“The Glass Ballerina” (originally aired 10/11/2006)
This season on The Amazing Race—I swear I’m going somewhere with this, stick with me—they introduced a new twist: instead of featuring 11 teams of two with pre-existing relationships, five teams would be on “extreme blind dates,” meeting one another for the first time.
From a storytelling perspective, the show is now moving in two different directions. For the woman who has yet to let her boyfriend of eight months meet her son, the race is a test to see how their relationship can survive under the difficult circumstances ahead of them. For the two people who just met each other, meanwhile, how they survive the challenge directly in front of them is intended as a test to see if they want to even attempt to tackle the complexity of a relationship.
While there’s an ugliness to the show’s matchmaking, it automatically serves to expand the storytelling parameters available to the editors, something that came to mind as I sat down to confront “The Glass Ballerina.” As the latest episode focused on Jin and Sun, I was reminded that the “test” of living on the island is different for them than it is for anyone else. While all characters are haunted by their pasts, increasingly few of them share that past with someone they’re on the island with. Boone and Shannon are dead, and Michael and Walt are gone, which leaves Jin and Sun and Rose and Bernard as the only pre-existing relationships left on the island (or at least the only pre-existing relationships that the audience knows about until the following episode).
This is Jin and Sun’s weakest flashback, stuck with the same problem as so many other characters: at the moment, there is very little to add to their story. We get confirmation that Sun was sleeping with Jae, but this fact was foreshadowed previously, and does not come with any considerable impact. The story itself is not poorly constructed: there’s a poetic tragedy, for example, to Jae killing himself because he believes that Jin knows about the affair, when in truth Jin was simply acting on Mr. Paik’s orders. The idea that Jae couldn’t live with what he had done is also valuable, as it speaks to the impossibility of a fresh start, the theme central to following characters like Jin and Sun on the island. While in many ways the island gives them everything they wanted—the baby, a chance to be away from her father, a better understanding of one another—they still can’t erase the parts of their pasts they’re not proud of. Unfortunately, this is not a new theme: Jin and Sun have always had the most relationship baggage of anyone on the island, and so reaffirming this feels more like a reminder than a revelation.
There’s also a clear thematic connection to the test that Jack, Sawyer, and Kate are undergoing with the Others. While they are effectively prisoners, the surveillance setup and consistent monitoring would imply they’re interested in more than keeping them locked up. They want their cooperation, but they are also playing mind games in order to earn it, and consciously separating them. In the process, they’re revealing that by this point 69 days into their time on the island, these three characters have developed real relationships. Kate wants to know where Jack is, and Jack asks about Kate and Sawyer, and both are given evasive yet distinct responses: whereas Jack is reassured that his friends are alive and nearby, Kate’s question goes unanswered, leaving them wondering over Jack’s fate. Based on what the Others know about the castaways, it’s unlikely this is incidental; they are creating an experiment, pulling the group apart to reach the end goal for which they will eventually require Jack’s cooperation.
What is that? Well, that’s this episode’s biggest problem: we have no idea. We know that Kate and Sawyer are put to work digging out rocks, and we see Juliet poring over some blueprints, but do we have any idea why? Nope. Alex drops by to chat with Kate and inquire about the kid who used to live in her cell (who she never met), but do we have any idea how this is significant? None. Colleen (a newly arrived Paula Malcolmson) tells Sun she can’t let her off the boat, but she won’t say why, and might not even know anyway. Even Ben’s big magic trick—showing Jack footage from the Boston Red Sox’s 2004 World Series victory after fully revealing his identity as Benjamin Linus—is just a more concrete version of Juliet’s information about Sarah last week. It’s a cool scene, but there’s an emptiness to it; it stands out in the moment, but the second you sit down to write about it, you realize that it told us almost nothing.
That in and of itself is not a problem: revelation need not be present for Lost to be successful. At the same time, however, “The Glass Ballerina” struggles under the weight of having nowhere to turn for meaningful story progress. The flashback, while not without thematic value, feels too similar; the boat storyline, one of the story threads left after last season, loses its boat and ends with Sayid, Sun, and Jin walking home with perhaps a tiny bit better understanding of one another, but not much else. And because the Others’ motivations must remain shrouded in mystery, there’s nowhere for Jack and friends to go—heck, Jack didn’t move from his corner the entire time his friends were out at the worksite, as far as we can tell.
As much as Lost treading water is more engaging than when lesser shows attempt the same, it’s also a show that never felt entirely comfortable in this kind of stasis, and the challenge of standing still is evident here.
