Lost (Classic): “...In Translation”/“Numbers”

Lost (Classic): “...In Translation”/“Numbers”

Humanism and mythology co-exist as season one enters the home stretch

“…In Translation” (season 1, episode 17; originally aired 02/23/2005)

In which we come to know the rest of a story.

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon).

“I do it for us.”

As the castaways are gathered around Jin, who has been captured by Sawyer and accused of burning Michael’s raft, Locke emerges to tell them that he’s innocent. Or, rather, he emerges to tell all of them that they’re thinking too small. Why would one of the castaways have destroyed the raft? Why is no one presuming that it was one of the Others, the shadowy figures who have kidnapped and murdered people? Why is everyone so convinced that Jin was enacting a personal vendetta, when there’s a much larger conflict happening around them?

“…In Translation” is an answer to this question, one that makes the most sustained case yet for the show Lost was at its core. There is no “Previously on Lost “ tag to open the episode. There is no visit to the hatch. There is no appearance by the others. There is no cliffhanger the episode picks up, and there is no cliffhanger the episode puts down. This is simply a human story, one that sees each and every character working to reclaim their agency from their circumstance and from the weight of their pasts and the emerging mythology around them. It is an episode that earns its cheesy montage because it does away with the practice entirely, but in a way that transcends—rather than refuses—the sentiment. “…In Translation” frames Lost as a humanist narrative, a framing that will be tested over the course of the series—including in the very next episode—but remains first and foremost the lens through which I view the entire series, and which is at its most fully formed in this hour.

A direct pair to Sun’s flashback in “House Of The Rising Sun,” the episode’s flashback shows Jin’s side of the story without making any of its scenes into a shocking turn of events that alter our view on the character. We had every reason to believe that Jin was conflicted in the work he was doing for Sun’s father, and so to see him struggle with the weight of his increasingly incriminating role in his company was never surprising. The dog had been a gift from a politician seeking to appease Sun’s father’s displeasure; the bloody knuckles had been from sending a more definitive message when the first proved inadequate (and the intended message had a silencer attached to it); the kind gestures on their stopover in Sydney were the result of him confronting his daddy issues, and his father putting his dreams back into perspective.

It’s a tragic and beautiful story, with some tremendous work from both Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim as they walk their way through the same relationship for a second time. It’s also a very human story, albeit one with ties to “the island” as a guiding point for each of these stories. Both Sun and Jin got on Flight 815 looking for a fresh start, away from Sun’s father and away from the environment that poisoned their relationship, and crash landing on the island arguably offers just that. The problem is that, unlike someone like Locke, neither Sun nor Jin was in a position to fully take advantage of this. Jin’s language barrier made it difficult to connect with those around him, and Sun’s secret—that her fresh start had been planned for her and her alone, as her English lessons demonstrate—meant she wasn’t in a position to help him.

There’s a slight issue of continuity with this storytelling in the episode. As much as I can argue that it makes sense for the anxiety of the plane crash to push Jin away from his “fresh start” plans while being unable to understand anything that the people around him were saying, there’s clear signs that the character they initially conceived does not track with the character we’re being presented with in the flashbacks. I don’t think anything Jin does for Sun’s father justifies the degree to which he verges on domestic abuse in his efforts to force Sun to cover herself, which returns in this episode in an attempt to bridge the two versions of the character but still feels decidedly incongruous. The production narrative is basically that the actors worked hard to keep the Korean characters from falling too heavily into stereotypes, and on this level “…In Translation” struggles to navigate the stereotype they started with on the island and the more nuanced portrait in the flashbacks, albeit with the promise of moving past those constructions now that Sun’s secret is out.

Issues of continuity aside, though, Jin and Sun’s story is beautifully rendered, and is a story about identity as opposed to survival. Their final altercation at the caves is a powerful one, particularly in the moment where Sun pleads her case in English after spending most of the conversation in Korean. This only reinforces how much she’s kept this side of herself from him, to the point where it would emerge in such an important moment; it could also be read as Sun being unable to express herself to Jin directly, an opportunity to say what she’s feeling in a way that will not fully expose him to her lack of faith in their relationship before departing for Sydney. At the same time, there is incredible power in Sun’s statement given that she takes words out of the equation: Jin may not fully understand everything she’s saying, but he can certainly translate her emotions, in much the same way he’s likely been trying to translate others’ emotions throughout the series. It’s a fascinating meditation on the meaning of language and emotion, fitting for an episode that—as evidenced by the screenshots—tells much of its story through evocative images that don’t need dialogue to get across the meanings of the episode.

