Coming into “Confidence Man,” Sayid has been KO’d by a branch, the transceiver destroyed. Meanwhile, Shannon’s inhalers have gone missing and she’s having trouble breathing. Sawyer has an alibi for the knockout, but Shannon’s brother Boone is convinced he’s behind the theft of the medicine.

And he’s got good reason. After Kate approaches him, Sawyer shows her a letter from a boy whose father was bilked by Sawyer, then killed himself and the kid’s mom. In flashback, we see Sawyer’s a confidence man. He beds a fine young lady and deftly manipulates her into pledging her husband’s money into a phony oil drilling investment. After a meeting with the husband in which Sawyer tries to walk away, the husband is ready to hand his money over to the man who’s seduced his wife. “Seduced” here means “sexed the hell out of.”

How do they attempt to wrestle the inhalers out of Sawyer? By siccing Sayid in him. Who, in addition to being a communications officer with the Iraqi Republican Guard, also did some torturing. His methods on Sawyer are blunt and to the point: sharpened bamboo under the fingernails. And then threat of knife to the eye. That’s enough for Sawyer. After coercing a kiss from Kate, he confesses he never had the inhalers in the first place. She discovers the letter wasn’t to Sawyer, it was from him; in trying to track down the fraud who ruined his family, he wound up becoming him. A disbelieving Sayid stabs him. After Jack saves Sawyer, Sayid, disgraced by his own actions, exiles himself to map the island shores.

Zero movement on the supernatural front in “Confidence Man,” then. Instead, we get a look under the hood of fully human bad guy Sawyer, who, as a tall, impossibly muscly, stubbly, long-haired blonde, shattered the glass ceiling for tall, light hunks everywhere and set the stage for True Blood‘s Eric.

The flashbacks and characterization are once again thorough yet unexpected, giving us a strong understanding of one of the leads while fleshing him out beyond the stereotype, humanizing Sawyer as a rough man driven by a much softer heart. After being stabbed, he wants to die–in fact, I thought it was pretty obvious he didn’t have the inhalers and was instead seeking punishment while forcing Dudley Do-Right Jack and others to confront the fact the world’s a pretty mean place so you got to be mean, too.

That predictability may be why I was left a little disappointed with “Confidence Man,” as if Lost has a pretty good trick when it comes to its characters, but that’s the only one it’s got. On the other hand, the career of M. Night Shyamalan proves unpredictability and twists can’t carry a story on their own; plenty of worn-out plots have made for pretty great stories. Still, Lost has, by its 8th episode, already established a pattern it seems content to repeat without pushing itself, and that can’t help but lead to diminishing returns.

On the other hand, it’s not afraid to push some serious damn buttons. An Iraqi soldier torturing an American civilian? It’s totally removed from the context of war, sure, but even so–that’s bold. Doubly so for a colossal mainstream network drama airing its first season just ~18 months after the (new) Iraq War began. Whether the incorporation of elements like that is insightful or exploitive depends entirely on the handling, of course. So far, Lost is somewhere in the middle of that range; Sayid’s former enemy soldier isn’t so far shedding any light on anything, but he’s definitely no mustache-twirling caricature, either. Frankly, he’s interesting just by virtue of being there at all.

I feel like “Confidence Man” might be an extremely illuminating episode of Lost as a whole. Strip away the monsters, the strangeness, and the mythology, and what do you have? Decent characters told well with just a little bit of edge to it. In other words, enjoyable enough–but without the Smoke Monster, there’s no chance I’d be writing about this show nearly a year and a half after its final episode aired.

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