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Author's Note: Having grown tired of what's currently available on TV I've decided to rewatch some of my all time favorite shows. I'm limiting myself to one episode per week in order to experience the storytelling as it was originally intended, which hopefully will preserve the thrill of having to wait a week to see what happens next. This article covers the LOST episode “All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues", which originally aired on December 8th, 2004.
Previously on LOST: The survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 realize that they’re not the only people on the island after Hurley takes a census that reveals that one of the survivors wasn’t on the flight. Claire believes someone tried to attack her while she was sleeping, but Jack dismisses her claim as a night terror. Claire leaves the caves to return to the beach accompanied by Charlie, but before they can reach their destination they encounter the mysterious Ethan Rom.
For the first time LOST gives a character their second flashback, and it’s only fitting that it’s Jack Shephard. Up to this point there’s very few island happenings that don’t involve the physician, who has to bear the burden of taking care of the survivors from both a medical and leadership standpoint. We got a small taste of Jack’s relationship with his father in “White Rabbit”, but “All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues” points a spotlight on the issues the two men had, while also providing insight into why Jack is a man obsessed with fixing things.
The episode starts off by reminding us that Ethan Rom wasn’t on the plane, driving the cave survivors to search for Claire in a panicked state. Both her and Charlie are of course missing, and elite tracker Locke is able to determine that a struggle took place with three people walking off into uncharted island territory. Jack is instantly obsessed with finding his two friends, abandoning logical thinking and ignoring Locke’s pleas that they need to get organized instead of wildly running after Charlie and Claire. Jack is blinded by guilt and his need to save people, and while Locke, Kate, and Boone return to came to build a proper search party Jack heads off on his own. Michael tells Locke he wants to help but Locke denies this request, further emasculating the man in front of Walt. Michael has developed an inferiority complex, fueled by both his son’s interest in Locke and his own inadequacies as a father which are born from a lack of experience. Be assured that story thread will be tugged on a few more times.
It doesn’t take Locke’s group long to catch up to Jack, who might be a fantastic doctor but doesn’t have a clue how to track. Locke playfully teases that he was easy to find given he’s been going around in circles, which Jack takes as a verbal slap to the face. For all of his positive traits Jack struggles to defer to those who might know better, lending a dictatorship-like quality to his leadership. His obsession with perfection serves as a dangerous blind spot that handicaps his judgment, acting as a roadblock to not only his personal goals, bu those of the entire group. There’s no denying that Jack Shepherd has stepped up, but his decisions continue to be poisoned by his own inner demons.
The group catches a break when they find some of Charlie’s personal items on the trail, although they acknowledge the possibility that Ethan might be leaving them to throw them off his scent. The trail eventually splits off with Locke and Boone going one way and Kate and Jack another, and it’s the latter group that ends up catching up to Ethan. The mysterious man displays unbelievable physical strength, easily besting Jack before telling him that if they don’t stop following he will kill one of his prisoners. This threat isn’t enough to deter Jack who continues on, and he and Kate eventually come across Charlie who has been hung from a tree and is unresponsive. After Kate slices the vine that Ethan used as a makeshift noose Jack violently performs CPR, and while his attempts to resurrect Charlie initially fail the rockstar eventually breathes again. The episode closes with Jack interrogating a borderline-catatonic Charlie for information, but the traumatic situation has left him a zombie only able to acknowledge his failure to protect Claire.
Jack’s flashback starts in the emergency room where the younger Shephard is desperately trying to save a woman, but despite his best efforts she dies on the operating room table. All this happens under the judgmental eye of his father Christian, and while they’re cleaning up afterwards Jack informs his dad that he was only there because one of the nurses had noticed Christian’s hands shaking. In “White Rabbit” we learned that Jack’s father has a drinking problem that would eventually claim his life down in Sydney, an issue Jack is obviously aware of as he questions his father about how much he’d had to drink before putting on his scrubs. Both John Terry and Matthew Fox are fantastic in these scenes, conveying the tenseness of their characters’ relationship with authenticity.
