“All The Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues” (season 1, episode 11; originally aired 12/08/2004)
In which Charlie hangs out
As Boone walks through the jungle using a red shirt to mark off the trail while he and Locke search for Claire and Charlie following their abduction, he makes the logical connection to Star Trek. The redshirts were the ones who traveled alongside the characters audiences cared about, and whose deaths were there to suggest stakes that the show’s heroes would overcome over the course of the episode.
“All The Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues” begins with a death in its first flashback scene. There is a woman on the operating table with Jack standing over her, and she dies in his hands. We think it’s based on a mistake Jack made, but we learn later Jack was cleaning up his father’s mess after Christian had come into the operating room impaired (read: drunk). Jack tried so hard to save her not just because he felt personally responsible for the patient, but also because he felt personally responsible for fixing his father’s mistake. The death becomes a major turning point for their relationship, as Christian’s efforts to manipulate Jack into lying about what happened are undone when Jack learns the woman was pregnant, and that there were two lives left in his hands instead of one.
This is how death often works in the context of a television series: A character is introduced to die as a way of sparking character development for the main characters. It happened with the Marshal, whose protracted death symbolized the lingering of the past as the castaways confronted their fate on the island. It happened in Jack’s first flashback episode with Joanna, the previously unseen castaway whose encounter with a riptide led to her tragic death. And it happens in every medical procedural, the genre that Lost delves into with this week’s flashback. Death is a part of life, ultimately, and something a show as invested in humanity as Lost will need to confront. In most cases, however, it will be confronted through characters like Joanna or Beth—the patient—who we never really meet, or who we meet only briefly to establish their resonance to make their death more meaningful.
In other words, making a series about life and death requires death, and death requires characters that are expendable, and thus the principle behind redshirts extends well beyond Star Trek. The problem for Lost is that in the contemporary moment—and this includes 2004—you can’t just keep killing red shirts. Joanna’s death was a freebie, a warning shot that this island is dangerous and that this isn’t going to be Gilligan’s Island where survival is guaranteed with some snazzy inventions made out of coconuts. However, you can’t kill a Joanna every week, and every subsequent Joanna you kill will be less meaningful than the previous dead Joanna. It’s the law of diminishing Joannas.
Speaking of diminishing returns, you also can’t keep repeating the same flashback patterns. Given how Jack’s first flashback existed to establish he has daddy issues, this second flashback really just follows through on the promise, crafting a story that has Jack once again battling with his father. As great as John Terry is as Christian, and as great a job as Matthew Fox does acting out the rollercoaster of emotions Jack is feeling as Christian manipulates him with the praise he’s withheld for all of Jack’s life as h’s encouraging him lie about the circumstances of Beth’s surgery, it’s treading on the same ground. The parallels to the island even work similarly: While in “White Rabbit” Jack was manically running through the jungle to exorcise the demons of his father’s death, here he’s running through the jungle to exorcise the demons of Beth’s death and save people that he feels he put in danger through his inattention to their concerns (much as he wasn’t strong enough to report his father’s alcoholism before it was too late).
“All The Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues” knows this, just as it knows we’re reaching the stage where Joannas won’t cut it. And so it resolves Claire and Charlie’s abduction in dramatic fashion, delivering what we could best be described as a dry run for what’s likely to follow. When Ethan—depicted here as some sort of Terminator—attacks Jack and warns him he’ll kill someone if they keep following him, it sounds like an empty threat, because the idea of the show killing Charlie or Claire seems highly improbable. And yet when Jack and Kate turn the corner and discover Charlie, blindfolded, hanging from the vines, it’s real. Kate’s panic is real. Jack’s panic is real. And when Michael Giacchino’s iconic piano melody—as heard here—used to signify life and death kicks in, and when we switch to a wide shot of this grisly scene, this feels like the tragic end to Charlie’s life.
And then the music stops. And then we switch away from the wide shot and back to closeups. And then Jack refuses to give up, pounding on Charlie’s chest again and again until he miraculously starts breathing. On the one hand, it’s a fakeout, and thus risks convincing the audience that any time a character like Charlie is in danger he’ll end up pulling through. And yet on the other hand, the scene’s “happy ending” is anything but happy. Claire—the real target of the attack—is still missing, and Charlie isn’t exactly celebrating his survival given that her fate remains uncertain. He survived, sure, but the life and death reality of the island came close to ending his life and holds another in jeopardy. Charlie’s near-death represents the show transitioning its sense of stakes to characters we would have previously thought immune, seeding the possibility one of those characters could die before the season is done, and pushing us to consider how a character like Jack would respond to such a tragedy.
The rest of the episode is mostly filling in the gaps, if you will: the search for Charlie and Claire is a fairly linear one for Jack and Kate, but it allows Locke and Boone to head off in another direction and learn more about one another while stumbling across a mysterious steel object in the jungle. It also allows Michael to head off with a secondary search party of his own, leaving Walt to play high stakes backgammon and gets some serious luck with the dice as he cleans out Hurley. Additionally, it removes other characters from the picture so Sawyer and Sayid can have some quality time together, allowing the latter to reintegrate into camp society after having left over the shame he felt after torturing the former.
