February 18th, 2009
“We’re all convinced sooner or later, Jack.”
There is a point in “316” where Ben tells Jack the story of Thomas the Apostle, a man who is best known for doubting Jesus’ resurrection. What we take from Ben’s explanation is that Thomas was a brave man, who stood up for Jesus during his life and was unwilling to back away from threats against him. And yet, he isn’t known for that: he is known for not believing, for not welcoming Jesus back into this world under circumstances that he couldn’t grasp immediately. While he did eventually believe once he felt Jesus’ wounds with his own hands, that doubt has defined his existence.
In many ways, “316” is a study of Jack Shepherd’s willingness to believe, and whether or not fate and history will remember him as the person who rebuffed John Locke when he first came to Jack off the island or as the person who eventually became a believer and got on Ajira Airways Flight 316 in order to return to the island. The same pattern goes for the rest of the Oceanic Six: are the decisions they made, the sacrifices they take in order to go back to the island, enough to overcome the fact that they ignored Locke when he first came to them? They were all convinced, sooner or later, to return, but where they sit on that timeline could be very important to their futures.
What this week’s episode, scripted by Lost overlords Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, doesn’t do is give us the ability to answer these questions, presenting a labyrinth that is complex not because of some sort of twisted time warp but rather because we are still missing parts, human parts, of this story. While we got to see what brought Jack to the end of this episode, we do not yet understand the context of the letter he receives, or how the rest of the Oceanic Six resolves this conflict. These questions aren’t going to be solved by Mrs. Hawking spouting off techno-babble, but rather an investigation into these characters, their motivations, and the kinds of questions that have formed the foundation of the series since its opening.
Perhaps its fitting, then, that we begin this episode the same way we began the pilot, a close-up of Jack’s eye as he wakes up in a whole new world for the second time.
There is no question that, if there is any character that has no surprised left in him, it is Jack Shepherd. He’s always been shockingly consistent as a character, driven by a need to help people but tormented by the demons of addiction. For that reason, it might seem strange to follow the journey of the Oceanic Six back to the island from his perspective, when he for the most part is completely on board: we have seen Jack as the believer all this time, so while he has his reasons to question Mrs. Hawking’s elaborate explanation it isn’t surprising that he ignored Desmond’s warnings and got on that plane. While the connection to his late father was still a source of some trauma for Jack, leading him to drink when he returned to his apartment, it was something that he almost had to do: you feel like Jack actually leaves his life in something approximating equilibrium when he leaves for the island, his off-island existence never offering him an alternative powerful enough to make him torn between the two.
While Jack’s journey might be the most simple in the episode, it is nonetheless one that requires further explanation: while he might now be Jack the Believer, willing to follow Ben and Mrs. Hawking to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he wasn’t at one point. He, like everyone else, rebuffed Locke when he came to them, and the revelation that Locke committed suicide and left Jack his suicide note raises a lot of questions for Jack. The content of that letter, “I wish that you had believed me,” is like Locke speaking from beyond the grave, telling Jack that unlike Thomas the Apostle he shouldn’t have had to see Locke dead in that coffin before waking up to the truth. We have yet to see what it was exactly that went down between these two that would lead Locke to leave that letter, but Jack seems to have turned a corner, and is more than willing to hop on that plane.
This wasn’t actually supposed to be so much of a mystery in reality: this was actually supposed to be the season’s seventh episode, as opposed to its sixth, before Lindelof and Cuse switched them around in post-production. The reason isn’t yet clear, but this is perhaps its biggest immediate impact: as next week is going to tell us of the many adventures of “Jeremy Bentham” once he got off the island, if those had come first perhaps we would have seen this as less of a mystery and more a sort of tragic question of blame that came over Jack. The element of mystery worked for the episode, though, because it kept Jack’s story from being all pieced together nicely.
Because, as Jack says when Sun shows up at the airport, he didn’t expect that she or anyone else would be there, them having reconsidered the insanity of it all. When he sees Kate come around that corner, he seems relieved; when Sayid is escorted through security by what we can presume to be a U.S. Marshall, Jack is perplexed. When Hurley is at the gate, Jack is downright confused. The only person he seems actively prepared to see is Ben, who even then was a possible no-show considering his last minute phone call (although we’ll get to the reliability of Ben in a few moments). Jack, then, really isn’t a true believer at all: while he’s forcing himself to believe, he doesn’t believe enough in it to think that everyone else will be able to come around in the same fashion.
