When Lost last aired back in early November, I identified what I felt were the show’s two most damning faults: the inability of the characters to raise even the most basic, confusion-averting, common sense issues with one another, and the way the show withheld much of the action (both in the literal, violent, sense as well as juicy plot-developments) until the final 10 minutes of each episode. On the basis of last night’s episode, “Not in Portland” (the first of what we’ve been promised will be a run of 16 uninterrupted episodes), it would appear that Lost has addressed these two gripes; as a result the show is moving with a sense of urgency and assurance it hasn’t displayed in some time.
Not only did the episode find us tackling heady amounts of island-mythology—in a straightforward, educated manner—but it was parceled out to fit into each act break to create a nearly tedium-free hour.
Although we eventually pick up right where we last left off, the episode initially has a little fun with viewer rustiness (especially if you skipped the clip show ABC aired immediately beforehand, as I did). For a series that built its fortune on sleight-of-hand, the opening salvo is especially twisty, compiling misdirection to whiplash-inducing effect. We open on a teary-eyed Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) sitting on the beach, staring out at the ocean. (Is she mourning Ben? What happened to Jack? Wait, when did she curl her hair?) If we haven’t realized this is a flashback initially we certainly do when we see her in the next scene strolling down a dank, flickering hallway (ah, we must be at the Hydra) where she bumps elbows with the long-departed Ethan (William Mapother). Juliet then enters an adjacent bedroom where she comes upon a visibly-ill women named Rachel played by Calamity Jane herself, Robin Weigert, proving once and for all that the Lost casting directors are huge Deadwood fans.
We learn Rachel is Juliet’s sister and she’s participating in an experimental treatment that on-screen evidence would seem to indicate is to treat cancer or a similarly debilitating disease (by episode’s end we learn this is not the case). Just as we’re trying to figure out how Rachel got on the island, Juliet throws open the window to reveal we’re in downtown Miami where, tellingly, an airplane screams by. If nothing else, the show reminds you of the joys of being skillfully manipulated.
Then we jump back to the present where Jack’s still orchestrating the most hastily conceived hostage situation since Sonny and Sal took over a bank. With Ben (Michael Emerson) lying prone and slowly bleeding to death on the operating table, Jack (Matthew Fox) has ordered the release of Sawyer and Kate (Josh Holloway and Evangeline Lilly respectively) without realizing that they’ve all be imprisoned on an island two miles away from the rest of the castaways. The visibly-stunned Tom (MC Gainey) and Juliet give Jack the dispiriting geography lesson, at which point the good doctor narcs on the fact Juliet asked him to kill Ben in surgery.
No, you didn’t misread that: Jack actually plays the hand he was dealt and uses the information he’d acquired to his betterment—namely, driving a wedge between Tom and Juliet. As I mentioned, Lost has become so frustratingly schematic in the way its characters are moved about like chess pieces that when characters do organically adapt and respond to their surroundings it’s downright bracing.
It happened a lot in this episode. When Sawyer and Kate stumble upon the beach, Kate acknowledges that Sawyer finally told her about the “second island” (a fact he’d been keeping from her). Seconds later she actually radios Jack for assistance in procuring a boat. Eventually we get a scene where Jack asks the $64,000 question: if you people have boats and submarines, why not take Ben to a doctor on the mainland (the answer will have to wait till another episode, but it has something to do with the Hatch blowing up at the end of season two).
Even the flashback this week was informative. Much of the episode focuses on Juliet’s past as a researcher working under the thumb of her cad of an ex-husband, Edmond Burke (Željko Ivanek), who not only squeezes his way in on her medical discovery but flaunts his new relationship with a co-worker in front of her. Juliet has been offered an incredible position at Mittelos Bioscience (thanks to the Internet we can quickly figure out that Mittelos is an anagram for “lost time”) a deceptively perfect, well-funded facility located in the Pacific Northwest that’s ironically pitched to Juliet as “privately funded means freedom.” Yet Juliet declines this dream job, breaking down in front of Mr. Alpert (Nestor Carbonell) and confiding in him that her ex will never let her leave. She offers that the only thing that would set her free is if “he were hit by a bus” before tearfully excusing herself.
Faster than I can type “dues ex machina,” Juliet gets her wish. Upon learning that Rachel is pregnant as a result of her treatment (my cancer assumption is still likely correct, however, as she makes mention of “getting healthy” to see her little one get into an Ivy League school), Juliet confronts Edmond in the street outside of his office. A potentially heated argument is cut short as he’s mowed down by…yep, a speeding bus (Cosmic coincidence? Far-sweeping conspiracy? Lazy writing?) Incidentally this violent death would have been a lot more shocking if the “character gets mowed down by large off-screen vehicle” gag hadn’t become as commonplace in genre films these days as the “shrieking cat jumps onto the counter” scare.
