March 18th, 2009
At the very beginning of Lost’s first season, orientation was a common relationship for all of our characters: all of them had their own baggage, their own identities, but all of them had in common that struggle to reorient their lives in such a way as to fit into this new island structure. We see Jack trying to associate his pre-island struggles with his father and with medicine with his new role as a leader, to uneven success, just as we see Kate come to terms with her crimes and her culpability in the wake of what is essentially a fresh start. Even if some people oriented themselves faster than others, or more successfully than others, everyone had to start at that basic point.
But in “Namaste,” that balance is entirely skewed – if the term means “I bow to you,” then many amongst the show’s cast have no idea who, or what, to bow to anymore. There are three sets of people on the island in these two different time periods: one set who has been there for three years and has become part of the culture (Sawyer, Juliet, Miles, Jin), one that has been there before but finds this new territory disturbing regardless of the time period (the Oceanic Six, Frank, Ben), and those who are experiencing it all for the first time (Caesar and the group left back by the Hydra). The problem is that, for the first group, they are part of the culture: they went through orientation, they saw the videos, and now they are integral parts of the structure of this island and its history. Everyone else, meanwhile, is starting anew, but for some of these characters you can’t just stop yourself from recognizing a new captive as an old friend, or reacting when you first see an old lover for the first time.
This isn’t a mind-blowing episode of Lost in terms of major revelations, but it fills in some key gaps that we hadn’t quite pieced together in the last few episodes, and draws attention to our central conflict. The show is purposefully trying to reboot itself in the middle of a season, knowing full well that it’s impossible – that impossibility is embodied by the characters, the characters who are either trapped separated by decades from the people they came to see or those trapped in the distant past with no clue as to their mission. Just as they can’t forget about the past, pretend like nothing happened, neither can I, and this kind of narrative disconnect in fact sends us back to these characters, and even back to past events in previous seasons, to get a real sense of what has changed.
Immediately upon arrival, Hurley asks the obvious question: why hasn’t, to use Sawyer’s own term, “James LaFleur” gone all Nostradamus on the Dharma Initiative in order to warn them about the genocide that is in their future? It’s a question that we’ve all been asking, and one that Sawyer answers with a cryptic detailing of Daniel Faraday’s crazy adventure through time and space that we’ve yet to really see, but that we know happened as a result of a few hints scattered here and there. The question of how much of the future they are able to change remains unclear: considering the state of the barracks whenever it is that Sun and Frank get there, clearly something has happened to run the place into the ground, but until it’s daylight we won’t know the full extent of where, or when, they are. In the meantime, we’re left with the decision not to warn Dharma, to assimilate as if nothing was amiss.
It’s a problem for Hurley, Jack and Kate, in particular good Dr. Shephard, because they came to this island with no idea what they were supposed to do and now they see a pretty clear moral imperative in front of them and they’re not doing anything. For Kate and Hurley, who are a bit more laid back, that’s fine – but Jack was so used to being in control before that he hunts down Sawyer in order to warn him, and they get into this battle of perspectives. Sawyer calls Jack out, simple: he claims that all Jack did was react (which is pretty true), and that he never once seemed to stop and think about their next strategy. It’s somewhat unfair, since Jack never really had time to stop and think, and when he did he was dealing with splinter groups, complications, and just about everything else you can imagine. Jack never had the luxury of time that James has had, but in that intervening three years a lot has changed for “LaFleur,” to the point where he is the logical leader all of a sudden.
The various face-offs between Jack and Sawyer were not overblown or too dramatic – yes, Jack was slow to trust Sawyer’s word about their fate, and he was the most skeptical when it came to the orientation, but it wasn’t a dragdown fight when they eventually dealt with it. Sawyer is just so comfortable, whereas Jack is so out of his element, that the balance of power has shifted: once the rebellious outsider, Sawyer is the domestic reader, the island’s Winston Churchill, reading a book a night while the blitz rages outside of the sonic fence. In many ways he is the combination of Jack and Locke’s best qualities, philosophical without being too devoted to fate or the will of the island, while practical and capable of reacting when necessary. While the island has always been tossed between Jack and Locke in terms of humanity’s great hope, in Sawyer there is perhaps the ideal compromise.
But it’s one that rife with complications. Sayid’s arrival concerns all of them since there’s no way to explain him away, and he ends up like Ben in the Swan, his identity unclear to the Dharma folk but not to those who we associate with. And while it’s one thing to put them on the sub manifest or on the employee listing, it’s another to do so without upsetting the balance: Amy might eventually figure out that there is one too many people there, that there were only two dropouts from the submarine. And these are just the logistical concerns they had to face, so when you fold in the personal it becomes a complicated web of readjustment, where half the people are living totally normal lives and the other half haven’t been normal since they first stepped on the island, well, almost thirty years later.
Those personal problems were played out, overall, extremely well. Hurley couldn’t keep himself contained in any scenario, the first to notice Jin’s English is better, and the first to quip abut Sayid, etc. Most important though was the great moment where Kate, trapped by the fact that Juliet didn’t put her name on the initial list, takes the time to personally bring her into Dharma as if it were some sort of complicated gesture of warning, the first shot across the bow in their war over Sawyer’s heart. I like that it’s not blatant: Lost is clearly above catfights, I never though we’d get something like that, but there wasn’t even a tense discussion about it. No one talks directly about the personal conflicts (Jack never mentions to Juliet that it’s awkward, Kate never says anything to anyone about it, Sawyer and Jack talk more about Sayid than about their joint love of Kate or Juliet), but they’re there boiling under the surface, just where they should be on a show like Lost.
