Of course you knew Michael was coming back. The writers had promised he'd return, and Michael's portrayer, Harold Perrineau, has been in the credits for some time now.
In boxing terms, this is like a fighter pulling his right hand way down to his hip to throw a haymaker; it's telegraphed long before it arrives, and the recipient is more than ready for it.
Talk about misdirection.
Michael/Kevin Johnson were the least of the reveals in this episode. The big trick of the episode was narrative; the blending of flashforwards with flashbacks. We've already seen both devices used this season; “Confirmed Dead” brought back the flashbacks, and “The Constant” showed Des flashing back while, according to Cuse and Lindelof, Minkowski flashed forward (although we're not privy to Minkowski's flashes). In “Ji Yeon,” we get both flashforwards and flashbacks at once, for the first time. This could be a new narrative device we'll see again, used to keep us guessing throughout an episode; maybe we'll see some development of the technique where we can't quite tell which is which over the span of a few episodes (which wouldn't be a bad way to lead up to a finale). It's something to watch for.
The use of both devices at once was interesting just for the irony/build-up/pay-off standpoint, but it does something else that plays back into a greater theme of Lost. There were four ostensible narrative time-locations in this episode: two present locations (the freighter and the beach), the flashforward, and the flashback. By having all three exist at once in the same episode, we're getting another perspective on the idea of spacetime. With literary references like Watchmen, Slaughterhouse-Five, and A Wrinkle in Time, and other references like Stephen Hawking and David Lewis, we know that we're dealing with a particular interpretation of spacetime that says all points in time — past, present and future — exist at once, just like all physical locations in spacetime exist at once.
In other words, just as the grocery store up the road from my apartment, the street I grew up on, Tunisia, and Mars all exist in space at the same time, this present moment where I'm writing this sentence, the time I got my head stuck between the bars of my crib, the WWII Tunisian campaign, and the colonization of Mars all exist at once. And just like I can't be in all of those physical locations at once, neither can I be in all of those time locations at once; a person can really only experience being located at one point in space and time (I'll leave that one right there, because such distinctions will get messy quickly). Likewise, just as I experience physical space in a mediated way — the grocery store is a half-mile up and Tunisia is half a world away, I also experience time in a mediated way — I wrote the last sentence 30 seconds ago, and got my head stuck between the bars of my crib a number of years ago.
There are all kinds of philosophical debates around whether time actually exists in this way or not, but there's no need to go into it any deeper because when we're dealing with a narrative, spacetime exists in just the way being described. When a person reads a novel, all the events are existing at the same time in the pages of the book, but the reader experiences those events in a mediated way through the act of reading (no one can read all the events of a novel at once, not even Harold Bloom, no matter what he claims). The same holds for a film, or an episode of Lost; all of the events are already existing, but we witness them in a mediated way via the film projector or television signal. We've already seen Desmond (or at least his consciousness) jump around in time like he was jumping around in space, and we have the examples of Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse-Five and Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen (who actually does experience all time at once). In “Ji Yeon,” we the audience get to experience that jumping around in spacetime in a similar fashion; we're the ones bouncing from the future to the past to the present. (Ji Yeon is also an anagram of join ye and i enjoy, almost as if we're enjoying joining Des on a time-trip.)
Beyond time as the central device, the central theme of the episode, as well as the central scene, has to do with karma and the choices people make; bad choices lead to bad things happening to a person, good choices lead to good things happening. Jin had made poor choices when he was first married, which lead to Sun's having an affair. Sun was making a bad choice for her baby by trying to leave for Locke's camp; she had reason to find Juliet distrustful, but Juliet's prenatal advice was sound. Maybe Sun's having an affair was the poor choice that led to the karma of Juliet outing Sun's affair to Jin. If karma is at play, we'll have to wait and see what kind of karma that act brings to Juliet; when it comes to wielding information like a weapon, Juliet seems to have as few scruples as Ben. We also have a future choice to consider; recall that Jin's tombstone says he lived from Nov. 27, 1974–Sept. 22, 2004 (the date of the crash of Flight 815). This could be a hint at the next person to die on the island, but we've already seen plenty of misdirection. The one thing we don't know is how the Oceanic Six get off the island in the future, and what actually happens to the rest of the survivors, if they're actually dead or if they're still back on the island.
