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'Lost': Locke gets in touch with his feelings

February 16, 2010 | 10:12 pm


Back in October of 2004, I was deeply intrigued by "Lost," but I wasn't yet sure if it was a fair-weather intrigue or if I was seriously hooked. I liked the novel concept of the show, I liked the way the show used flashbacks to comment on its characters, and I liked the aura of mystery surrounding it. But I just wasn't sure if enough of the characters were going to prove deep enough to be worth following. I was certainly intrigued by all of them, but they seemed rather thinly sketched. Then again, this was a show with 14 regular characters and what already appeared to be a hefty number of recurring players. I was willing to cut them some slack on developing characters. I was in for half a season at least.

And then along came the first John Locke flashback episode -- "Walkabout" -- and I knew I was going to follow this show until either it or I left the face of the Earth. 

Now, "Walkabout" is a fairly traditional take on the ol' twist ending. In fact, it's such a traditional take on it that it was fairly easy to predict just what the final twist of the episode would be. But that didn't mean that the moment -- Locke sitting in a wheelchair and angrily berating the folks who wouldn't let him go on a walkabout to not tell him what he couldn't do -- wasn't absolutely spine-tingling. The combination of Michael Giacchino's soaring score, the camera finally cutting away from its tight close-ups on Locke to allow the audience the freedom he could never have and Terry O'Quinn's stunner of a performance created one of those indelible TV moments, where you'll always know where you were when you first saw it. If pilots are there to show us what a new series might look like, then the earliest episodes of a series are there to show us the varied tones the show is capable of pulling off. "Walkabout" is one of the most confident episodes a series has ever unveiled that early in its run (just the third episode!). I'd wager it cemented more "Lost" fans than just me, maybe more than any other episode.

Now, continuing the self-conscious mirroring of the first season, "Lost" sends out the third episode of its final season, a Locke-centric episode. This one doesn't have the powerful punch of the conclusion of "Walkabout," but it does still have the tremendous performance of O'Quinn. That's enough to fuel multiple television shows. Indeed, when you combine that with the way O'Quinn plays off his other cast members -- here sharing nice screen time with Jorge Garcia, Michael Emerson and especially Josh Holloway -- you've got an episode that reveals this final season is off to a confident start. There may not have been enough answers for the hyper-mythological crowd (though we got a good deal of interesting conjecture), but it was a great showcase for the finest character "Lost" ever cooked up.

Yeah, I said finest character. I've speculated here a few times that the characters who became the most memorable ones on "Lost" were the ones for whom the writers and actors were both able to contribute excellent shading, turning what could have been two-dimensional stereotypes into far more compelling figures than they had any right to be. It's what separated something like how Holloway turned the roguish Sawyer into a tragic figure forced to grow up on the Island instead of just another riff on Han Solo, while Boone pretty much just remained a spoiled little rich boy. 

This was not the case with Locke, who was the writers' finest creation even before O'Quinn got to shout, "Don't tell me what I can't do!" O'Quinn's charisma and boundless ability to play mystery and well-meaning confusion still brought the character a fair distance from the writers' conception of him, but one has to admit that a middle-aged man confined to a wheelchair after a life in which he was mostly used and abused by everyone he knew, a man who would never get to live the special destiny he believed to be in his future who suddenly gets a chance to when he regains the use of his legs and gets a special place to show off his mad survival skills when his plane crashes on a mystical Island, is a pretty meaty role even without a great actor. This is not to say that Jim Belushi could have knocked it out of the park, nor is it to denigrate what O'Quinn has accomplished, but Locke was already, pretty much by default, the most intriguing character the show had when it started up. 

And he's mostly continued on that path as the show has gone along. Aside from the rather frustrating second season, which saw the grand irony of Locke being confined to a chair again for very different reasons, Locke has been the voice for the Island, the primary one who has been convinced that he alone can help guide the castaways to their true destinies. He's seemed like a religious zealot at times, but if he hadn't, well, he wouldn't be Locke. And then, of course, he was revealed to be just another pawn in a game played by two men we've only begun to understand. And that was perhaps the series' most heartbreaking moment.

I dwell on Locke and his history and importance to the show so much because "The Substitute" is almost entirely a showcase for O'Quinn, a chance given to him to once again knock it out of the park (perhaps for the final time). He plays two wildly different characters who converge in some interesting ways. He is allowed to play the full range of emotions for both Locke himself and the fake Locke who is actually the smoke monster. He's also allowed to share most of his scenes on the Island with Holloway, who's always been a strong companion for the actor. For some reason, Sawyer's devil-may-care attitude has always blended well with Locke's headstrong faith, so their journey to the cave with all of the countless names crossed out was the perfect blend of psychological test, religious ritual and Boy's Life adventure story cover.

"The Substitute" does so many of the things I love about "Lost" that I have to break hard with the folks on my Twitter feed who said immediately after the episode that it was yet another filler, an episode designed to space out the time between now and the end when we presumably will get the "answers" we're owed or something. I get that there are plenty of people just watching the show because they want to see the puzzle pieces snap into place, but I'm not convinced the puzzle pieces coming together will work if the picture they're painting isn't at least of interest to the audience. Lots of people would finish a jigsaw of a mountain vista. Few would be as intrigued to put together a picture of a rundown strip mall on Cahuenga.

