“Greatest Hits” (originally aired 05/16/2007)
Warning: If you are reading these reviews along with watching the series for the first time, then for the sake of discussion you should watch the season finale, “Through The Looking Glass,” before reading this review. We apologize for the disruption, but this is an episode that is best discussed in light of what happens in the following episode.
Myles: I’ve reviewed “Greatest Hits” before.
Throughout our coverage of the third season, I’ve been posting links to my reviews of Lost from 2007, which began with “Not In Portland.” I’ve been posting them because those reviews are their own sort of flashbacks, glimpses into a time when I didn’t know how Lost progressed or ended after any individual episode. In placing “2007 Myles” into each review’s conversation, my goal has been to try to capture how our perspectives on individual episodes, storylines, or characters shift in hindsight, with those haphazard night-of reviews becoming a historical record of an instant reaction to contrast with years of perspective.
However, one of the main reasons I wanted to include them is because “Greatest Hits” offers a tremendous case study for how an episode of television’s meaning changes based on events in following episodes. “Greatest Hits” has long been one of the episodes of Lost I would list as my favorite, and I was greatly looking forward to writing about it again. And so, as I perused the old posts, I went back to see how 2007 Myles tackled the episode—this is where I discovered that 2007 Myles didn’t like it.
Every line was a shot to my heart. “After weeks of high-octane drama and intense backstories, Lost has finally had what could be described as a slow episode.” Slow?! “Charlie’s life still seems inconsequential?” Inconsequential?! “The problem is that such an emotional arc required me to care…and I don’t.” How do you not care?! 2007 Myles was so pissed that Locke wasn’t involved that he had marked this as a bum note the finale would have to overcome, rather than the remarkable setup I’ve known it to be.
2010 Myles eventually corrected 2007 Myles’ mistake, but in returning to the episode I somewhat understand the original position. This is an episode that completely ignores the cliffhanger from the previous week, adding new cliffhangers to the mix instead of resolving Locke’s perilous situation in the Others’ mass grave. After building out Ben’s character arc, we get a fleeting glimpse of him lying to Richard about Jacob’s directions and rushing the timeline on the Others’ attack. And to make the “Fireworks Factory” of it all even worse, the episode focuses its attention on Charlie, a character whose dark turn in the second season was never given enough time in season three to be undone, and whose predicted death seemed more like a red herring than an emotional climax.
That such a response is rational speaks to what makes “Greatest Hits” so brave, as it creates an episode of television that requires and arguably forces reevaluation. By placing the propulsive engine of the pending—and pushed up—Others attack in contrast with the contemplative engine of Charlie reflecting on the possibility he might die, the episode plays with the audience’s understanding of how the two engines relate to one another. This is particularly true of the episode’s act breaks, which draw out this contrast whilst simultaneously revealing the episode’s oscillation between raising the narrative stakes of the season and tapping into the emotional stakes of the plot about to unfold.
The first act ends with an adrenaline rush of an act break, as Jack blows up a tree, lays out his plans for a counterattack, and then intensely tells his fellow castaways that “we’re going to blow ‘em all to hell.” The act break equivalent to Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” the moment kicks the rising action into a higher gear, and marks the turning point into the events that will bring the season to a close. Also note the way Giacchino’s score marks this as an “action” moment, which will recur throughout the episode.
The second act ends with Charlie and Desmond, although at this point comfortably in the context of plot. We’ve seen Charlie’s first flashback at this point, but his list is still opaque, such that this act break adds to the stakes by tying Desmond’s flashes of Charlie dying into both Naomi’s boat and the Others’ attack. The act break signals that these stories are linked, and about to converge, while retaining the stings of the previous act break to signify suspense.
The third act ends with another adrenaline boost, this time from Karl. Before this, you get the sense that this is a general setup episode. Rose and Bernard still exist! Jin checks in with Sun about the pregnancy! The leisurely pace matches with Charlie’s contemplating, right up until Karl shows up and rushes the timeline (and brings Giacchino’s score back to life in the process). The Others are coming right now, he tells them, which means everything starts moving more quickly. Shooters need to be chosen, and someone needs to swim to the Looking Glass, and that person is going to be Charlie.
With the fourth act, things start to shift. We end on Charlie, but it’s not about plot—it’s about character, transitioning from his Christmas with his brother and the story behind his ring to his first kiss with Claire as he says goodbye without telling her it’s a suicide mission. Here, the episode’s story rests solely on Charlie saying goodbye, and the music shifts away from suspense toward resolution. We can see the same thing in the end of the fifth act, where Hurley and Charlie—one of the show’s most enduring and endearing friendships at its peak—gets its own moment to shine.
It’s all building to the moment where it seems the episode is going to end on Charlie’s sacrifice, as he knocks out Desmond, dives to the Looking Glass, and prepares to enter in order to flick the switch Desmond saw and save Claire and Aaron and everyone else. The episode has built to this being an emotional moment, shifting its act breaks away from the plot and toward Charlie exclusively, but then it’s a bait-and-switch.
What was supposed to be Charlie’s big emotional moment was really just another reveal, as the Looking Glass wasn’t flooded, there are two women with guns, and the plot—and Giacchino’s score—thickens once more.
