Lost: The Curious Case of Kate Austen

Ah, Lost. Back again, perplexing as ever. Last week’s season premiere introduced a parallel reality (dubbed “flash-sideways”) in which Oceanic 815 lands uneventfully at LAX and our characters continue as if they’d never been marooned on Lost Isle. Outlandish, but the gambit has already paid off: by reminding us that fundamental to the series’ resolution is the redemption of its ensemble. And nowhere is this clearer than with Kate Austen (Evangeline Lilly), our troubled, troubling heroine.

Kate’s faults are legion: she’s an admitted murderer who’s also a moralistic prig. She spent years passing off another woman’s child as her own. She pings and pongs between heartthrobs Sawyer and Jack, seemingly at random. Make no mistake: for Lost to conclude successfully, its writers must solve the problem of Kate.

Although it’s hard to remember now, Kate was once captivating, a lethal criminal in an ingénue’s body. “She looks pretty hardcore,” murmured Hurley upon finding her mug shot. Indeed, the guarded Kate was harder to interpret than the other characters, many of whom saw their problems laid bare by their baffling surroundings. When she became one point of the series’ primary romantic triangle, she remained cryptic while her two Adonises were openly besotted.

Kate’s intrigue began to erode once producers revealed her crime: the murder of Wayne, her loutish father. In Lost‘s moral universe, homicide does not a villain make; nearly every character, from sanctimonious Jack to gentle Sun, has shot to kill. Kate’s motivation, however, felt curiously neutered. She explained, “It was because I hated that [Wayne was] a part of me. That I would never be good, that I would never have anything good.” But nothing in Lilly’s performance has ever suggested the desperation that would make such a choice believable. We never saw the flashback that truly would have rendered Kate vivid: not the murder itself, but the moment she decided to murder.

Such gaps might not be so irksome if Lost‘s creative team didn’t continue to insist on Kate’s magnetism. But once Sawyer fell for Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell), Kate’s charms felt especially limited. Sawyer’s new relationship was mature, complicated, a genuine partnership. Heightening its poignancy was Mitchell, beautifully evoking Juliet’s clenched pain — and hard-won bliss. In her shadow, Kate just seemed restless.

Last week’s premiere underlined how little Kate has grown. “Sideways” Kate, safely in Los Angeles, escaped the marshal tagging her — but now, we weren’t urging her on. If Kate’s propensity to screw herself over via emotional shortcuts is her most relatable quality, her refusal to face that flaw keeps pushing viewers away.

Lilly can relax: Kate’s in it for the long haul. This season’s second episode is titled “What Kate Does,” a play on “What Kate Did,” the episode that revealed her murder. We know too that Kate’s “sideways” backstory may have shifted; producers released a clip last summer showing Kate wanted not for Wayne’s murder but for the accidental one of his innocent apprentice. Might this herald a wiser, more accountable Kate? Let’s hope so. After all, as Lost has always insisted, no one is beyond redemption.

Watch a promo below.