Let us now sing the praises of Josh Holloway and Elizabeth Mitchell.
Lost’s cast has always been there to carry us through the show’s rough patches. Even when the writing was especially weak or making the characters go through bizarre contortions just to push the various players into the right places on the chessboard, the actors almost kinda made you buy it. Now that the show’s plotting has (mostly) caught up to the actors and the writers are giving them subtler stuff to play, people like Holloway and Mitchell are proving week after week that they’ll make the most of what you give them, so just give them better stuff, and you’ll have a better show. Holloway, in particular, who had a tendency to get lost in the shuffle last season, has what might be his best episode in the series’ history with this one, where he manages to play his character, Sawyer, as both a man who is forced into a leadership role in an almost de facto fashion and a man who is content with himself and his place in the world. This dude should be a movie star.
Sawyer is one of those characters that almost seemed an afterthought in the early episodes of season one, which tended to focus on Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) and Locke (Terry O’Quinn). The show was very different in those days, in that it was a show about a bunch of “types” common to genre fiction who were thrown together onto an island that was also a kind of synthesis of a bunch of famous genre fiction tropes. Really, that first season was about shaking out which actors made more out of their types than was on the page and which were just kind of along for the ride (so long, Boone!). Sawyer was one of the characters you might not have expected to take off, since he was a professional con man, a TV type that’s more than rusty. But Holloway had an easy charisma, and he managed to have significantly more chemistry with Lilly than Fox did, setting up a love triangle that surely wasn’t in the original description of the show but managed to be fitfully interesting for a little while until the Entire. Future. Of. The. Island. depended on Kate choosing one or the other in early season three.
Holloway also anchored a large portion of the second season, when the show grew absolutely obsessed with con games and other sorts of things that really didn’t have a lot of bearing on what might actually happen if your plane crashed on a freaktastic not-so-deserted island. This prompted plenty of sneering from critics that Lost, itself, was the REAL con game, but Holloway made a lot of overdone stuff work through genial swagger alone. Then, after Kate “chose” him in early season three and Ben killed a rabbit for his benefit or something, the character sort of faded into the background, outside of a few entertaining moments (like when he, again, was forced into the reluctant leader role midway through season three or when he jumped out of the helicopter at the end of season four).
I sort of think Holloway saved his job simply by being so compelling. He was the sort of supporting player in season one who could go either way (again, see Boone), and he managed to turn himself into something approaching a lead just because he was so darn enjoyable to watch. After the triangle resolved itself, though, he retreated into the background simply because the show wasn’t quite sure what to do with him anymore. He was too much a leader now to simply go back to playing a foil to Jack, but he also didn’t really have a credible idea of what the castaways should DO to counterpoint Jack’s fervor to get off the Island and Locke’s fervor to stay on. At least he wasn’t spending entire episodes hunting boar anymore (though, actually, that episode managed to be kind of fun).
Now, however, Sawyer’s all alone as an authority figure. He’s got Juliet (Mitchell) at his side, but with Faraday (Jeremy Davies) overwhelmed by grief, Locke spirited off to the mainland and Jack and the others having returned home long ago, Sawyer just sort of naturally steps into the leadership role. It’s an appealing thing to see, and it’s nice to not see the show belabor Sawyer doing this and just having the guy take charge. Had he tried this in season two, there would have been an entire episode devoted to some sort of leadership conflict that would resolve murkily (come to think of it, I think there WAS an episode just like that where he seized the guns or something?). Sawyer’s a man of action now, and if it takes three years and weaseling his way into the DHARMA Initiative for him to accomplish his initial goal (seeing the return of Locke with the Oceanic Six), then, by God, that’s exactly what he’ll do, and he’ll shack up with Juliet at the same time.
