Lost, as both a show and cultural phenomenon, is indebted to so many different sub-genres of popular fiction that it’s to be expected viewer enjoyment will fluctuate from week-to-week depending simply on which color of the spectrum it chooses to paint with. Most often herded into the “ghetto” of sci-fi/fantasy, I’ve always found the show most effective when it adhered closest to the premise established in its groundbreaking first season: a group of people from all over the globe, brought together on a deserted island, working together to survive in the face of hardship and unexplained phenomena. I’ve often ridiculed the characters on this show for their lack of depth, yet I still appreciate it when the show takes a step back and allows its cast to inhabit their surroundings and play within the group dynamic in a way that has nothing to do with evading a giant smoke monster, hurtling over supersonic force-fields, or conversing with Jacob the demigod-cum-ghost pirate. There have been recent high-points to be sure (most recently the Sun and Jin episode “D.O.C.” which had all the stiff-upper-lip heartache of an O. Henry story) but, by and large, sometimes it feels like the show has simply lost interest in the drama inherent in its own set-up.
Which is maybe why last night’s episode, “Greatest Hits,” by perennial favorites Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, is the closest Lost has come to a perfect episode since its pilot. Results will no doubt vary—I’ve gone on record as being bored with most of the Others’ mythology to this point, which was almost wholly absent this week—but the episode encapsulated everything that first drew me to the show and keeps me watching in the face of mounting frustration.
How so? For starters it utilized almost its entire cast (only Terry O’Quinn’s Locke was missing this week, his much-debated, possibly Gandalf-like resurrection will have to wait till next week), even finding a reason to bring back Rose and Bernard (L. Scott Caldwell and Sam Anderson). Too often over the past two seasons the show’s enormous and incredibly diverse cast has been scattered to the wind, separated both by physical proximity and divergent goals. Here, for the first time in ages, we see the castaways banded together serving a common interest, dedicated to not falling victim to the self-fulfilling prophecy “live together, die alone.”
More importantly, it gracefully incorporated almost two dozen personalities into the span of an hour-long episode, sketching out brief but touching interactions and character-building moments through economic writing. Lost has never been especially subtle in either its writing or its execution (they make a lot of speeches on this show), yet this episode displayed a sense of confidence in itself and a willingness to let moments play out with a bare minimum of bombast and over-emphasis, perhaps best exemplified by the bittersweet fate of a family ring that belongs to Charlie (former Hobbit Dominic Monaghan, no doubt knowing a thing or two about protecting rings) as well as his awkward goodbye to loyal-to-the-end Hurley (Jorge Garcia).
This week won’t find me tripping over the show’s numerous paradoxes (with one self-aggrandizing exception in a little bit) or spinning far-flung theories which may or may not come to fruition before the show’s 2010 sign-off. Nor will I be dusting off my argument in favor of the show scrapping its musty flashback structure. Quite the contrary, “Greatest Hits” found Lost willing to toy with its own format a bit, borrowing a page from High Fidelity (take your pick, book or film) by focusing on a series of self-contained “high points” from Charlie’s life, as opposed to presenting a prolonged and self-contained b-story meant to dovetail thematically with the present. One of the problems with Lost’s flashbacks has always been the way they reduce its characters into a series of cause and effect scenarios, distilling every action into a result of a single event from their past, like placing a thumbtack in a map. Shorter on incident than we’ve come to expect, “Greatest Hits” instead gives us fleeting snapshots from Charlie’s life devoid of all context, other than that they were times in his life when he was happiest to be alive. It’s amazing how much more human these people feel when they’re not reduced to walking algebra equations.
A man’s most likely to reflect on happier times when he’s facing his maker. After weeks of staving off death thanks to Desmond’s (Henry Ian Cusick) precognitive flashes, it appears as though Charlie can no longer escape his destiny. Informed by Desmond that his death (drowning while flicking a switch) will lead to Claire (Emilie de Ravin) and Aaron’s rescue, Charlie compiles a list of the top five moments of his life (in ascending order) culminating in the night he first met Claire on the beach. It’s interesting to contrast the largely uninteresting love triangle between Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Sawyer (Josh Holloway) and Jack (Matthew Fox), which has been shoved down viewers’ throats, and the comparatively chaste courtship between Charlie and Claire, which culminates this week in a first kiss that’s as pure and innocent as it is well-earned.
