“The Long Con” (originally aired 02/08/2006)

Serial television is a long con.

This is a dangerous sentiment to raise in a review of the television series Lost, I admit, but I’m not interested in confronting the series’ ending. Any series that creates long-term character arcs is inevitably asking you to invest in something that will at some point in time be revealed as part of a larger scheme (or arc). Every show will kill a character, or have a character kill someone, or make another significant change to move the plot forward or account for a change in the cast. The job of the show is to get you invested enough that you will feel the pain of that moment when your attachment is ripped away.

The difference between the long con of a television show and the long con that Sawyer pulls with Cassidy (the always great Kim Dickens) is that in most cases the show must go on—unless it’s a series finale, they need you to keep watching even after you discover you’ve been conned. When Sawyer pulls off his multi-level con of Cassidy, he doesn’t have to show up the next morning—he gets to run off into the sunset with $600,000, albeit with the guilt of hurting someone he loves because it’s the kind of person he’s decided he is. Whereas “Confidence Man” showed us Sawyer struggling to complete a con thanks to the emotional weight attached to it, “The Long Con” reveals Sawyer caught between the feelings he has for Cassidy and the consequences of the life he’s led to this point. He has no choice but to finish the con, but doing so means accepting the futility of any attempt to change who he is, and any possibility—in his mind, at least—that he can be the man in the picture he turns upside down.

Lost has been upfront about these elements of Sawyer’s character since the first season. His flashbacks have never disassociated him with his con man past, nor have his actions on the island itself ever softened fully. While never a villain per se, Sawyer has nonetheless represented a source of chaos, whose personal goals have primarily revolved around self-interest as opposed to the interests of the group. Injuring him meant that Sawyer was incapacitated for a time, though, and since emerging he has been cared for and in a state of recovery. As a result, his character arc has been trending toward a softer side of the character, making it easy to imagine an environment where his recovery has him answering quiz questions from Elegant magazine with Kate as opposed to hoarding medication and supplies.

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“The Long Con” wants to make us feel like a fool for believing this. It tricks us into believing that Sawyer is simply stirring up shit because he’s a bit of a troll, or because he’s in love with Kate and wants to do what he can to drive a wedge between her and Jack. This is how we’ve come to understand and care about the character. And while both of these might be part of his motivation, the episode—through Sawyer—ultimately argues that he tricks Jack and Locke into moving their gun storage and stealing it for himself because he was always the person who would do such a thing, even when the show was convincing us he might not be. As Sawyer asks Kate when she confronts him about whether this was all a plan all along, “What kind of person do you think I am?” It’s a meaningful question that the series’ flashback structure puts to the audience on a regular basis, and in this case the increasingly sympathetic character does something that makes us question how sympathetic he can be.

In addition to offering an in-episode example of a long con in Sawyer’s plan, then, “The Long Con” also makes us the victim of Sawyer’s character arc to date. However, while we might initially be frustrated with Sawyer, after taking a step back it’s hard not to appreciate the value of his sudden heel turn. We’re caught off guard in the same way that Sawyer being the one who stole the weapons catches the camp off guard; it’s a disruption of the “peace” that has largely characterized the camp this season barring the occasional shooting. It’s an episode that brings existing conflicts like Jack and Locke’s divergent philosophies back to the forefront, a breaking point for the détente that had settled over the season, and so it only makes sense that Sawyer would seize the moment like he does. It feels like a betrayal of the character that we might have wanted Sawyer to become, but it nonetheless feels true to the Sawyer that we’ve seen throughout both the series’ primary narrative and its flashbacks.

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More importantly, however, the character retains a sense of tragedy. His reasons for going to such lengths—including inciting Charlie to fake kidnap Sun, which we’ll get to in a moment—are not that he has any particular need for the guns, but rather because it’s who he believes himself to be. Thanks to moments like his inability to turn his back on his job and run off with Cassidy, he has resigned himself to not being a good person. He believes he’s never done a good thing in his life, and he’s committed to being that person regardless of whether or not he has an opportunity to do otherwise. However awful his actions might be, they are actions rooted in a sense of self-identification more powerful than circumstance, and rooted in the three flashbacks and on-island narratives we’ve seen thus far. It’s a great example of how having a character do something terrible need not rob that character of its complexity, and can both propel the plot forward while retaining our investment in a character whose actions we struggle with.

The only major problem with “The Long Con,” really, is that it simultaneously demonstrates the pitfalls of the short con in serial television. The notion that Charlie would willingly violently abduct Sun solely as some kind of payback for Locke embarrassing him transforms him into a sociopath, which only works if we’ve been given any indication before the previous episode that he was capable of such behavior. With Sawyer, it fits with an ongoing character arc that rationalizes behavior and helps us place his actions in the context of what we’ve seen before. With Charlie, it serves the plot and abandons the character, creating further separation from the person we thought we knew (and the person the show was presenting at face value). As soon as Sun was abducted, the memory that it was Charlie came rushing back to me, repressed by my desire to think of the character in more consistent terms.

