March 16th, 2010
There are only so many ways that we can talk about the “Flash Sideways” structure of Lost’s sixth season before we discover its deeper meaning, only so many ways that we can pass judgment while technically reserving judgment.
However, I will contend that those who suggest that the structure is meaningless without a sense of the big picture are overstating things: yes, episodes like “Recon” might become more interesting with a rewatch once the pieces start to come together, but the structure is capable of being interesting in its own right. Like the original flashbacks, the segments are more dependent on individual characters than the show has been in a long time, and so we love episodes featuring Locke and Ben while we become frustrated with episodes featuring Kate and whatever other character we don’t tend to like very much.
I’ll be curious to see how people respond to “Recon,” a Sawyer episode that threatens to rewrite the character’s fairly popular transformation during the “LaFleur” story last year. Part of what made Kate’s flash so problematic was that it felt regressive: it’s one thing to hearken back to an earlier structure that focuses more on these characters, but it’s another to show them more or less exactly as we’d seen them before. Some even argued that Sayid’s flash had the same problem, in that it didn’t show us anything new, or really change our perception of the character.
Personally, I think that we can take a lack of change as a fairly substantial clue to the deeper meanings at play here, but what makes “Recon” work is that the changes we’ve witnessed on the island feel as if they have heavily influenced the James Ford we meet in the flash sideways. The changes between this Sawyer and the one we saw in the first season are not dissimilar from the changes between the Sawyer who crashed on Oceanic Flight 815 and the Sawyer who was known as Lafleur, and it’s the sort of change that says more through simple character drama than any plot-based exposition could ever accomplish. The scenes are as much a reminder as they are a reveal, and while that might not currently seem fitting for a final season I think it’s all going to work out in the long run (or the long con, if you prefer).
The single most important scene in this week’s episode is Smokey and Kate sitting on the beach talking about the past. We learn that Smokey once had a mother, a crazy mother, and he faced many trials and tribulations as a result. He tells Kate that Aaron is in the same position, with a crazy mother and all, and notes that he could have avoided all of those struggles if things had been different, if things had gone a different way. And, not coincidentally, this week’s flash sideways gives us a very similar question as James Ford notes that there was a point in his life where he had a choice between becoming a criminal and becoming a cop. In “reality,” he became a con man, and in the flash sideways he became a cop, and the question becomes how that change truly affected his life.
The idea that these scenes are some sort of hypothetical, a scenario that has the characters trying to rewrite their lives and making decisions that they wish they had made differently the first time, isn’t bulletproof or anything, but it works in the context of “Recon.” Despite the fact that he followed the other path, becoming a cop instead of a criminal, Sawyer remains obsessed with finding Anthony Cooper (Sawyer), and he still went to Sydney on Oceanic Flight 815 to confront a man he believed to be the villainous con man (or so we presume – that’s never actually confirmed, as we only learn that he kept the trip a secret from his partner). Just as Locke still became paralyzed even when his father didn’t throw him out the window (or so we presume based on the picture of them together in Locke’s cubicle), Sawyer remains haunted by his parents’ deaths even when he fights on the right side of the law.
However, unlike the transient figure who is unable to sustain anything close to an actual relationship (outside of a savings account for his daughter) that we met in previous flashbacks, you can sense that like Locke before him Sawyer is capable of having friends and family within this reality. He has a partner (Miles, present not as a point of convenience but rather as a point of familiarity to evoke his LaFleur days), and he hits it off with Charlotte (okay, that one was just there to screw with our heads, at least for now), and he is honest with Miles at the end of the episode instead of retreating back into his bubble. While he has remained more withdrawn than normal thanks to what happened with his parents, there is a sense that we have found him at a turning point, at one of those stages where things could go a different way. They’re subtle changes, certainly, but they offer a nice view into Sawyer’s priorities and his struggle with death.
In some ways, we want it to be Island Sawyer, not Flash Sideways Sawyer, who watches that episode of Little House on the Prairie and hears Pa talking about how people are not really gone when they die. On the island, Sawyer is playing a dangerous con, placing himself between the Smoke Monster and the invading Charles Widmore in an effort to get off the island or, more accurately, to run away from the pain. Sawyer was content to remain on this island forever when Juliet was with him, when there was a chance to simply live happily ever after. With Juliet dead, he has nothing to stay for rather than having something to return for, and that’s the sort of perspective that can prove reckless. Josh Holloway wasn’t dealing with two fundamentally different characters, but while the Flash Sawyer cared too much about his past the Island Sawyer has a devil may care attitude that is actually far more dangerous, and Holloway managed to draw out the subtle differences in the two portrayals.
It’s not clear what we’re really rooting for Sawyer to do: by episode’s end, Sawyer has positioned himself as a dangerous free agent whose goal is to help people like Kate, Jin and Sun get off the island, but I have this fear that it will be a mission of sacrifice, that he is committed to their well-being (for Aaron, for Ji Yeon) more than he is committed to his own. I don’t know if Sawyer believes he has anything left to live for, and his willingness to play both sides in this broader conflict is just as worrisome as Jack’s unwillingness to get involved. While some have wondered if the broader conflict between Smokey and Jacob (or Widmore, as the case appears to be – more on that in a bit) would overwhelm the characters in some ways, it’s actually drawing out some of their most interesting qualities. Here, with nothing to lose, Sawyer is becoming both extremely familiar (in his duplicitousness, for example) and extremely strange (in that his endgame, getting off the island, seems more arbitrary than what we’re used to). The Flash Sideways offered a nice counterpoint to demonstrate how Sawyer’s personality is multi-faceted, perhaps reminding us to expect the unexpected from Sawyer’s current insistence that he “ain’t with anybody.”
