Call it television Stockholm Syndrome: After two and a half years watching Lost, much of which has been spent scrutinizing every twist in detail, I’ve finally begun to sympathize with the show’s writers and producers. The show is tasked with balancing the needs of an insanely ambitious, elaborately plotted storyline with a dozen lead characters against an increasingly skeptical fanbase that feels more confident each week in professing that the emperor’s naked.
Recently, TV Guide’s Michael Ausiello reported that a letter from executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse that accompanied screeners of this week’s episode read, “For those of you who want beach stories, you’ll be disappointed. Until next week. For those of you who want answers, you’ll be happy. Until next week.”
I get what they mean. Last night’s episode “Enter 77” (which was written by Lindelof and Cuse) was one of the show’s patented, densely-plotted hours where ultimately very little is revealed, though the flurry of information thrown at the viewer could easily be mistaken for something substantive. These episodes usually pop up in the middle of lulls in the season, often as a corrective to fan bickering that not much has been happening. And while these episodes are no doubt essential in retro-actively piecing together the big picture, actually watching the show has the unmistakable feel of over-compensation. But I suppose, this is what people have been clamoring for; a great many Lost fans weren’t as charmed by Hurley’s adventures with the Little Miss Sunshine bus as I was. Furthermore, despite spending most of the season with “The Others,” we still don’t have any real sense of how they fit into the greater scheme of the island or what the DHARMA initiative is all about. We’re due some concrete answers already. Of course, this being Lost, the “concrete answers” we do get will likely contradict previous answers and lead to more questions. Some shows are aided by post-viewing discussions and clarifications; this one requires a flow-chart.
Much of the action this week (and there was a fair amount of it) takes place at a newly-discovered DHARMA station, this one an above-ground communications outpost nicknamed the Flame. Steward of the Flame is the patch-wearing Mikhail Bakunin (Andrew Divoff) last seen briefly glimpsed on a closed-circuit video feed in one of the earlier hatches. The Flame is more or less stumbled upon by the rescue party of Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Sayid (Naveen Andrews), Locke (Terry O’Quinn) and Rousseau (Mira Furlan) after Sayid follows a cow while traipsing through the jungle. With a large satellite dish perched upon its roof, the Flame would seem to represent a rare conduit in contacting the outside world, making it a valuable piece of real estate indeed.
Sayid approaches the Flame with his hands in the air, but the trigger-happy Bakunin still shoots him in the arm, then screams from his window that he has not broken the terms of his truce and that this is his land. Even with a bullet lodged in him, Sayid is admirably composed (that’s the Republican Guard for you), quickly getting Bakunin up to speed on the basics of Oceanic 815 and luring him outside, where he’s promptly shot at by Kate and disarmed at gunpoint by Locke (Rousseau, wanting nothing to do with the Flame and its inhabitants, takes a powder for most of the episode).
Inside the Flame we find all the accouterments of fine island living: iced-tea, large chunks of meat in the fridge, cabinets filled with DHARMA-brand dry goods, and even a little light entertainment in the form of an old computer chess game. While the surprisingly agreeable Bakunin sews up Sayid’s bullet-wound, he delivers a heaping portion of soon-to-be-refuted exposition. According to Bakunin, “the Others” we have come to know are not necessarily the DHARMA initiative at all, but rather a rogue faction that existed on the island long before the scientific community got there. The two groups went to war, referred to here as “the purge,” with Bakunin the only DHARMA survivor (he claims he was spared in the aftermath because he refused to participate). So like the proverbial lighthouse keeper, Bakunin lives an isolated existence here on the island, the lone representative of an organization that once enticed him with an ad asking, “Would you like to save the world?”
Despite Bakunin’s pleasant demeanor and a presumed forthrightness, Kate is suspicious of their host. Her misgivings are shared by the convalescing Sayid who believes Bakunin is one of “the Others” but decides they should play along in hopes of flushing out Bakunin’s true motives. It’s a short-lived deception: as the two men go through the motions of catching the other up on the events of the past few weeks, niceties and give way to furniture-busting fisticuffs, ending with Bakunin (outmanned and outgunned) incapacitated and tied up on the floor.
