It’s funny to me when I go back into these series I haven’t watched in forever to try to find the worst episode because so far they’ve been episodes that I remember, even vaguely, being terrible. For this week’s excursion, I was trying to think of which episode of ABC’s landmark sci-fi/mystery/ultimate disappointment series LOST was the stinker-iest. Ones like “Expose,” the end of the failed Nikki and Paolo experiment, or “Across the Sea” which tried in vain to make Jacob and Smoke Monster interesting characters two weeks before the series finale, popped up in my brain, but after looking at various lists and user ratings and things, I kept seeing the episode “Stranger in a Strange Land,” the ninth episode of Season 3, at the top of the list of the worst episode. I didn’t remember this episode at all, granted I probably watched it 8 years ago when I was speedily bingeing it to catch up to the beginning of Season 4. Even watching it today for this column brought back almost no memories of anything, and I think therein lies the problem.
This is a classic case of a series needing to spin its wheels in order to make the season take up the allotted weeks in the schedule. In the first three installments of this column, I talked about shows that, while they have overall story arcs, are much more episodic and “Monster-of-the-Week” in nature. LOST has elements of MOTWs, with the often unrelated flashbacks, but also very clearly is a serialized drama with each episode’s main plot line leading directly to the next and informing the rest of the overall story. So, when a link in that chain is weak, it’s easier to gloss over, but it’s also much less interesting. Abject failures are always more fun than missteps. For “Stranger in a Strange Land,” (way to reference Robert Heinlein for no reason, by the way) the writers decided to give us a backstory we didn’t care about in a flashback during an episode where almost nothing happens anyway.
To catch people back up, in the previous episode, Jack had been captured by the Others and taken to a special island to perform a life-saving surgery on Ben Linus, which he does. But, in exchange for that, he has Juliet go save the escaping Sawyer and Kate from certain death by shooting their pursuer to death. So Jack’s in jail, Juliet’s broken the covenant of the Others, and Kate, Sawyer, and that Karl kid (who I had to look up; he’s the boyfriend of Ben’s daughter Alex) are on a small boat headed back to the main island before nightfall.
Jack has lots of really tedious conversations about nothing with Tom Friendly and then he’s interrogated by an Other Tom refers to as “The Sheriff” named Isabel (guest star Diana Scarwid) about whether Juliet asked Jack to kill Ben or not. He lies and says she didn’t and he merely said that to cause a rift between the Others. He was trying to escape, is all. So, aww, Jack likes Juliet for whatever reason. Adorbs. While Jack’s in the bear cage, lots of people keep coming up to him to talk, including the tail section survivors, Tom again, and even Alex who is upset that Jack didn’t just let her father die. She tells him the Others are deciding whether or not to execute Juliet for her crimes and Jack has Alex let him out to go see Ben, who is lying in the infirmary with a nasty infection on his spine. He says he’ll help Ben if Ben makes the Others not execute Juliet, and that they both can leave Hydra Island back to the main one. Ben agrees but has the Others mark Juliet instead, on the base of her spine, with what looks like the Nerdist fuse symbol on its side.
The whole Sawyer and Kate “plot” in this episode deals with Kate being mad that they just left Jack with the Others and Sawyer saying Jack wanted that so they shouldn’t be upset about it. And Karl being sad that he’s not with Alex because puppy love. That’s literally like a 3rd of the episode. Whoooooooo caaaaaaaaaaares?
Which brings us to the main crux of the episode, and the reason most people think it’s awful: the flashback. The flashback in this is all about how Jack obtained the tattoos he has on his left arm. That’s frigging it. Actor Matthew Fox had tattoos he’d gotten over the course of his life and instead of covering them up with makeup for LOST, since he’d naturally have his arms uncovered at various points, the makers decided Jack Shephard would just have those. But by the third season, they decided they needed to explain why and how he got them, since they’re Chinese symbols and the number 5. Naturally, it had to have some huge import and not just he was a reckless youth who got tattoos one time.
Jack’s in Phuket, Thailand and meets a mysterious and beautiful woman named Achara (guest star Bai Ling) and the two begin sleeping with each other, apparently for several weeks, but he knows nothing about her. He follows her to her job at a tattoo parlor where he learns that she, apparently, can “see who people really are,” whatever that means. He asks her to give him a tattoo but she doesn’t want to. Ultimately she does, but once that happens, the local folks he’s been talking to now run from him and Achara’s brother and other local men beat him up. At the end of the episode, Isabel says that, since she can read Chinese, she knows the tattoos mean, “He walks amongst us, but he is not one of us” to which Jack retorts, “That’s what they say, that’s not what they mean.” Oooooh so deep, huh?
An entire episode whose sole purpose is to explain why a character has tattoos. What a worthwhile 45 minutes. There are plenty of LOST episodes that are ridiculous of absurd, but I can’t seem to remember any as unbelievably unimportant or banal as this one. Neither Bai Long nor Diana Scarwid were ever in the show again, so why in the hell did we spend any time with them? Especially Scarwid’s character, who seemed like she was going to be somehow important or at least recurring. But, no, all she did was talk to Jack about his tattoos and almost put Juliet to death. Who gives a flying polar bear’s ass? The actual impact on the season as a whole is so minuscule it could have been added in anywhere. In the words of that old saying I totally didn’t just make up, “Filler filler, oil driller.”
The makers of the show knew this was a crappy episode also. Damon Lindelof has been quoted as saying so and that “Stranger in a Strange Land” was one of the bits of evidence they used for ABC to prove that they needed an end date for the series, since them just meandering through things with no real purpose was clearly not doing anyone any favors. I hadn’t remembered this at all, as I said, but now that I’ve gone back to rewatch it, I’ll probably forget it again in another two hours. Maybe even sooner. Hey, who wrote this article about LOST? I’ve never seen this episode.