“Tabula Rasa” (season 1, episode 3; originally aired 10/6/2004)
In which everybody wants a fresh start
Of the major Lost characters—and I’m including people from the entire run of the show here—Kate is toward the bottom of my list. There were individual moments and episodes featuring the character that I enjoyed, and I thought she was generally strong in the final season. But the first few episodes of Lost set up a potentially intriguing character—the resourceful tomboy fugitive—and then proceed to make some really bizarre choices with her. This might be a personal thing. I’ve met many Lost fans who really enjoy the character. But when I look back at the first few episodes of this show—in which I genuinely found Kate to be the most fascinating figure on that beach—I can’t help but think a bit about what didn’t work out.
Of course, now that I’ve made my way through “Tabula Rasa” again, I’m wondering if some of the anti-Kate bias I have stems from this episode, which is good but also a bit of a palate cleanser between the pilot and “Walkabout.” At its best, Lost was one of the best shows out there at structuring its season, so that huge moments got a little room to breathe when they were followed by episodes where less happened. That frustrated many fans, but I think it’s a key to the show’s success. Lost is the rare show that succeeded by making sure it slowed everything down, giving us time to get to know the characters behind the plot twists. But it also means that we follow up the thrilling, enthralling pilot with an episode where not a lot happens. Granted, the show was inventing out of whole-cloth the structure that would both bolster and hinder it in seasons to come, but there’s still a sense of “Tabula Rasa” marking time.
On this viewing, however, I found myself appreciating that. There’s an immediacy and an intimacy to these early episodes of Lost that is enormously engaging, and it stands out amid all of the clones the show inspired, most of which really didn’t have story engines to keep things moving. (Consequently, most of those shows ended up awkwardly grafting their premises on to cop shows, because that’s a story engine TV knows how to abuse.) The genius of Lost in the early going is that it finds a twin pair of story engines that essentially allow it to dabble in almost any genre it wants. The first is the business of surviving on the Island, of finding water or food or shelter, which has a very satisfying “this leads to this” feeling to it. “Tabula Rasa,” for instance, is largely about on-Island gun control, as well as how Jack is going to save the life of the dying marshal. It’s all very practical. The second story engine is the idea of the flashback, and that would end up being Lost’s signature triumph.
I realize this might sound like a heresy to people who started tuning out of the flashbacks around the middle of season two, but those smaller stories within the larger story allowed for the show to play around with its central ideas and themes in settings and contexts that weren’t always familiar ones from the Island. In other words, the flashbacks allowed the show to drop what amounted to a series of short stories in the middle of a long, ongoing novel. It let the series punctuate the main action with supplementary action that could easily cut tension or even ramp it up. The flashbacks were a good source of unexpected story devices, and they also allowed the show to indulge in surprisingly effective and largely straightforward visits to other genres entirely. The series could dabble in the form of a cop show, or it could try something more comedic. Little of this is present in “Tabula Rasa” just yet—the flashback is a largely rudimentary one about the farmer Kate stayed with before she was apprehended—but the show is clearly testing the device to see if it will even work.
The flashbacks also inadvertently contributed to one of the show’s main themes, in terms of its character work: the idea of being able to rewrite your life to be exactly as you might want it, given the chance. The blank slate of the episode’s title is what everyone is given now that they’re on the Island, and it’s what Kate hopes will allow her to redefine herself. No longer will she be a deadly, wanted fugitive. Instead, she can be the person that everybody entrusts with the gun because they trust her to wield it responsibly. The problem as set up in the flashbacks is that you can never entirely escape your own past. It’s always following you around, ready to arise at the least opportune moments. In clumsier moments, the flashbacks could, then, function as shortcuts to subtext that hinted at deeper meaning that wasn’t really there. But at their best, the flashbacks functioned as a kind of watermark on all of the characters’ souls, the faded stain they couldn’t remove no matter how hard they tried.
Again, “Tabula Rasa” is taking very basic stabs at much of this. A lot of the dialogue—particularly in the first act—is intent on reminding us of things that happened in the pilot, just in case we didn’t happen to tune in for that episode. (If anything, this episode—the least-watched of the first season—would be the one we would need reminders of later.) The end of the episode reminded me of the series’ early, very strange choice to end lots of these episodes with big musical montages that panned across the beach and attempted to put a happy ending atop a series of disquieting events. And the series hasn’t quite yet figured out how to balance its many different characters and storylines, as this is very much the Jack and Kate show for quite some time, before a Michael and Walt storyline is dropped in rather abruptly in a later act.
