The proper critics will scoff — I remember my Environmental Sociology professor being horrified that I was going to go through Titanic in chronological order rather than thematically. After seeing the look on her face, I did a rewrite, and I admit it’s a better way to write criticism and analysis. But chronological is exactly what I’m going to tend to do with Lost from here forward, both because it’s easier and also because I think it may prove interesting to have a thematic analysis done in parallel with the show, everything emerging organically as things go, all the pieces clicking into place only gradually.
This episode, though, and consequently the pilot as a whole, ends with a very notable moment, one that has huge implication for how we understand the meaning of the show and the phenomenon that surrounds it. This deserves some real attention, and I’ll try to do it justice. But first, we start at the beginning.
The episode opens with the gang who found the transceiver trying to get it to work. They can’t. Once again, it’s the wanting to be off the island, but somehow they can’t. They don’t have it in them, or the island won’t let them. They need to develop those resources within — and/or work with the island until the island is willing to let itself be seen.
The first flashback: Charlie, after talking with Kate about whether or not he’s a coward, flashes back to being on the plane. His hands are shaking. Fear, or just a physiological reaction to needing a fix? The flight crew seem onto him, and he gets paranoid that they are going to come after him, so he bolts to the bathroom. There, he takes some of the drugs he has stashed in his shoe, as the crew are demanding he opening the door. What do we learn here? Two things. First, in flashing back to this after considering his cowardice, we know that Charlie is on some level aware of the truth about drugs and addictions in general — that they are a refuge for the fearful, covering up their fear with something else. Second, we learn that civilization has no patience for fear — the flight crew is after him, and he ends up even more fearful now, fearful that they will punish him. Civilization can’t help the addicted, the fearful, in the refuges they take, because civilization is the very cause of them needing that refuge.
Shannon is sunbathing. Boone tells her he is helping others sort clothes and asks if she’d like to help. She blows him off and then ends up berating him for thinking too highly for himself. She is so disconnected from others that not only can she not help, but she needs to blame someone else, make someone else feel bad, because of her own inability. What fear is she not facing?
Jin makes Sun close her top button when Michael comes around searching for Walt. More controlling behavior between dominant husband and passive wife. Also, though, it is an act of embracing freedom outside civilization, met with civilization swooping in and reasserting its restrictions on healthy human behavior.
Michael, who had lost Walt, finds Walt in the jungle. Walt was comfortable walking off on his own into the unknown. Michael was afraid to do so. He scolds Walt: “What’d I tell you after everything that’s happened? …. You listen to me, I mean what I say.” Michael has not yet confronted his own fears, and so the jungle is a dangerous place. There seems little doubt that Michael may have real love for Walt, but he doesn’t know how to make Walt feel loved. Walt has perhaps not yet become as fearful as Michael, and on some level Michael resents that fact, reacting with authoritarian parenting that’s sure to push Walt eventually toward repeating the cycle of fear. Is it a coincidence that all of this happens just as Walt finds a pair of handcuffs? Definitely a symbol of authoritarianism, dominance, punishment, imprisonment and fear from a culture that is full of these things, that has an ever growing inmate population, and all despite its knowing the science that shows that punishment is not as effective as reward in modifying behavior, and neither as effective as simple validation and empathy when it comes to fostering intrinsic self-esteem. Parenting, no doubt, will prove to be a significant theme in the show, just as parenting is an absolutely crucial factor in the real-life repetition of vicious cycles — and in the real-life breaking of those cycles.
The first real fight between characters occurs between Sawyer and Sayid after Sawyer accuses Sayid of crashing the plane. To sum up these characters in single superficial words, we have, from Sawyer’s standpoint, the Patriot vs. the Terrorist. From Sayid’s perspective: the Redneck vs. the Iraqi, a national designation filed for Sayid with cultural but not ideological meaning. What fears cause people to make generalizations, to automatically assume that the “other” is the enemy? To make someone to be “other” and not part of “us” in the first place? Soon enough, there will be extremely significant developments in the story in terms of people branded as “others” and assumed to be enemies. It is the dichotomous, win-lose thinking that is inherent to civilization itself, so often filled with us vs. them scenarios.
