“White Rabbit” (season 1, episode 5; originally aired 10/20/2004)
In which you can’t save everybody
There’s a rich streak of the surreal running through Lost, one that extends even beyond the Island’s effects on its inhabitants. Ostensibly, “White Rabbit” is an episode about Jack coming to terms with the idea that he can’t save everyone, but it’s shot and composed in such a way that it leaves you a little woozy and off-kilter, not quite able to understand if what you were looking at was really happening or all in somebody’s head. It’s perhaps best exemplified by what Locke says to Jack while they’re crouched in the jungle together. Yeah, what Jack’s seeing is probably a hallucination, but what if that hallucination has been given to him for a reason? What if the Island is tilting things in such a way that everyone will move toward a more perfect understanding of themselves and each other? Lost is a series about encountering the divine, in some respects, and that means there will always be things that don’t feel quite right.
This is all nicely laid out in the opening section, which opens with Jack thinking back to when he was a young boy and tried to intervene to stop a friend from getting bullied, only to get beaten for his troubles. The episode cuts from there to Jack realizing that one of the other castaways—the several dozen who never really get names or personalities—is being swept out to sea, caught in a riptide that is carrying her further and further away from shore. He dives in after her, but when he eventually surfaces with someone, it’s Boone, whom he drags back to shore, thinking he’ll have the time he needs to go after the woman who’s drowning. He doesn’t, of course, and the guilt starts to eat away at him, pushing him deeper into a hole of his own daddy issues.
That sequence nicely shows how this will all work on a story level, but what’s even more potent is how director Kevin Hooks films the sequence. The drowning woman—Joanna—is always this mirage on the horizon, someone that Jack should be able to get to but someone he never quite can. She becomes the promise of everything he thinks he’s supposed to be, everything he believes himself capable of but constantly falls short of. What can make Jack such an irritating character is his headstrong insistence on his own righteousness and certainty, but that’s also what makes him such a compelling figure at his best. A character who is always trying to live up to an impossible moral code isn’t always the most fun to follow through a story like this, but having that kind of paragon of virtue for everybody else to live up to (including said paragon himself) gives a story like this something to cling to whenever anything else starts to slip away. And then there’s the suggestion that it’s all impossible anyway. Joanna will always drown. You can’t save everybody.
Much of “White Rabbit” is driven by the power of suggestion. Even the flashbacks—to vital moments in Jack’s life—don’t tell a story so much as, well, suggest one. Think, for instance, of that scene where he’s talking with his mother (the great Veronica Hamel) about how his dad has finally left for good, off to Australia. At first, this seems one of the earliest examples of a maddening Lost trope: the characters who never just come out and say what they really mean. But it gradually reveals itself to be something else entirely: a slice of a slice of a slice of one moment in this guy’s life, boiled down to its essence. At their best, the flashbacks carried with them this feeling of finding resonant, tiny moments in the characters’ lives, then using them to spell out all of the ways these people both had and hadn’t changed during their time on the Island. There’s a whiff of Psychology 101 to it, but people are driven by such base impulses most of the time that it largely works, particularly in the early going.
This also feels nicely unified with Jack’s adventures on the Island, which center on the castaways’ sudden lack of water. They’ve been acting as if rescue is imminent, but the longer they’re on the Island, the more obvious it becomes that rescue won’t be so easy as a plane flying over and spotting their fire on the beach. That means that the castaways will need to hunker down for the long haul and try their best not just to get rescued but to survive. Jack, of course, takes a lot of this on his own shoulders, precisely at the same time that he’s seemingly cracking up because he keeps seeing his father—a man who very well might be a ghost—standing around in strange places on the Island.
The structure of “White Rabbit” is kind of half-formed, in a way that strikes me as very similar to the structure of “Tabula Rasa,” but I think that feeling of everything having been tossed together at the last minute suits the episode in a way it didn’t the earlier one. For one thing, Jack’s quest is ultimately centered on following his dead father around the jungle, a scenario that is sort of inherently just a little loopy. For another, Jack doesn’t really have any agency in this story. Normally, that’s the sort of thing that would drag an episode of television down and make it feel largely pointless. Indeed, that’s the objection I’ve read to “White Rabbit”—and the character of Jack in general—on other corners of the Internet.
