It’s hard for me to declare this episode the best of the season so far. It’s certainly my favorite, but I am going to need some distance from it before I move it to the top of the list. However, I can safely say it’s of comparable quality to the episodes that are already the best of the bunch: The Substitute and Dr. Linus (which sounds like a teaching team). What gives me pause about this episode is who wrote it, Elizabeth Sarnoff.
Sarnoff has always been my least favorite writer on the staff. I’d describe her as surfacey. Yes, that word is made up (I think it’s a Whedonism, actually), but I chose it because I didn’t want to use “shallow.” I wouldn’t call her shallow. This episode certainly had plenty of depth to it, which I’m sure she understood. I’m just not sure how much of it was her idea and how much of it was from the themes already set up in LOST from the first season onward (the first season writing staff truly was insanely talented) and the brainstorming session in the writers’ room for this episode. Maybe the better metaphor for her then is “paint-by-the-numbers.” When given the skeleton, or the outline, she does admirably at writing compelling scenes and a flowing narrative, but her composition lacks creativity. The easiest place to see my critique is her dialogue, especially when it comes to Sawyer. Mainly, she just has him being sarcastic, sans all of his S1 (and somewhat S2) wit. Seriously, go back and re-watch S1. The contrast is stark.
Regardless, the episode, as I noted, was packed with information. We learned a lot about Sawyer and the MiB. Kate’s character took an important turn. Motivations were revealed and guilt was alleviated (or earned). Most importantly, as always, Sawyer was at the brains of the themes and philosophy of the show. So do we finally have our answer then? Is it “live together, die alone” or “everyman for himself”? These are the right questions, but the answer is, of course, not that simple.
I believe I understand why Sawyer has been absent the last two episodes (and perhaps was lacking a centric episode in S4). I believe I have evidence for my rational self interest theory for Sawyer (and LOST). To address these ideas, we have to consider two important themes of this particular episode. First, Sawyer O and Sawyer P compare to each other in a unique and interesting way (and there will be graphs to show it). Second, “live together or die alone” is a false dichotomy, and this episode subtly demonstrates so.
Essentially, this episode boiled Sawyer’s story for the series down to three characters: himself, Miles, and Kate. Who is the most important? The answer may surprise you. (Ok, so it’s him, but who is the second most important might surprise you.)
WHAT WOULD QUINN MALLORY DO?
The way the flashsideways have been structured so far has been very intricate, very intentional, and very philosophical. What do I mean by philosophical? Philosophy is all about specificity of thought. You define ideas by boiling them down to their essential elements. To figure out what thing A is, you learn all its qualities and then figure out what qualities are unique to thing A in comparison to all other similar things. Through this process, you find the differences that compose the definition of thing A. It is an intense method that requires many permutations. Many permutations like, say, episodes of a television series focusing on a new character each time.
The first time I began to notice something strange with the flashsideways was the Sayid episode. There was no difference between Sayid O and Sayid P. (For a more in-depth discussion of those “two,” check out my column for Sundown.) Basically, Sayid was stuck at the same point in both universes, saying “I’m not that guy anymore,” yet resorting to his military training to solve issues. The key phrase in that explanation is “stuck at the same point.” What has to be considered is each character’s arc or journey. In every story, a character travels from one place to another. I don’t mean physically, but metaphysically, or personally. Commonly, this idea is considered as a person growing, changing, maturing, or whatever word you understand it by that you’d like to add to this list. The flashsideways timeline has given has a giant “what if” in that we ask ourselves, “What if the events in the character(s) life had been differently? Would they have then progressed on their arc differently?” The answer, as we saw with Sayid, is not always yes.
An arc though, does include a point A and a point B. There is a place a character starts and a place a character ends. This linear travel is where the idea of a happy ending or a tragedy comes from. In a “happy ending,” the character properly reaches point B. In a tragedy, the character never reaches point B (or actually makes negative progress towards it). Sayid is the latter type of character, in both the original and the flashsideways timeline. It is my contention that all of the other characters exist on a unique point on that spectrum, as illustrated in the following graph that was created, conceptualized, and composed by my cohort Daniel T. Richards.
What’s most interesting to note about the graph is that out of all the characters, Sawyer is the only one at an equal positive point in both timelines. Both Sawyer O and Sawyer P have reached the same conclusions and are working towards the same goals. Because of the brevity of the Sawyer P story we’ve seen so far, it would actually be possible to argue that Sawyer O is further ahead in his progression (another first). However, due to Sawyer O’s “setback” and depression due to Juliet, I don’t believe the case is as strong as the one I am about to make.
