The first six episodes of Season Three—the “Cage Era”—are some of the most controversial episodes of Lost. Many fans were upset to see the focus taken away from the beach, while Jack, Sawyer, and Kate were imprisoned off on Hydra Island. On the other hand, the introduction of the Others was a watershed moment for the mythology of the series.
I, for one, always thought the first six episodes—and really eight, when you factor in “Not in Portland” and “Flashes Before Your Eyes,” which aired some time after the first six—were among the best stretches of episodes the show ever did.
Some of the antipathy towards these episodes, I presume, was due to the fact that the flashbacks started to get tedious even for those fans who generally liked the flashback stories. It’s true that a lot of flashback episodes—Kate gets married, Locke joins some weird commune, Jack thinks his ex-wife is dating his dad—were among the most forgettable ever done. The Sawyer story we get in “Every Man For Himself”—Sawyer cons a fellow inmate into revealing the location of some money so Sawyer can get paroled early—is similarly forgettable, but since I never cared for the flashbacks, this didn’t really bother me. The only thing about the story that does seem important is the revelation that Sawyer has a daughter.
On the Island, though, we get hints at a lot of major developments. For one, we get some more hints about Desmond’s time-traveling as he anticipates a rainstorm and even constructs a lightning rod to protect Claire’s tent. Ultimately, we’ll learn that Desmond is doing these things in an attempt to save Charlie—an attempt that he knows is futile, because “the universe has a way of working itself out.” Right from the beginning of Desmond’s time as a regular on the show, then, he was a mysterious and compelling character.
Meanwhile, back with the Others, Jack is getting more and more impatient. He seems less upset about being in prison than he is about not knowing why he is in prison. Eventually, though, he gets some hints: When the Others bring a woman with a gunshot wound (a wound given by Sun back in “The Glass Ballerina”), they need Jack to perform surgery. Initially, Juliet tries to perform the surgery on her own, but she’s not a surgeon. The surgery, in which Juliet tells Jack that the Others don’t even have a crash cart because “nothing like this has ever happened,” is the first moment in the Jack-Juliet relationship that really sells the bond we’re supposed to see between them. Of course, Jack is not nearly as affected by Colleen’s death as Juliet is. I always liked Matthew Fox’s depiction of Jack’s impatience and frustration in these episodes, and his coldness to Juliet is great. “Are you just saying that to make me feel better?” she asks him when he says that there was nothing any doctor could have done to save Colleen: “I don’t care about making you feel better.”
Jack is more concerned with the X-rays he saw on the way into the operating room. The X-rays show a man with a spinal tumor and, of course, Jack is a spinal surgeon. Jack manages to put these two things together. Eventually, we’ll learn that the tumor belongs to Ben, and that the entire reason Jack was kidnapped was to perform surgery on Ben.
Even Sawyer and Kate seem to have been brought along as psychological leverage over Jack. This is probably also part of what makes these episodes so polarizing: It’s never entirely clear exactly what the Others’ plan was. If they wanted Jack to do the surgery, why not just say, “Do the surgery or we’ll kill you”? Ben says in “The Cost of Living” that he wanted Jack to want to do the surgery, but then what role does kidnapping Sawyer and Kate play in the grand scheme of things?
None of this is exactly clear, but the scenes between Ben and Sawyer in “Every Man For Himself” are good enough that I don’t really care. There’s the ass-kicking Ben lays on Sawyer, the bunny scene in which Ben tells Sawyer that he has a pacemaker in his heart, and the final scene in which Ben quotes Of Mice and Men. This would be the last Sawyer-centric episode until midway through Season Five, but it was a pretty pivotal moment in the development of the character: The Sawyer of this episode espouses the Every Man For Himself philosophy—the exact opposite of the Live Together, Die Alone philosophy at the heart of the series. He tells Kate to run away without him. She only refuses out of loyalty to Jack and Sawyer.
By the end of the episode, though, Ben forces Sawyer to realize how much he needs Kate, and it’s only a short step from caring about one person to caring about everyone. This is the beginning of the Sawyer that would become the leader of those left on the Island after the Oceanic Six left, would con the Dharma Initiative for the benefit of his friends, and would be so distraught at the death of Juliet. This is the Sawyer we know and love heading into the final episode.
Before we get there, though, we’ll have “Getting Lost” tomorrow, as we look at tonight’s episode, “What They Died For” PLUS “Getting Lost (Redux)” as we look back at “Through the Looking Glass”…