“S.O.S.” (originally aired 04/12/2006)

There was a lot written later in Lost’s life about how the second and third seasons showed the problems with Lost’s flashback conceit, and over the course of these reviews there have been weak flashbacks where I’ve contributed to this discourse. The flashbacks were an inherently uneven device, perfect for complex characters with complex questions about their past and a challenge for characters that are more easily reduced to a single mystery, or a single character trait. When the flashbacks work, they work; when they don’t, they don’t.

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And yet I resist the notion that Lost should have adjusted its structure sooner, as I would take every mediocre flashback in the first three seasons to ensure that we get “S.O.S.” This is a weird statement if you look at the above grade, which does not place this episode in the upper echelon of the series or even the season. This is not one of Lost’s finest episodes, a palate cleanser before Michael’s end-of-episode return kicks off the buildup to the finale, but it’s the only episode in the series to focus exclusively on guest stars instead of series regulars. If nothing else, the flashback structure created a space where Lost could highlight characters and actors who have lived on the periphery of this story, building a resonant tale that carries significant thematic meaning for the series moving forward.

“S.O.S.” is held back by a lack of on-island momentum. We’ve seen Rose and Bernard a few times since they were reunited—like when they discovered Sun on the beach in “The Whole Truth”—but they’ve mostly faded into the background. For Bernard to suddenly commandeer a group of castaways to build an “S.O.S.” symbol lacks any precedent—it’s not illogical that someone would want to do something following the food drop, but Bernard’s motivation is entirely new, and keeps the episode from tapping into pre-existing characterization. Meanwhile, the rest of the episode has the “main” characters in more low impact storylines: as Locke confronts existential questions about the hatch following Henry’s betrayal, Jack and Kate travel into the jungle to propose a trade to the Others, a journey that ends in a cliffhanger as opposed to paying off in this episode. Those storylines have meaning—Jack and Kate working through their feelings of lust and distrust, Locke working through his sense of faith in the hatch and the blast door map—but “S.O.S.” is definitely the calm before the storm for the main narrative.

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But it delivers in its flashback, as we work through the somewhat surprisingly short love story of Rose and Bernard. The flashbacks are a great place for Lost to actually “tell stories,” using our expectations against us in order to create concise, pointed statements of thematic importance to this world. In many cases, the writers are hamstrung by the need to protect against future flashbacks, and so the stories end up feeling less satisfying. With Rose and Bernard, though, this is the only flashback we’re going to see given how minor these characters are, and so the writers have the freedom to tell a story of two people who found love late in life, and whose love was interrupted by tragedy in ways that we might not have expected. We knew that Rose and Bernard crash-landed on a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles; what we didn’t know is that they had been in Australia so Bernard could pay a faith healer to cure Rose’s terminal cancer, which he discovered on the day he proposed.

Rose and Bernard have been at the emotional center of Lost before—I just cried rewatching the reunion scene from “Collision,” which spends as much time on their reunion as it does on Jin and Sun’s. However, they have never been asked to carry an episode on their own: L. Scott Caldwell and Sam Anderson have generally put in strong work individually, Caldwell especially, but it has always been in support of other characters. They are guest star utility players, people who populate this space and have personalities and motivations, but who lack the same agency as the characters they interact with. While the story of Rose and Bernard had purchase with audiences, constructed beautifully over a season’s worth of storytelling, that emotional gut punch is different than what you need to build to create an episode about those characters.

Both the writers and the actors prove up to the challenge in “S.O.S.” There is something really beautiful about the first two flashback sequences: Rose stubbornly refusing Bernard’s help to get out of the snow, Bernard stubbornly insisting on mansplaining, Rose’s hestitation before asking him if she can buy him a cup of coffee, Bernard’s awkward gestures to the violinists at the start of his proposal, Rose’s frustration that Bernard isn’t enraptured by the majestic beauty of Niagara Falls. Even when the story turns to tragedy as Rose reveals her cancer diagnosis, it becomes a story about how they refuse to let their lives be defined by this tragedy: Bernard still wants to get married, and when he “does something” to try to fix the situation Rose lets him believe it’s true so that they can move on with their lives unburdened by the inevitability. The story turns their island fate into poetry: Rose doesn’t want to leave because she knows that the island has given them the chance to live in a way that they could never live anywhere else.

