Stranger In A Strange Land (S3 ep. 9)

“And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” -Genesis 28:11-19

“And so mounting as it were by steps, let us get to heaven by a Jacob’s ladder. For the ladder seems to me to signify in a riddle by that vision the gradual ascent by means of virtue, by which it is possible for us to ascend from earth to heaven, not using material steps, but improvement and correction of manner.” – Saint John Chrysostom

“Everything that rises must converge.” – Flannery O’ Conner

Around these parts, this particular episode has acquired something of a reputation as being one of Lost’s worst. But I’m here to praise ‘Stranger in a Strange Land,’ not to bury it (sorry, Shakespeare). For as much as I’m aware that people consider this to be a ‘wheel-spinning’ and/or ‘pointless’ episode of Lost, I’m going to have to disagree. This isn’t a great episode of Lost, but it is, on the whole, a really good one. Your tolerance for the presence of Bai Ling aside, this is a solid installment – one that, on a thematic level, has much more overall resonance and relevance than, say, “I Do.”

On top of that, the character of Jacob is beginning to nudge his way closer to the surface of the narrative, and as the quotes at the top of the column should make clear, I’d like to take the time to drill down a little into Lost’s resident pseudo-deity’s potential inspirations. Keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle, and hold on to them hats and glasses, ‘cause this here recap’s gonna be the wildest ride in the wilderness.

Thoughts:

• The episode’s title refers to Robert Heinlein’s novel of the same name. Heinlein’s story involves a human man raised on Mars and explores the ‘Othering’ experienced between humanity and Martian culture. The main character’s teachings involve the presence of the divine in everything, and he proclaims to his followers that “Thou art God.” It’s an interesting book, worth reading. The title also refers to the biblical character of Moses, who states “I have been a stranger in a strange land” in the Book of Exodus. More on this Moses fellow below.

• As they paddle through DharmaShark-infested waters, Sawyer takes a moment to sing “Show Me The Way To Go Home,” also sung in the movie “Jaws.”

• The effects of Room 23 on Karl are striking – he’s apparently exhausted, and he repeats one of the phrases flashed during the Evil Rave Highlight Film that he was watching: “God loves you as he loved Jacob.”

• Lost is pretty interested in the Bible, for both aesthetic and thematic reasons, and this episode contains two partially-veiled allusions to major Biblical figures – Jacob and Moses. Let’s drill down and talk about this stuff for a bit.

• Over the course of the show the mysterious character of Jacob has been colored in such a way as to make him a kind of prophet or god of the Island, and so it doesn’t seem like much of a leap to me to examine the origin of his name in Biblical/Rabbinical scripture, and the ways in which Lost has, perhaps, chosen to mirror aspects of Jacob’s story in its text and subtext.

According to scripture, Jacob and Esau were twins (mirrors) born of their mother, Rebekah who had great difficulty in conceiving them. When Rebekah would pass a house of ‘Torah study,’ Jacob would kick and struggle to come out; when she would pass a house of idolatry it was Esau that would struggle setting, on a mythological level, the brothers’ spiritual destinies. Esau, the eldest, was tricked out of their father’s blessing by Jacob, and in return Esau swore to kill his brother.

Lost’s favorite themes are strewn all through this story – fertility difficulty, birth and birthright, family conflict and daddy issues, con artistry and the desire for control and for vengeance. After the Season 5 finale a number of people took to calling the Man in Black “Esau,” and in light of all the above, I think that’s an apt nickname. There are some other potential connections between these biblical characters and Lost, and I’m in the mood to pursue them. For instance:

Over the course of the show, the question of whether John Locke is a hunter comes up over and over. I’d like to suggest that this has its roots in the split between Jacob and Esau, with Esau described in the Bible as a hunter and Jacob as a farmer. The parallel shows up most obviously in the Season 3 episode “Locke at the Marajuana Farm” (aka “Further Instructions”):

Eddie: “I’m sorry, John, but you’re not going to shoot me. You’re not a murderer. You’re a good man. You’re a farmer.”
Locke: “Nope. Not a farmer. I was a hunter. I’m a hunter.”

