Retroview: 1.3 Tabula Rasa

Briefly, what happened?

Jack’s futile efforts to fix Edward Mars result only in prolonged agony, that Sawyer intervenes with by shooting him. The shot is not fatal, however, and Jack is forced to smother Mars to death.

In flashback Kate has run to Australia, working on a farm for three months before Mars catches up with her.

Note: Retroview posts are written with full awareness of everything that happens during the entirety of LOST and will contain SPOILERS.

Thoughts and Analysis

You know, if I’d been asked previously for my opinion of Tabula Rasa I wouldn’t have had a whole lot to say beyond, Yeah, it’s that one where Kate works on a farm for a one-armed man. Before seeing it again I couldn’t even 100% recall if Edward Mars died in this episode or the next. And yet watched again, Tabula Rasa really rather impresses.

The episode’s strength is drawn from a quality the first season had at its disposal that, eventually, more characters, complications and familiarity would erode. Tabula Rasa is able to mine drama and a twist out of the fact that we barely know Kate, or Sawyer – we don’t know who they truly are, what they’re after or what they are capable of. The episode very much plays on that, positing the question via Hurley’s discussions with Jack about what it was Kate did. (Already Hurley plays the role of asking questions on the audience’s behalf - a trait the writers will use again and again to good effect.) The drama is formed by the principle we believe Kate is capable of cold-blooded murder and, furthermore, the first chance she gets she’s going to make sure Mars dies.

Perhaps it’s a factor of hindsight, but I’m not sure even first time around I really believed Kate was the dangerous killer Mars wanted to portray her as. Maybe it’s just her demeanour, or how we’ve seen her frightened in the jungle, or just because she’s been keen to help. . . I just never bought that she could suddenly be revealed as a dark-hearted monster that was skilled at manipulating people. It would have been a heck of a twist, mind, had they gone down that route late in the game.

The love triangle between Jack, Kate and Sawyer that will kind of emerge, and then disappear, and then kind of come back again, really I think it’s better referred to as a relationship triangle. There’s no love between Jack and Sawyer, they are quickly set against one another as dictated by their conversation in the fuselage. Whilst Jack searches for medicine Sawyer is looting for other goods he knows will be valuable and will better his chances and situation.

Likewise Jack and Kate clearly have a closeness developed already but it’s not love. When she returns to camp following the discovery of the French distress call, despite the agreement amongst the group to keep the findings secret, Kate discloses everything to Jack. There’s an immediate bond, but it comes with limits. The episode closes out on Kate wanting to tell Jack what she did – but he doesn’t want to know.

This scene did used to irritate me; I just never really believed that Jack would flat out refuse to hear information that he was surely interested in hearing! Watched again, however, what I was underestimating was the toll killing Edward Mars had taken on Jack.

The episode’s big reveal was to have it that Kate, unable to kill Mars herself, had listened to Sawyer’s words of conviction and handed him the gun with one bullet to put Mars out of his misery. It was a nicely-conveyed twist, but way better was the punchline. Whilst Sawyer defended his actions as one of mercy, then came the splutters and groans from within the tent: Mars, still alive, now choking on a lung full of blood.

For whatever reason I’d forgotten and underestimated just what a smack in the face impact that moment holds. The descending dread packed into those seconds of realisation are really quite something. There’s a sick, twisted quality to the surprise that typifies LOST in its early days as a distinctive animal in comparison to later seasons. It’s true that LOST definitely had a slighter harder edge when it first emerged, and a scene like this crystallises that point.

So Jack goes in and has to euthanise the suffering Edward Mars by physically smothering him since there are no more bullets left in the gun. His earlier defiant statement to Kate, about how he was not a murderer, underlined his stance: as a doctor he has been trained to ‘do no harm’ and so to go against that, to pervert his own natural urge to fix people, absolutely takes a devastating toll on him.

My previous irritation at Jack for not allowing Kate to explain her crimes, then, didn’t properly appreciate Jack’s state of mind. As he said to her, the people they used to be before the crash were not the people they were now on the Island. (He does say that they had “died” when they crashed on the Island; he was speaking in metaphor but a great clamour of LOST theorists would take his words very literally!) Just like Sawyer had previously asserted, Jack hadn’t adapted to this new environment and was still trying to function as he would in regular civilisation. Only after killing Mars does he have to come to terms with the transition.

In order to be able to forgive himself he does, by extension, have to extend that forgiveness to everyone else for their past. This is why he doesn’t want to hear about what Kate did. If he held her up by the morals of her past he would have to judge himself by the same values – and here on the Island, within a matter of days, he has broken his moral compass to do what needed to be done.

What Kate did doesn’t matter. It’s what Kate and everyone else does that matters. All of them have been given a slate wiped clean – the eponymous Tabula Rasa – and this is very much in keeping with the concept of the show. Season 1 will especially be about these characters reconciling the people they were before the crash to what the Island has to offer them in terms of a fresh start – from Sawyer finding ‘the Real Sawyer’ to Mr. Eko being urged to “confess” (I know Mr. Eko is actually Season 2 but he’s a good illustration of my point so shaddap!) – there’s a whole lot of redemption available. Most of them won’t find it and stay alive.

On a lighter note, it’s worth noting that Sawyer referred to Kate as “freckles” for the first time. The affectionately iconic nickname being used this early on is, for me, really cool.

Also worth noting is that this episode marks the first time that Charlie and Claire meet. It's a relatively unremarkable conversation (Charlie establishes that Claire hasn't got a man around!) but it's a scene with a terrific piece of foreshadowing for the next episode as they unwittingly use Locke's wheelchair, believing the person it originally belonged to must have died in the crash.

