“Maternity Leave” (originally aired 03/01/2006)

Rewatching Lost is not in and of itself much of a time warp: while eight years is not an insignificant amount of time, the show does not feel like a throwback to a bygone era. We may refer to this feature as TV Club “Classic,” but in this case we are dealing with a series that still registers as contemporary.

Nonetheless, though, we accumulate knowledge and context over time, and so I return to “Maternity Leave” a different person than I was when I watched it. For some viewers, they might have become parents themselves since 2006, and therefore might have greater perspective on Claire’s paranoia regarding Aaron’s illness as Rousseau’s talk of infection talks her into pursuing her missing memories in search of a cure. For me, meanwhile, I spent much of the episode realizing that the episode’s investigation of time lost, as well as time missed in the case of Rousseau and her daughter, seems awfully on-the-nose after having seen Interstellar late last week. This is admittedly less profound a change, but it’s a chance nonetheless.

I won’t explore that angle here for the sake of avoiding spoilers, but it came to mind when Locke and Henry Gale have their final conversation to end the episode. Henry is toying with Locke here, realizing his dynamic with Jack and playing to his inferiority complex brilliantly. In the midst of that conversation, Locke suggests that he isn’t one for literary analysis, but you can sense the writers winking to us through the television screen with that line. We are inherently intertextual beings, and we bring with us understanding of other pop cultural or cultural touchstones that help us understand shows like Lost. Lost even does this on its own, here bringing Hemingway and Dostoevsky into the storyline to help Henry get a hook into Locke and Jack’s power struggle.

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As a show goes on, though, it creates its own sense of history, and its own sense of time. Although only two months have passed on the island, the show is now 39 episodes old, and the “Previously On” segment on “Maternity Leave” demonstrates the cumulative storytelling that led to this pivotal moment for Claire. The episode then embraces its intratextuality, returning to the missing two weeks of Claire’s memory to explore a mystery that we saw created in real time. While we are missing pieces of characters’ back stories, including those like Rousseau or Desmond that have spent considerable time on the island, this is one case where the missing pieces were actively removed by the show itself. They took away those two weeks, just like they give them back to Claire and the audience in this episode.

The results are compelling and frustrating in equal measure, and simultaneously. On the compelling side, the show notably angles toward its female characters, and extends the theme of motherhood from Claire to Rousseau. Claire and Rousseau end up traveling to the medical hatch for similar reasons: while Claire believes that there’s a vaccine there that can save Aaron, Rousseau hears word of a teenage girl and immediately signs up to lead them to where she fought with Claire in the jungle before her return to camp. The series may use Rousseau sparingly, but it allows them to use her purposefully, and here Mira Furlan delivers a performance that captures the sense of hope she’s lived with for 16 years. She has not seen her daughter since she was a newborn, effectively, but she still remembers the color of her eyes, and you can see in Furlan’s performance that she remembers everything about Alexandra as she was before she was abducted.

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As for Claire, “Maternity Leave” does a nice job of “resolving” the character’s anxiety over being a mother. When she was drugged up on sedatives and being taken care of by the Others, she imagined giving her baby away; now that she’s actually a mother, and Aaron is a real part of her life, she can’t imagine losing him. It’s not a particularly complicated argument for how motherhood changes you, but the choice to have Kate, Libby, Sun, and Rousseau brought into the storyline around her offers a nice showcase for the series’ ability to focus on its female characters through the “featured character” structure of the flashbacks. Claire eventually returns without a vaccine, but recovering her memories has helped put her struggles with motherhood into perspective—it’s a rare case where flashbacks are vividly diegetic, their impact on the person remembering them tangible and legible compared to abstract flashback use in cases where the memories we’re seeing predate Oceanic Flight 815 crash landing on the island.

“Maternity Leave” is frustrating, meanwhile, because the flashbacks are as vivid for the audience as they are for Claire. This is one of the first episodes where the flashbacks are actively framed in terms of our forensic viewership, as Claire is the only one of the castaways who has spent any significant time with the Others. We know almost nothing about them, and “Maternity Leave” goes one step further by calling everything we have seen—including everything that we see in Claire’s flashbacks—into question with Kate’s discovery of theatrical glue and ratty clothes hanging in a locker. If Zeke’s beard and the others’ disheveled appearance is a charade, what is it hiding? Why are they so concerned about Claire’s pregnancy? How would Ethan’s plan have played out if he hadn’t been discovered?

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The episode throws all these questions onto the pile, and then actively refuses to answer them. That’s not uncommon for the series, nor is it unsatisfying as a viewer, but it plays in the space of frustration. What I found difficult in retrospect—returning to the question of time having passed—is trying to differentiate between Ethan and the Others playing with Claire and the writers playing with the audience. Where did that Oceanic plane mobile come from? How does it make sense that the Others would have it? Isn’t that just there to drive the viewers crazy? And what about Ethan’s claim that Claire would be “overwhelmed” if he tried to explain where all this furniture came from—is that not a direct effort to poke an audience desperate for answers?

