“Exodus” (originally aired 05/11/2005 and 05/18/2005)
In which Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaalt.
When I finished rewatching “Exodus,” I wondered aloud to no one in particular whether every long-running television series has a litmus test episode. A litmus test episode is one that can sustain the varying degrees of response to the entire series, equally as readable as the pinnacle of the show’s success and as evidence of its downfall. It contains moments that serve each narrative, able to be spun in a number of different ways depending on who’s doing the spinning.
I don’t believe “Exodus” is the only episode—or three episodes aired across two weeks, in matter of fact—that serves this function for Lost, but it strikes me as the first big one. The ideas and events in these episodes are crucially important to the show Lost will become, and the episode is littered with breadcrumbs that won’t be picked up until nearly the very end of the series. But those breadcrumbs are divisive, philosophical discussions that will pay off for some and not for others. And the episode literally ends on a hole in the ground, with no hint at what’s inside beyond the playbook on how to develop cliffhangers that force the audience to delay gratification for at least four months. It contains everything that Lost became, for better or for worse, and thus stands as a crucial moment in the series’ evolution (or devolution, if you prefer).
But all of this is in retrospect. In the context of the first season, “Exodus” stands as a monument to an ambitious and complicated season of television, effortlessly pulling threads together and reinforcing how much happened in these 25 episodes. While I am open to arguments that certain ideas that spring to life in this episode—which we’ll discuss with spoilers in a bit more detail below—are never fully realized, I would contest any claim that “Exodus” fails to deliver a meaningful and powerful conclusion to Lost’s first season. It is propulsive and contemplative in equal measure, emphasizing how far the characters have come while simultaneously confirming just how far they still have to go in their journey ahead.
I’ve discussed Lost’s humanism before, but while watching “Exodus” I was struck with questions regarding where we locate the series’ humanity. We could look to the flashbacks as key evidence for Lost being a character-driven show at its core, given that the largest structuring mechanism in the series puts the focus of each episode on a single character. They’re also a chance to show us (most of) these characters removed from unexplained circumstances, offering a glimpse of who they were before their lives became overtaken by homicidal security systems and mysterious hatches. As has often been discussed, one of the reasons Lost was able to break free of many presumed restrictions of genre shows in terms of appealing to mass audiences was that the flashbacks offered a grounding element in the “real world.”
However, “Exodus” reminds us that Lost’s genre balance depended not only on the presence of more simple, humanist stories in its flashbacks, but also on that humanism being integrated back into the island itself. The flashbacks in “Exodus” are by and large uninterested in revelation or even information in the traditional sense. They are brief vignettes of the hours before the castaways boarded Oceanic Flight 815, glimpses of who they were framed against who they’ve become. Each flashbacks stands on its own as a piece of the puzzle for each individual character, but their larger goal is reminding us that no character has gone untouched or unchanged in the month since Flight 815 crashed on this island.
The best example of this involves Jin and Sun, two of the season’s most important and most changed characters. Jin’s flashback is the most revelatory: whereas most are logical extensions of previous flashbacks (Locke being embarrassed once more being carried onto the plane, Michael struggling to parent Walt, Jack cooling down in the bar after his argument with the gate agent), we get new information about Jin that seems designed to justify how the romantic who produced the flower from his pocket turned into the domineering husband we saw on the island. It was a missing piece of the puzzle, and Mr. Paik’s strongman threatening Jin in the bathroom offers logic for his fierce protection of the watch and at least some of how he worked so violently to protect Sun. However, the moment is also about the cut back to Jin, sailing out into the ocean on Michael’s raft, “free” in the very way he had hoped to be when he hatched his plan to run away with Sun on this trip.
The scene, and Jin and Sun’s story more broadly, embodies the bridge between humanity and mythology. On the one hand, these characters give us insight into what mystical forces are at play: While Sun is convinced that fate is punishing her for keeping secrets, and thus pushing Jin away from her, it also creates the scenario where Jin is on his own gaining the freedom he yearned for and a chance to independently come to terms with his place in this community with her phonetic English guidebook. While the island may not have given them a happy ending, it has nonetheless given them spaces to confront their respective identities in the same way it gave Locke his legs, or took away Boone’s life. If we accept that there is a greater force operating on this island, which at this stage seems a reasonable supposition, its goals are often linked directly to the characters and not simply to the series’ plot. And so while Sun’s discussion with Claire and Shannon—notable for giving three of the series’ female characters a chance to talk about the big picture—touches on the “Why” question that has divided audiences in terms of what the show is truly about, at its core Sun’s perspective is driven by character as opposed to a more writerly impulse.
