Tabula rasa — the blank slate. The notion that people are born with nothing innate, “blank,” “clean,” and that everything we are comes from our experiences. Our modern conception of this comes mostly from 17th century philosopher John Locke, who also thought this meant that each individual is free to define the content of his or her character, to author their own mind, despite not being free to be anything other than human (and so acknowledging that we can never be fully blank). No surprise, the philosopher’s namesake character, more than any other crash survivor, represents this possibility, at least at the start of the series.
On Lost, everyone is already long since affected by many experiences. They are no longer as blank as they were at birth. But each day is blank, and they are free to author their own minds. Or are they? Those who are conscious about the possibility may strive to do so, those willing to confront the restrictions in their own heads. Will they take the opportunities they have to write new futures for themselves?
Charle says: “They’ll find us” and refers to satellites in space that can photograph a license plate. The outside world tries very hard to see all, to bring all under its purview. It uses high technology to do so. The survivors count on this, want it. The island has other plans.
Sawyer calls Sayid “Abdul” — more nicknames from Sawyer, and many more to come. This is a person who doesn’t acknowledge things for what they are. His nicknames symbolize the assumptions we all have about things, even when we aren’t giving them nicknames.
The group of hikers decides to lie about the distress signal, feeling that the other survivors will lose hope if they learn of a distress signal gone unanswered for 16 years. We have already seen deception — Kate keeping her criminal past quiet, for example. But this seems to be the first group decision to deceive, and the first time people have decided to deceive others about some aspect of their shared situation on the island. It is a conspiracy, the first of many we will see on the island.
Whatever we might think of larger conspiracy theories fans have about the nature of the island, these conspiracies among characters are among the most significant we can learn of for the show, because of the relationship between on one hand deception, hiding, fear, and on the other hand consciousness, awareness, trust, communication. Unintended consequences and vicious cycles will often appear when characters try to deceive, even as a result of good intentions. Lost repeatedly shows us the difference between benevolence — wishing others well — and beneficence — doing well for others. It repeatedly shows us how, just as is so pervasive in our global culture in general, benevolence often breeds maleficence, doing ill for others. Good intentions can pave the road to hell. The point isn’t to avoid good intentions, it’s to know how to make good on them. Learning how is a significant part of each character’s journey — in a sense learning how is the very point of these journeys.
Hikers camping. Boone takes Sawyer’s gun, and the group argues over who should hold it. Kate has a resentful face when the group decides she should hold the gun. It’s as if she doesn’t want to do that anymore, as if she wants the clean slate, to start anew. She will need to resolve who she’s been with who she wants to be. She will need to find a way to accept all of her past, carry forward with her what she values, and leave behind what she doesn’t. Perhaps it is only what she associates with guns and violence that needs to be left behind as opposed to the things themselves, which can defend, or provide sustenance, or various other real benefits.
Sayid, back at the beach, asks the survivors to gather electronic equipment so he can try to boost the transceiver’s signal — though his real motive is to discover the source of the distress call, not to send out their own transmission. He says there is a need to organize three groups, and each must have a leader. He is organizing, he is displaying leadership. But it’s not in conflict with any leadership that others, such as Jack, have already shown. Each steps up to the plate to get things done. Neither expects any special status or favors or benefits in return. It is leader as team player, just another role to play on a team in which everyone has a role, everyone has skills to offer, and some happen to have leadership skills. This is true leadership, and it is not hierarchical as “leadership” so often is in global culture.
Jack needs stronger antibiotics otherwise the marshal will die. Jack is using his knowledge, his talents, but he is hampered by the standard medical model, a model that believes it can fix anything and that more technology and drugs means a better or easier fix. The medical model itself forces a barrier upon his talents, limits what he can do.
Sawyer loots the plane. He tells Jack, “You’re still back in civilization. ” Jack responds, “Yeah, and where are you?” Sawyer: “Me, Im in the wild.” All very reasonable from the standpoint of those who prize civilization, since those who do envision the wild as a place where dog eats dog, where every man is for himself, where nature is red in tooth and claw. But is this actually how things are? Is this actually human nature outside the influence of global culture? Sawyer is one of the angriest, most antisocial survivors. We will soon find out that he is one of the people most hurt by the culture they’ve left behind. Couldn’t the fact of is having been literally left by himself as a child have led to his attitude of “every man for himself”? Couldn’t such hurts be exactly why people have these visions about life outside our culture, warping their image of it? Isn’t civilization itself filled with far too many people looking out for themselves? If so, could the truth about what’s beyond civilization be something very different from what most imagine?
Jin criticizes Sun for looking filthy and commands her to wash up. More dominance from him, more denial of the natural — more insistence on a culturally condoned order that includes keeping buttoned and keeping clean, both literally superficial traits. But then he says he loves her. More benevolent maleficence. He doesn’t know how to express his love to make her actually feel loved. Making her feel loved would be benevolence and beneficence combined.
