And I thought they got rid of that damn hatch. Five months after its dazzling second season finale last May, Lost returned last night with the show very much back to its old tricks. Nothing on broadcast television is as ambitious or as frustrating as Lost. Even the best episodes unfold along a sliding scale of mediocrity-to-brilliance, and from minute to minute, you never know where a scene will land.
So as was the case with “A Tale of Two Cities,” a title that, coupled with the book Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) favored last season, would indicate there are some Dickens fans on the show’s writing staff. The episode follows a familiar pattern of giving the audience a migraine-inducing amount of information in a very short period of time while giving us nothing completely concrete to comfort ourselves with. It’s the sort of show that gives the viewer two choices: stretch before you watch it, or get cramps trying to catch up.
Returning to the show after spending a year fending off Tom Cruise with a bullwhip and a chair, co-creator J.J. Abrams resumes his writing duties along with executive producer Damon Lindelof, starting the season off with a wonderful bit of sleight of hand. We’re introduced to Petula Clark-loving, muffin-baking Juliet (fetching new cast member Elizabeth Mitchell) who’s hosting a regular book club. The drama of the moment is a heated exchange over the week’s choice in literature, as one of the circle’s snobbier members derides the poor quality of Juliet’s selection (network TV’s most pop culture-savvy drama shows us that the book is by Stephen King, who’s not only on record as a fan of the show, but has also been known to sprinkle references to his favorite music, film and television programs into his elephantine novels) and points out that one of group’s absentee members would never permit such an infraction.
This domestic tableau is shattered as the world shakes around our contentious gathering, forcing everyone outside with eyes skyward. It’s only now, as the man known as Henry Gale (Michael Emerson) emerges from a neatly-kept house nearby, dressed in khakis and a buttoned-down shirt, that we realize we’re still on the island, albeit a part of it we’ve never laid eyes on before. Finally illustrating the horrific moment that served as the impetus for the show, we watch Oceanic flight 815 as it splits in half mid-air, forcing an eerily calm Gale (whose real name we learn is Ben) to direct familiar faces Ethan (William Mapother) and Goodwin (Brett Cullen) to infiltrate the ranks of survivors. We then pull way out to reveal an idyllic community of homes built amongst the wilds of the jungle, like a desert oasis or a moon-base, far removed from the smoking wreckage at the far ends of the island.
If the lasting question posed by season two was “Who are you people?”, then Lost seems willing to up the ante in showing us that the so-called “Others” seemed to have been living quite comfortably before that fateful day Desmond chose not to push the buttons. These people could not have possibly anticipated an airplane crash, and yet their level of readiness and focus would seem to indicate otherwise. And why did Ethan and Goodwin forgo aliases and disguises when it was standard practice for Ben and Tom (MC Gainey)?
Alas, in posing tantalizing possibilities and in sheer inventiveness, not much else in the episode matches the opening; instead, “A Tale of Two Cities” regresses into disconcertingly familiar scenarios.
Season Two of Lost was widely recognized as a step in the wrong direction, forcing its cast to act out thumb-twiddling social control experiments that centered on punching 6 numbers into an antiquated computer every 108 minutes. Not merely dramatically limiting, it encouraged the show to crawl deeper inside its own mythology rather than expanding outward. Just as the characters were made prisoners of the ever-ticking clock and the mystery that accompanied it, Lost stuck in the corner it had written itself into. When Locke (Terry O’Quinn) and Desmond blew the hatch sky high last season, the accompanying catharsis was like a blast of warm air. Finally, these people could stop jumping through silly hoops and start getting to the bottom of things.
Well, not quite yet. As in last season, our huge cast is scattered to the wind, with those receiving the most immediate attention being Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly) and Sawyer (Josh Holloway) whom last we saw were betrayed by Michael (Harold Perrineau) and taken away blind-folded to the hidden lair of “the Others.” The fate of Locke, Desmond, Eko (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and the rest of the gang will have to wait for next week. As for our three abducted castaways they’re still getting used to their new surroundings which feel equal parts B.F. Skinner and The Prisoner. Using the flashbacks as a barometer, this is a Jack episode, which once again reminds us that the character’s passive, Alpha-male routine is more interesting in the wilderness than it is back in the real world.
