By Todd VanDerWerff
There's a deal we make, we Lost fans and appreciators. We agree to watch the show and find it generally enjoyable, and the show agrees to keep giving us our weekly fix of obscure symbolism, time travel weirdness and big plot twists. But there's a devil in the details (isn't there always in deals of this sort?): Once or twice per season, the show hands over to us a Kate (Evangeline Lilly) episode and leaves us grumbling. And with "The Little Prince" (as with last season's fourth episode, "Eggtown"), we got us our Kate episode for Season Five. Fortunately, "Prince," written by Melinda Hsu and Brian K.Vaughn and directed by Stephen Williams, was nowhere near as boring as "Eggtown," but it was still a step down from last week's terrific "Jughead."
I wrote quite a bit about Kate over at South Dakota Dark on the occasion of "Eggtown," and while I won't go into all of that again, I think the larger points are worth repeating. In short, Lost sometimes has trouble knowing what to do with its female characters, who have all had their moments of fascination but often are reduced to bargaining chips. A large part of this has to do with the series' emphasis on pregnancy (which is impossible on the Island for reasons we don't fully understand yet but seem to have something to do with the time travel stuff), but the show also tends to reduce too many of its female characters to very easy types, even more so than the male characters. This has always been one of the most problematic aspects of Lost, but it didn't HAVE to be that way. The idea of Kate (a fugitive with a dark past, suddenly given a new lease on life) is a potentially compelling one, and one can imagine how it would have played out with a different actress, but Lilly's weakness as an actress in Season One (remember: she was plucked from obscurity by creators J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof to play a character who was originally conceived as the series' undisputed lead, back when Jack was going to die in the pilot) led to the writers skewing away from that and writing towards Lilly's strengths—a natural charisma and her chemistry with Sawyer (Josh Holloway). This led to skewing away from the original conception of Kate as that femme fatale type, even as Lilly became a more capable actress in subsequent seasons. Lilly could probably handle more of the original Kate now, but because the show got so far away from that so quickly, it might come off as a distraction now. For better or worse, Kate's only role on the show for much of its run has been as one point in the Sawyer-Kate-Jack (Matthew Fox) love triangle, the single worst part of the show. Now she's also playing the mother to the absent Claire's son, Aaron, but this has yet to take on the emotional resonance it would need to redeem the character (though a few good steps were made in that direction tonight). Basically, Lilly and the writers got caught in a vicious circle with the character of Kate, chasing each other round and round until there was very little left. When Kate dithers over whether to choose Jack or Sawyer, it feels dropped in from another show because, to a real degree, it IS dropped in from another show—the show Lost was before the back half of its third season.
As in prior weeks, the off-Island action with the Oceanic Six was the least interesting part of the episode. While I'm impressed with how quickly they're moving this plot forward by Lost standards (five of the O6 are together with Ben (Michael Emerson) by the end of the episode, and it doesn't appear they're going to dither getting Hurley (Jorge Garcia) out of jail), there's still an element of a big stall to a lot of it. It sure looks like they'll have everyone headed back to the Island by episode six or seven (assuming next week is the episode where we see Sun (Yunjin Kim) and Ben have their standoff), but because we're relatively certain that the O6 are going to be headed back to the Island, there's just no drama in pulling the strings to get them headed on their way, outside of learning how they get there and whether Jack and Ben have to knock anyone out to get them on the boat or plane or whatever-it-may-be that takes everyone back there.
The episode also had a bit of a delaying feeling in the plotting revealing who was behind the efforts to prove that Aaron wasn't really Kate's son. Naturally enough, it was Ben all along (and the whole plotline may have been worth it just to see Tom Irwin get work and hear Emerson say, "He's my lawyer" and "No, it was me"), and it was good to see Ben being forthright for once about what he was doing and why he was doing it, but the labyrinthine plotting here, wherein it seemed as though Claire's mom was the one who was after Aaron, which the "previously on" had given away already, only to reveal that her presence in Los Angeles was a complete coincidence, felt for the first time this season like a deliberate stall thrown into the proceedings to keep the story from progressing TOO quickly. Again, this is a lot quicker than the Lost of season two might have dealt with this (there, the O6 coming together to return to the Island would have taken all season), but it's still a reminder that even at 17 episodes, Lost has to toss in some stall tactics to make the narrative stretch out over all of those episodes. On the other hand, it seemed likely that busting Hurley out of prison would take several episodes of sub-Prison Break level machinations; now it sure looks like Hurley's just going to get out on the fact that the case against him isn't very strong, so the writers can still surprise from that angle, at least.