The stories of Sawyer O and Sawyer P in this episode focused on the same themes and question, lies and loyalty, will he (be a) con (man) again? Hence the title, Recon. Likewise, while Sawyer O went out on a recon mission to Hydra Island for the MiB (which we later found out was actually a recon mission for himself), Sawyer P went on a recon mission to Australia which boiled over to telephone recon for himself.
Each Sawyer began in the only place he could: alone. Sawyer O emerged from a tent, meaning he stayed behind from the Temple mission freeing him from any guilt of being associated with the MiB, went to the fire, and uttered his catchphrase, “Son of a bitch.” Later, talking to Kate after she arrived with the MiB, he asserted his solitude:
Kate: "So you're with Locke now?"
Sawyer: "I ain't with anybody, Kate."
In the original universe, the original Sawyer returned. In the flashsideways universe, he looked to have returned as well as Sawyer P seemed to be running the same con we saw twice in S1, first in Confidence Man, then again in Outlaws. Except this time, the woman was wiser to it than Cassidy and pulled a gun on him. Here, Sawyer P explicated where he was at, which could likely be his catchphrase, “I don’t need saving.” With just that one line, Sawyer P simply seems to be asserting his independence. It’s important to consider this quote in its entirety however:
"I don't need saving...because you're gonna do the right thing and put that gun down. But if you don't, well then all I gotta do is say the magic word and that door busts open."
Here, three beliefs of Sawyer P, and I would argue Sawyer O, are revealed. The first is self reliance. He says he doesn’t need saving and pauses. The pause asserts that the statement must be taken on its own. He doesn’t need saving because he can take care of himself. The second is a belief in justice and the moral ability to man. Shooting someone is wrong, and he trusts that people will do the right thing when given the chance. Here is a major departure from Sawyer O from most of the series, which I’ll turn to in a moment. Before that discussion, the third belief is in the role of government. The other reason he doesn’t need saving is because, if other men don’t act in a just manner, he is protected by others, namely the police force. In this specific instance, it is because he works for the police force, but the metaphor still holds, as the police are supposed to protect all citizens equally. Sawyer P simply gets more immediate attention because of his job.
The second belief revolves around an important tension of Sawyer’s character that I’ve discussed: the belief in justice in the universe and the goodness of man. Upon the death of Juliet, we saw Sawyer O sink into a very dark place, fearing the universe was cold and lonely and blaming Jack’s ineptitude for his loss. But we all know (including Sawyer) that Jack isn’t a good sample to judge humanity on. This episode featured Sawyer acknowledging that truth and climbing out of the hole. How did he do so? We must consider the Sawyer P plot in order to understand. More specifically, we need to turn his date with Charlotte P, the hottest ginger ever.
The date was arranged by Miles P. Charlotte P is a friend of his father’s, working at a museum with him. And if you think that’s not going to come back, you’re a fool. Presumably, Miles P’s father is PF Chang P. They probably know Charlotte P from the island. Regardless, Miles said two important things. First, after Sawyer doesn’t really want to go on the date, Miles asks him, “What is your deal, Jim? Do you want to die alone?” It would seem as if Miles is bringing back the live together or die alone dichotomy, but the point is much more subtle than that, demonstrated by the duo’s next exchange:
Miles P: "You know you can tell me the truth, about anything. Are you lying to me, man?"
Sawyer P: "Why the hell would I lie?"
Why would Sawyer P lie? To answer that question, we first have to consider what lying means. Lying is the privileging of someone else’s view of reality over your own. You allow them to believe information you know to be false in order to preserve their view. In this specific case, Sawyer P wasn’t telling Miles P about Anthony Cooper and his parents being conned and murdered because he wanted to preserve Miles’ view of him. As a cop and Miles’ partner, he was seen as just and honest. By pursuing a con man with the intent to murder him, he might have proven to be vindictive, blood thirsty, and unjust. By being abandoned by his parents, he might have been proven to be unworthy of loyalty and devotion (which he needs from his partner). What all of this explanation means is that Sawyer P lied because he didn’t like himself. He believed himself to be inherently bad (just as Sawyer O did at the beginning of the series).
After Miles P declared he was no longer partners with Sawyer P, Sawyer looked into a mirror and punched it. Not only was this his “mirror moment” (as my buddy Doc D pointed out that each character has one in his flashsideways), but it actively demonstrates his self loathing. It is this self hatred that stops him from trusting anyone. You can’t believe everyone else is capable of good if you don’t first believe you are good. Why not? You are your first, most immediate, and largest sample of humanity. You are going to extrapolate outwards from yourself. No matter how much evidence is presented to the contrary, if it doesn’t hold true for you, you wouldn’t believe it of others. And there’s nothing wrong with thinking in that manner. It’s the nature of humanity. But you need to believe you’re good. And Charlotte P was the one who showed Sawyer P how to do so.
