“?” (originally aired 05/10/2006)

On the Blast Door Map, the Pearl Station was a question mark.

It was a little on-the-nose, really—here is this map filled with mysterious details, and at the center of it is a giant question mark. Lost is a show filled with question marks, whether in cliffhangers, unexplained occurrences, or crudely-drawn fluorescent maps only visible under a blacklight. It is also a show filled with characters that are weighed down by those questions, and a show watched by viewers who take on the same burden and share it with those living it onscreen.

In “?,” the Pearl Station is a test. It is a test for John Locke, who has puzzled over the map without answers, and who in the wake of Henry Gale’s departure is left without clarity regarding what really happened when he sent his prisoner through the grate to input the numbers and push the button. It is also a test for Mr. Eko, who has a dream that tells him to bring John to the question mark and make sure he doesn’t lose faith. Additionally, however, it is a test for Lost’s audience, who may well see some parallels between themselves and the Pearl Station’s former occupants, and must confront their own faith in the task at hand.

The climactic scene inside the Pearl Station embodies the season perhaps better than any other, and emphasizes just how much has changed since the season began. When Eko discovers that the “question mark” marks the spot of a station housed in the “dot” covered up by the plane wreckage, it’s the fourth station we’ve discovered this season (after the Swan, the Arrow, and the Staff). We even get another Orientation film (or video, in this case), this time narrated by Dr. Mark Wickmund, who looks suspiciously like Dr. Marvin Candle. There is plenty to mull over in the video in the way we obsessed over the first orientation video: the idea that surveillance was being done on Dharma Initiative workers throughout the island, the fact that these documents are sent via pneumatic tube to an undisclosed location, the dust suggesting that any such effort conclude some time ago, etc. It’s another in a long line of reveals in the second season that have dramatically fleshed out the “world” of Lost well beyond what we saw in the first season.

However, there is existentialism to the Pearl Station that’s hard to ignore. Cleverly mirroring Jack and Locke’s first viewing of the Swan Station film in “Orientation,” Eko asks Locke if he wants to watch it again, but Locke says no. Locke has often been our island mystery surrogate, pushing so far that he willfully—if ultimately unintentionally—sacrificed Boone to the island in search of answers (a point he raises with Eko here as they come across the plane wreckage). He has been poring over the Blast Door Map just as we were, just without the benefit of the version printed in Entertainment Weekly and spread online. But whereas the video might have simply added to the audience’s curiosity regarding the Dharma Initiative, the video’s implied description of the button as a psychological experiment has Locke feeling like a rat in a maze with no cheese.

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I don’t know how much I would have read this scene as a commentary on Lost as a whole at the time: we were still a way’s out from the most vocal backlash to the series’ treatment of its mythology, and I’m always convinced that the response to the finale has forever changed how we read any kind of meta-commentary on the series’ fans. But to see two characters presented with the same information and react in completely different ways, each absolutely set in their opinion, reflects so much of how a complex text like Lost is interpreted and debated within fan communities. Locke becomes the skeptic, who feels that the information he’s learned has fundamentally altered his relationship to the hatch, and the button, and the tenuous grasp of faith and belief in this island and its mysteries. Eko, meanwhile, continues to explore the irony of finding his faith after faking it, his belief justified here through flashbacks to his time in Australia and the events that made him believe once he arrived on the island and found the message from Yemi the girl had promised him.

What makes “?” work as a palate cleanser for the finale is that this all feels motivated: even if we take it as some sort of meta-commentary, imagining ourselves as either Locke pushing the button or the Dharma employees sitting in those chairs and watching a bank of monitors writing down everything we see (which hits home particularly hard when you have a laptop in front of you to take notes while watching this episode), it also remains true to Locke and Eko’s characters. We know why Locke losing faith in what was “meant to be” hurts him more than it would someone else, and here we see how Eko’s sense of faith was shaped by a would-be miracle. That backstory intersects with Claire’s psychic in a way that ends up finding the exact right note of uncertainty: when the “resurrected” teenager shows up at the airport with information about Eko’s past, it’s a trick right out of the psychic charlatan playbook. We are given no definitive proof that it her story is true, or that she saw something in the space between life and death, but what we do know is that Eko is dreaming about Yemi sitting at the computer in the hatch, and it was Yemi who sent Eko and John to the question mark.

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Lost may be entering the stage where the burden of its mysteries becomes more than the show can handle, eventually precipitating the establishment of an end date and some major shifts in storytelling, but it survived this period because it was rare for characters to do something for no reason. The flashbacks are useful as a way to offer quick justifications, but there is also the general faith we have that these characters react as rational human beings. When Michael just up and shoots Ana Lucia, Libby, and himself while setting “Henry Gale” free, we’re given no clear reason, but we have enough information and enough faith in the show to go an entire episode without clarification. Instead, the show can comfortably sit in a space of uncertainty, Libby’s lingering post-shooting creating incredible guilt and tension in the perpetrator. Libby doesn’t wake up enough to explain what happened—she can only say “Michael,” an accusation that Jack hears as a question, a final tragedy as Libby dies at the hands of a traitor continuing to walk among his former friends as if nothing has changed.

