Sometimes everything you need to know about an episode of LOST comes from the title. That’s surely the case here. Confidence Man is an episode about the art of the con, and the different confidence men (and women) who practice it. And it’s certainly the case that the episode title is a clue to character connections, or at the very least represents the prevailing sort of relationship at this juncture in the Losties’ adventure on the Island. In fact, I think we can safely say at this point that everyone featured in this episode is either a con artist of one kind or another, and many of them are simultaneously marks as well.
Obviously, of course, we have Sawyer, both on the Island and in the Flashbacks. We’ll get back to him in due course, for this is what we’d expect given the episode title. Instead, let’s begin with some of the less obvious con artists running about. Because, I mean, it’s not exactly apparent that everyone is a con artist, or who their marks are. Some, of course, are obvious simply from what we’ve seen prior to Confidence Man. Kate, for example. She lied to the farmer, Ray Mullen, about her identity back in Tabula Rasa, when she was a fugitive on the lam hiking across Australia. When hiking up the mountain with Sawyer, Sayid, Shannon, Boone, and Charlie, after Sawyer shot the polar bear, she feigned ignorance regarding how to use and dissemble a handgun. And yet, in this episode, she doesn’t seem to be conning anyone: she’s the subject of Sawyer’s con to get a kiss.
But upon closer examination, doesn’t she kind of go out of her way to figure out Sawyer himself and his story? She doesn’t have to get so deeply enmeshed in the episode’s drama, but she dives right in anyways. The seminal moment, I think, is when they kiss. Because up to that point, she’s expressed a tremendous amount of disgust towards Sawyer, but that kiss betrays a passion that’s the antithesis of disgust. She’s played the part of “the good girl” with him, with a certain amount of righteousness, but this is just cover for her true feelings. Kate, as it turns out, is really good at the art of con.
Charlie is, too. He wants Claire to move to the Caves with him, but she’s all, like, preferring to stay on the beach and shit. However, there’s something she really wants – peanut butter. So she manipulates Charlie into finding peanut butter on the Island. Of course, Charlie can’t find any peanut butter. There isn’t any to be found, much to his consternation. So Charlie does his best to con Claire by pretending that he has, in fact, found peanut butter. But all he can actually offer is an empty jar. Only through the power of his imagination can he convince her to enjoy the creaminess of emptiness. And he succeeds. She agrees to move to the Caves.
Another con artist actively plying the trade is Sun. She’s been conning just about everyone since the plane crashed, pretending that she doesn’t know English. Here, she manipulates Michael into seeking out some eucalyptus on the sly, so as not to arouse the suspicions of her husband, Jin, or anyone else at the Caves for that matter – all so she can maintain her cover as someone who doesn’t know English. Don’t forget, this was the woman who planned to slip away from her husband at the airport in Australia, who planned this for months. Sun is certainly a con artist. It’s particularly delicious that she catches Michael when he’s trying to gut a fish. As we saw in Walkabout, when Shannon conned Charlie into getting her some food to prove to her brother Boone that she could “take care of herself,” it was all about catching a fish. Sun has caught herself a fish in Michael, who’s perfectly fine with pretending to everyone else that he doesn’t know about her cunning linguistic skills. And it’s not like Jin is a complete mark, either. It sure looks like he’d been lying to Sun about what he was doing for her father, for example, back in House of the Rising Sun, though he’s not really given enough material in this episode to maintain any pretenses.
Now, these are all examples of people deliberately lying to other people. A more subtle con, though, is one that isn’t entirely disingenuous. It involves a certain amount of self-deception. Coming up to the border of this sort of con is where we find Jack. At one point, Sayid approaches Jack with the offer to torture Sawyer as a way of divining the location of Shannon’s asthma inhalers. Sayid won’t do this, however, without Jack’s consent, which Jack eventually gives. But when Kate sees him and Sayid dragging Sawyer off to the damn jungle of mystery, Jack says that it was Sawyer’s choice. Which rather elides his own choice, the choice that ultimately led to Sawyer’s torture. Either Jack is trying to con Kate for the sake of his own image, or he’s conning himself (again for the sake of his own self-image).