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Nonetheless, “The Long Con” demonstrates the power of disrupting our sense of stability. Ana Lucia’s observation that the castaways weren’t scared enough is completely true, and the show needs them to be scared to push them into action. While Sawyer’s ended up fabricating an external threat, it reminds everyone that internal threats are not as much of a thing of the past as some people want them to be, and creates the culture of paranoia necessary to send the show into its next major arc.

Stray observations:

  • At some point in these reviews, I want to go back and track the placement of the first flashback, specifically the number of episode where it appears before and after the title card. It’s the latter in this case, giving us time to lay out Sawyer’s grievances before we get into the con itself; the following episode, meanwhile, opens on the flashback.
  • Sawyer, on Locke attacking Charlie, and echoing some of our skepticism about the likelihood of that event taking place: “That’s like getting Gandhi to beat his kids.”
  • Flashback Crossover Alert: There’s not a whole lot of meaning to take from Sawyer getting served by Kate’s mother in his flashback, but it’s a nice little touch, and one I would have forgotten if not for my inability to avoid reading the guest star credits.
  • I imagine some people were thinking other things when Sawyer emerged from the ocean in his underwear, but I was just wondering why he would then put on jeans without attempting to dry off first.
  • “It could be coming from anywhere.” “…or any time. Just kidding, dude.”—Hurley and Sayid spend most of the episode playing around with Bernard’s short wave radio, but something tells me it was just so they could have this conversation about where “Moonlight Serenade” was coming from.
  • Hurley also gives us the first look at Gary Troup’s Bad Twin, which would become a licensed tie-in product. I never read it, but it would appear that interested parties could procure a copy for a reasonable price, which is not exactly shocking.

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“One Of Them” (originally aired 02/15/2006)

“My name is Sayid Jarrah, and I am a torturer.”

Is this war?

The “Previously On” segment before “One Of Them” details the history of the Others on Lost, and it’s hard not to feel this conflict has developed into something more than an occasional skirmish. The battle lines were drawn during the firelight meeting in “The Hunting Party,” but it was far from the first sign this was inevitable. There was also Charlie nearly dying, Claire being abducted, Ethan’s reign of terror, and the attacks against the Tailies. With Jack and Ana Lucia talking about an army, Locke seems perfectly sane to suggest that the castaways are preparing to go to war.

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I will admit to being reluctant to read this allegorically. It’s not that it doesn’t read as an allegory for a post-9/11 America struggling with the rules of a new war on terror; this is true in much of the storyline, but it is particularly true in an episode featuring Gulf War flashbacks from Sayid where we learn his origin story as a torturer stems from a brief stint doing the dirty work of American soldiers. There is no question that—as departed writer of these columns Todd VanDerWerff noted on Twitter last week—the second season features the writers working through the political instability of the period, and that is no more clear than in “One Of Them.”

For me, however, reading it allegorically risks focusing on the forest rather than the trees. On the one hand, there is no question that the broad storytelling of Jack and Ana Lucia’s army is pushing the castaways into confronting how each of them fits into an ongoing conflict. However, on the other hand, it’s a choice that has consciously foregrounded characters whose sense of self will shift dramatically in such a period. In “The Long Con,” Sawyer responds to a new sense of uncertainty by taking full advantage, pulling a con that gives him a position of power. When Rousseau stalks out of the jungle to inform Sayid that she has one of the Others trapped in a net, he immediately goes into interrogation mode, compassionate enough to cut him down but determined enough to lock himself in the armory with “Henry Gale” to discover the truth.

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In the chilling line quoted above, Sayid presents a very confident sense of self. It’s a sense of self he spent the first season pushing against, and a sense of self that he insists at the end of his flashback is inhumane and something he’ll never do again. That proved to be untrue: he would go on to serve as a torturer for the Republican Guard after being set free by the Americans who captured him, and we know what happened when push came to shove in the early days on the island. But in the wake of Shannon’s death, Sayid has fully embraced his role in relation to Jack and Locke: if they are the men of science and faith, respectively, then Sayid is the man of truth, just as Sawyer is the man of lies.

Like Sawyer, however, Sayid is choosing to be this way. He believes that it was always there inside of him, but he is bringing it to the foreground because there is little else for him to give. He claims that he is not looking for someone to punish in the wake of Shannon’s death, but his emotions betray him during the interrogation, emotions that he wants to believe are not important to him. He attacks Henry Gale viciously, and as he tells Charlie in the end he feels no guilt about it. The question becomes whether this is an indictment of Sayid as a human being, or whether it is a contextual indictment of Henry Gale’s story. Is “One Of Them” an episode focused on one of the Others who gets caught weaving a wild story about a hot air balloon, or is “One Of Them” a story of how one poor balloonist confirmed that Sayid is as much of a monster as the people who strung up Charlie or abducted Claire? Or, conversely, has Sayid crossed a line regardless of whether or not Henry Gale is who he says he is?