But the more I think about this episode, the more I admire it for taking away Jack’s agency. There are a tiny handful of scenarios where this can work, but the story of a man who needs to let go and stop trying to constantly save the day is definitely one of them. The title of the second season premiere of this show is “Man Of Science, Man Of Faith,” and it’s popularly read to be about Jack (the former) and Locke (the latter). But Damon Lindelof has said that both of those descriptions refer to Jack, a man who is at once rational and possessed of a surprisingly deep spirituality. “White Rabbit” plays those qualities off of each other, so that all of Jack’s agency is tied up in forcing himself to let go of what agency he has. It’s kind of ingenious, even if it sometimes feels half-baked.
Plus, it culminates in one of my favorite sequences from the early part of the show: Jack finding the fresh, running water in the middle of the jungle, along with the baby doll in the pool. (There’s that surrealism again.) As he walks the edge of the pool, he finds his father’s casket—only to realize it’s empty, and the figure he’s been seeing around the edges of the jungle very well could be the man who’s tormented him so much throughout his life. Father issues are one of those things that Lost ran into the ground, but they feel very potent in the life of Jack, both because Matthew Fox is so good at playing cowed when it comes to Jack’s dad and because John Terry is so good at playing that kind of disappointed indifference. Plus, by placing Jack’s dad at the center of the show’s mysteries, the series is suggesting that the Island itself, like God, maybe, is a father to these people, one they may not want around and one that may disappoint them, but one they ultimately can’t escape. That love might be distant and unknowable, but it’s there, and it will eventually lead you to the right place.
- Watching these early episodes, it’s amusing to me how frequently the show contrives reasons for Matthew Fox and Evangeline Lilly to take off their shirts. Yeah, it makes sense that Jack would rip off his shirt when he was swimming after Joanna, but it’s also amusing how quickly he gets that thing off.
- I don’t believe he’s named in this episode, but Jack’s dad is named Christian Shephard, which is the most hilariously obvious bit of symbolism in maybe the entire show.
- I don’t know if the producers intended for Jack’s dad to be a major part of the show, but if they hadn’t, Terry would have convinced them that he needed to be. He’s astonishingly effective at a kind of haughty coldness that masks a modicum of affection.
- I had forgotten this episode included the “Live together, die alone” speech, something that came to stand for a lot on the show. And yet here, it’s a kind of last gasp of frustration from Jack, who’s just been handed a bunch of fresh water but still seems sort of snippy about it.
- Man, Boone is kind of a dick, isn’t he? Rubbing in that Jack should have saved Joanna is just cold.
- There are some other stories that take place on-Island in this episode, but it’s sort of amazing how they all tie into the central quest to find water. The show was so good at unifying everything that happened around a central goal or theme.
- Daddy issues alert: Duh.
“House Of The Rising Sun” (season 1, episode 6; originally aired 10/27/2004)
In which Sun can speak English
I talked a little last week about how the flashback structure allowed Lost to try on lots of different types of shows, and that’s perhaps never more true than it is in the Sun and Jin episodes, which dabble in everything from domestic drama to crime story. There are plenty of fans of the show who find the Sun and Jin episodes to be bores, but I’ve always loved them, and “House Of The Rising Sun” is a strong introduction to what’s so good about them. There are few moments as moving to me in the show as when Jin holds up that single flower while waiting in line to check in for Oceanic flight 815, a small gesture that immediately suggests huge reservoirs of emotion that he’s been holding in check in order to perform his job as well as he can. There’s something very reserved and small about Sun and Jin episodes, something that feels ever so slightly different from everything else on TV.
