“The Moth” (season 1, episode 7; originally aired 11/03/2004)
In which Charlie kicks his habit
Seven episodes into Lost’s first season, it has become alarmingly clear that Charlie’s question of “Where are we?” at the end of the pilot is more complicated than geography. “The Island” has become a blank slate, a deliverer of miracles, a virtual reality daddy issues simulator, and a den of mysteries waiting to be unearthed, to the point where even the “monster” the characters have encountered has become seen—by Locke, at least—as an extension of the land mass itself.
As those who have seen the entire series know, the island will continue to evolve over the course of the series’ run, as the characters explore more of its geographic land mass and more of its love of mysteries and metaphors. There will be entire episodes about the island, and it will become one of the centerpieces of the series’ mythology and the discourse around that mythology. The mystery of the island—foregrounded in the discovery of the bodies in the caves in “House Of The Rising Sun”—may be new at this stage, but it’s already emerging as a major part of Lost’s storytelling.
However, it’s not functioning in the way it will later in the series. Without going too far into spoilers, the mysteries of the island will later spawn major storylines and dictate the terms by which the series’ characters take action and hold agency. In “The Moth,” however, the island isn’t the central focus of any of its storylines. The episode is built around the story of Charlie confronting his addiction and negotiating his place within the emerging community of castaways, rescuing Jack from a cave-in he created and rescuing himself from a remnant of a past he’d rather forget. “The Moth” is premised on the importance of Charlie making the choice to throw away the drugs himself, rather than having them destroyed for him, and his ability to take agency for his own struggles is crucial to his development as a character. This is a human story, first and foremost, and it marks a key transition for a character that—not unlike Kate—had to put the past to rest before moving on in the present.
And yet, it’s hard not to feel like the island somehow generated all of this as some kind of trial. Speaking through Locke as its human representative, the island gave Charlie the chance to become stronger through struggle, and delivered unto him the moth that would lead him and Jack to safety in the same way that Christian led Jack to the fresh water they needed to survive. It’s the same kind of trial Locke had to face when confronting his past, with hunting the boar serving as a key test of whether or not he could truly be who he aspired to when planning a walkabout as a man who couldn’t walk. The close relationship between flashback and the island is built on coincidence, and at this stage in the series the best explanation for those coincidences is the unknown variable of being on a tropical island with a polar bear on it.
In truth, these are all writing devices, ones that make “The Moth” one of the more intensely metaphorical—and thus writerly—episodes of the series. The eponymous metaphor—delivered by Locke—is one of the series’ most blatant, and the moth’s consistent reappearance in the episode calls a lot of attention to the construction of the narrative. At its best, Lost finds ways to bring its two sides together, to make it seem like the events in the past and the events on the island are weaved together not only in the linear construction of the episode, but also in the psyches of its characters. In “The Moth,” though, it’s comparatively easy to read this as a contrived series of events designed to allow Charlie to confront his addiction, in the process confronting the circumstances that led to his addiction in the first place. This is not one of the show’s subtler efforts, and its various themes and ideas are strung together too neatly between the past and present without the same payoff as some of the flashbacks around it.
And yet “The Moth” still (mostly) works because the general mysticism of the island explains it. As much as the show was grounded by the inherent realism of people struggling to survive in the wake of a plane crash, it has the mysteries of the island as a fallback whenever the show wants to delve into a metaphor that might otherwise come across as clichéd. When you make the notion that “struggle is nature’s way is strengthening” into Locke’s wisdom, and thus by extension the island’s wisdom, it reframes the island as Charlie’s vaguely supernatural rehab clinic and works to make the surface-level thematic work more tenable. Dominic Monaghan does well with the withdrawal symptoms, and in mapping out the parallels of Charlie losing control in the past and gaining control in the present.
