In terms of visual symbols, the clear winner for "Exposé" is the Russian doll. This is episode is episodes within an episode, complete with scenes within scenes, undisclosed stories that didn't remain buried for too long, and the two seemingly most disliked characters in the narrative, Nikki and Paulo, having each other's flashbacks. And again, a good bit of audience response was embedded into the dialog.
The Russian doll is a doll within a doll within a doll. Inside the innermost doll were the $8 million worth of diamonds that Zukerman hid ? eight seems to be the operative number of the past couple episodes. Nikki and Paulo were pulling a Sawyer/Cooper-sized con by pretending to be an actress and a chef working for television producer Howard Zukerman in Sydney (and in Nikki's case, sleeping with him). Why they targeted Zukerman, we don't yet know. Nikki was guest starring in Zukerman's B-level TV series Exposé, which mirrors title of the episode itself ? and is also the show Locke was watching in "The Man from Tallahassee" when he ate his dinner in front of his TV. By the end of "Exposé," we see that the events leading from the Exposé shoot meet up with the events of the "Exposé" episode, and those paralleled events share many narrative threads.
The backstory is a traditional noir story, with a femme fatale setting up a hapless male protagonist in a con for financial gain. The noir flashbacks really only follow the events surrounding Zukerman's diamonds, but those events disclose unknown elements from previous episodes. Noir films are all about the protagonist getting caught in a web of deceit, and the flashbacks knit into previous episodes to form a kind of narrative web that we're now finding ourselves in. You could put a shape to it, giving it a web-like grid:
click to enlarge
On the 24th day, Nikki and Paulo, as well as Locke, all take measures to keep their respective hatch finds hidden from the rest; Nikki and Paulo want to protect their stash of diamonds, and Locke wants to protect his seeming sacred destiny with the Swan hatch. On the 49th day, Paulo hides the diamonds that were in the same lake as Kate's case in the Pearl station toilet; while there, Ben and Juliet show up to spy on Jack in the Swan station, and suggest that they'll use Michael to lure Jack. At the end of that same episode is when Michael seemingly communicates with Walt over the computer ? this now looks like Ben's work, not Walt's. On the 72nd day, when Nikki and Paulo were first introduced as characters, Paulo's problem in the Pearl station toilet proves to be his retrieving the diamonds, and we now know that this was the moment when all the events leading up to their dual paralysis were set off. Paulo didn't want Nikki or anyone finding the diamonds, so he kept them on himself. These are just a few of the parallels, but along the way, as Paulo gets deeper in his noir web, each flashback links to and develops a previous scene from a previous episode, creating a kind of narrative web (which I've badly represented via a grid). There's one more over-arching link: this was the 14th episode of season three; the theme of every 14th episode of every season to date has been of one individual undermining others through some kind of deceit. In the first season, Walt burnt the raft; in the second season, Ben infiltrated the Lostaways; and here, both Nikki and Paulo jeopardize each other for the diamonds. Each flashback scene is a doll hidden inside another, but like Locke says, things don't stay buried on this island.
The other embedded bit is the audience response, again showing that this narrative is trying to actively engage the Lostologist audience. Sawyer seems as annoyed with Nina and Paulo as many of the fans ? "Who the hell are you?" A quick perusal of The Fuselage forums will show just what people thought of these characters before their stories were ever woven back into the narrative. The actor playing Paulo, Rodrigo Santoro, has been called the Brazilian Tom Cruise/Russell Crowe; Zukerman spins this by calling Paulo the Wolfgang Puck of Brazil. The guest appearance by Billy Dee Williams carries forth the internal Star Wars dialog with the audience (Lando Calrissian, the baddest con man this side of Bespin).
But this episode wasn't without its literary references, and those references will work back around to the buried and seemingly dead. Howard Zukerman has an evocative name. We may find out more about him in the future, but there are two Zuckerman references that might be of use. Baron Sol Zuckerman of Great Britain was an anatomist and secretary of the London Zoological Society; during WWII, he studied and assessed bomb impacts on people and buildings. In the 1960s, he served as Britain's chief scientific advisor, and came out against nuclear arms development. He was also a foremost scholar of primate behavior. In his wartime activity, his activism, and his study of primates, we have an individual fit for the Hanso Foundation.
But in literary terms, the name Zukerman also evokes writer Philip Roth's Nathan Zuckerman. Of note is how Zuckerman was originally the fictional autobiographical product of Roth's fictional character Peter Tarnopol in My Life As a Man. In other words, Roth's character was a writer who created an autobiographical character in Nathan Zuckerman. Again we have a kind of dolls-within-dolls self-reflexivity at play, with a story mirroring its creation. Eventually, through his books The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound, Zuckerman takes over Roth's novels as Roth's alter-ego, rather than Tarnopol's. This is the kind of literary wall-breaking that Flann O'Brien, another writer seen in Lost, did with his novel At Swim-Two-Birds; in both Roth's and O'Brien's books, characters have agency and take over the text. As I've argued here and in my book, and as Damon Lindelof recently acknowledged in a radio interview with WBUR's Tom Ashbrook, we the audience are being scripted into the Lost narrative like characters; "your [the audience's] imagination now becomes a part of this show." As such, we have a kind of agency in this text, not unlike a Zuckerman or the Pookah (tricksters, all of us).
