Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Lady Losers, Part Seven: Penny, Eloise, Naomi and Zoe

And, finally, the last post in this little series. This may be welcome news if you read this blog but don’t watch Lost and therefore haven’t had a clue what I’m talking about. You weren’t even won over by gender studies?! Everyone loves gender studies. Jeez.

In this last bit, I’m discussing the remaining important female Lost characters: Penny, Eloise, Naomi and the newly introduced Zoe. In the end, I hope to make a conclusion about whatever it is that I’m trying to discuss.


Before the new stuff, here’s the territory covered so far in my examination of whether this show gives its female characters the shaft:
Can you dig it?

Just looking at the major characters, Lost has a pretty lousy track record with its female characters. Of the ten major female characters, all but four — the whose actresses currently appear in the show’s main titles — are now corpses. Compare that to the fact that of the show’s 18 major male characters, only six are dead — Boone, Michael, Paolo, Daniel, Eko and Charlie, with Locke possibly constituting a seventh, even though death has granted him more agency than ever.

By the numbers, it’s clear that though the show has always featured fewer women than men, it’s also killed them off at about the same rate. Based on that alone, one could interpret that the female characters are therefore less central to the overall arc of the show since they’re less represented in the overall cast and yet killed more often. Add to this the notion that of the four currently not-yet-dead female Losers, only Sun is a Candidate. And maybe she’s not after all? And Ilana is Jacob’s au pair or something? And Kate and Claire, nixed from the Candidates list for unknown reasons, are just stuck on the island, building sandcastles all day? (That’s what I like to think they do when they’re not in a given scene.) Seems kind of lame, though I acknowledge that the show will likely surprise me yet in its final episodes. And all this is to say nothing of the supporting characters discussed in the last post: Rousseau and Alex both dead, Rose dying and Cindy surprising us all by surviving for the home stretch.

Hit the jump to read my take on Penny, Eloise, Naomi and Zoe.

First up: obvious Odyssey allusion Penny Widmore.

Though she has been a part of the show since the second season, we haven’t learned all that much about Penny. But I’m nonetheless surprised to see that the character has only made twelve appearances. Perhaps I feel she’s more important to Lost’s overall plot because those few appearances tend to coincide with some of the show’s most important plot developments. There’s that final scene of the second season, in which her crew informs her of the electromagnetic discharge that was the explosion of the hatch, which finally confirmed for viewers that, yes, the island does exist in the world and the Losers are not, in fact, in purgatory or some other phase of the afterlife. There’s her appearance at the end of the third season, when she gives a soon-to-be-dead Charlie the news that the freighter is manned not by her emissaries but by far more dangerous people. And then there’s her rescue of the group soon to be known as the Oceanic Six at the end of the fourth season. For someone who has yet to actually set foot on Four Toe Island, Penny has certainly made an impact on the lives on those trapped there.

What little we do know about Penny makes her an interesting parallel for Sun. In Sun’s section, I noted that her venturing out to save Jin rendered the pair into a gender-flipped Odyssey, with the wife leaving home to rescue the missing husband. This applies even more so to Penny and Desmond. For starters, Penny’s shares her full name with Odysseus’s wife, Penelope. And whereas Sun has been seeking Jin only since departing the island, Penny has been hunting down Desmond for the entire run of Lost. Both Penny and Sun are the daughters of wealthy men whose businesses ties extend into some shady circles. In fact, the episode “D.O.C.” mentions that Charles Widmore and Woo-Jung Paik have worked together in the past. Both women utilize their fathers’ considerable means to locate their husbands. But while Sun’s quest has at times transformed her into an ice queen, Penny throughout her search maintains a certain radiance —a sunniness, if not a Sun-iness — that indicates that she’s not drawing her power for the same dark place her father does.

Finally, whereas Sun has been unable to locate Jin so far, Penny succeeded in bringing Desmond back home. And while Des has recently reappeared on the island, Penny at least got a few years of domestic bliss with her husband and their child, Baby Charlie. (Awkwardness: naming your child after your departed friend, only to have said child share his name with your estranged bastard of a father.) In short, Penny is doing a better job of being Sun than Sun is. And since I gave Sun a mostly positive review, Penny gets a big gold star.

Good on you, Penny. Best lady Loser yet.

And then someone less pleasant: Eloise Hawking.