Accordingly, whenever I argue that Lost is a story about characters, I am not indicating that the mysteries were unimportant. This episode uses mystery to its advantage, giving us our best look yet at the “security system,” bringing additional Others to life through Walt’s kidnapping, and leaving us hanging on what’s beneath the hatch. However, each of those mysteries is tied to a character: Locke nearly voluntarily gives himself over to the security system (and the island it protects), the Others’ raft destruction interrupts Michael, Sawyer, and Jin’s character arcs in addition to Walt’s disappearance, and the hatch is crucial for Jack, Locke, and Hurley in near equal measure. Although I would agree that the connection between character and mystery weakens a bit as the seasons wear on, at the heart of the series is the idea that no mythology can be sustained if there isn’t a character at its center.
We see this in “Exodus” with Rousseau, who emerges from the jungle with a warning about the black smoke on the horizon. When she first appears, it’s with a boatload of exposition, as the black smoke last appeared when the Others attacked and kidnapped her child, Alex. It’s a major plot development, pushing Jack, Locke, Kate, and Hurley to travel with Rousseau to the Black Rock in search of dynamite to blow up the hatch and hide from the Others inside. It reminds us that Rousseau is a key connection to the island’s mythology, and therefore a useful instigator for Lindelof and Cuse—writing their second script together—to kickstart the finale.
However, as the episode progresses Rousseau becomes less and less tethered to mythology in the sense of the supernatural or unexplained. Her choice to kidnap Aaron has nothing to do with the island, and everything to do with the emotional weight of losing a child. Rousseau is someone just like these castaways—and strikingly like Claire—who had a life that was interrupted, and who has spent 16 years fighting to reclaim it while in no psychological position to do so. While we can certainly look to the island to help explain her insanity, it boils down to basic human emotions, in the same way that we can look at characters like Locke or Jack as having personal stories intersecting with—rather than being superseded by—the island around them. The island and the characters may always be in conflict in the first season, but they’re never separated from one another, their fates intertwined in ways that make this finale about both, rather than one or the other.
That is the accomplishment of Lost’s first season, ultimately. This is the finale to a heavily serialized television series about a supernatural island and the survivors of a mysterious plane crash, and it delivers the action, adventure, suspense, and mystery that we expect from that show. However, it also stops to have a scene like the one between Sawyer and Jack, and is able to draw on multiple flashbacks and extended on-island narratives to create a crucial piece of closure on the season’s arcs. When Sawyer—who believes he’s about to leave for good—stops Jack to tell him about his encounter with Christian, we see a character giving Jack the closure that the island couldn’t. While Jack chased a ghost to an empty casket, Sawyer gives him a tangible memory, one that the island—operating as it does through mystical means—cannot replicate. It also shows how much Sawyer—who had previously chosen not to reveal this information to Jack—has matured, and how this formerly antagonistic relationship has reached a point of understanding (if not outright friendship).
That’s the ultimate goal of “Exodus.” Its flashbacks—culminating in a simple yet powerful montage of the characters boarding the plane—don’t tell a story about why the castaways got on Oceanic Flight 815, and make no effort to solve any of the individual characters’ respective mysteries. Instead, they’re glimpses of who they were before, to remind us that they are constantly in flux in their new environment. They are not so much changed as they are changing, always in motion: Charlie kicked drugs but brings a Virgin Mary statue back to camp with him, while Hurley trades running to catch a flight to running to stop the dynamite from tempting fate with the numbers on the hatch. The people who got onto Oceanic Flight 815 have been rendered echoes of a past self, identities that bubble back to the surface but are constantly in conversation with the new people—Claire as a mother, Locke as a leader, Kate as a settler, etc.—they are becoming. It’s an evocative ending to the season: as much as the cliffhanger is what created the most buzz and excitement, it’s those slow-motion scenes of the characters stowing their bags and sharing unknowing eye contact with the people they would depend on in the month ahead that brings the season full circle, and makes this an incredibly satisfying finale to a powerful season of television.