- So would we say Sun’s lie about the glass ballerina was an example of how she has been willing to lie in the past? Are there any other forms of symbolism we can pull from the opening image of the ballerina tumbling to the ground?
- “You taste like strawberries.” “You taste like fish biscuits.”—the show has its reasons for delving into shipper territory in these early episodes, but I feel these lines took it a bit too far (although that may be the love triangle agnostic in me).
- The episode is credited to Jeff Pinkner and Drew Goddard, the latter of whom is currently rumored to be taking over the reins of the Spider-Man film franchise.
- I’m a little confused by Colleen’s claim that the Others and the Castaways aren’t enemies until Sun shoots her—I would suggest there’s been enough beatings and torture for there to be some earned animosity. More on this in Spoiler Station below.
- “You never made soup for me”—between this and the book club invite, Ben and Juliet’s past is easily the most fleshed-out bit of foreshadowing—or hindshadowing?—for when we learn more about the Others in the future.
- This episode made me want to do an extensive oral history of every time a television show had gotten the expressed written consent of Major League Baseball to show game footage, because “expressed written consent of Major League Baseball” is one of my favorite phrases.
“Further Instructions” (originally aired 10/18/2006)
The fact that not every character appeared in “A Tale Of Two Cities” was not in and of itself a problem: the sense of withholding storytelling was effective, building anticipation comparable to that of the premiere itself. Where the third season’s narrative structure falls apart, though, is that “The Glass Ballerina” only added a single perspective, and it’s the one that offers the least insight given the characters involved. While we might have been wondering what Sayid, Jin, and Sun were up to, it was Desmond, Locke, and Mr. Eko whose fates were hanging in the balance.
“Further Instructions” pays off those threads by focusing entirely on the characters the season hasn’t caught up with, and it carries a significant narrative burden as a result. Beyond the basic question of whether or not they’re alive—they are—are questions regarding their future on the show. Who are Locke and Desmond without the hatch that defined their characters in the second season? Where does Mr. Eko place his faith now that the button, his chosen altar, has been taken away from him? As the three characters that have developed the strongest relationship to “the island” as a character in the series, these characters are floating in the thematic and narrative space of the show, and thus their reappearance in the narrative comes with a reorientation of their respective identities.
Locke logically serves as the centerpiece of this storytelling, given his prominence in the first two seasons, but “Further Instructions” is a bit confused about what the character’s goals are. Through two seasons, we could understand Locke as a person searching for his purpose: believing that he was given his legs back in an effort to serve a higher power, he took the island as his spiritual guide, and that faith—and, subsequently, the rejection of that faith—has led to tragedy after tragedy. As the island’s “Man of Faith,” his relationships—whether with Jack, Boone, Charlie, or Eko—have been defined by his struggle to balance his belief or lack thereof in the island with the competing or conflicting beliefs of those around him.
And yet the flashback in “Further Instructions” works very hard to reimagine Locke’s story as about family and community. We meet up with Locke living on a commune/drug compound, having found the surrogate family he needed to replace the toxic father he left behind. These are people who care about and respect him, at least until the point where he becomes an easy mark for an undercover cop who’s trying to bust their operation. Suddenly, Locke’s insecurities are reframed from his actions damaging interpersonal relationships—as in the case of his faith costing Boone his life—to his inability to serve the larger community, which in the flashback came from opening himself up to Eddie’s coercion.
Locke has always been invested in the community, but the flashback’s efforts to reframe the other castaways as Locke’s surrogate family falls flat. It’s a rushed reframing of the character’s motives in order to compensate for the fact that Jack isn’t on the beach anymore, and might not be for quite some time. There needs to be another leader figure, but Sayid—the other character who could theoretically fill such a role—is elsewhere as well. Locke needs to be this figure, but the episode lacks a clear call to action, using the flashback to rush a shift in characterization that needed more time to take hold. Locke working through his guilt with Eko by rescuing him from the polar bear makes sense, but the flashback attempts to take these actions and connect them to the “greater good,” without adding enough to our understanding of the character for me to buy into it.
The flashback in and of itself is not poorly rendered, but it’s endemic of the problems with the flashbacks in the early part of season three in the way it has nothing to actually say about Locke’s character. His experience within the flashback has clear thematic connections to what we’re seeing on the island, but those connections are—beyond telling us where Locke learned about sweat lodges—the entire point of the flashback, and work too hard to reshape the character to fit the situation instead of the other way around.
