With the often confusing flashforwards seen in later seasons, it’s sometimes hard to remember just how innovative and effective the flashbacks in Lost’s early episodes were. But like anything else, it wasn’t all good all of the time. This narrative technique can be mishandled as easily as any other. Luckily, though, the worst episodes of Lost were usually a great deal better than the best of its primetime network competitors.
It’s not that flashbacks themselves were innovative, of course—flashbacks were nothing new in 2004; they had been used before and have been widely used since. In my opinion, though, they’ve rarely been used more effectively. As I noted in the last installment, this is a technique that allows the creators to delve deeply into the personality and past history of an individual character, establishing his or her defining characteristics without bogging down the plot by juggling too many character arcs simultaneously. The innovation of Lost’s creators was not in thinking to use flashbacks—with a plane crash bringing the characters together, how else would we know anything about their past lives?—but in almost always knowing how best to use them, rarely coming across as an infodump for the sake of the “present” scenario.
But “Walkabout” demonstrates an early weakness of Lost, and a second weakness that, while only incidental here, would become more pronounced as the show continued. It is here that we first see difficulty in handling multiple characters’ development simultaneously. “Walkabout” does with the character of Locke what “Tabula Rasa” did with Kate, but the result is far more disjointed. In “Tabula Rasa,” the “past” drama of Kate’s escape and capture from American authorities in Australia weaves in and out seamlessly with the “present” tension surrounding Jack’s discovery that she is the prisoner escorted by the dying US Marshal.
“Walkabout,” on the other hand, attempts to cover past and present in too equal a measure, with too little to unite the two: In the flashbacks we see Locke, wheelchair-bound, determined to go on a walkabout in the Outback. Facing opposition and derision from his boss, the closest person he has to a significant other, and finally the tour guide himself, Locke’s dream is seemingly crushed. The first major “present” arc of the episode is a fantastic counterpoint to the flashback; as we watch Locke, now healed, leading a hunting party in search of wild boar, Terry O’Quinn does a laudable job of conveying the character’s joy, bitterly ironic in context, at what the plane crash and the island have done for him.
Simultaneously, however, Jack is also a major focal point of the “present” scenes, and while Locke’s character is brilliantly developed, Jack’s trajectory is incoherent: One moment he is flippantly dismissing Claire’s request for a memorial service for the lost passengers, and the next he selflessly spends a large portion of the day with Rose, who has isolated herself from the rest of the survivors. Jack’s character is conflicted, of course, and despite his position as de facto leader of the group, even he is at best only half-confident in his decisions. But what is conveyed here is more confusion than conflict, and this ultimately makes it harder for the viewer to get to know Jack.
The second problem with “Walkabout” is not a problem with “Walkabout” quite as much as it is a foreshadowing of a later problem with the series as a whole. Towards the end of the episode, Jack catches sight of a man on a nearby hill, there one moment and gone the next. This apparition clearly disturbs Jack, but it won’t be for a few episodes yet that viewers learn why—the man is Jack’s dead father, whose body he had been accompanying back to the United States. This emphasis on mystery over story, where question piles upon question with few answers in sight, would soon became a much-derided aspect of the show, reaching critical mass with the second season finale’s glimpse into Desmond’s laughably banal morning routine under the hatch.
Thematically, despite its problems, “Walkabout” is probably the most important episode of the early first season. The pilot has gotten preliminaries out of the way, and it and “Tabula Rasa” have established the first few major inter-character conflicts. Here we get our first in-depth look at a character’s personality,1 and Locke only solidifies his position as the character around which the show’s flirtations with the abstract and the philosophical will revolve for the next four seasons.
“A walkabout,” Locke patiently explains to his derisive boss Randy, “is a journey of spiritual renewal where one derives strength from the earth and becomes inseparable from it.”
For John Locke, the island is the walkabout he never got to take, his own tabula rasa. In his personal Outback, he has embarked on a journey of not only spiritual renewal, but also literal physical healing. The idea of redemption, clean slates, and second chances fits Kate the fugitive, Locke the miraculously healed paraplegic, and, as we will soon see, Jack, the self-doubting, emotionally damaged would-be leader.
- “Tabula Rasa” would have done this, if not for the fact that it left the major question of “what Kate did” hanging, arguably with good reason. ↩