As for the rest of the episode, it suffered from the fact that we knew too much about the “present day” side of the story: we knew that Frank and Sun were the ones who went off in the boat since we had been told about it, and we knew that Ben wasn’t going to make it onto that boat considering he’s out cold in the Hydra when we saw him at the end of “The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham.” However, that didn’t make it any more satisfying for us to see Frank heroically land the plane with minimal loss of life (poor co-pilot), nor did we cheer any less at Sun absolutely destroying Ben with the paddle as soon as he revealed their intended location for entering onto the main island. We didn’t see anything expansive with that part of the storyline, but it was darn entertaining getting there.
It’s end location, though, is the second time that our cast has interacted with one Christian Shephard, although this time in a way that wasn’t quite as unsettling as appearing in front of Locke in the middle of a cavern shut off any clear pathways. He walks out of that door in the barracks, greeting Sun and Frank with the right level of creepiness, and then shows them the 1977 Orientation class: he tells Sun that she has a long journey ahead, which raises some definite questions about how they’re going to bring these two sides together. There’s no clear indication on how it will happen, but at the very least the 1977 narrative is comfortable, relatively safe (I’ll get to why in a moment here), whereas Sun is in some type of danger, and we don’t quite know if there’s anything on the island which can control time travel as she would need to (although, methinks that the wonderful and missing Daniel Faraday might have some type of an idea).
The thing about “Namaste” is that it’s all about our characters and not about the ones we really want to learn more about, especially in 1977 (I don’t yet worry about the new castaways stationed at the Hydra, Locke’ll take care of them). We see Peter Chang all but briefly, as he is forced to fill in for Amy at the last minute, pulled out of his lab to assist Jack in his orientation. That was the one moment where it felt like we weren’t just getting a glimpse into some alternate Dharma initiative, but the real thing in the flesh. The same goes for Radzinsky in the Flame station – we know what’s happening, know that the Swan station model he’s building will soon become the hatch that dominated the first two seasons, but there aren’t dots being connected: just as Chang only briefly drops into our world, we only briefly drop into the Flame, and it’s not enough to find definitive answers or definitive queries.
Dharma remains a big question mark: we know the basic process, but do we really understand the purposes behind them? We know that their experiments have some fundamental contradictions, some moral and ethical dilemmas, and we know that they have their reasons for doing things, reasons what we don’t understand since we don’t have an ideal perspective on the innerworkings of its leadership. The fact that we don’t could be seen as problematic, but the way we’ve been dropped in is meant to disorient us in a way it doesn’t disorient Sawyer and Juliet, who have thier own ways of dealing with things that has developed outside of our own point of view. It means we might have to wait until Jack, Kate and Hurley start asking questions, and finding answers, before we really dig into those issues.
Of course, the episode’s last scene is a standout, as we return to young Benjamin Linus as he offers Sayid, playing the role of Ben in the cell with his identity being questioned, a sandwich and an inquisition about whether he really is a hostile. It’s not clear at this point to what degree Ben is aware of the hostiles, and whether he knows Sayid is not amongst them and could spark up a true conflict, but for now we only know what Sayid knows: the problem that plagued him, that placed his life in danger, and threatened him and used him, is standing right in front of him within stranglin’ range. That being said, the real threat to Ben’s life was in Sun, who was content with a paddle to the head in the present day – young Ben just needs to hope that no one else decides they want him dead before he matures into Michael Emerson and kills his own father.
It was a lot of procedure, though, sort of another orientation into this new structure – it means that we’re not blowing anyone away with major theories, or introducing new characters or even fundamentally different characters, but rather measuring in degrees the shifts in the characters who remained on the island, the ones who left, and those who are there for the first time. So an uneventful, but certainly compelling and well-rendered, return.
- Jack Bender got to do a lot with this episode, especially considering that it wasn’t a major action piece: there was some great lighting throughout, but in particular the scene with Sun and Frank with Christian was kind of amazing, creepy beyond the point of usual scenes. When that door swung open on its own, I got chills.
- It’s not clear, exactly, why Sun was the only member of the Oceanic Six not to be taken back to 1977 – is it as simple as the island deciding that her role in this conflict would take place in the present day, or was it something she did (perhaps not bringing back the child? I don’t know).
- Another piece of great subtlety: Sawyer creating a job profile for Jack that only prepares him for janitorial staff.
- We spent a lot of the last episode trying to figure out who Amy’s baby could be (Ben was a popular choice), but I don’t think I saw anyone whose mind went to Ethan Rom, who we first met as the uber-powerful Other who integrated with the survivors of the flight. It isn’t clear if Juliet is putting this together in that moment (she definitely seems to notice it a little), but at the very least it’s one more connection that we can make.
- It is downright scary how much the young actor playing Ben has Emerson’s look down cold – the eyes are helpful, but it’s even in the demeanor.