As the majority of Season Three has taken place on “Others’ Island” we’ve gotten a sense of these additional personalities in a relatively short span of time, and it’s been obvious from the outset that Mitchell’s Juliet is the show’s breakout new character. Fittingly, “Not in Oregon” is a tour-de-force showcase for Mitchell in much the same way “Walkabout” was for Terry O’Quinn back in season one. Like Locke, Juliet has two very different physical sides, with the gulf separating the two posing the rare unknown that’s actually worth pondering. Divorced at a young age after a marriage to an older man, the Juliet of the past is a mousey, unconfident push-over, all fidgety body language and averted glances. She lives in constant fear of her former spouse’s reprisal, at one point apologizing for even wishing him (all too prescient) harm.
In excusing herself from the Mittelos job, she tells Alpert “Whatever you think I am, I’m not. I’m not a leader. I’m a mess.” So what fun that we immediately cut to the present-day, where Juliet roams the halls of the Hydra with the steely-eyed resolve of The Terminator. The Juliet we’ve come to know is confident, duplicitous and—as we see in this episode—coldblooded and unafraid of getting her hands dirty. Juliet’s still something of a wild card at this point, and it’s a testament to Mitchell that both elements of her personality are entirely believable. At this early stage in the character’s development, we can only begin to speculate what the time on the island has done to harden Juliet’s fragile psyche, but no doubt she must feel as Locke once did—like a rat in a maze.
Back in the operating room, Ben has improbably awoken mid-surgery (when Jack tells Tom he’s a “spinal surgeon not an anesthesiologist,” I desperately want to belief this is a sly reference to J.J. Abrams’ new gig re-booting the Star Trek franchise) and requests some face time with Juliet. Jack is asked to leave them for a few moment (which he graciously does) resulting in an awesomely awkward brief chat with a gossipy Tom. Juliet emerges with a surprising mandate: Kate and Sawyer are to be aided in their escape in exchange for Jack finishing the surgery.
Not that Kate and Sawyer have been exactly flying blind up to this point. Appearing like one of the Lost Boys of Neverland Island, armed with a slingshot and secret hideaways, Alex Rousseau (Tania Raymonde) helps Kate and Sawyer avoid the enraged Pickett (Michael Bowen) who’s in hot pursuit and still looking to avenge his wife’s death. Alex tells them she has a boat which they’re free to use, much to the skepticism of Sawyer (More common sense—I’m loving it), who deduces that her help is conditional: they have to rescue her boyfriend Karl, who was last seen in “A Tale of Two Cities” being dragged away after helping Sawyer in his failed escape attempt. Karl is being kept in a guarded facility that’s penetrated by Sawyer and Kate using the old “Wookiee in handcuffs trick” (well, if you’re going to give the Trekkers a shout-out, you might as well cover both bases…) Once inside we find Karl being subjected to a bizarre sensory bombardment that resembles something between the Ludovico technique and a rave. It’s sequences like this with their rapid flutters of imagery that keeps my pause finger in shape and Internet message boards abuzz. I was able to pick out the passage “God loves you as He loved Jacob.” Is this merely a biblical allusion or is this the same “Jacob” that Pickett referred to earlier in the season when he mentioned that Jack wasn’t on “Jacob’s list?”
With Karl freed but incapacitated, the escapees arrive at the beach where they’re confronted by Pickett, gun raised and out of patience. After leveling his weapon at Sawyer, Kate rushes to shield him from the bullet, both a testament to her unspoken love for him as well as the show’s eagerness to kill off all its sexually desirable female characters. Fortunately for everyone, Juliet arrives in time to double-tap Pickett in the chest and fulfills her pledge to help Sawyer and Kate escape. Alex however must stay behind, lest Karl suffer the brunt of her father’s wrath (it’s inferred that Ben may be Alex’s adopted father). But before Kate and Sawyer can shove off and sail a makeshift canoe back to their island (in a sequence that struck me as a mirroring of the voyage in the finale of season one), Kate needs to make one last call to Jack. As Jack frantically tries to repair Ben (aided by a queasy Tom), Kate radios in to pass along a code—a story Jack told her about a surgery he once performed that went horribly wrong. As Kate, in tears, relays a story that couldn’t possibly be more thematically apt, we cut back and forth between Jack’s surgical heroics and Sawyer’s quiet realization that he’s still one leg in a love triangle.
These sort of on-the-nose speeches usually annoy me to no end, yet I found this whole sequence improbably well staged, performed and edited; it’s one character unknowingly externalizing another character’s internal monologue, beautifully underlining a tense situation. Because Kate has no way of knowing what Jack’s doing, her impassioned delivery, spurring on Jack when he needs it the most, becomes all the more lyrical and speaks a deeper bond between them. The mechanics behind this turn of events are admittedly arch and clumsy but I can’t deny being affected by the payoff.
By episode’s end, Ben has survived his surgery and Jack has resumed his status as a prisoner. But he’s not alone. Juliet, having taken the job with Mittelos, has been confined to the island, we learn, for over three years. Her private discussion with Ben centered on a promise of a return to the mainland, much like the one he offered Jack.