It’s the kind of setup work that shows how Lost’s first season is always a few steps ahead of itself: as much as “All The Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues” wants to put us in that moment with Jack and Kate, to force us to confront life and death, it also needs to ensure that when other characters end up in similar situations there will be the development in place for that to work. Fakeout or no, that Charlie’s near-death works is dependent on subtle work done with Charlie in episodes that weren’t focused on the character, work that might have been overlooked. This may be the second Jack flashback, but it ends up being less about his character, and more uses his character’s emotional state as an engine to explore emotional space the show hopes to occupy more broadly.
- The skill with which Christian lays on the praise for Jack is some of the most manipulative parenting I’ve ever seen on television.
- “You owe me $20,000!” “You’ll get it.”—Sure thing, Hurley!
- Daddy issues alert: To echo Todd’s review of “White Rabbit,” duh. However, we also get a bit more insight into Walt, who continues to navigate his issues with his father, and here references his other father Brian for the first time.
- “What do you do in the real world, John?”—This is a logical conversation that I’m glad Boone and Locke get to have, as this is really the first episode to let us see Boone developing a character unrelated to his circumstances. But I also like the idea of drawing a distinction between the island and “the real world,” rather than “back home” or some other construction. It’s an interesting and telling word choice, I’d say.
- I wonder if they gave Charlie those finger tapings so he could leave them as clues later, or whether they stumbled into that story possibility when breaking the episode.
“Whatever The Case May Be” (season 1, episode 12; originally aired 01/05/2005)
In which we pause to puzzle over a briefcase
Starting with these two episodes, we can now think of the flashbacks on two primary levels. The first, present since the start of the series, is considering them as a structural element linking events in the present to events in the past. In the case of “Whatever The Case May Be,” this means Kate’s discovery of the marshal’s briefcase, which she desperately tries to access in order to retrieve the personal effects confiscated when she entered into his custody, and which she retrieved during the bank robbery documented in the flashback.
The second level is new, though, and it encourages us to think of each character’s flashbacks as non-linear serial narratives in and of themselves. As each character gets more and more flashback episodes—Kate and Jack will end the season with three each—they begin to piece together a larger chronology for the character, one where flashbacks have a clear relationship to one another. In Jack’s case, we’re introduced to his daddy issues through bookends from his childhood and his time in Australia in “White Rabbit,” and then we narrow in on a specific encounter with his father that took place in between those two events. Although limited in scale by the small amount of time available to them in each episode, the flashbacks are nonetheless cumulative, and as capable of connecting to one another as they are capable of connecting to the on-screen action.
However, the balance between these two roles is an inherently delicate one, as “Whatever The Case May Be” demonstrates. Kate’s first flashback showed us the events directly preceding her getting onto Oceanic Flight 815, in the process leaving the central mystery of her crime unknown. In the same way that Jack’s first flashback planted the seeds of Jack’s relationship with his father, encouraging us to want to see more of Christian Shepherd, the show wants us to ask what Kate’s crime was. And the flashback here plays with that, but mainly by doubling down on mysteries about the character: first she’s caught in a bank robbery as an innocent loan applicant (“Is this how she gets pulled into a life of crime?!”), then she’s in on the bank robbery with her boyfriend (“So this is her crime?!”), and then it turns out that the entire bank robbery is a front for her to gain access to a safety deposit box that has a bloody toy airplane in it (“…wait, seriously?”).
It’s the first time the show has used the flashback structure to actively troll the audience, and it brings the season’s worst episode thus far by nature of the fact that the rest of the episode is almost exclusively focused around the mysteries introduced in the flashback. On the island, “Whatever The Case May Be” is Lost’s most blatant evocation of J.J. Abrams’ “Mystery Box,” in which the characters—and by extension, the episode hopes, the audience—is overcome with curiosity about what’s inside this case Kate desperately wants to open. If she just wanted the truth about her identity hidden, then she could have left it there—Sawyer didn’t seem interested in it upon the discovery of the corpses at the waterfall, and the chances of someone finding it and managing to open it seem slim. There’s obviously something in there, and Sawyer and Jack are deathly intent on finding out what it is.
I was invested up until the point it becomes clear that there are only more mysteries in the mystery box. It’s a transition flashback, where we get lots more questions but don’t come much closer to answering the one the show has used to anchor the character. Given that Kate is already using a fake name and knows her way around a gun at this point, we can presume this is not the origin of her criminal behavior. But now the show wants us to invest in the mystery of this toy airplane: What is its significance? Whose safety deposit box was it? Was this really the most efficient way to gain access to a safety deposit box on which you are not a signing party, or was it designed this way solely so we would be convinced this was the origin of Kate’s criminal activity up until that final moment?