Episode Grade: A
Season Grade: A for ambition, A- for execution
- “Exodus” is the first episode of Lost from the team of Damon Lindelof, Carlton Cuse, and Jack Bender, arguably one of the most formidable teams in television history. They all do some fine work here.
- “You’ve got some Arzt on you”—the deliberate redshirting of Arzt is a fun piece of writing, and brings some (dark) levity to an episode in need of some, but I also like how Hurley struggles to shake it off. As the comic relief, Hurley gets some funny lines about it, but it also serves his belief he’s cursed, and makes him feel responsible for the larger fate of his friends/fellow castaways in a way that retains the character’s depth as established in “Numbers.”
- Hurley’s race to make his flight is one of the rare “short film” flashbacks, something that Lost didn’t do a lot of, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
- “WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALT”—how many As do you use when you type this out? We should decide on a number. I decided this felt right, and it ended up being 15, which is right for all sorts of reasons.
- Speaking of the numbers, Jack’s in 23B while Ana Lucia—played by the highly recognizable and “And Credit” worthy Michelle Rodriguez—was in 42F. Coincidence? You’ve been watching the same show I’ve been watching, right?
- The Game Boy Advance SP was a fine handheld gaming system, and so I’m happy to see it memorialized here even if it’s one of the few items that really dates the series given how much the island setting tends to downplay the 2005-ness given the lack of modern conveniences.
- As far as dick moves go, Jack putting the dynamite in his own bag instead of Kate’s is pretty high up there. I’m still not entirely sure if the show was aiming for “Jack loves Kate and is protecting her, how romantic” or “Jack’s subtle sexism reflects his inability to give up control, thus complicating his interpersonal/romantic relationships,” but I’m definitely choosing the latter.
- Daddy issues alert: Walt already had plenty of reason to be skeptical of Michael’s parental authority, but his outright disrespect makes more sense after we hear Michael pawning him off on his grandmother by saying he never thought he’d actually have to be a father. That’s harsh, and it’s hard to see them reach a better spot just in time for Walt to be targeted by the Others for uncertain reasons.
- I chose to refer to it as a single episode, but “Exodus” was technically divided into two for air and for DVD, and then into three episodes on Netflix (reflecting an easier syndication solution), which required some “Previously On” segments that Netflix skipped when auto-playing through the episodes.
[Not Exactly] Next Week: Before we get into some spoilers, a programming note that we’re going to be taking some time to recharge before we dive into season two with “Man of Science, Man of Faith” and “Adrift.” That review will appear on September 24th, which not-so-coincidentally is the same week as the 10th anniversary of Lost’s debut. Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting so far, and to Todd VanDerWerff for getting us started before the Others took him.
Spoiler Station (Don’t read unless you’ve seen the whole series)
Watching “Exodus,” I knew I needed to say a bit more in Spoiler Station. Throughout the season, this has been a space for brief points of reflection given the information revealed in later seasons, and there’s certainly been plenty of character and plot details that have resonated in light of future developments.
However, “Exodus” feels different. The hatch is the series’ first true cliffhanger, and arguably the one they pay off the best: as soon as “Exodus” finished, I couldn’t help but let Netflix flip over to “Man of Science, Man of Faith,” and I wrote some of this review with “Make Your Own Kind of Music” on repeat. But Lost would never quite live up to every one of its cliffhangers in the same way, particularly as they piled up over time, to the point where this ending feeds the “cheap tease” narrative as much as the “thrilling serialization” one.
I am against the notion that hindsight changes the quality of a television series: “Exodus” stands as a terrific finale that balances its forward momentum and backward glances excellently. But the presence of the Black Rock reminds us how many of Lost’s little mysteries would linger uncomfortably for five more seasons, while the parallels between Rousseau and Claire—poignant and human here—foreshadow the less subtle connection between those characters upon Claire’s return later in the series. And as much as I would argue the mystery of the Others was well-executed in these early episodes, it suffers in hindsight when we fully understand who they are, and what they do, and the theater of it all becomes a smokescreen that serves the plot more than it seems necessary for the human beings allegedly committing the acts in question. And it’s hard not to hear Sun, Shannon, and Claire debating why they’re on the island without filling in the blanks, jumping ahead to the resolution that would be offered five years later. For all these reasons, I understand how those who turned against the series in its later seasons could look to “Exodus” and see the seeds of where the show would go off the rails by the end.