Depending on how you look at her, Eloise Hawking is either the closest Lost has come to delivering a full-fledged female villain or a determined woman who has made tough decisions in order to prevent time itself from unraveling. In the end, it’s likely that she’s both. Nothing with Lost is ever cut-and-dry.

I like to consider whether Eloise is the screwer or the screwed. On one hand, she seems to have been in a position of power for nearly her entire life. (And don’t forget that we’ve seen a greater span of this character’s life — her teenaged years, her pregnancy, her leadership of the Others, and in the current timeline, her elderly years — than I think we have of any other single character.) On the other hand, her power has done little to protect what’s important. At least as the situation is described by Charles Widmore, Eloise’s former lover and another erstwhile chief Other, the world may well cease to exist at any moment now. And regardless of whether the universe implodes and timelines fuse or shatter, Eloise will still have to live the fact that she killed her own son, Dainel.

Did Eloise murder Daniel? That’s a tough call. Murder implies intent, but the 1977 version of Eloise — the one that actually pulled the trigger on Daniel — didn’t know at the time that she was pointing a gun at her own son, who had time-travelled 30 years into the past. The Eloise from 2007, however, did know and nonetheless pushed Daniel to go to the island, even if that meant sending her son to his death. Coldhearted but empowered megamonster? Or a guardian of space-time who sacrificed what she loved most to ensure that history happens as it’s meant to? You decide — if not now, then maybe after the last episode, when we see if all her meddling worked out for the best or not.

Maid in rotor: Naomi Dorrit.

Despite the brief time Naomi spent on Four Toe Island before Locke flung a knife into her back, she’s managed to show up often enough in various characters’ flashbacks as she made various plans and deals that sent Widmore’s freighter crew to the island. She’s an appealing character — strong and deadly but oddly personable when interacting with the Losers. Of course, all this friendliness hides the fact that was most likely intending to execute everyone on the island, per Widmore’s orders, or at least give to command to do so. In that way, Naomi works as an interesting complement for the other shady lady, Eloise. Whereas Eloise seems outwardly cruel, she may be a good person after all. Naomi, conversely, was cute as a button but would have made Lost end in its third season had she had had her way.

It’s a bit of a bummer that a such a potentially insidious villain — a black ops specialist who survived jumping out of a helicopter and impaling herself on a tree branch en route to Four Toe Island — died so anticlimactically: impaled again, more or less, and this time more fatally.

A sidebar of a sexual nature: There’s one crazy theory I’d like to offer about Naomi before finishing this list off, and it ties in with how gender works on the show, more or less. To me, Lost is notable for having such a large stable of recurring characters and yet only having one gay character, Tom Friendly — and, at that, his sexuality was introduced fairly awkwardly, in a flashback in “Meet Kevin Johnson,” long after Friendly had been killed off. However, I’ve wondered if the writers might have hinted that Naomi was a lesbian. I base this chiefly on two points. First, her name appears in the Bible’s Book of Ruth, a story about the friendship between two women. Some people have that there’s a sexual interpretation to the relationship between the Biblical Naomi and Ruth. And that would be neither here nor there if the Lost scribes weren’t so damned savvy with the Biblical allusions and if Sayid hadn’t discovered a bracelet on Naomi’s corpse. The item bore the inscription “N, I’ll always be with you. R.G.” We have never found out who R.G. is, and I’m betting we probably won’t. However, shortly after freighter crewmember Regina (no last name given) learns of Naomi’s death, she herself commits suicide, wrapping herself in an anchor chain and taking a long walk off the side of the boat. Ostensibly, Regina’s suicide resulted from the same sickness that killed other crewmembers and nearly claimed Desmond. However, the Book of Ruth’s sapphic associations, the fact that Regina’s name begins with an “R,” the timing of Regina’s suicide and the tomboyish toughness of Zoe Bell, the actress who played Regina, combine to form a slight indication that the women could have had a more-than-platonic relationship. I, for one, would be happy to learn that at least one woman in the Lost universe wasn’t needing, pining for, hunting down or actively reproducing with a man.

Her sexuality notwithstanding, I say Naomi didn’t get to realize her potential as a character on the show — either as a villain or simply another kickass female action hero. Sure, her death may have been necessary to get the show through the fourth season, but I wouldn’t have minded if she had hung around longer.

Last alphabetically and in terms of importance: Zoe.