In the moment, although the stakes are raised for the finale, this makes the episode seem weaker. It makes it seem like this was all building to an emotional climax the show is too chicken to deliver. It gives the sense that Charlie’s arc was there—like other flashbacks this season—to make up for a lack of meaningful flashback material three seasons in.
But in retrospect, when you know that Charlie does die in “Through The Looking Glass,” and you realize how effectively “Greatest Hits” creates an emotional arc for his character weaved in and around the need to create the necessary suspense and anticipation for the finale, this is among the show’s most successfully structured hours. It also meant that 2015 Myles reacted far more to the emotional act breaks than the suspenseful ones, shedding tears that 2007 Myles would find inconceivable.
As a result, Noel, I’m curious how you remember 2007 Noel feeling about the episode, along with how well you think it balances Charlie’s arc with everyone else who is preparing for a role in the finale.
Noel: As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, I’ve always been a sucker for any Lost that experiments with the flashback structure. I don’t have any documentation to this effect, but I can promise you that I loved “Greatest Hits” at the time, for being one of the season’s more useful looks back. The episode doesn’t give us any important information about Charlie that we need to know going forward (unlike “The Man From Tallahassee” or “The Man Behind The Curtain”), but it adds so much resonance to his ultimate sacrifice. It changes the whole meaning of Charlie. When I think of the character, I think mainly of the guy in “Greatest Hits.”
Watching the episode this time, I was sure I’d cleverly discovered something in the flashbacks—a nifty, meaningful motif. When Charlie hears Drive Shaft on the radio for the first time, he’s standing in the pouring rain, just as he is when he saved Nadia from being mugged. And one of his other “best memories ever” is learning how to swim from his dad. “Aha!” I thought. “Notice how Charlie’s underwater in each of his ‘greatest hits.’” But alas, he’s dry (alcohol aside) when Liam gives him the “DS” ring, and it’s a clear night when he meets Claire. So… motif averted.
Nevertheless, I think Charlie’s ultimate fate is the logical conclusion to this episode’s flashbacks. These were the best things Charlie ever did: showing courage, making his family proud, and reaching out to other people to try and help. And yes, in a lot of those scenarios, Charlie ended up getting wet. What I like best about the backstory-padding in “Greatest Hits” is that it implies a sixth entry on his little list, connecting all of the rest. For Claire, for his legacy, and to give other people a better life, Charlie’s about to put his swimming lessons to good use.
As to any frustration about this episode leaving the Locke cliffhanger unresolved… well, by this point in the season we should’ve been used to the show letting Locke dangle. The premiere doesn’t bother to explain what happened when the hatch blew up at the end of season two, and after the surprise arrival of Locke’s dad on The Island, several episodes go by before we find out what came next. Locke’s stories never seem to be any hurry to get told.
Besides, I also always tend to like it when Lost focuses-up, staying mostly in one location for the main action—even if that location’s the beach, which in this season becomes the place where not a lot happens. As you point out, the arrival of Karl really gives “Greatest Hits” a jolt. Rather than spending their day having passive-aggressive committee meetings, the 815ers need to get a move on: planting explosives, finding the right set of snipers, saying goodbyes, and getting on the road before the Others arrive.
All of this ultimately is set-up for what’s going to be a ridiculously great season finale (which I can’t wait to talk about next week). Charlie doesn’t save anybody, the Others don’t reach camp, the dynamite-packed tents don’t explode, and no one’s even close to the radio tower. I suppose, in an abstract kind of way, I could easily imagine a person—a younger Myles McNutt, for example—being annoyed that nothing really happens here.
But as long as we’re talking about our perceptions being changed by what comes later, I have to admit that my fondness of this particular set-up episode may have something to do with my memories of all the Losts that are almost all “on the way” with very little “getting there.” “Greatest Hits” is my ideal for how to do an episode like this. Very quickly we find out the plan that Jack has in mind, and then we learn that the plan will have to happen quicker than anyone expected. The rest is all nicely observed character moments, which play out while people are actually doing stuff. That’s excellent adventure series TV writing—stalling for time without wasting a minute.
Myles: That’s a good way of putting it, and it’s helped by the fact “stalling for time” is actually part of the storytelling itself. Desmond’s season-long quest to save Charlie is—in the big picture—a case of Desmond stalling fate in order to gain more time, time that it turns out was enough to put Charlie in the right place at the right time to risk his life for a cause. It also conveniently delays the resolution of this storyline until the finale, but its journey to this point has been dynamic, and driven as much by character as it has by the demands of seasonal plot development.
In writing about this week’s Game Of Thrones I thought a lot about humanity, and I think that’s part of why “Greatest Hits” is so crucial to Charlie’s storyline and to the series as a whole. Charlie gets the chance to define his life in human terms, and he includes a moment that you might not expect. The woman he saved from a mugger may well have been Nadia, thus making this another in a list of flashback convergences, but it’s important to Charlie because it was an instance where he was made to feel special for being human. He stopped when many others didn’t, and he held onto that moment as his humanity began to chip away amidst his addiction. That list isn’t just what he held onto when he made the decision to march toward his predicted death—it’s the list he may well have held onto as he found himself losing his grip on life.
