The most recent episode of “Lost,” the compelling “The Man From Tallahassee,” is probably the best episode of Season 3. While it’s clearly better than most of Season 2, which played out like a turgid melodrama stripped of any real consequence, it’s also not quite up to the level of Season 1, which barreled along like a runaway train while successfully using a character’s individual backstory to deepen the main island plot. Granted, it’s not exactly rocket science to psychologically link a given character’s past with whatever they’re going through on the island — Charlie leaned on drugs and now can’t emotionally support himself, or something — but when it cooks, it cooks.
What made the episode so great was Jack’s willingness to morally compromise in order to get things done and pursue what he perceived to be the greatest good for the islanders, namely, growing somewhat friendly with the Others and even offering medical care for Ben in order to secure passage off the island on the mythical submarine and possibly get help back in the real world and return later to rescue his friends. Jack has been the (often overly) moral leader of the group since the first year, playing the part of the great physician and watching over the flock of castaways to keep them safe and even journeying into dangerous parts of the island to rescue the one who’d gone astray or been kidnapped. He was an occasionally flat but ultimately noble representative version of all things good and true, which was the center of his beef with Locke: Locke was willing to redefine his worldview after landing on the island, and in fact deemed it necessary to mining the island for all its potential rewards, but Jack held even stronger to the ethical code that had guided him back home.
But Jack, after three seasons of getting jerked around, is finally starting to see the light by going dark. When Kate, Locke, and Sayid attempted to rescue Jack and wound up getting predictably captured in the process, Jack wasn’t tossed into lock-up with them but actually given the opportunity to visit Kate and interrogate her. The scene was a fabulous inversion of the trials Jack had gone through while held captive by the Others, and the way he casually dragged up a chair and asked Kate just what she was up to spoke volumes about Jack’s enlightened way of looking at things. Kate asked him, “So, you’re with them now?” And Jack looked back at her with a mixture of annoyance, defiance, and even mild confusion, saying, “I’m not with anyone, Kate.” Jack wasn’t simply using the Others until he could escape back to his camp, or even get off the island. He was merely taking advantage of something that would first serve his interests and later, possibly, those of his friends. Locke has always been doing his own thing because of what he felt he owed the island after it magically healed him, which is why his decision to scuttle the sub and keep everyone trapped there, though lamentable, wasn’t really surprising. No, the show turned a corner not by digging deeper into Locke’s personal demons — though the episode was typical Locke-centric greatness, since Terry O’Quinn is hands-down the best actor on the series — but by finally setting Jack free to see where he goes. By eliminating the hero’s strict moral code and having him venture into the surprisingly accepting waters of ethical unaccountability, “Lost” may be poised to have its characters do something I’ve been wanting them to do for a long time: Grow.