Some of this, of course, is because these episodes are primarily in a foreign language, and this is one of the areas where you could sense the series getting bolder and bolder the longer it ran. “House Of The Rising Sun” takes great care to surround the Sun and Jin plot with other storylines, where we might get to hear people speaking English, even if the Korean couple is at the center of the episode. The show would grow more comfortable with letting episodes like this simply be in Korean with subtitles in future seasons (and in one episode coming up in this season), but even so, “House Of The Rising Sun” feels like a real watershed moment for the show.
What I love about these first four “regular” episodes of the series is how different they all feel from each other, how varied their tones are and how willing they are to refuse to establish an iron-clad formula. Yes, the show is setting up a structural formula—in that every episode features a A-story related to the flashbacks, some sort of survival-related B-story, and then a lighter C-story that’s almost more of a runner—but each episode takes such a different approach to those basic underpinnings that you almost don’t notice those underpinnings in a way you would on other shows. The structure is rock-solid, but it’s the diverse methods of approach that keep the show from feeling staid.
In particular, I like the way the flashbacks here use time to demonstrate how Sun and Jin could go from the loving couple keeping their relationship a secret to the far more distant pair that we see on the Island. Sun gets a puppy in one scene, and it’s a full-grown dog in the next. And with every flashback, Jin is tugged a little more away from her, their love ending up being the thing that causes him to unravel. The scenes are all tiny sketches of a larger story that the show trusts us to fill in the gaps of. This would become a problem in later seasons, when the filling in of the flashbacks grew more and more prosaic, or told us things we already knew about the characters, but here, it feels tiny but also revelatory.
It also positions the on-Island story as one that asks, for the first time, a very real question about a relationship, instead of a personal quest or goal. The marriage of Sun and Jin has mostly evaporated at this point. Sun was going to leave her husband forever and disappear with the driver who was to pick her up at the airport, but seeing Jin choose that moment to display a small kindness—reminding her that the man she married was buried inside of there somewhere—both doomed her (by tossing her into the middle of a plane crash onto a mysterious island) and gave her the chance to work on her marriage in some sort of extreme isolation therapy. Sun and Jin are necessarily cut off from everyone up until this episode has about 10 minutes left, and that means they’re an island within the Island, forcing them to be ever more miserable in their solitude. And yet sometimes the only way back to happiness is through that misery.
Of course, this episode reveals that Sun actually speaks English—presumably learned over the course of planning her escape to another country. It’s a twist that makes a lot of sense, as it allows the characters to finally begin communicating with others outside of each other (something that’s completely necessary at this point), but it’s also a twist that makes me miss the dreamy isolation of their scenes together from before that reveal. After you know Sun can speak English, it changes all of her interactions with others, where she’s been keeping this secret in order to placate her husband, because he’s a dangerous man (and letting him know she can speak English would open a whole line of questioning she’s not ready to answer). Before that, there’s a strange poetry to the idea of the two of them, stuck in this impossible situation because of buried feelings that continue to echo, despite how much the couple might wish they didn’t.
“House Of The Rising Sun” also reminds me of how much of Lost was about the totemic power of objects. I’ve rarely met a show more in love with the idea of the objective correlative, of the idea that in storytelling, there can be a lot of power to the idea of a character channeling all of their emotions and psychological struggles into an object that reminds them of said emotions and struggles. (The easiest way to explain this is to have you think of the object you keep around—even though you have no use for it—simply because it reminds you too much of a departed loved one. So long as you have it, that loved one is a little more vivid to you in your memory.) There are times that Lost can get a little ridiculous with this, and Jin attacking Michael viciously over the watch Michael found (which is actually Sun’s father’s watch) could feel like one of those. Instead, it somehow works, because it gets at the very primal emotions running between Sun and Jin in thick currents. No longer present in a country where he can communicate with anyone, Jin is left with only his physical self to communicate, and that leaves him feeling even more powerless than usual. And then he loses even that when he’s handcuffed.
