In Defense of Kate Austen from LOST
She's actually not that bad, guys
LOST almost looked a great deal different.
In an excerpt from Alan Sepinwall’s book The Revolution Was Televised, the pilot for the famously frustrating series looked mostly similar to the finished product—save for one major detail. Jack Shepard (Matthew Fox) did not survive his encounter with the smoke monster at the pilot’s conclusion.
The writers were eventually convinced that they needed to change this twist by executives who thought that it would make viewers not trust the show, but for a long time, Jack never made it past the pilot, which would’ve deprived us of the fantastic “We have to go back!” meme and little else.
So who was supposed to be the group’s original leader in Jack’s absence? Leading lady Kate Austen, played by budding Marvel superhero Evangeline Lilly. Originally conceived as a woman whose fiancé was stranded in the tail section of Flight 815, she was reborn as a tough-as-nails fugitive.
She also had the misfortune of being one of the series’ most hated characters by the time the show ended, sharing that title with Jack. Kate was a widely reviled character for being part of television’s most frustrating love triangle and for being reduced to the role of love interest towards the latter half of the series, but a lot of the criticisms against her are somewhat unfair.
It’s not Kate’s fault that the writers gave up on her role in the later seasons. They mostly gave up on everyone who couldn’t help the central island mystery in these seasons, and character development is slim as they race towards their pre-set finale. Characters spin their wheels, or are given aborted arcs in favor of the frozen wheel in the middle of the island or sending everyone ricocheting through time and space. Kate being there just to bounce between Sawyer and Jack was all the writers could conceive of her doing in those later seasons. It’s not the fault of the character but the male writers who often struggled with creating equally compelling arcs for non-white male characters.
In the early seasons though? Kate was a certified awesome character. Her backstory—she killed her abusive stepfather and has been on the run ever since—afforded her narrative intrigue on and off the island. Her flashbacks were always tense and interesting, and her island story matched that. She was able to negotiate leadership better than Jack ever could, and her friendships with those on the island were far more interesting than Jack’s constant state of animosity with nearly every other male character.
True, she had a knack for getting into trouble and not following orders, but are we really about to blame her for not listening to some guys she barely knew? She was trying to help and take charge in an unfamiliar circumstance, and we shouldn’t use that as a sign of weakness but as a sign of her trying to have more agency, something which the writers did try to take from her at every given opportunity.
And of course, there’s the love triangle. As Kate waffled between Jack and Sawyer, fans turned against her. And it’s easy to understand why. It was a six season-long affair that lasted through multiple outside love interests, time and space being in flux, and everything in between. I remember being in middle school and reading the official LOST magazines they put out, where the writers said they couldn’t end the love triangle early for fear of viewers turning off the television now that they had an answer. The writers, once more, are at fault for everything it seems; had they resolved Kate’s romantic problems sooner, despite upsetting viewers, then she wouldn’t have earned a terrible reputation amongst television fanatics.
We blame the character for a lot of shortcomings that can be best attributed to the writers, and while it’s easy to hate a character for the squandered potential he or she had, it’s also time to step back and blame the writers for not following through on that potential.
Character development was key to the early seasons of LOST, so when they ditched that in favor of more mysteries and quick answers, it is easy to just hate the character herself. But we should cut Kate a break. Beyond the love triangle, she was a fascinating character and Lilly played her as being charming yet fierce. When writing the history of television’s most frustrating mystery, maybe it’s time to rewrite the fan response to Kate.
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