“The Brig” (originally aired 05/02/2007)

Myles: There’s a recurrent tension of spatiality in “The Brig.” The episode is named after an explicit location: its climax comes in the brig of the Black Rock, where Locke helps Sawyer solve the mystery of who caused the latter’s father to turn to murder-suicide. However, the brig could just as easily be metaphorical, a way of understanding the prison Locke and Sawyer both put themselves in as they dealt with past tragedy.

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At least in the case of the brig, it works in both ways. Early in one of the episode’s temporal shifts to Locke’s missing time after leaving the Others’ village with Ben, Locke asks about the magic box, which was undoubtedly the big question in viewers’ minds once Ben introduced the idea. And while we might have imagined some sort of mystical portal, the truth was Ben was just using a metaphor, and the magic box doesn’t actually exist.

That’s a bit of a letdown initially, if I’m being honest, but Anthony Cooper’s arrival does not need a physical space to serve this story and its characters. To the point of spatial tension, Cooper helps articulate the sheer uncertainty over where and what The Island is. In one breath, Cooper—who was in a car accident and last remembers being in an ambulance before arriving on The Island—is claiming that he’s in hell, while on the beach Naomi is telling the castaways that there’s a freighter eighty nautical miles off the coast…but their plane is in the bottom of the ocean off of Bali. That question from the pilot of “Where are we?” is only growing more complicated, and whether metaphorical or not, the “magic box” helps kick off this fantastic final string of episodes.

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Returning to “The Brig” in retrospect, there is no reveal waiting in the episode’s climax: we know from the beginning that James Ford’s parents were (ostensibly) killed by Anthony Cooper, and that Anthony Cooper is the original Sawyer. However, it’s one of the most delicately constructed reveals in the entire series, a puzzle unfolding in both Locke and Sawyer’s journey to the Black Rock and in the “flashbacks” to Locke’s time with Ben and the Others. It makes perfect sense for Cooper to be under the hood when Sawyer is locked in the brig, but it would have made just as much sense for it to be Ben as Locke suggested, and while rewatching the episode I had moments of doubt despite vivid memories of Sawyer strangling Cooper to death.

The reveal functions in an interesting way in the episode. Much as there is tension in the episode’s spatiality, there is also tension in its perspective. Given the “flashbacks” to Locke’s time with the Others, this is a “Locke episode,” and yet it transforms into a Sawyer one the moment he enters that room. This in one part reflects the strength of Lost’s ensemble, where characters are well developed enough that they’re able to emerge from within other characters’ designated episodes and share the spotlight. However, it’s also an action that Locke takes as a character, and which the episode builds into an understanding of both their relationship and their relationships with their pasts. Turning this into a “Sawyer episode” is Locke’s entire plan, because he’s not psychologically capable of living in a “Locke episode” where Anthony Cooper meets his end. He uses Sawyer in a deep, complex way, to the benefit of himself and the audience.

Of course, it’s less clear if this is a good thing for Sawyer, and how Locke’s actions affect the rest of his would-be friends on The Island. Noel, I’m curious how you reacted to Locke’s lone ranger declaration, and how the events of “The Brig” fit into your understanding of these characters at this crucial moment.

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Noel: Honestly, the main reason I wanted to revisit this episode is because it’s another one that varies the Island/flashback structure of the show, and I’ve always found those to be some of Lost’s most entertaining and revealing. But I’d forgotten just how pivotal “The Brig” is, in ways that are hard to get into without talking about seasons four through six. (I’ll get into that more when we visit the Spoiler Station.) You talk about how “The Brig” unexpectedly shifts from a Locke episode to a Sawyer episode, but for me it’s even more notable how it begins Lost’s transition from being mostly about the 815 survivors to being almost as much about The Island.

At the time, I’m not sure if it seemed that way. As I recall, “The Brig” was well-received when it originally aired, mainly because it told a story that fans had been waiting weeks to hear: What’s going on with Locke and his dad? But the episode also throws out some more of the delaying tactics that had grown a little wearisome by the end of season three. Ben tells Locke that he’s so eager to tell him all about the history, nature, and power of The Island, but then he pulls back and says, “But you’re not ready.” What a ripoff.