When I pitched Todd on taking over this feature, I mentioned that I was very interested in exploring the way Lost’s legacy inflects our experience revisiting the series. And what has become clear in each discussion section is that people retain strong opinions on Lost, opinions that are not simply positive or negative, but inherently conflicted. Few would defend the entire series, and few would reject every season, with most everyone sitting somewhere on a spectrum. And this is not an opinion that applies evenly to every episode: different episodes trigger different opinions, such that “Exodus” litmus test could set off some frustrations while leaving others undisturbed. It’s been over nine years since the episode aired, but the discussions we’ve been having about the first season haven’t been particularly memorial; these episodes are still present, activated at a moment’s notice when someone starts us off with a strong opinion.
I didn’t think going into this season that my opinions on Lost were strong: I liked the finale, and could appreciate the big picture goals of the final season, but my approach when reviewing them on my own blog had been a largely analytical one, considering their effectiveness versus responding to them emotionally. And yet returning to the first season has reinforced that my opinions were strong enough for my emotional investment in these early episodes to feel remarkably stronger than I expected (like when I teared up during the “Parting Ways” sequence as Jin and Sun said their silent goodbyes from afar). My “flashforwards” while watching weren’t to arguments or debates: they were to characters and moments, pieces in the emotional puzzle as opposed to the mythological one.
At the risk of over-proselytizing, Jack and Locke’s scene toward the end of “Exodus” unlocked a lot of understanding of Lost viewers to me. On the one hand, Locke and Jack are in disagreement: while Locke believes that the hatch represents hope and resurrection, Jack sees the hatch as a shelter, representing survival. It’s the quintessential division of science and faith that will drive the characters moving forward, and which becomes a crucial guidepost for the series. However, at the end of the day, they don’t actually disagree on what to do: all they disagree is on what it means. They both want to open the hatch, and they both are willing to risk their lives to do so, but they see the end result of that process in two different ways.
Lost viewers all want to talk about Lost, some people because they remain connected to it, and others because they’re frustrated the show turned in a direction they didn’t enjoy. However, these reviews have reaffirmed that whatever Lost did right or wrong over its six seasons, it has created a group of people who want to go back to the island, and who are able to reengage with the series as though it were airing today. Not all shows make sense for TV Club Classic, but Lost has been one of them, and as we head into season two I think we can all agree that the opinions are only going to get stronger from here on out.
Stray Spoiler Observations (Again, don’t read unless you’ve seen the whole series):
- Is Vincent cursed? I had forgotten Walt had done such a formal handoff to Shannon, all but dooming her to eventually take a bullet.
- I forget whether or not we knew that Michelle Rodriguez had been cast for the second season when this aired, but I like the idea of a new viewer stumbling upon her appearance and anticipating what might happen as they continue their binge.
- How pissed do you remember being at the cliffhanger? I remember being pretty pissed, to the point where I’m sort of pissed now that no one is likely to be pissed the same way given that the resolution auto-plays on Netflix.
- I don’t even know if it was intentional, but there was some meaningful hesitation as Kate helped set the dynamite on the hatch, as though she were confronting her past experience with explosions. Am I crazy?
- Rousseau should’ve just gone with a squirrel baby, right?
- I’m shocked there wasn’t an empty case of eyeliner kicking around on the Black Rock.
- I think we were discussing “The Brig” in an earlier comment thread, but Sawyer’s desire to leave the island to resolve his Sawyer issues makes the man in question’s arrival on the island a bit more sensible (as the resolution came to Sawyer rather than the other way around). It’s still a mess, logically speaking, but it connects in terms of storytelling.
- I think “someone lost their arm” might be one of the best bits of subtle foreshadowing that pays off later, although the shark is nice too.
- Speaking of the montage at the end of “Exodus,” let’s flashforward to LAX with the help of an unfortunately aspect-ratioed YouTube comparison of the flash sideways parallel montage.