Even Shannon’s predicament is a result of con artistry. She’s come to believe that she can’t cope without her inhalers, for example, even though Jack is able to talk her down from a panic attack. But this is the first we’d even heard about her asthma, and this new facet of her character is handwaved away with another con: Shannon’s been hiding her condition from everyone else. A con that Boone has been complicit in. Boone, by the way, cons everyone into thinking that Sawyer has the inhalers, all by leaping to conclusions via some specious logic. Of course, it’s much easier to con other people when you’ve already conned yourself.
There are a few other cons going on here, which we’ll get to later, in the Through The Looking Glass portion of the essay. For now we’ll end this bit with the end of the episode, when we get another delicious example of self-deception:
SAYID: What I did today, what I almost did, I swore to do never again. If I can’t keep that promise, I have no right to be here.
KATE: There’s nowhere to go.
SAYID: Someone has to walk the shore and map the Island, see what else there is. I can’t think of a better person to do it than the only one I trust.
This is dripping with irony: Sayid’s just done something he swore he wouldn’t do again. He recognizes that he hasn’t kept that promise… and then he declares that he’s the only person he trusts. I can’t even.
The AntiHeroic Journey
“The anti-hero ventures forth from the bourgeois state into the underworld of pariahs and felons. Fabulous forces are encountered and a decisive defeat is won. The anti-hero comes back from his adventure with the power to avenge himself on the bourgeois state and the society of reprobates which he rejects summarily because they reject him.” -W. F. Sohlich, MLN, Vol. 89, No. 4, French Issue (May, 1974), pp. 641-653
We’ve gone on quite about the Campbellian heroic journey here at Lost Exegesis. Finally, we get an episode that attempts to turn it on its ear. Now, to be sure, the basics of the structure are still intact: Sawyer hears a Call to Adventure upon encountering Boone (damn, that name!) going through his stash; his Ordinary World has been breached. From his mentor, Kate, he hears a Call to Adventure: everyone thinks he’s got Shannon’s asthma inhalers. He crosses the threshold to the Belly of the Whale, inviting a beat down from Jack at the Caves, a symbolic death and rebirth. This prepares him for his trial – torture in the jungle of mystery. This becomes his inner sanctum, where he steals a kiss from Kate, but this isn’t a Boon; it will not heal the Ordinary World. Indeed, he can only confess that he has no Boon of his own: he never had the inhalers, and receives an elbow to his jaw for his troubles. His “rescue” actually comes in the form of Jack, who pulls off an irate Sayid and bandages Sawyer’s wound. Sawyer returns to the Ordinary World as a pariah, and furthermore his identity as a con man has been compromised when Kate divines his secret history.
Of course, what he’s really done is expose the hypocrisy of the bourgeois state, as represented by Jack, but it’s just as much a case of looking in the mirror. For in this episode, Jack is Sawyer’s “mirror-twin.” Jack moved to the caves while Sawyer stayed on the beach, but Sawyer makes his home in Jack’s old digs. Sawyer claims to be of The Wild, which puts Jack in the position of Civilization, but Jack is the one who signs off on savaging a man with no evidence. Sawyer is quite plain in his affections for Kate, while Jack pains himself to suppress his longings. Sawyer distracts Jack from attending to Shannon, which ultimately gives Sun (another con artist) the opportunity to save her with an herbal remedy. Sawyer has called himself an “outlaw,” while Jack is nicknamed a “cowboy.”
What’s terribly interesting, though, is how Sawyer positions himself to the right, politically, of Jack. For Sawyer, possession is nine-tenths of the law, while Jack is running a “commie share-fest” at the Caves. And yet it’s the Caves that have become a bourgeois “civilization” to knock down a couple pegs: it has to be knocked down because of the way Jack has assumed the mantle of leadership. For it is ultimately power that’s at the heart of the critique. Sawyer doesn’t exercise power over other people, because he refuses to have any kind of relationship with anyone. Jack, in the meantime, has been seduced by his own authority. This isn’t a matter of controlling the means of production (nothing is being produced in this “state of nature”) so much as the means of controlling other people. This is something Jack does through his bourgeois education, through his privilege.
But it’s not as though Sawyer isn’t tempted to exercise control over other people. Indeed, as we see from his con artistry, both with the Losties and in the FlashBack story where he executes the con that formed his identity, the ability to create a false reality through lies, through the control of information, indeed through the ability to create an alternate identity, well, it’s a heady sort of power. Sawyer doesn’t use brute force. He doesn’t use his privilege. He uses his wits. Perhaps that’s why con artists have a special place in our storytelling. No, no one likes to be conned, but we like stories about con artists. We tend to root for them, especially if they’re not completely self-interested assholes.