But “Tabula Rasa” also engages with the idea of the blank slate, with the thought that if given the chance, any of us might redefine ourselves. This is the first episode of the show directed by Jack Bender, and in watching it, I saw some of the first indications of devices that would become used throughout the series. For instance, look at that nice, graceful pan along the beach around the episode’s midpoint, which starts with Boone and Shannon, then moves along to visit other characters. Damon Lindelof’s script also offers up plenty of scenes that take chances on character pairings that would pay off—Jack and Sawyer—and ones that would largely be abandoned. “Tabula Rasa” is very much a training wheels sort of episode, one that shows the series figuring out just how it’s going to tell stories, but it’s a solid one, as these things go.
If nothing else, it has the long, sad end of Marshal Mars, a character given real heft by Frederic Lane. His obsessive need to track down Kate colors in the supposed darkness of her deeds so much better than anything Evangeline Lilly ever did, and his very presence speaks to how difficult it will be to let the past go on this Island, idyllic though it may be. He’s dying in that tent, a living, breathing reminder of someone Kate is trying to let go, and in his eventual end—Kate spares him but has Sawyer shoot him, only for Jack to have to properly finish the job once Sawyer (somewhat improbably) botches it—the series also suggests that survival on this Island won’t be as easy as a musical montage every week. There’s real danger here, and it doesn’t all stem from a monster in the trees.
- It’s interesting to see the characters the show focuses on at this early stage of the game. Hurley is largely relegated to comic relief in both of these episodes, even if he’s the one guy besides Jack who knows about Kate’s secret. In the meantime, we get a surprising amount of time with Boone and Shannon, as well as Michael and Walt. Lost was unexpectedly a hit with the family audience, and I wonder how much of that had to do with building a significant portion of the early going around a father-son relationship.
- Daddy issues alert: Lost is sick with daddy issues. We’ll get to the more frequently recurring example of this in next week’s article, but just look at the Michael and Walt story, driven by the fact that Walt’s mother had been raising the boy, with Michael absent from his life, as a kind of touchstone for what the show would do with this particular subject.
- Welcome to…: The flashback whooshes! They don’t appear every time we flash back, but they appear often enough to say hello to them. One thing that’s very weird here: There’s the occasional use of slow-motion before Kate dips into her flashbacks, suggesting that perhaps the show was considering that as a visual key to flashback land. I’m glad it was largely left behind.
- That early scene where everybody bickers, with Sawyer calling Sayid “Al Jazeera” and Kate “Freckles,” before Charlie reminds everyone that Al Jazeera is “a network,” is a nice indicator of the show already playing to many of its actors’ strengths. Though I doubt anyone involved knew how much having Sawyer give people nicknames would take off.
- I’m not a big fan of the closing montage, but I do like the way it tries to close off the story on a note of hopefulness in an almost entirely visual manner. Lost broke new ground for visual storytelling on a broadcast network TV show, and that moment when, say, Sayid tosses Sawyer the apple is as efficient a device as any scene where the two have a heart-to-heart.
- Man, this episode had a lot of Sawyer, didn’t it? And Josh Holloway sunk his teeth into everything he was given. The character was such a generic rogue that I didn’t have high hopes for him after the pilot, but in this episode, already, he’s offering a new spin on this character type.
- Finally, a quick shoutout to Nick Tate as Ray, the farmer Kate ends up staying with. The flashback here is a very, very basic structure, but he gives his character a lot of spark.
“Walkabout” (season 1, episode 4; originally aired 10/13/2004)
In which you don’t tell me what I can’t do!
Lost is a post-Sept. 11 show. On its face, that seems a pretty obvious statement. The show debuted in the fall of 2004, when television was rapidly proving it was the medium best equipped to deal with America’s psychic wounds stemming from that day, or at the very least provide the kind of soothing panaceas that would let us all turn off our brains. Looked at another way, that might seem like a ridiculous stretch, since the show is, after all, about a bunch of people who crashed on a mysterious, deserted island in the middle of nowhere. But look at the closing passages of “Walkabout,” in which the survivors of the crash attempt to memorialize fellow travelers they didn’t really know, and tell me the reverberations of that day, those attacks, don’t echo throughout this series and its characters. (I mean, I’m cheating here. Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have frequently talked about how the series is a subconscious response to Sept. 11, and this is a theme I’m sure we’ll return to several times in the weeks to come.)
