“A Tale of Two Cities,” the third season premiere of ABC’s Lost, had big shoes to fill. The second season had opened strong, with a premiere that stands as one of the best episodes of the whole season. We were introduced to Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick), a man who lived in what looked like a time capsule, playing a record of Mama Cass’ “Make Your Own Kind of Music” while using what looked like decades-old appliances. Then, the rug was pulled out from under us: Desmond was the sole inhabitant of a hatch that John Locke (Terry O’Quinn) had been obsessing over for most of the previous season.
At first, this year’s premiere looked to be another big beginning. Again, the show opened in an unfamiliar location. A woman, later identified as Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell), struck up some music — this time, Petula Clark’s “Downtown” — that evoked another time and place. Juliet was upset; she burned the muffins she was baking for her book club, whose members criticized her not for her cooking but for her choice of “literature,” warning that someone named Ben would not approve of her selection for that meeting. Just like last year, it was difficult to make connections between this action and the ongoing saga on the island.
Then, the reveal: the ground shook, and the club and neighbors rushed outside to see what has caused the commotion, gathering in suburban-looking streets. They looked up and saw the now familiar image of Pacific Air Flight 815 crashing. The suburban scene was set on the island, with the inhabitants living in a secluded town similar to the one in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. Moreover, the opening was following the same formula as the second season’s premiere, showing the viewers something seemingly random, then shocking them with the fact that it isn’t, and it was just as forceful.
After the crash, Henry Gale (Michael Emerson) — his name an allusion to “man behind the curtain” in The Wizard of Oz — sprang into action, ordering the Others to infiltrate the survivors and report back to him with “lists.” In the final moments of the sequence, he turned his attention to Juliet. “I guess I’m out of the book club,” he said, his tone intimating both nonchalance and menace.
It was an exciting opening sequence, primarily because it took us into new territory, behind the lives of the heretofore baffling Others. Yet it was most intriguing to find that the Others, who seem all-powerful and supernatural, actually live lives at once both petty and mundane. Squabbles over book clubs, burned muffins, and broken plumbing are not what one would expect from the marauding band of brutes who have captured and brutalized some of the island’s most cuddly inhabitants.
Once the big surprise was over, however, Lost reverted to old tricks. Its most compelling characters — Desmond, Mr. Eko (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and Henry Gale (now Ben) — were introduced last year. Each of these new characters is complex, deep, and hard to figure. But instead of focusing on one of them, the premiere returned to the three most overused characters: Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly), and Sawyer (Josh Holloway). Worse, these three were sequestered in three separate locations, leaving those viewers waiting for news on the love triangle front stranded.
The premiere’s flashbacks, always the weakest aspect of the series, emphasized Lost‘s tendency to recycle familiar themes. Jack was consumed by his ruined marriage and the identity of his ex-wife’s new lover. Jack’s father Christian (John Terry) urged him to let it go. Instead, Jack began to suspect Christian was the new man. If the themes in the flashback — Jack’s inability to relinquish control, his desire to fix all that is broken, his father’s weakness, etc. — seemed familiar, it’s because they’ve been covered in every Jack flashback since the show debuted. (For more on Jack’s control-freak tendencies, see: “White Rabbit,” “All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues,” “Do No Harm,” “The Hunting Party,” and “Man of Science, Man of Faith.”)
The flashbacks have long been a point of contention for Lost viewers. While such sequences could free characters, locations, and time from the confines of the island, the show’s creators instead limit themselves to the same characters, storylines, and themes — as we saw with the sixth iteration of the same Jack story in this premiere. Flashbacks can take the audience somewhere new without showing too much about the secrets of the island, yet they usually serve as mere footnotes to the island’s ongoing action.
Which is not to say that there was nothing interesting or novel in the season premiere. In addition to the village and its gripping glimpse behind the curtain at the Others, the show offered other new elements, all having to do with the three prisoners. All of Kate’s clothes were stolen from her locker room and burned. Sawyer’s stuck in a puzzling open air zoo cage, rigged with BF Skinner-style experimental gizmos. And Jack’s cell calls to mind the grim set used in the Saw movies.
It may be that setting portions of the third season on the Others’ turf will push the series in other directions, with fresh mysteries to solve: who made these structures? And why? We’ve already seen new characters: Sawyer’s bear cage was next to one occupied by an unidentified youth (presumably a disobedient Other) with a penchant for escaping. With only a scant few minutes of screen time, his history is already more compelling than most of the main characters’, precisely because it hasn’t been told before. Hopefully, these different locales and characters will extend Lost‘s famous mythology, instead of just repeat it.