“Orientation” (originally aired 10/05/2005)

“You don’t have to take my word for it—watch the film.”

The title of this episode is both incredibly apt and highly misleading.

It’s apt in the sense that this—more than the two episodes that came before it—focuses on orienting us for the season ahead. On one side of the episode, we learn that the shadowy figures who capture Michael, Sawyer, and Jin are not the Others, but are rather—based on Ana Lucia’s affiliation with them— most likely the survivors of the tail section of the Oceanic Flight 815. On the other side, meanwhile, Desmond points our heroes in the direction of a film reel that lays out the history of the hatch, and puts the mysteries of the island in an entirely new context. Even without taking into account my knowledge of where the series is headed, this is a substantial episode for mapping and remapping major storylines.

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It’s misleading in the sense that Lost never wants the audience to have its bearings. The Swan Station orientation film is pure Lost, in that it’s three minutes of new information that replaces every mystery it solves with more questions. Even the film’s title card is a provocation, assuring us we’re seeing only one of six videos covering what may well be five other stations located on the island. Everything we learn about the Dharma Initiative, the Swan Station, and the island from the video doesn’t serve to eliminate existing mysteries; rather, it seeks to give them context, translating them from a work of mystery to a work of a mysterious organization that could hold a key to a deeper understanding of what the hell is going on.

What’s most impressive about “Orientation” is that it’s doing a lot of what is often derided as “table-setting.” Technically speaking, the Dharma orientation film is as blatant an exposition dump as you’ll see on a television series: when Desmond tells them there’s a movie, it almost sounds like a joke, until suddenly Jack and Locke are having a conversation while casually playing high school A.V. club setting up the projector. The scene reaffirms that Lost successfully created a core audience that not only accepts the necessity of exposition, but also is downright fueled by info dumps like this one. The show turned exposition into an art form, here constructing an unreliable document of the past that offers the exact right combination of context for things we’ve seen, the promise of things we haven’t, and the sense that any or all of it could be nothing but misdirection. What’s in the missing section of the film just before its conclusion? Are there any key details in the missing frames that the film skips over? Given the purpose of the film, can we accept any of the information as legitimate just because our brains want to connect these polar bears to those polar bears?

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As with so many of its storylines, Lost benefits from the fact the characters are asking the same questions. The film is on occasion uninterrupted by cuts to the hatch, reminding us that Jack and Locke are as much of an audience as we are—when Locke delivers his now iconic “we’re going to need to watch that again,” he’s talking to us as much as he’s talking to Jack. For as much as elements of the storyline play with our different levels of knowledge—we know about the Numbers, we know about Jack and Desmond’s past—it also seeks to unite us with the characters as it relates to these central mysteries. The same goes for Ana Lucia’s on-island entry into the narrative: we know she was on the plane because of flashbacks, but she shares the same information with the other characters, such that we’re on a level playing field by the time Ana Lucia pulls Sawyer’s gun and has the mysterious guard hoist her out of the pit.

But after that we’re on different pages. Michael, Sawyer, and Jin have every reason to believe that Ana Lucia has lied to them when she exits the pit the way she does, but we know that Ana Lucia was really on that plane. These aren’t the Others, at least not entirely, and that information transforms that side of the narrative into a two-way street. Although Rousseau played a prominent role in the first season, she was always very clearly defined as a singular entity, and the Others were more whispers than a tangible presence that we imagined would manifest. But in the wake of the people who abducted Michael, and in the appearance of Desmond, and in the promise of there potentially being five more Desmonds somewhere else on the island, the show is for the first time establishing an ecosystem of humanity that is as much the show’s focus as the island they inhabit.

It’s part of the episode’s answer for what happens when one of the most basic components of the series’ conflict, survival, has been mitigated. The hatch solves many of their problems: it has running water, guns and ammunition, and most importantly a food store that limits the necessity of hunting and gathering. So how do you reestablish a sense of urgency when the primary engine of uncertainty—even moreso than the smoke monster or the Others—is missing? It admittedly helps that there’s an old computer tied to a countdown clock that the orientation film suggests protects against a great cataclysm—as much as the castaways are settling into a stable “home” for the first time, it’s a home where someone is constantly awake, sitting at a computer, inputting numbers and pressing a button every 108 minutes so the world doesn’t end. Combine that with the increased probability that there are others—and not just Others—out there in the jungle, and there’s still plenty of reason to feel conflict is right around the corner.

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More importantly, though, conflict remains inside the hatch itself. What makes Locke and Jack’s relationship so dynamic is that they’re never fighting against one another. They’re simply following different paths, each stubborn for reasons that they’re not willing to admit to the other. “Orientation” features one of their most famous exchanges, so famous many of you thought it was in the first two episodes of the season when we discussed them last week:

“Why do you find it so hard to believe?”

“Why do you find it so easy?”

“It’s never been easy!”