And even if the answers are the only things you want to see, look more at just what we've begun to see filled in this evening. Fake Locke turning Sawyer was the sort of thing that was almost inevitable, I suppose (though I assume Sawyer will get a final turn toward good in the end), but I, for one, did not see the reveal that the famed Numbers -- which I had long ago given up on ever seeing explained -- would all refer to one of the survivors on the wall of that cave where Jacob had been hastily scratching in what appeared to be hundreds of names (just how long has this island been here?). And then the final reveal: With Jacob dead, the Man in Black, in the form of Locke, is able to leave the Island, presumably to walk among us, and he wants to take Sawyer with him. That is, if Sawyer doesn't want to take Jacob's place as guardian of the Island, the one to both protect it from the outside world and, presumably, protect the outside world from the Monster. It's a huge amount of information to download, and the elegant way "Lost" just dropped all of it on us was truly impressive.

The flash-sideways, which occupied a similar amount of time when compared to Kate's flash-sideways last week, also offered up some great moments. This one was primarily about Locke learning to accept that he didn't have a great destiny, that his destiny was just to marry a wonderful woman and have a nice house in the Los Angeles suburbs. (On a box company middle management salary? Psh.) There's a real heart to these scenes, to the notion of a man who could have been great giving up on miracles and on anything other than a nice, quiet life with a woman he loves. And there's a terrific sense that the show understands that, in some ways, this was better than his quest for greatness. In one universe, he ends up in a hole in the ground, his murderer delivering his eulogy while a force of ultimate evil borrows his skin to go walk about. In ours, he gets fired and becomes a substitute teacher (where he ends up working with, surprise surprise, Ben Linus), but that's not such a bad destiny after all, even as he looks impossibly small behind that desk.

American fiction doesn't talk often about giving up. It's all about having big goals and either realizing those goals or being completely crushed by the realization that you won't become what you always dreamed of becoming. Yet, out here in the real world, most of us are living out that old John Lennon axiom that life is what happens when you're making other plans. For those of us who dream big, the world is a long series of sideways flashes into lives that we couldn't have comprehended living when we were younger but that we come to love all the same. If there is such a thing as destiny, it also needs substitute teachers, and this episode of "Lost" is about the fact that sometimes that's a viable path after all.

But none of this would land with the resonance it does if it weren't for the sad, soulful gaze of O'Quinn, the man who just longed to be given a greater purpose and saw that longing twisted and perverted by others with lesser ends. There's a marvelous bit of editing here where fake Locke shows Sawyer all of the names of the people Jacob chose as candidates for his job, interspersed with shots of Jacob touching each of them in last season's finale. It's a nice way to clear up a tiny point that most of us were wondering about last season, but it's also a wonderful way to outline one of the underlying themes of "Lost": What does it mean to choose someone? We all make choices every day, but we also all choose which people we're going to support, which people we're going to surround ourselves with. In a world as starkly drawn between good and evil as the world of "Lost," that means choosing between representatives of God and the devil. But it can also mean choosing to mourn the woman you loved or choosing to stand by the man you're to marry, whether he's in a wheelchair or not. Life is all about substitution, really, about replacing some of the things you wanted with the things you now want. "The Substitute," then, is a reminder that the one thing you don't want to substitute too heavily on is the people you have in your life.

Some other thoughts:

  • "Search and Destroy"? Awesome. Sawyer getting drunker and drunker to it? Even more awesome. Really, Holloway's in support throughout this episode, but he reveals himself to have become a large portion of the show's soul.
  • Speaking of awesome, I have to borrow a phrase from the old Television Without Pity discussion of the show "Everwood." Seeing things from the Smoke Monster's perspective? So cheesy. So AWESOME.
  • I love the high priority that the series places on ritual. From the way Ilanna gathers up the ashes of Jacob to the brief funeral for Locke, this is an episode replete with moments that seem filled with a religious portent we can't yet grasp the significance of.
  • And, yeah, Ben makes just about the worst person to have deliver your eulogy, doesn't he?
  • On the music front, I'm rather loving the way Giacchino has flipped the traditional Locke theme upside down to invent the "dark" Locke theme. Nice work.
  • Locke tearing up Jack's card is an interesting development in the flash-sideways, particularly when he described him as a "nice guy" earlier. Certainly our real Locke would never say such a thing about Jack, and certainly it seems like the show will be taking its time to bring the alternate timeline castaways together.
  • So, this week's discussion question: How did Lil' Ben get off the Island, if we assume the bomb sank it (and I still am)? 
  • Remember: Tomorrow's "Lost" Wednesday. Send me your favorite links via e-mail or Twitter, and be sure to share your crazy theories and ideas in comments.

--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: John Locke (Terry O'Quinn, far right) becomes a substitute teacher in the alternate timeline on "Lost." (Credit: ABC)

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