“Through The Looking Glass” (originally aired 05/23/2007)

Noel: So when did you figure it out, Myles? Back in 2007, when “Through The Looking Glass” first aired, at what point did you stop scratching your head over why we were watching yet another Miserable Jack flashback (now with unconvincing beard!) and realize that it was… something else?

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Me, I was suckered the whole way. And every time I re-watch this episode, I marvel anew at how cleverly Lindelof and Cuse disguise the timeline. That previously unseen beard, coupled with the Nirvana song Jack rocks out to, suggest that this story could be happening long, long ago, before any previous flashback… except there’s been nothing in any of those flashes to indicate Jack would’ve been so messed up on drugs and booze at an earlier point in his life. The scene at the funeral home is a reminder that in the present day, Jack’s still waiting to bury his father, who could be in that casket… except that in his intoxicated haze, Jack keeps referring to Christian Shepherd as alive. A man at the hospital refers to Jack as a hero “twice over,” which might be referring both to Jack as an 815 survivor and Jack as a doctor who helped save a car-crash victim… except that Jack saved the victim’s child, too, which also fits the “twice” comment.

Everything in the flash-forward is disorienting enough that after a while, the viewer—or at least this viewer, circa 2007—stops poring over it for clues and just accepts it as “a Jack story,” with all the self-pity and self-destructiveness that implies. But then suddenly Jack is sitting on a floor surrounded by maps and Oceanic tickets, which we know can’t be happening right before his flight on 815 because we’ve seen that Jack before, and that Jack didn’t look like he’d been cast as a hobo in an elementary school play. Then comes the phone call, and Kate’s arrival, and one of the most jaw-dropping scenes in recent television history.

I’ll be honest. The first time I saw this episode, I didn’t catch on to what was happening until Kate showed up. And thinking back on it, I’m glad that back then I was watching Lost in pretty close to real time, and wasn’t on social media, so I wasn’t spoiled for the big reveal. Because everything about that last scene in “Through The Looking Glass” is perfect, right down to the plaintive Giacchino piano-stings and the ominous shot of an airplane flying over Jack’s head after he shouts, “WE HAVE TO GO BAAAACK!”

That’s how you end a season, friend. After three years of building up the mysteries of The Island while exhausting the character’s backstories, Lost leaves its fans with a whole summer to ask new questions. How did they get off The Island? What happened when they did? And can they go back?

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But something else that occurs to me every time I re-watch “Through The Looking Glass” is that beyond being a jaw-dropper, it contains one of the first Jack flashes in a long time that really says something meaningful about who the character is. On one level, this entire episode is a study in one man’s calamitous arrogance, as his determination to be a leader—or maybe just a martyr—leads to him making one life-threatening decision after another. In the end, it looks like he’s going to get away with everybody in his group unscathed. He lets the Others shoot Sayid, Jin, and Bernard, but they choose not to. He dares Locke to kill him, but Locke can’t. Rescue appears to be imminent. But then comes that last scene, suggesting that Jack has screwed up royally. Suddenly, all of those match-cuts earlier in the episode—directly connecting future Jack at his worst to present Jack at his most heroic—make sense.

But like I said, that’s just one level of “Through The Looking Glass.” We still need to talk about another of Lost’s most-remembered scenes (“Not Penny’s Boat”) and about the string of surprise appearances and rescues, from Hurley to Locke to Waaaaaaalt!

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And though we usually save this for the Strays, can we take a moment to admire that stirring “adventure theme” that Michael Giacchino nearly always saved for season finales? Instant goosebumps, every time the Islanders are on the march, with that music behind them and Jack Bender’s camera crew craning slowly up. Funny how two relatively inexpensive production elements—music and camera moves—can make a TV show feel like a blockbuster.

Myles: As I was watching the episode, I was wondering if we could draw a correlation between the greatness of an episode and the number of variations on the “adventure theme” in said episode. There are numerous here, each of them as compelling as the one before, moving between fast and slow, thrilling and ominous, working to embody every bit of the journey they soundtrack. In the pilot, Giacchino used this theme in order to signify the castaways traveling into uncharted territory; here, he potently uses it to soundtrack their journey to supposed salvation, as though they are truly traveling deeper into The Island’s mysteries without even knowing it.