The humanist angle of “…In Translation” is further reinforced by the procedural mystery of the raft’s destruction, which resists Locke’s evocation of the island’s greater evils in favor of a simpler resolution. Malcolm David Kelley does some nice subtle acting in each of the scenes leading up to Walt’s admission of guilt: knowing that he was the culprit, I found myself watching Walt in each scene where the castaways angrily went after Jin for the crime, and you could see those moments of hesitation where Walt wanted to admit to the crime but didn’t know how. It reinforces that although there are an increasing number of targets on which to pin an unexplained event like the raft going up in flames, there is no reason to believe that it wasn’t the product of something as simple as Walt’s anxiety about once again moving to a new environment when he’s just finally getting used to his new tropical home. Walt is perhaps naïve to think of the island his plane crash landed on as a home, mind you, but it makes sense that he’d think this way, and it’s another case where perspective becomes integral to understanding each character’s relationship with the island and how it influences their actions.

The episode ends with yet another montage soundtracked by Hurley’s Discman, and we see other examples of perspective shaping characters’ embrace of the island—Shannon prioritizing her own relationships by starting one with Sayid, Charlie and Claire settling into their platonic domesticity, and of course the incredibly evocative image of Sun shedding her coverup and standing independent of her husband. And then, as Hurley—the last remaining series regular without a flashback—sits and enjoys his music, it stops suddenly. The Discman is dead, and with it Hurley’s ability to shift perspective.

We could read this as ominous, with “The Day The Montages Died” signaling the end of the overly sunny status quo they attempted to sell. And yet in considering Jin and Sun’s story and the remainder of the episode, I’ve come to see the death of Hurley’s Discman as more of an evolution. Whereas the music was previously doing the work of reframing potentially overcomplicated events and character arcs within the comfortable confines of lyrical montage, the end of “…In Translation” forces Hurley and the audience to sit in the silence. But after an episode like this one, full of rich human stories, that silence doesn’t send my mind rushing back into the jungle and the mysteries within. The characters on Lost are rich enough to fill this silence themselves, without the need for montage, and without the concern they’ll be swallowed up by the higher concept elements of this narrative.

Stray observations:

  • As these screencaps hopefully make clear, this is one of the most striking episodes of Lost, so all credit to director Tucker Gates and D.P. Michael Bonvillain.
  • I have to imagine that Shannon and Sayid’s proposed rope-tying date would have inspired a lot of “Fifty Shades of Lost” jokes if it aired today.
  • So do we think Locke purposefully used the island as misdirection after realizing it was Walt himself who burned the raft, or was he legitimately arguing it was the Others before then piecing the truth together?
  • “It’s Lord of the Flies time now”—I’m not sure I buy Sawyer’s claim that it hasn’t been Lord of the Flies time for much of the series, but nice to finally put it into words.
  • As much as I’d like to resist nitpicking flashback continuity, the timeline on Jin’s two visits to the Secretary’s home would imply they were in fairly close proximity, but the dog has grown considerably between them.
  • “You two are like jungle pals”—Shannon, describing Boone and Locke and naming the Lost version of Muppet Babies (which, speaking of…).
  • Daddy issues alert: Not only is Jin caught between Sun and her daddy issues, but he was hiding the fact his father was alive out of shame (see also: class issues alert). And then we also have Locke indicating to Walt that he has his own daddy issues, which…let’s just call that an understatement, without spoiling too much.

“Numbers” (season 1, episode 18; originally aired 03/02/2005)

In which 4 8 15 16 23 42.

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon).

Is Hugo Reyes cursed?

It’s the question at the heart of “Numbers,” and one that equally lies at the heart of Lost as a whole. When Hurley plays “The Numbers”—4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42—and wins the lottery, it sets off a string of terrible events that follows him wherever he goes. His grandfather dies during his winner’s press conference, someone is struck by lightning at the funeral, his brother’s wife leaves him for a waitress, and his mother’s ankle breaks as she gets out of the car at the house he bought her, which is on fire as Hurley is wrongfully arrested by the LAPD on suspicion of being a drug dealer. And yet even as this bad news happens to the people around him, Hurley himself is unscathed: his sneaker factory in Canada may have been destroyed in a tragic accident claiming the lives of eight workers, but it turns out the building was overinsured, so Hurley will actually make money from the tragedy.

