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“The Man From Tallahassee” (originally aired 03/21/2007)

Myles: Lost’s use of flashbacks is one of its defining features, but it wasn’t always intended to be that way: in his lengthy reflection on being part of the series’ early seasons, writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach writes that the flashbacks were initially only in the pilot. However,

“as we truly tried to put our ideas into practice, the episodic format finally took shape around the notion that “flashbacks are there to demonstrate what you are in the island is a contrast to what you were in your other life.” This conceit became the theme of Lost, our central concern in the development of the stories, and the glue that held seasons of the show together. “

This is undoubtedly true of Lost’s first two seasons, but returning to the third season has reinforced how much the flashbacks had begun to tear the show apart.

It’s not that the flashbacks were necessarily bad, or that they were no longer serving the purpose they once were: I would argue that every flashback in this season has more or less completed the goals Grillo-Marxauch lays out, and which proved so effective in earlier seasons. The problem, however, is that the weight of serialization has begun to wear on Lost and its characters, and so a format that was originally imagined as episodic is having to deal with the challenge of cumulative storytelling.

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When the flashbacks were first introduced, there was a mystery at the heart of each of them. Much as the island itself was a mystery, each character contained their own mystery: Why was Kate arrested? Why does Sun know English? Who’s the girl in Sayid’s photo? What’s up with Sawyer’s letter? What makes Jack’s daddy issues so special? While some of these mysteries were resolved in the character’s first flashback, others were stretched out, turning into parallel serial narratives that saw the flashbacks serving both the episodic storyline on The Island as well as the long-term characterization of the castaway in question.

By the time the show reached the third season, though, the majority of these stories had been resolved. We understand Jack’s daddy issues, we know why Kate was arrested, and we have a pretty thorough understanding of the events that led to the plane crash for the majority of the show’s characters. As a result, the writers attempted to revert to episodic flashbacks, showing us thematically relevant snapshots of the characters’ lives that served the needs of the events taking place on The Island. But this felt like a dilution of the show’s appeal, turning its foundational framework into an afterthought that was more or less extraneous to both the larger narrative of the series and the character in question.

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While the Others-focused “Not In Portland” and the temporally disruptive “Flashes Before Your Eyes” each make a strong case for being the episode that kicks season three into overdrive, “The Man From Tallahassee” is the first standout episode of the season that focuses on one of the original castaways. And while we could point to Terry O’Quinn’s performance, or the reteaming of Locke and Ben, or the notion of “The Box” that sees J.J. Abrams’ influence echoing in writers’ room as reasons for the episode’s strength, at the heart of it is the fact that the show played its flashback trump card: Finally, after two and a half seasons, we know how Locke was paralyzed.

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The writers knew this particular mystery remained with fans—while the bit of “flashback tag” in Mikhail’s near-reveal of Locke’s paralysis in “Par Avion” serves as a reminder, fans would never forget the final reveal in “Walkabout,” which was one of the few mysteries that was both revealed and resolved by a flashback. It was part of the defining flashback of the show’s first season, but there was more that needed to be established before we found out what happened. We needed time to see who Locke was before his paralysis, and to understand what Anthony Cooper took away from him when he stole his kidney. We needed to meet Helen and understand what that relationship meant to Locke, so that when he chooses his father over her we understand just how deeply Anthony’s betrayal broke him.

The writers toy with our general expectation—and the expectation created by ABC’s promo department—regarding this mystery in the opening scene, which is in many ways the parallel to the final flashback in “Walkabout”—here, we presume the disability meeting is about Locke’s paralysis, but it’s actually about his depression, and he stands up and walks away from the meeting and delays the narrative closure we expected. But once Locke becomes embroiled in one of his father’s cons, everything starts to click into place. It is no surprise that Locke’s injury would come in the midst of conflict with his father, but there is still something so visceral about that sequence. Even if you saw the promos advertising this answer, and even if you presume that Anthony Cooper was responsible, and even if you’re watching this eight years after it aired, the suddenness with which Locke is pushed through that window and down eight stories is startling.

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It’s startling in the best way, though, as it does so within a framework without any bells and whistles. This isn’t a flashback for a new character, and it isn’t a flashback tied to the mythology of the island until the final reveal. It’s an answer to a simple question, but it’s an answer that has been being built through flashbacks for two and a half seasons, and which plays out in spectacular fashion here.

While I’m curious how you feel returning to this momentous flashback, Noel, we also need to discuss how that flashback—to their original goals—connects with the events on The Island, which are themselves explosive (pun intended).