The Flash Sideways also continued to reveal bits and pieces of the big picture. We got another scene of a character looking in the mirror, with James actually attacking his reflection this time around. We got Charlotte appearing as James’ blind date, searching for the “Sawyer” folder deliberately even if we don’t learn who she’s working for. And James meets up with Kate – who he recognizes from the plane (or the news, we presume) – at the end of the episode after the vehicle she was in crashed into his parked car. Throw in a couple of coincidences, like Charlie’s brother coming in to try to get his brother out of jail, and you have a typical Flash Sideways episode, but the further we delve into this reality the more we seem to be learning from it. The mystery has not been solved but I’m becoming more and more comfortable with the structure, and asking less questions has seemed to open up more answers, even if they remain circumstantial rather than substantial at this stage of the game.
Meanwhile, on the island, we got a further glimpse into the persuasion tactics of one Smokey (I’ll pitch the Terry O’Quinn-led Austen adaptation once I’m done here). I thought it was interesting that, like Sawyer, he’s a very effective con man: he knows when to tell the truth in order to continue lying, and he knows when to lie in order to create the situation he desires. We don’t entirely know how honest he is with Kate on the beach, as he tried to argue that he is just like Aaron and that Kate is responsible for protecting her adopted son from Claire, but we know that he was honest about why he chose to tell Claire that the Others stole her child: he needed to channel her rage, and why not channel it against his own enemy? But the two conversations are almost identical, philosophical and personal as Locke tries to get Kate to imagine herself in his shoes, or Claire’s shoes, or some abstract notion of footwear. Smokey is nothing if not effective, whether it’s convincing Claire to calm down or settling nerves with the OtherChildren that Cindy brought with them; he is very capable of persuading others to do his bidding, and while some (like Sayid, who remains in an unhealthy state following the events at the Temple) comes more easily than others it is becoming clear why he has survived as long as he has.
There’s some questions that we need to start asking about the big picture as it relates to the Man in Black/Smokey/whatever, including his relationship with the Dharma Initiative, but the arrival of Widmore and the mutual knowledge of the other’s existence would indicate that this will be coming soon. Instead, I want to posit that Smokey operated as a sort of surrogate father figure in the episode, which means a lot on a show where daddy issues run rampant. He was there to assure the kids that everything was going to be okay, there to calm down Claire during the domestic squabble, and there to (eventually) bring Claire and Kate back together. Sawyer, then, is the teenager who says one thing and does another, and Smokey has his own secret agendas that he keeps from his children. What isn’t clear, really, is where he plans on leading them, and what his end game is, but we’re used to that lack of answers, and Terry O’Quinn is having so much fun playing with these dynamics that the opaqueness of it all is almost part of the fun.
I don’t think that “Recon” was one of the strongest episodes of the season due to the fact that, unlike Ben and Locke, Sawyer didn’t reach any new resolution to his past problems within the flash sideways or anything of that nature, and the action on the island was more or less assessing the board rather than making a move. However, a good bit of recon work can tend to reveal things that are going to be important moving forward: we know that there’s a locked door on the submarine, for example, and we know that Charles Widmore is not here on some random mission. And, more importantly, we have a better sense of the position of Sawyer within this whole mess, as he asserts his independence from either side while committing to helping his friends (rather than helping himself). He may be on a kamikaze mission, but he is doing so for people like Miles (who he asks about when Kate brings word from the temple, you’ll notice), Kate, Jin and Sun. Suddenly, his cons are being put to good use to help those he cares about, just as they were put to good use in the flash sideways to catch the kind of people who ruined his life at a young age.
That may not resolve his story, per se, but it certainly lays the groundwork for the actions which will follow within both timelines, and I was entertained enough by the episode to accept the pace of it all.
- What are our guesses for what’s behind the door with the three padlocks on it? There’s no question that we’re supposed to be asking about it, but do we think it’s a person or some sort of object?
- Speaking of Widmore’s submarine, I’m still not sure why Widmore was so intent on killing Ben the last time he came to the island but is now focused on killing Smokey. There’s interesting questions to be asked about why Ben, despite being aligned with Jacob, could call on the Smoke Monster, so perhaps that was why Widmore wanted him removed so that he could restore order to the Others in terms of remaining on Jacob’s side. Either way, Widmore’s arrival changes things, and here’s hoping that we get some clarity in the weeks ahead.
- In the “A-ha!” file for the flash sideways this week, we have “Lafleur” being used as a code word to inform Miles to break into the hotel room as Sawyer is conning the con woman, and the fact that Flash Sawyer was reading Watership Down.
- Interesting that Smokey frames his actions at the Temple as “kill or be killed.” Sometimes we forget that even giant smoke monsters feel fear, so it’s interesting that he justifies his actions (perhaps extending all the way back to the poor 815 pilot) out of fear. Perhaps he killed the pilot so that he couldn’t radio back to the mainland and potentially bring Widmore and others against him?
- I don’t care what people think, the start of Season Three wasn’t that bad, so it was nice to return to the Hydra Station and get a glimpse at the bear cages. I don’t think Sawyer finding Kate’s sun dress will rekindle their romantic entanglement, but it did offer a reminder of the length of their journey together, which Sawyer doesn’t seem to have forgotten.
- I remember the Ajira crash landing being a lot more violent than it seemed to have been based on the limited damage to the plane, so I’m guessing they retconned that to leave open that particular route of escape for people who might not make it onto the submarine.
- In an episode filled with cons (Widmore’s lieutenant, Sawyer, Smokey), we wonder whether Claire’s emotional moment with Kate is just another con as well, or if she’s just that emotionally unstable.