David Bushman

Curator, Television

April 2, 2009

The Education of Dr. Jack Shephard

by David Bushman

Caution: Spoilers ahead, if you haven't seen this week's episode of Lost.

I get a lot of grief around here for liking Dr. Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) on Lost. I admit it: he speaks to a part of me. I don't want to say I have a Christ complex, but when I was a kid I frequently visited the nurse's office so she could remove the splinters from my back. Like Woody Allen says, you have to model yourself after someone.

Yes, Jack suffers from a martyr complex. He's always trying to fix something, whether in the operating room or on the island. If I were to psychoanalyze him I'd say it's all because of his feeble father, Christian (John Terry), an alcoholic who left a trail of miscues longer than Route 66 for Jack to clean up.. Early in his career, while performing surgery, Jack nearly killed a young girl by severing a nerve sac, but took a deep breath, counted to five, and cleaned it up himself. When Sarah (Julie Bowen) is rushed to the hospital after a car crash, Jack promises he'll "fix her"—he does not only that, but winds up marrying her as well. In season three, when the odious Ben Linus (Michael Emerson) needs a doctor to excise his tumor, Jack takes care of that too. It was Jack who came up with the memorable phrase "live together, die alone," to inspire the survivors to stick together. This season Jack even returns to the island, believing it's the only way to protect those who were left behind.

On this week's episode, however (titled "Whatever Happened, Happened"), Jack actually chooses NOT to save someone—the adolescent version of Ben Linus (if you don't know, don't ask; suffice it to say it has something to do with time-tripping), who's been shot by Sayid (Naveen Andrews), another survivor of Oceanic Flight 815, who despises big Ben and thinks that by killing the young one he can prevent the adult Ben from ever existing. Young Ben is still alive, but bleeding profusely; Hippocratic oath or not, Jack refuses several entreaties to help, because he too is perfectly comfortable with the idea of life without big Ben Linus (this is, after all, a man who not only imprisoned Jack and two of the other survivors for a big, big chunk of season three, but who also kills freely and wantonly).

This is a big breakthrough for Jack, and provoked quite a discussion in my house, where I was watching the show with my wife and two daughters (ages 9 and 16). (What was my 9-year-old daughter doing watching Lost? you might ask—not an unfair question. I remember once when I was moderating a Paley Center discussion involving J.J. Abrams, one of Lost's exec producers, along with Jennifer Garner and Keri Russell, both of who had starred in earlier Abrams shows, and I let slip that my younger daughter was sometimes in our living room with us watching Alias, and he looked at me like I was, well, an idiot. In fact, my only TV rule for my children is this: never watch anything that insults your intelligence, and since my DVR is stacked with episodes of Sonny With a Chance, you can see how well that's working.)

Anyway, my wife was sitting on the edge of the couch yelling for Sawyer (Josh Holloway) and Kate (Evangeline Lilly) to stop trying to save young Ben and just let him die, and I have to admit I was agreeing with her. My older daughter was appalled by this and found it inconsistent with my unqualified opposition to capital punishment, to which I replied: "If you were a doctor and someone brought you Adolf Hitler as a young boy in need of medical aid to survive, and you knew what he would become, would you help him?" My younger daughter, who knows of Ben Linus but not Adolf Hitler, came up with this solution: help him, but then just teach him that hurting or killing people is wrong. I was impressed; she sounded just like the old Jack Shephard.

  • No one wants to be the straight man on a show full of interesting characters.  That's Jack's burden.  The writers can keep offering up backstories involving daddy issues, failed marriages, botched surgeries, or sketchy hookups with Bai Ling, but I still don't care that much about him as a character. 

    The show needs him in some capacity, but I don't think he's really that integral to the mythology, so I'm curious to see what the writers do with him at this point, now that he's not a leader and doesn't seem to have a clue about what's going on.  Will he still find reasons to go off running into the jungle at the slightest sign of trouble?

    Kate, April 09, 2009 at 12:30 pm

  • "Sanctimonious" -- you say it like it's a bad thing. I find it one of Jack's most endearing qualities. Juliet is bad news. Who can forget her third-season passivity while Jack, Kate, and Sawyer were locked up. At least no one can accuse Jack of passive-aggression.

    David, April 08, 2009 at 12:53 pm

  • But see, Jack is the Dawson of this show, and Sawyer is the Pacey.  Did anyone ever really *like* Dawson?  I'm not sure it's a "bad boy" thing as much as preferring the character who's funny and not boring and sanctimonious.