After some obvious flirting (though I’m not sure how well the Indiana Jones stuff would work on an actual archeologist), Charlotte P demonstrated her intelligence and worth by challenging Sawyer P. She didn’t buy his comparison of himself to Bullitt (but she might have if she IMDBed the movie on her iPhone and read the plot like you should be doing right now). Instead, she demanded one thing, “Ok, James, do me a favor and don't treat me like all the other girls that ask you. Tell me the truth.” She wanted to know his real view of reality, because that’s how you really connect with someone. You see, the Steve McQueen line is one that allows Sawyer P to easily play off of the cultural preconceptions of being a cop, to let people their assumptions of him based on his job are correct. His response to Charlotte P’s demand was much more revealing.
Sawyer P explained that he got to a point where he was either going to become a criminal or a cop and chose cop. This choice refers back to the first scene of the flashsideways, Sawyer P’s sense of justice. He obviously believed more in justice than Sawyer O did, as he chose cop and Sawyer O chose criminal. What was the difference? In the flashsideways universe, we have to assume that Jacob never enabled Sawyer P’s writing of that letter, as he didn’t have it (if he did, they would have shown it). Writing and subsequently holding onto the letter in the original universe only reminded Sawyer O over and over and over again about the grave injustice that was done to him. It jaded his sample, himself, of humanity in the universe. Essentially, Sawyer P had a better starting point than Sawyer O. While both have self esteem issues, Sawyer P believed in the goodness of the universe, whereas Sawyer O, thanks to Jacob, didn’t. That’s why Sawyer O took Juliet’s death so hard. She was his evidence to the contrary. Sawyer P’s “relationship” with Charlotte P was intended to parallel this struggle.
After she discovered his secret, Sawyer P threw Charlotte P out (in a scene that resembled his throwing out of Kate in Eggtown). He still felt the need to lie to her, not tell her about his past, because he still believed she wouldn’t like him for it. Then, in a very intentional parallel, realizing his mistake, he brought the same sunflower to Charlotte P that he brought to Juliet in the original timeline. And he did it for the same reason. He asked Juliet to stay on the island because he didn’t want to be alone. He went back to Charlotte P because he didn’t want to be alone. To act on that desire first means you have to believe you’re worth not being alone. It represents a growth in character. Though he’d learned, Sawyer P still got a door in his face for his troubles, as Charlotte P reminded him of his flaw, “Look I don't know if you're just lonely or guilty or completely mad, but, you know what, I don't care. You blew it.” He’s all three of those things, in both universes.
Except, in both universes, Sawyer overcame these flaws by expanding his relationship with another character. In the flashsideways, Sawyer P had a discussion with Miles P (and then ran into Kate P). In the original universe, Sawyer O had a discussion with Kate O (and brought up Miles O). While many people are probably swooning over the apparent rekindling of the Sawyer and Kate romance in both universes (seemingly ending the hopes of Jack and Kate), my contention is that the friendship between Sawyer and Miles is much more important.
In the final scene of the episode, a strong parallel was drawn to the S1 scene near the end of Born to Run where Sawyer and Kate said goodbye by the fire as the raft prepared to launch. Sawyer told her there was nothing on the island worth staying for. She told him to be safe. In contrast, this time, as Sawyer tries to get off the island, he wants to bring her with him. It not only represents growth within the episode and the season (all the themes I’ve discussed so far in this column), but it represents growth over the entire series, as it’s a complete 180 from the Born to Run scene (on Sawyer’s part). It’s also important to mention, in an earlier scene, Sawyer asked Kate about people getting out of the Temple and specifically asked about Miles, not in a list with other people such as Jack and Hurley, proving his concern for him over everyone else. Sure, the Sawyer and Kate stuff was nice, but it has never been as consistent and normal as the Sawyer and Miles friendship.
To understand Sawyer and Miles’ relationship, you only have to consider two things. First, they are the two most similar characters on the island, even more so than Sawyer and Kate. If there were no Sawyer, Miles would certainly fill his role and often does in regards to humor, sarcasm, and boiling things down to their most important elements. Second, we have to consider the final scene of the flashsideways between Sawyer P and Miles P. Specifically, what is important is the following exchange:
Miles P: "Why didn't you tell me any of this?"