Who can blame him, though? When we last left Kate, for example, she was rushing away from Jack and Ben at the docks, Aaron in the car beside her. When we see her next, she is curled in the fetal position in Jack’s bed, having broken into his apartment, asking that he never ask her about Aaron ever again and then sleeping with him after informing him that she is coming with them to the island after all. The last we saw of Sayid, he was walking away from Ben and Jack with similar feelings about this entire scenario, and yet all of a sudden he’s on the plane recreating Kate’s role from Oceanic 815, arrested and being escorted to Guam. Hurley was in jail when we last saw him, and yet now he’s here with a guitar in hand and a spanish-language copy of Y: The Last Man in the most blatant attempt at recreating the scenario of that fated flight.
The episode is ultimately about one giant leap from the Point A of reality to the Point B of the metaphysical, time-sensitive location of the island, a trip planned by Eloise Hawking from The Lamp Post, another Dharma station built in Los Angeles that was designed by a man (unidentified in the episode) who believed that searching for the island was fruitless unless they could predict where it was going to be. The opening of the episode is a boatload of exposition about this new Dharma station, with Mrs. Hawking explaining the rules to everyone involved: there is a flight from Los Angeles to Guam that travels through the coordinates that the pendulum, operating on an electromagnetic anomaly much like the Swan and the Orchid, and the series of equations has predicted, and they are to get on that flight and recreate their initial journey to the island as closely as possible. If they don’t, of course, things will get mighty unpredictable.
One of the episode’s best elements is Desmond’s speech to Hawking, an angry and justified frustration with her entire spiel. He knows two things about Hawking: that he was told by Daniel Faraday that the people on the island needed her help, and that she was the one who told him to go to the island initially and as a result was responsible for much of his own life’s turmoil. Reconciling these things isn’t easy, and when Hawking’s plan actually appears to place his friends into danger as opposed to lead them to safety, Desmond quite rightly questions her. Her message to him does little to eliminate his concerns: she tells him that the island isn’t done with him yet, not exactly the answer he was looking for, and he gives Jack advice that Sayid gave to Hurley earlier this season about Ben. He tells Jack that they’re all pieces in her game, in “their” game, and that he shouldn’t listen to a word that she says.
But I get the sense that the reason all of these people eventually get onto that plane has very little to do with Hawking’s confusing, equation-filled plan, and much more to do with the depths of human nature and their own personal struggles. Desmond’s warning is to us as much as it is to Jack: we’re not just supposed to get caught up on the time travel aspect that has thus far driven this season, but rather focusing on what it’s doing to these characters and what it takes for them to become believers, for them to take the leap of faith (as Hawking puts it) in order to get on that plane. We’ve already seen what it took for Sun, he decision to get on the plane having everything to do with a chance to see her husband again, the belief that he could be alive powerful enough to make her into a believer.
The episode, however, quite purposefully leaves out what drove the others to be there. We are missing four pieces of this particular puzzle, and none of them will be solved by complicated algorithms or anything of the sort. The thing which drove Kate to be on that plane is an unseen force of human nature, some sort of trauma or event that has very little to do with the show’s mythology and much more to do with her character’s journey. How, precisely, Sayid was driven to become a believer and get himself arrested in order to get on that plane is a total mystery that likely has more to do with his own personal drive to avenge his wife’s death or his reasons for joining with Ben in years past than it does with the current events at hand. And we’re still entirely unclear how Hurley, who clearly had no idea that Ben was even involved in these plans, managed to have the memo about recreating the flight so clearly defined that he packed all of those things, bought all of those seats, and was so calm and prepared for what was about to happen.
I think this is definitive proof, at the very least, that we’re returning to a format for the show that will strike many as much more familiar. We were once fascinated with what happened to these people before they got onto Oceanic 815, what their lives were like, and now we’re preoccupied with many of the same questions. This time around, however, the solutions are far more complicated: there were a lot of huge leaps there, and the tantalizing questions are much less broad and open to interpretation. While some of the backstories did eventually become tedious, feeling for some characters that we were out of interesting periods of their lives to investigate, I don’t think anyone will argue that the 36 hours we’re missing from these people’s lives aren’t an extremely compelling question on which to focus the next stage of the season.
