In Defence of “Exposé”
May 21st, 2010
As we come to the end of Lost’s run, people like to write lists: most of these lists will feature “Favourite” characters, episodes or scenes over the past six seasons, but there’s a chance that many of them will focus on the “Worst” of the same. I don’t know if I’m really up for making lists of my own (especially since I put together my own list of important episodes before Season 6 began), but I do want to say one thing:
If I see “Exposé” on a single “Worst Episode” list [like this one, which is even more despicable since it uses “Pointless”], I am going to be incredibly angry.
I may not have loved the episode initially (my “review” from three years ago is a little all over the map), so I can’t say I’ve always held this belief, but over time I have become part of the minority who feel that “Exposé” was an intriguing episode which successfully made lemons out of lemonade. While there are bad episodes of Lost (see: “Stranger in a Strange Land”) which in their failures elucidate some of the show’s growing pains at various points within its narrative, “Exposé” is precisely the opposite: it is a confident hour of television, entirely sure of its function of bringing to a close an intriguing, if failed, experiment in the series’ narrative in a meaningful and memorable fashion.
As Lost has continued, and we’ve learned more about the island and the central themes to the series, I’ve become convinced that there is no way anyone could argue that “Exposé” is not a pivotal episode in the series’ development. Whether you choose to view it as hidden foreshadowing or (more likely) as successful retroactive storytelling, the episode captures in a single episode the complex morality plays which have been unfolding for six seasons, crafting a compelling standalone narrative that we can now see as a microcosm for the series’ larger conflicts.
In other words, I’m tired of the haters, and I’m here to tell you why.
I will admit that, when it first aired, I understood some of the negative response to “Exposé,” as at times it can become a bit too ‘cute.’ The idea of using Nikki and Paulo as an excuse to bring back Boone and Shannon, or return to key scenes in the first two seasons, feels like fan service and doesn’t really play as effectively as I think Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz wanted it to play (based on their audio commentary for the episode). If you focus on the most basic meta-commentary within the episode, as the characters don’t quite recognize Nikki and Paulo as a nod to their sudden transplantation into the show’s narratives, I can see why you would get frustrated with the reminders that these two characters were pretty useless at the end of the day.
However, if you dig a little bit deeper, you find that its meta-commentary goes beyond a couple of quippy lines from Sawyer. While this was at the stage where fans expected new developments to have a big impact, anticipating that Nikki and Paulo must have been introduced to transition into some big new storyline or unlock a piece of the show’s mythology, the truth is that they exist to demonstrate an important point emphasized in Season Six’s “What They Died For.” Jacob brought everyone to the island because their lives were falling apart, and he didn’t want to think that he was taking his candidates away from some great, positive future. There’s a scene early in “Exposé” where Nikki and Paulo sit in the Sydney airport and watch Shannon and Boone arguing, and Nikki asks Paulo to “promise we’ll never end up like them.” There’s a surface irony in that they do eventually end up buried in the same cemetery as both Shannon and Boone, but there’s also the reminder that they are already just like them. They are also candidates, people that Jacob has deemed to be brought to the island to see if they have what it takes to carry on with his responsibilities, and they were as fated to come to the island as any other characters. While it may have simply been an experiment from Lindelof and Cuse to see if they could add to their cast from within their ranks, in retrospect it’s an early sign that they actually could focus on any of the red shirts in the cast and discover a past with a similar morally and ethically complex existence which would render them a candidate.
As soon as Jacob explained the island to Richard in “Ab Aeterno,” my mind began to return to “Exposé.” It made the island sound like one big morality play: people arrive on the island in order to be tested, to see if they have what it takes in order to survive and become the protector of the island. It effectively humanizes the conflict on the island: once they arrive, Jacob is “hands off” beyond Richard’s influence, and he simply allows human nature take over, which means that all of the terrible things that have happened are the fault of characters rather than nameless evils. It’s fitting that Charlie comes clean with Sun about his fake kidnapping in the episode because it emphasizes that the presence of shadowy threats does not mean that your kidnapper isn’t the British bass player right in front of you rather than the fiends in the jungle.
