It was inevitable that after two consecutive strong outings, Lost would backslide into more familiar and frustrating territory.
The show has created such skepticism among its fan base that even when it does hit one out of the park the knee jerk response is to chalk it up as an accident. Still, even with expectations properly in check, there really was no way to prepare for how achingly tedious and belabored last night’s episode, “Stranger in a Strange Land”, truly was.
With only a finite number of unanswered questions still on the table and who knows how many episodes left to air, it’s a difficult balance for Lost between advancing the show’s mythology and revealing too much too soon. One’s even tempted to cut the show some measure of slack for occasionally dragging its feet. I imagine that’s how you end up with an episode that predominately focuses on the machinations behind how Jack (Matthew Fox) ended up with an exotic tattoo on his left arm. We can only hope next week’s episode will address where Hurley (Jorge Garcia) got his favorite T-shirt.
Remarkably, the episode was even less interesting than I’m giving it credit for. Jack, being one of the rare Americans men who travel to Thailand for reasons other than underage sex, is seen frolicking on white sandy beaches and enjoying post-married life. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s sharing a bed with Bai Ling’s Achara, a beautiful and mysterious woman who begs Jack not to ask too many questions of her. Achara lives in a secretive world where men approach her in public and give her envelopes filled with cash, payment for her “gift” she explains. Understandably weary and suspecting that she may be a prostitute, Jack follows Achra to her place of work, a back alley tattoo parlor. Achra claims her gift is the ability to see who people truly are, and depict that through body art. One need not be a clairvoyant to anticipate her vision of Jack: he’s a born leader but he’s destined to be lonely and angry because of it.
Achra orders Jack to leave, telling him he’s an outsider and that there will be “consequences” for his meddling. But Jack is insistent, ordering her to perform her gift for him, and requests a tattoo that speaks to his inner being. That the tattoo on Fox’s arm is real (the “5” in the center of it is rumored to be a tribute to his former television gig on Party of Five) reveals a depressing element of navel gazing by the show’s writers. While it’s certainly worth exploring how a respectable surgeon would end up with a drunken, frat boy tattoo, using this real life quirk as a tent-pole for an entire episode (during sweeps no less!) should indicate that the show’s much vaunted master plan has some sizable gaps to be filled.
As tenuous as it may be, Jack’s tattoo does possess thematic connecting tissue to the present where Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) is facing the consequences of gunning down Picket (Michael Bowen) a couple episodes back. Seen as a murderer by the rest of the “Others,” Juliet is interrogated by Isabel (Diana Scarwid), the froggy-voiced “sheriff” of the Dharma Initiative. Isabel is no-nonsense and curt, griping at one point that she doesn’t even enjoy coming to this island. These scenes resemble a hard-boiled police procedural, appropriately so, as the episode was directed by Paris Barclay (best known for his award-winning work behind the camera on NYPD Blue. ) When Isabel accuses Jack of lying to cover for Juliet you half expect her to reach across the desk and slam his head onto the table.
Jack is covering for Juliet though, and spends the episode trying to save her from a lynch mob; this coming after he finked on her and her desire to see Ben (Michael Emerson) dead while in the operating theater. With the help of a heart-broken Alex (Tania Raymonde), Jack escapes from his cage and confronts Ben, still bed-ridden from the life-saving surgery Jack performed on him. Having already negotiated his freedom from the island, Jack agrees to serve as Ben’s personal physician—which includes tending to a nasty infection underneath his stitches—throughout the recovery process in exchange for Juliet’s death sentence to be commuted. Ben warns Jack not to put too much faith in Juliet (is he saying this as a man she conspired to kill or as her former lover, I wonder) but agrees to pass along a message to Isabel ordering her to spare Juliet’s life.