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I distinctly remember watching the episode in my parents’ family room, home from college for the summer. I remember this because this was the second time an episode of television had completely turned my world upside down in that living room. The first was when I sat down to watch Alias’ “Phase One,” hours before it aired in the United States thanks to complications with Canadian simulcasting. And the second was when I saw “Through The Looking Glass,” also early due to simulcasting and the American Idol finale (remember Jordin Sparks?), and sat there in stunned silence when I realized that they had gone and done it. Lindelof and Cuse had changed Lost forever.

2007 Myles claims that he felt this was the case at the start of the final “flashback,” and I am going to have to take him at his word. Rewatching it now, I was like you, Noel, appreciative of just how subtly the seeds are planted. It is a potent episode in the way it risks pushing away the viewer with a “flashback” that feels like more of the same at first glance. But slowly but surely, as you identify, it pulls you back in by raising questions. It puts us on alert without exactly telling us why, and never goes so far as to tip its hand: the flashes are generally short, and more sparse than I’d remembered given how dominant those final moments and the introduction of the flash-forward structure are in the episode’s reputation.

This episode never allows the flash-forward to overtake the meaning of everything else. It delivers the emotional—if complicated—reunion of Rousseau and Alex.

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It gives us the catharsis of Jack pummeling Ben out of frustration for murdering his friends.

It features Hurley driving out of the jungle in the Dharma van, saving his friends and proving them wrong in the same measure.

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And, yes, it features Charlie saving Desmond’s life and warning him of Naomi’s duplicity, sacrificing himself mere moments after believing he wasn’t going to die after all.

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The way this is all weaved together is what makes “Through The Looking Glass” work, and what makes its ending possible. There is a cause-and-effect relationship pinballing throughout the episode, with events in one section of the storyline having ramifications elsewhere. The power balance between Jack and Ben shifts on the events at the beach, while everything about the trip to the radio tower hinges on Charlie and Desmond’s success or failure. And while some of this comes down to happenstance—like Jin missing the dynamite, for example—a lot of it comes through agency. The Others chose not to shoot the castaways, operating we presume on Ben’s orders (or the vagueness therein). Hurley chooses to ignore Sawyer and come along to the beach anyway. Jack, as you note, chooses to make the crucial phone call. And, yes, Charlie chooses to die.

Or, rather, Charlie—to risk Rose’s wrath—chooses to die alone so that others can live together. It’s a powerful moment in light of everything we saw in “Greatest Hits,” particularly when we see the supernatural cause-and-effect of Aaron crying as Charlie draws his last breath. It’s also a powerful retelling of his fate, transitioning from Charlie being someone willing to play out the events foretold versus taking clear action to bring those events to pass. He could have tried to get out the door and swim to safety with Desmond, but that would have meant taking a chance. In that split second moment, he chooses to save Desmond’s life and sacrifice his own, fulfilling the flashes but in a way he hadn’t prepared for.

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It is a heroic moment. Mind you, it was heroic when he knocked out Desmond and dove down on his own in “Greatest Hits,” but the episode makes it more heroic by giving him hope. Whereas he had said his goodbyes and tucked his list for Claire into Desmond’s pocket when he swam down, his time in the Looking Glass worked very consciously to make us think that death was not Charlie’s fate. Desmond dives down to save him, the inner squabblings of the Others—in another case of cause-and-effect—create opportunity, and then the musician is asked to work out the tune to “Good Vibrations.” It all looks like a different kind of fate right up until Mikhail’s grenade, but Charlie still doesn’t hesitate when the moment arrives. He shuts the door, he grabs his sharpie, and he tells Desmond it’s “Not Penny’s Boat.”