And, of course, as it turns out, Sawyer has a sliver of good in him. Despite all his self-loathing and desire to screw other people that he finds reprehensible, when he discovers that David and Jessica have a little boy, a little boy who reads, he can’t bring himself to do to someone else (the innocent boy) what’s been done to him. The boy, of course, is a mirror. He reads. Just like Sawyer, who’s been reading for the last four episodes…
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
“It’s about bunnies.”
This is probably the most interesting “continuity error” in the entire episode. Regardless of whether we look at Sawyer’s stash from Kate’s perspective or from the other side of her point of view, Watership Down will always be right-side up. This is how important the bunny story is — they want to make sure we catch the title.
Bunnies, as it turns out, are consummate con artists. Throughout Watership Down, in both the ostensible plot and deep within rabbit mythology, confidence games are featured. For example, Hazel, the lamed leader of our lupine protagonists, elicits the help of his faster companions to trick the dog of a nearby farm to chase them back to their warren, to disrupt General Woundwort’s siege of the their home. Earlier in the story, he tricks Woundwart by escaping down a river on a dinghy. Going back to the first part of the book, there’s an encounter with another warren where some rather fat rabbits pretend that there’s nothing hinky about the nearby farmer’s shining wire that occasionally wrings their necks.
But the most interesting ruse is perpetuated by Bigwig, a surly burly rabbit with a funny tuft of hair on his head. Bigwig infiltrates Woundwort’s warren, Efrafa, posing as former guard from the rabbits’ original warren. Well, it’s true that he actually was a guard at that warren, but his purpose has nothing to do with “tagging along” as he puts it. No, Bigwig enters Efrafa and quickly establishes himself as officer material, only to scope out the joint and then organize a number of the female rabbits in a daring escape, for the Honeycomb warren has no does.
In the rubric of Watership Down, the confidence game is considered a blessing. Rabbits are well known for their tricksy ways, and believe it to be quite natural. Throughout the book we’re regaled with tales of El-ahrairah, a mythological rabbit of ancient yore who is nearly a deity to all rabbits, and who constantly employs all manner of confidence games to thwart the Thousand Enemies of rabbits. El-ahrairah would just as soon moon the sun-god Frith than beg for his favor, and such is how the bottoms of rabbits were blessed with great speed and agility. El-ahrairah steals King Darzin’s Lettuce by pissing on his food to make him ill, then poses as a doctor telling him to get rid of all his tainted greens.
In another story, King Darzin has had enough of El-ahrairah and makes to spite the crafty rabbit. Darzin’s troops guard all the rabbit holes of El’s people, a siege under which they begin to starve. El-ahrairah, who has run out of tricks, seeks the help of The Black Rabbit of Inlé, who is fear and everlasting darkness as much as he is a rabbit. El-ahrairah proposes to give his life for the safety of his people, but the Black Rabbit refuses. Instead they wager on a game of bob-stones, but El-ahrairah loses, and with that loss loses his whiskers and tail, which he can only replace with clematis and ragwort. The next evening the same wager is made over a game of storytelling, but El-ahrairah loses, and so loses his ears, which he can only replace with two big dock leaves. The next evening he tries to catch the deadly White Blindness from a sick rabbit, that he might infect King Darzin’s troops, but again he is foiled, for that disease is passed on by fleas jumping from rabbit-ear to rabbit-ear, and El-ahrairah has only leaves with which to hear.
The Black Rabbit of Inle finally takes pity, of all things, on El-ahrairah and proceeds to drive El-ahrairah’s enemies to madness. But when El-ahrairah returns to the warren after much wandering, generations have passed and no one remembers a thing from such ancient history. As El-ahrairah ponders his strange fate, Lord Frith approaches.
“Are you angry, El-ahrairah?” asked Lord Frith.
“No, my lord,” replied El-ahrairah, “I am not angry. But I have learned that with creatures one loves, suffering is not the only thing for which one may pity them. A rabbit who does not know when a gift has made him safe is poorer than a slug, even though he may think otherwise himself.”
So Lord Frith gives El-ahrairah a new tail, whiskers and ears, made of starlight. Such is his confidence in El-ahrairah, the sacred trickster among rabbits.
