“What Kate Did” (originally aired 11/30/2005)

As we move toward the midpoint of Lost’s second season, the series’ flashbacks are becoming more complex. The structure of the flashbacks themselves hasn’t changed—they’re still a small part of each episode, ultimately serving to frame on-island events that continue to move the series’ narrative forward. However, as we continue to see more of each character’s past, the weight of those flashbacks becomes more substantial; although some flashbacks—including the one I will talk about in the second half of this review—are starting entirely new stories, a character like Kate now has her fourth flashback, meaning that we have seen a substantial portion of her past.

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Kate is an important character when it comes to evaluating the flashbacks as a narrative strategy. From the beginning, the show created a clear mystery surrounding Kate’s past: what did she do that resulted in her becoming a fugitive and ending up in handcuffs on that plane from Sydney to Los Angeles? The problem was that it was a mystery the first season made no effort to solve, leaving Kate’s flashbacks a frustrating evasion of the very question the show itself had asked. I would argue Kate’s flashbacks are generally interesting and not demonstrably worse than those of other supporting characters in the first season, but the choice to dance around what she did made them less impactful by default. It was the show seeing how far they could draw out each character’s back story, and with Kate they ultimately pushed too far, and sent the character into the second season without a strong sense of momentum to her flashback narrative compared to many of her fellow castaways.

“What Kate Did” is therefore an apology of sorts, rolling back the attempts to add comparatively insignificant mysteries to Kate’s past to avoid explaining where it all began. As Eko’s discussion with Locke while he delivers the missing footage from the Swan Station Orientation video indicates, the beginning of a story is often the most crucial part, and so the episode reveals Kate blew up her house with her mother’s abusive husband Wayne inside before we even reach the opening title. And while the delay of this moment damaged Kate in the first season, it benefits her here, as the delay built enough anticipation that this becomes one of the most effective flashbacks of the season to date.

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The episode combines three central functions of flashbacks as evidenced in previous episodes. Returning to the trope of characters following the ghosts of their past into the jungle, the black horse ties Kate’s past to the magic realism of the island, which further bleeds into Kate imagining—we presume—Sawyer channeling Wayne and attacking her as she watched over him. Whereas some flashbacks are simply something that characters are remembering, others have directly manifested ties to the island, which works to integrate personal mysteries into the mysteries of their surroundings.

Additionally, the episode also uses the flashbacks as a direct motivation for Kate’s actions, as we see her actively responding to the same memories we’re seeing. Not all flashbacks function this way: for example, Jin and Sun’s flashbacks in “…And Found” were largely a thematic device, linking the characters but not necessarily motivating specific actions. Here, the memories are being directly activated, and pushing Kate emotionally in ways that have a direct impact on the events of the episode. It reinforces that there are circumstances where the personal outweighs the “plot,” best seen in Kate leaving her post and nearly showing us what happens when the countdown clock reaches zero.

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Finally, the episode uses the information we learn in the flashback to contextualize past character actions, and offer a more complete picture of the series’ emotional framework. I remain ambivalent toward the series’ romantic pairings, and so the episode’s big kiss between Kate and Jack isn’t necessarily speaking to me in the way it might to others, but the episode uses the flashback to give Kate’s indecision greater meaning. Jack is reimagined as the supportive father who takes care of her, and who works to comfort her in difficult situations, the analogue to her “father” who raised her as his own despite knowing that Wayne was her biological father. Meanwhile, Kate reveals to Sawyer that he reminds her of Wayne, and of something that she believes is inside her, and something that has haunted her since before she came to the island.

As our favorite Marshal Edward points out to Kate in the car, it’s a clichéd story on a number of levels, the very embodiment of the “Daddy Issues” I’ve been noting throughout the series to date. And yet Evangeline Lilly sells the fact that to someone who is actually feeling these emotions, and has suffered through the soap opera of discovering your abusive stepfather was really your biological father all along, it does not register as a cliché. It registers as reality, in the same way that the horse that ran across the road to set her free from custody is something more than Kate’s imagination. While the island’s “magic” might make Kate feel crazy, the episode works to shift away from insanity toward motivated actions—much as Sayid seeing Walt validated Shannon, Sawyer seeing the horse validates Kate, a transition moment where the weight of her flashback becomes so powerful as to transcend time and space to connect her memory to those around her.