It’s a hero narrative that reaches its end in “Through The Looking Glass,” while the flash-forward reveals a very different type of hero narrative. What happens when you’re lauded as a hero but don’t feel like one? What happens when a heroic moment—saving someone in a car crash—comes amidst your lowest moment, and you must reconcile who the world thinks you are with who you are in your own mind? Jack’s moment of crisis becomes a clear parallel to his actions here—“the beginning of the end,” Ben calls them—and thrusts us forward into a question that would linger in the final season: what does this time on The Island mean to these people? Beyond the very specific questions we might have coming out of this episode—Who is going to miss Kate while she’s meeting with Jack? Who is really on the boat?—there is the promise of stories about what surviving on The Island means once you’ve actually survived. If Charlie’s story is about the value of death, Jack’s becomes about the cost of life, a question that Locke takes a clear stance on when he’s saved by The Island and repays it by throwing a knife into the back of Naomi’s head.

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Noel: Along the same lines, while I don’t really have any major complaints about “Through The Looking Glass,” two elements do still give me pause. One is how casually violent the heroes are. Locke knifes Naomi even though he doesn’t really know who she is or what she’s up to (beyond what “The Island” has told him). Sawyer shoots Tom even though he’s already been subdued. Jack stands ready to let anyone die so long as he gets to complete his mission. In a way, this all feeds into a larger theme of the show, asking whether these people we’ve been following for three years (and will follow for three more) are really “good” deep down, or if they’re irreparably broken. But it also feels a little careless, both on the characters’ part and on the writers’.

The other thing that nags at me is the knowledge of how the flash-forwards are going to play out. We can talk about this more down in the Spoiler Station—where we’ll also offer up some final thoughts on the series as a whole—but one possibility that “Through The Looking Glass” left fans to ponder over the summer was whether we’d just seen a scene from very close to the end of Lost’s story, and whether the rest of the show was going to be about catching back up to Jack and Kate at the airport. Instead, that’s pretty much just the arc of the flash-forwards in season four—which is a season that I love, but which suffers from strike-shortened storytelling and from the sense that a few too many of the flashes are filler, given that they’re leading us to a place we’ve already been. A lot is riding in season four (and part of season five) on whether we’re interested in the 815ers’ post-Island lives when they’re not trying to get back to The Island.

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But then this is always going to be a stumbling-block for shows that have tricky time-jumping structures. Remember all those post-Lost flops that teased viewers with some major event in the pilot and then promised to spend the rest of their season (or longer!) gradually explaining what led up to that moment? Or heck, think of Arrow, which long-ago exhausted its need to flash back to the now preposterously full life that Oliver Queen lived before he returned to Starling City. (Prediction for Arrow’s next season: a time-jump of several months, so that the show can flash back to what Oliver did on his summer vacation. I’m not even joking about this.)

What always set Lost apart, though, is that it was never just about its gimmick, or its secrets, or even its characters. It’s about how all of these pieces fit together, and how they lead to episodes as thrilling as “Through The Looking Glass,” and moments as beautiful, sad, and exciting as Charlie’s sacrifice. I mean, just look again at how magnificently that death is staged and shot, from the Brian De Palma-like super-slow-motion to the relative hush of the soundtrack. Even divorced from everything else that happens in this episode, that is one powerhouse scene.

For that matter, it’s pretty impressive that for a series so invested in big mysteries, one of its best-ever episodes is practically mystery-free. Aside from the appearance of “Walt” at the Dharma grave—and a few passing comments about what The Island wants and what might happen when the people on the freighter arrive—“Through The Looking Glass” is mostly concerned with the here-and-now. Can Jack reach the tower? Can Charlie switch off the signal-jammer? Can Sawyer and Juliet (and Hurley!) save Sayid, Jin, and Bernard? I seem to recall that at some point in my run of Lost reviews—perhaps at the end of season four—I predicted that the flashes were going to end and that the show was just going to be non-stop on-Island conflict and derring-do. Looking back, I think I was just pining for a version of Lost that was one long “Through The Looking Glass.”