Sawyer’s negative assumptions about Sayid are so strong that he sarcastically says, “Great!” when Sayid offers to help with the transceiver — much like Shannon needing to put down Boone’s attempts at helping others. When Hurley then tries to transcend us vs. them by saying, “We’re all in this together. Let’s treat each other with a little respect,” Sawyer lashes out at Hurley, calling him “Lardo.” Sawyer’s is, indeed, an overreaction, just more of the same from him. But there is something very significant about Hurley’s own response, made all the more clear when he subsequently says to Sayid that Sawyer is a “chain-smoking jackass,” and then again when he reacts with silence to the revelation that Sayid was in the Republican Guard — the “other” side, “them” — during the Gulf War. Hurley may be “right” that they are all in it together and ought to treat each other with respect, but inside he thinks lowly of Sawyer — he disrespects Sawyer. To have truly treated Sawyer with respect would have required empathy and validation for Sawyer, even in the face of Sawyer’s overreactions and prejudices. That would have stood a chance of calming Sawyer down and getting him on board, seeing everyone as “us.” As it stands, Hurley did more harm than good — he knew an important truth, but was incapable of expressing in a way that could be embraced. That is, in a way, as bad as not knowing the truth in the first place, but on some level it’s even worse — to know it and be incapable of living it out. Indeed, to the “jackass” comment, Sayid says to Hurley, “Some people have problems.” Sayid may only likely have meant Sawyer, but this statement will hold true for everyone here, including Hurley who has already betrayed his own wish for respecting others, and certainly including Sayid himself.
Sun finds Kate on beach, stripped down to her underwear. In light of the buttoning up, she must be jealous of a woman who feels free enough to do this. Sun wants to be free of her cultural restrictions. But despite so much being left behind, off the island, those restrictions remain with her. They are in her head — and in one’s head is the only place something needs to be for it to be, or at least seem, real. The same is true for everyone and all they carry with them from their pasts. Until they each resolve their issues, even if they had only the clothes on their back, they would all remain threats to the island, they would all still embody the encroachment of dysfunctional civilization.
Kate wants to hike with Sayid to send the transceiver signal from high ground. Jack discourages her: “You saw what that thing did to the pilot.” Fear is present once again, fear of the unknowns on the island now making even Jack afraid to attempt to let civilization know that they are there. He advises her: “if you see or hear anything, run.” In the face of anything truly life-threatening, such as an island monster, this is, indeed, good advice. How often, though, do Jack and the rest run when their lives really aren’t threatened?
Jin slaps Sun’s hand for touching the food he’s preparing — dominance turning into violence, a tiny violence that few equate with the plane crash but that is in ways culturally connected. He heads off, she unbuttons — the will to live, to be free, is still inside her and takes any chance it can to be seen, even if the sight must be kept hidden from some, like Jin.
Hurley refuses Jin’s offer of food: “I’m starving, but I’m nowhere near that hungry.” The most obese of the survivors, likely the person with the biggest appetite, shows us that what is “food” is defined by culture, and that culture can teach us to do things that fail to support our own lives.
Shannon tells Boone: “That guy from the gate, he wouldn’t let us have our seats in first class. He saved our lives.” This echoes the ancient Taoist story about the farmer, whose neighbors kept saying that things that happened to him were “good luck” or “bad luck,” but they seemed to always turn out to be wrong. Prizing the comforts and trappings of first class turned out to be not so worthwhile — the “bad luck” Shannon surely saw it to be at first has turned out to be something else. Isn’t it possible that the “bad luck” of crashing on this island could also turn out to be something else for everyone?
Wailing to Boone about the fact that she’s “been through a trauma here,” Boone can only point out that they all have been through the same trauma, and “the only difference is you’ve taken time to give yourself a pedicure.” This is too much for even Shannon, who decides to step out of her comfort zone and go on the hike with Kate and Sayid. She may be doing it for less than fully noble reasons, to show up Boone in some way, but she is doing it. Like Kate stitching up Jack, here is another survivor moving out of her usual behavior patterns, starting the kind of journey the island may require of the survivors.
The hike begins, and we see the struggle they have scaling the mountain, the incredibly steep landscape. To hope to be seen by the outside world, they must literally do what they imagine of their situation — put themselves “above” the jungle, rejecting what is “beneath” them.