Those echoes would become most prominent in the series’ second season, its most uneven but also, in some ways, its most interesting. But they’re also all over “Walkabout,” one of the best episodes Lost ever produced and hands down its most important one. There are only a handful of television episodes I can vividly remember the exact circumstances under which I watched them for the first time. “Walkabout” is one of those. I’d wager it is for a lot of people. For in the build to its shattering final moments, the series not only validated its “characters first” approach but also proved that it could make the whole ungainly flashback structure create huge emotional payoffs that affected the on-Island stories. That’s a lot of weight for one television episode to handle, but “Walkabout” pulled it off. That’s what makes it so special, to the degree that even the people I know whose relationship with Lost has soured in the wake of the finale still love this episode unquestioningly.
But I opened this piece with Sept. 11 for a reason, and not just because it felt weird to have avoided the subject this long. No, “Walkabout” is an episode that exemplifies the way Lost approaches tragedy. The crash of Oceanic 815 was a disastrous event for many of these people, and it ended the lives of those Claire reads the names of at the memorial service. But it also provided a useful rupture in the lives of many of these people. Before the Island, Locke is a work-a-day stiff, confined to a wheelchair and playing war games over his lunch hour. His closest relationship is with a sex worker (in one of the few scenes on this show that actually plays as more of a surprise once you’ve seen the whole series). After the Island, he is healed. He has found his strength. He becomes a jungle-walking survival guru who stares down the monster and apparently wins. (He also tracks and kills a boar all by himself when he insisted it would take three people to do it earlier.) If Kate sees an opportunity for redefinition on the Island, Locke sees an opportunity for rebirth.
All of this is fitting, because Lost is very much a show about how we define ourselves through major tragedies. Think of how often you boil down your life to its major events. Yes, some of them are happy, but we also tend to mark the times that things turned to shit—the lost jobs or relationships that crumbled or people we lost along the way. For most of the characters on Lost, the plane crash has yet to be defined one way or another, but for Locke, the crash is a miracle, the thing that gave him his ability to walk back and the thing that brought him to the destiny he was convinced awaited him around every turn. But this works, too, even on a deeper, more symbolic level. Locke is the guy who’s best able to appreciate the miracle of the Island, the way that tragedy allows us to define ourselves, because he’s the guy who understands how deeply real tragedy can hurt. There’s a constant reminder of the pre-crash self in his wheelchair, and the episode ending with it going up in flames is the only way it could end. Locke is the guy who sees the blood flowing in the streets and decides to buy real estate. Can you blame him?
All of this is perfectly conveyed by Terry O’Quinn, who shows both sides of Locke in beautiful detail. The moment when he shouts “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” at the guy who runs the walkabout is one of those ingenious, classic television moments that will hang with you long after you’ve seen it, and so much of it is carried by the raw desperation in O’Quinn’s voice. Here is a man who wants desperately not to be taken for granted, but he’s also a man who’s aware that he’s going to be taken for granted. O’Quinn finds the toadying side of Locke in the other flashbacks, too, as he must suck up to the execrable Randy (who mocks how he likes to be called “Colonel”) and deal with the humiliation of misreading the relationship he has with a phone-sex worker. What’s brilliant about his work is how he makes all of this of a piece with the crazy hunter John Locke that we see on the Island. It would be so easy to make these feel like two completely different guys, but O’Quinn finds the hunter that lived within Locke when he was in the chair, and he finds the frustrated office drone that’s still inside of the Island hunter.
The episode also wouldn’t work without David Fury’s Emmy-nominated script, or Jack Bender’s terrific direction. What’s particularly great about this is how both men find ways to hint about the episode’s big twist without giving the game away for first time viewers. The second shot of the episode (after a shot of Locke’s eye, of course) is a shot of Locke looking down at his foot in wonder, for God’s sake, but everything tilts so quickly toward chaos that you forget about it, until the episode offers a later echo of it in the scene where the boar knocks Locke over in the jungle. Fury and Bender are weaving a spell here, and even if you guess the episode’s ultimate twist a little early, it doesn’t take away from the final reveal. The speech Fury gives Locke to shout as the walkabout guy leaves is the speech every one of us who’s felt unnecessarily limited by our circumstances wishes we had, and Bender makes the most of that moment when you see Locke in his wheelchair. He shoots it in a long shot that reduces Locke to just this tiny figure, dwarfed both by the chair and by the room around him. (Bender also makes great use of color throughout the flashbacks. They’re washed out in a way the more lush, colorful Island sequences aren’t.)