What I love about this exchange is that we know the answer to the first two questions. In “Man Of Science, Man Of Faith,” we saw why Jack once had reason to believe, and in “Orientation” we see how losing Sarah hardened him compared to the miracle of her ability to walk following her surgery. And in “Orientation,” we see further evidence of Locke’s inability to move past the hardships he faced even before he became paralyzed, further context for why he has embraced the island’s gifts and followed destiny at every turn. But they don’t know any of this, and so when Locke actually answers Jack’s question it pulls his relationship with Helen, his stalking of his father, and the scar on his left side into the world of the island directly for the first time.

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It’s a reminder that for as much as the show might rely on orientation films and thrilling cliffhangers to create urgency and momentum, the depth of character constructed using the flashbacks means that similar urgency can emerge from simple character interactions provided the right characters are involved. In capping off what is really a three-part premiere, “Orientation” destabilizes our understanding of the show’s universe while reinforcing the show’s depth of narrative and characterization, as strong a launching pad for the season as the season premiere itself.

Stray observations:

  • The introduction of the front door to the hatch is…sigh. Look, it makes logistical sense, and it’s totally necessary for the hatch to function as any kind of settlement, but lord does it make the castaways look like idiots for not searching the area surrounding the hatch in greater detail. They could’ve at least revealed some sort of extensive camouflage, but they ignore the exterior of the door entirely here, because they know the bullshit they’re pulling.
  • “Things are finally returning to normalness…ah crap”—Hurley starts out frustrated that things are back into chaos mode so quickly after the Others’ imminent attack never arrives, and then between the numbers and the food stores Hurley has a lot going on. It’s almost as though they’re setting him up for a flashback!
  • Helen! I knew we were getting to the point where Katey Sagal would be appearing, but I hadn’t realized it was this episode, and so the meet cute at the AA meeting was a nice surprise. She does some really fine work with this character.
  • Daddy issues alert: I think we know what the score is in this category for Locke episodes by this point, no?
  • Lost Book Club: The orientation film is hidden behind the hatch’s copy of The Turn of the Screw.
  • Given that Jurassic Park was on AMC as I was writing this, I got thinking: how many pieces of pop culture feature informational films of this genre?

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“Everybody Hates Hugo” (originally aired 10/12/2005)

There was a lot of change in the first three episodes of the season. There’s a lot of change in “Everybody Hates Hugo,” even, given that we officially confirm that the survivors of the tail section of the plane are the ones holding Michael, Sawyer, and Jin hostage. The tentative truce they reach with Ana Lucia and the other “Tailies”—we meet Cynthia Watros’ Libby by name—is fraught with tension, and not just because Ana Lucia is a bit hotheaded. Each side represents to the other a fundamental reordering of their existing dynamic, but in different directions: whereas our “heroes” might worry about how the introduction of new people could destabilize their established and more or less sustainable community, the Tailies have reason to hope that these new arrivals can save them from losing even more of their survivors to the harsh environment they’ve yet to tame. Even without knowing that there’s a much nicer Dharma station waiting for them back home, Michael, Sawyer, and Jin have ever reason to believe that the last 40-plus days have been much worse for these people than it has been for them.

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Change is scary, though, which is why the Tailies went in with a big stick. It’s also why Hurley spends the episode suffering from intense anxiety after being put in charge of the food stores found in the hatch. His story becomes the centerpiece of “Everybody Hates Hugo,” a flashback storyline that escalates too quickly to seem like more than a thematic tool. However, it’s a useful thematic tool, as it argues for how the show intends to move forward into what is undoubtedly a new status quo for the characters and the series around them.

Returning us to the end of one of the flashbacks in “Numbers” as Hurley faints into his mother’s coffee table after learning he’s won the lottery, the episode tells a very simple Hurley story that ignores the curse of the Numbers entirely. Eventually, Hurley would point to the Numbers as the cause of the lottery winnings ruining his life, but at this stage he has no reason to think the money could be cursed. Rather, he’s simply concerned with how being a millionaire will change his life, and his relationships to those around him. He goes about his day trying to pretend like nothing’s different, but he can’t do it: he quits his job at Mr. Cluck’s when his boss demands restitution for the eight-piece meal he consumed the night before, and he asks out Starla at the record store after months of being too nervous to do so. But as soon as he starts to make changes, he notices how quickly he’s been separated from those around him: even before Hurley is separated from Johnny by a horde of reporters, he feels a pang of guilt after Johnny quits Mr. Cluck’s in solidarity, still believing that they’re in the same position.

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The parallels to the island aren’t exactly subtle: after being put in charge of the food, Hurley starts to worry that the unexpected windfall will result in everyone turning on him. It doesn’t matter that, as Rose—she’s back!—points out, Hurley is the most beloved castaways by some margin among the general population at camp: from his perspective, he is going to become the villain for having to ration this food carefully. And his early interactions with Charlie—his closest friend and the on-island equivalent to Johnny for the purposes of the episode—confirm his fears, as peanut butter threatens to tear them apart.

