“The Greater Good” (originally aired 05/04/2005)
In which Sayid anchors a runaway ship.
We have reached the stage in Lost’s first season where no one episode can belong to a single character. After the events of “Deus Ex Machina” and “Do No Harm,” we’ve reached the stage where it would be difficult for any individual story to drown out the others. There’s no sending Sayid off into the jungle on a solitary—pun unintended but, as always, embraced—adventure in the wake of Boone’s death, meaning that “The Greater Good” doesn’t necessarily fit into the patterns developed earlier in the season.
In this way, the subjects of these late-season flashbacks need to be chosen carefully. “The Greater Good” delivers the second Sayid flashback of the season, and it’s a shrewd choice for two reasons. The first is that “Solitary” demonstrated Naveed Andrews’ ability to break out of the supporting cast to carry an episode on his own. The second, however, is more tied to Sayid’s character, which is that he is the one person who has lived the kind of life and death situations the castaways are facing on the island himself.
Others have certainly had their fair share of trauma and tragedy in their lives, and we know at least a few of them have been involved in deadly—or almost deadly—violence. But even characters like Kate and Sawyer seem to have largely stumbled into those actions, brief moments of escalation amidst an otherwise complicated but tame existence on the wrong side of the law. By comparison, during his time with the Republican Guard, Sayid saw the darkest side of humanity and himself, and that’s carried with him on the island in important ways.
The flashbacks in “The Greater Good” are ostensibly the story of how Sayid came to be in Australia—detained in London’s Heathrow airport by the CIA, Sayid is sent to Sydney to spy on his college roommate in exchange for the whereabouts of his beloved Nadia. In this way, while not a direct sequel to the previous flashback given we’re missing a huge swath of Sayid’s life, we see how the events of the previous flashback inform his willingness to infiltrate a terror cell and expose his friend to prosecution. And as Sayid plays a central role in investigating Locke’s involvement with Boone’s death, we see how Sayid’s experience with his friend has conditioned him to be acutely aware of the consequences of his own actions, and thus incredibly diligent about how others conduct themselves in his presence.
On the one hand, this makes Sayid a distinctly “solid” presence. While Jack walks in circles desperately searching for Locke, Sayid is more pragmatic, going to Shannon to show his support and then acting only when she asks him to. His trip to the plane with Locke is tense, certainly, but it’s never manic: Sayid spots the gun, distinguishes between the truth and the lies, and then reacts calmly when Locke reveals the most damaging truth of all. That it was Locke who attacked Sayid may make him angry initially, but he responds reasonably in the end: He hears Locke’s argument for why the distress call might not be something they want to find, he sees the logic Locke is operating under, and he moves on to the more pressing issue at hand.
On the other hand, however, the reason why Sayid is so solid in these moments is due to how many times he’s been broken. Essam’s suicide at the end of his flashback is not the first time someone’s life has been placed in his hands, but it’s the freshest example, and it reinforces how someone can make personal choices—in this case prioritizing finding Nadia—that will have a profound and often tragic impact on those around him or her. He understands—and trusts—Locke not simply because he’s determined that Locke’s relationship with the island and his survival skills will be in the service of the greater good, but also because he’s been the person responsible for tragedy before. And much as Locke goes out of his way to return to camp and—mostly—come clean about what happened to Boone in the fresh light of day, Sayid ended up on Flight 815 by delaying his trip in order to give Essam a proper Muslim burial and take responsibility for his friend’s body and his own actions.
This also involves Sayid betraying Shannon, who doesn’t have the same sense of perspective regarding Locke’s guilt or innocence. She’s not wrong to feel that Locke was responsible for her brother’s death, but in the immediate aftermath oshe isn’t as capable of blocking out emotion to focus on logic. And that’s totally natural: in fact, some part of Sayid might wish he could be more emotional, and that he hadn’t been forced to push that side of himself away to survive long before he faced the trials of the island. When it’s suggested to him that Shannon “just needs time,” Sayid knows that isn’t true. “Time won’t make a difference,” he says, speaking from personal experience and reinforcing the biggest takeaway as we move into the back of the season: There is no going back or getting past—there is only going forward, carrying the personal and interpersonal baggage of the choices you’ve made with you on the journey.
In this way, Sayid works as a late-season flashback because he’s the castaways most able to move past the tragedy of the previous episode. Not only was he able to quickly compartmentalize Boone’s death to approach Locke in a reasonable fashion, but he even moves past Shannon’s attempted murder with ease. He breaks down his logic for Locke smoothly, noting that he’s prioritizing the greater good as opposed to Shannon’s own feelings, but then tells Locke—rather than asking Locke—to take him to the hatch. The hatch hadn’t been brought up since their first conversation at the plane. The hatch had been a preoccupation of Jack’s but had been lost amidst Shannon’s theft of the guns. And yet there is was on Sayid’s mind, the missing piece of this puzzle that he kept in mind as he calmly handled the interceding events. While still an episode where some castaways are going about their normal lives, there is something strikingly urgent about the cliffhanger here, with Sayid single-handedly insisting the show’s narratives converge in the way the previous episodes only suggested, and in a way the end of the season demands.