What do we know about Zoe? Very little, aside from the fact that she’s a geophysicist employed by Charles Widmore in his effort to overtake Four Toe Island. Given that she’s a woman of science thrust into military goings-on on the island, Zoe works as a parallel for Juliet, who also had to abandon her scientific training and instead engage in espionage, battle strategy and the kind of action scenes that most science wonks try to avoid. As near as I can tell, Zoe is yet another attempt at a female villain, though actress Sheila Kelley seems to be downplaying what could otherwise be a threatening presence for the Losers. As the new girl on the scene — and likely the last new girl Lost will ever get — I’d be pleased to see Zoe rumble with Ilana, the other remaining T.B.D., as such a fight would be a good woman of science-versus-woman of faith showdown. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see how Zoe develops, but I can’t help but to wonder why Widmore would have employed a woman with no military training to helm the offensive against the Losers, even having her helm the mission to fire tranquilizer darts onto the Man in Black’s camp in an effort to abduct Jin.

Not being able to judge Zoe yet, I will at least say this: I am fine with Kelley’s performance so far, but did they have to doll her up to look like a shipwrecked version of Tina Fey’s character from 30 Rock? My nicknames so far for this Liz Lemon lookalike: Sour Lemon, Meana Fey and Mean Girl. Could Zoe exist as a thank-you to the various shoutouts 30 Rock has made to Lost?

And, to finish this off once and for all, some final thoughts:

(click for a bigger version)

From the moment I started this series, the question hanging in the back of my head was this: “Don’t the men suffer too?” The answer is yes, of course, they do. There’s not a single male character on the show who hasn’t experienced or isn’t still experiencing some form of personal hell, whether that be guilt, grief, imprisonment, delusion or some other awful thing. In that sense, everyone who sets foot on Four Toe Island gets more or less the same treatment: a fight for his or her very soul. Some live, some die, some stay alive but seem to miss that chance at redemption. (Nikki and Paolo, I’m looking at you.)

The A.V. Club article that prompted me to think about these matters simply stated the situation as “Man, do the women on Lost ever get screwed over.” Now, upon having thought about it and concluded that the men and women on Lost suffer more or less equally, I still think the women miss out. Move away, for a second, from simple plot synopses and think about how characters on the show work, what they get to do, and how their time on the show ends. In this sense, the lady Losers get screwed, shafted, and overall fucked. (Excuse the sexual verbage there. Or wait, maybe don’t. Maybe that’s at the heart of what I’ve been talking about.) Like I said at the top of this post, they die comparatively more frequently than the men do, even though there are fewer of them. They’re more dispensable. Those central to the plot tend to define their role in life and on the island in terms of the men around them. (Consider the final season: Kate still with Jack and Sawyer, Sun with Jin, Claire with the Man in Black and her missing son, and Ilana with Jacob.) Even the setting of the show itself seems predisposed to hurt women, as the surest way for a woman to end up dead would be to get pregnant — that is, simply to perform the female function of the reproductive process — because some as-of-yet unexplained island voodoo causes women to die before they can give birth. And especially as we creep toward the series finale, the male characters are the ones making most of the critical decisions. And all of this strikes me as odd, given that focus of J.J. Abrams’ previous shows focus on women — the title character on Felicity, Sydney Bristow on Alias and Olivia Dunham on Fring — and Kate was initially conceived as Lost’s hero, though an older version of the character who happened to be a wife and mother.

Please keep in mind that I’m not saying that the people who write Lost have some axe to grind with women or even female characters. I mean, they clearly like these characters and they’re clearing just pushing them in whatever direction they think would be most interesting for viewers. I’m just sitting here, thinking about a show I enjoy and noticing trends here and there. In order to truly examine these elements in Lost and make a decision one way or another, I guess I’d have to place the show in the context of the works that inspired it, how the role of women in literature has evolved over time and how it’s different now than it was at the time of any of the various works that Lost draws on. And I’m not going to do that.

I will say this much, however: Lost makes me think — about creative direction in narratives, about the evolution of characters, about storytelling in general and about time travel. (Last one doesn’t fit, but whatever.) Over the years, I’ve enjoyed the hell out of Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Veronica Mars, Pushing Daisies and a handful of other cult favorite TV shows. None has made me think in this way aside from Lost. None has prompted me to write this much and to give this much time to, for example, the significance of minor characters. If I criticize the show for making one decision or another, I’m only doing it because I think it merits the time it takes to make the criticism.

Like anyone else who bothered to read this, I’m looking forward to the end of Lost. And, yes, expect a little follow-up when all is said and done.

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