This essay is part of our series Episodes, a monthly column in which TV Critic Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great. This time she’s revisiting the pilot episode of LOST.
“Guys, where are we?” It’s a question that sent a thrill through the audience of over 17 million viewers who tuned into Lost when its pilot first aired in 2004, and it’s a question that’s electrified countless people who have found Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse’s mystery box show since. The answer to plane crash survivor Charlie’s (Dominic Monaghan) question, which he uttered just before the show’s signature slam-to-black end credits rolled, would be answered in fits and starts over the next six seasons. And while the quality of those answers has been heavily questioned in the years since, the all-time-great nature of the big questions themselves has never been up for debate.
Nearly two decades after its premiere, the first episode of Lost still exemplifies everything that makes the series so beloved: captivating characters, artful direction, intriguing mysteries, and a deep, immediately obvious emotional current. Also: payoff. It’s a word that Lost finale detractors will bristle to hear put in conversation with the series, but it fits the show nonetheless. Lost may not have the clearest logical payoff of all time, sure. But it certainly has some damn fine emotional payoff. Think Desmond and Penny’s phone call in “The Constant,” the flash-forward reveal in “Through the Looking Glass,” or Jin and Sun’s reunion.
Even in its earliest stages, though, Lost clearly has a payoff in mind. The pilot starts in media res, back when that gimmick was more cool than exhausting. The camera opens on Jack’s eye – one lens trained on another. His eye opens and dilates, a copse of tall trees reflected in its depths. It’s an indelible image, so much so that the series finale would eventually bookend the show with its exact opposite, but in the moment, it’s just a great shot. The opening scene is full of fantastic shots from cinematographer Larry Fong, and it propels itself forward with the perfect amount of breathless momentum.
Jack puzzles together the pieces around him – a friendly dog, a shoe in a tree – and stumbles out into the chaos of a plane crash in a scene so potent, you can almost smell the burning fuel. The episode’s script by Lindelof and J.J. Abrams is tight, and it wastes no time developing its huge cast of characters from the second they’re introduced on screen. We see pink-clad Shannon (Maggie Grace) screaming, Michael (Harold Perrineau) calling for his son Walt (Malcolm David Kelly), and Charlie twitchily ignoring the crash of a plane wing that lands feet behind him. In a matter of minutes, we know that Hurley (Jorge Garcia) is affable and funny (“dude, I’m not going anywhere,” he says when Jack tells him to stay put where he fell down), that Boone (Ian Somerhalder) longs to be helpful, and that Jack is an aggressively proactive leader.
The few characters who don’t show their true colors right off the bat are just as intriguing. Kate (Evangeline Lilly) is meek, pretending she doesn’t know how to use a gun and, when a pair of handcuffs is discovered, interrupting anyone who brings up the idea of a prisoner on board. As the group settles on the beach, hoping for rescue to come, Sawyer (Josh Holloway) stares moodily at a deeply creased letter, and Locke (Terry O’Quinn) sits serenely on the shore, more at ease than his traumatized fellow passengers. These beach-set moments are impressive and understated, laying the groundwork for future reveals without calling attention to themselves. Lost had several aces up its sleeve from the start and no tell to speak of.
The strangely lovely aftermath of the crash – Claire (Emilie de Ravin) soaking her feet in the water, Hurley organizing rations – is suddenly disturbed 20 minutes in when Lost’s biggest mystery comes crashing through the jungle. I’m always tickled by assertions from erstwhile fans that they liked Lost more before when it was ‘about survival, before all the sci-fi stuff’ because the sci-fi stuff has been at the core of the show all along. When the group sees the tops of tropical trees sway and hears the strange, keening call of the Smoke Monster for the first time, it strikes a primal sort of fear into their hearts and ours. Surviving the knowable, no matter how horrific, is easy. It’s the unknown you’ve got to watch out for.
The two-part Lost premiere is made up of one fantastic scene after another, like the terrifying sequence when Jack tells the woman sitting opposite him on the plane, Rose (L. Scott Caldwell), that everything will be okay, only for the plane to rip apart mid-flight. Even freakier is the first part’s conclusion, a delightful team-building exercise for faux-passive Kate, hero Jack, and flirty, strung-out rockstar Charlie. What starts as a trip to the plane wreckage to find the transceiver ends in a memorably gory moment for prime-time television, as the plane’s pilot (Greg Grunberg) lives just long enough to tell the trio that no one’s looking for them before getting chewed up and spit out by the offscreen monster.
Like so much of the two-parter, the last moment of the pilot’s first half demonstrates precisely why many Lost imitators failed over the years. In it, a shaken-up Kate stands in the pouring rain, at the mercy of a monster, counting to five as Jack taught her a few scenes earlier. Lilly is phenomenal here, communicating both fright and brittle bravery, and it’s a perfect callback to a moment that quickly bonded the pair. The group’s monster encounter is not just a surprising plot point but a character-driven one, too. While dozens of Lost knock-offs have delivered high-concept sci-fi intrigue, they failed to recognize how effortlessly Lost weaves its characters’ backstories into its big genre moments, allowing each survivor to reveal their true self to us during the major island mythology moments.
The show’s pilot only gets more riveting as its second half unfolds. It’s so jam-packed with cliffhanger-worthy moments that story beats other series would end an episode on – like the revelation that a polar bear was roaming the woods on a tropical island – only manage to be cut-to-commercial twists. It’s messy in places, as with Sun (Yunjin Kim) and Jin’s (Daniel Dae Kim) initially tense and exoticized relationship. Still, it’s also surprising how much Lost’s first chapter seemed to already believe in the organized, guiding force of fate – or at least in magical thinking.
Fate is, after all, the word written on tape on Charlie’s fingers. It’s there in the smoke monster and in Locke’s backgammon game, sure, but it’s also more personal and subtle than that. It’s what makes the plane go down right as he starts to flush his heroin down the toilet. It makes Claire’s baby kick when she tries Jin’s sushi. Maybe it’s even what guides Walt toward a comic book with a polar bear in it. Or perhaps it’s not the hands of God or Jacob, but simply of Abrams, Lindelof, and Cuse that guides these lost souls through their surreal first days on the Island.
By the time the group discovers a French distress signal that’s been repeating for eighteen years, it’s clear that Lost is a Russian nesting doll of mysteries on mysteries. The first episode layers its levels of intrigue perfectly, but in retrospect, it also fills in the gaps between each new surprise with beautifully crafted character moments. Those moments, more than any cliffhanger, make the show.
Charlie may have asked, “Where are we?” but in its first episodes, Lost’s writers set up other, unspoken questions that carried fans through to the show’s profound conclusion. Among them: “Who are we here with?” and “Why should we love them?” The show would spend the next six years answering those questions until, by the end, it was apparent: we’re all here with each other, and we should love each other because we can.
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