Returning to the question of balance, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with transition flashbacks in and of themselves, but they suffer when they’re the episode’s primary focus. “All The Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues” was a second flashback, and risked being overly repetitive of Jack’s first one, but it mostly informed Jack’s involvement in the broader narrative of Charlie and Claire’s abduction, which we’re invested in for other reasons. Here, though, the episode is very clearly slowing down the narrative and moving other pieces into place: Charlie is working through his guilt at being unable to protect Claire, Sayid is starting to decipher the maps he stole from Rousseau’s bunker with Shannon’s (sexy) help, and Boone’s smuggling an axe into the jungle to help Locke with whatever they found at the end of the previous episode. But these are all small bits and pieces, leaving the bulk of the episode to Kate and the airplane, which means nothing until another flashback steps in to fill in even the most basic information beyond Kate’s vague suggestion it belonged to the man she loved/killed (which is not exactly a revelation given her intense attachment to the object and her status as a fugitive).
The flashbacks, in theory, make it easier for an episode with limited narrative momentum to still remain meaningful. I always defend “piece-moving” episodes as offering insight into character, and the flashbacks can pull out specific character threads even in episodes where the castaways aren’t responding to an immediate crisis. You can see the benefits of taking a breath in Charlie’s scenes with Rose, the best part of the episode because they take piece-moving—they’re literally moving pieces of wreckage to the new, slightly more inland beach location—and turn it into a chance for reflection. But Kate’s storyline carries the burden of giving “Whatever The Case May Be” a plot, and the fundamental lack of resolution makes it feel like we’ve just been dicked around instead of learning something meaningful about the character. It makes the entire storyline feel like a stall tactic, which is unfair to parts of the episode but isn’t an unfair description of how Kate’s second flashback functions here.
Related to this, I’ve been struck in rewatching the series how well its structure fits into the contemporary obsession with on-screen hashtags. It’s a practice that reflects networks’ investment in predicting and shaping audience response to a series in the interest of engineering specific social media engagement that serves their interests. It’s also really annoying, but you can see how it would serve the interests of an episode like this one. #WhatsInTheCase. #Box815. #KatesPlane. And yet the ultimate sign of a dissatisfying episode of Lost is one that feels like it could be reduced to a set of hashtags, and I don’t know if there’s much else that “Whatever The Case May Be” contributes to the season or Kate’s character outside of the temporary mysteries it creates and leaves unsolved.
The show would get a better handle on how to handle transitional flashbacks as the narrative evolved. And “Whatever The Case May Be” is admittedly the first time an episode has felt lacking in narrative momentum, with even slower episodes like “The Moth” still arriving at a stage where introducing us to the characters and their quest for survival was easier to get away with. It’s not a terrible episode of television, but it fails to strike the balance necessary to make its flashbacks alleviate—rather than exaggerate—the challenge of slowing down the narrative to help stretch each season out into 22 or more episodes.
- The ultimate sign that this episode has Lost stretching out its storytelling: You’d sort of think that the immediate focus would be trying to find Claire, but other than the implicit suggestion the castaways presume this is what Boone and Locke are doing in the jungle, they honestly don’t seem that worried about it.
- Lost was never one to resist an occasional episode title pun, but this one is one of the most blatant, so much so I’d expect it to be a track on a Michael Giacchino soundtrack album.
- The underwater corpses ended up looking a bit hokey when the camera lingers on them, but the visual of them emerging out of the fog of the water is arresting after the almost oasis-like atmosphere of Kate and Sawyer’s discovery of the waterfall.
- To add to the island mysteries, the tides are rising at an unnatural rate, threatening to wash away the fuselage and pushing them to a different location further up the beach. I’d be curious to know if the switch was in part logistical, to allow for a more functional filming location.
- Speaking of the ocean, Shannon’s time watching Finding Nemo helps her figure out that Rousseau’s map is covered with lyrics from “Beyond The Sea” (“La Mer” in French). Sure!
- Are You There God? It’s me, Lost: Rose asks Charlie to turn to God for guidance in his guilt over what happened to Claire, which nicely—if inadvertently, given Rose didn’t see his flashback—dovetails with the role religion played in his ambivalent relationship with the rock and roll lifestyle.
- Fitting for a transition episode, Jack Bender uses some really stunning sunrise/sunset shots in the episode to indicate the passage of time, a common transition technique that becomes more evocative when it’s being shot in Hawaii.
Spoiler Station (Don’t read if you haven’t seen the whole series):
- I honestly feel I was more affected by Charlie’s near-death on rewatch than I was when it happened, not because I thought it was real but because I was transposing my emotions about “Through the Looking Glass” onto this scene.
- The clues about coming flashbacks are flying fast and furious now: This is particularly clear in Walt’s lucky backgammon streak, and in the subtle reference to the fact Hurley’s unexpectedly good for the $20,000, which I definitely would have taken as a joke at the time.
- We’ve been talking a lot about the island testing the candidates, and it got me thinking about Charlie’s near-death experience: could “the island” have been holding Charlie’s life in the balance waiting to see if Jack was going to give up or not? I honestly don’t have a clear enough understanding of Jacob’s powers to know if that even makes sense, but it occurred to me revisiting the scene.
- I honestly don’t remember exactly what the deal with the plane is, but I think it involves a tree, and a childhood friend, and Nathan Fillion? *Checks Lostpedia* Nope, just the first two; Fillion’s a different flashback. Shows what I remember.
Next week: Brother and sister, and father and son.