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League of Inveterate Poets

The out-of-context contextuality of a foolish sage

LOST Retrospective: “The Moth” (Season 1, Episode 7)





By on June 19, 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 know now that the series is over. Click here to read my introduction to the series and my thinking behind it.) Click here to see all my LOST posts.

Warning! If you have not watched LOST all the way to its finale, this essay contains spoilers!

Jack: “Charlie, go take care of yourself. We don’t need you right now.”

Quick synopsis: Focus: Charlie. Charlie continues to beg Locke to give him back his drugs. Locke responds with a challenge: He will allow Charlie to ask him just three times for the drugs. The third time, he will give them back. On the beach, Sayid sets out with Kate and Boone (later joined by Sawyer) to plant some triangulated antennae in  hopes of locating the mysterious signal being broadcast from the island. Jack is trapped inside one of the caves after a rockslide. Eventually he is rescued by Charlie, who crawls through a small hole and then finds another way out of the cave. Sayid is knocked out by an unseen person before he can locate the transmitter. Charlie chooses to destroy his drugs. (Watch “The Moth” on Hulu.)

Locke and the MothI have to admit that I came into this episode remembering it as a throwaway, but have now changed my mind. In my original watching of the series, I didn’t much like the Charlie character. I found him annoying. But now knowing what he will go through and what he eventually did–plus his tenderhearted care for Claire and Aaron–I’m more inclined to be sympathetic.

My second viewing of “The Moth” today left me admiring it for the beautiful way it was wound around its central metaphor. Locke gives us the theme of this episode when he takes withdrawal-sick Charlie to see a moth struggling to leave its cocoon. He points out that he could “help” the moth by cutting open its cocoon, but this would rob the moth of its struggle and leave it too weak to survive. “Struggle is nature’s way of strengthening us,” Locke tells Charlie.

The episode is then about Charlie’s struggle to become a person of value. In the flashbacks we learn about how compromise with temptation and a “deal with the devil” in order to become a rock god led to his drug addiction. Of course, Charlie is not alone in having made Faustian contracts. Most of the main characters at some point in their past compromised something for present gain that led to deep regret. For example, Jin’s agreement to become a hit man for Sun’s father in order to get permission to marry her.

Back to Charlie’s struggle. Once again it is Locke who forces the outcome: Charlie’s ultimate decision to destroy his remaining drugs; his own conquest of his struggle becoming the best victory.

Charlie in the Moth

In the flashbacks, and in Charlie’s battle with whether or not to take back his drugs from Locke, we see the other side of the moth metaphor. Moths are creatures that find themselves inexorably drawn to the flame, usually to their own destruction. This episode helps reinforce one of LOST’s primary questions: What is more of an influence in our lives: fate or choice? Can someone change their destiny?

Time and again in this episode Charlie is cast as the victim. His brother “forced” him into cocaine addiction. He is the useless guy who can’t ever do anything right. On the other hand, the priest in the confessional asks him, “As we live our lives, it’s really nothing more than a series of choices, isn’t it?” In the end, Charlie grasps at choice over fate, and gains the strength that will eventually enable him to give his life for others. But does his choice also set him up to align with his fate? LOST, to its credit, never settles this quandary to one side or the other.

It doesn’t take much imagination at this point to see the cave that Charlie climbs into as the moth’s chrysalis. Like the moth, he must struggle to find that small hole that will lead to his salvation. Just in case we don’t get that, the writers have a moth lead Charlie to the hole. More significantly, emerging from a cave is like coming out of a womb: rebirth. We will see this again in the series finale when Jack is spewed from the Cave of Light, reborn so he can die to this world and experience his ultimate rebirth in the next. For Charlie now, in the smaller world of this episode, he emerges from a rock tomb, resurrected and conqueror over death. Sound familiar? Charlie has indeed become the “rock god” he proclaimed himself to be when he and Jack first entered the cave.

Joseph Campbell circa 1982
Image via Wikipedia

While it seems apparent now that the main hero of the series was Jack, each of the main characters gets his or her own “hero’s journey.” The hero’s journey is a series of steps that the typical mythic hero passes through on his way to fulfilling his destiny, laid out most clearly by Joseph Campbell. While Charlie’s whole story on the island will mirror many of the aspects of the hero’s journey, in “The Moth” he takes a compacted trip down that road. Typical of the hero, he at first rejects the call placed upon him (“I can’t do it!” he says several times during the episode). He acquires a spiritual guide (Locke) who is there to help him through his road of trials. In the Moth, Charlie faces two such “roads”: Locke’s challenge that he can ask for the drugs three times (such trials often come in threes in mythology), and climbing into the tunnel into Jack’s cave prison. The hero’s eventual mastery leads to a freedom from fear of death, and a consequent ability to truly live. Of course, Charlie will exhibit his release from the fear of death in the ultimate way when he sacrifices himself in the underwater station.

The episode ends with Sayid being knocked out by an unseen assailant. Someone doesn’t want a rescue to happen!

I like to end each episode’s post with a collection of some of the humorous or poignant moments from the episode. Just one this time: our introduction to the red shirts* of the island meme:

Michael (pointing): “Take Scott with you.”
Steve: “I’m Steve. He’s Scott.”

Of course, later on Steve and Scott will be among the series’ many expendable secondary characters.

*”Red shirts” is a reference to a famous meme about the original Star Trek television series, where it was observed that when a party beamed down to a hostile planet, the anonymous guys in red shirts would inevitably be the ones to meet their end by whatever menace the planet harbored.

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