Sawyer P: 'I knew you'd try to talk me out of it."
Miles P: "Damn right."
Sawyer P: "Fair enough."
Sawyer’s “fair enough” seems like more than a mere acknowledgement of Miles’ point of view. It seems like an acceptance of his argument. Furthermore, Sawyer’s admittance that he knew Miles would try to “talk him out of it” demonstrates that he already knew about the immorality of his actions. By lying to his friend, Sawyer allowed his evasion of reality to continue. By finally opening up to Miles, he had to move on. There was no other choice. Why is it so important that he’s opening up to Miles? Couldn’t it be just anyone? We’ve seen him open up to several characters throughout the series (Kate, Hurley, Juliet) and none of them have had the same effect because they don’t have the same sense of life and share the same values as Sawyer. Both Sawyer and Miles have a strong sense of reality, a strong sense of justice, and a strong sense of the nature of humanity. By seeing these things in another person, by seeing themselves in another person, they can’t deny their beliefs and values or they’re denying themselves.
Here we return to my overarching theory about Sawyer’s story and my mini-theory about why he has been absent for the past couple of episodes (and perhaps had no centric episode in S4). As demonstrated by the chart at the beginning of this section, and explained since, Sawyer is the furthest along in his journey and most represents the themes and philosophy of LOST in general. His absence is out of necessity. His revelations are the greater reveals of the show. Notice how his flashsideway occurred about halfway through the season. Notice how, though we were led to believe he would be evil by being recruited by the MiB, he has been the most good and actualized person. But wait, how is Sawyer good? Didn’t he lie to both the MiB and Widmore and pursue his own agenda?
Sawyer is good in a Randian sense, or, as I’ve argued many times before, from the perspective of Objectivism, as he best pursued his rational self interest given the circumstances presented to him. I’m disappointed that The Fountainhead wasn’t one of the three books on Sawyer P’s dresser, but that lack of an explicit reference doesn’t take away from the themes of the episode. As always, Sawyer’s story was about the goodness of the nature of man and the supposed loneliness that living a life of rational self interest brings. A common critique of that view point, is that people who believe the arguments of Objectivism or behave like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead (the character that Damon Lindelof compared Sawyer to) will lead lonely solitary lives.. However, this episode continued LOST’s refutation of that critique.
For those of you who have read Atlas Shrugged, the Sawyer and Miles bond closely parallels the Hank Rearden and Francisco D’Anconia relationship. For those of you that haven’t read it, the basic idea is feeling an intense loneliness, a desire for a kinship you believe is impossible, because you’ve never met anyone who shares your values and life experiences, and then finding him. Thus, as we saw from Miles P’s saying so to Sawyer P in this episode (and many characters have said to Sawyer throughout the series), your loneliness is so apparent that others begin to tell you that you must make the choice of acquiescing to the community or dying alone (live together, die alone). Notice how Sawyer’s arc over the first five seasons addressed this point directly, and it wasn’t until that he made choices for himself that he began to “live together.”
The major change in Sawyer was when he jumped from the helicopter. From that point on, he began to live in line with reality, to live honestly. What I mean by live honestly is not necessarily tell the truth, but to be honest about his motives, with himself and with those people he most cares about. This episode was all about that tension. In the flashsideways, Miles P told Sawyer P not to lie. In the original timeline, Sawyer seemed to be lying, back to his “every man for himself” agenda, lying to Widmore and the MiB. Except, as Sawyer P came clean to Miles P, we learned that Sawyer O was pursuing his own valid and good agenda as he shared that information with some he cares deeply for, Kate. Here, the subtly of not choosing “live together, die alone” or “every man for himself” becomes clearer.
Just as Ayn Rand herself distances herself from the latter mantra through the character of Peter Keating, Sawyer distances himself from it by being honest with himself and his friends. However, he doesn’t indulge in the former mantra either, as he decides what he wants and how he’s going about doing it by himself and himself only. In other words, he is acting in his rational self interest. It’s even possible to argue that the writers are trying to take back the phrase “every man for himself” as Rand tried to take back the word selfish.
Ultimately, that is what LOST has been about so far: finding YOUR way. Throughout the series, we’ve had a bunch of characters defining themselves externally and have only taken positive steps when they looked inward. And that standard is what we’ll judge Kate and the MiB on in the next two sections.
