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Lost (Classic): “The Hunting Party”/“Fire + Water”

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“The Hunting Party” (originally aired 01/18/2006)

The island is different from our world. While the castaways may bring their own sense of social mores and legal parameters with them, there is no established sense of order, and the extreme circumstances that surround our castaways means that they don’t necessarily interact with one another the same way they would in their former lives.

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Previously, I’ve discussed how the issues of race that initially framed Sayid, Jin, and Sun in the early parts of the season have largely dissipated, while also noting that issues of class that are part of many characters’ flashbacks are largely absent in the context of the island. This is not to say that Lost represents a society without race or class, but rather that those issues of identity have faded into the background more readily as a new social order has been established that lacks the inciting forces that would make these issues volatile ones.

“The Hunting Party” is a crucial episode for this sense of order. Confronted by the Others after traveling into the woods in search of a gun-toting Michael chasing after his son, Jack, Locke, and Sawyer are told in no uncertain terms that they are only visiting on this island. Whatever society they develop is being developed on land that the Others own, with the bearded Other from the boat—let’s call him Zeke, Sawyer’s name for him—making clear that this island belongs to them. It’s the most substantial confrontation between the two sides yet, meaning that any sense of order that the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 have established is being threatened not only by violence, but by the notion that there is a competing social order somewhere out there in the jungle.

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Jack’s solution when he returns to the beach is to go to Ana Lucia and ask about training an army, which further speaks to the challenge of establishing social order. Jack is trying to build a community, but he is also trying to protect it, and for him that means taking steps to recreate the military-industrial complex that has so often been called upon to defend values as it works to claim territory. This season has consistently asked characters to take action to maintain the status quo, the button a manifestation of their commitment to the community they’ve built. As the threats against that community escalate, Jack wants to take that action considerably further, drafting Ana Lucia to help him.

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From a plot perspective, this more or less describes the contribution of “The Hunting Party,” but the rest of the episode makes a larger contribution to the makeup of the community. If there is one identity category that has absolutely not faded into the background in this new society, it’s gender. Kate’s place within the leadership structure on the island has always been in conflict with Jack’s hyper-masculinity—while one could argue that Jack attempts to keep Kate out of harm’s way because he’s in love with her, his persistent refusal to allow her to take care of herself or make her own decisions has its roots in sexist constructions of femininity. Jack believes that when situations like Michael running into the jungle with guns arise, Kate needs to be protected, a decision he makes unilaterally despite her clear desire to travel and her proven track record of being able to take care of herself.

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“The Hunting Party” is a frustrating episode for this dynamic. On the one hand, the episode makes a conscious effort to explore the gender dynamics of the island in Jin and Sun’s small story, in which she finally confronts him about the way he treated her within the context of their marriage and their first weeks on the island. When he attempts to make her feel guilty for refusing to allow him to run into the jungle to join the hunting party, she states it very plainly: “Being told what to do was my life for four years. I didn’t like it much either.” He has no response to this, nor should he: the show had some issues early on with how to walk these characters back from their culturally accurate but difficult to watch gender dynamics, but it has grown those characters to the point where they are able to confront their own relationship in clearer terms. It’s a short story, but it’s an important one, and it acknowledges how notions of gender lie at the core of relationships even in heightened situations like the ones surrounding these characters.

However, on the other hand, everything surrounding Jack in this episode is a complex web of gender dynamics that makes it tough to suggest the show is fully aware of its engagement with the issue. The episode seems to judge Jack for framing Kate as the damsel who needs to be protected as he all-but-orders her to return to the hatch, but then the nature of the plot proves Jack right by having Kate captured by the Others while ignoring his request. Similarly, Jack’s flashback features him struggling to balance his marriage to Sarah and his work, which happens to also involve liaising with an attractive patient’s daughter with an attractive patient’s daughter’s name (Gabriella). And yet just when the episode appears to be leading toward Jack becoming self-aware of his issues and coming clean with Sarah about kissing Gabriella, the episode lets him off the hook by revealing that Sarah has been seeing someone else and is leaving him that very night.

