Thursday, February 21, 2008

"You just totally Scooby-Dooed me, didn't you?": Lost

Eggtown, the first episode of Lost's fourth season to be kind of a yawner, is nevertheless interesting in how it forces the audience to once again take a look at the character of Kate, someone who seemed poised to be the show's backup Jack in the original Pilot treatment and in the Pilot that was actually shot but has largely been played as a somewhat confused character over the run of the show, thanks to the show's genuine frustrations with writing female characters. Now, there are some strong female writers on the show's staff (Elizabeth Sarnoff, chief among them), but the overall plotting of the show is rather boy-happy, and often reduces the women to bargaining chips. Some of the women are able to overcome this simply through force of will (Yunjin Kim has such an impressively delicate screen presence on such a straightforward show that she can often seem radiant even when she's just sitting and looking at a map, as she did tonight). But so many of the women have been relegated to something for the boys to fight over (Kate, all too often), something to be a breeder (Claire) or some other form of safe female stereotype (Shannon, the bitch, or Rose, the saint) that the show's treatment of them seems almost backhanded at times. Only Juliet of the female characters seems to have a motivation and an interest beyond her own womb or romantic pairings, and she's a fertility doctor. And even in that case, I don't know if that stems from the writers realizing they needed a female character who wasn't just a womb with legs or Elizabeth Mitchell's excellent portrayal of the character.

Unlike many (including some who comment here), I don't find the disjointed storytelling rhythms of Lost to be its biggest problem. To a real degree, I watch the show both on a straightforward level, where I enjoy the plot and the latest character machinations, and a more meta level, where I let the writers become the protagonists and wonder how THEY, exactly, are going to "get out of this one." So, to that end, I don't particularly care that the skeletons from season one haven't ever been raised as an issue again. If they're adequately tied up at some point along the line, I'll be thrilled on that meta level, but on the more straightforward level, I don't need it to enjoy the show. No, my biggest complaint with Lost has always been with its use (or misuse) of its female characters. But in the case of Kate, it becomes harder to parse what, exactly, is going on because the blame, I think, lies equally with writers who didn't really know what to do with a character ostensibly set up as "strong" and an actress who had trouble playing emotional beats beyond "angry" in the show's first season. Both parties have improved in these regards since that first season, but they're still saddled with this half-character, who has never lived up to the promise of her initial conception (cliched though it was in the wake of Buffy and Sydney Bristow) nor lived far down enough to the level of hoary cliche to be enjoyable as camp.

So let's talk Kate. And/or psychic experiments.

For a long time, I blamed most of the problem with Kate on Evangeline Lilly, who was famously plucked from obscurity in the first season, in a manner similar to how J.J. Abrams cast Keri Russell and Jennifer Garner (though Lilly had far less experience than either of those actresses). In a number of interviews (most notably with Rolling Stone), Lilly has talked about how uncomfortable she was with the perks and perils of fame and with suddenly being a recognizable actress (as well as, let's face it, an incredibly gorgeous woman propelled to the top of many, many "Hottest Female" lists). If you rewatch the first season, you can kind of trace Lilly's growing discomfort with the fame and workload of Lost. In the pilot and the first few episodes, she has a likable overconfidence and charisma that swaps in for actual talent. She's in over her head among actors like Naveen Andrews, Terry O'Quinn and Matthew Fox, but she's going to make up for it with great dimples, a nice and natural chemistry with Josh Holloway and sheer gumption. But as that first season wanders along, it all goes to hell.

The character of Kate was originally conceived of as a newlywed who would lose her husband when the tail section of the plane flew off toward another section of the island (a storyline that was transplanted to Rose and Bernard). She was going to discover untapped resolves of courage when Jack was to be killed in the original pilot and become the show's main character and the heroic leader of the castaways. Naturally, the decision was made to make Jack the main character, but also have Kate be the female lead (a decision still reflected in Lilly campaigning as a lead actress at the Emmys, despite the fact that her character is now arguably a supporting one to Jack, Locke, Ben and several others). So Kate needed a new back story, since she would also probably need to be the main love interest for Jack. Hence, the idea of having her be a fugitive came to the forefront. And this initial idea had some promise in it -- it was essentially the femme fatale as female lead on a TV series, as if that Faith the Vampire Slayer series had ever come to be (in conception -- the ultimate portrayal of Faith vs. the portrayal of Kate was very different).

The problem here was that Lilly was increasingly unable to hit the emotional acting beats in this scenario as the first season went on. She could do spunk, raw charisma and anger pretty well, but she couldn't hit the notes of rueful regret or unfettered joy at being free from her past or DANGER that the role required of her. And, worse, she seemed self-consciously AWARE that she had trouble hitting these notes. Plus, the rather boring love triangle between Kate, Jack and Sawyer began to get a lot of play in the media. So the writers improvised, playing to Lilly's strengths, and taking her from the self-confident, slightly dangerous young woman of the pilot and making her into a more conventional woman-who-kicks-ass-but-really-wants-a-boy type character (again, shades of Sydney Bristow). Kate's adventures in the first season drifted from being about her being a vital part of the castaways' muscle and more toward her going on smaller adventures that put her in more conventional soap operatic situations -- would she kiss Sawyer or strip down to her underwear in front of him? Lilly's chemistry with Holloway was real and present and went a long way toward bringing Holloway into the position of prominence he holds in the ensemble now (remember how in the pilot, it seemed like Charlie would be the second male lead and that just never came to pass?). This managed to keep Kate a part of the show in the first season, but it also weakened what could have been a fascinating character.