We have learned as the series has gone on that the Man in Black can’t actually kill the candidates himself, but we also learned that they can kill one another, and that’s the real message of “Exposé,” isn’t it? Nikki and Paulo eventually turn on one another, Paulo hiding his discovery of the diamonds from Nikki and Nikki eventually getting them both paralyzed through her inability to pay complete attention during Dr. Arzt’s biology lesson. “Exposé” plays out like an episode of CSI, as our regular characters struggle to figure out the circumstances surrounding Nikki and Paulo’s deaths, but they take forever to get there because they immediately jump to conclusions that it’s the smoke monster or the Others. The show conditioned us to see conspiracies and mysteries at this point in its run, but sometimes the answers (and the methods to finding those answers) are simple: Desmond’s psychic powers are no match for Sawyer’s knowledge of a good con, as there are some mysteries that simply boil down to human nature. They were their own microcosmic morality play, two characters who thought they were going to get away with the perfect crime but whose lives were anything but perfect once they arrived on the island where “things don’t stay buried” (to quote John Locke, discussing both the literal dangers of shore erosion and the metaphorical revealing of secrets).
This is all extended by the fact that it isn’t Nikki and Paulo who end up killing each other: to me, the ending of this episode is one of Lost’s finest moments, capturing the horrifying circumstance when you realize something (through flashback) that the characters aren’t going to discover. Watching two people get buried alive is the sort of thing that I didn’t personally forget, and yet so many people saw this as a “wiping of the hands” as it relates to this experiment that they simply threw the episode away. However, we’re not supposed to forget about Nikki and Paulo so much as the characters are supposed to forget about Nikki and Paulo: unlike Boone or Shannon, whose deaths sent shockwaves through the group, Nikki and Paulo were just another couple of redshirts, but yet their deaths are just as reflective of the mistakes that the castaways have made. The only character who still remembers them is Miles, someone who never met them in life and only cares because he can speak to the dead and wants some of those diamonds for himself (as seen in this season’s “Dr. Linus”).
“Exposé” is meant entirely for the audience: we’re meant to know that they were buried alive, and we’re meant to see that these characters who no one really knew were actually living this entirely different life that could have just as easily formed a long series of flashbacks. And while that could be read at the time as a cheap gag to expand the show’s cast, in retrospect it gives us a glimpse at the similarities between those who were brought to the island, and their deaths capture the fact that death on the island has more faces than smoke or Ethan Hunt. These are qualities about the show which have extended into the sixth season, and which have been revealed to be incredibly important to understanding the series as a whole.
People seem to have expected “Exposé” to justify or apologize for the inclusion of Nikki and Paulo in the series, expectations compounded by the narrative split which kept us away from some of our favourite characters for the start of the third season, but I think people expected it to justify past time spent with the characters rather than making a singular statement which would later seem more important. I think if people separate the episode from the season’s scheduling woes, and focus on its themes and its structure rather than the “useless” scenes with Nikki and Paulo in earlier episodes, you’ll discover an episode that works as a standalone story and also investigates themes key to the series at the time and even more crucial to our understanding of the sixth season.
And as stubborn as it makes me sound, I’ll not willing to accept any other conclusion – I think the internet got this one wrong, and I strongly believe fans should go back and give it another chance as we march towards the finale. Even if they didn’t plan for the episode to mean as much as it does, it says something quite important that the way they are choosing to conclude this story has made a seemingly “meaningless” episode like “Exposé” even more meaningful.
- In another brief meta-moment that sometimes gets overlooked, Nikki’s “I’m just a guest star, and we all know what happens to guest stars” line is really untrue with Lost considering that Michael Emerson became such an integral part of the cast after only arriving as a guest star.
- I knew that Kitsis and Horowitz went to the University of Wisconsin Madison (where I’m heading in September) for some random reason, but I will still pleasantly surprised to see Ethan in a Wisconsin sweatshirt in the episode.
- My big open discussion question: we know that the Man in Black can’t kill candidates, but yet we wonder what happened to Mr. Eko, or what happened to Richard’s fellow passengers aboard the Black Rock. Is it that there are some people who come to the island who aren’t candidates and are thus expendable (see: the original pilot of Oceanic 815, who wasn’t supposed to be on the plane), or is it that some people like Eko choose to die? Expose doesn’t really give us any more material to analyze on that front, but it’s something that’s still sort of bugging me about the logistics of the candidate selection process.