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As with any engagement with gender politics in the context of a television series, it is important to note that I am not arguing Lost is sexist, or that Jack as a character is exclusively defined by his sexism. However, “The Hunting Party” reinforces how complicated gender politics can be with a show that doesn’t want to engage with gender politics directly. It hides the gendered nature of these stories beneath contextual details like Sarah’s affair or the kiss Kate and Jack shared in “What Kate Did” (which was featured in the “Previously On” sequence attached to this episode), consciously or unconsciously obscuring their role in ongoing character development. While Jack’s stubbornness and need to “fix” things and people is not exclusively tied to gender, the way it manifests with Kate is informed by his past relationships, and if those values end up being those that an “army” goes on to defend it risks replicating problematic social hierarchies that need not be recreated in this new community.

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Lost is a show with strong female characters, which is what makes situations like this one even more frustrating. Said frustration can be productive, fueling the female characters themselves to become more engaged and fight back against the gendered limitations placed on them. And yet then there are scenes like Hurley crushing on Libby, who we’ve barely spent two minutes with and who becomes Hurley’s “desert island” love match without Cynthia Watros even appearing in the episode. It’s a harmless scene out of context, perhaps, but in context it’s tough to see a female character turned into a prospective love interest before Hurley or the audience knows more than a few basic factual details about her. Lost can, and should, and does do more with its female characters than this, but here we see an episode that ends up creating a messy collection of gender politics less articulate than what the show is capable of.

Stray observations:

  • “Why’d you pick that name?”—Locke turns the tables on nickname machine Sawyer with this question, although his specific interest in the name is at this point unclear.
  • I wrote in my notes that Sun “isn’t going to let Jin go commando again,” which in retrospect could also be describing the sitcom version of Lost where Sun is very concerned about Jin’s undergarment habits.
  • Michael’s still out there with a gun, but Walt is “fine” according to Zeke, who identified him as a “special boy.”
  • “This music is quite depressing”—something about the deadpan way Sayid says this makes me both incredibly sad and incredibly happy.
  • Daddy issues alert: Given it’s a Jack flashback episode, lots to work with here: Jack is almost a father (Sarah’s pregnancy test was negative, “don’t worry”), while Jack’s slow drift into an affair is called out by Christian, who reminds his son that not everyone is cut out to be a cheating asshole like he is. Sage wisdom.
  • I know Sawyer doesn’t end up doing much, and I’m glad he was there for a few reasons, but Sawyer was on his deathbed way too recently to be traipsing through the jungle. Heck, Kate had to help him to his feet earlier in the episode.
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“Fire + Water” (originally aired 01/25/2006)

When it was revealed that the plane Locke and Boone found in the jungle contained Virgin Mary statues filled with heroin, all eyes turned to Charlie. Given that the first season began with Charlie risking his life in the jungle in order to reclaim his heroin from the fuselage, it was only fitting it ended with him stashing a statue away for safekeeping.

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So what went wrong? “Fire + Water” is Charlie’s first episode of the season, and on paper it’s the moment Charlie’s arc has been building toward. If we argue that Charlie was given the “gift” of crashing onto the island to separate him from his addiction and bring him a meaningful connection with Claire and Aaron, then the arrival of the heroin was a test, much as other characters—thinking specifically of Locke—have been tested as time has passed. Having been separated from Claire and Aaron, and having last been seen hoarding Virgin Mary statues for some unknown purpose, how will Charlie confront his addiction?

You can see the logline for the episode writing itself, but “Fire + Water” ends up writing itself into a corner. The episode loses itself, using a combination of vivid surrealist dreams, religious allegories, and a symbolic piano to obscure whatever organic character development led Charlie to this point. His actions become entirely disconnected from the character we once knew, concluding with Charlie committing arson and attempting to kidnap Aaron in order to baptize him.

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The issue is that the only motivation Charlie has—at least as far as the episode argues—is that the island is making him do it. But at this stage in the series, “the island” is just an excuse for crazy shit to start happening, and that’s not enough to understand how Charlie would allow his dreams to lead him to such a rash action. The flashbacks work to try to create a sense of distrust surrounding family by showing us Liam’s struggles with addiction in the wake of his daughter’s birth and their impact on Charlie, but the episode works too hard. The opening dream delivers the image of an adult Liam in a diaper as Charlie plays at his cherished piano, after which the piano is on the beach and Aaron is trapped inside—we eventually piece together how these events tie together (the diaper commercial that signaled their lowest low, Liam selling the piano to support his child and selling out Charlie’s musical future in the process), but it all seems too self-aware of its construction.