The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, by Herman Melville
Unlike Watership Down, Herman Melville’s Confidence-Man does not appear directly within the text of LOST; it’s only suggested by this episode’s title. Not that this should surprise us at this point – episode titles make up a great deal of LOST’s connective tissue, promising insight into both episodes and the show as a whole.
Melville’s Confidence-Man, at first glance, seems the perfect fit. In the last novel Melville wrote, and quite possibly his greatest, we are taken aboard the steamboat Fidele, traveling down the Mississippi River from Saint Louis to New Orleans, a veritable floating island of con men and their interlocutors, much like we’ve already identified in this episode. It’s a book redolent with literary references, not unlike our small opera. That said, there is more to suggest that Confidence-Man has some great spiritual influence on LOST as a whole.
Let’s start with characters easily discerned as con artists in the book and their counterparts in the show. We first meet Black Guinea, the cripple who presents us a list of other con men who will vouch for his character:
“Oh yes, oh yes, dar is aboard here a werry nice, good ge’mman wid a weed, and a ge’mman in a gray coat and white tie, what knows all about me; and a ge’mman wid a big book too; and a yarb-doctor; and ge’mman in a yaller west; and ge’mman wid a brass plate; and a ge’mman in a wiolet robe; and a ge’mman as is a sodjer; and ever so many good, kind, honest ge’mmen more aboard what knows me and will speak for me, God bress ‘em; yes, and what knows me as well as dis poor old darkie knows hisself, God bress him! Oh, find ‘em, find’em…”
Sure enough, we begin to meet the confidantes listed. Now, we already know that there’s a cripple on the Island who’s no longer a cripple: John Locke. We have an herb doctor in Sun, whose eucalyptus assists Shannon with her asthma. The soldier is Sayid. The man “wid a weed” is likely Sawyer, the “weed” in question being his cigarette, explicitly pointed out by Locke at one point. Sawyer’s also the man with a “big book”: his stockholding con correlates to Melville’s registrar for the Black Rapids Coal Company (and perhaps nodding to the mysterious “Black Rock” from the Frenchwoman’s transmission). Actually, Sawyer (a character associated with another Mississippi travel tale) also wears a very nice gray suit when executing that con. We shouldn’t look askance at one man taking on several roles – after all, Melville’s “yarb-doctor” is also likely the one wearing a “yaller west,” described later as a “snuff-colored surtout.” Interesting, perhaps, that Shannon wears a yellow camisole, and receives treatment from an herb-doctor.
But eventually the list starts to fall apart, in both Melville’s tale and the correspondences we might derive from it in this episode. In the book there is no man in a violet robe, unless we want to count The Cosmopolitan’s gaudy dress. Likewise, there is no one with “a brass plate” let alone someone convincing one of our Losties to adopt a boy, or to contribute to a likely non-existent orphanage. However, there’s an interesting bit of dialogue that invokes both “brass” and the Cosmopolitan:
SAWYER: See, women are easy: a few cosmos, a couple of stunts they haven’t seen between the sheets, and they think the scam’s their idea. Now husbands, they need to touch the money, smell it — believe that if they had the brass to put that suitcase in the trunk of their family sedan and speed away, they just might have a chance at being an honest-to-gosh outlaw.
But there’s still the matter of Melville’s ambiguities. Confidence-Man has a couple candidates that might be the man in the gray coat, for example, and several more who might be the soldier. At times, the author himself seems to be a confidence man in his own right, leading us a down a trail that never pans out. For Confidence-Man is not a conventional story, but rather a series of vignettes, with the titular “Confidence-Man” seeming more like a great spirit that possesses many different avatars. Indeed, the structure of Confidence-Man abruptly changes halfway through the book, when we meet Frank Goodman, “The Cosmopolitan,” who takes over the narrative for the rest of the way, a narrative that ends not in New Orleans, but simply in the dead of night.
That LOST would invoke such a literary work poses a significant problem for the Exegesis. After all, we’re concerning ourselves a great deal with using certain techniques of literary analysis to plumb the Island’s secrets, and yet Confidence-Man is a book that practically mocks such an approach. Consider the fact that the most learned characters replete with literary references are the most artful con-men in the book. This would suggest that Melville himself, who actually delivered all those references, is the greatest con-artist of them all. But this would also mean that LOST itself is a form of confidence-game, and that the showrunners (primarily Damon Lindelof, who wrote this episode) are likewise con-artists. After all, they are professional liars. So how can we really trust anything about this show, let alone a decidedly intellectual approach to understanding it?
