Sunday, December 2, 2007

Top Ten Episodes #2: 2.10 "The 23rd Psalm"

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil: For thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Rating: 9.3 (#24 overall)

Short Recap: We get to see Mr. Eko's sordid past, as a group of Nigerian drug lords force him to kill an innocent man in order to save his brother's life. Eko goes on to become a feared drug lord himself while his brother goes on to become a priest and respected community leader.

Eko "purchases" a large amount of heroin from some fellow thugs, but he needs to smuggle it out of the country in order to sell it. Since the only private planes currently allowed in the air are for U.N. aid or Catholic missionaries, Eko turns to his brother for help. He asks Yemi to make him and his associates priests so they can smuggle the heroin out of the country in Virgin Mary statues further telling him that if he refuses, his associates will burn his church to the ground. Yemi reluctantly signs.

As the plane is about to take off, Yemi pleads with Eko to stay. The military then appears, guns a blazin'. Yemi admits to Eko that he tipped them off and ends up getting shot in the crossfire. The plane takes off with Yemi's body aboard and the military thinks Eko, disguised in priest's garb, is actually Yemi. Eko returns to the village in Yemi's place.

On the island, Eko notices Charlie's Virgin Mary statue while talking with Claire. He smashes it open to reveal the heroin inside. He finds Charlie and demands he take him to the Beechcraft. Charlie reluctantly agrees.

On the way to the crash site, Eko is confronted by the Monster who scans his brain for his memories. After a short standoff, it glides silently back into the jungle. Eko and Charlie find the plane and Eko finds the body of his brother. He takes the cross from around his brother's neck, gives Charlie a statue to replace the one he broke and together they burn the plane with Yemi's body inside.

Claire, noticeably upset with Charlie for lying to her, kicks him out of her tent. The episode ends with Charlie adding the Virgin Mary statue to a hidden cache of others he had secretly scavenged from the wreck.

Why it's a classic: The very best episodes of Lost generally give us the golden trifecta of plot advancement, character development and island mythology, served up with some savory acting and dialogue.

The 23rd Psalm does this better than just about any other.

I have to admit I loved Mr. Eko from the start. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje has one of the most tremendous screen presences I've ever seen; he completely dominates every scene and his vow of silence early on merely added to his mystique. So when this episode came along I think fans in general were pretty primed for his backstory.

Oh, and what a backstory it was.

By this point in the second season, generally considered the worst of the three my most Lost fans (although I have to admit I really loved it), the flashbacks of the main characters were already becoming repetitive and tepid. So the episode had an initial bonus going in of being something new. But I certainly wasn't prepared for just how powerful Eko's backstory would be.

Every segment was intense: Eko saving his brother by killing an innocent man, Eko brutally killing two fellow thieves with one swipe of his knife ("Go. Go and tell them that Mr. Eko let you live"), Yemi's death and Eko's guilt. We were left with a portrait of an extremely complex character, one capable of incredible brutality and evil despite the fact we recognize (and even sympathize with) his motivations. Interestingly though, Yemi does not share our sympathy. At all.

Mr. EkoSo I come to visit you for the first time in 3 years and you won't hear my confession? You know, Monsignor would have said he failed to raise a proper Catholic boy.
Yemi Well, why waste your time confessing. It won't help you.
Mr. EkoIt won't?
Yemi No, for confession to mean something you must have a penitent heart.
Mr. EkoYou and your guilt, Yemi. I've only done what I needed to do to survive. How is that a sin?
Yemi You may live far from here, but that doesn't mean I haven't heard of who you are and what you have done.

[Mr. Eko pulls the cross he wore as a boy out from under Yemis shirt]
Mr. EkoHave you forgotten how you got that cross, brother... the day they took me? Is what I did that day a sin? Or is it forgiven because it was you that was saved?

When Eko says here that he only did what he needed to do to survive, we believe him. But is that really his only motivation? Do you think Eko enjoys his power and his ability to instill people with fear. Yemi does and tells Eko so. Later on he further tells him he will never be a priest.

Mr. EkoI'm going to make this easy for you. You will make us priests and we will fly the drugs out ourselves.
Yemi Make you priests?
Mr. EkoJust sign these ordination documents and I will give you the money for the vaccines.
Yemi Leave this church now, Eko. Go. Now.
Mr. EkoYemi, I understand that you live in a world where righteousness and evil seem very far apart, but that is not the real world. I am your brother and I would never do anything to hurt you, but my friends... if you do not do what I ask... they will burn this church to the ground. Is that worth less than the price of your name on a piece of paper? Think of the lives you will save.

[After a mental struggle, Yemi grabs the papers and signs them]
Yemi My signature does not make you a priest, Eko. You could never be a priest.

Obviously this conversation had a wee bit of impact on Eko. :)

At the time, this episode showed us a despicable man who was trying to turn his life around, trying to make up for the horrible things of the past (hullo thar redemption theme). And I don't know about you, but I believed Eko HAD redeemed himself at the end when he took his brother's cross.