Later on Jack is summoned to his father’s office, where he’s asked to sign a statement that conveniently leaves out any mention of booze. It turns out the husband of the deceased woman is suing the hospital, and if Christian’s substance abuse comes to light it will not only be a financial disaster, but will end the career of the celebrated spinal surgeon. While Jack is initially apprehensive about signing his name to the doctored account, his father is able to offer the love and approval Jack has always longed for, capped off by a loving hand to his son’s shoulder which seals the deal. Deep down Jack knows that his father’s approval is false, but he’s so desperate to possess it that he’s willing to embrace such a vile lie. At least initially.
Later on Jack witnesses his father talking to the woman’s husband who also receives a hand to the shoulder, revealing the gesture to be nothing more than a form of selfish manipulation. Christian might be a great surgeon but he’s a terrible father and person, and seeing the exchange wakes Jack out of the slumber his father has lulled him into.
All that’s left is a formal hearing to the hospital board, where Christian coolly deflects any blame from himself as Jack looks on in anxious horror. But he keeps his mouth shut until it’s revealed that the woman was pregnant, which ends up being too heavy a burden for Jack’s conscious to carry. He exposes his father’s guilt while Christian looks on in shock as his medical career comes to an end. This powerful moment also reveals what Jack’s mother meant when she called her son out for “what he did” back in “White Rabbit”, and it serves as one of the most-powerful moments of LOST’s first season.
The past and the present we witness in “All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues” work so well together, as you read this review it’s important to remember that the two timelines are crosscut with each other which really hammers home why Jack is behaving like he is. The kidnapping of Charlie and Claire is a double gut punch to him, exposing both his failure as a doctor (for not taking care of the camp’s only pregnant woman AND not believing her when she said she was assaulted) and as a leader (for not recognizing that an interloper had penetrated the camp). Saving Claire is of particular importance to him as he’s already lost a pregnant patient in the past, and Jack’s proclamation that “I won’t let him do this again” indicates that Ethan has symbolically taken Christian’s place as the antagonist in the situation. The saving of Charlie also shares elements with the events found in the flashback: Just as Christian accidentally severed the patient’s artery Kate slices through the noose choking Charlie, bu this time Jack’s patient survives because he refuses to give up. This the specter of his father isn't there to demand that he stop trying, which paves the way for the son to be the hero he needs to be.
A few other things happen in “All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues”, and while they don’t get a lot of screen time they’ll prove to be important down the road. Sawyer learns that Sayid has returned and heads to the caves to exact some revenge, but in a character-revealing moment he declines Sayid’s offer of a free shot. We’ve already learned that Sawyer has dedicated his life to pursuing vengeance against the man that ruined his family, and to see him walk away from someone that wronged him is an interesting development for the con man.
We also spend some time with Walt who interacts with everyone from Hurley to the aforementioned Sawyer, and while that in and of itself isn’t significant we get our first taste that there’s something special about the kid. He has unbelievable luck on the backgammon board, which is a plot seed that the show will fertilize throughout the remaining episodes of season one.
While the Jack stuff is the heartbeat of this episode it’s a reveal that happens right before the credits roll that will bear the most interesting fruit. Locke and Boone, unaware that Jack and Kate are on the correct trail, continue to trek through the jungle at night in pursuit of Ethan. Boone eventually has enough and wants to return to camp, but everything changes when Locke tosses him a flashlight to use on the trip. The device bounces off Boone’s hands and lands on the ground, where it reports a metallic CLANG instead of softly landing in the dirt. The two men inspect the path of Earth and find a block of steel buried in the ground, and while Boone is simply puzzled Locke is elated. It’s the first entry in one of the greatest mysteries in television history, and I can’t wait to see it solved for the third time.
Next week on LOST: “Whatever the Case May Be”, another Kate-centric episode.