Lost (Classic): “Homecoming”/“Outlaws”

Lost (Classic): “Homecoming”/“Outlaws”

The show and its characters struggle to maintain the illusion of a status quo

“Homecoming” (season 1, episode 15; originally aired 02/09/2005)

In which the real villain is humanity (but also the murderer).

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon).

“Ethan’s the bad guy.”

This is what Charlie tells Claire when she asks who Ethan is, suffering from short-term memory loss following her kidnapping ordeal. He states it as a matter of fact, and by all accounts it seems logical: he hid himself among the castaways, beat up Jack, kidnapped Claire, and tried to murder Charlie. And after Charlie makes this statement, Ethan returns to threaten Charlie, promising to kill a castaway every night until Claire is returned, and lives up to his promise by murdering Scott—not Steve—before morning. By the time Charlie picks up Jack’s discarded gun and shoots Ethan in the chest, we’ve been given plenty of evidence to suggest Ethan deserved to die, and that his death makes things safer for our castaways, even if we also accept that getting to interrogate him first could have been of additional value.

However, we need to correct Charlie’s statement: Ethan is a bad guy. Even if we presume he’s been surviving in the jungle on his own like Rousseau, it seems unlikely there will be no other antagonists emerging before the castaways solve the island’s mysteries and return to their previous lives. Ethan is the first of what is likely to be many challenges to this community, and “Homecoming” is therefore much more about the state of that community than it is about the life and death of Ethan Rom (or whatever his real name is).

Claire’s memory loss throws the development of that community into sharp relief. Claire doesn’t remember anything that’s happened since boarding Flight 815, which means she has no idea what kind of community has been developed. As cheap as amnesia plots are, commonly used to reset character development and justifying repeating some elements of storytelling, it also means that we get clear markers of time: it’s been nearly a month since the crash, and roughly two weeks have passed since Claire was abducted. You lose track of time as we jump between episodes, and I don’t know if I would believe the writers if they said they had a clear timeline mapped out in the first half of the season. But even if we’re not exact, the three-episode span before “Homecoming” was very much about how time is not the best friend of a tenuous community formed by victims of a plane crash. With time comes conflict, and with conflict comes the hope of resolution and the promise that any resolution you find will change the fabric of that community.

Those conflicts were fairly isolated in the span following Claire’s abduction, but her return brings everyone together with a common goal of protecting the community from the villain, Ethan. And yet the episode ends with five guns thrown into the open, used as a show of force to protect the camp but also placing deadly weapons—or the idea of deadly weapons—into a community that remains fundamentally unstable. When Jack places that gun in Locke’s hand, he’s placing it in the hands of someone he doesn’t trust, and that we know is hiding something in the jungle and fostering ideas of how the castaways should relate to their new home. And while Jack is sexist for trusting Sawyer over Kate in terms of someone wielding the fourth gun, given his generally positive relationship with the latter, both Sawyer and Kate have past run-ins with the law that could potentially bring the guns into play. This is all to say nothing of Jin, who doesn’t understand exactly what’s happening around him but clearly—based on the flashbacks—has ties to criminal enterprise.

The episode goes by without any of this happening: Charlie kills Ethan before he can kill again, and none of the friendly fire Jack imagined takes place. We get another episode-closing montage—Lindelof was in love with these things—with the various character pairings celebrating their continued safety, and Claire gets back a small piece of her memory: she remembers peanut butter. And yet peanut butter hardly tells the entire story, her selective memory a device that reminds us how selective your memory has to be to think of this as the slow-motion stability the montage offers. The episode reminds us about the Marshal, but there’s also the torture, and the monster, and the various flashbacks that have shown us that each character holds their own secrets that frame their experience on the island. The longer these montages persist, the more absurd they seem, but their futile effort to reset to an ideal that never really existed in the first place reinforces the way the castaways construct such false stability in order to mask the underlying tension in this and nearly every episode.