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Not that I’m complaining about the Lost we got instead. From here on out—and especially in my beloved season five, which is maybe my favorite extended run of Lost—the show keeps the teases to a minimum and starts making use of everything it’s built. For those who like ancient ruins, Dharma stations, smoke-monsters, Jacob, and “unique magnetic properties,” well, Lost is about to become a heck of a lot of fun.

Myles: You’re not wrong to raise an eyebrow at the level of violence from our “heroes,” Noel, but I find it to be one of the episode’s other strengths. Sawyer’s justification for shooting Tom is tied to something very specific, the abduction of Walt from the raft that would go on to set off the series of events that claimed Ana Lucia and Libby’s lives and got Sawyer, Kate, and Jack kidnapped. Moreover, Locke’s decision may have taken place off screen—thus becoming what I’d identify as the one “mystery” in the episode—but it builds on his faith in The Island that has been at the core of his storyline ever since season one.

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These details do not make their casual violence any less concerning, perhaps, but it frames it in terms of how this experience has changed them. The survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 have been on The Island for over three months at this point. It has given them enough time to go through tremendous personal change, and to build up the type of animosity that would lead Sawyer—who has a complicated relationship with murder—to take a man’s life when the man in question has already surrendered. The show could not have done this finale in season one or season two: not because the writers were incapable of conceiving of it, but rather because there had not been enough story told to bring these characters to this point.

You’re right that echoes of “Through The Looking Glass” would remain throughout the series, but Lost would never be this show again. Once it went through the proverbial looking glass, the show was pulled in more directions—the future was as prescient as the past, and the present became the stakes in an epic tug-of-war between them. This unmooring of Lost in time—and space—is what frees it up to tell some fantastic stories in the seasons to come, but there is something so pure about this finale that is hard to say goodbye to. While we may be tempted to read “Through The Looking Glass” as either the culmination of three great seasons of television or as the launching pad for the series’ ambitious second half, its purity leads me to think about it as it is: two stunning hours of television that pull you back into the moment even with foresight and hindsight threatening to pull you away.

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Stray observations:

