of it she’s haunted by the truth. She is haunted by who she is, and what’s she’s done, and the fact she’s living a lie. And so she’s the one who calls the Marshal, hoping against hope that he’s willing to stop chasing her, but he tells her that she’d never stop even if he did. Her mind will never let her settle down, because any time things get too real—as they do when she briefly thinks she might be pregnant—she runs away.

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Like the other flashbacks this season, this one suffers from a lack of new information, but it is the strongest of the six—I would argue—in terms of connecting to the action of the episode. It positions Kate as someone who is naturally inclined to doubt her own feelings, and places her feelings for both Jack and Sawyer in a context larger than their current circumstances. It poses questions about how relationships test our larger resolve, and how truths about ourselves frame how we approach those relationships in extenuating circumstances. If Kate hadn’t been placed in a cage across from Sawyer, put into a position to both feel protected by and protective of him, would she have fallen in love with him? Is her understanding of love so skewed by her past that it places doubt over her real emotions in a given circumstance?

Those are not Lost’s big questions, and they’re not enough to create a cliffhanger on the level the show has achieved in the past, but they offer stronger character work than the preceding episodes, and come together in that final scene. Jack’s “Kate, Dammit, Run” is asking her to do something that she’s done countless times before, but this time—whether through context or genuine emotion—she doesn’t want to do it. She doesn’t want to be the person who runs away, and the person who is forced to protect herself at the expense of those she leaves behind. And yet Jack doesn’t know this, and potentially doesn’t care, because the Others have created an environment of distrust and uncertainty. That makes for fertile ground for future development, which would start as soon as the show returned thirteen weeks later.

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Stray observations:

  • Although perhaps not the show’s most eventful “finale,” there’s a visual flair to the episode—captured in the above screen grabs—that makes it stand out, and that image of Kate in the rain with the walkie talkie has always stuck with me.
  • Locke’s funeral for Eko is mainly an epilogue to the Smoke Monster’s attack, with Sayid being looped in, and Locke getting a hopeful message from Eko’s prayer stick—not a lot there, but enough to keep the storyline afloat.
  • Alex’s slingshot attack on the Others’ worksite is pretty dumb, but she’s a teenager rebelling against authority, so it’s not exactly out-of-character.
  • Nathan Fillion does not get a lot to do as Kevin, but given he’s an ideal husband constructed to create a situation, the lack of character makes sense. He brings an affable, likeable quality to the role, which he consistently uses to balance his caustic wit in his current role on Castle.
  • My one big complaint with the flashback: that terrible “what you see is what you get” story the officiant tells. Way too on the nose.
  • There’s a strong through line of con artistry throughout the last four flashbacks here: you’ve got Eddie the undercover cop in Locke’s, Sawyer working his prison con, Eko posing as a priest, and then finally Kate playing the role of Monica. The difference comes down to each individual’s end goal, and in Kate’s case she’s conning because she has to, not because she has a specific goal—there’s no sign she’s looking for anything but stability with Kevin, as futile as that might be.
  • While not related to these episodes in particular, I did want to make note that Javier Grillo-Marxauch, who wrote on the show’s first two seasons, posted his own recollections of the show’s origins on his website yesterday—I actually haven’t had time to read them in their entirety, but if you’re reading these reviews, chances are you’d be interested.

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“Not In Portland” (originally aired 02/07/2007)

The third season opened on Juliet, in a scene we first presumed was a flashback introducing her character, but was revealed to be a different perspective on the plane crash that started it all. It set up the third season as the season where we’d finally learn who the Others were, and how exactly they fit within the island’s ecosystem.

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“Not in Portland” opens on Juliet, in a scene we first presume—both through Juliet’s initial appearance on a beach, and through Ethan’s appearance in a hallway—to be on the island, but is subsequently revealed to be her first proper flashback. On the one hand, it continues the season’s resistance to returning to the settlement it started with, obscuring that particular piece of the Others’ history. However, on the other hand, it signals the show committing to the tentative fleshing out of the Others as real characters that began in the first six episodes, but which the show held from the audience in favor of mystery and obfuscation.

It works wonders. “Not In Portland” is just as isolated as “A Tale Of Two Cities,” ignoring everything happening back on the other island, but Juliet’s increased agency dramatically expands its dramatic potential. Kate and Sawyer’s escape gives us more unfettered access to the Hydra Station, true, but it’s Juliet through whom we come to better understand the Others as human beings. While the show’s primary interest to date has been picking away at little hints, like the subliminal messages sensory bombardment video with its mention of Jacob, with Juliet we have an actual human being whose past, present, and future is tied to what has thus far been another one of the island’s mysteries. The first six episodes couldn’t allow that transformation to happen because it was tied—and hampered by—the limited perspective of other characters. From the moment Juliet interrupts Jack’s heroic moment and points out his plan won’t work, we’re finally getting the tale of the second city, and it breathes new life into the flashback format and kicks off the season’s larger narrative arc.

The flashback itself benefits from novelty, no doubt: it has been ten episodes since the show featured a first flashback (Rose and Bernard), and the flashbacks since then have struggled to find new angles on existing characters. Juliet is all new angles, and although her story is hampered by some muddled logic by which her ex-husband is impeding her research, the story quickly becomes a testament to the Others’ commitment to scientific progress. They identify Juliet’s research into infertility—including doing a test on her sister, who is suffering from cancer—as valuable to them in some way, and through either divine or forced intervention, her ex-husband is moved out of the picture to free her up to travel to somewhere that is decidedly not Portland, where Mr. Alpert originally implied Mittelos Bioscience was based.

