After sitting passively behind a computer for nearly a season, what a relief is it to see John Locke back to the way we fondly remember him--as a wide-eyed, knife-wielding, face-smeared madman.Wednesday's episode, "Further Instructions," reunites us with the remaining Lost cast members (omitted from the last two weeks' episodes) and finds the show less in mythology-mode and more focusing on Locke's propulsive descent into madness and redemption. It's no coincidence that Terry O'Quinn spends much the episode looking like he's stepped off the set of Apocalypse Now. Having survived last season's hatch explosion, Locke returns to camp alone; a changed man, temporarily rendered mute and once again willing to let the island "speak to him."
Forming an uneasy and weakly-articulated alliance with Charlie (Dominic Monaghan)--who pointedly reminds him that last time they met John pummeled him for threatening Claire's (Emilie de Ravin) baby--Locke builds a "sweat lodge," a small, poorly-insulated sauna meant to induce hallucinations and spiritually guide its inhabitant. Locke, who we've already seen run afoul of the mob, conned out of a kidney by his father, and confined to a wheelchair due to an as yet unexplained ailment, continues to be full of surprises in his previous life. This week's flashback shows him running guns and picking produce for a sketchy-looking hippy commune/cult. The island's resident Yoda has already shown himself an expert in knife-throwing, tracking boar, detoxing from heroin and possessing a grad-student's appreciation for philosophy and faith: it should come as no surprise that the man's spent a fair amount of time with people who know a thing or two about growing pot and who have probably been on their fair share of "vision quests."
While on his spiritual journey in the "sweat lodge," Locke receives a visit from old friend and island martyr Boone (Ian Somerhalder), who returns from the dead to absolve John for the role he played in his death ("the island needed a sacrifice") and to lead him through a psychotropic, Tony Scott-esque dream. With the camera shutter fluttering around him, Locke is wheeled through an airport--just like the last time he saw Boone alive, his legs fail him--where all the island's residents are ready to board a plane, in some cases their roles playfully re-contextualized: Charlie and Claire a happy couple, Hurley (Jorge Garcia) an airline agent, Ben Linus (Michael Emerson) a wand-waving TSA agent, etc. Locke frantically searches out who it is he needs to save (for Jack and company, he's told by Boone, "can't help them, at least not yet"), ultimately learning it's Mr. Eko (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). The dream ends with a startling and abrupt vision of a certain, familiar ursine that literally propels Locke out of the lodge and into the daylight.
Yes, they're finally bringing back the polar bears. Hinted at in the season premiere ("it only took the bears two hours"), "Further Instructions" gives us our first bona-fide bear appearance since one cornered Walt (Malcolm David Kelley) in a tree trunk back in Season One. Although never wholly successful from a visual stand-point, for me the polar bears have always represented the edge of the cliff that Lost so brazenly walks along week to week, reminding me that I'll willingly overlook most anything in return for a truly stunning surprise. I suspect there will never be a fully satisfactory resolution as to what a bunch of arctic creatures are doing on a tropical island, but my pulse definitely quickened once I realized we'd be going on a bear hunt.
Locke believes Eko has been taken by the bear back to its den and, armed with an aerosol spray can and an open flame, he intends to get him back. Covered in mud, carrying a torch, and venturing into a subterranean layer (whether intentional or not, this scene couldn't help but mirror Schwarzenegger in Predator), Locke finds piles of bones and, tellingly, a Dharma Initiative T-shirt amidst the carnage before coming across a barely-conscious Eko. After rescuing Eko from the animal's clutches (this scene is something of a misfire as logistics and budgetary restraints requires the sequence, with Locke battling a disembodied bear head, to be filmed in tight close-up and chopped to bits), Locke and Charlie drag the badly injured Eko back to camp, but not before Locke has another vision where he's reassured that he will rescue Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly), and Sawyer (Josh Holloway) from "The Others" because "he is a hunter."
This latest statement ties into Locke's backstory, a largely under-developed affair involving the aforementioned commune and a young man, Eddie (War of the Worlds' Justin Chatwin), brought under John's wing. This story-line admittedly threw me off (considering John's track record with protégés, I saw this kid as a goner for sure), but only because no one could predict the turn of events that actually do transpire: Eddie is a cop, sent undercover to bring the commune down, although it remains unclear as to whether he even knows what they're up to. To that end, the local law enforcement's got to be a little bummed that they sent this kid undercover for six weeks and all he could dig up was a bunch of marijuana farmers.