Back when it was running, I often described Lost as a short story show disguised as a novel show, and episodes like “House Of The Rising Sun” point to what I was talking about, more or less. Though the show has the appearance and epic sweep of being one big story—about a group of people who come to a strange Island that gives them something like healing balanced with something much more sinister, then attempt to solve that Island’s mysteries—it’s actually a long series of interlocking, smaller stories, which can delve into pretty much any genre. The show’s power, when it worked, meant that it was able to blend the best of both worlds. When the show struggled was when it wasn’t quite aware of which side it needed to skew toward and got caught in a nebulous middle. But episodes like “House Of The Rising Sun” and “Walkabout” and “White Rabbit” are so good because they play by the rules of the short story, not the rules of the novel. The big things are happening, but they’re on the periphery. The actual big things in these episodes are happening to the characters, on a very small scale. It could be as simple as a wiggling toe, or the clear rush of water, or a glittering watch on the wrong man’s wrist. The things that are huge to us in the audience aren’t necessarily huge to the characters. At its best, Lost understood that, and that was what made it such an effective, fantastic, and, yes, frustrating show.
- This is also the episode that introduces Adam and Eve, the two corpses that Jack, Locke, and Kate discover in the caves where some of the group moves. If you are watching this for the first time, you would be right to wonder what’s up with that.
- Actually, there’s a really rich theme of division versus reunion running through this episode. Sun reunites with Jin in what amounts to the tiniest of moments, while the group is divided along the lines of those who wish to continue to wait for rescue, versus those who wish to make the most of life on the Island.
- As much as I want to give this episode an A—and I really, really do!—I can’t quite do that because it’s already playing up the “Are Jack and Kate gonna do it?” thing. The two actors have great chemistry, but the whole thing already looks like the show overplaying its hand. (Honestly, the show should have just had them jump into bed together to get it over with.) That said, it’s appropriate that Charlie is the one trying to get everybody to have the sex.
- Daddy issues alert: Sun’s father works for, apparently, the Corporation That Produces Evil. (Okay, no, he obviously works for organized crime, but let me have my dreams.)
- I do like the twist of the redecorator being the woman who’s going to help Sun flee the country. It seems like the perfect cover if you absolutely must get a woman who’s become a prisoner in her own marriage out of the country!
- I really like Michael Giacchino’s use of traditionally Asian instruments in the orchestration for this episode, both to repeat some of the show’s main themes and to give Sun and Jin themes of their own.
- The show does a really good job this early in its run of directing your attention toward where the flashback bottle will point next, and that means we get a nice little Charlie story here, in which he nearly gets stung by bees, then becomes unlikely friends with Locke (who’s a Driveshaft fan!). This helps the overall feeling of unity, which keeps the show from feeling disjointed, a frequent problem with other short story shows.
Spoiler station (don’t read unless you’ve seen the entire show):
- So the caves are our first Lost Plot That Went Absolutely Fucking Nowhere. For a while, it seemed like the show was going to build up this huge division between the people on the beach and the people in the caves, but it mostly forgot about it very quickly, roughly around when Ethan joined the party. There’s nothing wrong with that—the caves weren’t all that interesting—but it is kind of amusing to watch how much weight they’re given here, knowing what’s coming.
- I am, in general, an apologist for the last season of Lost, outside of the Temple stuff, but I think the ultimate reveal of the identity of Adam and Eve was also kind of proof that when the show was going to give straightforward answers, it would mostly just disappoint us, so what do I know?
- It’s kind of funny to see how little the show uses John Terry in “White Rabbit,” considering that, like, the emotional crux of the climax of the finale would rest on him. Regardless of what you think of that finale, it’s another case where the Lost casting department absolutely nailed a character that the show didn’t realize would be so important to it going forward.
Next week: Sadly, I must bid you adieu, as I am headed off to a new Island of my own. But I will leave you in the ever-capable hands of Myles McNutt, who will take you to see “The Moth,” then go talk to a “Confidence Man.” Thank you for reading these three weeks. Of all of the gigs I have to leave behind, this is the one I will miss the most. I hope to show up to talk Lost in comments while Myles does his typically amazing work up top. See you in another life, readers.