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League of Inveterate Poets

The out-of-context contextuality of a foolish sage

LOST Retrospective: Tabula Rasa (Season 1, Episode 3)

By on May 25, 2010

(This post is part of a series. I’m blogging through all the episodes of LOST, taking a new look at them in light of what we now know now that the series is over. Click here to read my introduction to the series and my thinking behind it.)

Warning: If you have not yet seen LOST all the way through, this essay contains spoilers!)

Jack: “It doesn’t matter Kate, what we were, what we did before the crash. Three days ago we all died. We should all be able to start over.”

Quick synopsis: Sayid leads a party of survivors on a climb to high ground to try to send a distress signal using the radio Jack, Kate and Charlie found in Flight 815’s cockpit. Along the way they kill a bizarrely out-of-place polar bear and pick up a repeating recorded distress signal that has been broadcasting for years from the island. Unable to get a transmission out, they return to camp and Sayid begins to organize the survivors to prepare for a long stay. In the meantime, the dying US Marshall regains consciousness, and Jack and Hurley are made aware that Kate is a dangerous fugitive from the law. The marshal dies when Jack euthanizes him following Sawyer’s botched attempt to “put him out of his misery.” Kate wants to tell Jack what her crime was, but Jack refuses to hear it, telling her they all deserve second chances.

Episode 3’s title Tabula Rasa is Latin for “blank slate.” Our Lostaways are blank slates to each other. They have only been thrown together on the island for a few days now, and there is so much they don’t know about each other. This quickly breeds suspicion and mistrust.

This wariness was very evident in the small party that set out to find high ground to attempt a rescue call with the portable radio found in the plane’s cockpit. Along the way they had the now-famous polar bear encounter. Sawyer pulls out a previously hidden handgun and kills the bear. As soon as the others get over their shock about the bear, they turn on Sawyer, then each other, over the presence of the gun. Finally, they decide to take the gun apart and give the pieces to different people. Within just three days, survival on the island has become a matter of life and death, and not just from the natural threats of the island itself.

But tabula rasa here has a broader and more important meaning. In this episode we get our first flashback, and our first inklings that our Lostaways may be carrying more baggage than fit in their overhead compartments. We see Kate’s arrest in Australia, a result of a betrayal by a farmer who had taken her in. We learn that she is considered a desperate and dangerous criminal, although paradoxically one who saved the life of the farmer who had betrayed her, thereby giving up her chance to escape.

Kate needs a new chance, and as we now know, that’s exactly why she and several of the other crash survivors were chosen to come to the island by Jacob. (Ironically, the very rancher who eventually succumbed to the temptation of reward money and turned Kate in had told her “I get it you know. Everyone deserves a fresh start.”)

For his own reasons, Jacob decided to choose candidates to replace him who needed the chance for renewal the island could offer as much as the island needed their potential guardianship.

In just its second regular episode, it is now clear that LOST was charting a course toward the ending we now know, no matter how “lost” it sometimes seemed along the way. These are people seriously in need of redemption, and unbeknown to them, they’d come to the right place to find it. But oh, the cost ahead for them to pay to get there!

This episode also gives us hints of that suffering to come. We’ve already mentioned the polar bear attack. On their way up the mountain, the radio party picks up a transmission in French, coming from the island, that they decode as being a sixteen-year-old distress signal that mentions “everyone else is dead.” And in the final scene, the camera pans ominously around Locke’s face in extreme closeup. There is something unsettling there, especially now knowing what Locke’s body at least would eventually become.

We also get our first foreshadowing of the Lord of the Flies type conflicts that will dominate the relationships among the survivors in the first season. While looking through the overhead compartments of the fuselage for medications, Jack encounters Sawyer who is on a less-altruistic looting mission of his own. Jack confronts him about this and gets this response:

Sawyer: “you’re not looking at the big picture, Doc. You’re still back in civilization.”
Jack: “Yeah? And where are you?”
Sawyer: “I’m in the wild.”

Sawyer is a character who has brought a lot of “wild’ to this wilderness, and he will go through almost more suffering than anyone else to work it out of him, to make him the man who will on several occasions be able to take the leadership of the group, and who in the end gentle Juliette will be able to look up to.

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