Some scholars believe that the favoring of Jacob the farmer over Esau the hunter refers to the theological conviction of Jewish people at this time that their God no longer desired blood sacrifice of animals, and valued instead non-violent sacrifice – sacrifice being something that Lost has referred to many times in the course of the show, in terms of blood sacrifice (Boone as the sacrifice the Island demanded) and personal sacrifice (John and Christian at the frozen wheel beneath the Island)  among others.

There’s more:

While traveling, the Biblical Jacob receives a divine vision of a ladder rising up to Heaven with angels ascending and descending its length. Jewish tradition has a number of interpretations of Jacob’s vision, many of which would seem to be applicable to the show. The Jewish philosopher Philo, who was most likely the originator of the wonderfully compassionate and oft-quoted phrase “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” held four interpretations of the ladder: (1) The angels are meant to represent souls in transition from heaven to earth incarnation and back again, and possibly representing reincarnation (Lost slips ‘reincarnation’ into an anagram, ‘Canton Rainer,’ during Season 4); (2) The ladder is representative of the human soul, with the angels lifting the soul up in its distress and descending in a soul’s compassion; (3) The angels and the ladder represent the ups and downs in the life of a practicer of virtue; (4) the ladder represents the constantly shifting affairs of mankind.

In the Christian tradition, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus describes an ascent up Jacob’s ladder as an assent, through successive, individual steps, toward excellence, as does Saint John Chrysostom, who penned the quote at the top of this column. In other words, grace and divinity are achieved through self-definition, self-knowledge, and self-improvement. Lost has been telling us this from day one, and has hinted at Jacob’s potentially similar philosophy through his conversations in the Season 5 finale and in the title of Flannery O’Conner’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”

Note that in the biblical excerpt at the top of this column, God makes reference to Jacob’s numerous descendants, that through Jacob and his descendants all the earth will be blessed, and that he promises to ‘bring you back to this land.’ Is it possible that those castaways who Jacob has interacted with in the Season 5 finale are, in fact, his descendants? Are Jack, Kate, Sayid, Sawyer, Jin, Sun and Hurley all Jacob’s children? What about other folks who have visited the Island, such as the crew of the Black Rock? Were they his descendants as well? I think I’d dig the heck out of that, were it the case (after all, if Jacob has lived for as long as it seems, he’d have had the time – perhaps in a misspent ‘youth’ – to do some serious oat-sowing, and the mythological record of half-human, half-‘god’ births is a long and (in)glorious one).

Yikes. Enough digression. Two last questions, though. In the Room 23 video we can see Gerald DeGroot, a founder of the Dharma Initiative, implying that the video was created by Dharma. Did Dharma know about Jacob?

And notice the tense: God loves you and he loved Jacob. Does this sentence refer to the Biblical Jacob, whom God professed love for (and note that God professes hate for Esau)? Or does it refer to Island Jacob? If so, why the past tense?

• While I’m boring you, let’s chat about Moses for a moment. Moses was the exiled leader of the Israelites – an Egyptian by birth who lead the Jewish people but who was never truly ‘one of them.’ Moses’ anger and his attitude toward God cause him to be barred from entering ‘the Promised Land,’ making Moses someone who ‘walks among them, but who is not one of them.’ Moses’ character isn’t dissimilar to Jack’s, and his status as the leader of the castaways has always come with a healthy side-dish of biblical allusion (see: Season 1’s finale, “Exodus,” which shows Jack leading ‘his people’ as example).

Whew. I warned you. Alright, enough Bible study group for one day.

Tom: “Now, why would we kill you?”
Jack: “Because you’re done with me.”
Tom: “What kind of people do you think we are, Jack?”
Jack: “Oh, I don’t know, Tom — the kind of people that would take a pregnant woman, that would hang Charlie from a tree, would drag our people out of the jungle, would kidnap children. That’s the kind of people I think you are.”
Tom: “You see this glass house you’re living in, Jack? How about I get you some stones?”

• The disconnect between the perspectives of the Others and the castaways is triple-underlined in the conversation between Jack and Tom. Much as I like to play the ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ game, I have to say that I’m with Jack on this one. The Others were proactively aggressive for still-unknown reasons, were and are completely secretive toward the castaways, and in light of this the response of Jack and Co. seems understandable, even justifiable. On a thematic level, this scene could be said to be representative of the collision and confrontation of philosophical ‘Others’ – something I’ve written about in more detail HERE.