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Those questions are fascinating outside of the context of the allegory. Indeed, one of the most compelling realities of war—or whatever we want to call the war on terror—is how much humanity lies at its core. The storylines work because the characters placed in the position to make these decisions have complex pasts that inform their choices. For Sayid, this is the culmination of a decade-long struggle with torturing people, and with the betrayal of loyalty hanging over him at every turn. Lost may be escalating the storytelling, but the way it is introducing the conflict has its roots in the characters as opposed to simply the world around them. In these episodes, Sawyer and Sayid’s stories to this point are reframed in a new context, their respective character arcs used to frame other major developments and bring conflict that already existed back to the surface.

And that’s why I resist the allegory. Too often, we look to a show like Lost and hope to “solve” it—if we present this as an allegory for the war on terror in this context, it’s as though that in some way gives it a specific meaning that we can “take away” from the text. However, by comparison I would argue that Lost is using this allegory to create ambiguity as opposed to certainty. Henry Gale is the perfect example of the show testing the audience to determine how much we trust the situation that we’re in. Similar to Rousseau and Sayid’s conversation about trust early in the episode, “One Of Them” passes the gun over to the audience and asks us to gauge whether or not Henry Gale is telling us the truth. There are no answers. There is no clarity. There is simply a set of claims that we are asked to evaluate with the knowledge that the fate of all of these castaways may be hanging in the balance depending on their—and our—decision.

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Where “One Of Them” gets more complicated is in this: what exactly are we rooting for here? Are we rooting for victory or stability? Is the goal of this war—if it is a war—to eliminate the Others or to reinforce boundaries? We can root for these characters as people, but we are also human beings watching a serialized television show. There is part of us that may want our “heroes” to discover that Henry Gale is just a normal guy in a bad situation, but there is another part of us that wants him to be one of the Others. There is a part of us relieved that Locke presses the button in the nick of time, but there is another part dying to know more about those hieroglyphs that appeared when he wasn’t quite fast enough.

Put in other terms, the search for the series’ truth is more likely to come through long cons and torture than through stability and order. As Sayid and Sawyer emerge to disrupt the status quo, the season pushes further toward wholly embracing the worldbuilding done so far this season, bringing forth a new world order that will inevitably evolve beyond the allegory that fuels its introduction.

Stray observations:

  • Other than working to justify why Hurley isn’t losing weight and giving him a chance to accept his weight as Sayid and Sawyer accept their worst traits, Hurley’s tree frog/food hoarding adventure with Sawyer mainly serves to offer a parallel consideration of what measures are necessary to solve a nagging problem. Hurley wants to take the annoying from far away; Sawyer crushes it in his hand and suggests it would go great with ranch dressing.
  • Although other characters have received more flashbacks to this point, I would argue that Sayid has some of the most evocative—the three moments of his life we’ve seen to date have been enormously formative, and stretch over a long period of time while nonetheless connecting to the periods between. It’s completely out of chronological order, but it fits together beautifully, and features consistently strong work from Naveen Andrews.
  • Less consistently strong: the visual effects work to turn Hawaii into Iraq. Not Heroes-level terrible, but it’s a mixed bag as they try to do more exteriors.
  • While Clancy Brown is the big name in the flashback sequence, the most recognizable face that wasn’t recognizable at the time is Theo Rossi, better known now as Juice on Sons of Anarchy.
  • Unless you’re living under a rock, which makes it unlikely that you’d be reading this review, you know that Michael Emerson ends up being at least a tiny bit more important than his buried guest star credit here would indicate. His presence is felt immediately, as the truth of Henry Gale is successfully obscured beneath a believable yet discomforting performance.
  • In the “Henry Gale is telling the truth” column: The specific details about the balloon, the fact that others—Rousseau, Flight 815—have come to the island under similar circumstances, the quick recitation of most facts.
  • In the “Henry Gale is a liar” column: The lack of specific knowledge and emotion regarding his wife’s death. The missing wife is a problem, and the detail that gets him in the most trouble when he begins prodding Sayid as Shannon enters into the conversation. It’s in that moment where it seems like he’s playing Sayid as Sayid is playing him, something that wasn’t as clear in earlier moments of vulnerability.

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

  • The hieroglyphs! I love how moments like that immediately send you rushing forward to other moments, in this case the blast door map and what happens when things really go too far in regards to the button. Rewatching it, each new bit of the puzzle teases the next, retaining momentum despite losing the uncertainty tied to the initial anticipation.
  • Michael Emerson acted himself into a prominent role in this series, and it’s really fascinating to see this character through the eyes of Benjamin Linus’ place within the series. It’s not a big role at this point, and there’s nothing to suggest that it’s anything more than another Ethan even if he turns out to be one of the Others after all. As much as I look forward to trying to find the moment where the show acknowledges its investment in the character, it’s impossible not to read it into the work Emerson is doing from the very beginning.

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Next week: Another Others attack is revisited, and Lost dares to title an episode “The Whole Truth” with a straight face.