This is not an exhaustive list—R.I.P., suicidal man somewhat awkwardly used for comic relief—of the bad things that happen to the people around Hugo Reyes. He’s also not the first person to be cursed by the numbers, as his trip to Australia was to talk to visit a man who killed himself four years earlier after inflicting a decade of pain and suffering on those around him thanks to—according to him, at least—using the numbers to win a fair contest. And yet when Hurley tells the man’s wife that the numbers are cursed, she scoffs, and tells him that he makes his own luck. It’s a similar scoff to the one his mother delivers when he tries to claim it was a curse, and it’s the same scoff that Charlie gives him when Hurley says he thinks he might be the one responsible for the plane crash. They’re all making the argument that the numbers are just an excuse, a smokescreen that keeps Hurley from confronting the chaos of humanity in all its forms.

Returning to Lost a decade later, it’s hard not to read this as a much broader thematic statement. Without outright spoiling where the series goes from here, “Numbers” is a microcosm of the series Lost would become. If we take Hurley’s perspective, then everything on the island has happened for a reason, one that is caught up in a sequence of six numbers that he heard while spending time in a mental institution. They’re even—more than somewhat meaningfully—the same numbers that Rousseau’s crew heard repeating in the radio transmission that led them to change course. The Numbers are the epitome of Lost’s mythology, a literal key (in the cartographical sense) to unlocking potential meanings and connections—note that the castaways were on Oceanic Flight 815, for example.

However, if we accept the argument that Hurley is not cursed, then the Numbers are but one of many keys floating around among the series’ castaways. Charlie insists that all of them have baggage, confiding in Hurley about his heroin addiction. For Charlie, heroin was his key, an object or symbol that he has a complicated relationship with, and that in confronting on the island brought him to a point of personal understanding. Hurley runs into the jungle with the Numbers in hand not so much because he’s looking for answers to mysteries but because he wants to know that he’s not really crazy. All he wants is someone who believes him, and the numbers lead him to Rousseau, who is not exactly the best control group but offers Hurley the basic support he needed to feel like he wasn’t just tilting at windmills. But almost every character has had exactly the same experience, as the things surrounding them on the island either piece together or tear apart some other part of their life, sending them rushing into the jungle in search of solace. For Hurley to claim the plane crash was his fault is to claim that none of the other characters were carrying their own tortured pasts that might have led to them being fated to crash land on this island, which we know as viewers is the opposite of reality.

This tensions between individual and collective and character and mythology have been recurring throughout the first season, but they somewhat surprisingly reach their apex with Hurley. He’s the last major character to earn a flashback episode, and yet I don’t know if we ever distinctly felt the absence of such character development, which may have been the writers’ intention. Positioned as the series’ comic relief, Hurley has flitted back and forth between side stories, never stepping into a strong leadership role or actively participating in the major events that have escalated over the course of the season. He’s been content to remain in the background, underestimated by pretty much everyone to the point that Sayid immediately presumes Jack was the one who put him up to stealing Rousseau’s maps and heading out into the jungle. Whereas other characters looked at Michael’s parenting or Jin and Sun’s domestic problems and speculated or made judgments, no one really looked at Hurley the same way. And so “Numbers” is very much the story of Hurley reclaiming his agency, proving at various steps in his hero’s journey—dodging the trap, crossing the bridge, getting the battery—that he is capable of being a leader in this community, with Jorge Garcia equally making his case for being able to carry this show as its lead for at least an episode.

And yet “Numbers” is also the story about Hurley’s lack of agency, if we take the Numbers at face value and believe this is all part of some curse. And the choice to end the episode on the dramatic zoom-in on the same numbers etched into the side of the hatch certainly implies that Hurley is part of something larger than himself, having now connected multiple mysteries—Rousseau’s shipwreck, the Black Rock, the hatch—together with one set of six numbers that means more to him than it could mean to any other castaway. So unless we argue that Rousseau is just a crazy person, and the radio signal was the product of some remote island hatch installers who thought it would be a cool prank to record the serial number on the hatch on a loop, “Numbers” seems like definitive proof that something bigger than just our castaways is happening and has happened on this island.

Moving forward, history has placed these two readings of Lost against one another: you were either watching a show about a mystical island with strange phenomena like the Numbers, or you were watching a show about characters in difficult situations exploring their identities. And so in thinking through this episode, it was hard to shake that binary, to resist reading “Numbers” as a definitive sign that the series was one or the other. For a brief moment, I thought this essay would be concluding that because its cliffhanger so obviously baits the audience into buying into the Numbers as one of the island’s biggest mysteries, “Numbers” is clearly pushing us into seeing this as a series about mythology first and foremost.