Lost has earned the right to frustrate at this point, and “Maternity Leave” does a nice job of delivering a discrete episodic story while actively toying with the audience on the subject of its broader mythology. The fact that the show has evolved to the point where it’s filling in narrative gaps it itself created shows the narrative potential accumulating as the show matures, but it also models a form of parceling out information that will wear thin if replicated too many times without significant steps forward.

Stray observations:

  • The sound effects on Claire’s literal flashbacks are horrifying.
  • Eko, who is still chopping down marked trees for some reason, discovers Henry Gale in the hatch and goes in to take responsibility for the two men he killed. He’s presuming that Henry had some connection to them, I suppose, which is a theory I’d support given the way he so actively worms his way into Locke’s head. That is not the action of an innocent man.
  • I enjoy tracking which characters have or have not visited the hatch on camera. While it’s clear later that Locke stopped Claire from visiting to hatch in order to keep her from discovering Henry, I thought he was preserving that Emile de Ravin lived really far away from the soundstage or something.
  • “You could let me go”—I appreciate that Henry gets to be funny, as he does here after Locke and Jack loudly discuss what the long term plan is.
  • The relationship between the Dharma Initiative and the Others is growing more complicated: Ethan is clearly holding Claire at a Dharma facility, and he has a Dharma keychain, but are they Dharma? That remains a point of uncertainty.
  • Tania Raymonde makes her first appearance as Alex, and I have to say that they cast for resemblance really well with Mira Furlan.
  • “And if the alarm goes off, don’t tell him what it’s for.” “What is it for?”—Eko, blowing the whole thing wide open.

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“The Whole Truth” (originally aired 03/22/2006)

It is generally accepted that Lost began to struggle with its flashbacks during the early portion of its third season, most notably in the flashback featured in “Stranger In A Strange Land” (which we will address in the new year). However, as “Fire + Water” already demonstrated, there are flashbacks in the second season that also reveal a lack of story to tell about certain characters, raising questions about the stability of the flashback model in the long term.

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“The Whole Truth” is not a bad episode, nor is its flashback egregiously offensive, but it’s almost entirely unnecessary. The flashback features Sun and Jin during the difficult stages of their marriage in the months leading up to Sun’s departure. The key piece of information we learn is that they were trying to have a baby, a new wrinkle that Jin hoped would save their marriage—by convincing her father to transition him to less dangerous work—and Sun dreaded given her plans to leave for America. When she’s told that she can’t get pregnant, it drives them even further apart; when she learns that he’s the one who has fertility issues, news that the doctor kept from them out of fear for what Jin might do, it becomes one more complication in her decision-making, along with the blind date hotelier she’s been learning English from all this time.

I summarize this here not because I don’t trust you remember it—although I suppose that’s more likely in the case of these reviews than in contemporary ones—but rather because it’s information that ends up being far less interesting than the on-island storyline, where Sun discovers she’s pregnant and deals with how to tell Jin about it. It returns to their issues of trust that were highlighted by her secret ability to speak English, and were central to their previous flashbacks; they are also particularly crucial as Jin reverts back to his violent protectiveness in the wake of the attack against Sun back in “The Long Con.” Does Sun tell Jin the truth knowing the way he’s reacted to other revelations? And, per Jack’s instruction, does she tell him the “whole truth” and risk emasculating him by explaining that he might have reason to believe the baby isn’t his, even though she claims she hasn’t slept with anyone else?

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It’s a story and an episode about communication, a theme that extends to Jack, Locke, and Ana Lucia using knowledge against one another in a power struggle supported by Henry Gale at every opportunity. Jin makes a tremendous point when he comes to her to apologize, which is that when they’re fighting she has people to talk to—she can work through her symptoms with Rose and Bernard, she can go to Sawyer for a pregnancy test, and she can discuss the results with Kate and Jack. Meanwhile, Jin can only interpret hand signals about oysters and struggle to follow conversation that only sounds like gibberish to him. He relies on what she tells him, a new dynamic that somewhat mirrors the reveal of Jin’s infertility as he struggles to come to terms with a scenario where he needs his wife instead of the other way around.

The flashback undoubtedly frames this story, but mainly by misleading the audience: we accept the episode’s reveal that Sun is the one who has fertility problems, therefore framing her anxiety regarding the test to be based on her own infertility. Everything else, though, is mainly padding to flesh out a period that we’ve already covered, and where we’ve seen scenes both shortly before and after these events. The reveal that Sun was maybe considering a fling with her English teacher is a red herring, trying to convince us her “whole truth” is that she slept with someone else instead of the fact that the doctor had lied (although I suppose we don’t get the “whole truth” on that point given when we cut away). In the end, though, the flashbacks don’t carry much weight for the characters or their story, and mainly serve to follow the series’ “show, don’t tell” mantra when it comes to information.

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I will not argue that this method works better than endless exposition, but for me this is an episode where exposition could have been tremendously purposeful. The episode’s conclusion rests on Sun’s ability to work through her problems with other people, so her explaining her past to them would have actually reinforced the theme rather than taking away from it. In an episode like this one, there would be power to seeing Sun revisit these details with other people instead of seeing the events themselves, which end up feeling inconsequential. The episode has flashbacks not because the themes or character development require them, but rather because every Lost episode requires flashbacks of some kind in order to function, and you can see the show struggling with how to integrate them into a story where they are not in fact necessary.