The rest of season also followed in the same manner: Eko became the priest of the Lost community, baptizing Aaron (hmmm... in retrospect, did that baptism count), building a church on the beach and even telling Michael a handy parable as they sopped up Libby's blood (one of my favorite scenes of the show). The fact that it was later revealed Eko did even more horrible things, not feeling sorry for them in the least, is the only reason I did not make this episode #1, since it takes away a lot of the power Eko's backstory held (I discuss this more in the summary below).

But, of course, Eko's story isn't the only reason this one's a classic. There's also 1) Charlie's banter with Eko and 2) the first real good look we get of Smokey.

This episode actually marked the beginning of Charlie's decline, despite it giving him his most memorable dialogue of the series. Episode 2.12, "Fire + Water," is easily the worst episode of the season, if not the entire series. But here we see Charlie at his best, holding his own against Eko's intensity and uttering one of the funniest lines of the entire series:

Mr. EkoClimb that tree.
Charlie What?
Mr. EkoClimb that tree and perhaps you will be able to get your bearings or see the plane.
Charlie You climb it. What if I don't? You going to beat me with your Jesus stick? I find it a little odd that your scripture stick has dried blood on it.
Mr. EkoAre you going to climb that tree or not?
Charlie What kind of priest are you, anyway?

Simply awesome. Josh, my roommate at the time, and I were rolling. It was also touching to hear Charlie recite the 23rd Psalm along with Eko when they burned the plane, reminding us of Charlie's strong religious streak.

But the big reveal this episode was ol' Smokey. Whoever was responsible for convincing the brainless execs at ABC to keep Smokey a secret deserves a basket of fish biscuits because it was one hell of a surprise. So what did that one encounter tell us?

1) It really is a cloud of black smoke - Even though we saw Smokey in "Exodus," I still wasn't totally convinced Smokey was just a black smoke cloud; I thought it might be a shapeshifter (which it sorta is). But it seems the the smoke is, at least, its default form.

2) Smokey can read minds
- One of the best TiVo moments of the series. We now know too that it doesn't just seem to read minds but it seems to be able to communicate telepathically too, at very least through dreams.

3) It comes from underground - You can dispute this if you want, but it looked pretty clear to me. When Smokey appears, trees and soil fly into the air and if you watch it as it leaves Eko, it clearly looks to me like it goes down into the ground, just like it did when it tried to drag Locke with it in "Exodus." Is there a Cerberus Vent near the Beechcraft? Seems so.

Looking back on the scene, I still don't quite understand what the Monster's motivation is. There's something it saw in Eko that made it spare him. His devotion to his brother, perhaps? Later, it asked Eko for his help in making Locke push the button. The fact that Eko failed in this regard might be partially why the Monster killed him (is the Monster capable of anger and retribution), but it seems more to do with the fact that Eko wasn't sorry for any of his sins. But if that's the case, why did it not kill Eko the first time it met him?

The only thing I can think of here is that Eko did indeed try to redeem himself at first. But the destruction of the Swan shook his faith and made him defiant again. Also maybe the Monster communicating to him as Yemi made him stubborn. Maybe the fact that Yemi felt so strongly about everything he had done made Eko react to the Monster the way he did. Since the writers have long said understanding the Monster is the key to understanding the island, we're probably going to have to wait awhile for a definitive answer.

Summary: I so wanted to make this episode #1. In fact, for a very long time it was my #1 episode. But as much as I tried to separate "The 23rd Psalm" from what the writers did to Eko's character down the road, I simply couldn't. Much of the power of this episode stems from the fact Eko was an unabashedly evil character who did some horrible things who finds redemption and closure on the island. But despite his evil deeds, you also sympathize with his actions because they all stem from his (good) motivation to save his brother's life. It certainly made me think Eko was a good man who merely did what he needed to survive (as he repeatedly professes).

But "The Cost of Living" essentially retconned this. They showed another horrible episode from his past, one where he did have a choice; He could have chosen to stay in Yemi's church and dealt with the warlords in a different way. He could have become, like Yemi, a true priest and a peaceful leader of the community. Instead he sold the vaccine (that would have been stolen anyway) to another warlord and used the proceeds to run away from his guilt and shame. And in the process he defiles Yemi's church, killing men inside and even washing his hands in the holy water basin. Then, much like he told Yemi so long ago, Eko told the Monster (in Yemi form) that he did not regret anything he had done:

"I did not ask for the life that I was given. was given, nonetheless. And with it...I did my best."

While he certainly didn't regret saving his brother's life, he certainly regretted much of what he had done since then. While this discrepancy may seem trivial, it stained Eko's character and, to me, took away from "The 23rd Psalm" quite a bit. You mean all the time he had spent repenting during the second season was fake? I just can totally buy that. And while the episode today still retains much of it's power thanks to Eko's incredible origin, the Monster scene and his banter with Charlie, it gets demoted to #2.

