After the pilot comes, inevitably, the second episode, where the major test of any show is whether it can keep up the dramatic momentum begun in the first. Luckily, Lost manages this with an episode as well-written, if not quite as immersive, as the pilot. “Tabula Rasa” kicks off a series of episodes that introduce viewers to the major characters one by one, offering a glimpse into the events in their lives that led them to Oceanic 815 and the island. This is a format that allows characters to be more quickly developed and thoroughly fleshed out than would have been possible otherwise, something too often lacking in other ensemble genre shows of the same era like Heroes.
Up first in the roster is Kate. When Jack discovers Kate’s mugshot among the belongings of an incapacitated US Marshal, he astutely concludes that the “her” whom the Marshal warns him not to trust is none other than Kate herself. The handcuffs seen in the pilot are not Sawyer’s, as Sayid first guessed, but Kate’s. From there the drama moves to a nighttime scene in which Kate, seemingly the one individual everyone present can agree to trust, is given possession of the Marshal’s handgun. Understandably, this triggers some reflection on Kate’s part, and cue flashback.
Already on the run when the flashback begins, Kate wanders onto the property of an Australian rancher, deciding to bed down for the night where she believes she will not be discovered. As things turn out, the owner of the ranch shows up and, despite their initial gunpoint confrontation, the two reach an agreement: Kate will work for the rancher in exchange for room and board, plus a cash wage. For a fugitive, this is a fortunate turn of events, and we get the feeling that there is, at least briefly, a certain amount of genuine friendship between the two.
That last point underscores another major theme of Lost frequently overlooked in all the talk of redemption and eastern spirituality—namely, the idea of trust and interdependence as something worth being regained. Many of the main characters in Lost—Sawyer, Charlie, and later Desmond fit this mold well—have wound up, by choice or by fate, as loners, cut off from family, from love, and often from society itself.
But as Jack will later put it, “If we can’t live together, we’re gonna die alone.” And when this line comes, it might be harder for Kate than anyone to accept. Just when it looks like she has put her past behind her, the rancher Kate has befriended turns on her, betraying “Annie” to American authorities and setting into motion the chain of events that will put her on Oceanic 815. When she winds up on the island, it isn’t a second chance she hopes for, but a third shot at trust, and an opportunity to discover that no one is (wait for it) an island.
The title of the episode means “clean slate” in Latin, reflecting the subject of redemption and second chances that will permeate Lost from beginning to end. The term comes by way of the seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke, who utilized the concept of the human mind as a clean slate into which social and cultural norms must be engrained as the basis of his moral/political philosophy.1
In the East, Locke’s concept finds an interesting analog in Daoism, where the concept of pú (樸, meaning “uncarved block (of wood)”) refers to the primordial state of the individual, predating any imposed cultural influences. A major goal of Daoism is to return the individual to this original nature, and surely there is no better environment to strip away the veneer of civilization than the mysterious, untamed island on which Kate and the other survivors have found themselves.
“Tabula Rasa” performs a delicate balancing act, succeeding where the following episode would have difficulty. Kate is unmistakably at the center of this episode, past and present, but the other characters are not neglected. Notably, we see the beginnings of what will soon become a leadership “caste” among the survivors, as the core group (including Kate, Sayid, Sawyer, Shannon, Boone, and for some reason Charlie) conspire to keep Rousseau’s transmission loop a secret.2 This sets up an interesting tension between the self-installed leaders and… well, just about everyone else on the island, both inside and outside the main group of survivors.
On the individual level, we can also see the seeds of future stories being laid. Sawyer’s eagerness to plunder the belongings of the deceased passengers, combined with his offhand accusation of Sayid having brought down the plane in the previous episode, seems to suggest that he may have been intended to come into play as an outright villain in later episodes, rather than the coarse, Han Solo-esque reluctant hero he quickly became. The focus on redemption that runs so heavily through these early episodes may be a strong argument against that idea, but it’s interesting to see just how easily the character of Sawyer could have gone either way.
And while we’re just beginning to get hints of this fact, it is the characters of Lost that will come to define the show. Nothing in Lost just happens; it happens to someone, usually because of someone else. Relationships like this, running the gamut from romantic to violently antagonistic, will recur throughout the series, weaving in and out of one another at every turn. But before our characters fully get to know each other, we must get to know them, and in the next episode we will meet a character who will ultimately serve as the thematic lynchpin of the show.
- This dual allusion exemplifies the creators’ pattern of making Easter egg references to western, but almost never eastern (as would usually be more appropriate), philosophers. ↩
- Jack, the ostensible leader of the survivors, doesn’t learn of the transmission until later in the episode, and only against the wishes of everyone except Kate. ↩