The rest of the episode shows the series continuing to triangulate its position on a number of characters and storylines. You may think that this is a terrible pun based on Sayid’s plan to discover the location of the French woman’s signal, but it’s actually pulling double duty in reference to what counts as the official introduction of the Jack/Kate/Sawyer love triangle. Sawyer follows Kate into the jungle with the intention of telling her news of Jack’s accident at the caves, but when he arrives she’s got no time for him. Her opinion of him is that of a criminal, hoarding electronics and more likely to make wise than make an effort to help in a meaningful way. And so when Kate presumes he’s there to belittle her instead of delivering important news, Sawyer makes a choice to hide the news and offer to help instead. The subsequent interactions—before Sawyer lets his news slip—is all about Sawyer measuring himself next to Jack, wanting Kate to sense that he’s more than what she believes without actually being able to outright say it. It’s nice work from Josh Holloway, who is asked to suggest depth beneath the slimy exterior in addition to the comedy pulled out of the character in previous episodes.
That’ll play out more in the following episode, but here it serves as an antidote to some highly ineffective Jack and Kate storytelling. I understand that Fox and Lilly have chemistry, and I’m not inherently against the pairing, but the speed at which the show’s characters and the show itself have organized around the idea of these two as a couple rings false. It’s fine when they’re just being flirty, but the way Kate almost kills herself trying to save Jack expedites their connection beyond a point the show can actually sustain with its character development. While Charlie’s trials fit comfortably into the mystical island and its uncertain powers such that we accept the expedited storytelling and character development on display, Jack and Kate’s relationship develops in these early episodes at a speed determined by the show’s desire to have a central romance more than based on anything we’re seeing happen on screen.
And that’s fine: Lost is, after all, a television show, and we could easily track the production logic that necessitated the introduction of the soundstage-based caves or the scheduling help trapping Jack in a cave would offer in terms of giving Matthew Fox a rest following two Jack-heavy episodes. In these early episodes, though, the show demonstrated a real capacity to use its mysteries not as the driving force of its storytelling, but as an omniscient presence, there to help transport us into these stories. “The Moth” is an example of the writers testing the limits of how far they could take this logic, and it ultimately serves as both a solid expansion of Charlie’s character and an experience to build on as the writers grow more comfortable with the format as the season progresses.
- “Scott?” “I’m Steve.” “I’m Scott!”—the show started getting meta the moment Hurley started talking about a dinosaur in “Tabula Rasa,” but this is an early joke about the anonymity of the majority of the castaways, with a nice one-week buffer to avoid seeming insensitive to Joanna and an episode that made this into more tragedy than comedy.
- Are You There God? It’s Me, Lost: Faith is one of Lost’s trigger words, and here we see our first inherently religious flashback—Charlie in confessional—and Jack telling Kate that he wishes he shared her “faith” in the possibility of rescue.
- Daddy issues alert: The absence of a father figure in Charlie’s life sort of reframes his relationship with his older brother Liam as a case of daddy issues, albeit with Charlie as the father figure initially, and then the child figure once it’s him with the drug problem.
- In revisiting it, I ended up feeling a weird sort of déjà vu between Sayid’s plan and the climax of Catching Fire, so I wonder if Suzanne Collins is a Lost fan.
- My favorite thing about “You All Everybody”—which I nearly broke out in Rock Band after writing this review—is that the song’s writers had to stick to the melody Charlie introduced in the pilot. Songwriting by months-earlier improvisation may not create genius, but it holds the narrative together nicely.
- “The Moth” is easily my second-favorite television episode featuring two characters trapped by a cave-in contemplating the meaning of life and death—the title, for the record, Fraggle Rock’s “Marooned,” which I found myself thinking of as Charlie spoke of the cave as like confessional. Let’s just say that if Charlie and Jack had broken into song, I’d have given this at least a B+.
- Speaking of grades: I’m honoring Todd’s inclusion of grades, but I will admit that applying grades to TV Club Classic episodes can be a bit of a crapshoot for me personally, which is why I’ve avoided it in the past. So if you have an objection to a grade, chances are it could’ve gone another way just as easily, so let’s talk it out in the comments.
“Confidence Man” (season 1, episode 8; originally aired 11/10/2004)
In which Sayid commits sins and Sawyer writes tragedies
In a previous review, Todd reflected on Lost as a post-9/11 show, and arguably there is no clearer example of this than in the character of Sayid. As much as the character is defined as resourceful, intelligent, and tech-savvy in early episodes, the specter of his time in Iraq’s Republican Guard hangs over Sayid as part of this ensemble. By choosing to define the character through this past with both the other characters and with the audience, the writers are pushing beyond the already politically-charged implications of an Arab male being part of a plane crash; by making him directly affiliated with Iraq, Sayid becomes personally tied to discussions of terrorism and torture that extend well beyond the war itself into both culture more broadly and—through shows like 24—into other examples of popular culture of the period.