By comparison, Locke’s sweat lodge spirit quest with Boone is far more compelling. Although post-production unleashes a few too many wacky effects to sell the fantasy components, the way the island lays out the playing field is fascinating to see when rewatching the series. It also reframes Locke as a surrogate for the viewer, piecing together the various character groupings and their respective futures. The fact that this happens for Locke is a strong impulse for him to serve as a leader, and would be stronger if not for the thematic overstatement of family that is pervasive in the flashback and reinforced in Boone’s use of the term “family” during the Sydney airport walkthrough. In a world where Lost wasn’t beholden to its flashbacks, I feel pretty confident that this episode wouldn’t have had one, relying on the island’s vision as the necessary framing mechanism to push Locke in the right directions.
Of course, Lost is beholden to flashbacks, and it’s a burden early in the third season. “Further Instructions” would be a more balanced episode without its flashback, perhaps giving more time for Hurley and Desmond to hash out their respective experiences after the hatch imploded and Jack, Sawyer, and Kate—absent from the episode—were kidnapped. Desmond’s presence in the episode is its most compelling mystery: when he speaks of Locke’s speech before it happens, it suddenly places him at the center of the island’s mystique, and creates a whole new set of questions. The episode successfully makes us long for the next Desmond episode—in many ways his “first” main episode given how “Live Together, Die Alone” has so much else going on as a finale beyond his flashbacks—without telling us we’d be waiting for months for anything approximating an answer.
But whereas Desmond’s reappearance sparks mystery, the rest of the episode inspires a raised eyebrow. While Locke isn’t wildly out of character, his refocusing feels sudden and rushed, too clear in its thematic goals yet too vague in its ties to the character we knew. The episode’s final scene is its most disorienting, but not just because Locke is suddenly giving speeches—instead, it’s the fact that there’s suddenly two new castaways with dialogue, who Locke identifies by name, and who appear to have pre-existing relationships with our characters. Who are Nikki and Paulo? Where did they come from?
While creating those types of questions if crucial to any season premiere or episode adjacent to a season premiere that first reintroduces characters from a previous season, the issue with “Further Instructions” is that it feels like further instructions, too obvious in laying out a framework for future story development. From the incredulity of Nikki and Paulo’s sudden appearance to the light skepticism of Locke’s reorientation, it just never feels like a natural progression in the way the show manages at its best.
- Adding to the episode’s anvils: the idea that Locke’s desire to be a hunter was as much a metaphor regarding his place within the commune as it was an actual desire to hunt, which is how it manifested in his attempt to travel to Australia.
- The show never had the budget to properly render a polar bear. A decade later, I imagine the effects work might be cheap and/or efficient enough to allow for more than quick cuts and combinations of practical effects, but the episode relies too heavily on conveniently placed tufts of white fur to signify the threat at hand.
- You can tell a show isn’t used to having to deal with wigs when you see what is on Ian Somerhalder’s head in this episode.
- Is the most significant piece of information we glean in this flashback the Geronimo Jackson reference? I have to wonder if they had perhaps intended for Eddie to show up again in a later flashback, if it weren’t for the fact they shifted gears with Locke and started answering bigger questions by the end of the season.
- Daddy Issues Alert: Eddie makes the suggestion that Locke take advantage of the Daddy complexes of the younger women at the commune, and then outright asks Locke about his father, which is just rude—even if you’re an undercover cop trying to uncover a drug ring, you don’t play the Daddy issues card. Low blow, Eddie.
- Charlie on Desmond and Eko: “Are they off being mute and building structures as well?”
- I’m just going to leave this here.
Spoiler Station (only read if you’ve seen the whole series):
- So Colleen’s comments regarding the fact that they’re not yet “enemies” has a lot to do with the fact that the people the Others took are alive and well, I realize this, but in retrospect I’m not so sure that Sun shooting her in a self-defensive situation is a huge difference from the way they treated Ben? I mean, they were trying to kidnap here and not explaining why, I don’t really see that as a friendly gesture on any level.
- Of the purposefully vague Others-related activity, the runway sure ends up seeming the dumbest in retrospect—I mean, it technically pays off more than some of the others, granted, but there’s still something so unsatisfying about how procedural it ends up being.
- Between Locke’s vision and the hints about Desmond, this does become an important episode to mapping out the season. Boone’s comments about Charlie, Claire and Aaron foreshadow Charlie’s death, his comments about Desmond “helping himself” does a lot to foreshadow his jumps through time and attempts to regain control.