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There’s merit to the show pushing itself stylistically, but Kitsis and Horowitz—who are also credited with the last episode to feature a similar dream sequence, “Everybody Hates Hugo”—never find a way to make Charlie’s dreams feel tied to the larger mystery of the island. There is a moment in his argument with Locke where he gets to what I would identify as the episode’s goal: whereas Kate seeing a horse or Shannon and Sayid seeing Walt is chalked up to “the Island,” Locke immediately presumes that Charlie’s vivid dreams are the result of drugs. Unlike some of the other castaways, Charlie is someone who has another reason why he might be acting strangely, and he resents it. But when all it leads to is Charlie self-destructing and brooding in his hoodie, the dream sequences end up feeling like an exercise in style over substance.

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The episode additionally suffers due to context. There is no clear source of momentum for Lost at this midpoint in the second season: everyone is settling into a form of domesticity, which means that Charlie’s actions end up feeling like a way to manufacture drama where there is otherwise none. Moreover, Charlie’s flashbacks have run out of steam such that this never felt like a part of the story we needed to see: instead, it’s a bunch of clichés—Mommy issues! Daddy issues! Class struggle! Embarrassing product sponsorship! Baby dropping!—that lacked the grounding in an ongoing character arc. It reads like the writers working overtime to wring more stories out of a flashback that they had run out of stories for in the first season.

The rest of the episode is also incredibly slight: Hurley and Libby flirt over some laundry, the Love Rhombus that will shake the camp to its very core continues to play out as Jack gets closer with Ana Lucia as Kate and Sawyer watch on, and Eko continues to methodically mark his place within his new environment. As she discusses why things can’t just go back to normal, Claire tells Charlie that “there is no before.” She’s referring to the fact they’re on a deserted island, but it also refers to an episode that struggles to make its events seem like they’re building on legible character arcs and thematic material that preceded it.

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Stray observations:

  • The relative weakness of these episodes makes sense when you consider they aired in January after the more eventful “Winter Premiere” and before February sweeps—in a 22-episode season, this is where a lull would go.
  • Can someone help me with why Locke punches Charlie? While he’s taking a hard line and is clearly disappointed, I’m sort of struggling with why he would go to a line of violence in that moment given what the character has done in the past. I’m just not sure where his motivation in terms of his relationship with both Charlie and Aaron/Claire is coming from, and I’m not sure the show knows either.
  • “You hittin’ that?”—I know we’re Love Rhombusing, but I could have done without this anvil, Ana Lucia.
  • On that subject: Do they just have tarps lying around that Ana Lucia can use? Did it come from the hatch? Wouldn’t one of the other castaways who didn’t recently kill someone maybe have first dibs on any tarps that they happened to find lying around? I refuse to believe there wasn’t uproar about the tarp issue.
  • Are you there, God? It’s me, Lost: I suppose the Virgin Mary was an entrypoint into the religious component of Charlie’s struggle, plus his first flashback started in a church, but I still ended up being caught off guard by the prevalence of religion in Charlie’s story here. I don’t mean to suggest it’s a problem, but it escalated quickly.
  • Daddy issues alert: Charlie’s butcher father is a new development, and one that may just be there so I would give it a bullet point and throw it on the ever-growing pile.
  • Not surprisingly, it was a different experience watching this episode in a rewatch after many of you in the comments have been tearing it apart preemptively over the past few weeks. I’m not saying I would have loved it otherwise, but the context definitely shapes how you enter into an episode like this one that doesn’t work as well as it could (or as well as it wants to).
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Spoiler Station (only read if you’ve seen the entire series):

  • I like to avoid “reading ahead” on the Wikis to make sure I enter into future seasons fresh, but it seems unfathomable that this is Charlie’s penultimate flashback. You can see them seeding a bunch of potential future Charlie stories (specifically with his parents), but they don’t end up going back until “Greatest Hits,” at which point the writing is nearly on the hand.
  • I’ve been enjoying discovering flashbacks that I didn’t remember existed, as they really do end up feeling like these lost artifacts of different shows. What if the patient’s daughter had recurred within Jack’s flashbacks, for example? I don’t know how likely that was, but the show was still a work-in-progress in a lot of ways at this stage—just look at how Jack’s “army” disappeared, for example.
  • I definitely don’t think I noticed Locke’s line of questioning regarding Sawyer on first viewing, but it was one of those alarm bell moments on rewatch.
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Next week: Sawyer’s first flashback of the season, and the forecast shows a possibility of Gale force winds.

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