One of the things that makes Lost such a trying viewing experience is its frequently lazy narrative shortcuts. So when a plot point is introduced that stands out as especially difficult to believe, the skeptic in me has a tendency to jump down the show's throat, only to be retro-actively corrected down the road. Never one to provide easy--or direct--answers, Lost often plays upon viewer distrust, giving us the answer we expect to see, only to conceal its true motives (think of the episode where Locke believes the "Pearl Station" is nothing more than an exercise in social control). But if nothing else, Lost does eventually reward the patience of viewers, even if it means getting around to resolving story-lines we've long since forgotten about (welcome back to the show, Desmond) and delivering the information in frustratingly piece-meal fashion.
Take, for example, a snarky claim I made a couple of weeks back where I grumbled about former Iraqi commando Sayid (Naveen Andrews) missing the boat (literally) and allowing a team of "Others" to board Desmond's (Henry Ian Cusick) yacht because he was apparently facing the wrong direction. But with a single tossed-off line, another piece of the puzzle is put in place: we're told "the sub is back." Of course. They have a submarine. They've got polar bears and clouds of deadly black smoke and a direct feed of Fox's Major League Baseball coverage. A submarine seems, by comparison, the least bizarre indulgence.
"Every Man for Himself" finally expands Lost's canvas to show us both sides of the island (or is it islands now?) simultaneously, settling into a rhythm one can only hope it maintains for the rest of the season. Written by Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz, the episode is the latest in a long-line of sub-Mamet con-job episodes involving Sawyer (Josh Holloway) that's almost embarrassingly entertaining (per the average). From the standpoint of originality and depth, I've always found Sawyer lagging somewhat behind the rest of the tribe. One can often get a read on the character in any given situation by simply positing "what would Kurt Russell do?" But as the character is pure hard-boiled pulp, Sawyer (nee: James Ford) is often the easiest guy on the show to build a self-contained narrative around. Like all those Indiana Jones sequels no one really likes (ed. note: speak for yourself, Dignan), you can drop the character into almost any situation and his rakish demeanor and "piss-off" attitude will often carry the viewer over some truly silly material.
Of course, at this point there are very few surprises afforded to a Sawyer storyline, as one can't help but be aware we're watching some sort of protracted misdirection. Last night's episode finds the character confined to two prisons of sorts in both his past and his present. Sawyer is now behind bars for the swindle he pulled on Cassidy (Kim Dickens) last season. Stuck under the thumb of a ball-busting warden (actor-filmmaker Bill Duke), Sawyer uses his gift for the grift to sucker a fellow inmate (Ian Gomez) into revealing the location of ten million dollars in stolen funds and then uses it to barter his way to freedom.
This feels like the umpteenth time we've seen Sawyer use his easygoing charm to part some mark from a boatload of money and the casting of the stunted, pathetic-looking Gomez screams out a resolution that's obvious from the show's opening minutes. What the episode wisely does, however, is use Sawyer's con as counter-point for an equally predictable, yet more imaginative one being worked by "The Others" against him. Back in the present, Sawyer is dragged by a baton-wielding and surprisingly aggressive Ben (Michael Emerson) into a dank operating room where he awakes to the news that a pace-maker has been installed next to his heart. Should his pulse race above 140, he's told, an electric current will cause his heart to explode. There's a perverse charm to the predicament: Sawyer who's spent the past two seasons as a hard-living, live-wire, man of mystery at the center of multiple love triangles and action set-pieces must maintain a medium cool at all times. That means no more brawling, no further escape attempts, and he just might want to avert his eyes when Kate (Evangeline Lilly) slips her clingy dress off for a clean set of clothes. For a character so narrowly conceived it would seem to be a fascinating new wrinkle to explore over the coming months and a diabolical (even "James-Bondian") edge to "The Others" that takes their tyrannical little experiments to unimaginable new heights. When a character is defined exclusively as a rogue, what happens when the need for self-preservation forces him to shed that identity?
Alas, we return to the status quo by the end of the episode, as it's revealed there is no pacemaker. This has all been an elaborate charade to prove, once again, "who's the boss" and to underline the feelings shared between Sawyer and Kate. The episode ends on an understated note (a recurring theme this season, in sharp contrast with many of the jaw-droppers that have capped episodes in seasons past) with Ben revealing they are, in fact, on a different island than the rest of the survivors of Oceanic flight 815 and that all escape attempts will be futile. Yet, in keeping with the theme of the episode, I can't help but wonder if this too is some sort of con. There have been elements of mind control to the tricks played on the castaways thus far, and there's a weary part of me that can't help but feel this is more smoke and mirrors. After all, how would Desmond (not to mention Sayid, Sun, and Jin) sail around the island in his boat and not notice an additional island, unless there's some kind of chicanery going on.
Meanwhile, just as Sawyer seems to be defined by his profession as a flim-flam man, we again see Jack (Matthew Fox) called upon to employ his vocation in a failed attempt to operate on the fatally-wounded Colleen (Paula Malcolmson). Much is made of the fact that Jack has been brought from his underwater holding-area to above-ground, at one point walking past Sawyer and Kate's cages (in another clever bit, a loud siren is played over the loud speakers, masking their screams as he passes by). This would seem to indicate that the long-term purposes for the three captives are markedly different from one another: it appears Jack's services as a doctor will be required again in the very near future, and an anonymous x-ray and a malignant tumor likely foreshadow exactly what his purpose may be.
As for life for the rest of the cast, there's still no word on how Eko (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is recovering from the trauma of last week's episode (he and Locke are entirely absent from the episode) nor any word on how Sayid, Sun (Yoon-jin Kim) and Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) are getting along since getting ship-jacked and stranded on the other-side of the island. Instead we see Desmond and his newly acquired "shinning" at work. The B-storyline here is a bit on the daffy side and caters to one of the show's greatest failings: its insistence on characters going through a contrived series of events in lieu of stating what's exactly on their mind. So, instead of Desmond telling Claire (Emilie de Ravin) that he has a bad feeling that lightning will hit her tent later in the day (admittedly a tough sell even to a girl who's been known to visit psychics) we watch him merrily go about building a giant weather vane right next to her shanty, with no one ever questioning why. Seems like an over-expenditure of energy to me, but as Charlie puts it "we need to find him another button to push."
Minor gripes aside, "Every Man for Himself" is quite the exhilarating episode, packing in enough thrills to make the 42-minutes fly by. Torture, two surgeries, abuse of small fuzzy animals, Sawyer getting pummeled, proclamations of love (if only to be rescinded almost immediately), a gratuitous Kate-gets-changed scene and, most importantly, Bill "Mutha-fuckin'" Duke as Sawyer's droopy-eyed warden. Furthermore it offers a hint towards one of the burning questions posed in last season's finale: why bring Sawyer along with Kate and Jack to "Others" island. It seems that Michael (Harold Perrineau) is not the only parent on the island who will lie, cheat and steal for their offspring. Sawyer, we learn, fathered a child with Dickens' Cassidy and, upon brokering his release for prison in exchange for finking on the stolen loot, the begrudging papa sets up a bank account with his share of the money (in a plot development, I must admit, I don't fully understand) for his infant daughter.
While Jack and Kate are arguably more sympathetic characters, they remain (at least thus far) unencumbered by familial demands. Sawyer on the other hand, much as he likes to play the lone wolf, has a child on the outside world and this could be used, as it has been with Michael, to manipulate him and turn him against his friends. Is this all part of "The Others'" master plan or am I simply grasping at straws to justify one of those baffling narrative shortcuts I mentioned earlier? Only time will tell.