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It’s also powerful enough to swallow the episode around it. The episode opens on the morning after the Tailies’ arrival, Jin and Sun emerging from their shared home and Sayid burying Shannon. It’s played largely as background for small scenes, whether it’s Eko speaking to Ana Lucia about going to Shannon’s funeral or Ana Lucia and Jack finally sharing that drink. “What Kate Did” marks the first episode of the season since the premiere where the story isn’t split between two distinct narrative threads, as every story shares space with the one that follows. The episode populates that shared space with outsiders like Ana Lucia who need to be approached, and outsiders like Eko who actively interject themselves into ongoing events, both creating new dynamics for characters like Jack and Locke as they continue on the paths set out before the Tailies arrived.

“What Kate Did” eventually steers away from Kate for its conclusion, using Eko’s delivery of the missing footage from the film to seed Michael communicating with “Walt” using the hatch’s computer. These character detours are always temporary—with no characters ever receiving back-to-back flashbacks, the week-to-week momentum must ultimately rest on events that happen outside of the flashbacks, meaning it can often be easy for their impact to be limited to a single episode. Although this characterized Kate’s flashbacks in the first season, “What Kate Did” does a better job of creating a story from Kate’s past that feels like it will continue to matter to her and the show after the episode is done—it may have come too late to keep the character in good standing with some viewers, but the answer to Kate’s biggest mystery resonates as a standalone flashback and as a piece in the series’ larger puzzle, and restores the character’s promise from the pilot until at least her next flashback.

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Stray observations:

  • “Free at last, huh?”—I wonder at what point the writers realized that the hatch would probably have a pair of bolt cutters that would allow them to get rid of Jin’s handcuff. Was it always planned to stay on this long? Was it always intended to become symbol of his self-imposed exile at sea, to be removed when he returned?
  • The episode doesn’t push this issue, but there’s a parallel between Ana Lucia’s status as a pariah following Shannon’s death and Kate’s position as a fugitive that seems like material the writers could have explored further if there had been time.
  • “So, Rose’s husband’s white! Didn’t see that one coming!”—Hurley, being Hurley.
  • I always enjoy when the show uses a character’s specific expertise to get some exposition on the table, as with Michael’s architectural background bringing the blast doors to our attention. Whenever a new character visits the hatch, a new piece of its puzzle is unlocked, which has helped to keep it from functioning as a “solution” to the series’ conflicts.
  • So is Michael just the biggest idiot alive? The “Huh, why not?” approach to communicating with the sentient computer even after having seen the incomplete version of the Orientation video is still enormously dumb.
  • More strong work from Naveen Andrews at Shannon’s funeral and after, although it’s hard not to feel like we’ve already moved past Shannon at this stage.
  • Eko’s story about Josiah brings religion to the forefront of the story while simultaneously complicating the meaning of the bible he picked up at the Arrow Station, and is one of the most direct cases of flashback seeding I can think of to this point in the series. And speaking of which…

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“The 23rd Psalm” (originally aired 01/11/2006)

It’s difficult not to compare Ana Lucia and Eko during the early part of the second season—they’re both new characters, they’re both Tailies, and they each played a substantial role in the season to date.

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However, their first flashback episodes are diametrically opposed. Ana Lucia was a character whose actions were fairly legible without further explanation—yes, her flashback episode added context for small details, but her toughness would just as easily be explained by the ordeal of the island than it was by her lost child. In this sense, the flashback was largely doing the work of selling the audience on the character, a sales pitch that I felt worked too hard to soften a character that was more interesting without the clichéd back story.