Thankfully, I had the privilege to acquire, quite by accident, an annotated copy of Melville’s Confidence-Man when I first studied this episode in depth some eight years ago. And if anything, it’s a scholarly approach that makes Confidence-Man actually approachable. The references to Vishnu, the Bible, and any number of Roman and Greek philosophers, they all actually make sense when elucidated. So the Exegesis is ultimately not contradicted by Melville, but rather bolstered, even renewed. For we now have “proof” as it were that there is indeed a veneer covering the world of the Island, and that patient study and observation may pierce that veil.
Or maybe we should just assume that we are fucked. The primary argument made by the “Confidence Man” is that we should have faith – that we should have trust, believe, and uphold the virtues of human beings. Look for what’s good in people. We should be charitable. To be otherwise is to be misanthropic, a philosophy that’s ultimately a dead end. But if we trust, if we have confidence, then we can be easily deceived. So which will it be? Shall we be on guard, only to be damned, or shall we just let go and let the loaded chips fall where they may?
I Shall Not Walk Alone, written by Ben Harper, as sung by The Blind Boys of Alabama
Given the prevalence of confidence games in this episode, and the implication that the authors themselves may be conning the audience in certain significant ways (namely by establishing and subverting patterns), we must attend to the song at the end of the episode. It’s written by Ben Harper (on his 1997 album The Will to Live) and sung by The Blind Boys of Alabama (on their album Holding On). Harper’s a modern Grammy-winning international star, while the Blind Boys have been around since the 1930s, headed by still-living singer Jimmy Carter. In both cases, we find soulful, earnest music. The song itself is a mournful spiritual ode, exactly in this tenor:
Our weight in sin
So that we
Can live again
When my legs no longer carry
And the warm wind chills my bones
I reach for Mother Mary
And I shall not walk alone
And the warm wind chills my bones
I reach for Mother Mary
And I shall not walk alone
The song is entirely forthright and lacking in duplicity. Which is rather surprising, given the context of its appearance at the end of Confidence Man. For it’s not just the fact that something so earnest and trusting ends a tale devoted to falsity and deception. No. Mind you, we’ve heard modern songs on LOST’s soundtrack before, typically ending an episode so as to deliver an emotional. But aside from LOST’s score, pop songs have always been diegetic – a character is actually listening to a song, be it Kate riding in Ray Mullen’s truck while Patsy Cline plays on the radio, to Hurley popping a CD into his player, his earphones glued to his head. This one is different. There’s no reason in the story for this song to play. But it plays – over another supposedly heartwarming montage.
So we have to consider this an authorial statement; it can’t be handwaved away in the name of characterization. The question, then, is whether to trust it or not. Let’s consider the montage itself. The song starts up as Sayid leaves Kate behind. We then cut to Charlie and Claire walking away from the beach, neither of them alone. However, both have been willingly self-deceptive, so there’s that. Next up is Boone and Shannon, sharing a bottle of water, and actually smiling at each other – this is not how they typically relate, but that doesn’t mean this aspect of their relationship is disingenuous. So far, so good then – we have two example of people not being alone.
But then we get to Sawyer, sitting alone on the beach, holding his handwritten note up over his Zippo lighter, considering whether to just burn it. He doesn’t. And this is significant – he is not, for example, reaching for “Mother Mary”; he is choosing to maintain his alienation, to hold onto his childhood wound. Finally, we return to Sayid, who is definitely walking alone along the beach. So the montage turns from sincerity to irony, which imbues the sequence with ambiguity. It’s so subtle, we might not even notice that the song has been subverted. Of course, that’s exactly how we can be conned.
Through the Looking Glass (Confidence Man)
It’s been a while since the last Lost Exegesis, so just to remind everyone, now that we’re “through the looking glass” we will be taking in account of future information, including future conclusions of the Exegesis. This is your spoiler alert.
Okay, one of the future conclusions of the Exegesis is that certain infelicities in the production of LOST – so called “continuity errors” — may actually be deliberate, marking a kind of covered-up time loop or similar spacetime event. Take that final shot of Sayid walking along the beach, which we now know to be drenched in irony. Look at the footprints in the sand – Sayid is walking along a path that has just been walked. In fact, we can see more footprints heading out in front of him, and then looping back. He starts to walk along the loop before we cut to black.