Or at least that’s how it comes across on the surface. Without (yet) getting too much into what we’ll find out later, “The Brig” actually establishes some things that are going to be very important. For one, it reveals a little more about the culture of the Others, outside of the administrative and security levels that we’ve seen to this point. For most of the first three seasons, Lost frames the Others as “hostiles,” with secret schemes and a violent streak. But as Locke joins them on their expedition, we get to see their spiritual side. They see hope in Locke’s miraculous healing; and, as Richard explains, a good number of them are ready to break away from Ben, who’s become more about petty power-games and magic tricks than about honoring The Island’s true purpose.

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Nevertheless, in Richard’s secret pep-talk to Locke, he reaffirms one thing that Ben says: that Locke is going to have to kill Cooper to gain the tribe’s respect and to “level up,” as it were. Which raises an unsettling question: Should Locke even align himself with an organization or an ethos that requires him to become a murderer?

You’re right, Myles: Locke’s decision to use Sawyer as his weapon is interesting, for a couple of reasons. For one, it makes Locke into a Ben-like manipulator, which raises some pertinent questions about whether he’s really worthy to be one of the stewards of The Island’s secrets. But it also ups the stakes, for the show and for its main characters. Neither Locke nor Sawyer are comfortable with killing, but the truth of the matter is that they’re meant to be heroes in an action/adventure/fantasy series. If they’re going to be involved in the plot, they’re going to have to get their hands dirty.

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To further emphasize how the nature of Lost is changing, look to the beach, which in “The Brig” has become spectacularly boring. There, one of the biggest developments yet in the survivors’ lives—the arrival of Naomi, with her satellite phone and her nearby rescue-ship—has taken weeks of TV time to even begin playing out, all because the 815ers are spending idle days having little romances and harboring petty grudges. This has largely been a function of the show’s storytelling to this point: There’s just not much for the characters to do, until they’re forced to. Well… they’re about to be forced to. Soon, no one will be able to laze around on the sidelines.

Myles: This season started with the beach getting benched, narratively speaking. Initially, it seemed like it was getting benched just to focus on the Others and flesh out the story world, but as the season progressed the narrative center pushed outward. When Jack comes back to the beach in “One Of Us,” it’s not the same deal it was before, because he was actually leaving the location where it appeared the “story” was happening. It’s an extension of the spatial tension, but undoubtedly tied to the characters: as Locke and Sawyer dive deeper with Cooper, and as Richard fleshes out the spiritual dimensions of the Others, their ties to The Island become stronger, and thus the meaning of “the beach” is changing in the series without necessarily changing for all of the characters at once.

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It has changed for Locke, certainly, and the muted Jack that returned to camp suggests it has changed for him as well. However, the nature of broadcast storytelling and the story being told means that all of this must happen gradually, which necessitates the delaying tactics you mention, Noel. But what “The Brig” does well is showcase the perils of diving into the deep end, with Sawyer’s storyline escalating too rapidly for him to react rationally. Whereas Ben says that Locke’s not ready and protects him from learning too much (or conspires to embarrass him, depending on how you want to read Ben’s actions), Locke shows no such protective instinct with Sawyer. He knows that when he puts Sawyer in a room with the man responsible for his parents’ death, that man will be a complete and utter asshole about it, and Sawyer’s emotions will be running so high that he’s likely to grab a nearby chain and choke Cooper to death.

I don’t doubt that the story could be unfolding faster at this point, but the gradual nature of the Naomi story says a lot about how cautious the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 have been since the beginning. When those who hiked to higher ground to pick up Rousseau’s radio message chose not to tell everyone about it, the series established a code of conduct when it came to major revelations about their circumstance. The way the news of Naomi’s presence spreads through camp shows that they have been given ample reason to remain cautious, here amplified by Juliet’s presence. They tell Sayid when they need someone to help them corroborate (and for Naomi to have a reason to repeat what she told Hurley, Charlie, and Desmond between episodes), while they tell Kate only because she stumbles onto it. The news spreads inconsistently because that’s how humans disseminate news in an environment where there’s no news broadcasts or town meetings (at least as far as we see).