Lost, of course, makes a big deal out of names. Jack SHEPHARD, for example, or John Locke (which is just a BLATANT ripoff), or Charlotte Staples Lewis, or on and on. A lot of this is just silly spot-the-reference gaming, like you might see on, say, Family Guy, but Sawyer’s voyage has had as much to do with the idea that he takes on different names to suit different occasions as anything else. When he was just Sawyer, the agreeably Han Solo-esque rapscallion, he was a pretty basic riff on the con man with a heart of gold. Once his real name came out as James Ford, however, the show felt safe in giving him a few inches of vulnerability. And now he’s Jim LaFleur, and he’s essentially become a respected member of society. He’s got a stable relationship with a loving live-in girlfriend and a great job (head of security for DHARMA). He knows just what to do in every situation, and he’s handy at covering up the situations the higher-ups at DHARMA would rather not have be public knowledge. Lost has always had at its core the idea that people, in a place where they would get a blank slate to start over with, are always plagued by their old hang-ups. Sawyer used to be, but now, as Jim, he’s not. He’s even able to tell Horace Goodspeed (Doug Hutchison) that it IS possible to get over someone after three years and seeming to really mean it (though, knowing what we know about the imminent return of Kate, that scene was one long anvil to the head after another). (In fact, I just spent a fair amount of time trying to prove my thesis by finding a meaning for “LaFleur” beyond “flower” and coming up short. Maybe the writers of Lost are huge Guy LaFleur fans?)
While I thought “The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham” was one of the series’ better efforts, the last two episodes have both had a crippling failing in doling out lots of exposition in the clumsiest way possible (i.e., just handing giant speeches to people pretty good with exposition and hoping for the best). “LaFleur,” written by Elizabeth Sarnoff and Kyle Pennington and directed by Mark Goldman, however, handled exposition in the best way possible: It dropped the characters right in the middle of it. I get that everyone probably wants all of the answers to the mysteries of DHARMA, but if you just got Mrs. Hawking (Fionnula Flanagan, whose name I should really learn so I can stop Googling it) started, she’d go all night. Nah, Lost is just gonna dump us into the middle of the DHARMA story and let things play out, and, at least in “LaFleur,” that proves to be the right idea.
DHARMA (or, as I like to call it, the Television Character Actor Economic Recovery Plan) has always been one of the bigger mysteries on Lost (somewhere up there with questions on the Island itself, the smoke monster and the Others), and its abandoned facilities lent a nice haunted house quality to much of season two, which is easily the show’s SPOOKIEST season, if nothing else. There’s something about out-of-date technology and abandoned research facilities wasting away in the middle of a tropical paradise that gives the show that extra level of intrigue (think of those oddly unsettling training films, for instance), and DHARMA’s backstory is still murky enough that there’s plenty of room to do interesting dramatic things within it, which is something I’m not sure would be as possible in other chapters of Island history. The strange story of how DHARMA tried to study the Island and its ultimate goals still offers plenty of potential, and grounding most of the stories in the DHARMA compound we’re already familiar with lent it a nice touch of familiarity after a season that’s bounced all over the place. There are already some complaints from viewers that Sawyer, et al., don’t bug the DHARMA people for the answers they need, but a.) most of our questions have to do with things coming up in DHARMA’s future and b.) we spent most of tonight skipping THREE WHOLE YEARS in the timeline, when questions were probably asked and answered. Lost sometimes cheats and makes its characters unduly stupid to avoid the audience getting too much information, but I don’t think it did that in “LaFleur.”