Eko, meanwhile, has been a man of mystery since the time he was introduced. Whereas “The Other 48 Days” and “Collision” did a lot to explain and contextualize Ana Lucia’s actions in previous episodes, they did little to offer clarity for Eko. Even when he answered questions regarding why he was silent for forty days, it’s not as though we got definitive answers. Everything Eko has said and done since he was introduced has been shrouded in uncertainty, meaning that when we arrive at “The 23rd Psalm” we have reason to want to explore Eko’s character beyond the simple fact that the writers have decided to add him as a major character.

The comparison is almost unfair, honestly. Whereas “Collision” constructed a standalone back story for Ana Lucia that only really served her emotions and motivations, “The 23rd Psalm” provides Eko a back story intricately connected to the mythology of the island and to existing characterization. Partnering him with Charlie, the episode sends Eko back into his past and answers the mystery of the drug plane from Nigeria, while giving us our most substantial glimpse yet of the smoke monster wreaking havoc in the jungle.

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In the grand scheme of things, that final two details are what Eko’s first flashback is best remembered for. The Nigerian drug plane was one of the first season’s dangling mysteries, as it contained no urgency: the initial mystery of the plane is replaced quickly by the drama surrounding Boone’s injury and then death, and by the time Sayid and Charlie are taken to the plane it becomes reimagined as a temptation for the latter. It was one of many unexplained things about the island, and it would be easy to imagine a version of the show where the plane is chalked up to “the island is weird” and remembered as a Bermuda-triangle-like oddity.

And yet here Eko emerges unexpectedly to solve the mystery of the plane single-handedly, delivering the answer much like he delivered the missing film in “What Kate Did.” It turns out Eko was a Nigerian teenager who was abducted by rebels and drafted as a child soldier, who trained him to serve as a local warlord and separated him from his catholic priest brother Yemi. A cross-section of family and religion, the flashback concludes with a chaotic turn of events that leaves Yemi shot in the plane as it takes off without Eko, who was double-crossed by his lieutenant who sought to take the drugs and the money for himself. It’s a decision that leaves Eko to pick up the pieces of his brother’s parish, taking on the role of priest that he had only taken on for the purpose of getting the heroin out of the country.

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The story works on a functional level to contextualize various elements of Eko’s character. His murderous past—he’s pretty close to an outright villain before his brother sacrifices himself on Eko’s behalf—puts his penance for the deaths on the first night on the beach into context. The episode also reaffirms his ties to religion, building on biblical allegories and giving us our best look yet at his “Jesus Stick”—copyright Charlie—and his relationship with God. In these ways, the “answers” to the plane mystery become key building blocks of his character, using our pre-existing interest in the details of the plane crash to bring Yemi back to life long enough for his corpse to resonate before being ritually burned.

If we consider this development of Eko’s character as the central focus of the episode, there are two variables added to it that make the episode stronger. The first is, as mentioned, the smoke monster’s big debut. We’ve seen the smoke monster back in the first season finale, so the relationship between the “monster in the jungle” and smoke had already been established, but we’ve never had the chance to see it for such a long period. When it came after Locke in “Walkabout,” we saw its point of view but never gained the bird’s eye perspective that Charlie offers as he’s up in the tree when it approaches Eko.

The scene has three points of view. The first is the aforementioned Charlie, whose vantage point from the tree gives us a sense of the smoke monster’s scale. The second is the smoke monster itself, smashing through the trees and emerging in the clearing to confront Eko. The third, however, is not Eko—although there are some first-person shots early in the scene, once the smoke monster appears the third perspective remains disconnected from Eko, either shooting over his shoulder or focusing on broader context. It is this perspective that takes us “through” the smoke monster, as we hear the strange sounds and see glimpses of Eko’s past “flash” within the smoke as though it is scanning his memories. What does it see? What does it want to see? What would it have done if it had seen something else? These are all tantalizing questions, giving us entirely new context on this mysterious threat and making this a key episode to the series’ mythology.