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Noel: To me, the connection is twofold. On one level, this Locke story is the same as every Locke story, in that it’s about a poor schmuck who in the real world keeps getting his ass handed to him by life, while on The Island he feels a sense of power and connection and righteousness that he wishes his fellow castaways respected more. After blowing up The Flame station two episodes ago, there’s no real mystery surrounding what Locke plans to do when he arrives at Otherton with Kate and Sayid on their rescue mission. Locke’s not especially passionate about saving Jack. He’s more interested in destroying The Others’ submarine, to continue cutting off their contact with the outside world. What’s interesting is the reason he gives for his radicalism, calling Ben a “pharisee” who doesn’t deserve what The Island has to offer. He also mocks Ben for being stuck in a wheelchair and healing slowly, using Ben’s condition as proof that he, Locke, is the chosen one at last.

But on another level, “The Man From Tallahassee” is about how there really is no difference between off-Island Locke and the one who struts around paradise, talking about faith. No matter where he ends up, Locke is a born sucker.

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Here’s where I have to say a few words about the mighty Terry O’Quinn, who won an Emmy for this episode. Throughout Lost, O’Quinn strikes a very careful balance with Locke, playing him as a sap, a seeker, and a capable man of action, all at once. Different sides of Locke dominate at different times, but none is ever completely absent (except in the later seasons, for reasons too spoiler-y to get into in this part of the review).

In the flashback scenes of “The Man From Tallahassee,” Locke has a somewhat cocky edge even when he’s in the process of being duped by his dad yet again. And on The Island, even as he’s blowing up the sub and pontificating about spiritual communion, he pauses to apologize to Alex, somewhat sheepishly, for manipulating her into helping him. One of the major recurring themes of Lost is what it takes to be a good leader/father/guru, and Locke’s one of the most fascinating cases over the course of the first few seasons, because he tries so hard to get by on a not-always-compatible mix of fanatical confidence and democratic benevolence. Mostly, he defines himself by what he’s not: Not Cooper, not Jack, and definitely not Ben.

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And here’s where I have to hail Michael Emerson, who always did his best work on the show in his scenes with O’Quinn. I always found the Locke/Ben dynamic more meaningful than Locke/Jack, because the “man of faith”/“man of action” roles for Locke and Jack are a little too broad to produce more than a frustrating stalemate. Ben and Locke are so alike though in so many ways: both connected to the mystical properties of The Island, and both overcompensating for crummy childhoods. The difference is that Locke’s an idealist and Ben’s a cynic, which is why it’s so fun to watch him control Locke just by dangling the two things he most wants: to expose Ben as a phony, and to learn the secrets of The Island.

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Or maybe I should make that three things. Myles, you were just talking about how “The Man From Tallahassee” is the rare season three episode that uses the flashbacks to answer one of the audience’s lingering questions. (What, the origins of Jack’s tattoos weren’t a big enough mystery for you?) It’s also one of the rare episodes in the entire run of Lost that directly—as opposed to just thematically—connects the past and the present, via a mind-blowing final scene that reveals the title character. As if the shot of Locke being pushed out of window weren’t enough of a “holy crap” moment, the final revelation that Ben has somehow brought Locke’s dad to The Island is a stunner, both for what it suggests about the power of The Island and for throwing an unexpected roadblock in Locke’s path to glory.

I hadn’t watched “The Man From Tallahassee” in years before returning to it this week, and while I’d always remembered it fondly, I confess to being slightly worried that maybe it wouldn’t hold up, because in the overarching narrative of the show it serves kind of a crude function. On a week-to-week basis, the first few seasons of Lost deliver a lot of “this may be the way out… nope, it’s locked” mini-arcs, and here one of the main purposes of the on-Island plot is to take away an escape route, by eliminating the sub. But it’s still a very exciting hour, from the intense rescue action to the almost playful Locke/Ben banter; and then the ending elevates what the whole episode has been about. Locke knows what he wants, Locke is on the verge of getting what he wants, and then Ben throws him—and us—a curveball by saying, “Or you could go for what’s being door number three… It’s your dad!”

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Myles: Your comparison between Flashback Locke and Island Locke is crucial on two levels. First, it’s necessary to understand the character’s continuity as well as its contradiction in order to speak to the depth that O’Quinn brings to the character. Moreover, however, it reminds us that as the series went on, the flashbacks created enough cumulative storytelling that we had been on journeys with both versions of the character, and would relate to them in distinct ways.

Jack Bender’s direction notably pushes us to relate to Locke in the final scene of his flashback, as the camera shifts to a first-person perspective as Locke is carried into his wheelchair. We have always felt strong empathy for John Locke in his flashbacks, even when he’s being duped, because of that first flashback and the sympathy it engendered. But whereas in “Walkabout” the contrast was between a mysterious Locke on the island and a paralyzed, depressed Locke off of it, the contrast has changed. While that first flashback helped us relate with Island Locke in ways we couldn’t before, I would argue here the show uses Flashback Locke to highlight how little we can relate to who Island Locke has become.