We’ll be getting into some very interesting peculiarities in the imminent Sayid-centric episode Solitary (which, by the way, is prophesied by Melville’s Confidence-Man in chapters 24 and 26, with the convergence of a “solitary” man’s story that contradicts the implicit “noble savage” fo the explicitly invoked Rousseau) in the next essay, but for now let us ponder that we’re privy to an exigency of production – Naveen Andrews walks along the beach for several takes before they get the one they really want. Which, when you think about time loops, is kind of exactly the point. As such (for the show will definitely feature time loops when all is said and done), this is a rather self-conscious way for the show to postmodernly align itself in a “meta” way with its ostensible story. Or, conversely, to present a story that’s in some way reflective of television production itself.
Speaking of reflections, we might as well cover this episode’s mirror shots. The mirror, of course, is at the very least symbolic of identity, and in the first two FlashBacks of this episode, we find Sawyer in front of a stand-up mirror in Jessica’s bedroom (or maybe it’s a hotel room – whatever) as he executes the con from his childhood. So there’s definitely the element of establishing Sawyer’s identity as a confidence man. But, as we noted all the way back in Pilot Part 2, with Charlie’s weird stunt in the Oceanic Airlines bathroom, funny things can happen in front of mirrors. Perhaps, as the Alice in Wonderland literature suggests, mirrors can be entry or exit points between one world and another.
At the very least, it behooves us to examine the context of these FlashBacks. As we said, the first two FlashBacks take us to the bedroom where Sawyer cons Jess. Both of these FlashBacks are presented in context with Sawyer’s encounters with Kate on the Island – specifically, as Kate leaves Sawyer. And both have a certain emotional continuity to them. The first is rather obvious, with a transition from Kate’s comment that Sawyer knows “how to make a girl feel special” to Sawyer finishing up sex with Jess. The second is more subtle. Jack and Sawyer are about to fight on the beach, and Kate defuses the confrontation with a question: “What’s going on here?” What’s going on here is that Sawyer has just learned that Jack believes he has Shannon’s asthma inhalers, and recognizes an opportunity to pull a con. We flash back to Sawyer laying out the details of his con to Jess. From Island to Flashback, the underlying thread is Sawyer making plans.
The third flashback is subtler still. Sawyer’s just successfully humiliated Jack at the Caves, by letting himself get punched over and over again, such that the others at the Caves, like Sun and Jin, and Shannon and Boone, are reacting in horror at Jack. Because Sawyer refuses to buckle, Jack has to back off. But the Flashback works in reverse. Sawyer is still taking punches, figuratively speaking – Jessica’s husband David keeps insinuating that there’s something shady about Sawyer’s deal, and gloriously suggests that some kind of “loop hole” might be in play. But here, Sawyer is neatly coiffed and suited up (like a cosmopolitan dandy), not beaten and bloody. They’re at a fancy restaurant, not grungy some caves. He doesn’t stick around, but gets up from the table, and this gets David to pursue him; there is no backing off, just a change in emotional tenor. Being the third of five flashbacks, this one essentially functions as a mirror-twinning. It’s interesting, though, that in a Campbellian structure the triggering scene at the Caves functions as a figurative death and rebirth (the Belly of the Whale), as if dying itself could lead to some kind of Flashback.
The penultimate Flashback reverts to straight-up continuity: Sayid is threatening to cut out Sawyer’s eye (yes, Eye symbolism has been very prevalent in the show so far) and Sawyer proposes a “deal” – he’ll only tell Kate where the inhalers are. We cut to a pool hall (pool being a euphemism for a body of water, which is to say a reflective surface) where a shark threatens Sawyer if he doesn’t get his money back. There’s an extra bit of continuity here: the repetition of the word “deal.” Sawyer’s used it several times already, actually, and Charlie too got Claire to make a “deal” when it came to moving off the beach in the event of peanut butter. We’ll be paying closer attention to “deals” going forward – it’s a word that’s repeated nearly as often as “fix,” or the phrase “go back,” and it’s even the title of one of the small “mobisodes” that aired near the end of the hiatus between Seasons Three and Four.