Although I do think Lindelof is way too invested these terrible montages, given how often they’ve appeared, I would argue “Homecoming” works provided we consider much of its framing to be done from the perspective of the castaways, even if it was more likely Lindelof struggling to filter network notes through his storytelling goals. Charlie’s flashback is of a genre that could often be a bit precious, wherein a character acts a certain way throughout the episode and then the flashback ends on the scene that reinforces the reasoning for the character’s actions. Charlie spends the episode insistent on protecting Claire, even hiding the truth about Ethan’s threat from her, and he eventually uses this logic to justify murdering Ethan; it seems at least somewhat out of character, but then we learn in his flashback that Lucy—a mark he seduced to steal valuables for drug money—told him that he’ll “never take care of anyone.” It’s this notion that has haunted Charlie since Claire was abducted, and now that he’s free of his heroin addiction and less prone to vomiting into photocopiers, he’s finally in a position to be the hero.

And that’s the reason why Ethan is not the only problem the castaways are facing. Everyone is inherently unpredictable, each carrying their own baggage that could intersect with new conflicts in an almost infinite number of ways. We would have never connected the dots and pegged Charlie for the kind of person who would pick up a gun and murder someone, but by the time you reach the end of “Homecoming” there’s a new collection of dots that make it fairly—if somewhat conveniently—logical. Things are happier with Ethan dead, certainly, but—as the montages make clear—happiness is a construction, a selective reordering of reality designed to make people feel better despite the mounting evidence the stability of this community is a pipe dream, at best. Although the end of the episode struggles a bit to articulate this, likely under the weight of network expectations of an approachable status quo, the episode stands as a meaningful rumination on how screwed these people were long before there was a legitimate bad guy for them to rally against.

Stray observations:

  • I had honestly forgotten the setup to Charlie’s photocopier pitch entirely, so I was struck anew by the way Charlie finds truth in a lie as he confronts his fall from grace with Lucy’s father (Jim Piddock)—it speaks nicely to the way other characters play against their identity (thinking of Sun and Locke’s secrets, specifically), and the way that impacts their psychology both on and off the island.
  • I really love how the episode throws the previous joking about Steve and Scott back at the audience: just as you’re cynically thinking “Oh, look, they killed another random castaway you never met,” they reveal that we did meet them, and a joke has turned into a meaningful symbol of escalation. Farewell, Steve—er, I mean, Scott. (No joke: I accidentally reversed these when I first wrote this sentence.)
  • The idea that Ethan only gets into fist fights in the rain is a fairly significant coincidence, but it’s stylistically interesting and worth it for the atmosphere.
  • Lindelof named “Homecoming” his least-favorite episode of the entire series in 2009, which I find interesting. It has some weak parts, certainly, but I guess I would say that everything seems to fit into a thematic space that’s productive for the season and the series. I imagine that his response would suggest some of that thematic work—outlined above—was unintentional, but that’s the joy of television: it is what it becomes, not what it was initially.
  • I have a very distinct memory of having to have the Internet explain the significance of Lucy’s father buying a paper company in Slough to me. I definitely didn’t get the reference at the time, and I actually missed in on rewatch, despite remembering that it was probably in this episode. And yes, I purposefully wrote this sentence without mentioning the reference to make some of you feel as ignorant as I felt then. You’re welcome.

“Outlaws” (season 1, episode 16; originally aired 02/16/2005)

In which Sawyer and Christian walk into a bar.

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon).

“You’re not alone—don’t pretend to be.”

One could read the above review of “Homecoming” as a cynical one, given that it speaks of the stability of this community as futile and generally refuses to take the series’ attempts to present a status quo at face value. And one could accordingly read “Outlaws” as the characters playing out this farce, with Jack working to recollect and lock away the guns as though they had never been distributed, and with Sayid playing therapist with Charlie to make sure he’s not suffering from PTSD as he re-enters society following his brief foray into justifiable homicide. Both efforts are band-aids, designed to keep inherently and inescapably destabilizing events from registering as destabilizing for at least a few more days or weeks.

However, my cynicism only extends to attempts to claim global stability. Jack’s claim that all the other castaways had no real questions about the guns is bullshit, a way to justify his choices to himself and ignore how Ethan’s death revealed the precariousness of their community in the wake of this and other future threats. By comparison, though, Sayid’s advice to Charlie is very true. Charlie may not be able to rely on everyone equally—Locke and Boone’s choice to marginalize themselves in the jungle makes this clear, as does Walt’s increasingly impressive raft—but there are people like Hurley and Claire who are his friends, and who are there to help him. You can find stability within an unstable situation, and even in the absence of a definitive status quo there are still ways you can find someone to talk to, or someone to generally spend time with. The island may be more messed up than any montage would be able to gloss over, but it is also in its spirituality a place invested in characters gaining meaningful understanding of their own identities, often through their relationships with other castaways.