However, as punishment, it’s decided that Juliet is to be branded for her infraction, placing her alongside Jack as someone marked and, thus, set apart from the others (we ultimately see Jack being severely beaten by some local Thai men as a result of his ill-gotten tattoo). Like Jack, Juliet has been promised a chance to leave the island. At this juncture, it remains to be seen whether Ben will keep his promise to either or both of them, but Jack rationalizes that their odds of escape are improved if the two of them work together. That being said, this wouldn’t be Lost without the spark of romance in the air and by episode’s end Juliet is bringing Jack one of her patented burnt, grilled cheese sandwiches and he’s applying aloe to the puffy seared flesh at the base of her spine.
It’s no mystery why the past two weeks were so much more engaging than this week’s episode. Both “Not in Portland” and “Flashes Before Your Eyes” focused on new characters to the show, giving us only our first and second flashback episodes for respectively Juliet and Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick). Invigorated by exploring characters who haven’t been over-explained to death, the episodes felt free to take risks with the show’s format and focused on large, juicy segments of back-story. If these episodes called to mind the glory days of the show’s first season, it’s because, for the first time in ages, literally anything seemed possible.
Conversely, “Stranger in a Strange Land” is already the second Jack-centric episode of this still young season which would make it (by my count) his ninth overall. After watching Jack save numerous lives, rage against his alcoholic father, struggle in vain to maintain his failing marriage and now getting himself a bad-ass tattoo, it might be time to admit to ourselves that the character has officially played itself out. What’s so irritating about the show is the disparity created by casting a “star” in the middle of what’s supposed to be a true ensemble. The fickle nature of the medium demands that Fox gets as much face time as possible, meanwhile a character portrayed by a less visible performer, like Cynthia Watros’ Libby, can be killed off with nary a flashback to call her own. Dramatic opportunities are constantly squandered in favor of returning to well-trod touchstones.
Juliet and Jack aren’t the only relationship in flux this week. The episode (written by Elizabeth Sarnoff and Christina M. Kim) plays the fracturing, recently consummated union between Sawyer (Josh Holloway) and Kate (Evangeline Lilly) against the young love of Alex and Karl (Blake Bashoff), who was last seen in a near comatose state and slung into the bottom of a make-shift boat. While Kate continues to register guilt over abandoning Jack, Sawyer would rather move on and get back to the rest of the castaways (remember them?) on the beach. Perhaps regretting that she slept with him, Kate grows increasingly annoyed with Sawyer’s selfishness and domineering behavior of late, accusing him of not letting her think for herself. She has a valid point: Kate’s been on a steady downward trajectory for a couple seasons now, serving mostly as arm candy for (alternately) Jack and Sawyer, never following through on the promise of all those dangerous, impulsive tendencies she once displayed. One can only hope she’ll resume asserting herself in the near future as there remains a dearth of strong female characters on the show.
Meanwhile, Karl and Alex are literally moon-eyed over one another with him waxing poetic to Sawyer and Kate about a time when the two young lovers would just lay out in their backyard and make up names for constellations. Alex is so distraught over Karl’s departure from “Alcatraz Island” that she has a teary-eyed confrontation with Jack where she implies that Jack should have killed Ben (her all-powerful, adopted father) when he had the chance. Lost has never shied away from sentimentality, but this storyline strikes me as especially saccharine and misguided. On a show where so many of the main characters continue to be under-represented this season, following the high-school-aged dramatics of two periphery characters seems to me an especially wasteful use of time and resources.
As the episode concluded, Jack and the “Others” sailed away from “Alcatraz,” returning presumably to the idyllic suburban facsimile we saw in the season premiere, while Sawyer and Kate draw closer still to reuniting with the rest of the survivors of Flight 815. This will no doubt come as a relief to those who’ve found the season too reliant upon the show’s new characters at the expense of those we’ve come to know and sort-of love, while also returning viewers to the scene of those dazzling first few minutes of the season. A planned community in the middle of a tropical island? Now that’s a mystery worth solving. Of course, with this show we’ll probably just find out how they got cable TV wired up instead.