Of course, we must remember that Ben is not the same as everyone else, and that his missing period of time is even more intriguing in some ways. How did he become injured: was it in an attempt to kill Penny, successful or unsuccessful? Regardless, he was a bag of lies in the entire episode: I loved the moment where Hawking responded to Jack’s question of whether Ben was lying about being aware of the Lamp Post’s existence with a very simple “Meh, he’s probably lying.” When he asked Jack to go pick up Locke’s body, was this actually because he couldn’t do it himself or was it just because he wanted Jack to have to completely recreate his journey with his father on 815, and he didn’t trust Jack enough to do it when someone else could? If Jack is the character we understand the most, predictable and reliable as ever in situations like this one, Ben is the one whose only predictable quality is his dishonesty, making his missing hours perhaps the mystery I most want to see solved.
As a whole, though, the episode operated as a crescendo, beginning with what seemed like a fairly mundane Jack story (his trip to his Grandfather’s retirement home, in particular) but by episode’s end we felt what we were supposed to feel: sure, we knew from the very Abrams-esque opening that Kate, Jack and Hurley were going to reach the island, but was anyone who has watched this show for five seasons not in some way affected when that plane began to shake, and when Michael Giacchino’s score began to rise as that which happened before happened again? As the action on screen called back to the very first episode, you begin to realize that we are in many ways circling back to where we began: by the time you factor in the little nods to the show’s legacy, including the rather great realization that Frank Lapidus (Jeff Fahey) is piloting Flight 316, we’re experiencing Lost as its most effective and perhaps even its most thrilling.
By the time they got to the end of the episode, as Jin emerges from the VW Dharma van wearing one of the Initiative uniforms and pointing a rifle at our heroes, I began to realize just how complicated this is all going to become: we now have a whole new host of mysteries to flash back to, periods of time that are lost, but it is clear that there is also time that we’ve missed on the island itself since we left our castaways in last week’s episode. But it’s not a science fiction complicated anymore: the island appears to have settled itself, everyone is back in the same zip code, it’s just that the reasons they’re there, and how those reasons came to be, now becomes the question.
And, much like Thomas the Apostle, we have to decide whether they will be defined by their initial doubt or whether, in the end, their own personal process for becoming believers is enough to define them differently in our eyes. Or, for that matter, in the island’s.
- I’m really curious to see what we learn next week as we flash back further to the final days of Jeremy Bentham, and I’m even more curious to reconsider the events in this week’s episode with that knowledge. Will the knowledge of how/why Locke killed himself change how we view Jack in this episode? And will it perhaps give some foundation to the eventual reveals of why everyone else ended up heeding his advice and returning to the island? Those are questions we’ll have to ask next week, as “316” really doesn’t give us many hints considering it was always meant to play after it.
- Not only was the spanish comic book a call back to the original flight (Walt having found the comic book with the polar bear amongst the plane’s wreckage), but it was also a copy of Y: The Last Man, the comic book written by current Lost staff writer Brian K. Vaughan.
- My brother points out that Ben was even lying in one of his witty retorts: when he sarcastically responds to Jack’s question of “how can you read?” with “My mother taught me,” it’s impossible considering that his mother died in child birth.
- Another definite callback: the magic show at the retirement home with its rabbit was certainly referencing Ben’s previous magic tricks with white rabbits.
- One would have to presume that the other first class passenger, who was actually given lines in the episode, might well survive and become another castaway: I haven’t read any casting noticed to know for sure, but he both got to talk to Jack about his dead relative and had Hurley remind him to buckle his seat belt.
- Speaking of those final moments, Jack and Hurley have a conversation where they question something: they didn’t seem to crash, as far as they can tell, just suddenly emerging from the white light into their various positions in the jungles of the island. If the plane didn’t crash, what happened to the rest of its passengers, and how exactly does this whole re-entry thing work? The episode backgrounded these types of questions in favour of more human-driven ones, but methinks they’ll come back into the forefront in two weeks time.
- Anyone else enjoy the irony of Ben, faced with the stress of waiting to see whether this highly convoluted and complicated situation works as planned, finds light reading material in James Joyce’s Ulysses?