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It’s a reveal that works on two levels. As a resolution to the Rose and Bernard story in “S.O.S.” it resolves Bernard’s sudden panic to leave the island: whereas he believed that the island was holding her back from living her life, she knew that the island had healed her, and once she tells him he leaves his symbol unfinished. Of course, the reveal also ties Rose to the island’s mysterious healing power, best captured in her conversation with the aforementioned existential Locke as he emerges from the hatch to work through his thoughts. Rose reveals in that conversation that she thinks Locke will be healing faster than Jack’s estimate, and we later learn in her flashback that she’s been holding onto Locke’s secret all this time. She was the one person who knew that the island had healed Locke, a secret she held because she knew it had given him a new lease on life in the same way it had her.

This connection between Rose and Locke places her at the center of the island’s power, and could make her a pivotal character. However, the two characters’ response to their respective miracles separates them: while Locke puzzles over the island and wants to understand why, Rose is content to simply live her life. As the final montage demonstrates there are people on this island who don’t need to ask questions: when food falls from the sky, you put it in the pantry and prepare meals with it. While Rose’s conversation with Locke reaffirms his desire to explore and understand the hatch and its mysteries, the same conversation solidifies Rose’s resolve to settle into a new life. It makes her a poetic and meaningful character thematically, but it also means that she holds none of the inherent tension or conflict that would make her a main character and place her closer to the action.

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Rose and Bernard’s flashback was never going to be central to Lost’s narrative: the episode ends on Michael’s return to ensure momentum into the following episode (which wouldn’t air for three weeks), and it twice cuts away—to the opening credits and to commercial—on Michael Emerson doing his best creepy Other now that “Henry Gale’s” true identity has emerged to remind us of the “real” conflict. However, the fact that it exists shows Lost’s ability to craft character stories that resonate, pulling supporting or guest characters and building them into emotional narratives that carry with the show and give it depth in ways that have nothing to do with blast door maps. It’s not one of the show’s strongest episodes, but it’s one that I’m very glad exists, and demonstrates the long-term value of the flashback structure despite its flaws.

Stray observations:

  • “I told you, we’re not lost”—has anyone tallied up the number of times the name of the show is actually said in the show?
  • What’s Eko building, anyway?: It’s a church! Thanks, Charlie, for giving us a real answer for once. That said, I do think Eko’s constructive phase is superior to his destructive phase, Bernard. Let’s not reduce him to hitting people with his stick.
  • I had forgotten about Frogurt. There are a lot of random castaway names that Bernard throws out in this episode, but I’m not surprised that’s the one that stuck.
  • Seriously, though, Emerson’s creepy Henry Gale smile as Locke screams at him through the door? Terrifying. I’d make him a series regular for that alone.
  • I love how Kate—and the audience—are so excited that Jack asks Kate to go with him instead of Sawyer, and then he explains that it’s just because he knows she has no value to the Others. Real nice there, Jack. Real nice.
  • This is irrelevant to this review, but I wanted to find a thematic playlist to write to, so I search for “S.O.S.” on Spotify. During this, I discovered that despite the fact that Rihanna’s song is titled “SOS,” the Chipettes version of the song features in Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked is titled “S.O.S.” I hope someone got fired for that blunder. (For the record, my playlist was ABBA’s “S.O.S.” and Phoenix’s “S.O.S. in Bel Air.”)

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“Two For The Road” (originally aired 05/03/2006)

There have been points along the journey of rewatching Lost where I have discussed my resistance to boiling episodes down to their most memorable moments. The Blast Door Map in “Lockdown” is a great example of this: that might be the element of that episode most people remember, but it doesn’t mean that what happens around it is unimportant to the series’ development. It’s a rule that I believe is important to a rewatch of any kind, and to revisiting a show in the context of TV Club Classic.

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However, there are some episodes where this isn’t possible. These are episodes where one single event is so overwhelmingly memorable—or infamous—that it forever swallows everything around it. It becomes so much of a point of discussion that everything in the episode becomes considered in light of that development, its influence extending out beyond the episode itself to the ones before and after. Such events place the entire season—or maybe even the entire series—into new context, reshaping our relationship with the show and its storytelling.