As just a final word on Eko, there is one loose end in his story: We still don't really know how he got assigned to Australia. He was supposed to be heading to London after the events of "The Cost of Living"; we still don't know whether he even made it there. And furthermore, we really don't know why he was heading to L.A. either. I wonder if we ever will?

Despite all this, not only was "The 23rd Psalm" the best episode of Season 2 (for which it was nominated for a "Best Writing" Emmy) but to me it still stands alone as one of the best episodes of Lost. And for someone watching the show through for the very first time, I don't know how you can not vault Eko's character up your favorite character list after viewing it.

What say you? Was Eko one of your favorites? My #1 favorite episode review will be up sometime before Christmas. Yay!

(As always, thanks to The Lost Hatch for their excellent episode transcripts)

Previous Reviews:
#10: White Rabbit
The Man From Tallahassee
Man of Science, Man of Faith
#4: The Pilot
#3: Walkabout


capcom said...

Oh yes, definitely one of my favorites. I do wonder though, why Smokey backed away from defiant Eko the first encounter, and then stood up to Eko and challenged him the second time around. Except of course, for the fact that the actor wanted to be killed off. But I still wonder why TPTB made Smokey do a turnaround like that. Maybe Smokey sizes someone up and then might say, "Ah, he's not so tough." :o)

capcom said...

P.S. very good post all the way through, I forgot to say that. :-) And good call about the vents, and Eko's different behaviors, and the reason for his travel destinations.

memphish said...

I'm impressed you can pick 10 Jay. I think my top episodes change based on my moods. Episodes that would have been my favorite post S2 have dropped off the list post S3 and not so much for S3 episodes to replace them, but because my opinion of the characters have changed. Dang those guys are good at manipulating at least my part of the audience.

Jay said...

When I first sat down to make my list, it was very difficult to cut it down to only ten. I knew there were about 5-6 I absolutely wanted on there, but the bottom was a bit more fluid.

I probably could have put most of the second half of Season 3 on there (especially One of Us and Greatest Hits), but ultimately decided to just have "Man from Tallahassee" to represent them.

It will be interesting what episodes from Season 4 end up on the list and where.

As for Eko, Capcom, sadly I do think AAA's desire to be off the show made the writers change Eko's
perrsonality a bit (making him defiant instead of penitent). I think that's why "The Cost of Living" bothered me so much (aside from Eko's death).

capcom said...

Me too also. :-)

Paula Abdul Alhazred said...

I've written about this quite a bit, and it's really made me have to think long and hard about the change in Eko's personality between "23rd Psalm" and "Cost of Living." Personally, I don't think Eko's repentance in season two is fake. I believe it is absolutely genuine. He has gone from a vicious criminal unashamed of his actions, to a criminal disguised as a priest trying to make up for getting his brother killed, to a man truly sorry for his past who wants to set things right. So, what the hell happened in season three? I believe the hatch implosion changed Eko fundamentally, and allowed him to find a middle ground between his past and his present. Instead of existing in either extreme, he's accepted his past instead of rejecting it, whilst retaining his newfound faith. He rejects the forgiveness offered by the island, as he no longer accepts the messages from the island as the word of God. Therefore, only God can judge him, and the island is not God. When Eko repeats, "I have only done what I needed to do to survive," he doesn't mean it the way he meant it in "23rd Psalm." The first time, that statement was made out of arrogance. The second time, it is made out of acceptance. I don't think Eko was reverting to his old way of thinking, I think he was just making complete peace with his past instead of getting on his knees and flailing before the island saying, "I'm a horrible person, please forgive me!" He has given up his almost inhuman sense of humility and instead revealed himself to the flawed human being that he is. I think that's what is hardest about that final scene . . . Eko goes from being this iconic character to an imperfect man who is happy to be imperfect. I'm sure this would have been developed better had AAA been killed mid-season as opposed to early in the season, but I think there's still a logic behind what happened to him.

Jay said...

That's a really interesting analysis, Paula. You're certainly right that Eko seemed to accept his past in TCOL and the Hatch explosion was the trigger. But it still sits with me wrong, I guess.

But I guess I could see your point in this way: Did Eko think he was dying... i.e. did he take the Monster's message that he had to confess as it being his last confession? Maybe if he thought this really was the end (that he was going to die from his injuries)
he realized that, despite his efforts to repent, he really wasn't sorry for everything he had done.

Of course, if he had known the Monster was going to turn into a giant hand and pound the life out of him, I wonder if he would have changed his mind? ;)

Paula Abdul Alhazred said...

Yeah, I totally think that he knew this was the end. I believe death hung over Eko like a cloud (of black smoke, har har), sort of the same way it followed Charlie. The hatch implosion changed everybody: Locke regained his faith, Des became displaced in time, and Eko became marked for death. And I think that, as Locke regained faith in the island, Eko lost it. Eko does have faith, but it's not in the island, which is why he rejected its 'false' salvation.

memphish said...

Interesting comment about death hanging over those in the implosion. Eko and Charlie died in the course of the season and for a while we thought Locke might too, at either Ben or his own hands. The only one that didn't seems to run the death gauntlet was Desmond.