And in “Confidence Man,” the show fully commits to the connection, as Sayid knocks Sawyer out, ties him to a tree, and then uses bamboo under his fingernails to torture information out of him. It’s an intense scene to watch, and a meaningful one for Sayid as a character: after it’s done, he realizes that he’s become the very thing he didn’t want to be. It mirror the tragedy of Sawyer’s path in life, in which he swore he would one day face down the confidence man who ruined his family and then discovered one day all he had to do was stare in the mirror at the man he had himself become. In Sayid’s case, he had tried to put his past behind him, but the stresses of starting a new community and the uncertainty surrounding their future led him to fall back on who he was before, sending him off on his own into the jungle to try to better learn about the island and himself.
It’s an effective parallel, but it’s hampered by the fact that Lost—at least at this point in its run—is not calibrated for one of its characters to torture another one. The episode simply doesn’t do enough to get us to the point where we can understand why this event was necessary, and why cooler heads couldn’t have prevailed. It pulls Shannon’s asthma out of thin air—sorry—to create a crisis, one that the episode itself later proves could have been solved by someone thinking about alternatives to inhalers. Meanwhile, Sayid is basing his torture on circumstantial evidence that Sawyer is in possession of the medication, and on an entirely crackpot theory—put there by Locke, mystical shit disturber—that Sawyer rigged a slow fuse from a cigarette to fire off the bottle rocket at the exact precise time in order to covertly travel to Sayid’s location and hit him over the head with a stick. And Jack goes along with it because he’s both feeling the pressure of being leader in light of Shannon’s illness, and also because he’s at least a bit jealous of the fact that Sawyer thinks he and Kate have a connection.
I see where the episode is coming from here. When Jack realizes that Sun has created a eucalyptus mixture to serve as a natural remedy, he kicks himself, realizing he reverted to what he would have done as a doctor in the “real world” instead of thinking like someone on a deserted island. The first season is highly invested in the uncertainty of whether or not they will ever be rescued, which formed the basis of the split between the beach and the caves and which is particularly true of Sawyer’s embrace of the lawless society formed the moment the plane crashed. This is far from a normal circumstance, and so I buy that there is the chance for things to get out of hand.
However, even accepting that explanation, this constitutes at most a reason to rough Sawyer up a little, as Jack does at the caves earlier in the episode. However, for all of this to escalate to out-and-out, Republican Guard-style torture is an enormous stretch, and exists solely because the show wants it to—the show, in simple terms, wants to prompt a discussion about torture. It’s a noble and worthy goal, in theory, but it has to co-exist with a storyline that features Kate and Sawyer making out, and an episode that ends with a fairly happy montage as Sayid walks off into his quest of personal reflection. It’s a case of the show getting caught in the middle, pushing the torture too far in the moment—those screams are terrifying—but failing to allow the rest of the episode to match the tone of the torture and allow it the proper breathing room. I admire the commitment to letting torture be torture, but you need to commit beyond the act itself for it to seem like more than a shortcut to pushing Sayid away, and using torture as a narrative shortcut is a fundamentally bad idea. The original script for the episode reveals some more global reactions to the torture that could have helped things, but in the end I’m not sure anything could have made the torture work in the context of the events depicted.
It’s unfortunate how it hangs over the episode, because Sawyer’s flashback is really well done. While the show can only do so many twist-based flashbacks, this is a nice example of one where purposefully misleading the audience has its benefits. When Kate reads the letter, it creates the logical assumption we’re seeing the story being depicted play out, and that Sawyer is a con man who destroyed someone’s family; when Sawyer spots the kid and bolts for the door leaving the money behind as the con is at the one-yard-line, we realize that he’s a victim turned perpetrator. It’s a nice reveal, although one that I wish the episode had more confidence in. Having Sawyer explain it to Kate serves the bond between the two characters, but it puts into exposition what Josh Holloway did a great job of capturing in a nuanced performance, and I sort of wish that could have been left to the audience to piece together rather than outlined in such plain terms.