We see this with Sawyer, who spends the episode—as other characters have done before—chasing a symbol of his personal baggage through the jungle in a quest of self-realization. While Jack had his father, Sawyer has a boar, who comes to represent his own father, as well as the man from whom he stole his name and who led his father to murder his mother and kill himself. The episode opens by showing us those events, with a young Sawyer hiding under his bed listening and watching as his parents die; at first we presume this is a flashback in the traditional form we’ve come to understand, but we can draw a distinction here between two separate flashback structures. The “flashback” in “Outlaws” is Sawyer traveling to Australia to hunt down and kill his namesake, who he’s been told is running a Shrimp truck in Sydney—the glimpses of his childhood are nightmares Sawyer has in the episode itself, direct flashbacks he’s haunted by in light of the fact he shot and likely killed an innocent man in his quest for vengeance before getting on Flight 815.

There is always a fine line between the flashbacks as a construct of the television show Lost and flashbacks that directly place the viewer into the heads of the castaways as though they were memories they were recalling at that very moment. While the flashbacks are typically pointing to elements of each character’s past that motivate their actions in that episode on the island, the kind of direct flashback Sawyer experiences here is atypical. It also makes the error of committing too heavily to the symbolism of the boar, with his father’s physical transformation into the animal in the second nightmare unnecessarily underlining the connection. Television psychology is never particularly deep, or subtle, and the direct engagement with flashback dreams does not necessarily serve the episode or the character as well as it could. It’s a horrifying sequence, one that we definitely needed to see and logically motivates Sawyer both in his flashback and on the island, but the transposition was a bit much.

These character psychology flashbacks are always at risk of eating themselves, which is why it’s important the character in question has someone else to bounce off of. One of the problems with “Whatever The Case May Be” is that Kate had no one to work with in her flashback that we had any reason to care about, and she was hiding so much of the truth on the island that it just became the same note over and over again. In this case, Sawyer’s story benefits from Kate’s awareness about the basic facts, and her presence as he tracks the boar through the jungle. Their “Never Have I Ever”—“I Never” is not the name of this game in my world, Sawyer—scene is rich with meaning, not only because there are some seeds for future flashbacks, but also because it features two people who know more about each other than those around them, and who find meaningful support in that knowledge. “Never Have I Ever” is on its surface a game about shame, but at its core is the goal of reassuring yourself that there is someone who has done the same things you’ve done, or who hasn’t done the same things that you’ve yet to do. As their back-and-forth becomes more intimate, the framing shifts entirely to close-ups, which both reinforces the inherent—read: unavoidable—sexual tension and reminds us that such intimacy is rare given the circumstances around them and their respective commitments to being secretive about their pasts.

Sawyer is further helped, though, by having someone to work with in the flashback as well. There’s a huge amount of coincidence—one might even call it fate, perhaps—in Sawyer stumbling into the same bar as Christian Shephard, but it’s a tremendous scene and a stroke of genius on two levels. The first is that it gives us as the audience a character we know and understand, and whose advice to Sawyer works both to reinforce the larger narrative goals of the flashback sequences. Given that the flashbacks are as invested in broader thematic work—our ongoing investigation into daddy issues, for example—as they are in specific character details, the overlap is effective, and reinforces the collapsing of these flashbacks into the series’ larger interest in questions like how one eases their suffering. It’s also a rare chance to see a character otherwise framed exclusively from another character’s perspective speaking to a different character entirely: Christian tells Sawyer things he would never tell Jack, an insight we don’t typically get into “flashback characters” like Christian, or Lucy in “Homecoming,” or—going back to last week’s review—Susan in “Special.”