The final Flashback comes after a rather great speech in the bamboo forest, where Sawyer lies bleeding to death while Jack patches up the gash in his arm. Knowing what we know now, it’s a hell of a kicker:
SAWYER: Let go. I know you want to.
JACK: Shut up. And stop moving.
SAWYER: You’ve been waiting for this, haven’t you? Now you get to be the hero again, because that’s what you do — fix everything up all nice. Tell him to let go, Freckles. We already made out, what else I got to live for? Hey, Jack, there’s something you should know — if the tables were turned, I’d watch you die.
Frankly, Jack is such a control freak that the last thing he’d ever want to do is “let go.” His father has told him this point blank – Jack is not good at letting go. He’s told this at a pool in Do No Harm, and it’s one of the last things Christian says to him in The End. Letting go is a prerequisite to grace. (We also get repetitions of “hero” – another reminder of Hero of a Thousand Faces – as well as Jack’s propensity to want to “fix” things, and let’s not forget Charlie’s need for a fix as well.) Letting go is in fact the last thing we get to do in the moment of death. Once we let go, once we relinquish all power, we have nothing but death and the possibility of the divine. So Sawyer’s line that he’d watch Jack die takes on some interesting nuance.
Especially considering the final Flashback, which again is laden with irony. Sawyer’s trying to make it sound like he’s got no remorse, no pity, no empathy, but this is all part of the façade he puts up to the rest of the world, motivated by or reflective of his own self-hatred. For as we see, Sawyer does have the power of mercy within him. (Funnily enough, Sawyer tells David, regarding his wife, “Don’t let her go.”) He doesn’t con Jess and David out of their money, not once he see a little boy who wants to be read a story by his mom. Which is like looking in the mirror for him. He can’t do it now. In fact, he also leaves his seed money behind. So the fact that Jack has actually patched him up has got to fly in the face of his own self-conception. What Sawyer really means is that he’d let himself die, but Jack’s compassion contradicts this. Maybe, before Sawyer came to the Island, he really did walk away with the dough, if we’re going to give any credence to the notion that things in the past can be changed via having a Flashback on the Island.
But there’s another potential to a time loop, which is that of Eternal Return. We wouldn’t change the past, preferring to affirm the choices that we’ve made, and hence affirming who we are in the here and now. And having studied every shot in that final FlashBack, I find nothing hinky – no weird continuity errors, no physical mirrors, just Sawyer actually being decent. Though of course we could say the Boy is a mirror, in which case maybe Sawyer did change things. But I don’t think so.
When we come out of Flashback, we return to Sawyer awaking on the beach, where Kate presents The Reveal, the thing that actually makes sense of Sawyer’s unexpected compassion – that he wrote the letter, and only later ended up becoming the confidence man that he was hunting. (This, we must note, plays very well after the “substitute theory” posited in last episode’s essay about The Moth, how Charlie and Liam traded places, one substituted for the other. So well that a Season Six episode is actually titled “The Substitute.”) The reveal, by the way, mirrors the opening scene, where Sawyer physically reveals himself to Kate – now he’s been emotionally revealed as well, and by the one person who really knows what it’s like to go by a different name. By another avatar of The Confidence Man.
The Avatars of the Confidence Man
Let’s go back to Melville’s Confidence-Man for a bit and consider this notion that everyone is an avatar of the Confidence Man. We’ll start by considering some of the other characters in this LOST episode, those we elided earlier because their cons were not immediately apparent, but only revealed in hindsight after future revelations. Hurley, for example, was hiding food after all, or at least had that propensity as we saw in the Season Two episode Dave when a Dharma-drop of food leads him into temptation. In Confidence Man Hurley pretends that this isn’t who he is, which is a blatant lie. He might genuinely wish he weren’t this person (another form of self-hatred) but a wish isn’t reality. So he puts on a guise, a front, a charade. Perhaps he could have gotten peanut butter to Charlie. In which case, Charlie wouldn’t have had to con Claire with imaginary peanut butter. He could have been a hero and delivered the real deal.
Likewise, now know just what a façade Jin has been putting up for Sun. He’s alternatively eliding his violence or pretending to be more violent than he really is. Regardless, he’s been hiding himself from his wife, which, surprise, makes it no surprise that she’s started flirting with Michael and creating more distance from him. Speaking of relationships, it’s interesting that Shannon elides her relationship with Boone, who is only her half-brother, and yet that doesn’t wash away the taboo of their sexual intimacies.