Yet the more I wrote about the episode, the more I realized the most resonant part of the hour for me is the way Hurley’s flashback isn’t just about the Numbers, but rather his time spent in a mental hospital before there was ever any curse. Hurley is sensitive about the Numbers, certainly, but only because they feed into his self-doubt regarding his sanity that stems from his time institutionalized with Lenny. When Charlie accuses him of acting crazy, he responds angrily because he’s sensitive about that term, particularly given that everything he’s doing would be considered completely normal if Jack or Sayid were doing it. This is on some level tied to the Numbers, certainly, but there’s the sense that it digs deeper, an argument that regardless of what the Numbers might represent, they do not wholly define any character or their storytelling. There was a Hurley before there were Numbers, a Hurley whose insecurities inform his character at a deeper level than a “curse” or a hatch or anything in between. This is not to say those elements won’t end up being important, but rather that they will never erase or overwrite the characters connected to them, resiting defining them in those terms exclusively.

We can see that work in the episode’s B-story, as Locke reaches out to Claire to assist in what we presume at first is some task related to the hatch (a piece of misdirection encouraged by the hatch’s appearance in the “Previously on Lost” segment). It registers at first as a scheme by Locke, who we know is keeping secrets and we know has been manipulating people with some consistency, but then it becomes a leisurely construction project as Claire plays assistant and finally gets treated like she’s something other than a patient or a pregnant woman. At the core of their conversation—which ends with Locke revealing he’s been making her a cradle for the baby—is the idea of belief, as Locke unknowingly taps into Claire’s own Hurley-esque ties to the plane crash that was quite literally her prophesy. Claire asks if he believes in luck, and Locke answers simply: “I believe in a lot of things.”

That’s Lost. Lost is a show about belief, and about testing that belief in ourselves as viewers and in the characters as individuals. Hurley’s belief in the curse of those numbers is matched only by his belief in his own sanity, the two intertwined to the point where attempts to disentangle them are hopeless. Locke’s belief in the island’s power is an extension of his belief that no one could tell him what he couldn’t do. “Numbers” may be most memorable for introducing those six numerals into our lives, but it’s not really about them; we can argue about whether or not that balance shifts as the numbers work their way deeper into the series and its mythology, but at least in the beginning they were but one of many keys unlocking character alongside mythology.

Stray observations:

  • So I was TAing a class and sitting at the back of the room, and the professor threw out the Numbers from Lost as an example of something, and followed this by asking me to remind him what they were, knowing I was a fan and more likely to have them on the top of my head. Let’s just say I answered way too quickly to avoid my students from thinking I had too much time on my hands. Zero hesitation.
  • I wasn’t exactly sad we never saw Lost devolve into numerous spinoffs, but I’d have loved to see This Old Hatch with John Locke as Claire imagines in this episode.
  • Rousseau stops by for another mythology reload, this time dropping more details about the radio tower, another mention of the Black Rock, and earning a rather delightful hug from Hurley.
  • Two island mysteries of very different origins remain unsolved: the cable disappears underground before the castaways could find an answer, and the newly found rope bridge certainly seems to suggest some element of civilization beyond Rousseau (and maybe even her crew).
  • I didn’t mind Claire’s amnesia in the episode where it originates, but boy are the references to it making clear the writers’ fundamental disinterest in exploring it in any meaningful way.
  • “Leave the bulb for another time, man!”—I really need to start working this into casual conversation. It’s a great metaphor.
  • Daddy issues alert: In part because the episode follows directly on Jin’s, the absence of Hurley’s father was notable.
  • Lost Book Club: Sawyer’s reading A Wrinkle In Time. Make of that what you will, and consider the timeliness of yesterday’s announcement Frozen’s Jennifer Lee is adapting it for Disney.
  • Now that every character has had their first flashback, is there any point in asking what your favorite one is if we don’t discount “Walkabout?” Probably, but let’s do it anyway.

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

  • As closely focused on character as it is, “…In Translation” is the rare episode where all of the spoiler-y details are tied to characters, like how Jin and Sun’s story arc will take them through way more ups and downs than this initial hurdle that will see so small by comparison in due time.
  • “Numbers” is the exact opposite. It’s an episode where I’m resisting the Lostpedia rabbit hole, as I’ve been trying to avoid confirming my strong but not spotless memory of the later seasons with more detailed dives into their archives. I forget if they ever explain why the numbers are on the hatch, for example, but I ultimately don’t really care. The reveal here’s a bit cheap, but Hurley’s reaction when he sees the numbers on the hatch is great, and adds such fantastic tension to what is the series’ most pure cliffhanger.
  • I love how no one was like “Huh, if this end of the cable goes into the ground, what do we think is at the other end?” I’d get bored on the island. I’d at least follow it out for a bit to see what’s up.

Next week: Locke does everything the island asks, but is it enough?

Filed Under: TV, Lost (Classic)

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