“Stranger In A Strange Land” (originally aired 02/21/2007)

Lore gives “Stranger In A Strange Land” an important place in the history of Lost. It was the episode that finally convinced ABC that Lindelof and Cuse needed an end date to save the show from itself, with a flashback so inert it broke down decades of broadcasting logic and earned the show a chance to end the way it deserved to.

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It’s arguably Lost’s most infamous episode, which makes revisiting it particularly challenging. The legend of “Stranger In a Strange Land”—or “The One About Jack’s Tattoos”—has grown well beyond the content of the episode itself, to the point where I had only vague recollections of what took place in the episode. I went into it looking to see if I could find the origin of its badness, as if this rewatch had the potential to finally solve an eternal question of where Lost’s worst episode went wrong.

What I found is that I don’t think “Stranger In A Strange Land” is Lost’ worst episode. It’s not a good episode, mind you, and I’m not going to attempt to defend anything about the flashback, but I ended up finding the whole thing sort of inoffensive. Outside of the flashback, it suffers mainly from a miscalculation, tying its thematic material onto characters that have not yet made enough of an impression to earn a star-crossed lovers montage at episode’s end, and playing things just a bit too coy with the Others. It’s far from Lost’s strongest hour, and it’s undoubtedly a momentum killer, but stripped of context it’s not the worst hour of television Lost produced.

I realize we can’t entirely strip an episode of context: this hour had to follow the time-bending “Flashes Before Your Eyes” and doesn’t even feature Desmond or Charlie, and is technically a direct follow-up to the tremendous “Not In Portland” and almost completely sidelines its best character in Juliet. It’s as if the writers were on the road to getting the season started, but then realized they left the stove on back on the other island, requiring them to make up a reason to go back. Jack remains important to this story, but the episode works too hard to design a plot around him being left behind when a subtler set of scenes would have sufficed.

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The best word for Jack’s final days at the Hydra station is “overwrought.” The most interesting scene is easily Cindy and the children Ana Lucia took care of showing up for Juliet’s trial—I love that they ask about Ana Lucia, for example, something that I had forgotten about but really pops on rewatch. However, Jack is so distraught at this point that he acts like a caged animal, an acting choice that perplexes me. It comes across as Jack being cranky about being woken up as opposed to experiencing a deeper existential struggle, and the whole thing plays out more like a dream sequence than an actual thing that is happening.

This is a problem with the Others in general, as we’re left in the dark such that everything feels otherworldly even when it’s actually fairly normal. The way the show keeps the “trial” behind closed doors makes no sense except to continue fostering mystery about the Others, but haven’t we gotten past that point? The type of melodrama the episode creates in Jack’s interview with Isabelle, for example, only means something if we understand all of the people involved—as it stands, the “Sherriff” is meaningless, her position left vague for no reason other than the fact the show has been esoteric about the Others in the past. While departing from the Hydra offers promise for the Others’ future, the episode itself offers nothing tangible, making sure its small gains—a stronger bond between Jack and Juliet, who are now in it together—are shrouded by nonsense to no particular end.

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In retrospect, though, some of this works better than it would have at the time. Now that I know Juliet better, her struggles here resonate more, even if the episode doesn’t do much but turn her into a damsel in distress (particularly in those shots of the meeting we don’t understand, as she peeks out the door in terror). And although Alex and Karl are far from a central romance in the show, understanding the characters a bit better makes their star-crossed moment at episode’s end resonate more than it would have at the time. The show goes big with that final montage, but it’s piecing together a messy Hydra storyline, two kids we barely know, and then Kate and Sawyer, which is still a work-in-progress that didn’t get much in the way of development in the few scenes on offer here.

However, all of this is more dumb than offensive—it’s not great, and you can sense they never quite cracked how to transition Jack from the Hydra to the Others’ main camp, but the end result is more misguided than what I’d call a mistake. Obviously, the flashbacks have been placed in a different category, and let’s get it out of the way: this is a different kind of dumb. The origin of Jack’s tattoo—just one of them, the others would be waiting for more tattoo-related flashbacks that would never come—involves a trip to Thailand, a tattoo artist who sees who people are and defines them with a tattoo, and Jack desecrating a cultural tradition just to prove he’s a real man, or something.

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It’s a mess and a half. Bai Ling struggles to bring any particular life to Achara, but there’s not much there to begin with—there is simply no reason for this story to exist. Outside of a cute moment where Achara interrupts Jack’s daddy issues to tell him she doesn’t care, the entire thing is building to the moment where tattoo artistry turns into amateur therapy, with Achara diagnosing Jack’s personality so perfectly that Jack just can’t help but force her to give him a tattoo she insists is against “her people” and will have “consequences.” Do we know who her people are? No. Do we understand what those consequences are beyond Jack getting (rightfully) punched in the face and kicked out of Thailand? Not at all. Are we given any sense of how any of this matters beyond creating a thematically relevant tattoo translation that speaks to Jack’s walking among the others but not being one of them? Nope.