What's unfortunate is that in the seasons since, Lilly has relaxed into her role and had figured out how to hit more of the beats that are asked of her. Some of her teary moments in tonight's episode were unbelievable, but that final hug worked, and the moment where she pushed Miles out of Ben's room and then pinned him against the wall had a raw, believable physicality that never would have worked in season one Kate. But when Jack sends Kate off on missions, it increasingly feels like he does so only so the writers can put her in proximity to Sawyer or something. In the first episode, when she tracked Naomi correctly, it took me a while to realize why, exactly, she was the person to do it, since that character had almost completely been subsumed by the one who was put into a pretty dress by Ben or got into a fight in the mud with Juliet. There were whole points in seasons two and three where it became impossible to track various characters in their storylines (like Sayid, who essentially disappeared for a long while there), and that was sort of true of Kate, who essentially stopped being a femme fatale of any sort, but what was even MORE true was that the writers had written themselves into a situation where her ONLY reason to exist was within the love triangle.

Kate's a unique case on the show because I think she's the only weak character where the original idea for the character was sort of cool and that was marred by compromises made on the fly through the grind of weekly television. A character like Charlie never really worked, despite all the heroin relapses the show tried to throw at him, but Kate could have been really, really cool. If one imagines Jennifer Garner playing her, you can see the promise in the concept, and it becomes kind of sad.

So give us your other thoughts on the episode. I liked the psychic card tricks and the weird way Locke becoming a near dictator has made him even more like a creepy suburban dad (loved his grenade trick). And was there anyone out there who DIDN'T see the end of the episode twist coming? Speak up.


kant69 said...

I completely agree with everything you say, except I'd add that Kate still retains something of her original conception (although it seems to have become Jack's defining feature). Specifically, she still has a savior complex about her - she wants to help/save others. It's a shame, then, then that the self sacrificing girl ends up saving the baby. The problem, though, is that she might now be damning the world - if we recall the psychic's prediction, Aaron cannot be raised by anyone other than his mother on the island.

Joe Tank said...

Re: "psychic card tricks", I saw this as a memory exercise. It's already been implied that Daniel has mental problems. I think this was another indication of that. Maybe he's had a head injury, brain aneurysm, or stroke?

Anonymous said...

My biggest irk in Lost's entire series was Ana Lucia; regarding that, in a nutshell, you can (could have) extrapolate the stale sympathies that might eventually plague Kate. Perhaps I'm playing Captain Obvious, but it's recalled that Libbie was killed off ONLY because Lucia gathered no remorse.

Todd said...

Kant: There's an interesting piece of criticism to be written about the show's addiction to self-pitying saviors who beat their chests about how great they are while characters like Sayid get the nitty-gritty work of living on the island and seeking rescue done. A number of critics were reading the show as an Iraq War parable around season two, and I always thought it was too reductive to try and excuse some of the half-dimensional characters by saying they were Osama bin Laden stand-ins or something, but I DO think Lost didn't spring up without any connection to these modern times, so it would make sense that an obsession with self-aggrandizing leaders who never do anything useful would exist.

Joe: I've seen that interpretation elsewhere, but the three-card trick is a pretty famous way to debunk or "prove" psychic abilities. We'll have to see the true purpose of the trick, but that's how it seemed to me.

Anon: Yeah, Ana Lucia was a missed opportunity, even if she really was intended as a one-season character. Clearly, they learned their lesson, as Ben and Juliet were integrated into the cast much better.

drake leLane said...

Fascinating examination of Kate and the female roles on the island. Perhaps the presence of Zoe Bell as Regina (on the freighter) can save this season in that regard?

I always understood the 'three-card trick' to be a con... aka 'Three-card Monte'.

We know Daniel is with a caregiver in his flashback, where he cries without knowing (or remembering?) why. Maybe he is testing psychic ability, but it seems like a weird power for the scatterbrain physicist to have, especially given Miles' ghostbusting/parlor tricks.

jim treacher said...

Daniel's mood swings and memory loss could be symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer's.

Yeah, Kate's always been a problem. I mean, they had her organize a bank robbery to steal a toy airplane. Either she has it together or she doesn't. They've never been able to decide. I've never had a problem with Lilly's acting, but then, sometimes it's tough to pay attention...

As for Locke being a creepy suburban dad, O'Quinn was the original Stepfather! said...

Excellent Kate/Evangeline Lilly breakdown, but I think your passion (or attempts to understand the motivations of) for the writers has clouded your vision.

*MY* issue with the show (and it's really more of a quibble) is that as far as island life goes, no one has really "changed" at all as a character. Sure, some characters (Hurley, Jin, Bernard) change for the purpose of a storyline or scene, but anyone learning anything as a character on the show? The breaking off into two separate camps was neat and all, but no one seems really conflicted except for Jack who lost his girl.

I also feel like a flaw with the show is, and always has been, a kind of wheels spinning in the producers are stalling and drawing out what could be a simple storyline because the cash cow might run out of milk.

Anyway, I just don't see alot of development from anyone and to single out Lilly is totally fair but there's some blame to go around.