[Editor's Note: The above text has been edited for corrections.]
Something else was set up in this episode that was always there, but never made quite as clear — another example of mirror-twinning with the married couples on the island, Jin/Sun and Bernard/Rose. The real equal-but-opposite mirror-twinning is going on with Sun and Rose; if Sun stays on the island, she gets sick, whereas if Rose leaves the island, she'll get sick.
We'll have to wait and see if this mirror-twinning extends to Jin and Bernard. But there definitely seems to be something else odd going on with Jin; he's picking up English pretty fast for only practicing for about two months. He's speaking with correct pronouns and sentence structure. This may be just a move on the writer's part to get Daniel Dae Kim back to speaking English (his native tongue), but perhaps his phonics superpowers are connected to the electromagic abilities of the island.
Two other people who are doing better are Desmond and Hurley. Desmond seems to be feeling better now that he's found his constant (no nosebleeds), and at least in the flashforward, Hurley is not asylum-bound. If Ji Yeon is just a few months old when Hurley visits, this helps us get some time bearings; Hurley must be visiting Sun within about 10 months of getting off the island. The question, then, is if his seeing Charlie at the asylum occurred before or after that event. (Of course it is possible he just left the asylum on his own to see Ji Yeon, but he seemed pretty stable in his visit.)
The Freighties, however, aren't doing so well. Their proximity to the island is scrambling some of their internal circuits: Minkowski went the way of Desmond, and far past him; Regina was so distracted that she didn't realize she was holding her book upside-down, and then dumped herself into the sea wrapped in chains; and a Freightie named Brandon is somewhere “in a body bag.” The bloodstain on the wall of Sayid and Des' cabin may be some of what's left of Brandon.
This negative reaction may be the reason behind Lapidus' errand. Just before Regina walks off the ship, Sayid grills the freighter doctor, Ray, about where Lapidus went. The non-diegetic strings from the orchestral score grow as Desmond watches Regina approach the railing wrapped in chains, and this sound drowns out the conversation between Sayid and Ray. All we know is Lapidus is going back to the island, and Keamy warned Lapidus not to be late.
Regina's upside-down book is revealing, as it's the fourth Jules Verne text to be referenced some way: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in 80 Days, Mysterious Island, and now The Survivors of the Chancellor. Verne's 1875 diary of a shipwreck is told from the point of view of one of the passengers. A plot element that Verne uses again and again (and Lost picks up on) is the use of an international cast of characters, and The Survivors of the Chancellor is no different, but the characters are primarily from the British Isles, France and America. The diary follows a J.R. Kazallon's account of the ship the Chancellor leaving Charleston, South Carolina and heading out to the Sargasso Sea via the Bermuda Triangle (it can't be avoided).
Eighteen days into the voyage, the crew discovers a fire in the cargo hold of the ship; one of the passengers, a Welshman named John Ruby, was smuggling “with characteristic Anglo-Saxon incautiousness” an explosive called potassium picrate, which ignited in the hold. Things pretty much devolve from there. The fire burns for days, the captain resigns, and the smuggler himself goes mad and jumps through a hatch into the fire. The ship finds its way to a small volcanic island and tries to make repairs, dumping much of its cargo and putting out the fire. But not long after setting off again, it starts to take on water, and after a number of days they're forced to make a raft and abandon ship. The survivors limp south, and little by little, succumb to the pressures; some of the crew get drunk and mutiny, some die, some eat the dead, one person dies from poisonous water. A body even goes missing, like Christian Shephard's, and like Regina, one crew member goes insane and jumps off the ship.
One of the interesting points about the novel is that the narrator is constantly giving their precise latitude and longitude throughout. This makes the novel a bit more interactive than a regular book, as the reader can follow along with a map and chart when and where the survivors ended up (not unlike what much of the Lost audience does each week). Furthermore, this kind of interaction is one that displaces traditional author/audience roles, where the audience only passively receives whatever the author explains (and we know how active the Lost audience is in its story). As such, it's fitting that the name of the ship, Chancellor, describes an administrative official of high national office, and in some places a leader. The leader, in other words, is crippled and brought down, while those who were subject to the leader become self-organizing and self-directing, for better and worse.
