Lost – “The Substitute”

“The Substitute”

February 16th, 2010

In Esquire Magazine’s fantastic feature on Roger Ebert’s struggles with cancer and the surgeries which have left him unable to speak, there are a myriad of passages which are emotional and poignant. However, the one that resonated with me most is the section where Chris Jones talks about Ebert’s dreams:

“In his dreams, his voice has never left. In his dreams, he can get out everything he didn’t get out during his waking hours: the thoughts that get trapped in paperless corners, the jokes he wanted to tell, the nuanced stories he can’t quite relate. In his dreams, he yells and chatters and whispers and exclaims. In his dreams, he’s never had cancer. In his dreams, he is whole.”

Ebert’s story is hugely powerful, and while a fictional character can’t possibly compare I feel his story offers valuable perspective on the narrative arc of John Locke. For Locke, the island was like a dream (but not actually a dream, at least we presume), a place where everything he was unable to accomplish confined to a wheelchair became possible. When John Locke woke up on that beach able to move his legs, it was his miracle, and he went forward in the rest of his life as a believer, someone who felt renewed faith towards whoever was responsible for his miraculous recovery. He was “whole” in a way that he had never experienced before, as if his kidney and his legs hadn’t been taken away by his spiteful father.

But John Locke was always scared: he was scared that it would all be taken away from him, desperate to solve the puzzles of the island so that this dream wouldn’t end. Locke became a believer not because he felt safe, but rather because he felt deathly afraid of what would happen if the dream ended, and the tension that defined his life before arriving on the island never truly left him even when he was able to move his legs.

“The Substitute” is about John Locke, who he was and who he might have been, but it is also about what John Locke was searching for. At the end of the day, he wasn’t searching for faith so much as he was searching for a purpose, and we learn in this episode that Locke was no more chosen than anyone else, which in some ways would have given the man a sense of peace before his tragic end.

There’s a lot of small moments in John Locke’s Flash Sideways that we pick up on: how this particular rain shower (as he lays prone on his front yard with the sprinklers on) is received very differently from the one in the Pilot (where he soaks in the rain as if the island was recovering from a drought), or how Locke is apparently close enough to his “father” (or whoever he refers to as his father) that he would invite him to his wedding to Helen (the always wonderful, and wonderfully capable, Katey Sagal). But it’s becoming clear that the show, at least right now, is less interested in the differences than the similarities, the ways in which the Locke we see in the past reflects not only the Locke we saw for five seasons, but also the man that currently walks the island masquerading as our man of faith.

In terms of the Locke we knew so well, my favourite moment in the Flash Sideways was Locke running into Hurley, who bought out the company that Locke just got fired from, and chastising him for parking too close to his handicap-accessible van. Hurley logically points out that Locke could have parked in the handicap spot, ensuring that his ramp would have space to go down and allow him to get into the van, but Locke resists: in a rendition of his famous “Don’t tell me what I can’t do” speech, Locke tells Hurley that he can park wherever he wants, and that he doesn’t need to identify as Handicapped. The Locke we see in these scenes is someone who doesn’t want to be treated differently, but someone who (compared to what we saw in “Walkabout”) has managed to keep his life together despite this fact: the phone sex operator has been replaced by the real Helen, and the dingy apartment has been replaced by a comfortable suburban abode. John Locke doesn’t want to be different, and while he might be living as normal a life as he wanted to he is still unhappy, still lying to everyone about his Walkabout. The Walkabout embarrassment, however, seems to have given him a dose of reality, and rather than showing Locke’s life falling apart, or Locke desperately searching for a solution to his predicament, the episode gives Locke and Helen a quiet ending where the man seems at peace knowing that Helen is not searching for a destiny, but rather just the man she loves.