In case you haven’t guessed, the final scene of “Two For The Road” is one of those moments. On the surface, it’s a shocking twist befitting a serial drama of the twenty-first century—Michael, after emerging from the jungle, worms his way into a gun and the combination for Henry’s cell and shoots Ana Lucia in the abdomen. Lest this shock be insufficient, the show has Libby stumble onto the scene, her remark of surprise met by more gunfire as Michael fires in a panicked state. He then calmly opens Henry’s cell, aims the gun at his own shoulder, and fires.

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It makes for stunning television in the moment: even when you know it’s coming, or even if you have reason to align with the suspicion regarding how Michael just happened to emerge from the jungle as Jack and Kate were at the boundary, I don’t think there’s anything that quite prepares you for seeing two characters shot by one of the show’s “heroes.” Even if Michael is far from the series’ most engaging character, struggling to find meaningful characterization beyond his relationship with his son, to see him apologize and then fire that gun at Ana Lucia is difficult to watch in ways that highlight Lost as its most discomfiting. It’s also incredibly well directed by Paul Edwards—especially the slow pan around to reveal Libby—and is one of Harold Perrineau’s best scenes on the show.

However, if we dig beyond the surface, the end of “Two For The Road” is immensely frustrating. It’s frustrating because of how difficult it is to believe that the arcs established for Ana Lucia and Libby were intended to lead to this moment. Now, it is ahistorical to suggest that Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Watros’ parallel DUI arrests are the direct cause of this plot point: the writers have been explicit that Ana Lucia’s arc was always intended to end at the end of the second season, and there has been no definitive proof Libby’s arc was changed due to Watros’ arrest. But even if we move past that narrative, which was prevalent at the time, it becomes tough to reconcile this event with the season’s treatment of these characters to date.

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I write this presuming the two characters are dead, which is how I read the scene when it first aired and which may or may not be correct for those who could be reading these reviews without watching the next episode first. In the case of Ana Lucia, in retrospect her flashback offers something approaching closure of the story we’ve seen so far. We learn that she journeyed to Sydney with Christian of all people, there to serve as his bodyguard as he drunkenly worked up the “courage” to knock a woman’s door and demand to see the daughter he had out of wedlock. She uses his crisis of parenthood—over both his daughter he can’t see and his son he can’t apologize to, thus requiring him to leave Los Angeles in shame—as a reason to reconcile with her own mother over the phone, who knows Ana Lucia killed the man who shot her. It’s a closed loop in terms of the flashbacks set up for the character, while simultaneously drawing in the connection to Christian as a way to make her flashbacks engage with the larger mythology.

The problem is that the show spent a lot of time focusing on Ana Lucia. She was a love interest for Jack (and sleeps with Sawyer here), she reached a complicated truce with Sayid, and she was to be central to whatever army Jack intended to create to ward off the Others. She had relationships with the characters that felt complicated, and which the show intimated would be important for the show moving forward. Whereas characters like Boone or Shannon always felt on the outside looking in, the show asked us to invest in Ana Lucia and the Tailies in a different way, and her death very consciously swallows that investment.

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Additionally, and this is admittedly subjective, but Ana Lucia also never entirely developed in the way it seemed like the show wanted her to. The chemistry Rodriguez and Fox had in their scene in the first season finale never materialized on the island: even accepting that this is due to how the island has changed them, it meant any romantic entanglement never materialized as a real point of interest. Rodriguez was given a damaged character to play, and she played it well, but the edge with which the character was introduced was too potent to ever fully connect with the show’s emotional core. Her flashback was supposed to do that work, but the show never really found a way to connect it to her island narrative, and even here her emotional release with Michael about being unable to murder Henry doesn’t feel like part of a larger storyline. Ana Lucia’s death is the show admitting that Ana Lucia didn’t fit, which makes her season two arc a case of the writers “failing” to solve the puzzle of her character.