The storyline works well as a rumination on how the show intends to move forward. The hatch offers much greater hope for survival—and, as Kate’s shower points out, hygiene—for the castaways, but it also comes with its own complications. Eventually, Hurley realizes that the food is never going to last everyone for any great amount of time, and they might be better off having a feast to celebrate and give everyone a taste of hope rather than militarizing its distribution for a marginally longer period relatively speaking. It results in another of Lost’s episode-ending montages, although this one feels more purposeful: while Giacchino’s score takes us through the castaways as they enjoy a feast celebrating their newfound bounty, we also see Sun burying the bottle of letters that Claire discovered on the beach. The show is more self-aware when it masks conflict with montages like this one, acknowledging that this is consciously constructed as a distraction from the fact that the hatch carries more questions than answers, and offers only the illusion of sustainability.

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As functional as the storyline is, though, it loses me with its climax. Flashback climaxes are hard for Lost sometimes, as there’s not always a way to match the reveal in one narrative with a reveal in another. In this case, we have a rare case of actively cutting between flashback and the island, a technique that is typically used when the connection needs to be underlined. However, I have some fundamental issues with the idea that Hurley would ever in a million years consider blowing up the food instead of giving it all away. The dynamite pops up as a way to suddenly increase tension and create a suspenseful climax, but it never feels suspenseful given that it makes absolutely no sense. The cross-cutting tried to convince me that being disconnected from his friend Johnny was motivating him to blow up a bunch of food with dynamite inside a contained space next to some freaky electromagnetic concrete wall situation governed by the cursed Numbers, but that connection never tracked, and actually had the opposite effect intended. It made me feel like this stopped being Hurley’s story, and started being an episodic structure designed to use Hurley’s personality to make a larger point about the challenges facing the castaways.

That’s not a terrible thing: the flashbacks are ultimately constructed, and therefore earn a bit of artifice. But the issue comes when you consider it in the context of the same episode where awkward exposition culminates in the reveal that Bernard is—as Rose said he was—alive elsewhere on the island, and we end on that beautiful moment of Bernard tearfully thanking Michael for giving him hope after weeks of suffering, and we forget that Rose hasn’t been on the show forever and that Hurley and Rose’s conversation had been the least subtle foreshadowing imaginable. Lost is incredibly skilled at making the constructed feel triumphant and resonant—there’s some issues in Hurley’s story that keep that from happening, but “Everybody Hates Hugo” is productive nonetheless when it comes to pushing the new status quo forward.

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Stray observations:

  • Hurley’s dream where Jin speaks English, he speaks Korean, and there’s man in a Mr. Cluck’s mascot costume recalls Claire’s dream in season one, and is similarly angling toward Twin Peaks by all accounts. It also reinforces the “everything is going to change” theme a little too directly.
  • We actually see the front door of the hatch in this episode, and…see the above. It’s not nearly camouflaged enough to make it convincing.
  • Sayid’s “Let’s poke at the wall with a giant piece of titanium wreckage” plan isn’t exactly precise, but he and Jack do enough investigating to figure out that they really have no way of accessing whatever is behind that wall. Clearly he should have played the video game.
  • I enjoyed that my more recent exposure to Popeye’s—we didn’t have them in Canada—made me much more aware that Mr. Cluck’s was filmed at one of their locations, especially given I had an extensive conversation about Popeye’s the other night.
  • The episode was the only episode of Lost directed by Alan Taylor, who would go on to become one of the central directors on Game of Thrones and then went on to direct Thor 2: The Dark World for Marvel. If the cross-cutting was his idea, he’s grown nicely as a director.
  • Remember when DJ Qualls had enough clout that he could demand an “and” credit for a guest starring role? Those were the days. He’s fine here, in what would become one of a collection of guest appearances you’d have presumed would have been recurring, but were not.
  • Numbers Game: There are—or were, as Libby corrects us—23 survivors from the tail section of the plane.

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Spoiler Station (don’t read unless you’ve seen the entire series):

  • This is probably my first time closely revisiting the orientation film since watching the later seasons, so my heart definitely skipped a beat at the mention of an “incident.”
  • I admittedly find it hard to invest too heavily in the Tailies when there are extenuating circumstances that cloud the exits of three-quarters of the survivors we’re introduced to directly. It’s a missed opportunity before it even starts, which I think makes the second season particularly frustrating in retrospect. Don’t drink and drive, folks! (I know it was more complicated than that, but it’s what I remember most).
  • However, I love the way the Ana Lucia reveal functions as a precursor for the Henry Gale introduction soon after. Season 2 introduces us to the two most important characters introduced after the pilot (Juliet’s a strong third), and we’re getting close to meeting the second of the two.

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Next Week: We find another flashback for two characters, and the final flashback for another.