  • As longtime readers may recall, I’ve written about this episode for the site before, and actually wrote about all of seasons one through three, in brief form, shoe-horned both into my season four reviews and in the weeks when the season was on hiatus. One of the reasons this Lost TV Club Classic exists is because in the early days of TV Club we were a lot looser about how we did some things, which means there’s some old writing that doesn’t really fit into our current format for archiving reviews. (See also: My attempt to write about Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel simultaneously, which is a logistical mess now, but which made sense at the time.) Anyway, I went back to my quick run through season three’s last six episodes, which posted during the now-insane-seeming two-week gap between parts one and two of the season four finale. Much of that review isn’t a review at all, but a pre-emptive defense of the finale to come and of Lost as a whole, making an argument for the show’s episodic qualities that I’d make a lot during my three years of Lost coverage. I’d forgotten about what I called my “shoplifting theory” of TV reviewing, which is that even if a show airs questionable episodes, until it “leaves the store” (a.k.a. ends), you can’t really say that it’s done anything wrong. I’m actually not sure that’s always true, but it’s something to keep in mind every time the internet gets up in arms about a series making what seems like a fatal misstep in episode six of a ten-episode season. [NM]
  • As part of a Buzzfeed piece featuring TV writers reflecting on the favorite scenes they’ve written, Lindelof writes about the end of this finale, and talks about how Saw 2 and Donnie Wahlberg were responsible. It’s a fun read, and a reminder that I’ll read him reflecting on his complicated relationship with the show forever. [MM]
  • At times I feel like “Through The Looking Glass” is itself kind of a prickly defense against Lost nit-pickers. So much of this episode brushes off questions about motivation with one simple, intertwined explanation: The Others follow Ben’s orders even when they don’t make narrative sense because otherwise they’re showing insufficient faith in Jacob, and if they don’t believe in Jacob, then why are they here? In other words: The characters do what they do because that’s what they do. Whatever happens, happens. [NM]
  • I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to be one of those people who watched Lost frame-to-frame and caught stuff like the “Hoffs Drawlar” funeral home anagram. That kind of “forensic fandom” (hat tip to mutual friend and fellow Lost analyst Jason Mittell) was never my perspective on the show, but my experience with it was framed by the results of their efforts. [MM]
  • Similar to the second half of “Greatest Hits,” the first half of “Through The Looking Glass” is littered with the kind of emotional swells that only three years and 70-plus episodes can set up: Jin saying goodbye to Sun, Rose reminding Bernard that he’s not Rambo, Sawyer pushing first Kate and then Hurley away because he doesn’t want them to get hurt, and so on. The pacing and dynamics of this episode are spot-on. [NM]
  • “It’s Charlie! Tell ‘em I said hi!”—I was struck by how reckless Charlie is once he was taken captive in the Looking Glass, empowered by either his unexpected survival or his still probable death, or both at the same time. And while it’s fun, revealing that Juliet told them about the Looking Glass rushes Ben’s paranoia and potentially places his friends in greater danger. [MM]
  • I know I praised Jack Bender’s direction already, but there are so many simple-but-powerful camera moves here, starting with that great below-to-above shot of Miserable Jack on the bridge as he prepares to commit suicide. [NM]
  • Similarly, we could single out a few people for performance work here, but this seems like a good opportunity to single out Matthew Fox, who has to carry the flash-forward and unknowingly present the audience with a different Jack than they’ve seen before without entirely tipping his hand. The episode doesn’t spend a lot of time on the flash-forward, as noted, but Fox makes the most of it. [MM]
  • It’s satisfying to see Ben so vulnerable in this episode, as he realizes that the 815ers have out-smarted him and that he’s going to have to appeal to their fear of the unknown. The problem is that he’s been so cagey about The Island’s secrets that he can’t really use the “this place is special” defense with Jack and company that he uses with Locke. [NM]
  • My other distinct memory of watching this episode live—outside of the sense of bewilderment and being in my parents’ living room—is catching Malcolm David Kelly’s name in the credits. Still, it was unclear how he would be appearing, and how they would navigate the actor’s aging, so I was still suitably shocked by “Walt” showing up where he does. [MM]
  • I mentioned last week that I always roll my eyes a little at swift knockout blows in action-adventures. I feel much the same way about how easy it is for people to twist and snap necks in movies and on TV. (That said, a shackled Sayid using his legs to kill a dude is pretty badass.) [NM]
  • And not as GIF-able as I expected! When I made GIFs of this and other action moments, I realized you lose some of the verisimilitude—it’s pretty clear that his neck isn’t actually breaking, which isn’t exactly news but becomes easier to see when the scene is isolated. [MM]
  • Not only does Hurley get to pull a deus ex machina with Roger Workman’s van, he also gets one of the episodes’s funniest lines: “Attention, Others… Come in, Others…” [NM]
  • Lost Book Club: We’ve known the name of the Looking Glass station since “Greatest Hits,” but I love that its literary origins are evoked in this title, and that it so accurately describes the episode’s impact. It’s on the nose, but in the best way. [MM]
  • Over the years, Lindelof and Cuse have expressed understandable bafflement about some things that Lost fans have considered “mysteries” that needed solving—things that the creators themselves never thought much about. But sometimes they brought this on themselves, perhaps without even meaning to. The knowing look that Bonnie gives Charlie when she says that her station’s key-code was programmed by a musician suggests all kinds of possibilities (a time-traveling Charlie, perhaps?) that the show just lets dangle. I think if Bonnie says that line more casually, rather than staring at Charlie so intensely, then it becomes a non-issue. [NM]
  • Sure, you can have the musician who programmed the code, whereas I want to know what the Others were up to in Canada that Mikhail thought that was where Bonnie and Greta were on assignment. [MM]

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Spoiler station and Final Thoughts (only read if you’ve seen the entire series):

Noel: I talked a little bit already about how the ending of “Through The Looking Glass”—awesome though it is—left the show with a lot of dot-connecting and cleaning up to do, in seasons four and five. My biggest beef with those flash-forwards is that they’re even more teasing than usual for Lost, trickling out information about who “the Oceanic Six” actually are and making us wait a whole season to see who actually gets off The Island—while also forcing us to figure out in each episode where on the “bearded Jack” timeline the escapees are.