But what most struck me this time through the episode was that there’s a whole other episode here. Yeah, the Locke stuff is what everybody remembers, but there’s also business with Sayid trying to effect an escape by tracking down the location of the French woman’s transmission, as well as Jack sitting quietly with Rose on the beach to talk about her husband, who’s presumed dead. There’s Claire trying to organize a memorial for people like Steve and Kristen, the engaged couple who lost their lives in the crash. There’s even something as simple as Sun caring for Walt while Michael goes on the hunt. Again, the implication is clear: These people may not even know it yet, but they’re building a community from scratch, a community that might allow them to finally begin the healing they’ve needed to do for a long time.
All of which brings me back to my very first point, as well as something “Walkabout” speaks to that served as a touchstone for the show as a whole. Locke views the Island as a miracle, because it allowed him to walk again. Kate views the Island as salvation, because it allows her to be more than her crimes. The other characters might be trying to escape, but they don’t yet realize that Locke and Kate have the better of it. See, the Island is a place that can help you deal with the broken bits of your own emotional geography, that can fill in the gaps in the story of your life that you’ve been ignoring. It’s a place that takes and takes and takes, but it’s also a place that gives you an understanding, of sorts, a way to move past all of the loss. If Lost is a series about people defined by tragedy, then the sneakiest trick it plays is that the tragedy that defines everybody on the show happened before they were in a plane crash. To be lost is to not know what comes next. That might be true for Jack or Sayid, who cling to the idea of rescue being the proper course of things, but it’s not true for Locke, who can watch his wheelchair burn in the flames and know, somehow, that he has found a better world and a better life. Loss and tragedy hurt and scar, but they’re also necessary, if we’re going to become better humans. It’s all about moving forward afterward, and John Locke, of all people, is ready to do just that.
- So I mentioned that I remember the exact circumstances of watching this episode, so I may as well lay them on you. I worked as a temp on the copy desk at a newspaper at that time, and in the daily TV listings, this episode was mentioned as a must-see. Since I was already into the show, I was deeply excited to see how this could possibly top the pilot, and I essentially made my wife watch it the second I got home from work that night (after midnight). I remember watching the scene where Locke is sitting up in his bed, talking to “Helen,” with perfect clarity, because I suddenly realized the episode’s big twist and blurted it out to my wife, who looked at me with intense skepticism. I’m not normally one to try to outguess the plot, but somehow, knowing what was coming made the ending all the more powerful.
- There were some complaints last week that I didn’t talk about Michael Giacchino’s tremendous score for the series, but I can’t talk about “Walkabout” without mentioning it, because so much of what makes that final section work is the way his music rises and rises, in a way that TV music just hadn’t in the past. It’s another way the series marked itself as unlike other TV shows.
- Rose’s insistence that Bernard was still alive almost seems to be meant to play as though she’s crazy here, but I took it as it came and really did assume the tail section had survived somewhere else on the Island. And then there were all of the rumors that Samuel L. Jackson would play Bernard that greeted the long hiatus between seasons one and two…
- I am not ashamed to say I had the socks Locke is wearing in the photo above. They were good socks, too.
- Welcome to…: The figure whom Jack spots (the one that causes him to run off into the jungle) is someone who would become very familiar to Lost fans. This is his first appearance, but we’ll find out more about what’s up with him next week.
- I wonder if Locke ever connected with Evangeline Lilly on Live Links?
- I have to admit that I wish the show had made more out of the boars as threats to the castaways’ way of life. And maybe done some stuff where Vincent and one of the boars had a showdown. (I am so sad the show never gave us the long promised Vincent focus episode.)
Spoiler Station (Don’t read if you haven’t watched the whole series):
- We get a little hint of Walt’s powers in “Tabula Rasa,” when Michael says that he’ll go look for Vincent once it stops raining… and then it immediately stops raining. In context, this plays more as a joke on Michael’s bad luck. Knowing what the rest of the series would teach us, it seems pretty clear what’s going on.
- The Helen that Locke named his phone-sex friend after would eventually show up in season two, played by Katey Sagal. This is pretty much all I remember about her. (I’m a little hazy on that season.)
- Watching the scene where the monster comes upon Locke, it’s obvious that the show wasn’t quite sure what it was going to do with the monster just yet—the camera angle is meant to suggest something very tall—but it also gibes quite nicely with the fact that ol’ Smokey would eventually decide to take Locke’s form when he killed Jacob. Really, “Walkabout” fits into the show’s overall mythology with very little straining, which you can’t say of every early episode.
Next week: Jack goes on his own vision quest in “White Rabbit,” and then we get to “House Of The Rising Sun,” another early classic.