It’s a beautiful story, and yet it highlights how all Locke ever wanted was to know, for certain, that he had a destiny, to know why he had shown up on this island. And what we learn in this episode is that Locke had a destiny only in the same way that Jack, Hurley, Sayid, Jin (or Sun) and Sawyer did: they were all chosen as “candidates,” each given a number (4 for Locke, 8 for Hurley, 15 for Sawyer, 16 for Sayid, 23 for Jack and 42 for either Jin or Sun) by Jacob in his “writing on caves” phase on the island. And so for all of Locke’s belief that there was some sort of destiny on the island, he was no more chosen than anyone else (unless we presume lower numbers are in some way more important), which is in some ways all Locke really wanted. He wanted to have faith that he was there for a reason, that he would finally be able to prove himself, but what he realizes in the Flash Sideways was that he doesn’t need to prove himself by achieving the impossible, but rather by making the best of his limitations, finding the people who will take him for who he is and being content with that. The John Locke we see confined to his wheelchair in this episode is happy, a far cry from the confused and terrified man who died at the hands of Benjamin Linus last season.

The episode was a definite showcase for Terry O’Quinn, nailing all of his scenes off-island out of the park as one would expect, but I almost liked his work on the island more, as he nicely captures the nuances of SmokeLocke (or whatever your preferred term for the character happens to be). Sawyer is right in that the man is not afraid, making him quite different from the John Locke that he knew, but the similarities remain: after what appeared to be a young Jacob notes that Locke can’t hurt “him” (which could be referring to Jacob, but could also be referring to Sawyer or someone else entirely), he repeats Locke’s “Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do!” speech with a sense of menace, devoid of that sense of fear which drove the character in “Walkabout.” But yet we discover that this isn’t someone who has it all figured out: yes, he’s now in control of the island, tossing Jacob’s white rock into the ocean and trying to bring Richard to his side, but with great knowledge comes great responsibility. He claims to have the answers to the island, the answers that Locke had always searched for to no avail, and yet his hands seem to be tied in terms of acting on that information, trapped in some sort of centuries-old battle that still remains shadowy.

If John Locke Version 1.0 was searching for answers, John Locke 2.0 (in the flash sideways) seems content with what he’s found, while the Man in Black has all of the answers but seems unable to accomplish his goals. I couldn’t help but feel like there’s a comparison to be made between the various Lockes and the audience as the show argues that sometimes answers are overrated, or that Sawyer’s desire for answers has led him down a particularly dangerous path so we as an audience should be wary. But, just as little winks to the audience never dominated the Flash Sideways (with cameos from Rose, Hurley and Ben feeling clever but resonant), these comparisons never felt bigger than our intrigue at seeing the numbers show up next to everyone’s names, or our interest in what precisely plagues the Man in Black. We learn a lot of little things about him this week, like that he is no longer able to take any other form but Locke and Smokey, but by drawing some direct parallels between the Locke we knew, the Locke who would have been, and this non-Locke, the show uses its years of built-up charactertization to make this new character in an old character’s body part of its ongoing mythology, and with O’Quinn delivering some great dramatic work it’s hard not to get excited about where the show goes from here.

As far as the big picture stuff the episode introduced, the title gives us the best sense of the “Candidacy” process: they were like substitute teachers, people who would eventually be able to take over as protectors of the island. It isn’t clear why they were picked, or why the island is being protected, but this all goes back to that scene at the start of “The Incident” where the Man in Black sees the incoming ship as a threat while Jacob wants to see what happens (which, honestly, seems like an inversion of what we’re seeing at the moment, implying that their roles have not always been the same). With Jacob gone, and no one willing (or able) to step into his role immediately, we can only speculate where things go from here: however, we have to notice whose names weren’t on that list, including Kate (the most substantial castaway unrepresented) and Ben (which explains why he was never able to get as close to Jacob as he would have wanted), as well as why the Man in Black seems so intent to get Sawyer to “go home” with him. If the stuff in the Temple was more obtuse than mysterious, the Man in Black was given a really clear characterization here that made for a clearer threat, and despite my comparative enjoyment of “What Kate Does” amongst critics I will admit that this was definitely the superior episode.

It was an episode filled with plenty of rich subtexts, delivering some fun mythology stuff while also finding resonance in the story of various John Lockes. On a lesser show, such storytelling could be considered gimmicky, but O’Quinn could ground just about any story imaginable, and thus far he’s proven the equal to the writers’ imaginations when it comes to this universe.