“?” is a strange episode in a few ways. It’s weird that Ana Lucia’s death is moved past so quickly, the urgency of the plot necessitating other characters attend to more pressing matters. Hurley’s final moments with Libby lack the emotional resonance the show managed even with underdeveloped characters like Boone and Shannon, their relationship too calculated within the context of this event to earn Giacchino’s “Life and Death” theme that underscores the moments following her death (although I love the above moment, where we’re a considerable way through the episode before we realize Hurley isn’t aware what happened yet). I still don’t entirely understand how Eko was able to read and follow Locke’s map with any clarity. But by the time the episode closes, the episode has done the work of putting the season and its stakes into full perspective after the previous episode’s tragedy, and asked us—and Locke and Eko—how we intend to move forward. There’s no clear answer as of yet, but that’s what the final three hours are for.

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Stray observations:

  • Lindelof and Cuse do a nice job of making Michael’s “act” seem realistic (in this episode, at least). He’s visibly nervous and asking paranoid questions, but all are within the realm of what Jack and others would accept as typical questions in this scenario, despite resonating to us as reflecting his betrayal. Harold Perrineau doesn’t get a lot to do, but he sells the duplicity despite also having to capture Michael putting on a one-man show.
  • The printer in the Pearl Station spits out a sheet with numbers repeated ad nauseum, although different numbers than the ones we’ve seen. What is their significance? Great question. Maybe we’ll find out when we find out where the notebooks are going.
  • The Orientation video also made note of a “ferry,” which implies some sort of transportation from the island, which could be a bigger development than its nonchalant introduction would suggest.
  • It turns out that when Oliver Muirhead plays an Australian, he looks and sounds a whole lot like David Roberts from Please Like Me.
  • Lost gets some more use out of its actors—since series regulars get paid for the whole season no matter how many episodes they’re in, we get Dream Ana Lucia and Flashback Libby even as both actresses spend much of the episode dead or incapacitated.
  • The effect of the beeping playing over the final montage, disrupting the usual Giacchino pathos and leading to the final image of the cursor blinking, strikes exactly the right ominous tone, and is a nice piece of sound design.

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“Three Minutes” (originally aired 05/17/2006)

“They’ll be angry enough to believe whatever you say.”

The structure of “Three Minutes” is designed to clear the decks further ahead of the season finale. Take, for example, the fact that we learn definitively that the teenage girl who saved Claire from the Staff Station is in fact Alex, and thus Rousseau’s daughter; we presumed this to be true based on everything we had seen, but here we learn that “Zeke” was calling for her to bring Kate out to the castaways, but she stayed behind to ask Michael questions about whether or not Claire and her baby were okay. Coming as it does in the season’s penultimate episode, this could be crucial clarification we need for the finale, or it could be the series cleaning up loose ends before focusing on the climactic action to follow.

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“Three Minutes” is an oddly inert episode as a result, dramatically speaking, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The central tension lies with Michael, whose betrayal is known to the audience but unknown to the other castaways after Libby died without being able to set the record straight. The episode actively plays with our frustration as Michael’s erratic behavior makes it increasingly obvious that something is wrong: Why is Michael so set on going after Henry? Why does it have to be the group of five people—himself, Jack, Kate, Hurley, and Sawyer—and no one else? Why is he nearly exploding into an emotional breakdown every time someone tries to change the plan? How in the world is no one noticing that Harold Perrineau is not-so-subtly channeling Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” every time someone breathes near him?

We learn the answers to the first two questions through the episode’s “flashbacks,” mirroring “Maternity Leave” by showing us missing time for one of the castaways on the island as opposed to moving off. None of it is particularly newsworthy: we figured he was talking to someone he believed was Walt on the Hatch computer, we knew he had been captured by the Others given his actions in “Two For The Road,” and we even get a glimpse of the list before he burns it if we’re able to read through the slightly transparent paper. What Michael’s story gains through flashbacks is specificity: we see the specific task he’s given (rescuing “Henry” and bringing the other four to the Others), and we see the terms under which he agrees to it, and for which he is willing to kill. He got to see his son, and the Others have promised to set him them both free and provide them with a boat if he does what they ask.

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The story works because Michael has always seemed more independent-minded than his fellow castaways. Lots of characters have arrived on the island with a singular goal of getting off the island, but they’ve all been diverted, whether based on a personal relationship they develop or a change in their perspective on life. Sawyer wanted nothing more than to get off the island, but now he’s made his connection with Kate, feels the weight of Ana Lucia’s death, and confides in Jack as the closest thing to a friend he has. Jin wanted to get off the island to try to figure out how to deal with his complicated relationship with Sun and his own sense of identity, but when he returned he had new perspective that let him settle into the new life he had wanted to build for her independent from her father. Even Bernard, although arriving too suddenly to have the same impact, dropped his efforts to create a signal to passing aircraft when he learns his reason for leaving—Rose’s health—is best helped by staying instead.