The other reason the choice works is how it reminds us context is everything. If Sawyer doesn’t run into Christian in that bar, it’s possible he doesn’t return to murder the man he thinks is Sawyer, but is actually a man who owes a mutual criminal acquaintance money. He’s been conned into doing someone else’s dirty work, his past a vulnerability that was successfully taken advantage of. When he and Christian have that conversation, we know everything that drives Christian to give the advice he does: Christian is not some random person in a bar spouting life philosophy, but a man responding to very specific life events, as rich as those Sawyer himself is facing. It’s convenient, sure, but it’s also the kind of convergence that happens when two fully realized human beings collide under such circumstances. While we could look at it as fate, we could just as easily look at it as life, something Lost will continually ask us to do as the series delves deeper into coincidence and fate moving forward.

“Outlaws” doesn’t have a whole lot of on-island work to do: Charlie works through some PTSD and goes on a walk with Claire, and Sawyer’s journey into the woods with Kate earns her the ability to force him to give up his gun to Jack. Sawyer also chooses not to tell Jack that he’s potentially pieced together it was Christian who he ran into at that bar on that night, resisting the chance for the flashbacks to directly impact the narrative beyond his own psychology. It allows the illusion of a status quo to persist, although the one montage-like scene we get is a bit different: as Claire pans across the beach, we see a couple primed to be torn apart by a secret, and a father and son building a raft to splinter from the community. And while Kate and Sawyer learned more about one another, there are still secrets they’re harboring, and thus conflicts they’re leaving in place should the truth emerge.

It’s an example of the show’s writers finding a way to provide a meaningful piece of closure on an episodic storyline without really closing anything. There is some closure for Sawyer, who doesn’t shoot the boar when he gets the chance, trying to avoid making the same mistake he made when he shot the man who wasn’t Sawyer after all. But it’s the close to a chapter instead of a book, and even in the absence of a formal cliffhanger there are still numerous unresolved character conflicts below the surface of “Outlaws.” Despite doing relatively little to call attention to dangling plot threads, the episode maintains what we could thematic momentum, and further reinforces the underlying tension that resist the status quo we’re occasionally being sold.

Stray observations:

  • I don’t tend to talk a lot about performance in these reviews, but Josh Holloway is particularly excellent here, just as Dominic Monaghan was great in “Homecoming.” Lost would have never worked if it didn’t have actors who could carry the burden of these flashbacks—some were better than others, but the batting average was damn impressive overall.
  • Per the island’s ongoing mysteries, Sawyer hears the whispers, but—as with Christian—doesn’t fully commit to his connection to the island’s mysteries, backing away from discussing it openly.
  • Strangely, I just had a conversation about different variations on “Never Have I Ever”—like whether one can “win” the game, and the “counting on fingers” version—over the weekend, so I laughed when I saw it come up here. I wonder if there’s any regional or generational logic to the different names it could go by.
  • One byproduct of the switch to closeups in the “Never Have I Ever” sequence is that I became really fixated on the continuity with the tiny liquor bottles. It wasn’t great.
  • Daddy issues alert: It was present in the first flashback back in “Confidence Man” (when it was the child that spooked Sawyer on his con), but actually seeing Sawyer’s father murder his mother and then kill himself while sitting on Sawyer’s childhood bed with Sawyer under that bed? Like out of a textbook.
  • Sawyer really should have known that Hibbs was up to no good—Robert Patrick is rarely a trustworthy character in television. He’s playing an ostensible good guy in CBS’ Scorpion this fall, but I’m convinced the big season one reveal will be he’s a double agent.
  • “Perhaps he wanted to go camping”—Sayid brought jokes!

Spoiler Station (Don’t read if you haven’t seen the whole series):

  • It seems so weird in retrospect to watch Ethan die, when almost everything we know about the character will be learned through flashbacks in future seasons. Even though I knew he died, deep in my brain at least, my mind had me convinced he would live as I watched the episode, since there was so much else I knew we’d learn about him.
  • Of the narrative gymnastics the writers would have to do once they actually definitively figured out what the Others were, trying to justify Ethan’s homicidal behavior here was definitely one of their biggest challenges. Does it all hold up? Eh, not especially, but they gave it a go.
  • So is the boar the Smoke Monster? (I could ask this question with so many of the symbols in the show. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum. But honestly, is it?).

Next week: 4 8 15 16 23 42.

Filed Under: TV, Lost (Classic)

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