Coming off of what’s widely regarded as one of the worst episodes of its two and a half-year-run there seems to be more Lost doubters than usual these days. Whether it’s the show’s marketing department willfully misleading viewers (a situation Alan Sepinwall addressed in a recent column), the “Others-centric” plotting ignoring the show’s more popular regulars or simply the over-reliance on Jack (Matthew Fox) as a dramatic crux, the natives have been especially restless lately with even the apologists getting their licks in. Making matters worse, cross-network rival Heroes has, at least temporarily, usurped Lost as the must-see, pop-culture-savvy, serialized drama of the moment. All of a sudden, the show that almost single-handedly rejuvenated network TV can do no right.
Lost, which is still as capable as any of blowing our minds with out-of-left field development, has become unrelentingly dour this season that even a throwaway bit about Jack getting a tattoo in Thailand is treated with the seriousness of a cancer diagnosis. The longer these characters spend on the island the more impossible it becomes to empathize with them. We may eventually learn the truth behind the island and the DHARMA Initiative, but at the rate the show’s going we’ll have long stopped caring about these miserable people before we ever get there.
Perhaps it’s that realization that made last night’s episode, “Tricia Tanaka is Dead” such an unexpected pleasure then. From a plotting standpoint, the episode is almost a complete toss-off: Jack’s whereabouts remain unknown as Fox and “the Others” gets the week off. Kate (Evangeline Lilly) and Sawyer (Josh Holloway) have returned to camp but neither are talking to one another, the former still steamed at the latter for not only abandoning Jack but for not apologizing for it. And, in usually the surest sign that the show is in no hurry to further the island’s mythology, the center of the episode belongs to island clown Hurley (Jorge Garcia, who’s developed into the show’s unheralded MVP over the years).
Yet the episode was disarming in a way it hasn’t been since Season One, back before these people became jaded by “Others” and consumed with tedious busy work while the show’s producers figured out what frequently disappointing direction to push them in next. Like the divisive subplot where he once built a golf course to keep the castaways amused, “Tricia Tanaka is Dead” is a breezy affair about what happens when Hurley has too much free time on his hands and begins looking for a taste of home. And just as the golf course seemed to inspire as much scorn as it did amusement, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if others failed to find as much charm in Hurley’s “magic bus” as I did.
Continuing the theme of shitheel fathers and the children they abandoned (both emotionally and literally), we open on a flashback of a very young, and quixotically thin Hurley bonding with his dad (Cheech Marin) over an out of commission Camaro sitting in the driveway. Dad barely has time to pass along a trite message about “making your own luck” before he’s taking off on the back of a motorcycle (and in a final insult, he gives young Hurley the candy bar that will set him off on the road to obesity).
We return to rotund Hurley in the present as he delivers a monologue to an unseen listener, expressing his fear and sadness in a moment of uncommon candidness. It comes as no real surprise that he’s voicing these reservations to the tombstone of Lilly, the woman he would have loved if given half a chance, yet it was a bittersweet reminder that of all the castaways, Hurley has always been the most sensitive. The specter of death hangs over the show, but we rarely see the characters reflect on those who have gone before them (Shannon and Boone feel like distant memories, don’t they?). Yet, like Charlie Utter and Calamity Jane making a pilgrimage to Wild Bill’s grave on Deadwood, Hurley unburdens himself of his innermost fears to the person whom he trusted the most, not letting her demise get in the way of things.
The show’s producers have historically relied on Terry O’Quinn’s Locke and Fox to push along the show’s heavier storylines, but this episode was a reminder that Garcia’s not only a wonderful (and much needed) comedic outlet for the show but a fine actor who specializes in intimate dramas of anxiety and self-realization. It’s been so long since we had an episode that wasn’t dedicated to Jack saving somebody, I’d forgotten how much I missed watching Hurley who, above all else, seems to have a better sense of who he is than anyone else on the island (something that’s all the more ironic when you consider the character is a schizophrenic).