It’s a reminder that Lost remains a broadcast drama. This is not a bad thing, and “Confidence Man” is not sunk as a Sawyer character piece by some mild over-explaining as it reaches its conclusion. But it does mean that when the show pushes to explore an issue like torture, there isn’t always going to be the follow through, and there might also be the need for a happy ending that glosses over the broader political implications of what happened. The idea of exploring torture is not a bad one, and you can see the way it intersects with Sawyer’s flashback and with themes the show is clearly invested in. However, you can also see how the show can’t commit like it would need to, and how the natural calibration of a show in its first season is necessary even for shows with iconic pilots and a generally high standard in early episodes. There’s still plenty to like in this episode, but there’s probably more to learn at the end of the day.
- I highly recommend checking out the original script if you didn’t click the link above: it actually has a longer explanation of Sawyer’s past in that scene, and also reveals that the asthma scare was originally going to feature two heretofore unseen characters instead of Boone and Shannon, among other smaller variations.
- In “The Moth,” I was struck by how Charlie argues he is alone, knowing that earlier episodes had started seeding the Charlie/Claire relationship that arrives fully in his imaginary peanut butter and her move to the caves. As someone who imports peanut butter from Canada, I can relate to this storyline.
- Wonders of TV Geography: The beach and the cave are far enough apart to create two separate factions, but they’re surprisingly close together when characters need to travel between them. Television!
- Daddy issues alert: I don’t think we need to go to the judges to see if “Your father killed your mother and himself” qualifies.
- “I guess breathing’s not cool”—I’ve found Boone to be an enormous idiot on this rewatch, which we’ll reflect on more when we get to a Boone-centric episode, but he found a brief moment of sufferability here.
- “It was like a…Jedi moment”—that’s a pregnant pause, as though the show knew it was introducing a character element for Hurley they would continue to return to throughout the series.
- “There’s got to be something—look at you!”—Speaking of Hurley, we can now add Jorge Garcia’s lack of visible weight loss to the list of logic gaps the show has acknowledged in an effort to poke its own holes in its premise.
- If they were consciously helping us read Sawyer’s mark as a bit slow by casting Michael DeLuise to capitalize on the Gilmore Girls intertextuality, props to the casting department.
- Lost Book Club: “Hell of a book—it’s about bunnies!” Watership Down serves as an important plot point in this hour, and is the first of what will be a range of different books that survived the crash.
Spoiler Station (Don’t read if you haven’t watched the whole series):
- So, those who have finished the entire series know that the island was literally testing the castaways. And yet I’d argue Charlie’s episode is framed as a test in a way that doesn’t require that knowledge to pull out, and seems like an early precursor for the omniscience of the island long before we understand—or, mostly understand—the “Why” of it all.
- Whereas the eventual fates of some characters makes their earliest flashbacks more powerful, I would say that Charlie is among those characters whose first flashback really doesn’t do a lot to hint at the best parts of the character. “Greatest Hits” is a series highlight for me, but “The Moth” mainly reinforces how much growth happens between now and “Through The Looking Glass.”
- I knew we were heading toward Sayid and Rousseau (which we’ll get to next week), but I had forgotten the latter had made her presence known so early in the season. Rousseau represents so much of the island’s “mythology” that my memory placed her later in the narrative, as that’s when her presence takes on more concrete meaning.
Personal Note: You’ve probably realized by now that—as Todd noted last week—I’ve taken over this beat after his departure from the site. His are difficult shoes to fill, but I look forward to joining you on this journey, and hope you’ll stick around. I will first extend his interest in learning what you’re looking for in these reviews in regards to recurring stray observations or general focus. Second, if you’re looking for more of my perspectives on the show, I wrote some brief thoughts as I caught up with the first six episodes in preparation for getting started this week. You can find those reviews, and three-and-a-half seasons’ worth of archived Lost reviews/articles from 2007-2010, here.
Next Week: A trip to “Solitary,” and the story of being “Raised By Another,” as the flashbacks spread among the series’ supporting cast.