All television series, of course, are going to have some element of false drama to them. TV shows inevitably revert to their status quo at the end of the day, so any time something huge is done to that status quo (like, say, a bunch of people leaving the Island), it's just a matter of time until we get back to the point we were at at the start of the series and in every episode thereafter. Messing with the status quo in a way that won't meaningfully change things is usually irritating, of course, but a series can get away with it if we learn vital things about the characters in the process of doing so, or if we find out that the characters have grown and changed somehow, or at least learned things that will make them more useful when the status quo comes roaring back. Think, for example, of Don Draper abandoning everyone back east on Mad Men at the end of that show's second season. Obviously the show isn't going to go on without its main star, but while he's on his California sojourn, we learn plenty about his past, about who he fundamentally is and about how the other characters function without him. Think, also, of the four episodes that opened the third season of Battlestar Galactica, where the characters were all trapped by a repressive Cylon regime and forced to fight for their freedom. In the process of that, the BSG gang found itself tested as it hadn't been before on the series, and truths about all of them as characters were revealed.
Lost actually did a pretty good job of exploring how getting off the Island would really mess everyone up in its fourth season, as we watched Sayid (Naveen Andrews) succumb to despair as he became a hired gun for Ben or Hurley as a way of trying to escape the guilt of leaving behind everyone on the Island. There, however, the show had the flash-forward structure to work with, which allowed the series to juxtapose on-Island stories featuring the O6 against off-Island stories featuring them to poignant or, at least, ironic effect. Here, because the storyline on the Island doesn't involve the O6 at all, the effect feels somewhat jarring, as we cut between the Island as it trips through time and everyone else in 2007 Los Angeles, though "The Little Prince" found a nifty way to work in a pseudo-flashback in at least one scene, when Sawyer, stuck in the past, happened upon Kate helping Claire (Emilie de Ravin) give birth to Aaron, the boy she would later risk so much to retain custody of. This, coupled with the episode opening scene of Kate devising the scheme to claim that Aaron was her son, almost managed to provide a bit of a sense of how Kate had grown as a person from that Season One femme fatale type, but, at the same time, it made you feel how little stock we have in the Kate and Aaron relationship. Obviously, Aaron's just a little kid, so he's not going to be up to playing deeply emotional scenes about the real identity of his mother, but we've also never gotten a real sense of WHY Kate decided to take on the onus of raising Aaron outside of the fact that she apparently just felt like she should be the one to do it and because it fit more easily into the lie the O6 told. This isn't a deeply fatal flaw or anything, particularly as making Kate a mother has given Lilly a few shades more to play in the character, but it also means that the plot device of threatening Kate with taking Aaron away is simply a plot device, instead of something that might reveal new facets to Kate. And, really, that's what much of this storyline of Jack and Ben getting the band back together again has the feel of: a series of plot devices that have yet to reveal anything about the characters going through them (outside of maybe Sun, whose "Hey, I'm evil now!" act has yet to be seriously explored).
Back ON the Island, though, things were cooking along, as the characters trapped there managed to revive Charlotte (Rebecca Mader) and then traipsed through the latter episodes of the first season, what appeared to be the near future and the arrival of the French expedition that included Danielle Rousseau (Mira Furlan for much of the series, now played as her younger self by Melissa Farman). The rules of time travel here are a little sketchy still (seriously, why did that canoe-ish thing travel with the Islanders when it wasn't with them to begin with), and the bright, flash-y sky is starting to feel a bit like the end of every episode of Quantum Leap, but the on-Island stuff was as tightly-paced and invigorating as it has been all season (Holloway even managed to give Kate an air of gravitas despite being nowhere near her, with a nice speech about how he only lost her again after he stood in the shadows, watching Season One Kate). The on-Island scenes are playing with the sorts of character payoffs and beats that the show mostly lavished on the O6 last season, with Sawyer's moment mentioned above and Locke (Terry O'Quinn) looking over to see the light from the Hatch illuminating the night sky, remembering himself looking for any sign of hope he could find, and then realizing how far he had come being two particular highlights. O'Quinn doesn't get a lot to do this episode, but the way he plays the bit about the pain of his lowest points in Season One contributing to who he is today was a nicely understated moment.