I use “failing” very loosely: Ana Lucia played a productive role in the season, and “Two For The Road” is not a terrible note to go out on. However, Libby represents an entirely different frustration, where it’s as though the writers never even tried at all. Libby never received a flashback despite showing up in Hurley’s, and despite the fact that the show set up their relationship as the most prominent in the season. While Ana Lucia’s death retroactively explains some of the struggles they were having integrating her character into the ensemble, Libby’s death explains literally nothing. Even earlier in the episode, as Libby and Hurley see one another for the last time, she stops and looks strangely as Hurley talks about how wine might help him remember why she looks familiar—that is the start of a mysterious character arc, not the end, which makes her death comparatively nonsensical.

There’s a poetry to that, I will admit: Lost is a show that plays with mystery, and so the idea of a mystery interrupted by a freak event like Michael’s shooting is not necessarily an absurd premise. However, it is also an active troll of the audience, who has been given every reason to anticipate more development for Libby than what was offered; yes, we could still see it in flashback at some point, but with what impact on the island storyline? It feels like a case of a character and a storyline being sacrificed to solve a problem. Perhaps they needed a second victim to better sell the idea that Henry’s escape involved an extended altercation, or perhaps—most cynically—they felt they needed to kill a character with a stronger emotional connection to the audience.

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That possibility is what makes the end of “Two For The Road” so frustrating in retrospect. It makes me read the Libby and Hurley relationship as a rushed effort to create emotional appeal and tragedy as opposed to a genuine connection. Watros and Garcia sell the relationship well, but I’ve found on rewatch that I never find it believable as something other than a way to add dramatic interest to the end of this episode. That is depressingly cynical, I will admit, but everything about this ending feels cynical. As much as the idea of the scene—a determined Michael returning to betray his former friends in order to, we presume, rescue his son—is powerful and an important catalyst for the end of the season, the way the show chose to establish the consequences of Michael’s decision undermines and compromises the season around it.

Stray observations:

  • Michael Emerson continues to grow into the “true” character behind Henry Gale, especially in his attack on Ana Lucia as she tries to profile him—if there’s one thing “Henry” doesn’t like, it’s being underestimated.
  • “Because you’re one of the good ones, John”—speaking of “Henry,” the show is definitely building a lot of mysteries around the Others simply through his conversations with Locke and other characters. What snippets we’ve heard about their leader, and about their plan, speak to something very different than the primitive understanding Michael sells (which Kate should know contradicts the evidence she found at the Staff).
  • Edwards’ direction stood out particularly in the brief scene of Locke and Henry when the later is still tied up, which features some incredibly striking lighting work.
  • Daddy [and Mommy] issues alert: We learn that Christian is pulling double duty in the Daddy issues department, while Ana Lucia is inspired to address her own Mommy issues, and note to Christian that it’s probably for the best that parents and children avoid working together. Sound advice.
  • I really love how Ana Lucia gives Henry Goodwin’s knife to cut himself free—the ensuing conversation is itself interesting, and is the closest the episode comes to closing Ana Lucia’s story arc successfully on the island.
  • So Sawyer was burning the last pages of Libby’s character arc, right?
  • Jin thumbs up = best thumbs up.

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

  • We will be seeing Libby “alive” again before the season is out, while both Rodriguez and Watros will pop up again in later seasons. They don’t make terrible footnotes as far as footnotes go, but it’s tough not to see how they weren’t always destined to be footnotes. I have no doubt that Ana Lucia could have stuck around a bit longer if the writers had cracked the character, or if Rodriguez has stepped up performance-wise like Emerson did.
  • While they’re not dead, this is actually the last time we’ll see Rose and Bernard until over a year later, where they pop up in time for “Greatest Hits.” Their disappearance is an unfortunate side effect of elevating “guest stars” to such an important character level without having the material to justify making them series regulars. Still, however much their absence damages the impact of their arc in the short term, their return in season five is totally worth it.
  • The fact that they don’t even revisit Libby’s importance in any meaningful way in flashbacks suggests that it’s one mystery they never entirely had figured out, which I totally understand but makes it very difficult to accept her arc at face value in hindsight.
  • I enjoy that Claire doesn’t even appear in the episode where we unknowingly get key evidence in the identity of her father.
  • This isn’t really a spoiler, but I’m going to leave it here anyway.

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Next week: “?” No, seriously, that’s the episode title. I know—way on the nose. I bet it took them “Three Minutes” to think of that one. (I will show myself out now).