I come not to bury Bai Ling, "Lost" fans, but to praise her. Without her, it’s quite possible the show wouldn’t be what it is today.
Sounds like I’ve hopped aboard the S.S. Sarcasm, but I mean it. In many ways, I’ve made this point over the course of the many years that this blog has analyzed “Lost.” But I’ve never out and out said it. But trust me, all those times I’ve said, “I’d rather have sexual relations with a porcupine than see Bai Ling appear on the show again,” was complete praise. You see, Bai Ling was Darlton’s secret weapon in securing an end date.
As I mentioned last week, Eko’s hasty and flawed departure from the show early in Season 3 hurt the show’s narrative. But it’s not as if the narrative itself was inherently healthy at the time before his departure. To wit, let’s establish a thought experiment to demonstrate the problem they faced even before dealing with redistributing plans for Eko’s character onto other major and minor players in the show’s universe..
Let’s assume that Darlton knew at the outset of Season 3 that they eventually wanted to get some survivors off the Island, bring the freighter into play, use time travel to let our characters enable/engender The Incident, and then pull off whatever Season 6 will hold in store. In this scenario, they know the major signposts of future plot developments at this early stage.
However, there was absolutely no way in which the writing staff could have pulled off the balance between deployed their pre-established signposts and the need to produce episodes of television for ABC on a theoretically limitless basis. Would the show last for one more season? Three? Would it outlast “Law and Order”? No one knew, so the writer rationed their reveals waaaay better than the survivors of Oceanic 815 rationed food supplies from the Swan hatch. Still, the slow pace of Season 3 apparently didn’t set off enough alarms within ABC to realize a change was needed.
Enter Bai Ling.
Let’s look at “Stranger in a Strange Land” not as the single worst hour that “Lost” ever produced. Been there, done that, got the craptastic tattoo to prove it. Let’s instead look at it as the greatest long con the show ever produced. The writers realized that in order to make the show agree to an end date, ABC would have to come up with the idea themselves. Classic reverse psychology is what we’re dealing with here, people. So they cue up super bizarre things like an Others trial, a “sheriff,” and dialogue so vague that even politicians would cry foul (i.e., “We’re here to…watch.”) But that wasn’t enough, you see. The show needed one more thing that would send ABC into such a frothing tizzy that they would have no choice but to establish an end date to never have so poor an episode air again.
And so, Bai Ling was brought on board. And lo, God saw the Ling, and saw that it was bad. And then the fans saw the Ling, and did agreeth that it doth sucked. For a snippet of my take on the episode, here’s a paragraph from my “We Have to Go Back” recap:
And comparatively speaking? That’s a pretty mild takedown, all things considered. But it’s fairly easy to imagine taking the Ling to a screening with ABC execs and saying, “We have an 8-episode arc planned for this character unless you establish an end date. We’ll show a series of Thailand-based eps in which characters get tattoos. The Widmore Corporation will start producing kites. People will only answer questions with more questions. OK, we sorta will do the last part anyways, regardless. But still: for the love of Jacob, let us know when this story can end! We will Bring the Ling until you surrender! We will BRING THE LING!”
Jacob advocates that certain people merely need a “little push” in order to achieve their ideal selves. Well, clearly Darlton didn’t take the same approach with ABC, bringing said Ling in order to essentially hurl executives out of an 8-story window in order to get the desired outcome. And lo, not only did Bai Ling disappear, but so did nearly every bit of mythology established in that show. Every show’s entitled to its share of clunkers, but it’s more fascinating as a desperate attempt to produce an episode so far below the show’s normal quality in order to achieve an end date. As such, I think we all owe Bai Ling a great deal of thanks for helping ensure that “Lost” could tell its story in the best way possible.
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