This is one of very few episodes where the flashbacks are explicitly repositioned as memories—we see them as Charlie remembers them. It is a curated form of one’s life flashing before their eyes, fitting given that Desmond’s episode evoked the concept earlier in the season. What Desmond’s stalling for time gives Charlie is the chance to choose the moments that mean the most to him, scanning the memory banks for scenes like his father teaching him to swim. You rightfully search for a theme to tie them together, Noel, but the absence of one makes sense. Charlie might have more time to ponder his sudden death than most people, but he doesn’t have time to coddle together a clean narrative. His moment with his father, for example, pays off vague allusions to daddy issues, but has nothing significant to say. It just, intangibly, means something to him.
These flashbacks collectively make Charlie’s death one of television’s most resonant, taking advantage of the forewarning to eulogize a character a week before they actually die. However, I would specifically argue his death is specifically Lost’s most resonant because it comes before the series’ mythology complicates its basic humanity. Charlie makes his list before he fully understands the cosmic forces operating on The Island, and the humanist way he understands his sacrifice becomes a defiant statement against how the larger forces at play value and understand human life. While The Island may have wanted Charlie dead, the way he defines his life remains most important, and one of the series’ singular statements no matter what 2007 Myles has to say about it.
- While most often associated with death, I love how the dueling forces of Giacchino’s “Life And Death” theme are deployed in the episode’s closing track “Greatest Hits,” which is certainly a big part of why I broke down. It reminds me of…I’ll get to that in the Spoiler Station. [MM]
- Michael Emerson obviously doesn’t have a lot to do here, but he makes the most of his frantic return to camp. It’s unsettled how much he’s unsettled, and the calm and collected Ben who shoots Locke is clearly not sustainable in the current circumstance. [MM]
- The brief Ben scene also intensifies the threat from his side, similar to Jack’s pre-credits, “We’re gonna blow ‘em all to hell.” Next week is going to present a succession of potentially fatal moves and countermoves, and in just those few seconds with Ben and with Jack, “Greatest Hits” does an excellent job of setting up the stakes of what’s coming. (Also, I love Jack’s line because it reminds me of William Holden at the start of The Wild Bunch: “If they move, kill ‘em!”) [NM]
- The one argument for why Charlie’s swimming flashback is important is because they had previously had Charlie say he couldn’t swim back in season one. I’m willing to chalk that up to Charlie balking at responsibility in the midst of his recovery, and say it’s not a complete retcon, but perhaps they felt they needed to contradict it directly through flashback. [MM]
- Can I just say that one reason I was glad The Looking Glass wasn’t flooded is that I have issues with long breath-holding scenes on TV and in movies? In the same way that some people feel faint when they see hypodermic needles puncturing skin, I get squirmy, sweaty-palmed, and mildly panicked the longer I watch someone go without breathing. [NM]
- Also, while Charlie knocking Desmond unconscious with an oar is a necessary plot device, that’s one of my least-favorite dramatic clichés: the Swift Cranial Knockout. In real life I don’t think it’s that easy to brain a person without doing more serious damage. [NM]
- I had forgotten about Naomi a little bit, and had never really factored her into my calculus around the episode, so I had forgotten her role in activating the episode’s red herring: when you think Charlie is putting together a list of things he’ll be remembered for (and not that he’ll remember) in light of DriveShaft’s fame following his “death.” [MM]
- Speaking of forgotten people, the return of Rose and Bernard really helps “Greatest Hits” feel fuller and more important. And making Sayid’s true-love Nadia be the person that Charlie saves from a mugging adds to the sense of coincidence and larger purpose that makes Lost so much fun to ponder. [NM]
Spoiler Station (only read if you’ve seen the entire series):
- …to continue my thought, it reminds me of the Flash Sideways scene in the finale where Charlie and Claire remember, which is equally as interested in the conflict between life and death (as Aaron is born, thus reminding them they’re actually dead, if we want to break it down). I cried during that scene too. [MM]
- I know you mentioned it above, but I want to come back to Charlie’s goodbye to Hurley, which is the scene that always melts me. There’s such genuine, earned affection between those two… which is actually kind of rare for Lost, especially given that so much of the show is supposed to be about how much all of these people mean to each other. That was the whole awkward Lost endgame in season six, to bring the 815ers together in the afterlife because they have some special emotional connection; and throughout the run of the series, the writers forced romantic pairings that rang false. Yet there were some characters with real chemistry, and because they enjoyed each other’s company, Lost as a whole was a more pleasurable place to visit. I wrote a lot during my time with the show about how we viewers should appreciate it more as television, doing what television is best at doing: giving its audience little episodic stories and memorable moments within the sprawling, serialized format. And I think it’s fair to say that not many heavy fantasy epics or somber prestige dramas could push the kind of buttons that Lost does with that Charlie/Hurley hug. [NM]
Next week: Join us as we go “Through The Looking Glass,” and review the last episode of Lost that The A.V. Club has yet to review.