“Greatest Hits” does wonders to restore the image of Charlie, a character who’s become entirely marginalized and a something of a downer over the past two years. Charlie’s “Top 5” shows him to be a man possessing unexpected reserves of maturity and complexity, circumventing the superficial joys of being a world famous rock star (one of his moments begins in the aftermath of a ménage à trois before heading in an unexpected direction) with a special emphasis on family and moments of self-realization. What his climactic, number one, moment may lack in surprise it more than compensates in understated tenderness, providing a tug of the heart that the show has quietly been building towards since its inception.
The episode even found me in the unanticipated position of mourning the thought of Charlie’s passing, something which I’d been begging for only a few episodes ago. Monaghan is given a feast of hero moments to play off of, and the actor connects squarely with each one of them. There’s a real Joseph Campbell level of heroic storytelling on display here, calling to mind everything from Tolkien (referenced twice prior in this column and not by accident) to George Lucas as Charlie confronts death as a necessary byproduct of his friend’s survival. The episode even teases us with the idea of Charlie trading places with Desmond while they (metaphysically) stand at the precipice, debating who should take the likely fatal plunge over the side of their catamaran and dive down to a submerged DHARMA station, which is blocking the radio signal of the castaways’ newly acquired satellite phone. He acquiesces to Desmond, only to turn around and knock him unconscious with an oar (calling to mind a less traumatic version of The Talented Mr. Ripley), with Charlie finally accepting the role of the hero of his own life’s story.
This isn’t the first time Charlie’s been placed in the hero role, though: in one of his recollections, we see him intervene during a mugging, helping a woman fend off a purse snatcher. This moment is less important to me (although it’s still a nice scene) than the one that immediately precedes it wherein we see Charlie working as a street musician in a scene that’s lifted from a controversial episode from earlier in this season. After last February’s “Flashes Before Your Eyes” I speculated that the episode was not a Slaughterhouse-Five journey through time, but rather an incredibly-involved lucid dream (the kind The Sopranos has been specializing in for years) where Desmond is forced to confront and rationalize a lifetime of poor decisions, justifying them as a chain of events that must play out in order for him to save the world. It was an unpopular theory then and it hasn’t gained much traction in the months since, yet I feel like “Greatest Hits” supports my hypothesis. Charlie’s memory of that day remains entirely Desmond-free, seemingly contradicting the widely held belief that Desmond possessed the ability to alter his own past (and by extension, those he comes into contact with). The show seems to be going out of its way to draw allusions to the earlier episode with Charlie performing the same song, with the rain falling at the same point, playing on the same (at least to my best recollection) street corner. Surely if Desmond changed the past then Charlie’s memory would have changed with it. Is there any possible explanation for this paradox other than my own?
Speaking of George Lucas, there’s a distinct Return of the Jedi air to the episode, with the final confrontation playing out over numerous theaters, all hurtling towards one final stand. Not so much densely plotted as it is constantly in motion with tension ratcheting up by the moment, “Greatest Hits” finds rival factions The Others and the castaways moving towards a bloody confrontation with neither side fully aware of what awaits them. The shooting of Locke last week lends a very real threat to Ben’s (Michael Emerson at his most wide-eyed menacing) invasion of the beach, with him instructing his men to kill anyone who gets in their way. Ben’s paranoia and raging inferiority complex may ultimately be his Achilles heel, but with an advantage both in firepower and familiarity with the island is there any way the castaway’s element of surprise (and healthy supply of dynamite) can win out?
If there’s a flaw to the episode it’s that it was followed by the 11:00 news as opposed to the resolution that’s hopefully to come with next week’s two-hour season finale. We leave the castaways on pins and needles awaiting an attack from The Others, and Charlie at the bottom of the ocean finding not death but rather two beautiful and well-armed women manning the supposedly abandoned aquatic station. Lost has always specialized in ending episodes on a high-note, but rarely has it earned that sense of momentum it does here. Lately, I’ve found myself questioning whether a show as inconsistent is this one is can withstand the nine-month hiatus currently ahead of it without losing significant fan interest. If it continues in this vein, next week I anticipate that being less of an issue than I originally thought.