Kate’s flashback story itself doesn’t offer much of Retroview value. I have wondered previously how it was Kate managed to get to Australia. I mean, if she is so wanted on a federal level you’d have thought that catching a flight would have been tricky and, for her, incredibly risky. I suppose we’re given enough to believe she’s a dab hand with a false identity (she calls herself “Annie” to Ray, the farmer) and so she managed to get fake documents to get herself out of America.

Is there anything significant about the fact that Ray Mullen only has one arm? In light of, say, the likes of Pierre Chang having a mysterious one-armed affliction?

Quick answer is: No. There’s nothing significant in it. But it is one of those thematic reverberations that resound about the LOST universe, a bit like how Star Wars shares a similar motif of arms getting lopped off throughout its saga. It’s not significant in meaning, but it does help unify even minor characters and events as all part of the same world.

Just don’t go mistaking coincidence for fate, OK?

Back on the Island, whilst Sawyer has been loot truffling, and Jack has been on doctor duties, it’s interesting that in these early formations of group dynamics it’s actually Sayid that assumes the role of leader. He is the one that instructs the small expedition group to keep quiet the French distress signal. When he returns to camp it is he who stands higher than the rest and issues instructions and selections for what they need to do.

As we know, Jack will eventually accede to the role of leader, encouraged very much by Locke in White Rabbit. Sayid does make for a decent stand in, but we know that he’s really more of a lone wolf. He’s on a personal quest to reunite with Nadia, having been globally searching for years. His history as a torturer weighs on his conscience enough to foster a persecution complex that will, a few episodes from now, see him leave the group on self-enforced exile (in Solitary).

Yeah, Sayid’s a good stand-in. He’s practical, tolerant and handy in a tight spot but he’s not quite the ‘live together, die alone’ kind of guy you need for these situations!

Two last pieces of business to address. The first, and what’s perhaps most startling on a Retroview if you haven’t revisited these early episodes in many a year, is the use of the music montage at the close. It’s a convention that gets phased out midway through Season 1. Ordinarily the only soundtrack music we hear is courtesy of Michael Giacchino’s score, which is why hearing a pop tune feels out of place. LOST ‘gets away with it’ by asserting that the music is what Hurley is listening to on his CD player (and thus it eventually gets phased out when the batteries run out!).

Whilst the montage sequence at the end, with the music, doesn’t feel very LOST I still kind of liked it. There’s a borderline cheesy quality to it (Boone handing Shannon some makeshift sunglasses to bring a smile to her face) but there’s a much-needed lightness of touch as well. It’s OK to have some levity; later seasons will very much lack a drop in intensity (to my memory, the last ‘proper’ lighthearted episode was in Season 3, Tricia Tanaka Is Dead although Season 5 did have the relatively well-humoured Some Like It Hoth).

Whilst fans constantly craved serious, meaty episodes there’s worth to the truth that switching tones every now and then can really help. Put short: the serious stuff can play a lot more sterner when it comes off the back of lighthearted relief. Which brings me neatly onto Locke.

Tabula Rasa exemplified the power of juxtaposing lighthearted with unsettling when the music montage closed out on a curious circular pan around Locke, sitting staring at Michael and Walt. Michael had already questioned Walt about Locke, subtly trying to work out what this man was doing talking to his kid. It’s understandable. If I saw some strange man talking to my kid I’d want to know what was being said and try to establish what his intentions were.

During the episode Locke had apparently been kind enough to make a dog whistle and use it to retrieve Vincent. Then he had generously allowed Michael to be the one to return Vincent to camp, to his boy, to take the glory. It all painted Locke as a thoughtful, benevolent man – up until this sinister ending laid down the suggestion that he had purely got Michael on side and offguard for ulterior motives. Making it the last scene of the episode loaned the moment even more tension. So what are we to make of it?

We know Locke isn’t a paedophile, so that’s not what he’s about. Truth is, in retrospect, this moment feels unnecessarily suggestive and heavy-handed, but it does hold a truth in that Locke is a threat within the group. He will go through this season thwarting rescue attempts and trying to convert people into believing the Island is special. He is actually a darker character than you perhaps remember. He will go on to do bad things that have terrible consequences, but because we also see him as a victim (and, let’s face it, one involved in really cool mystery stuff like ‘the hatch’) we let that slide and see him in a positive light.

Last but not least, and purely because I’m a total sucker for Sun, I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing I got to take a sweet old look at what Michael inadvertently blundered into.

The normal thing to do is quickly avert your gaze, apologise and leave. Michael, instead, stands around, jabbers a lot and then hands Sun her top to cover herself with. Whatever, man. I know what you were doing!

Best Part

Without a doubt the superb reveal that Sawyer’s one-shot at ending Mars’ suffering hadn’t at all ended it. From the initial misdirection that Kate had been the one to do it, up to Jack confronting Sawyer who aggressively defended his actions only to have his insides turn to dishwater upon realising what he had done (great performance from Josh Holloway). Trying to push Kate as a potential cold-blooded killer never quite hit the bullseye but the payoff (for want of a better word) that Jack had to physically kill Mars himself was gruelling yet tremendously effective drama. Best part about it for me was I totally forgot how bloody good that scene was.

1 comment:

Keith said...

Great write up. I too had forgotten how good this episode and ending was.

At some point during the six seasons it would have been good to be shown things from the point of view of Marshal Mars, why exactly was he so obsessed with Kate?