After Vincent the dog literally drops a set of mysterious keys (still grasped in the cold, dead hand of a severed arm) in front of him, Hurley discovers a dilapidated and overturned minivan in the middle of the jungle. Consumed with getting the vehicle running but finding only the English-deficient Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) willing to help, Hurley views the task of renovating the van as a mission of hope that the entire island can get behind. While I question the altruistic intentions behind the auto-repair (like most motivators on Lost, it can be tied into maudlin back-story), refurbishing an old car while drinking skunk beer has, like the golf course, a transportive effect for the men featured in the episode. For a few hours, these people aren’t pawns in a sprawling and poorly delineated chess game, but a bunch of guys giving each other shit and behaving recklessly as though it were just another lazy Saturday afternoon. And it’s in that we catches glimpses of the humor and humanity that I’d thought had drained from the show ages ago.
Of course, how humane one finds the episode is up for some serious interpretation. In between somber graveside speeches and camaraderie over a six-pack and a busted carburetor is some of the darkest gallows humor you’re likely to find on network television. In addition to the decaying body found inside the van—which leaves a trail of body parts behind as it’s tossed around like a bag of leaves—we also witness the first death by asteroid (or meteorite) I’ve seen since Armageddon. The rock obliterates a fast food restaurant, a former place of employment now purchased with Hurley’s lottery winnings. Killed in the death from above: Hurley’s former boss and disgruntled reporter Tricia Tanaka (hence, the episode’s title). It’s a Willy E. Coyote bit of cartoon violence that’s made all the more tolerable by Tricia’s bitchiness prior to the big splat; any hiccups over the deaths of two “innocent” characters is quickly superseded by the show’s go for broke audacity. It’s been so long since Lost even addressed the “curse” hanging over Hurley’s head as a result of using the infamous numbers to win the lotto (frankly, I’d forgotten all about it); the show really needed to address the somewhat under-nourished subplot in a big way. I guess mission accomplished.
Hurley’s misfortune isn’t limited strictly to astral bodies though. After walking out on him and his mother (Lillian Hurst) seventeen years earlier, his dad returns just in time to mooch off of his new-found wealth. While Mrs. Reyes is all too happy to welcome her estranged husband back into her life (in a moment that everyone with parents can relate too and cringe over, she confides that she has “needs” that could use some attention) Hurley remains standoffish, despite the efforts of dear old dad to win him over. After learning that his dad bribed a psychic into trying to “cure” him of the curse, Hurley takes off for the fateful trip to Australia to uncover the truth behind the numbers despite his father’s pleading to stay.
Because none of the characters on Lost seem to share information with one another, I can only wonder whether Hurley knows that Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) believes he is the one who caused Oceanic 815 to crash, and whether they’ve discussed who’s really to blame for their predicament. I do know that now that Charlie’s (Dominic Monaghan) walking around with a dark cloud and maybe an impending death hanging over his head, Hurley’s found someone to commiserate with and, maybe, someone who can help him prove once and for all that there’s no such thing as curses. Hurley convinces Charlie to join him on what may very well be a suicide mission, hurtling down a hillside in a car without breaks or steering, relying on a hope and a prayer to see them through. Charlie may live to see another day, but I wouldn’t place too much faith in Hurley’s experiment. Desmond has a lot better track record when it comes to these things.
After all the plot-heavy business with “Alcatraz Island” this season and the unpleasant taste leftover from last week’s episode, “Tricia Tanaka is Dead” serves as a palate cleanser, reminding us that this show is meant to be, above all else, fun. If that means setting aside Ben Linus (Michael Emerson) and company, shadow conspiracies and various hatches for a week, then so be it. The four characters featured most prominently this week all come off better as a result of this plot-lite excursion, most specifically, Sawyer, who was in serious need of character rehabilitation after spending the last nine weeks interacting only with Kate. Part of Sawyer’s charm has always been the way he shows a different (albeit equally detached) side of himself to each person he encounters. But being forced into the Han Solo (heavy emphasis on the love/hate romance with Leia) role for almost three months had rendered the character one-note, getting to the point where he’d been reduced to being a sweaty, one-liner delivery system, each joke clanging more loudly than the last.
But away from Kate at last, we begin to see Sawyer letting his guard down, registering regret at his own stubbornness and in one amusing instance, using an impromptu English lesson with Jin as opportunity to rehearse an apology (this bit probably would have been offensively condescending if it wasn’t for the fact that Sawyer is offensively condescending with everyone on the island, cultural differences be damned). With a few beers in him and no one worth impressing around, Sawyer regained some of his roguish charm (hell, even his jokes seemed to improve) as he achieved something resembling a drunken hillbilly solidarity with his multi-national castaways. For the time being, all the show needed to regain its footing was to let the boys be boys.