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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 “Tabula Rasa", which originally aired on October 6th, 2004.
Previously on LOST: A plane crash strands a group of people on a seemingly-deserted island. We learn that the flight changed course to avoid a storm which means that anyone searching for the missing plane will be looking in the wrong place. There are many strange things happing on the island, including the appearance of a polar bear, a French distress broadcast that has been repeating for sixteen years, and some kind of murderous monster that stalks the survivors in the jungle.
It’s fitting that the third episode of LOST opens with the crash survivors setting up a camp on the beach, as now that we’ve had a general introduction to all of the characters that will be driving this story we the audience can get comfortable and enjoy the ride. With the two-part pilot out of the way LOST settles into what will become a familiar groove throughout the first season. While the first pair of episodes featured flashbacks, a narrative device the show will employ for most of its run, none of them took the time to explore the lives of the characters before they boarded Oceanic flight 815. Episode three, titled “Tabula Rasa”, uses the flashbacks to follow Kate Austin as she avoids the authorities while making her way through Australia. Kate will go onto become one of the show’s triple-A characters, playing a role in the narrative until the credits roll on the final episode.
Part of what made the early seasons of LOST so special was the sense of discovery for both the audience and characters, with every new episode exposing more of what is really going on in this universe. A mysterious island is the perfect backdrop for this kind of story, as everyone trying to survive on it has just as many secrets as the unexplored piece of land itself. In the previous episode we learned that there had been a prisoner aboard the doomed flight, and while the audience enters “Tabula Rasa” with the knowledge that it was Kate who boarded the plane in handcuffs the other survivors are only aware that there was a criminal on the flight.
This changes early in the episode as Jack Shephard discovers Kate’s mugshot while attending to Edward Mars, a US Marshal that had been transporting her back to the United States to face punishment for a crime we’re at this point unaware of. We learn through the flashbacks that Mars is obsessed with Kate, his desire to see her held accountable for her sins is strong enough to pursue her all the way to Australia. Mars suffered significant injuries in the crash and his chances of survival are low, but he remains lucid enough to warn Jack about how dangerous his new friend is. The situation creates a natural tension between the three characters as Jack wants to trust Kate but needs her to own up to the fact that she was the prisoner, something she simply isn’t willing to do at this point. And since the viewer remains in the dark as to what exactly she did that forced her to go on the run we don’t know just how dangerous she is, and if Jack should heed the warning offered to him. As a storytelling device it works well, instead of a triangle built around love we’re offered one constructed of mistrust. The writers do a good job of utilizing Hurley, who spends much of the series serving as comic relief, to keep the situation from becoming too dark and intense.
The closing moments of the episode’s flashback help the audience bond with Kate as she saves Ray, an elderly farmer she had been staying with, pulling him from his burning pickup truck. It’s not insignificant that it was her that caused the crash that put him in such a dangerous position, Kate will make plenty of messes during the show’s run and it says a lot about her personality that the first one we witness is one that she attempts to fix. She will keep us guessing as to her true nature until the very end, and while this will prove frustrating at times it makes her a fascinating character.
Mars’ condition continues to worsen and it becomes apparent his wounds are mortal, so Kate makes the decision to put him out of his misery. She can’t do the deed herself though, and passes on what is believed to be the only gun on the island to Sawyer, who proceeds to shoot the Marshal. Up to this point he’s been portrayed as a cold-hearted bad boy, but the series of events that follow leaves the audience questioning their initial assessment of the character. It turns out that Sawyer shot Mars in the chest, hoping to hit him in the heart and end his life mercifully, but only punctured his lung which according to Dr. Shephard will result in an hours-long death full of agony. Perhaps tough guy Sawyer isn’t as experienced with guns as we first thought.
While the Kate-Jack-Mars plot drives the episode, there’s some other significant things that happen that set up storylines that will pay off down the road. In the previous episode, Sayid led a group to investigate a mysterious transmission being broadcast, and while this subplot doesn’t get a lot of screen time it gives us a good look at his leadership abilities. He delivers some eye-rolling exposition to remind the audience of what happened in the pilot episodes, but for the most part his scenes do a good job of fleshing out his character a little. The transmission subplot will play a big role in season one, and Sayid will be front and center in that story thread.
Despite all this there is still enough time in this episode for a sliver of the Locke-Walt-Michael subplot that we saw a hint of in the second pilot episode. Young Walt has been desperately searching for his lost dog Vincent since we first met him, and the enigmatic Locke proves to be the one clever enough to find the yellow Lab. The short amount of screen time this gets reveals so much about the character of both Locke and Michael, who will spend much of season one at odds with one another. Locke extends an olive branch here though, telling Michael that it should be the boy’s father who brings him his beloved pet, despite the fact that he hadn’t actually been the one to find Vincent. While this gesture makes the audience sympathetic to Locke, the episode ends with him staring creepily at father and son while ominous music plays. This is appropriate for a character that will take many turns throughout the six seasons that follow.
Next week on LOST: “Walkabout”, a Locke-centric episode this is among the best in the entire series and features one of the most shocking moments in the show’s history.