By Todd VanDerWerff
Sayid Jarrah (Naveen Andrews) has always been one of Lost's most under-served characters. If you go back and look at the Pilot, the revelation that he's an Iraqi is played for friggin' COMIC EFFECT, for God's sake. Andrews' performance is so solid (to the point where he's one of the few Lost cast members to score an Emmy nomination, somewhat inexplicably) and his presence is so great that he's been kept alive long after other characters the show had no idea how to service would have been killed off. Every season, the series tosses in an episode that pretty much boils down to, "Hey, Sayid used to torture. Isn't that MORALLY AMBIGUOUS?!" and calls it a day. Without Andrews, most of these episodes would be complete yawns (only "Solitary" and "The Economist" are really worthy of his talents), but the actor has managed to save most of these by just gritting his teeth and pushing through the pain. Like, pretty much all I can remember about Season Three's "Enter 77" is that the Sayid flashback was ridiculous (I think it involved a mystical cat?), but Andrews was SO GOOD that I liked it more than I probably should have.
"He's Our You," written by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz and directed by Greg Yaitanes, is Season Five's Sayid episode. It's also the first episode of the season to feature character-specific flashbacks, a la how the show told stories for its first four seasons (though at least in this case, the flashback scenes were flashbacks from a character point-of-view but actually took place 30 years in the future from the A-plot ... ahh, Lost), so it has a fairly heavy burden to bear, considering just how much ditching the character-specific flashbacks juiced a number of episodes from the season's first half. The episode also has to follow the largely enjoyable, heavily Sawyer (Josh Holloway)-centric midseason duo of "La Fleur" and "Namaste," two of the most consistently entertaining episodes Lost has ever produced. Yet, even with all of these strikes against it, "He's Our You" is a pretty good episode, even if it's a step down from the previous two. Credit for that may go to Andrews (in a few years, I may look back on this one and wonder what the hell I was thinking), but I think the episode does about as good a job of establishing the old, oft-loathed template as it could have, and it closes on a terrific cliffhanger that the entire season has been building to.
One of the more enervating things about Lost is the way that it will occasionally mistake name checking, say, a famous philosopher for depth. There was even a pretty good joke about this earlier in the episode, when Widmore (Alan Dale) told Locke (Terry O'Quinn, still absent from this episode) that his parents obviously had a sense of humor to name him John Locke. Lost is interested in philosophy, religion, history, etc., but largely in the sense of a 101 student of any of those subjects. Now, obviously, I'd rather watch an entertaining show than watch Jack (Matthew Fox) and Sawyer debate Hegel over scones, but Lost will occasionally engage these sorts of questions and then act as if merely raising them is as good as actually trying to illustrate them via the narrative or using the narrative to poke and prod at the various limitations of these theories. Lost, instead, will often just stroke its beard, look over at you and say, "Have you ever considered that there are men of science and men of faith?" Then it will nod knowingly, not even noticing if you are completely blown away by this notion or wondering if it's going to go on with that point, at which point, it will turn around and say something like, "I was recently reading the book of Nehemiah, and I thought I'd just throw that out there." This sort of thing reached its nadir in the second season, when every other episode was as full of name checks of famous historical thinkers as a pot smoke-filled freshman dorm room.
This is all a way of saying that Lost actually has been engaging with notions of free will vs. determinism in a pretty successful way this season, and pretty much no one is giving them credit for doing so (possibly because we're all so used to writing off the show's philosophical ramblings). At the heart of any time travel story is one kernel of an idea: Can you change the future? Obviously, we'd all like to go back and give our younger selves SOME piece of advice, but in science fiction, this sort of thing usually goes horribly awry, "The Sound of Thunder"-style. Lost has built its theory of time travel very rigidly from a deterministic point-of-view. In Lost, you can't change the past because it's already happened. If you alter the past in any way, you're not really altering it because you've always been there, 12 Monkeys-style (I think Alan Sepinwall first suggested Terry Gilliam's film as the ideal time travel companion to this season of Lost, and it mostly works). There is only one time stream, and no matter where you are in it, you always do the same thing, unless you're Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick).
Sayid's storyline in "He's Our You" also has a deterministic bent. Sayid is a killer, we're reliably informed by Ben (Michael Emerson), who is trying to draw the guy back into his web after Sayid left Ben's employ to go build housing for poor people (of all the Lost characters, Sayid is very obviously the most hardcore about doing penance). We even get to see Sayid killing chickens as a young boy, just to drive the point home that much more. Sayid's a guy who always needs a purpose, which makes it that much more curious that he's never seemed to go in for all of the "The Island NEEDS US TO DO THIS!" sort of talk that Jack and Locke will occasionally engage in. Sayid often has his own personal purposes, but it's distinctly unlikely that he'll be trying to do things for the Island in any given moment, which makes his statement that he's realizing his purpose on the Island that much more curious. And then he escapes with the help of a flaming van apparently sent by lil' Ben (Sterling Beaumon), heads into the jungle with the kid, knocks out Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) and shoots lil' Ben in the chest. Lil' Ben sinks to the ground, apparently dying, and we either have a major chapter of the Ben backstory filled in or we have one heck of a time paradox, of the sort we were informed was impossible in the Lost cosmos. The very fact that Lost harped on the latter point so much makes me think that, yes, indeed, we're going to see some paradoxing very soon, since Lost, if nothing else, plays against expectations fairly well. By living up to what he resignedly believes to be his predestined purpose, Sayid just might have struck the biggest blow for free will in the show's history.