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Yet on rewatch, the episode surprised me most with its second addition to the flashback equation, as it was more about Charlie than I remembered. The episode finds time to drop in on a range of other characters, further developing Michael’s interactions with “Walt” on the computer and featuring Kate and Sawyer’s backdoor pilot for a beauty salon spinoff. And in the final montage, set to Eko and Charlie’s recitation of the eponymous psalm, we see Ana Lucia being offered food, Libby getting help with her tarp from Hurley, and a general harmony as these groups come together. This extends to Charlie and Eko, who are linked together as characters whose primary off-island relationship is with a brother.

Charlie blames his brother for his drug addiction, while Eko blames himself for his brother’s death and carries on in his name; these are different stories, but the connection helps use Eko’s story to return Charlie to the foreground after having been marginalized for much of the season, ending the episode with the reveal of his horde of Virgin Mary statues. It also follows the lead of “What Kate Did” and uses a character other than the flashback character to create ongoing conflict; while Kate and Eko’s stories reach a point of resolution (if not closure) in each episode, Michael and Charlie’s stories end on an uncertain and foreboding note, seeding future developments.

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This is where the comparison between Ana Lucia and Eko’s first flashbacks seems unfair—whereas her flashback felt disconnected from the broader narrative happening around her character as the Tailies prepared to integrate into the existing castaways, Eko’s flashback feels intimately linked to the show’s mythology while sharing a close link to one of its characters. “The 23rd Psalm” is an episode that announces, develops, and then demonstrates its importance, a key turning point positioning Eko as a central figure in the series.

Stray observations:

  • Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje gives a tremendous performance in this episode, particularly as he breaks down over Yemi’s body, as you can see the weight of the flashback come over him after having been hidden by anger up until that point. My goal by the end of the season is to have learned how to spell his name so commenting on his performance doesn’t also mean Googling how to do so.
  • Note that there was a month and a half between the airing of these two episodes, so they are what networks today call a “2005 finale” and a “2006 premiere” respectively—we’ll talk about the extreme of that model when we reach season three.
  • I had forgotten how much Tyrant had ripped off the opening scene in which we’re introduced to Eko.
  • I always have questions about how much English ends up being spoken in the context of scenes set in foreign countries—I wonder if Nigeria was chosen based on the fact English is the official language, so as to justify moving away from subtitles after the first sequence.
  • I joke about a Kate and Sawyer beauty school spinoff, but there’s something really enjoyable about Sawyer forced to stay still while people torture him by saying nice things about him. It’s a nice little scene or two.
  • The reinforcement offered by the missing footage from the Orientation video confirms that Michael is headed down a dangerous path, which Michael Giacchino’s foreboding music choices reinforces every time we see him scheming in the hatch.
  • Are you there God? It’s Me, Lost: Obviously, Eko brings religion into the series on explicit terms (like bringing up that Aaron was the brother of Moses, pulling the sibling side of the story into the foreground), with the reclaimed cross becoming a symbol of his fake-then-real priesthood. Eko and Locke’s interactions in “What Kate Did” confirm that we’ll be interrogating their respective versions of faith, so those two will have more to talk about than their encounters with the Smoke Monster.

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

  • Whereas I made the argument that Ana Lucia’s flashback was damaged by the fact that the show never really does anything with her character, here we see a flashback that is even more undone: “The 23rd Psalm” makes a huge argument about how important Eko is to the larger mythology, an argument so successful that his sudden departure due to Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s desire to leave the show feels like even more of a betrayal. It’s hard not to imagine what the story would have been, but at the same time the general understanding is that Desmond’s arc ended up taking on a similar function, and that’s one of the strongest of the series. Accordingly, I don’t think the episode is weakened in retrospect—as with “The Other 48 Days,” it’s a failure for reasons that have nothing to do with the episode itself.
  • So is this the point where I turned on Charlie? My memory of the show is such that I had become incredibly frustrated by Charlie leading into the third season, and then “Greatest Hits” and “Through The Looking Glass” completely sold me on his arc to that point. I’m wondering if this was the stage where he began to make choices I didn’t approve of.

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Next week: Michael puts his gun training to good use, and Charlie gets his first flashback of the season.