The flashback ends without any real closure as, when given the chance to murder the young man who betrayed him, Locke is unable to pull the trigger; Eddie walks away and we never learn what happens from there. Last week I complained about the contortions required to thematically connect Sun's flashback to the present-day story, and that goes double for this episode. I'm the first to complain at the cause-and-effect nature of the flashback as motivator on this show, but as overly simplistic as they may be, at least it means the flashbacks have a point. Here we have an even flimsier through-line of Locke anguished over his perceived passivity and questioning whether he has the fortitude to make difficult choices, and somehow that requires half as much plot as The Departed? Locke's timeline also seems to be spinning off its axis. How did John get from raising a hunting rifle at an undercover cop to working for a box company while confined to a wheelchair? Are we to assume Locke spent some time in jail for his role in the pot farm and, if so, can we all look forward to the episode down the road where Locke catches a shank in the showers that leads to his paralysis? If this highly unlikely series of events does come to pass, it'll be doubly ironic as co-star Harold Perrineau played a wheelchair-confined convict on Oz.
Of course, Locke wasn't the focus of the entire episode. After wandering across the island for a couple of days, Hurley returns, injecting some much needed levity back into the show. Giving voice to fanboy skepticism (regarding Desmond's self-destruct key: "that's sort of convenient"), Hurley is often the only one on the island willing to ask the burning questions like, how exactly did Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) survive the hatch explosion ("dude, are you like The Incredible Hulk now?") and how is it he ended up naked? The show has a tendency to take itself way too seriously and is far too willing to overlook obvious plot holes and character machinations, yet I know as long as Hurley is around someone will keep the show grounded. Andrew Johnston was right: Hurley really is the coolest guy on the island.
Desmond may not turn green and shred his pants anytime soon (although that would certainly explain the nude thing), but that doesn't mean he hasn't been given a Marvel-like gift as a result of surviving the hatch. When told that Jack, Kate and Sawyer have been kidnapped, Desmond is confident that Locke will rescue them because, after all, he made a great speech about it. The problem is Locke had made no such speech and does not make one until the final moments of the episode. Either Desmond's developed an ability to see into the future or someone's been skipping ahead in their scripts (later on in the episode when Locke does deliver his rousing "let's go get 'em" sermon, Desmond appears to be out of ear-shot: perhaps he doesn't even need to witness the future to be aware of it).
Now in the third episode of the new season, Lost appears to be hitting its stride, nicely alternating mythology episodes (with heaping mouthfuls of exposition from "The Others") with quickly paced stand-alone episodes like this one. The episode, however, does reveal what I fear is a colossal misjudgment on the producers' part, one that happens so discretely I suspect it will take a few more episodes for most viewers to catch onto it. Upon returning to camp with Eko and Charlie, Locke is greeted by Claire, as well as the previously unseen Nikki and Paulo (played by new cast members Kiele Sanchez and Rodrigo Santoro respectively) who become very animated in the conversation.
It's been known for some time that the show would be adding new actors to its regular roster; the question remained how a show this insulated would accomplish such a feat (Elizabeth Mitchell's character was perfectly integrated into the cast of "The Others" a couple weeks back). And yet, it's obvious that Lost plans to incorporate Sanchez and Santoro in the most perfunctory, unimaginative, and audience-insulting manner possible--it's as if they've won a contest to show up for an episode as Claire's previously unseen best friends. These new additions to the cast represent a scary future for the show where any random background character can be raised up to the level of featured player whenever they're in need of fresh blood. But why should we care about these people? Two characters who didn't step up to help build Michael's boat or man the hatch or assist Jack with his medical work or watch Aaron for Claire or console Hurley at Libby's (Cynthia Watros) funeral. The addition last year of the "tailies" found a truly inspired method of expanding the cast, giving us new characters to become attached to while still placing them on an equal footing with our old favorites. But what are we to think of these two people who never bothered to stand up and be accounted for in the previous 69 days?
Are we going to care when we're inevitable subjected to Nikki and Paulo's flashbacks, and, more importantly, has the show earned the right to us caring about them? If you believe Locke (and the show's writers) that all of these people are connected and nothing here happens by chance, then surely one of these characters would have had some impact on our cast before this point. And yet, there they were for the first time, chirping up like they'd been there all along. I'm not one who believes in expressions like "jumping the shark," but let's just say this is a dangerous precedent that bears keeping an eye on.