Achara: “Hi, Jack. I’m Achara.”

• Enter Bai Ling! A great many folks weren’t pleased with Ms. Ling’s performance in this episode, but I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with it. I wouldn’t want to watch a spin-off chronicling Achara’s tattooing adventures, but I didn’t mind spending 10 minutes in her company. Speaking of her name, Achara means “proper conduct, behavior or attitude or manner of action towards others,” and is considered the highest form of Dharma.

Kate: “And what did you do with the people that you took – the kids?”
Karl: “We give them a better life.”
Kate: “Better than what?”
Karl: “Better than yours.”

• Following Kate, Karl and Sawyer back to the main Island we learn a little more about Others society – ‘Hydra Island,’ where Jack remains, is where the Others work on ‘projects, and the main Island is where they live. We also learn that the Others think of themselves as giving the children a ‘better life.’ It’s still not clear what this really means (do the children stay on the island and grow up as Others? Are they eventually placed off-Island, and possibly scattered through time?) but from what we’ll see in this episode it seems as though the children are happy with Ben and Co.

• If there’s such a thing as ‘Kateface,’ this is it – half-crying, half-worried, half-constipated (yes, that’s three halves). You can pick pretty much any episode of this series at random and find a shot of Evangeline Lily looking just like this.

Fun Jack/Chet dialogue:

Chet: “Okay, special Thai dish for you. You try. (Jack tries) Very brave! Very brave!”
Achara: “My brother likes you.”
Jack: “Well, I’m a very likable guy.”

• We meet the creepy ‘Sheriff’ of the Others, Isabel. She’s a great addition, and I’ve got no idea what happened to her. Her conversation with Jack at the Bear Cages reinforces what is a central theme of this episode – cultural disconnect, resulting in misunderstanding and/or violent reprisal – when she notes that “Chinese is a very complicated language. It’s fairly common for some things to get lost in translation.”

• To some extent, we seem to be exploring Jack’s capacity for selflessness here.

Jack: “What are you doing here — with them? I thought you were taken — you were — you were captured.”
Cindy: “They’re not, um…it’s not that simple.”
Jack: “What are they doing here, right now? What are you doing here?!”
Cindy: “We’re here to watch, Jack.”

• As Jack awakens in his cage, a crowd of Others is seen staring at him like a zoo animal in a cage. These Others are all dressed like they’re about to head over and cheer on a youth soccer match, and among them is Cindy the flight attendant, who we last saw vanishing into the jungle during the tail section survivors’ trek across the Island. Jack and Cindy shared a wry moment in the first episode of Season 1, when she slipped him some extra booze. She’s apparently an Other now, and we don’t know when or how that’s happened. Was she always an Other? Was she ‘converted’ in Room 23? Was she ‘changed’ ala Rousseau’s party in “This Place is Death”? No clue. I’m hoping that Cindy’s situation is revisited in Season 6, as part of the whole apparent psychological conditioning thing. Accompanying Cindy are the little boy and little girl who Eko and Ana Lucia help save in “The Other 48 Days.” They seem safe, unharmed, and seemingly happy, lending some weight to Karl’s comment about giving the children ‘better lives.’

• This episode is rife with brands and marks –Jack’s tattoos, the scar of the branding that Juliet receives, and the hideously infected mess that is Ben’s stitching.

• Sawyer’s heart-to-heart with Karl is kinda touching. As the show has gone on we’ve been allowed to see our favorite southern con man softening, and this brief interlude, which is about Kate as much as its about Alex, does a nice job of continuing to shade in Sawyer’s arc from selfish prick to stoic protector.

• Juliet’s trial and branding forms part of the basis for this episode, and it’s pretty cool in an enigmatic way. Alex informs Jack that the punishment for one Other killing another Other (ugh) is death – “An eye for an eye,” she says, indicating that the notion of justice among her people is very Old Testament (and very Moses-centric, appropriately). The star-shaped brand that she receives is similar to a few symbols in the ‘real world,’ namely the chi-ro, an upside-down Rosicrucian Cross, and the alchemical symbol for ‘spirit,’ but much like Jack’s tattoo I don’t believe it’s as important to identify what the symbol says, so much as what it means. It’s my opinion that this symbol serves essentially the same purpose as Jack’s thai tattoo – marking Juliet as one who ‘walks amongst us, but is not one of us’ much like the biblical Mark of Cain.

