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Lostwatch: Good Cop, Bad Cop

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, get a beer, heat up a TV dinner, soak in a little bit of the homespun wisdom of Michael Landon, then watch last night’s Lost.

“I got to a point in my life where I was either going to be a criminal or a cop. So I chose cop.”

Lost, of course, is full of people who could have gone one way or another way. That seems to be the running theme of the flash-sideways stories, however they end up playing out, and whatever relation they end up having to the storyline on the Island. (I have a few thoughts on that, which I’ll get to in a minute.) Do you go the good way, or the bad way? Criminal or cop? White rock or black rock?

The beauty of the Sawyer/James Ford stories throughout Lost, however, is that they’ve suggested a more complex, mature idea of morality. On the one hand, his character more than any other implies a straight-up dualistic moral choice: he literally has a different name as a good, unsullied guy (James Ford) and as a fallen con man and killer (Sawyer). But as “Recon” suggested, being good or bad is more than simply deciding to take a step to one side or the other of a bright dividing line. Instead, the attributes that make Sawyer/James “good” or “bad”—as, I would say, with Ben and the other characters—are always already present, and the question is what the character does with them.

In the alt timeline, James is a cop, but a cop with more than a little con man in him: he runs scams officially on undercover stings, and he’s still secretly pursuing revenge against Anthony Cooper. In the Island timeline, he’s a con man, but one whose ultimate goal is not just to save his own skin but his fellow survivors’, pulling double and triple crosses if he has to. In both timelines, he can use his “bad” elements for good, and his “good” attributes for bad, because in truth, they’re both manifestations of his true character.

In other words, it’s not a simple matter of choosing to be “good” or “bad,” and then having your character settled permanently. Your good and bad aspects are inseparable; they make you you. Rather, the question is whether you choose good or bad actions—a choice you have to make, over and over, all your life. You are always, potentially, the good cop and the bad cop; to entirely eliminate one of those parts of you would mean no longer to be a cop at all.

Because Josh Holloway plays the troubled rogue so well—The Rockford Files really missed an opportunity not casting him to star in the remake—his alt-timeline was, unsurprisingly, a treat. Yeah, we’ve seen him go this route before. (The title “Recon” was a nice pun, meaning both “reconnaissance” and “to con, again.”) But it was intriguing to see his story told from a different angle. The first shocker of alt-universe James was how unlike Sawyer he is; the second surprise was how much they had in common. And the parallels to Island life were a delight: the buddy-cop setup with fellow smartass Miles; his code word, “LaFleur”; and seeing a dressed-up Sawyer with a cleaned-up Charlotte, which is probably the most equal-opportunity, male-female hotness Lost has fit on a screen at one time. Rowrrr!

But Island-Sawyer’s choices were even more enjoyable to watch, since at the end he decided neither to align with Widmore or with Smokey but to play both off against each other. I don’t know where this season is going—and I’m glad I don’t—but as I said before, I hope it doesn’t come down in some way to whether the Losties choose “good” or “bad,” Smokey or Jacob (or Widmore). I want them to choose themselves, and each other.

In the end, I’m not rooting for any of the chess players who are trying to use our characters as pawns; I’m rooting for the pawns to fight back and not let themselves be played. And Sawyer is the perfect character to lead that fight, deciding to let Smokey and Widmore, hopefully, destroy each other in their little war, and escape in the chaos. That’s a choice I can get behind.

Now as to how the alt-timeline relates to all this? That’s the big question. Last week with “Dr. Linus,” I was thinking that each storyline showed the characters facing the same kinds of moral choices they had on the Island and in their flashbacks, but this time, they were breaking the patterns they had repeated so often. This week—with alt-James still seeking vengeance, then running into Kate at the end—I have another thought. What if the alt-storylines are each building toward the characters facing one last moral choice, one last chance to redeem themselves and be good or bad, and that choice will be informed by what they do in the Island’s Jacob-Smokey-war story?

(Or at least maybe that will be true of the characters who survive? In Ben’s alt-timeline he seems to already have made his final choice, for the good, which would support my theory that his Island timeline has “ended”—that is, that he’s going to die before the season is over.)

None of this answers the central question of how “real” each of the two timelines is and what relation they have to each other, but I’m willing to wait to find that out. Now for the hail of bullets:

* Amid this Sawyer-centric story were a lot of little moments that raised question about the other characters. Claire, for instance: do we believe that she’s really suddenly contrite about attacking Kate, or is she putting on a show?

* Smokey-Locke: for all his menace and manipulation, he also came across as something of a protective father figure to his band of survivors. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should believe him, but do you still consider him the bad guy (if you ever did)? Is he simply an amoral guy (animal? thing? cloud?) in, as he calls it, a “kill or be killed” situation? And who the hell is his “mother”?

* Sayid: He had the briefest of moments, but a disturbing one, responding vacantly to Kate just before Claire tried to kill her, then reacting not at all during the attempt. After his “resurrection,” is there any Sayid left in there?

* Kate: She came to the Island in the hopes of returning Aaron’s mother to him and found a crazy woman playing Mommy to a Crazy Fake Baby Doll. Evangeline Lilly did a good job in a few scenes of showing Kate trying to feel out what her purpose is now.

* I think I said in last week’s podcast with Mo Ryan and Ryan McGee that this last season of Lost has had the feel of a Survivor finale to me—specifically, the requisite bit in which the finalists revisit the monuments to their fallen comrades and relive the challenges of the past season. There’s been a lot of revisiting monuments from the past here too, and I found Sawyer’s visit to Hydra Island oddly moving, considering how that part of season 3 is often considered one of the low points of Lost.

* This may mean nothing, but the crew that Widmore returned to the Island with seem to be a different type of expedition that Keamy and his mercenaries. Zoe and company remind me more of old-school Dharma Initiative types: i.e., nerdy yet dangerous, the most bad-ass group of graduate students you will ever meet.

* This, on the other hand, I’m pretty sure does mean something: who were all the dead people on Hydra Island? I don’t recall ever seeing that many passengers and crew on the Ajira flight, other than the characters whose whereabouts we already know.

* The episode gave us the return of Watership Down, which Sawyer was reading earlier in the series and is reading in the alt-timeline as James Ford. It’s been a while since I read it, but as I recall, it’s about a group of rabbits, struggling bloodily for survival after their warren is destroyed, who fall under the protection of leaders who turn out to be despots, and end up rejecting them. I’m hoping that this is what the Losties end up doing with Smokey/Jacob/Widmore—that they tell the big men to go screw themselves with their stupid power games, and take charge of their own destiny. Maybe they will. On the other hand, toward the end of “Recon,” Kate is cooking rabbit.

* The LAPD really lets you have sex on undercover sting operations? Best recruiting argument ever.

* Finally: “Here’s the thing, Dimples…” The nicknamer has been nicknamed!