The rest of the episode works a bit better, although it ends up only being half an episode. That’s not uncommon for Lost, but this is a case where the inconclusiveness of the Henry Gale storyline is executed beautifully. Lost isn’t a show that requires every episode to have a cliffhanger, but it uses it often enough that there’s not necessary an explanation that the show will fully “resolve” each episode’s storytelling. Episodes like “The Whole Truth” are common, where an episodic story—Jin and Sun—offers resolution while an ongoing arc like Henry Gale resists it. But rather than—as in the case of “Maternity Leave”—just showing a few scenes featuring Henry Gale that do little to advance the story, “The Whole Truth” makes significant progress but constructs a tantalizing cliffhanger: As Ana Lucia, Sayid, and Charlie follow the map Henry drew them to his balloon, Jack and Locke sit with Henry over breakfast as he explains the ambush the map would lead them to if he was one of the Others. “Got any milk?”

It’s one of the series’ best cliffhangers because we actually don’t see anyone in danger—although there were elements of foreshadowing in their search for the balloon (like the rain, which we’ve come to associate with shootings at this point), it’s been more than 10 minutes—probably more like 15 with commercials factored in—since we left the search party. We’ve had time to forget about them, but Henry’s chilling and calculated hypothetical reminds us, and the aggressive “Lost” title card that closes each episode is even more of a question mark than usual.

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The show has leveraged the ambiguities of Henry Gale effectively to this point, with Michael Emerson projecting just enough sliminess to keep us on edge, but here we see him—and by extension the show—testing how far the sliminess can go before we—and the characters—are willing to take the extreme measures Sayid advocates. By constructing it as a cliffhanger, Lost forces us to sit in that uncertainty for a week, pushing the question of Henry Gale front and center as the season transitions into its third act.

Stray observations:

  • “There’s a man sitting in a room in my hatch, and I want him out”—Locke implies ownership here, and that’s…well, we’ll get to that next week.
  • The episode’s title gets a bit heavy-handed when he tells Sun to tell the whole truth and then blatantly doesn’t tell Kate about Henry Gale, despite having just gotten in trouble earlier in the episode when Locke made a power play and told Ana Lucia before Jack could. I feel bad for him: with so many Daddy issues to work through, adding trust issues is just unfair, universe.
  • “Who flies with a pregnancy test?”—I legitimately don’t remember if this was set up as an ongoing mystery or not, but we’re certainly trained to read questions like that as a mystery. Me personally, I’m more interested in this “Widmore Labs” brand. Looks legit.
  • We get our first glimpse of Rose and Bernard settling into island life here, and I love that it’s bickering like an old married couple and arguing over missed birthdays.
  • Ana Lucia gets to go on an adventure and crack jokes with Charlie, which is the most “embedded” she’s felt within the cast—her discussion with Sayid about Shannon is also a key moment of apology and forgiveness, uniting them in opposition to the Others.
  • The English subtitles in Jin and Sun’s conversations don’t capitalize Others, but I’m going to keep using it as a proper noun, and am curious if there was any conversation about that in the writer’s room.
  • I could have done without the act-out sound effect on Sun asking for a pregnancy test.
  • Papayas And Papayas would make a nice album title, Charlie (who, by the way, we’re no longer treating as a pariah for some reason?).
  • “The big Black guy who cut off his beard in front of me”—he has a name, Henry. Although I think he should change it to this.

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

  • “A mother should never leave her child”—just stab me in the heart, why don’t you, Sun? Honestly, this notion ends up playing such a huge role in how motherhood is complicated by the island. And while I have trouble believing that they wrote this line knowing what Sun would do for her child later in the series—it’s mainly there to set up the story in “The Whole Truth”—I would buy that they built that storyline in part to make this statement into tragic foreshadowing just to make me enormously sad.
  • I don’t know how logical it is that there would be a Widmore Labs pregnancy test, but little tidbits like that sure enrich a rewatch of the series.
  • Do we even learn that Sun uses characters from each of their parents’ names to make Ji Yeon? I don’t think we ever actually learned Jin’s father’s name, for example, so I’m not sure that’s every been fact-checked.
  • I’ll return to the necessity of this flashback when we get to “D.O.C.” and return to the paternity of Sun’s baby, which I do realize requires at least some of the setup seen here.

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Interstellar Spoiler Station (only read if you’ve seen Interstellar or don’t care):

  • I really found Rousseau’s storyline—the idea of having been separated from a child and not knowing how they grew up—evoked a lot of Interstellar for me. The idea of lost time is crucial to the film, particularly as it relates to how love transcends time and space (which made me roll my eyes as it was discussed but ultimately “worked” in the film overall), and so the tragedy of Rousseau and Alex resonated more deeply here than I imagine it did on first viewing, or even more than it would have if I was simply reading their future storylines into this first investigation of the two characters in the same episode.

Next week: Three words: Blast. Door. Map.

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