Jack: “I’d be more impressed with you people if you had a good surgeon.”
Ben: “We had an excellent surgeon, Jack. His name was Ethan.”

• Where did Ethan go to get his training? Did the Others have a surgeon who taught him? Was he sent off-Island to medical school?

• When Jack follows Achara to her place of business he’s drinking from a bottle, nicely foreshadowing what’s to come and how Jack is more like his father than he might think.

• Achara appears to use the ‘Namaste’ hand gesture during her scene with Jack.

Achara: “I am not a tattoo artist. I am able to see who people are. My work is not decoration; it is definition. And this, this is my gift.”

• That’s kind of fascinating to me, and all the more so because we don’t have any real idea of what, if anything, it means. It almost sounds as though the tattoos that Achara creates somehow cements a person’s self – defining it in some metaphysical, permanent way (and, perhaps, making that person unable to change?). Of course, it’s just as possible that she’s speaking in silly, faux-meaningful new age gobbledygook.

• Jack’s flashback serves a mirror for Juliet’s on-Island trial – the both of them marked in order to set them apart. Their experiences in this episode reflect on each other, and I’m suddenly much clearer on the reasoning behind Jack’s thai trip.

• Notice that when Ben orders the Others to call off Juliet’s execution he ‘takes it off the table,’ and tells them in his letter that ‘the rules don’t apply.’ The rules? What rules? Hearing this made me think immediately of Ben’s remark after Alex’s death in Season 4 – that Widmore ‘broke the rules.’ If there’s as much symmetry between seasons and between concepts as there seems to be in this show it makes me wonder whether Ben breaking ‘the rules’ here is meant to reflect on, or perhaps even explain in some way, Widmore’s own instance of rule-breaking.

• The way in which Jack and Juliet come to silent understandings about each other as the episode ends – the way in which they share in their mutual ‘outsider’ status, makes the episode’s larger (apparent) concerns feel concrete to me. It seems to me that, in a just world, Juliet and Jack would see each other in another life, brutha, and maybe decide to shack up this time around.

• “He walks amongst us, but he is not one of us” is the supposed meaning of Jack’s tattoo, and the phrase is evocative and mysterious. It seems practically pregnant with meaning, which is pretty much par for the course with this show. It makes me wonder – when the show is over and the chips are all down, will this most-hated of Lost episodes have held a key to Jack Shephard’s future? To his destiny as, perhaps, the new Jacob?

“Stranger in a Strange Land” isn’t a great episode, but it isn’t the trainwreck we’ve made it out to be. It’s about cultures clashing, about the mysteries and misunderstandings that are unavoidable in the meeting of Other with Other. It explores the ideas of leadership and loneliness, of community and communication, and while you and I may both be eager to move on I certainly didn’t regret the time spent thinking this installment over.

*****

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Season 3

• Flashes before your Eyes (S3 ep. 08)
• Not In Portland (S3 ep. 07)
• I Do (S3 ep. 06)
• The Cost of Living (S3 ep. 05)
• Every Man for himself (S3 ep. 04)
• Further Instructions (S3 ep. 03)
• The Glass Ballerina (S3 ep. 02)
• Season 3 Premiere

Season 2

• 
Season 2 finale
• Three Minutes (S2 ep. 22)
• ? (S2 ep. 21)
• Two for The Road (S2 ep. 20)
• S.O.S. (S2 ep. 19)
• Dave (S2 ep. 18)
• Lockdown (S2 ep. 17)
• The Whole Truth (S2 ep. 16)
• Maternity Leave (S2 ep. 15)
One of Them (S2 ep. 14)
The Long Con (S2 ep. 13)
Fire + Water (S2 ep. 12)
The Hunting Party (S2 ep 11)
The 23rd Psalm (S2, ep. 10)
What Kate Did (S2, ep. 9)
Collision (S2, ep. 8)
The Other 48 Days (S2, ep. 7)