On the beach, Locke is fiddling with a backgammon set. In the face of all going on, Locke is able to play a game, to think strategically, to devote time to a skill he enjoys. Jack has also had an opportunity on the island for this, using his medical abilities to help others, but Locke is the first to do so outside the bounds of the crisis. He’s the first to simply live his life here. (What about Shannon’s sunbathing? Probably not — more of an escape from the situation rather than a taking advantage of it.) When Locke catches Walt’s interest, he offers to teach Walt the game. “Two players. Two sides. One is light. One is dark. Walt, do you want to know a secret?” We don’t find out just yet what the secret is, but we have seen dichotomous, us vs. them, win vs. lose thinking already. Is the secret that this kind of thinking is just game-playing, not real life and certainly not harmony? That might be a secret worth passing onto kids. Locke, the survivor most in harmony with the island, is now trying to spread that harmony — and serving as an alternative parenting figure, a role model for Walt as child and, though he’d not admit it yet, Michael as parent.
After tasting Jin’s food, Claire feels the baby kick for the first time since the crash. She’s so excited, she wants him to feel it, but he doesn’t want her to put his hand on her belly. He somehow seems to think it’s not appropriate, not acceptable. On top of the button incident, it’s another rejection of the natural — indeed, another rejection of the female body. The dominance he expresses doesn’t flow a sense of good in men but a sense of contempt for women. Underneath, he is probably afraid of the life-giving power of women, and more broadly he seems afraid of connection.
On the hike, there is a grunt, an animal. Kate: “Something’s coming.” Charlie: “It’s coming toward us, I think.” Sawyer shoots it — a polar bear. The mysteries keep compounding on this island, but so far, all the mysteries — the terror in the jungle near the beach, the monster who killed the pilot, now the polar bear — they all seems to be beasts, monsters. The hikers deny it: “That can’t be a polar bear.” But these things are here — and they’re “coming toward us.” They may evoke fear, but on this island, these things must be confronted.
Sayid believes that Sawyer is the criminal being transported by the marshal. The tables have now turned, and Sayid is making the assumptions. Sawyer says, “Fine, I’m the criminal. You’re the terrorist. We can all play a part. Who do you want to be?” Oddly, this statement subverts Sawyer’s own assumption of Sayid as terrorist, as if he knows these reactions are all based on false assumptions and fear. But old habits die hard. Sawyer will moments later say of Kate, “I know girls like you.” But Kate responds, “Not girls exactly like me” — she knows that these are just more false assumptions and generalizations on Sawyer’s part. As they get to know each other better, the characters will force each other to question their early assumptions, to confront what they are here to confront. They will do this for each other just as surely as the island does it for them and just as they will, in doing so, be reciprocating, doing it for the island.
In Kate’s flashback to the plane, we see the tail section rip off. We now know that the plane is broken into three main parts. The front section goes down in the jungle where the pilot was killed and the transceiver retrieved. The tail section seems gone, and we’ll later find it went into the ocean. The middle section is on the beach and holds the bulk of the main characters in the story. The pattern seems significant. The middle section survivors find themselves on the beach, that liminal place, between the ocean which drowns and the jungle with all its unknowns, monsters, etc., threatening death. These are the very two places where the other parts of the plane, the parts surrounding the middle, end up. As of now, there are no survivors from the front — most dead in the crash, the pilot killed by the island. Could it be that we’ll find something similar of the tail? All dead? Or many dead, and the rest having a far tougher time than those in the middle of the plane, and several killed on the island? Indeed, is it a coincidence that, by the end of Season 4, the only “tailie” who isn’t either dead or captured by the Others is Bernard, who was only in the tail to use the restroom, i.e., someone who “belonged” in the middle? There may be some meaning here about being in the middle, between extremes, between “us” and “them,” something about balance, harmony and some middle path that the survivors must learn to walk.
On high ground, Sayid gets a bar, a signal. He tries to transmit, but he can’t, because of the French distress signal. Shannon, who we already know to have low self-esteem, denies her ability to translate, but she is convinced to try. We learn that someone else is or at least was on the island and needs help. The others this person was with are all dead. “It killed them all.” Boone says, “That was good,” validating Shannon, supporting her attempt at translation — at using communication skills — as a contribution to the group. Shannon’s journey is progressing. But in the meantime, the group is left in greater fear, yet another mystery, another threat.
In the face of this, the last moment of the episode is Charlie asking the other hikers, “Guys, where are we?” This bookends with the first moment of the pilot as a whole, Jack’s opening eye. Both of these moments seem to ask, what is it that the survivors must wake up to, open their eyes to? Clearly, there is something significant about the nature of the island — “where are we” — that all will need to make conscious. And clearly, there are a lot of Lost fans in the world who are trying to figure out what’s going on. This is what I mentioned at the beginning, the thing in need of some real attention. Indeed, it’s so deserving that it gets its own post, the first but not likely the last that won’t direct cover a particular episode. Read on.