HEY, AT LEAST IT BUILDS CHARACTER
Kate has finally seemed to find what she has been looking for: forgiveness. In her conversation with the MiB (which began at the bamboo trees where she kissed Sawyer in Confidence Man) he forgave her for taking and raising Aaron. He did so by repeating her reasoning back to her, about Claire being gone and crazy, giving it external validity. Likewise, she was further soothed by Claire’s apparent forgiveness when they hugged near the end of the episode. While this is progress, the need for external validity is still Kate’s problem.
The difference between identifying with someone and seeking external validity is one of values and differentiation. When you have values, you can differentiate between people, understanding that certain people have more, well, value than others, and thus their opinions carry more weight. Your values are internal. Thus, when someone with similar values agrees with you or validates your opinion, it is a reflection of you. In the case of Kate, who is seeking external validity, you just want to hear positive things from anywhere. It does not matter what it’s based on (demonstrated in the case of the MiB, as Kate definitely has no ideas what his values are) as long as it’s positive. Kate is looking for such validation because she feels a lot of guilt over what she’s done, sees herself as such a bad person, that she wants someone else to tell her she’s innocent so she can believe it. Remember, she did what she did because she thought it was right. The problem was that the person she thought shared values with her, her mother, disagreed with her and told her she was guilty. (Another theme of LOST is that all of the self hatred goes back to family issues.) Interestingly, in Kate’s flashsideways, when Claire P asked her what she did, Kate P replied “Would you believe me if I told you I was innocent?” It was almost as if she thought she was innocent. Thus, we understand Kate’s placement on the chart. She is a lot more ok with herself and her choices in the flashsideways than she is in the original universe
One of the most disconcerting things about the MiB is that he has always seemed so sure of himself and his choices when everyone else called him evil. How could someone so evil seemed to think he’s so good? Throw in the facts that he never bother to explain why he isn’t evil and that he kills people and it’s understandable why someone looking at only a surface level would consider him evil and/or the villain. However, he has proven to be a much more complex character, and this episode demonstrated how even more so. He has an agenda he’s pursuing, getting off the island, and he believes whole heartedly in. We finally found out why in his conversation with Sawyer:
MiB: "I gave them the opportunity to leave peacefully, and they didn't take it."
Sawyer: "Why not?"
MiB: "Because they're convinced they're protecting the island from me when in fact all I wanna do is leave. So it's either kill or be killed, and I don't wanna be killed."
Essentially, he sees it as a war, where a choice not only has to be made, but is necessarily made. By staying at the Temple, the people there chose Jacob and choosing Jacob meant believing they were protecting the island from the MiB. Here again he claims all he wants to do is leave. This apparent dichotomy presents an interesting scenario.
The MiB is saying you either want to leave the island or protect it, but protecting it has nothing to do with him leaving. However, what if the scenario is, if the MiB stays on the island, the island is safe, if he leave, it’s not. Thus, Jacob and his people are protecting the island by keeping the MiB on it. (His requirement to stay would be part of the Jacob/MiB rules). However, the counter point to this scenario is the MiB’s earlier claim that it’s just a island and doesn’t need protecting.
Additionally, once again in this episode, the MiB proved that he doesn’t lie. He certainly doesn’t always tell the whole truth, but he never gives false information. He had the following exchange with Cindy at the beginning of the episode:
Cindy: "We want to know what happened to the people that stayed behind at the Temple."
MiB: "The Black Smoke killed them."
The answer is technically not a lie, and we later saw him reveal to Sawyer that he is the smoke-thing, once again adhering to the truth. Likewise, the MiB has always taken on a caretaker role. Look at his relationship with Claire. Also look at what he said to Zack and Emma, “Hey, I know what happened back there was really scary, but it's over. You're with me and I promise that I'm going to take care of you.” What does it all mean? It’s more evidence that he’s the good guy.
Although, perhaps the most interesting thing the MiB said was to Kate. While explaining his personal issues to her he said that he had "Problems that could have been avoided had things been different." Was this line simply the writers nodding to the parallel universe or did it mean more? In the flashsideways, a lot of the characters seem to be avoiding a lot of problems because things are different (notably they didn’t interact with Jacob). Also, the only way the MiB can seem to keep all of his promises (most notably Sayid and Nadia) is if the parallel universe because the true universe. This line seems to be a major hint, of what exactly though, I’m not sure.
I’ve given you a lot to chew on, per usual, and hope you consider it. This column was particularly long because Sawyer truly is my favorite character, so I know, and care, the most about his story. I also apologize for not getting this edition to you until Monday. I put it on the backburner to make time for Florida and travel back from there. I think the depth of information here more than makes up for the time delay though. If you don’t, I only ask that you do one thing:
Think about it.