Sayid is helping set up tarps to collect water. He knows these skills, skills for surviving outside of civilization, as a result of training he received in the military. Ironic, given that militaries as such only exist along with nation-states, the hallmark political structure of civilization. It’s as if, on some level, the culture beyond the island knows of its own potential weaknesses but reveals them only to a select few, only to those who are most trained to follow orders, to do the culture’s bidding, to not to question or comment. These are the people who the culture puts into situations in which they may need the skills to survive when the common power structures fail them — all to prevent the masses from being put in such situations. The cost of “freedom”?
In Kate’s flashback, the farmer Ray Mullen says to Kate about her leaving him and the farm, “I get it, you know. Everyone deserves a fresh start.” The tabula rasa, at least from here forward.
The wounded marshal wakes up to see Kate. He immediately tries to strangle her. She has done nothing in the moment other than be there beside him. He is living in the past, punishing her for no good reason right now, living out his own fears, his own righteousness. He is a member of a police force, another agency only possible in the nation-state. He doesn’t believe people deserve a fresh start. He believes people should be punished over and over for past actions — he is Javert to Kate’s Valjean. Most of the characters and audience might recoil at his action here, yet nearly all the characters are living out his very notion, continuing to engage in their own dysfunctional patterns of thought and behavior, punishing themselves over and over and failing to get past their past. When the one is seen to be the same as the other, then there is the possibility of progress.
Walt reveals Locke’s secret to Michael. “A miracle happened.” Michael doesn’t want him hanging around Locke. Walt wonders, “Why not? He’s my friend.” Michael feels threatened by a person who could possibly imagine this plane crash to be a good thing, much less a miracle. In the face of a threat, Michael’s reaction is, as with most of the characters, not to face it, but to deny it, to avoid it. He changes the subject: “‘I’m gonna get you’re dog back, as soon as it stops raining.” Boom, the rain stops, and we see him searching for the dog, sarcastically talking to himself about his promise, revealing it to have been inauthentic, just saying what Walt wanted to hear. There is a growl in the jungle, perhaps a polar bear, and Michael runs, abandoning the search for the dog Walt so badly wants back. It is as if the island, the bear, are presenting Michael with an opportunity to face the fears he needs to face in order to become the parent that Walt needs.
Charlie sees Locke whittling a whistle, and he uses the opportunity to dovetail into his own musical background. Several times now, Charlie has gone out of his way to conspicuously let people know of his involvement in a popular rock band. He seems badly in need of validation. If the many howling audiences for his band haven’t provided validation enough, can the reactions of his fellow crash survivors possibly satisfy? It is not his rock band experience but his fears that will require validation and acceptance.
Kate tries to light a fire on her own. Sawyer offers a lighter and she takes him up on it. Soon enough, these kinds of technologies from home will stop working. Are the survivors smart to make use of what they have as long as they can? Or are they hurting themselves by postponing learning how to get along without these technologies, using them up now instead of saving them for potential future crises?
Sawyer shoots the marshal to put him out of his misery, but he fails to kill. Is this merciful? He then wants a cigarette, but he can’t get the lighter to work. Technology has failed him — the gun, the lighter. Jack must now confront what he wanted to avoid — he must now finish the marshal. Is this a bad thing? Jack thinks so, but perhaps his insistence on the medical fix blinded him to the possibility that a doctor may actually be more caring and humane by putting a person out of their misery. He simply didn’t want to do any harm to his patient — but isn’t standing by while a patient suffers an unnecessarily long and tortuous death a kind of harm in itself? Not to those who believe that sins must committed actively, that omission is not sinful. But does anyone really think that? Sin seems beside the point — the question whether one can live with oneself if one refrains from doing something. Can Jack? Not in this case, not now that Sawyer has failed in his attempt.
Locke sits cross-legged on the beach. Calm, at ease. He blows his whistle, and Vincent the dog comes straight to him. No force, little effort. He has understood the situation and acted simply and effectively to make good things happen. He then allows Michael to take the credit for it so that Michael will look good in Walt’s eyes. Locke has no ego here. He has simply served the situation and is content to have helped the result.
Kate wants to reveal her criminal past to Jack, but he says, “It doesn’t matter, Kate, who we were, what we did before this — before the crash. It doesn’t really– Three days ago we all died. We should all be able to start over.” Jack acknowledges that the crash on the island can serve as an ego death for everyone, can help get everyone to the place where Locke appears to be in his egoless ability to serve. Jack seems content that the rules are different here, that perhaps what was considered criminal at “home” may not be here, or at least that whatever happened in the past should remain there as they all move forward.
Joe Purdy’s song “Wash Away” plays on Hurley’s headphones and serves as the soundtrack for the first unambiguously positive moments on the island. Sayid gives Sawyer a fruit despite their enmity. Michael brings Vincent back to a happy Walt. All seems calm and optimistic. The song tells us, “I got troubles oh, but not today… And I have sins Lord, but not today… And I had friends oh, but not today.” They’re all washed away, by the lapping waves on the beach of the island, in a sense. “And oh, I’ve been cryin’, No, no more cryin’ here.” Is the crash a disaster? The show tells us very clear here — no. The tabula rasa begins today — for those who are willing to write something new on their slate.