There are too many great season four episodes for me to complain too much about the ungainliness of its structure, and I do love the variety of the off-Island storylines, which range from cat-and-mouse international thrillers to timeless romance. But I like the fifth season better, because it’s more unpredictable and freewheeling. And as for the sixth season? I confess I haven’t watched it since it aired (aside from the repeat viewings I did during the season), but whenever I read the episode descriptions or look back at my old reviews, I think about how many wonderful moments it contains, even if the “flash sideways” concept is ultimately pretty sappy.

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Still, I don’t think it’s just because I reviewed seasons four through six that I tend to think of Lost as a bifurcated show. The first 72 episodes are a collection of character sketches and introductions, where the island location is primarily a backdrop—fraught with meaning and mystery, but kept at somewhat of a distance. The final 49 are chock-full of science-fiction/fantasy mythology, and eventually become explanatory in a way that some fans were bound to find disappointing, given that they gave “answers” that weren’t as cool as what years of online speculation had proposed.

I like both halves of Lost. Seasons one through three are a better “hangout” show, while seasons four through six are better at blowing minds. Ultimately, all six are pretty remarkable for how they build out the world of the show without sacrificing the characters (aside from the dead ones… and, arguably, Locke), and while remembering that even serialized TV works best when it retains an episodic component.

Myles: You note that you’ve spent less time thinking about the sixth season, which I also haven’t rewatched since it aired. And yet I found myself drawn to the final season throughout writing these reviews, whether in considering characters’ final fates or connecting the emotional swells in these episodes with the emotional swells of “The End.” While sappy, yes, the awakenings from the flash sideways are such a conscious effort to bring character arcs to a “close” that they can’t help but echo when we see characters’ beginnings or ends in the present timeline.

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By comparison, I didn’t find myself thinking a lot about the fourth and fifth seasons, for whatever reason. Your points about the bifurcation raise a distinction I raised in thinking about narrative recently: if The Island was a narrative backdrop in the first three seasons, it was a narrative engine in the last three, and that does—as you note—fuel the disappointment many fans experienced. It’s not that the final three seasons didn’t matter in “The End,” but the finale almost feels more like the conclusion to the show that ends in “Through The Looking Glass” than the show that came afterwards. Returning to these three seasons in detail fully supported my satisfaction with the way the series ended, but it’s an incomplete and thus misleading sample.

However, it’s equally misleading to go back and read these first three seasons as though they exist solely to serve the mythology that follows. Those threads are there, certainly, but the show is far more invested in building characters that it can throw into the gauntlet in the seasons that come. Giving the show an end date prompted Lindelof and Cuse to pull the trigger on the series’ big picture, but I’m glad it didn’t happen before then. Even if the third season was forced to bear the burden of a lack of flashback material, it was that extra bit of time to flesh out the Others, bring the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 into sharper focus, and build a climax to the story of a plane crash before transitioning into a story about The Island.

It’s clear from the comments throughout this project that the tension between these different threads remain deep within the show’s audience, but that’s indicative of what Lost set out to do. The seasons after “Through The Looking Glass” are experimental, testing at each stage how deep the audience will follow these characters and this world. The ratings would drop in those seasons, pushing away some viewers while drawing others further in, and I won’t pretend the efforts to pull it all together in the end were perfect (as evidenced by the confusion over Jacob and The Man in Black’s influence over events in these seasons, like in this case Walt’s appearance). However, they were efforts that encouraged some form of investment, which has made even those who felt betrayed by the finale into people who have things to say years later. I ended up with more to say than I imagined, and I’ve been excited to be able to share this space with you, Noel, and all of the commenters whose wide range of perspectives are a testament to the resonant audacity that became Lost’s calling card.

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