Jules Verne isn't the only literary reference in the episode; we also meet the freighter captain, Captain Gault. The name is evocative of a couple literary figures. In the twelfth episode of the third season, “Par Avion,” Sawyer is seen reading Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead (which was discussed in the post for that episode). In Rand's next novel, Atlas Shrugged (1957), John Galt is the mystery man of the book. Galt is an engineer who develops a revolutionary engine for the motor company he works for, but revolts when the company shifts from a laissez-faire capitalist system to a communal, collectivist one. Galt goes on strike, refuses to build his revolutionary engine, and proceeds to entice other engineers, businessmen and industrialists to follow in his wake. He has little difficulty getting other like-minded capitalist leaders to follow him to Galt's Gulch, an enclave for free marketers hidden away in Colorado. Their fear is that governments were nationalizing businesses anyway, so their efforts would be doomed; abandoning their industries and retreating to the gulch, these industrialists form their own free, high-tech Utopia that embodies Rand's objectivist philosophy.
At this point, one might think of other industrialists like Widmore, Paik, and Hanso; the island may have the potential to be a kind of Galt's Gulch for them. But nationalized industries is not nearly the fear that it was during the height of the Soviet Union; today, decentralized, transnational, globalized industry reigns, complete with its own set of benefits and drawbacks. It's hard to say what Rand would make of the state of contemporary globalism, but at least in Lost, people like Charles Widmore, Mr. Paik and Thomas Mittelwerk are portrayed as amoral, with ends-justify-the-means drives.
The other literary Gault is William Hope Hodgson's character Captain Gault. Hodgson wrote over a dozen Captain Gault short stories that were collected in 1917. The stories seem to be the stuff of early pulp fiction. In one of the stories, “The Case of the Chinese Curio Dealer,” the captain is said to be a member of a Freemason-like secret society, and we've certainly seen a good share of secret-society-like elements amongst the island inhabitants and those who wish to control it.
The Lost Captain Gault, however, is a teller of secrets. He shows Sayid and Desmond the black box of Flight 815:
It was found with the wreckage of the plane, along with all 324 dead passengers. That's not the complete story as you are well aware, Mr. Jarrah, given the fact that you're standing here breathing. The wreckage was obviously staged. Now, can you imagine what kind of resources and manpower go into pulling off a feat of that magnitude — faking the recovery of a plane crash, putting 324 families through a grieving process based on a lie. But what's even more disturbing — where exactly does one come across 324 dead bodies? And that, Mr. Jarrah, Mr. Hume, is just one of the many reasons we want Benjamin Linus.
So we know the crash wasn't actually at the Sunda Trench, and that puts a few theories to rest. But this cover-up scenario has echoes of another conspiracy theory currently out in the wild, the September 11th hijacking of United Airlines flight 93. *The following is neither an endorsement nor a debunking of said 9/11 conspiracy theory.* The conspiracy hooks onto a few unsatisfactory parts of the official 9/11 Commission Report story: The theory claims the debris pattern of the crash suggests the plane burst in the air, rather than crashed into the ground, meaning it was actually shot down; there is a three minute gap between when the black box voice recorder transcripts end and the crash occurred; the black box recordings were never released, only transcripts were released; the planes would have been too high and too far away from cell phone towers to allow for the now-famous phone calls of passengers to their families, suggesting the calls were staged; and some have cited the presence of military jet fighters in the air which may have shot Flight 93 down. So if the crash of Flight 93 was staged, what happened to the original flight? Another conspiracy theory suggestion is that the plane was re-routed to an airport in Cleveland, and the passengers were all disappeared: “But what's even more disturbing — where exactly does one come across 324 dead bodies?”
This is not to suggest that Lost is using 9/11 conspiracy theories to drive its plot; conspiracy theories abound in many of its literary references, and there is a rich history of false flag conspiracy theories to draw on (where an entity, governmental or otherwise, stages some disaster on its own people in order to effect policies it would otherwise not be able to enact; the Reichstag Fire, for instance). But it is interesting to see how the aftermath of 9/11 has seeped into the cultural subconscious, and how that subconscious occasionally manifests in the telling or possible interpretation of a story.
So who's that banging on the freighter pipes?
Books mentioned in this post
J. Wood is the author of Living Lost: Why We're All Stuck on the Island