This wouldn’t have worked without Holloway’s grounding performance or without Mitchell’s able support (and more on her in a minute). The truly awesome magazine piece “50 Reasons Why Return of the Jedi Sucks” (from some great SF zine that went out of business I can’t remember the name of) says that one of the problems with that film is that Han Solo wanders around the film much too happily (I believe the exact phrase was “Ward Cleaver on Quaaludes”), and I feared we might see that here. Indeed, there might have been a touch too much of Sawyer picking flowers for his lady love (and thereby proving why there’s so little television about happy people), but it also felt earned, to a degree. Sawyer and the others have gone through a lot of pain in the past while, so to see him having a moment of happiness at the successful delivery of Amy’s (Reiko Aylesworth, late and much-lamented of 24) child by Juliet, who had to overcome her professional jitters, was nice, even as we knew that two weeks ago (from our perspective), Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) had found a handful of the Oceanic Six, and Kate was returning to, presumably, wreak havoc with Sawyer’s newfound happy domesticity. (Seriously, dude’s drinkin’ wine, readin’ books, just hangin’ out with the girlfriend. He’s like a guy with a really boring slice-of-life blog.)
Mitchell made most of this work, too. Her excitement to get off the Island, even though it was 1974, was palpable, and she also managed to make her growing attraction to Sawyer believable. I figured pairing off Sawyer and Juliet was inevitable, but I didn’t think it would work as well as it did here. Their relationship has a maturity that Sawyer’s pairing with Kate (based as it is on adolescent crush-level dramatics) just DOESN’T have. This being TV, where adolescent crush-level dramatics hold sway, I expect this will turn into a wacky love quadrangle, but I also sort of hope Sawyer and Juliet just jilt Jack and Kate and say, “Thanks, but we’re much happier now.” Then again, as mentioned, TV about happy people is rarely compelling.
If you needed proof that the tightly focused “LaFleur” was a nicely done hour of TV (even without the time-bouncing contortions of this season’s other episodes), there was no better way to prove it than Sawyer and Juliet, sitting on the dock by the submarine that will take them back to civilization if they want and talking about whether or not to stay. The scene was the latest piece of evidence that the writers of Lost can do small, character-based writing well when they don’t have massive story points hanging over everything. It was just a little scene about two people confronting two different versions of their wildest dreams and trying to figure out which road to take. It wasn’t OMG! DRAMATIC, but it was wonderful all the same.
Some other thoughts:
• Davies just kills the rueful reading of the last mention of the time-travel-as-record-player metaphor with the idea that they’re stuck on the wrong song, and his pain later at seeing the young Charlotte made things even more poignant. I’m still not sure I buy that he’s THIS BROKEN UP about it, but Davies is doing his damnedest to make me buy it.
• So Jin learned English in the intervening three years, it would seem? And Juliet became a mechanic? Miles (Ken Leung) works under Sawyer, and we didn’t see Faraday’s DHARMA job (but it would seem we already have this answer from the season premiere). Missing anyone?
• The Internet (all hail its mighty name) already has a screen-cap of the back of the four-toed statue, and, also, courtesy Some Guy on the Internet, I bring you this photo of Egyptian goddess Taweret, who is naked in this photo, but, also, a dog, so it’s probably safe for work. She and the statue share a lot of characteristics, like their ears, the hat-thing and what they both (appear) to be holding. Not to mention that the episode prominently featured an Ankh already. Then again, Some Other Guy on the Internet suggests Anubis, so what did that first guy know anyway?
• Really liked that scene where those left behind anxiously discussed their fates around the small table in DHARMA village, particularly the way the image of young Charlotte disappearing off into the darkness with her mother was shot. That whole moment could have been unbearable, but it just wasn’t, thanks to some interesting directorial choices.
• Just, in general, I’m in favor of the way Sawyer was written in this episode, from snowing Horace with the Black Rock mention to keeping the peace with Richard (Nestor Carbonnell) by bringing up Jughead the bomb. (Also, that whole scene managed to really highlight just how impressed the Others would be with Locke, largely through the Island’s doing and not through anything Locke did particularly on his own.)
• That Television Character Actor Economic Recovery Plan thing was supposed to be a joke (which I apparently found amusing enough to make twice), but, seriously, I think I recognized even the smallest of bit players in DHARMA village. And Jimmy Barrett and Herc from Friday Night Lights were there too!
• Sorry for the lateness this week. My computer needs to be shot.