But here’s the thing: as stupid as this flashback is, it just sort of melts away (or floats away like a kite, if you prefer). “Stranger In A Strange Land” does a bad job of finding story to fill this particular slot in the ongoing narrative, and it hurts the season’s momentum, but nothing is permanent. Whereas Charlie’s actions in “Fire + Water”—the last episode to earn a grade this low—were part of a larger set of mistakes with that character in the second season, this is the kind of misstep that the show more or less shrugs off. We never return to the origin of Jack’s tattoos, we never see Isabel again, and all of this can just be chalked up to the show running out of steam and needing to punt an episode before the season could kick into gear.

It remains an infamous episode—for instance, director Paris Barclay is one of the decade’s most notable television directors, but he would never direct another episode of the series. But yet it is far from irredeemable, and I can imagine someone with no idea of its infamy burning through it and shrugging a little before putting on the next episode. It’s a bad episode of Lost, but it’s bad in ways that are more pathetic than infuriating, like you can already see the show getting embarrassed of itself and moving on as the episode is happening. Revisiting the episode didn’t make me appreciate it any more or any less; instead, it made me understand that its terribleness is of minimal consequence to the season and the show around it, and that its infamy has grown beyond the unassuming dumbness that pervades the hour.

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Stray observations:

  • Heads up: Today is 4/8/15, which means that—following military time—you’ll want to take special note if anything particularly wonky happens at 16:23:42.
  • You can sense that Michael Giacchino got a note that they needed him to do some polishing here. “You want kite flying music? I’ll give you the most uplifting kite flying music in history.” Between that and the final montage, he’s really trying to sell this, and God love him for it.
  • I’m presuming Sawyer explained his bunny rabbit situation to Kate, or else she’s probably very confused about Sawyer’s new “Captain Bunny Killer” nickname for Ben. “Sally Slingshot” for Alex is a no-brainer, though.
  • “We had an excellent surgeon, Jack: his name was Ethan”—You can really sense the show struggling with how to tell stories about the Others when they reasonably have to give Ben time to recover from his surgery—the scene with Jack and Ben is the strongest in the Others storyline, and you can’t help but want more like it.
  • Honest question: does Juliet’s brand ever come up at any point after this? Was it just there as a thematic link to Jack’s tattoos? It just ends up feeling so random and disconnected from anything else we learn about the Others.
  • Daddy issues alert: Honestly, the one good thing about Achara is that she cuts this off at the knees.
  • Myles has to go back: 2007 Myles was drinking the kool-aid enough that this didn’t register as a major misstep. “The back story of the episode, into Jack’s tattoo, seemed somewhat dull if not necessarily bad. The story of Achara and her relationship to Jack was somewhat supernatural, somewhat slow, but the biggest problem was that we kind of knew everything we found out. Jack’s a leader, but he gets lonely and bitter about it…sounds about right, no? It’s another example of how the Others can often be more interesting than our existing characters, people just won’t give them a chance.” I really wanted people to give the Others a chance, y’all.

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“Tricia Tanaka is Dead” (originally aired 02/28/2007)

There is a cynical position to take on “Tricia Tanaka Is Dead.” Like so many episodes early in the third season, it features a flashback that strains to find something new to say about a character. It eventually settles on adding a layer of daddy issues to Hurley’s post-lottery curse, with Cheech Marin putting on some bad wigs and playing a derelict father who disappeared for seventeen years and comes back when his son wins the lottery. It also introduces Hurley’s sentimental streak for classic cars just in time for Hurley to stumble across an old VW van in the jungle, which he sets out to restore primarily because the story demands him to.

However, I can’t imagine ever taking that position. “Tricia Tanaka Is Dead” bears some of the issues plaguing the show more broadly, but it’s also a breath of fresh air, and transcends the artifice of its storytelling to focus on characters taking ownership of their own fate and having some fun in the process. The show is undoubtedly in a transition period, but whereas “Stranger In a Strange Land” got bogged down in boring old Jack, “Tricia Tanaka Is Dead” has Hurley’s optimism in its corner, and is crucial to giving the show room to breathe before diving into the rest of the season.

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Conflict drives most drama series, and in the flashback we see how Hurley’s curse drives that conflict. Nothing in Hurley’s life is easy after his lottery win, because everything is conflict waiting to happen. He refuses to allow anyone into his Mr. Cluck’s franchise until it opens in fear that something will go terribly wrong, and the meteor—or asteroid—confirms his worst suspicions. Whereas his mother celebrates his father’s return with open arms (and open sheets—she has needs), Hurley can’t accept it, because he can’t accept anything good that appears to happen in his life.

This has been different on the island, where Hurley has been a source of levity and optimism compared with his serious fellow castaways, but Libby’s death changed this. The show really hasn’t had any time to focus on Hurley this season, so it’s nice that our first sustained look has him explaining everything that’s been happening to Libby. The scene by her grave is a heartbreaking piece of acting from Jorge Garcia, but it also sets him onto a hopeful path. Hurley has often used humor to keep from being too scared, but Libby gave him courage, and it’s after talking with her that he willfully chases Vincent into the jungle to recover the skeleton arm the dog dragged onto the beach. It’s a classic “call to adventure,” and the rest of the episode is Hurley convincing others to join him.