Even if the on-Island stuff isn't providing a very good juxtaposition for Kate's story (as the on-Island story last week provided a good counterpoint to Desmond's off-Island story), it's still giving the show somewhere to cut to that's more interesting than just following two different Kate storylines, so the Island story manages to keep the episode from falling into the sorts of pitfalls "Eggtown" did. And, stuffed to the gills with revelations as it is, it's keeping the jaunt through the Island's history compelling viewing for the time being. Obviously, fans had speculated that Miles (Ken Leung) had also been born on the Island, but this episode all-but-confirmed that, whereas the Lost of a few seasons ago would have dragged this out for at least a half season. The device of the time travel sickness also provides a nice, ticking clock to hang over the proceedings, as Faraday (Jeremy Davies) tries to figure out a way to save a contingent where Charlotte, Miles AND Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) are now stricken. And, finally, there was the return of the long lost and much missed Jin (Daniel Dae Kim), who turned up alive (surprisingly) and floating in the ocean on a door, then was taken in by Rousseau's crew. These moments (particularly the gun battle at sea—in friggin' canoes!) was all really well-shot and constructed, to the point where cutting away to the latest twists in the Kate story just felt ever-more unnecessary. It's nice that Lost has ditched the largely unnecessary flashbacks at this point in the show's run, but the producers would do well to keep things off-Island as interesting as they are on-Island and not just go through the motions.
Some other thoughts:
- YEAH! WE'RE KEEPIN' IT REAL HERE IN LONG BEACH! THE OCEANIC SIX ARE GATHERING JUST A FEW BLOCKS AWAY FROM ME RIGHT NOW! THE LBC FOREVER! (Seriously, though, Long Beach always looks like a wasteland in TV shows and movies. 500,000 people live here, Ben! You couldn't gather everyone up in Ventura or something? THERE'S a wasteland.)
- After Daniel and Charlotte had that conversation where she admonished him about not "babying" her, I had the sinking realization that the smug commenters wandering the Internet talking about how they've correctly predicted that Charlotte will prove to be Daniel's daughter through time travel film-flammery are probably going to be, sigh, right.
- I mean, there's no way the other canoe isn't full of the Oceanic Six, newly returned to the Island and ready for some gunplay, right?
- I find Jin surviving an exploding boat AND apparently being thrown far enough from the blast radius to get sucked along in the Island's time travels remarkably implausible, but I think it was all worth it just to have him turn up floating around on that door. I presume a million fans are going carefully through Rousseau's every prior appearance on the series to see if she and Jin shared any significant screen time, so I'm not going to do so.
- I'm sure it's a nightmare to go and film in the Pacific Ocean on a TV budget (even a TV budget as large as the one for Lost), but that canoe sequence was absolutely gorgeous.
- The producers are, in general, making much better use of the actors' weeks off this season than they have in the past. On a show as expansive and expensive as Lost, not every actor will appear in every episode to conserve funds, but the show is doing a better job of managing who's gone in any given week than they did in, say, Season Two (where Sayid just disappeared for a good, long while).
- Again with 24: Is the main terrorist's plan to just hold the First Gentleman hostage INDEFINITELY? I mean ... that's ... not much of a plan.
- We're trying something new out with the TV episode reviews from now on. When the episode begins, the post will go live, for those of you who want to respond in real-time to what's happening in the episode. The review will be in that space 10-12 hours later (well, maybe more, since the post will appear with the East Coast broadcast, and I'm on the West Coast). Feel free to go nuts without me for those 10-12 hours!
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.