    Of course, if the analogy holds up and Kate is the Joey in this scenario, maybe that does signal an eventual Kate/Sawyer pairing.  But I really hope they don't go that route.  Juliet and Sawyer make a good couple and they're relatively drama-free.  Romance has never been Lost's strong suit (except for Desmond and Penny), so I'd rather have the writers move the plot along than waste time with a love quadrangle.


    Kate, April 08, 2009 at 12:10 pm

  • Thanks for the comments, Kate. I wonder if the other Kate will wind up picking Sawyer as well. I'm increasingly getting the sense that she sees Sawyer -- not Jack -- as her soulmate. Why do women always choose the bad guy?

    David, April 08, 2009 at 10:24 am

  • While this new incarnation of Jack is less predictable than the old one, I still don't like him.  His Man of Science principles were, at least, understandable.   But his sudden conversion to Man of Faith a few episodes back was badly handled.  Maybe it's bad acting or the writers still don't quite know where they're going with the character, but he's all over the map at this point. 

    I'm assuming he refused to help Ben because he believes that the past can't be changed, but it's equally possible that he's just a jerk.  I'm not curious enough to want another Jack-centric episode anytime soon.

    Sawyer for the win!

    Kate, April 06, 2009 at 2:32 pm

  • I wish I could hate Ben, because that would mean I like the show... which I really, really want to do, but just can't. It's like my love of scuba diving... when the water is murky and I can't figure out which way is up (get the analogy?), it's just not fun anymore.  :-)

    Mike Strickland, April 03, 2009 at 2:39 pm

  • Mike, I guess  you have to know Ben to really hate him, but still, you might be right: maybe Jack DID do the unethical thing. I'm just saying it provoked a nice, substantive conversation, which is what good TV does. What's ironic about it too is that you could make the argument that Jack's refusal to act may actually wind up playing a role in fostering Ben's manipulative, psychopathic behavior: Because Jack refuses to help him, Kate and Sawyer bring him to the Others/Hostiles for help; Richard takes him, but only after warning Kate and Saywer that as a result, Ben will never be the same: he'll lose his innocence and forget that "all this happened" (whatever that means).




    David, April 03, 2009 at 11:27 am

  • David, without knowing your family, I have to say your youngest daughter might be the smartest one in the house.  :-)  If you accept the hypothesis that killing Ben in the past will change the future, then it stands to reason that anything you do in the past will change the future to some degree. In other words, if you "just teach him that hurting or killing people is wrong," as your daughter says, you may very well achieve the desired outcome in the future. Instead, Jack invokes the "Hypocritic" Oath and refuses to help the dying Ben. I don't follow the show, but that seems more out of character for any doctor than an Admiral Adama ruthlessly executing traitors (as does your own position vis a vis your stance on capital punishment).

    Mike Strickland, April 03, 2009 at 9:36 am

  • I think your point is a great one, about how the characters are being subtly and believably upended (though I still disagree with you about Jack). Clearly Sawyer is the leader now, while Jack has become more passive, though I doubt that will last because it's so antithetical to Jack's nature. One other thing I noticed was that for the most part, the 815 survivors in previous years worked together (except for Locke) because they all had one goal -- to get off the island. Now, we don't even know what their ultimate goal is -- do they still even want to get off?

    David, April 03, 2009 at 9:06 am

  • Mainly what I love this season is how they've to a large degree upended many of the central characters -- the big three of Jack, Kate, and Sawyer especially -- without it seeming forced. Unlike on Heroes where the writers have been shoehorning characters into new behaviors just because the writers need them to behavein a certain way, Lost's writers actually establish the paths characters walk that have led them to behave differently.

    Jack is a schmuck. He didn't used to be, really, although he was always hard-headed and certain -- they needed that after the crash. But since then he's just become arrogant and immobile. I hate him now, but love how the writers have done it.

    The One True b!X, April 02, 2009 at 2:05 pm


David Bushman

Curator, Television


Before joining the Paley Center in 1992, David Bushman was senior television editor of Daily Variety in Los Angeles and weekly Variety in New York. He also served as director of programming at TV Land from 1997 to 1998. He has taught and lectured on TV at numerous institutions, but on only one continent. He may be the only person in the world pining for an E-Z Streets reunion.


Noir, Fantasy Baseball, The Pogues, Soccer, Running


David Bushman

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