- Those normal lives took the form of Claire’s postpartum sleep deprivation, and Charlie’s struggle to get “Turniphead” to sleep without his mother. That the solution involved Sawyer reading both paid off the glasses storyline and gave us the brief interlude of Hurley’s failed rendition of “I Feel Good,” plus offered an excuse for Charlie to check in with all sorts of other castaways before landing on the least likely choice.
- “Why did you lie?”—I like that Locke doesn’t have an answer to this question. Normally you might say that he lied to make the episode’s plot work the way it did, but it felt totally right in the moment, and so his lack of an answer makes perfect sense (especially for a show that’s got a somewhat complicated relationship with answers).
- “What if a shark attacks?”—That’s a great question Walt.
- Real talk: How did Shannon know where the guns were? The only people we saw visit that location were Jack, Kate, and Locke, and we have no reason to believe any of them would have spread that information to Shannon of all people? I realize they need to skip over that detail to make the plot work, but the question popped up in my mind without even really having to nitpick too hard.
- While told in broad strokes, the episode did a nice job resisting more extremist depictions of terror cells—yes, these are terrorists, but Essam offers a complicated portrait of why men would fall into that situation, and the series’ investment in humanity resisted turning them into pure villains in the same way that some other flashback characters were by comparison.
“Born To Run” (originally aired 05/11/2005)
In which it’s time to talk about this.
Kate and Jack are the only two characters to get three flashback episodes in the first season, which makes sense: as the male and female characters who have settled into primary leadership roles, they sit at the center of this community. And yet when you compare and contrast the two characters, they represent two distinct approaches to the flashback structure. Whereas Jack’s flashbacks break down the façade of stability to reveal unknown struggles—see also: Hurley, Locke—Kate’s are answers to questions explicitly raised by the events at the beginning of the season. We’re not just getting to know Kate better: we’re searching for answers of why Kate’s on the run, and how other details—like the toy plane—connect with those answers.
In other words, Kate is herself a mystery, and thus like Sayid makes for a strong choice for an end-of-season flashback. At this stage in the season, mysteries are crucial: not only are we moving closer to confronting the big picture mysteries that Lost built into its storytelling from the very beginning, but we’re also seeing the heightened tension creating a collection of smaller mysteries. We want to know what’s in the hatch, certainly, and we’d love to know why there are polar bears on the island, but “Born To Run” is also about who got Michael sick, and about Kate’s toy plane. For the end of the season to be successful, it needs to simultaneously be offering answers to some mysteries to create a sense of progress and introducing more mysteries to create anticipation for what will come once the season concludes. “Born To Run” balances that goal extremely well, although with a bit too much underlining in offering a cheat sheet for casual audiences.
Those underlining concerns emerge in Kate’s flashback, which is a solid piece of acting from Evangeline Lilly but suffers by hitting its mark too hard. The answer regarding the toy plane is a meaningful piece of Kate’s history: returning to her hometown in Iowa after learning of her mother’s cancer diagnosis, she reunites with ex-boyfriend Tom and gets a glimpse of the life she might have led if not for doing whatever it is she did to make herself so much of a fugitive that there’s guards by her mother’s room in case she were to return. Would she have grown old with Tom? Would she have maintained a strong relationship with her mother, who is so terrified to find her when she wakes up that she screams for help? Who would Kate have been if not for the fact that she is a fugitive?
Those are all interesting questions, and the events of Kate’s visit—the time capsule, her encounter with her mother, Tom’s death—resonate as a reminder that no matter what the answers are, this is Kate’s life now. Where the episode suffers is when it tries to argue that Kate’s always been this way. The dialogue on the cassette tape that Kate and Tom unearth in the time capsule is a weak piece of writing, too cleanly outlining the idea that Kate has been running away her entire life. That’s a meaningful character trait, one that carries into her on-island quest to earn a spot on the raft and even unlocks some additional meaning to her first flashback (as these are the events that solidified her nomadic existence). But whereas we’re able to piece together the ties back to “Tabula Rasa” on our own, the tape goes too far laying out the character trait, and the on-island material similarly lacks any subtlety. We get it: Kate’s a runner. While it’s good to get clear answers on why she was running, it’s unnecessary for the implications of those answers to get underlined with such force.