The next literary nod occurs in a flashback when Arzt, frustrated at not being told about the case of guns that Kate has, begins to yell "The pigs are walking! The pigs are walking!" In George Orwell's Animal Farm, the pig Squealer is the first to try walking on his hind legs, putting himself in the position of a human; these pigs are also the ones running the farm. After pronouncing for chapters that all animals were equal, the walking pigs announce "ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS." In its way, that scene echoes the philosopher Mikhail Bakunin's fear that a former dictatorship run by proletarians will become a dictatorship run by former proletarians.
In the scene when Nikki harasses Sawyer for a gun to get after Paulo, the book Sawyer is reading can barely be made out in the corner of the screen, almost as if it wasn't meant to be seen (again, score one for HDTV if you have it). The book is Agatha Christie's Evil Under the Sun, a near-noirish Hercule Poirot mystery set on an island off Cornwall. The story begins with a beautiful woman who attracts the attention of other men, and forces her husband to stand by and take it. Already we have our Nikki and Paulo parallels. Poirot has to investigate the death of the attractive woman with nothing but too many suspects and seemingly disparate clues. It wouldn't be fair to give away the ending of a potboiler like Christie's book, but suffice to say that Sawyer's being blamed for Nikki's death follows the plot to a point, but then twists it back around, again following the mirror-twinned narrative fashion Lost has come to develop. But the way Poirot has to deal with clues that don't seem to point in the right direction is echoed in how Hurley and the rest try to piece Nikki and Paulo's "death" together, as well as what we in the audience go through as we slowly piece the flashbacks together. Plywood, power lines, Paulo lies, paralyzed.
However, there's another subtextual reference that calls out from under for discussion, Wade Davis's The Serpent and the Rainbow. For some time now, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have been joking about the coming zombies. Davis is an anthropologist and ethnobotanist from Harvard University who in the early 1980s went to Haiti to investigate claims of voodoo zombification. He documented his experiences in his book, which was adapted by Wes Craven into a film in 1988. Davis found that voodoo bokors (witchdoctors) in Haiti concocted a special kind of toxic powder made from, among other things, puffer fish venom. The fish itself has poisonous spines that contain a tetrodotoxin, which is a neurotoxin more poisonous than a black widow's bite, and with no known antidotes. The puffer fish is famous in Japan for fugu, a kind of Japanese Russian Roulette of fish dishes. Only licensed chefs are allowed to prepare fugu, because if it isn't prepared just right, it retains some of its tetrodotoxin and will first paralyze the diner, and can eventually cause death by asphyxiation. Arzt's spider, lactrodectus regina ? the (nonexistent) Medusa spider ? seems to have the same kind of tetrodotoxic venom. This spider, by the way, points to two points of mythology on the island ? another example of Greek mythology (along with Apollo, the Cyclops, Penelope and Cerberus), and the smoke monster. Just before the spiders swarm, the familiar tick of the smoke monster can be heard and Nikki and Paulo look around for the monster. But this time, it seems to have been crawling along the jungle floor.
But back to Davis and zombies: In Davis's account, a bokor would blow some of the powdered venom onto a victim. The powder is so potent that a little on the skin will get into the blood stream and cause paralysis, slowing the heart rate to such a degree the person seems dead. To psychically break the victim, the unlucky sucker is then buried alive, as if he were dead. The bokor knows how long to leave a victim buried ? they're no good dead ? and will dig up the person for later use. But being buried alive leads to, among other traumas, a lack of oxygen to the brain, which can cause brain damage. Recover the brain-damaged victim from the ground, use some hallucinogens to cement the shock and cause memory loss, and you have yourself a zombie, a living being without will or the capacity for focused thought that is good for little more than slaving in fields.
There is the famous case in Haiti of Clairvius Narcisse, who was seemingly killed over a land dispute in 1962, and zombified. The bokor who zombified Narcisse used the puffer fish venom to fake his death, then dug him up and kept him working at a sugar plantation for the next two years. The bokor had other zombies at a plantation, and he kept his zombies mollified with a hallucinogenic paste made from the datura plant. When the bokor died in 1964, the doses of paste stopped and Narcisse regained his sanity; he then found his way back to his village and proved he was still alive to the very people who buried him (not all zombies are so lucky). From this we have a few things: we know Nikki and Paulo aren't dead, and are now buried alive; if they make it out, will they be terrorized and brain-damaged from lack of oxygen? What then? We also know that Locke has employed a hallucinogenic paste, both to Boone and himself. We have, then, the makings of zombification ? things don't stay buried on this island.
(A word of Wikipedia warning: As I was preparing for this post, I was doing some research and came across a post about "Exposé" on Wikipedia. Since the show hadn't aired, I thought it would be speculations and referential name-checks. Wrong ? it was the complete plot, with no spoiler warnings in sight. This made viewing the episode a little less than surprising. Caveat exhibitrum!)