(This review contains spoilers up to half-way through season 4, and is intended for those who have already seen all episodes in between; you've been warned!)
This is Lost.
"Deus ex Machina" is a very special episode, but most people get that on their first viewing. It is both thrilling and heart-wrenching, containing mysterious island goings-on and subtle character development. It contains a breath-taking performance by Terry O'Quinn as the tragic hero John Locke. The summary stated in no uncertain terms that as highly regarded as this episode may be, it will remain one of the most under-appreciated ones in Lost history.
As John Locke attempts to open up the mysterious hatch with renewed vigour, his fruitless efforts begin to make a dent in his faith. Losing the use of his legs, John begins to panic and questions the island's methods when he sees a shocking vision that will lead to destiny... and tragedy. With Boone's assistance, the two discover a beech craft in the dense canopy; the corpses of Nigerian priests warn the pair that not everything is as it seems. The audience learns of the drugs in the plane and Boone makes the fateful emergency transmission on the radio -- which is answered by an enigmatic "No, WE'RE the survivors of 815!" Throughout the flashbacks the audience meets a John Locke before whatever put him in the wheelchair, a John Locke who makes for himself a quiet, simple existence. Life hasn't been kind to him, and as he finally meets the parents he never knew, his father, Anthony Cooper, cons the unassuming John out of a kidney. John is both hurt and outraged at the injustices done unto him and as the final flashback closes on him weeping atop the small opening of the hatch, crying out "I did everything you asked me to... so why did you do this to ME?" and banging on the lid... the opening lights up, illuminating John's face, and the episode ends. "LOST."
"Lost" indeed. Having already mentioned the accolades of praise that were heaped upon this episode for all aforementioned reasons, it seems entirely redundant to go through the plot points individually. So why did this reviewer go through the trouble?
Because sprinkled throughout this episode are tiny details that mark momentous occasions in Lost history. This is the first time the audience visits the beech craft; the first time they hear the enigmatic response on the radio; the first time they meet Anthony Cooper; and this is the day the hatch lit up. By themselves, these moments are significant as steps along the journey, but ultimately may seem trivial. However, "Lost" is not a show that does anything "by itself." This episode does not stand alone, and when seen on repeat viewings well into season 3, the beauty and brilliance of this story are amplified to unimaginable degrees. Having seen the episode "The Other 48 Days" in early season 2, for example, the audience learns of the hardships the Tail-section survivors went through simply to answer Boone's distress call. Likewise, "The 23rd Psalm" reveals the dead drug smugglers' connection to Tail-section survivor Mr. Eko and his accidental redemption. The season 2 finale, "Live Together, Die Alone," explains finally why the hatch lit up as John battered against it to release his frustration -- he'd just saved Desmond from committing suicide. Finally, the season 3 episode "The Man from Tallahassee" reveals that John's paralysis is a result of being pushed out of a window by his con-artist father, Anthony Cooper. Having seen all of those episodes, every single detail presented therein will now be like a welcome emotional baggage on repeat vieweings of Deus ex Machina, providing insights and significance to every nuance of the story. Not only is Deus ex Machina the first meeting of John Locke and his long-lost father, it is also the start of a destructive chain of events that will lead John to lose his legs - and ultimately end up on this very island. Not only is this our first indication to somebody living within the hatch, that somebody goes on to become one of the central characters of the show, and watching John stop Desmond's suicide, not knowing the full extent of his actions -as it happens live- adds a surreal element to the episode.
And so on and so forth, to infinity and beyond. Because there is no magical cut off to this branching of subtle connections, no cut off to the brilliance of this show. Once the audience pictures Desmond hiding within that Hatch, prepared to commit suicide, they cannot help but think of his long-lost love Penelope Widmore, and the accomplishment of The Constant. Once the audience thinks of Anthony Cooper, they will instantly recall that he was responsible not only for the tragedies of his son, but likewise of those that befell Sawyer. Which brings into clear focus the three-way confrontation between Sawyer, Cooper, and John in The Brig. Because in a show crafted with such love and care, with true craftsmanship and sophistication, the beauty of episodes like Deus ex Machina will only continue to escalate as the series nears its inevitable conclusion. This is show-making on a scale that has never been attempted before, let alone so successfully.
This is Lost. -pW