But the most interesting con is the one perpetuated by Locke. Locke, we now know, is the one who whacked Sayid with a big stick (an echo of Mr Eko, by the way) when Sayid was trying to triangulate the position of the Frenchwoman’s transmission. But look at the way Locke diverts Sayid’s suspicions onto Sawyer: suggesting that a cigarette can be made into a slow-burning fuse, that Sawyer has “reasons” for maintaining his position on the Island versus going back to the ordinary world, and of course he completely ignores his own motivation for doing what he did, namely that he was afraid of leaving the Island because he didn’t want to lose his “miracle” of regaining the use of his legs. Finally, Locke hands his knife to Sayid, a show of trust that’s part and parcel of giving a weapon to someone else, especially someone that you’ve already committed an act of violence against.
There’s another aspect to this con, which doesn’t become apparent until we’ve seen the whole show, namely that Locke’s countenance will be assumed by The Man in Black, otherwise known as The Smoke Monster. Indeed, the Smoke Monster has the ability to present himself as someone else, almost like a Faceless Man, the ultimate in con artistry. He’s pretended to be Christian, Locke, Shannon, Isabella, Yemi, and who knows else. Given that the monster functions on the principles of smoke and mirrors, who else could he be but the Confidence Man?
But I don’t want to use this line of thought as a way of morally castigating this particular character. Because as this episode (and Melville’s book) go to show, everyone is a con artist in some way, shape, or form. We can’t help it. Even the most earnest person cannot present an appearance that’s entirely true of their interiority. For one thing, emotions begin subconsciously. Who we think we are at any given moment can be completely subverted by the subconscious before we even realize it. For another, there is a distinct different between “being” and the appearance of “being.” The appearance is a model, a picture, a map – and as such, it can never capture the totality of the territory it purports to represent (to re-present). And ironically, everything we have in our heads about other people is necessarily limited in scope to the reality in front of us, for our heads are much smaller than the reality in front of us. Our information is necessarily limited. The map can never capture the territory. Perhaps this is why the show ends up invoking Richard Alpert, now Ram Dass, whose book “Be Here Now” was all about being here now. It’s very difficult to be real, for our concern with appearances is always getting in the way. In a way, the only way to be real is to undergo ego death, to ultimately let go of appearance and get down to really “being.”
But what would be the fun in that? We like switching between avatars. Putting on different clothes. Trying on different hats. Sometimes, it’s only by pretending to be something that we realize that this is what we really were all along. “Fake it until you make it.” And without fakery, we wouldn’t have fiction, or television shows, and so we wouldn’t have play. Play is important. Plays are important. We use such to pierce the veil of appearance to see who we really are without having to undergo the drama ourselves. It’s like a way of implanting certain memories within ourselves, so we can “go back” to certain experiences without having all the trauma or cost associated with it.
Finally, reading Melville’s Confidence-Man, I couldn’t help but notice a certain word, appearing twice, that led me to wonder about one of the early metaphors presented in LOST:
“…I have, so far as my small observation goes, found that mankind thus domestically viewed, confidentially viewed, I may say; they, upon the whole – making some reasonable allowances for human imperfection – present as pure a moral spectacle as the purest angel could wish. I say it, respected sir, with confidence.”
“Gammon! You don’t mean what you say. Else you are like a landsman at sea: don’t know the ropes, the very things everlastingly pulled before your eyes. Serpent-like, they glide about, travelling blocks too subtle for you. In short the entire ship is a riddle…”
This is a conversation between a shyster who’s trying to pawn off an “orphan” to a solitary woodsman. But the word that caught my eye was “gammon.” In this context, it’s a word that means deceitful humbuggery. It’s also a word that refers to cured ham (getting us into the land of Capitalist Pigs and boar hunts), as well as being a nautical term (hence the sailing references in Melville). But for our purposes, it’s most commonly associated with the game of Backgammon, which Locke described to Walt as a metaphor for the entire show, a metaphor we now know to have some bearing on the whole schlemiel. So, think about it… a “back-gammon” would be a con having to do with going back. It could refer to the con of time-loops that the Exegesis is concerned with. Or perhaps with false memories – although, if one changed one’s past as a way of changing one’s memories, wouldn’t the previous memories (now erased or covered up) now be the false ones, and the new memories the true ones?
And how could you even tell?