After waking up in a dank cell that looks like a leftover location from one of the Saw films, Jack screams, stomps, and throws himself about the room until Juliet (she of the opening book club) emerges behind a thick piece of glass in an observation room next door. In a show where earnestness often walks hand-in-hand with treachery, Juliet’s especially hard to read; she tries to bring Jack back from the brink of insanity with kind words and a grilled cheese sandwich “fresh from the frying pan.” Like the rest of the Others, Juliet possesses a spooky-level of intel on the castaways which would seem to extend into present day activities, but there’s a forthrightness to her that would be reassuring if the show hadn’t taught us to be perpetually on guard. After a violent escape attempt leads to her and Jack to near-drowning, Juliet authoritatively punches out Jack (which probably speaks more to Abrams’ love of action girrrrrls and less to the fortitude of Jack’s jaw), returns him to confinement and calmly informs him they’re in an underwater chamber codenamed “the Hydra.” She possesses a thick folder of information on Jack as well as his ex-wife Sarah (Julie Bowen).
Jack spends much of the episode reflecting on the dying days of his marriage, with him in full-tilt paranoia and jealousy mode—apropos of nothing we’ve seen in his character in the past, by the way—stalking his soon to be divorced missus and going so far as accusing his alcoholic father (John Terry) of sleeping with her. I’ve always felt this show’s flashbacks were largely pointless and used to pad the show out with Emmy-bait backstory, and “A Tale of Two Cities” does nothing to disprove that suspicion. Jack’s obsessive personality has been covered at length in previous episodes; conjuring up a Schrader-esque mini-narrative to hammer home his isolation and unease in his new situation is working overtime the name of garden variety psychoanalysis.
But isolation would seem to be the word of the day as Jack never comes into contact with either Sawyer or Kate during the episode; they themselves are acting out their own bizarre experiments in control. Sawyer’s been confined to an open air cage (a polar bear cage?) with a complicated feeding apparatus that keeps him busy in between making wise cracks towards a detainee (Blake Bashoff) across the way. This younger man, Karl, can break out of his cage at will, and involves Sawyer in a run-and-gun escape that doesn’t end well for either of them. After both are re-captured, a bloodied and beaten Karl is forced to apologize to Sawyer for getting him caught up in his crazy plan before being dragged away to a fate left to our imagination. The Others seem barely chagrined by Karl (facial lacerations notwithstanding), leading me to believe he may not be quite the captive he appears.
Karl’s newly vacated cage will ultimately go to Kate, who’s granted a warm shower, a clean sundress, and a tasty breakfast on the beach with Ben. After inquiring why she deserves such amenities, Ben coldly informs her it’s something to hold onto because “the next two weeks are going to be very unpleasant,” reminding us that Emerson can do coiled menace better than anyone else on television. With his glassy eyes, bird lips and demeanor like still waters, Emerson’s Ben has always given off a serial killer vibe, even when imprisoned under the Henry Gale moniker last season. There’s a touch of Hannibal Lecter in the way Ben dissects Kate’s seemingly agenda-free questions, rooting around for answers to the query that’s served as message board fodder across the web for years now: Jack or Sawyer? The Emmy-winning actor (who tellingly won for playing a multiple-murderer on The Practice) got the show through a many a dull patch last season, so I’m glad he’s been delegated to the role of show regular for Season Three; things will never become predictable as long as he’s around. To that end, one can’t help but wonder if a scene where he barricades Juliet in a room quickly filling with rising water is motivated by cowardice, survival or the fact that they may have been former lovers and the split was acrimonious.
The episode is especially disappointing not just for its regression into mind games and interrogations, but for the lack of dynamic inherent in its design. Kate, Jack and Sawyer are each given a different piece of the puzzle, but we never get the opportunity to see them compare notes. These characters in and of themselves aren’t especially interesting, and are never far removed from the various comic books and storytelling archetypes that inspired them. It’s only the island microcosm—the proximity that forces all these personalities to bump up against one another—that brings these ciphers to life. I can only hope that future experiments the Others have in store for our star-wattage trio will require them to share a cage for a spell.
I’m also continuously amazed that a show this densely archival, so brimming with visual clues just inside the frame and unelaborated-upon literary and philosophical allusions, insists on underlining the simplest plot and character shadings. I’ve already touched on Jack’s flashbacks, but what about the episode-ending stinger where we learn Henry Gale’s real name, which had been obvious since the pre-credits sequence? How a show this smart can continue to lob softballs at the same audience it presumes to challenge every week and not get smashed in the face is a mystery. In the end, neither the casual nor the devout viewer are completely satisfied. Sounds more like a tale of two target demos to me.