Why does Kate get to choose? That was Josh Holloway’s question to a TV Guide reporter when asked about the rumor that Kate would decide between Sawyer and Jack sometime before the end of Season Three’s sixth episode. And sure enough, during Episode 3.4, “Every Man for Himself,” Kate decided to let Sawyer live after being forced by head mind gamer Ben Linus to admit her feelings. However, that decision was made under duress, and although Sawyer lived, his sudden change of heart (which he feared quite literally) about escape frightened Kate more than anything else she’d experienced.
That’s saying a lot: Kate generally is fearless or knows how to contain her terror. (Do you still remember Kate counting to forestall monstrous terror in the pilot episode?) Kate’s decision to admit her love or allow Sawyer to die really seemed like a no-brainer, but it’s a scene that Lost presented one more time, in Kate’s backstory episode, “I Do.” Juliet used Kate’s fondness for Sawyer as leverage to get Jack to operate on Ben. Again, Kate really didn’t have much choice. She wasn’t going to let Sawyer die if she could help it.
Kate wasn’t able to persuade Jack to operate on Ben, but she loudly voiced her opposition when Sawyer was threatened. Deciding what to do because there’s a gun to her head (or a burlap bag to put over it) really isn’t much of a choice for someone as interested in self-preservation as Kate.
As much as she tried, Kate couldn’t save Sawyer, although she offered him a great parting gift. Ironically, Jack was inadvertently able to stop Sawyer’s execution; his motivation was to let Kate escape with a one-hour head start. (Do you think Jack might’ve asked that Kate accompany him off the island if she hadn’t been caught in a very comfortable compromising position on Island TV?)
Love is painful more than romantic on Lost. (Think of the Jae/Sun/Jin triangle or Desmond’s and Penny’s separation as just two examples.) Part of Kate’s torture comes from being forced to 1) break her tough girl façade to reveal her deepest feelings, 2) do so despite her conviction that her love is cursed and brings only misery for the one she loves (e.g., Tom, Kevin), and 3) watch while the newly revealed object of her desire is tortured or threatened with death.
For all her bravado, Kate hasn’t yet been shown in a successful long-term relationship. She once admitted to the brief marriage later revealed in “I Do,” but she also swore that she’d killed the only man she’d ever loved. When she previously trusted Sawyer, she found herself used, either to get a kiss or to get Jack to do something. Even in “The Glass Ballerina,” Sawyer’s sudden liplock only took place so that he could get the guards to attack him, thus testing their strength and ability to fight. Kate really has no basis for trusting Sawyer beyond his short-sighted momentary need, and her (and Sawyer’s) ideas about “love” are seriously skewed. (Come on, Monica. A police officer?!)
In the Jack-Kate-Sawyer triangle, Kate hasn’t been given any real choices. In the ongoing rivalry between the two men, she is the prize. As sexist as that may seem, it’s true for these men who superficially treat Kate as an equal. She doesn’t compete with anyone; she never has. As a self-proclaimed loner, she takes herself out of any competition with others; she knows that she’s capable to taking care of herself and doing what needs to be done. In the romance sweepstakes on the island, she doesn’t have a rival among the castaways for Jack’s or Sawyer’s affections. Kate and Juliet offer Jack very different possibilities and don’t consider each other as rivals; Kate and Ana-Lucia never competed for either Jack or Sawyer. Ana was above all pragmatic, whether in friendship or sex.
Kate seems unobtainable, the perfect type of prize—one that’s difficult to win and gives the victor status or power over the loser. Jack and Sawyer can’t choose Kate; she has to decide if or whom she wants. Even in “I Do,” Kate never said “I love you” to Sawyer, and she seemed angry that he didn’t fight to live—or at least stand up and take his execution like a man. Sawyer’s line, “I wanted you to believe we had a chance,” referred to more than why he didn’t tell Kate about their chances for escape; the long-term success of their relationship seems as likely as swimming away from Alcatraz.
Before Kate can make a lasting choice, she needs Free Will, like the Others profess to believe in but give her little chance to exercise. Sawyer won this round by default; he became more of a consolation prize for being stuck in Alcatraz than her long-term choice. Jack didn’t give Kate a real choice to stay or run; her options were limited. If she stayed, Ben died, and Sawyer most likely would be killed in retribution. If she left, Sawyer remained behind, as did Jack—and Jack seemed determined to fly solo back to the U.S.
Sawyer and Kate shared a steamy scene that was satisfying on some levels for Skate fans, but Kate deserves better. Do I hope that someday Kate has an honest love relationship? Do I want Kate to realize that commitment, not incarceration, should accompany love? Do I think Lost should give Kate a real choice about the long-term guy for her? “I Do.”