Like “The Greater Good,” though, there’s a utility to Kate’s somewhat one-dimensional character story in the episode. The pending departure of the raft—hastened by Arzt explaining monsoon season—means that everyone goes into overdrive, their most basic instincts kicking in as the possibility for rescue emerges. Just look at how Charlie reconnects with his music again, the thought of being rescued making it feasible that he could end up back in the world and riding a wave of press following his disappearance. In this way, Kate’s predilection for flight rather than fight is consciously boiling the character down to her essence, allowing her the chance to build herself up again when her plan to earn a spot on the raft—by convincing Sun to poison Jin to keep him on the island, thus opening a spot for her—fails and she’s got nowhere to run.
If “The Greater Good” was about using Sayid to outline the thematic stakes facing the castaways in the wake of Boone’s death, “Born To Run” is about laying the cards on the table. The episode itself is structured around the mystery of who poisoned Michael, which pulls various other characters —ack, Locke, Walt, Kate, Sawyer, Sun— into the web to stir up more anxiety, and reinforce how many of them are dealing with mysteries of their own. The scene where Hurley accidentally reveals Kate’s criminal past to Locke is a great reminder that although a lot has happened on the island, not everyone’s clued into every detail, and the audience at this stage knows more than any given character. Or, rather, the audience could know more than any given character, as we’re at the stage in the season where Lost is going to rely on its mythology and where it’s likely ABC is concerned that the more casual audience—crucial to making the series a success—may not be on the same page as the more diehard fans.
Accordingly, we get a reminder about Walt’s psychic powers, as a brief interaction with Locke leads Walt to ominously warn him not to open “it.” It refers to the hatch, a mystery that the audience is less likely to have forgotten, but which is nonetheless outlined in clearer terms in this episode. Locke wants to open it because he believes it holds answers; Jack wants to open it because it potentially holds supplies crucial to their survival; Sayid wants nothing to do with it, because opening a hatch without a handle—and thus no way to get in from the outside—is a risk that threatens the likelihood of either salvation or survival as far as he’s concerned. They don’t actually do anything about the hatch—they’re too distracted by the episodic mystery—but its presence is felt, and establishing presence is the ultimate goal of the episode.
“Born To Run” is a weaker episode in this final run, but it does nothing to damage the momentum heading into the three-part finale. Its primary goal is simply the least compelling of the preparations necessary for the climax being constructed, as it mainly takes inventory on the characters, mysteries, and relationships at stake in the days ahead. Whereas “The Greater Good” resonates more as it relates to the season and its ideas, “Born To Run” is the necessary table-setting to remind us that those ideas have added up to a convergence of a large number of plot threads to be dealt with in the finale’s last-chance power drive where there’s no place left to hide.
- Yes, I’m also impressed I lasted that long before resorting to Springsteen lyrics! Thanks for recognizing my struggle.
- Speaking of mysteries, this is a rare case where the episode actively tries to fool you into thinking that it’s someone else’s flashback—probably Claire’s?—with the blonde hair on Kate at the beginning of the episode. There are also no “Previously On Lost” scenes, so it seems like a purposefully disorienting opening to an episode that seems consciously designed to orient the viewer, which is interesting.
- Walt telling his father the truth about the first raft is a mature moment, and reminds us that Walt was never quite reduced to his unexplained “powers”: he is still a kid learning how to relate to his new father and his new circumstances, and it’s a growth moment (if a chilling one, given his insistence they follow through on their plans to depart the island as soon as possible).
- The most obvious piece of table-setting in the episode is Arzt, who had never appeared before but is very specifically given a name and a key role in launching the story forward. To what end? We may find out next week.
DaddyMommy Issues Alert: We still haven’t met Kate’s father, but she’s definitely carrying some weight regarding her mother, although specific details aren’t clear.
- Kate and Tom made the cassette message in 1989, so I fully expect to hear it sampled on Taylor Swift’s upcoming album.
Spoiler Station (Stop reading if you haven’t seen the whole series):
- “Time won’t make a difference” resonates particularly in light of the fact that time becomes absolutely crucial to the series’ narrative in later seasons, but here is framed largely in the time that’s passed between the flashbacks and the “present.” The show’s themes mostly stay the same, but it’s the shift in temporality that amplifies and complicates them, and makes Lost the show it becomes by the end of its run.
- Do we think Kate is including Tom in the category of people she’s murdered? It’s obviously easy for first-time viewers to read this as the answer to who Kate killed (albeit with the original crime still a mystery), but do we think she herself sees this as her second murder?
- “There ain’t nothin’ on this island worth staying for”—I wonder if they thought back to this line when they had Sawyer jump out of that helicopter for Kate to be able to be rescued. My guess is yes.
Next Week: The season ends with a bang (or two) in “Exodus.”