Cultural Observations

  • I like that Locke’s story actually spoke out against destiny (in that he rips up Jack’s card) even as he continues to run into other people on the plane as if it was fate. It leaves the question as up in the air as it’s ever been, but also continues to build the mystery of the Flash Sideways.
  • This Flash Sideways worked better than Kate’s primarily because it was more thematic and less functional: Kate’s story focused on reintroducing Claire to our narrative more than anything else, which meant that it didn’t really speak that effectively to most of what was going on. By comparison, this was a very isolated and narrow episode that focused almost exclusively on Locke’s legacy in the series, so Locke’s story felt far more relevant (even when we’re not that much closer to knowing just what the Flashes represent quite yet).
  • Ben’s eulogy for Locke was a nice moment for Michael Emerson, but at the end of the day I like my Ben duplicitous: as such, I loved the moment where he very quickly accepted Ilana’s presumption that the Man in Black had killed Jacob, although I wonder if it is possible that she knows enough about Jacob’s situation to know that he has to be lying. Ilana is still a big ol’ mystery, so I’m curious to see how she plays into things in the weeks ahead.
  • Josh Holloway was really good throughout the episode, including the more serious sections, but sarcastic Sawyer continues to slay me: his entire run about why he was stuck on the island (plane crash, raft explosion, helicopter load issues, etc.) was great, and “I guess I’d better put some pants on” was just fantastic.
  • It’s interesting that the Man in Black goes after Sawyer, especially since Sun remains outside of the Temple: does this imply that he chooses Sawyer because his number is lowest, or does he simply find Sawyer in the place most conducive to seduction through answers?
  • Katey Sagal managed to bring back Helen so convincingly that I never once thought about Gemma (her character on Sons of Anarchy, for the unaware), so she deserves special recognition for that.
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10 Comments

Filed under Lost

10 responses to “Lost – “The Substitute”

  1. All I want to know is why Kate isn’t on Jacob’s list? Any thoughts?

  2. Kat

    I thought the Man in Black saw in the incoming ship as a threat, and Jacob wanted to see what happened – not the other way around.

    • Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve seen The Incident: perhaps, then, it was Jacob knowing that one of his candidates (my money’s on Richard) was on board? Either way, I’m compelled.

  3. Jason

    I think Sawyer was picked because he was alone and hurting, a weakness that Locke felt could be exploited. Much how he used Ben to kill Jacob.

    I’m not entirely sure how much we can take what Locke said at face value. I’m more inclined to believe that the cave was his hideout (similar to what the cabin and the room under the statue was for Jacob), and that list on the wall was his to eliminate.

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  5. Waterland

    This episode was such a stong showcase for Terry O’Quinn and if he doesn’t win an armload of awards for his portrayal then there is no justice in the Universe. For all the revelatory scenes regarding John Locke, the one revelation that made me go “ha!” was the reveal that Hurley was still a “candidate”. I have said all along that Hurley has been overlooked, or even dismissed, as the comic relief and the voice of the audience. But in the redemption story that is Lost, Hurley is the only adult left who is still innocent and without need of redemption. I have always maintained that Hurley is special because of his uncompromised morality and last night’s episode reaffirmed that belief for me.

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  7. James

    Great observations and discussion as usual. Thanks.

  8. Laila

    Just a question regarding a theme.

    Does anyone else see the thread that runs through the series regarding “killing one’s father”? Could the loophole have to do with Jacob only being killed by one of his children/adopted children? Did he somehow adopt Ben (when brought to the Temple and reborn) and therefore Ben was able to kill him?

    Here are a few examples of the potential relationship – what it means I am not sure yet.

    1. John Locke was tested by being asked to kill his father. He refused and had Sawyer do it.
    2. Ben killed his father with no hesitation and killed Jacob with the same ease.
    3. Shepard thinks he killed his father by abandoning him and to cause his drinking.
    4. Jen was willing to renounce his own father and refused to acknowledge his family to his shame.
    5. Kate may or may not have killed her father figure.
    6. Sawyer’s father killed himself in front of his own child – something a child never forgets nor forgives himself.
    7. Didn’t Sayid hate his father for making him kill the animal? I can’t remember what happens to Sayid’s father.
    8. Sun purposely ruined her own father to seek revenge for Jen’s alleged death.
    9. Hurley’s father abandons him while he was young but Hurley was the only character that forgave his father and allowed him back into Hurley’s life.

    Funny, how this thread affects so many of the characters.

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