Michael, though, has been focused on protecting his son. First he was protecting Walt from the chaos of the post-crash days, after which he was protecting him from potential bad influences—Locke, mainly—among the castaways. There was a polar bear thrown in there for good measure, and then Michael built the raft to “rescue” himself and Walt for good. But when Walt was abducted, Michael’s position never actually changed: he just switched from wanting to save Walt from one situation to wanting to save Walt from a more dangerous and precarious one, meaning the character never got to evolve in the same way as his fellow castaways. “Three Minutes” uses this to justify his actions: having always been haunted by his inability to serve as his son’s father, and now having had his opportunity to do so interrupted by the plane crash and the events that followed, Michael is given a chance to do right by his boy and loses all perspective in the process. It’s a suitably tragic result, particularly as we see Walt do everything he can to warn Michael that something is fishy about the Others, knowing as we do that Michael will ignore it for the hope of being a real father.

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That storyline works, although it takes place an episode before we can see it really play out: while Michael gets to have his philosophical conversation about hell with Eko and work through some of his guilt over what he did to Ana Lucia and Libby by helping dig their graves, we’re waiting for the charade to fall apart. We’re waiting for the moment that comes at the very end of the episode, where Sayid—always the rational one—picks up on Michael’s nervous insistence and tells Jack what we’ve known all along. Everything before that is agonizing, to the point of stretching credulity: as the above quote from “Miss Klugh” argues, they’re all too angry to really pay that much attention, but Michael’s comments over the course of these two episodes seem like they would raise alarms long before his conversation with Sayid. They don’t because the writers are building tension for the finale, an example of the ways that 24-episode seasons forced the show into a particular kind of storytelling that occasionally resulted in ideas being stretched out too thin.

That transition into the finale, though, shows that Lost knew how to make that structure work for them. Libby and Ana Lucia’s funeral lacks the weight of previous funerals based on the issues with developing the two characters, but it’s still a moment of togetherness. Locke uses the funeral as motivation to remove his splint, toss away his crutches, and walk back into the jungle; Claire turns to Charlie for comfort, their relationship beginning to mend after time apart; Hurley feels the full weight of his loss, failing to resonate on the level the show intends but still resonating nonetheless. While Michael and Sayid harbor guilt and suspicion respectively, the stage is set for the climax of their journey to attack the Others, but the larger climax doesn’t fall into place until Sun—out of nowhere—looks out to the ocean and says “boat.”

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For a season that at times struggled to create and commit to broader narrative arcs for its characters, with even the hatch and Henry Gale only ever connecting with a few at a time, the boat arrives with all of the characters together, and provides the final push into the show’s attempt to follow up the brilliance of “Exodus.”

Stray observations:

  • Loved the echo of Giacchino’s “Life and Death” that plays after Hurley interrupts their immediate counter-attack plans to remind everyone that two people just died.
  • Lots of evocative images of Michael’s guilt here, specifically his one-handed blood cleanup, his quiet scene with Vincent on the beach, and his reunion with Jin.
  • Less love for the awkward ADR “Oh my God—Michael’s back!” from the random castaways without names as Michael finally moves from the hatch to the beach (and apparently no one bothered to spread the word).
  • “Are you kidding me?”—Charlie when Vincent delivers a Virgin Mary statue, and me when they named a character “Miss Clue” (I know it’s spelled Klugh, but the homophone’s clearly intentional).
  • Guess what Eko’s building?: Nothing, because he’s pushing the button now, so Charlie has to build the church by himself. I know it’s demonstrating the malleability of faith and the way one’s “mission” can change (particularly apt for Eko’s own transformation), but he could at least have a ceremonial passing of the axe or something.
  • Daddy issues alert: C’mon, now. You’ve been watching this show for two seasons. It’s a Michael episode.
  • “Did Walt ever appear in a place he wasn’t supposed to be?”—that’s a very specific question, there, Miss Klugh.
  • “Who is James Ford?”—why did Klugh bother writing his real name on the list when she could have just written the name she knew and that she knew he would recognize?

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

  • The parallels to the Lost audience in the Pearl Station get even stronger when we discover later on that the notebooks from the Pearl Station are going to nowhere in particular, meaning that the Pearl Station in and of itself is an experiment in which the subjects don’t know they’re part of an experiment. That Dharma Initiative sure did love its experiments.
  • I have literally no memory of whether the “vaccinations” Charlie discovers actually factor into the plot in any way, or whether they were just a gesture to bring the pair back together.
  • The speed at which Eko switched paths to follow his faith makes him a particularly conductive character from a plot perspective, which is why I think the writers are eventually so sad to need to lose him due to extenuating circumstances.
  • Is it wrong that when I think about the Pearl Station, I first think about Nikki and Paolo and the diamonds in the toilet?

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Next week: The boat and its captain give us new perspective on the island heading into another eventful finale.