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And while I’d agree that Ben’s refusal to allow Locke to learn about The Island is an example of a stall tactic, it’s an example of a stall tactic that Lost reframes as a motivated character choice. Ben doesn’t want to tell Locke because it gives Locke power, power that Ben wishes to keep for himself. Whereas the early season mysteriousness of the Others relies primarily on vagaries that lacked any clear purpose beyond generic subterfuge, here Ben isn’t just being withholding because he’s screwing with Locke, or because Lost is screwing with his audience. He’s being withholding because it is in his best interest, an interest we’ve come to understand better with each passing episode even if it remains suitably opaque so as to drum up anticipation for the forthcoming flashback.

Lots of episodes live in this tension, but “The Brig” seems to revel in it a bit more than others, contrasting the visceral events in the Black Rock with the stumbling reaction to Naomi’s revelation, and emerging with the kind of episode that would prove pivotal to the show’s future.

Stray observations:

  • Ben’s “the magic box is a metaphor, John” is one of the funnier lines in Lost, though as I recall that it annoyed some fans who’d spent the weeks since “The Man From Tallahassee” speculating on the nature/meaning of said box. [NM]
  • The flashbacks prove a really productive way of allowing for the Others’ travel time to their new encampment: we jump from 8 days to 3 days like it’s nobody’s business how they got there. [MM]
  • The show didn’t really need to use Cindy and the kids from the Tailies camp again here, but they’re a nice point of continuity from earlier in the season, where it was a nice point of continuity from the previous season. [MM]
  • Ben scoffs at the Dharma Initiative for not really grasping what The Island is all about, but when Richard sits with Locke, he suggests that it’s Ben who’s lost his way. Re-watching this set of episodes, I’ve been struck more than ever how nobody really knows how to manage The Island. They just know how to tell other people that they’re doing it wrong. [NM]
  • I just love Rousseau dropping in to get some dynamite while Locke is outside the door of the brig. We could read it as foreshadowing, sure, but there’s also something so everyday about the way she does it. It’s a great little moment. [MM]
  • There’s something very fitting about a Locke episode at this point in the show’s life: his search for freedom (which Ben reminds us of as he pushes Locke to murder Cooper) is echoed by the creators’ efforts to be free to end the show as they pleased, a request that was granted around this time. [MM]
  • Lots of great Giacchino stings as the events in the brig unfold, in particular the initial reveal—there are some big swings here, and every big swing needs a big sting. [MM]
  • Can we give it up one more time for Kevin Tighe as Anthony Cooper? He’s so perfectly obnoxious in the Black Rock that I wanted to strangle him. [NM]
  • Myles Has to Go Back: 2007 Myles had just taken two Russian history classes around this time, and so 2007 Myles thought of this episode through a simile about Gorbachev that 2015 Myles finds incomprehensible—sorry, Dr. Duke, this is now more or less gibberish to me without Wikipedia help: “If I can, I figure Ben’s kind of like Gorbachev; Ben is trying to fix the Others’ problems, but in doing so he’s losing sight of the big picture. Of course, in the USSR, this brought on the failed August Coup. However, what if that Coup had a leader like Locke? I think it would be an entirely different story.” [MM]
  • “Don’t tell me what I can’t do, John”—was that in Locke’s file, too, do we think? Ben, you bastard. [MM]

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

  • Earlier, Myles, you asked what I thought about Locke telling Sawyer that he’s “on my own journey now.” Frankly, it broke my heart a little. Here’s the Locke arc to this point, flashbacks included: He’s a seeker, open to the grand adventure of life, willing to submit to con men, communes, and even an inexplicable button in a bunker if it’ll get him the answers he’s looking for. And now that he’s as close as he’s ever been, he betrays his own moral code by tricking Sawyer into killing for him, and then heads back to the Others ready to be initiated. But we know what’s coming up for him: more pain, then death, then the exploitation of his image by The Island’s force of evil. All of this makes Locke’s sense of hope and confidence in this episode all the more tragic. That’s also what makes “The Brig” so much more important than I’d recalled. This is where the real story of The Island starts to be told, and it’s not a pretty one. It’s about in-fighting and confusion, as Jacob and The Man In Black move people around like game-pieces, with the latter sometimes convincing the inhabitants that they’re working for the former. It’s radical in a way that so much of Lost puts the viewer in the position of the pawns: jerked about, never knowing who’s really doing the jerking, or whether their intentions are good. [NM]

Next week: Noel is back as we go behind the curtain with Benjamin Linus.

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