I started watching the TV show X-Files when I was a freshman in college and I was hooked pretty immediately. About a year later when FX aired the entire series in order I video-taped (on VHS in those days) and watched the whole series. A decade later when I was almost done with college my friends Aaron and Russ wanted to watch the series, which they’d never seen before. But X-Files was a pretty long-running show, so we decided to just watch the episodes related to the alien conspiracy. Since I’d seen the series before I served as our guide. I found some lists of the alien episodes online, but I wasn’t really happy with the choices that they’d made and I ended up curating my own list of the episodes that would best let us watch the over-arching plot line.
X-Files is kind of a unique show because it let us do this. There are two kinds of X-Files episodes: the episodes that are part of the over-arching plot line of the alien conspiracy, and the stand-alone episodes of some weird supernatural thing that isn’t alien related. There really isn’t much of a middle ground. (Star was also an X-Files veteran and would sometimes watch with us, but she was and still is opposed to our approach, and in some ways she’s right: Most of the very best episodes were stand-alone episodes because they were so creative and often had really excellent writers.)
Ever since then I’ve thought about that idea of analyzing how required an episode is if you want to keep watching the series. I don’t think most TV shows are as clear-cut as X-Files was. Even shows that do have over-arching plot lines and random single-episode plots, they usually sprinkle and mix them so that there’s at least something related to the over-arching plot in every episode. You can’t usually cut out whole episodes and expect to understand what’s going on in the next episode.
Recently we’ve started re-watching the TV show Lost, and the third episode of the show suggests a different way for an episode to be really important to the series.
Really nothing happens in the episode to further the overarching plot. There are several reminders of important things going on but nothing new really happens. Sure they talk about being off-course and the weird radio signal, but they’re just reminding us of what’s happened in other episodes. In other words, if you completely missed this episode you could still watch the next one and understand everything that was going on.
Even though you wouldn’t have missed any plot milestones, you would have missed some really important milestones for our characters. There are tons of instances in this episode where you get a first look at attributes of these characters that end up being really important during the rest of the show. So maybe the episode is still really essential for watching the whole series, but for very different reasons. You could understand the plot without this episode, but you might not understand the characters without it.
Consider these scenes and what we learn about the characters:
- When Jack goes into the airplane wreckage to rummage for medicine he finds Sawyer already in there rummaging for anything else of value. They debate the ethics of rummaging for supplies, and Sawyer suggests that Jack is acting like he’s still in civilization while Sawyer sees them as being “in the wild”. I think there’s an interesting irony that’s presented here. Sawyer is “in the wild” as far as his morals are concerned, having no problem taking from the dead nor from the rest of the castaways in order to benefit his personal stash. However, Sawyer is calm and collected as he does it. Jack on the other hand, operates for the common good and is slowly creating the civilization of the island. But here we see him rushed and almost panicked as he rummages for medicine, and he seems at the end of his wits, like he might just attack Sawyer at any second. We see this battle of values and personalities between Sawyer and Jack over and over during the course of the show, and this first encounter sets it up perfectly.
- This is really Kate’s episode, and so you see multiple sides of Kate in it. One side is the dangerous criminal. The marshall tells Jack that she is dangerous and that she shouldn’t be trusted.
- During the conflict over the gun, Kate gets nominated to carry it. She walks around camp with a gun and no one seems to mind except for Hurley. While we were watching this part Kelly said out loud, “It’s amazing that people are OK with her just walking around with a gun.” The thing we really learn about Kate through this is that she is able to command trust from her peers.
- The marshall and Kate have two encounters when he is conscious: in the first the marshall attacks her and tries to strangle her, and in the second he has a kind of fond-farewell to Kate, even to the point of asking her to put him out of his misery. Here you see the other pieces put together: Kate is dangerous and the marshall both hates her and fears her, but he also strangely sees her as a trusted friend and relies on her to be compassionate to him.
- You see this dual nature of Kate again in the attempted escape after the farmer sells her out. She is willing to do anything to get away, crashing the truck but ultimately she allows herself to be slowed down to save the farmer from the burning wreckage. She was just dangerous enough to crash the car, but too compassionate to allow the farmer to die, even when it meant her being caught.
- Sawyer tells Kate that since she has the gun she should put the marshall out of his misery. He doesn’t know that Kate was the fugitive and that it actually would serve Kate’s interests if the marshall weren’t around anymore. We don’t see the rest of the conversation, but later we see it’s outcome when Sawyer has the gun and shoots the marshall. Here we see Kate as a con artist herself, conning the conman into doing something that really serves her more than anyone else, and you can imagine that she’s done it in a way that Sawyer thinks that he’s convinced her.
- When Sawyer leaves the tent after shooting the marshall, he has a look of pain and sorrow on his face. Jack confronts him and Sawyer justifies his actions and makes a convincing argument that he was actually being merciful to both the marshall and the rest of the passengers. But because of the looks on his face, you get the idea that he isn’t glad that it’s happened. This is the first time that you realize that Sawyer isn’t one-dimensionally evil, but that he’s actually complicated and is trying to do the right thing from his own point of view.
- When the marshall groans after being shot, Sawyer realizes that he has spent his last bullet and missed. Despite all of the morally questionable things that we’ve already seen him do, this is the first time that he looks afraid and ashamed. It reinforces the idea that Sawyer does have some compassion deep down, but also let’s us see another aspect of what makes Sawyer who he is: even when he is trying to do the right thing, he is ashamed of himself for constantly screwing up.
- After Sawyer shot the marshall, he accuses Jack of not being able to do what needed to be done. But after he has missed, Jack goes into the tent and puts the marshall out of his misery. Here you see another pattern for Jack: despite whatever character flaws Jack may have, he is extremely capable, and doesn’t shy away from conflict or hard situations.
- Perhaps most importantly, this is the first episode where Sawyer calls Kate “Freckles”.