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We may still want Locke to succeed, but in this hour he explicitly stands in the way of the primary goal of most of the show’s characters, destroying the submarine in order to serve his own needs and what he has determined to be the needs of others. The two storylines are similar in that Locke is easily duped by Ben much as he has been consistently duped by his father, but yet I sympathize with Flashback Locke and grow increasingly frustrated with Island Locke. I believe both characters, and O’Quinn sells me on both, but I feel very differently toward them, and at this point in the narrative begin to see them as two separate entities. Locke has been transformed by this experience more than any other character, but Flashback Locke remains a potent memory, and a consistent point of contrast as the viewer confronts Locke’s actions even in episodes without flashbacks. To put it in your terms, Noel, we potentially reject Locke’s actions on The Island because he is Not Locke, at least by the standards the flashbacks have created.

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Lost would have its characters make bad decisions—or decisions viewers might disagree with—at various points in its run, and you’re right that we could point to this one and others as a plot-delaying tactic. However, beyond simply being an exciting hour regardless, I would also say that this is also a case where the question of “Why did Locke blow up the submarine?” creates answers that run much deeper than “because the narrative required him to.” Locke’s decisions here draw directly on the pathologies we’ve seen in his past, whilst simultaneously running contrary to the hopes we have developed by relating to the character for so long: we hoped the Island would give him purpose in ways that didn’t run contrary to the goals of the community, and wouldn’t in this case converge directly with Ben’s own plans.

Anthony Cooper’s arrival is the biggest question mark introduced in “The Man From Tallahassee,” but the existential crisis it creates in Locke’s collective character as understood throughout the series is its most profound contribution to the series’ larger legacy, and stands as a high watermark for O’Quinn and the Locke character as a whole.

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Stray observations:

  • We really didn’t talk a lot about Jack, Kate, and Sayid here, but mainly this is due to the fact that the submarine blowing up kind of destroys any sort of closure that is provided by the scenes in question. I’ll cover that when those stories get picked back up. [MM]
  • I think some of the frustration with the flashbacks at this point in the series was a direct result of how compelling the Island storylines had become. In the weeks just prior to this we’d met Mikhail and seen the Sonic Weapon Fence, and in this episode when Ben promises to Locke that he can “show you things I know you want to see very badly,” it’s almost like he’s talking directly to Lost fans. After two-plus years of mostly teases, Lost started piling up the mythology in the back half of Season Three, with so much more cool stuff still to come. [NM]
  • While you correctly note, Noel, that O’Quinn won an Emmy for this episode, he also sort of won for “The Man Behind The Curtain,” as voters watched both his and Emerson’s submissions when choosing a winner. Both were deserving that year, but I think they made the right choice. [MM]
  • I had forgotten that Screen Actors Guild Award nominee Patrick J. Adams (Suits) had made an appearance on the show, here as the future stepson Cooper kills in order to hold onto his con. I’m glad, as I never miss an opportunity to point out his SAG nomination in a year in which Jon Hamm was not nominated. [MM]
  • Flashback Tag: Locke is watching a little show called Exposé on his television when Adams’ Peter comes to visit. [MM]
  • The moment that cements the special chemistry of O’Quinn and Emerson to me is when Locke asks if “man from Tallahassee” is a code, and Ben replies, “No, John, unfortunately we don’t have a code for, ‘There is a man in my closet with a gun to my daughter’s head’… although we obviously should.” [NM]
  • Oh, also: Ben telling Locke that the barracks get their electricity from “two giant hamsters.” Given everything Locke had seen on The Island to that point—and would see later—Ben’s joke is almost credible. [NM]
  • O’Quinn and Emerson are both great, but I also want to highlight Mira Furlan, who has very little time to sell her reaction to seeing Alex but captures so much in the process. [MM]
  • This is also a standout episode for Michael Giacchino, whose score at times is half Bernard Hermann and half John Williams, effectively capturing both the suspense and the sense of derring-do at play here. [NM]
  • Daddy issues alert: Ha! [MM]
  • Myles Has To Go Back: 2007 Myles was pretty happy with this one, but he also reminded me—thanks, 2007 Myles!—to call out the parallel between the shot at the end of season one and Locke in the submarine.

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

  • O’Quinn was a trouper throughout the run of Lost, but I know from past comments and interviews that he wasn’t all that happy about what ultimately happens to Locke, who gets murdered by Ben and then impersonated by The Smoke Monster. I think this episode explains O’Quinn’s ultimate frustration well. Here he has so many notes he gets to play, both in the flashback and on The Island, making Locke a much more rounded character than he even is on the page, I think. He loses that dimensionality when he “returns” after his death. [NM]
  • On rewatch, both Locke and Sayid’s character arcs have been tinged by how their characters get “reset” late in the series’ run. What I will say for Locke—although I agree that the loss in dimensionality is tough—is that his death and false return are played as tragedy, and we feel the weight of the loss of dimensionality. By comparison, Sayid’s “death”—at least in retrospect, having not returned to the final season—seems cheaper, and less meaningful. [MM]

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Next Week: We return to tackle the myth, the legend, the “Exposé.”