It’s worth noting that throughout this entire sequence Locke remains planted in front of a computer monitor playing a game of chess. For fans of the character, “Enter 77” is an especially disconcerting episode, as it finds the once sage-like Locke doing some incredibly stupid things purely to satisfy his curiosity. Always prone to following his instincts and blind faith above all else, Locke’s judgment has been especially questionable of late (earlier in the episode when Sayid and he discussed Eko’s “Jesus stick” serving as their map, Sayid looked like he wanted to strangle him), and this episode isn’t likely to convince viewers that the character is anything other than a fool in philosopher’s clothing. Despite all the screaming and crashing in the next room, Locke conveniently (or is it cowardly?) waits for the smoke to clear before poking his head out and lending a hand. Later on, while given the simple-task of standing over the restrained Bakunin while Sayid and Kate explore the rest of the Flame, Locke somehow botches the job by returning to his video game, allowing his hostage to not only escape but to get the drop on him. The episode also ends on a potentially disastrous note as Locke blindly follows the prompting of the computer’s automated relay program, triggering a self-destruct mechanism found within the Flame (and, in the process, destroying perhaps their only means of phoning home). Locke has skirted the line of madness in the past; I fear the writers are now using the character’s island tunnel-vision as an easy way to advance the plot.
Before the Flame goes sky high though we’re reunited with, and quickly say goodbye to, April Grace’s Ms. Klugh, last seen at the end of season two. As Sayid and Kate search the basement of the Flame, wherein they find all manner of useful instruction manuals and, most crucially, an island schematic, Klugh pounces on Kate from behind. After fending her off (again, outmanned and outgunned) they lead her upstairs, only to discover that Locke is being held at gunpoint by Bakunin. Bakunin proposes a hostage swap, but Locke complicates the matter by goading Bakunin (did I mention Locke was acting really weird this episode?) and telling Sayid to hang onto Klugh. In the middle of this highly-charged stand-off, Klugh emphatically orders Bakunin to execute her (in Russian, no less) which he finally does before attempting—unsuccessfully—to take his own life.
“Enter 77” requires me to dust-off a complaint I haven’t used in several months now, but that was particularly glaring here: the flashback segments offered nothing but filler. With the exception of the show’s newer characters, these glimpses of life before the island have officially overstayed their welcome and should probably be used sparingly—at at least more creatively—from here on out. Here we have an episode which runs rough-shod over pages of new information, giving us, in Bakunin, a duplicitous new character whose every word must be evaluated carefully, and in the Flame, a new locale brimming with information. And yet we must repeatedly cut away to the further adventures of Sayid the reformed torturer, here stuck in an anti-climactic subplot involving a former victim looking for retribution.
Sayid is a wonderful character with a beautifully-shaded past. As played by Andrews, the character is the anti-Jack Bauer, a killing machine whose warmth is what makes him so adept at extracting information. But we’ve already seen the character as a captive (at the hands of Rousseau back in season one) as well as at odds with his violent past. A go-nowhere storyline that finds Sayid chained inside a restaurant while the husband of a woman he allegedly interrogated beats him is simply revisiting old ground at a time when the episode has no practical need to do so. Lost’s success has spawned a handful of shows that sometimes employ similar storytelling (Prison Break and Heroes come to mind); perhaps it’s time for Lost to follow their leads and save the flashbacks for special occasions.
Having said that, I don’t really expect Lost to abandon its format at this late juncture, any more than I’d 24 or Law & Order to revamp its format. Episodes like “Enter 77,” however, just illustrate how frustrating the show can be even when it’s supposedly making progress. Returning to Cuse and Lindeloff’s letter, this episode ostensibly gave us answers, but as the creators conceded, it gave us very little of the ensemble and day-to-day life on the island. A B-storyline involving Hurley (Jorge Garcia) hustling Sawyer (Josh Holloway) at ping pong was cute, but it was the very definition of “slight”; throw-away humor uncomfortably inserted into an already overstuffed episode. I appreciate that the show’s producers are aware that they’re neglecting one half of the show to enrich the other, but I’m exhausted by their inability to blend the two.