It’s just incredibly infectious to watch. When Hurley finds the van, it’s the sign he was waiting for, and he works to pull everyone else into his orbit. Jin volunteers mainly out of the goodness of his heart—his English still isn’t good enough for him to know what Hurley was talking about—but Sawyer is my favorite recruitment in the episode. Sawyer returns with Kate and is immediately angry that his stuff has been removed from his tent, in particular his scotch, and Desmond and Charlie send Sawyer to Hurley in a very bad mood. But the second Sawyer shows up, Hurley is so happy that he’s alive that he hugs him, and drafts him into helping with the van despite Sawyer’s protestations. The beer helps, mind you, but it’s Hurley’s belief that pulls them all together.

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It all culminates in the ride down the hill, as Hurley and Charlie risk their lives in the hopes of doing something amazing to lift people’s spirits. It’s a great way for the show to play out the aftermath of “Flashes Before Your Eyes”—rather than Charlie continuing to mope about, Hurley’s positivity pushes him to test his fate, which makes the character active as opposed to reactive. It’s a lesson Hurley embodies here, acting in a way that he wasn’t able to when he was more or less turned into an errand boy by the Others after being taken captive with his friends. When he gets that van to work, and Three Dog Night’s “Shambala” comes on the 8-track, and he rides in circles with his friends, Hurley is taking charge of his own fate, and lightening up the season in the process.

“Tricia Tanaka Is Dead” is well designed this way. As characters fall into Hurley’s plan, they start to loosen up, in particular with Sawyer teaching Jin some all-important English phrases such as “those pants don’t make you look fat.” But Kate, Sayid, and Locke are by comparison moving out into the jungle, each operating with their own plan on locating the Others’ camp and rescuing Jack. That plan is more serious, with Locke following the compass reading he got from Eko’s jesus stick during his funeral and Kate using her knowledge of 16-year-old Alex to convince Rousseau to help with the search. But whereas the similar procedure of the Others’ leaving the Hydra station had a romance we can’t connect with and Jack’s tattoos for balance, Hurley’s van is a memorable and uplifting story that showcases the show’s character dynamics, and works to keep the lights on as the show moves pieces into place for its next adventure.

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Stray observations:

  • Sorry, not sorry, for the screencap overload. This was a B+ before I started grabbing images—just such a rich episode, visually and character-wise.
  • Lost’s writers got to get away with a lot of crazy coincidences: the idea that the same song playing when Hurley’s father abandoned him happened to be in the 8-track in the Dharma Van is absurd, but you can just say “the island did it” and it’s as logical as anything else on the show.
  • Daddy issues alert: The show has some serious problems de-aging Cheech Marin to generate these daddy issues, but I like his performance, as rote as the daddy issues might be.
  • I’m guessing there was some crazy speculation around this episode title, and so I love the way the flashback plays with this and has Hurley repeat Tricia Tanaka’s full name so the audience knows she’s marked for death. The asteroid is absurd, but again, it’s absurd in ways the show can get away with given Hurley’s curse.
  • It feels like this is Vincent’s biggest supporting role in a long time, and I’m sure it was a logistical nightmare to work with the dog so long, so I would just like to observe that it was worth it.
  • “Your Dad put me up to it”—Hurley buying off the fortune teller is another nice moment of playing with expectation, as the show’s world is one where we could have reason to believe fortunes: just not this one.
  • “Skeletor seems to like it”—one of Sawyer’s finest nicknames, bestowed on Roger Workman, who isn’t even alive to appreciate it. I wonder how he died? Probably just natural causes or something, right?
  • “Somebody’s hooked on phonics”—I will never tired of hooked on phonics jokes.
  • Myles has to go back: Continuing a theme, 2007 Myles’ review—which has a critical evaluation followed by an attempt at a “witty” recap I wrote in real time and didn’t edit—turns the big beach reunion scene into a dig at Charlie: “It’s really quite touching, outside of the harsh reality that Eko is dead, Jack is still off with the Others, and Charlie’s doomed. Wait, that last one isn’t harsh, it would be a relief.”

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

  • 2015 Myles has a stronger opinion of Charlie at this point, and I really love the way Hurley convincing him to take his life in his own hands ends up foreshadowing the events to come. It’s a great transition point in the character arc, and makes me really excited to revisit “Greatest Hits” with Noel later in the season.
  • I like to avoid skipping too far ahead to try to stay “in the moment” with the shows and its characters, but it’s hard to resist watching the greatest hits of the Dharma van given its introduction here. It’s a small, fun story in this context, but the way it gets woven into the show’s larger mythology just amplifies its value.

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Next Week: We’ll be doing two more episodes next week, before Noel returns the following week for Locke’s biggest flashback yet.