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The story is still undoubtedly tied to the Others’ sense of mystery, given the foreshadowing of the bus in Juliet’s earlier comments—did they purposefully use the bus? Did some higher power will this to happen? Is this the island operating off the island? But amidst those questions is a person, who had a life, and who was pulled away from that life with the goal of doing something important, and who finds herself a prisoner there was much as Jack is. While Jack might have crashed on this island, and landed in the Others’ hands through a complicated set of moves and countermoves, Juliet was brought there under her free will, but has remained there because whatever she was brought there to do was too valuable to allow her to leave. And as much as she may have internalized the Others’ goals and been willing to follow orders—which she emphasized to Jack as she prepared for the surgery in “I Do”—she also murders Danny and agrees to let Ben live when given a promise that she will return home if Kate and Sawyer are able to escape.

The flashback structure of Lost works because it gives meaning to characters’ actions, which has to this point been antithetical to the Others, whose actions have been purposefully meaningless from our perspective. While Juliet’s disconnect from the history of the Others makes her less than the skeleton key some might be hoping for, it simultaneously makes clear that the rest of the Others could have their own stories. I love, for instance, the brief moment in the observation area where Tom formally introduces himself to Jack. You sense that it’s the first time we’ve ever seen Tom where he’s not operating in an official capacity, escorting someone here or putting on a show or orchestrating some sort of con. He’s just sitting there, much as Jack is, waiting to see what comes of Ben’s conversation with Juliet.

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We get other moments like this in the episode, whether it’s confirming that Ben is Alex’s “father,” or seeing Alex be made a prisoner in her own right as Juliet reminds her Karl can only live if she stays. Those details create a dimensionality to this so-called threat that the show desperately needs, and anchoring it on Elizabeth Mitchell is one of the smartest choices the show made this season. Mitchell does a particularly nice job of creating a clear difference between the calculated, practiced mannerisms that define Juliet on the island as compared to the person she was before. She has traded the sublimating power of one man for another, but she is not passive in the way she was before—her video to Jack confirmed as much, and that she would kill to get home only reinforces that.

The end of the episode works to make this a pivotal moment for the three castaways as well: although Jack didn’t make him part of his original deal, Sawyer escapes anyway, but it’s Kate and Jack who share the climactic moment as they separate for good. The callback to their first meeting plays into their emotional connection, certainly, but the ceremony feels more about the series as a whole. For the first time since Sayid sought solitude, a character is entirely on his or her own, with Jack forcing Kate to violate the “Live together, die alone” ethos that he himself instilled in her. However, while true if we accept the previous view of the Others, “Not In Portland” works to ensure this isn’t true from a narrative perspective: with Juliet being fleshed out, Jack isn’t alone, and those final moments promise positive growth on both islands as Lost pushes off and launches into the season proper.

Stray observations:

  • Of the various subliminal messages, “God Loves You As He Loves Jacob” is the most telling, although the image of the Dharma scientist at the end raises further questions.
  • Sawyer pulling the “old Wookiee prisoner gag” is neither the show nor Sawyer’s first Star Wars reference, but it feels like the most substantial, and still makes me chuckle.
  • Speaking of which, the victim of said gag was It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s Rob McElhenney playing the character of “Aldo”—if the cameo wasn’t already a little distracting, being named after a brand of dog food really adds to the effect.
  • Remember the Numbers? They’re Back, in Numbers Form: The numbers are always around, of course, but Karl being in “Room 23” feels less subtle than the Number 8 rabbit, even.
  • Zeljko Ivanek doesn’t get a whole lot to do here, but it’s nice foreshadowing for a year later, when he would beat out the other man in Juliet’s life for the Supporting Actor in a Drama Series Emmy Award for his role on Damages. I do love the off-hand conversation on the phone before his death, though, where he tells his mother she’s insufferable. He’s just pure asshole, through and through.
  • Myles Has To Go Back!: So “Not In Portland” marks the first episode of Lost I reviewed on my blog, given I started it in January of 2007. It’s pretty much a straight recap (in part because it was airing early in Canada and I was trying to leverage the spoiler crowd, and in part because I had no idea what I was doing), but I figure I should go back to see what Past Myles thought of the episode in the moment. Turns out, I was pretty much even with this one: “We didn’t get major answers, but it’s clear that the Others can’t leave the island either, and their sensory tactics are most interesting. This was the type of episode that I had expected in the “Fall Finale.” It was everything it needed to be…but not everything the haters wanted, that’s for sure.”

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

  • So was the bus Jacob? I honestly don’t even know what to make of it—it’s obviously not a complete coincidence, but it seems just as likely that Richard would have orchestrated it, no?
  • I may not love how Lost leaves some mysteries unresolved, but I appreciate that I can have such a visceral reaction to the first appearance of an innocuous catamaran. Who was shooting at them? We’ll literally never know, as I strongly believe Lindelof and Cuse will take it to their grave.
  • So the season starts with a scene we presume is off the island but is actually on, continues with a scene that’s off the island we presume is on, and then the finale returns to a flashback we presume is before the island that’s actually after. I appreciate the intersections of spatial and temporal trickery operating in these bookends.

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Next Week: Noel Murray will rejoin me to discuss “Flashes Before Your Eyes,” so if you’re watching along, just the one episode’s worth of homework.