So far, we've been led to believe that only Desmond can change the future, because of his unstuck-in-time nature (or something), but I'm kind of hoping that it turns out Sayid DID manage to kill young Ben, just because I like the idea that you can change the past when you think you're supposed to and when you've got the gumption to do so. Sayid hasn't been filled with Faraday's (Jeremy Davies, and where is he, exactly?) theories about how it's impossible to change anything, so you shouldn't even try, so he just goes ahead and does what he wants. The power of positive thinking, I guess. It's an interesting tack for the show to take, and while I'm generally not in favor of time paradoxes, which were among the many, many things that sank Heroes in the last few years, I do think there's room to play with this story and find new angles to tell that sort of a story in. It also provided a contrast between Sawyer and Sayid. Sawyer, having found happiness for the first time in his life, really, just wants to let the DHARMA ride go on as long as he possibly can (even if his lover, Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell), seems to know that the return of Jack and Kate (Evangeline Lilly) means that can never really happen). He knows that death is coming at SOME point, but he's also blithely unconcerned with the purge at the moment. Sayid knows the same information and decides to do something about it.
The episode also marked the return of another of the show's more overly deterministic elements: the flashbacks. In the show's first season, the flashbacks were often pretty interesting, simply because they filled in the plot background of just how all of the Oceanic passengers came to be on board the fateful plane. The second season flashbacks were more problematic, centered, as they were, on questions of how the castaways came to be the people they were. While these flashbacks were often well-acted and usually well-written as tiny character vignettes, they were suddenly structurally unnecessary (the Hatch gave the show somewhere non-Island to cut to at any given moment), and tying these tiny stories to the goings-on on the Island often gave them a much, much greater sense of import than they really deserved. It was taking a minor moment in someone's life that might have contributed in a small way to that person becoming who they were and putting it all in caps. "WHEN SHANNON (Maggie Grace) WAS GROWING UP, NO ONE REALLY PAID ATTENTION TO HER, AND THAT WAS WHY SHE WAS SO NEEDY," the show would declaim, and I think it was that disconnect—between the tones of the flashbacks and the Island scenes—that led to the gradual sense that the flashbacks were completely unnecessary. As the third and fourth season flashbacks went on, the show increasingly abandoned the tiny vignette flashbacks and embraced plot-heavy flashbacks, and it is the plot-heavy flashback that "He's Our You" indulges in, more than others. Sure, there was that scene of Young Sayid killing the chicken, but that was presented more as a prologue to his actions in the episode than an attempt to explain why he was the way he was. The flashbacks here mostly fill in back story that's sort of useful to know, answering, for example, how Sayid came to be in the custody of Ilana (Zuleikha Robinson) when getting on the plane or where the rift between Sayid and Ben opened up. The flashbacks didn't convince me that we need a return to the concept permanently or anything, but I also didn't find them horribly obtrusive.
Mostly, though, "He's Our You" was a chance to just revel in the fine work Andrews does week after week, even when it seems like the show has forgotten he exists. That Sayid is the one man in 1977 who has no one to turn to seems both somehow apropos and a nice meta-commentary on the show's propensity for not using the character very well. Sawyer may try to save Sayid, and so may Jin, but he realizes that the only way he's going to accomplish much of anything is by forging his own path, by striking out into the jungles of the Island and its complicated history. There's a scene midway through the episode where the DHARMA gang takes Sayid before an interrogator named Oldham (William Sanderson), who mostly gets Sayid to tell the complete truth (he comes from the future, etc.) but disbelieves it because, well, it sounds crazy. This is a scene you've seen in every "visitor from the future" movie and short story known to man. ("Hitler must be stopped!" etc.) Here, it verges on cliché, but it works because Andrews is always playing every side of the scenario. In his hands, Sayid seems both a grave prophet of doom and a crazy man on the edge of falling completely into his own insanity. It's a great little scene in the hands of Sanderson and Andrews, and it reminds us of the idea that things become cliché for a reason: In the right hands, these old story elements can sing again.
Some other thoughts:
- I don't think Lost's cast has ever been as scattered as it is right now. We've got a bunch of players in the '70s, a bunch in 2007, Faraday off somewhere, Sayid wandering the jungle, Lapidus and Sun on the big Island, Desmond God knows where, etc., etc., etc. And yet, it never feels as boring as it did when the show would split everyone up in, say, Season Three because these separations don't feel as forced and the characters are mostly behaving in character throughout the separations.
- Hurley (Jorge Garcia) just being kind of a casual jerk about how Sawyer and Juliet are shackin' up in front of Kate was not my favorite moment. It would be one thing if he had just said they were living together, but he had to add, "You know, together like you used to be" or whatever that line was. It struck me as an artificial attempt to goose the love quadrangle, not an in-character line.
- Big ups to Yaitanes for the flaming-van-as-deathmobile sequence, which was terrifically shot and used the van as a light source in a smart way. Also, I enjoy when things explode.
- While I'm relatively unspoiled, I have read the press release style summaries for the next handful of episodes, and if those episodes are even half as good as the episodes in my head, we are in for quite a ride.
- I forgot to point out that last week's episode featured clips from The Muppet Show. DHARMA at least has good taste in late '70s syndicated TV.
- Like Twitter? Like me? Well, I'm on Twitter now. Believe me, I'm not proud of this.
- Have we seen enough younger versions of the characters to officially have a Saturday morning show focusing on the Lil' Losties?
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.