I’m sure ten million Lost fans have made this joke already, but “The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham” was essentially The Passion of John Locke (Terry O’Quinn). Not for nothing, apparently, did the last episode prominently focus on Jack’s (Matthew Fox) role as the doubting Thomas of our little band of players.
But then, Locke, especially as played by O’Quinn, has always been the self-appointed messiah of the Island. He believes there’s a destiny that everyone who crashed there is living up to. He’s willing to make the ultimate sacrifice when he’s told he has to and barely even questions it until the midpoint of this episode. And, really, all he wants to do is save everyone. Sure, everyone on Lost has a BIT of a savior complex, but Locke’s comes with the kind of manic fury that one would need to really get things done. He was a broken man off-Island, but on the Island, he’s been given everything he would ever want, so he becomes its chief witness and bearer of its testament. “Life and Death,” written by Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof and directed by Jack Bender, is as much about removing that casual swagger and confidence from Locke and reducing him to a broken man again as it is playing out the beats that led to Locke attempting to kill himself. It’s very similar to last week’s “316,” right down to the structural level, but I liked it quite a bit better for a variety of reasons. It’s a fairly bold piece of television—and bold in a way Lost rarely has been in the past—for the way it focuses so singularly on one man’s despair and for the way it refuses to be especially plotty outside of its opening and closing segments. It’s a straight-up character piece, so it helps that the character being examined is possibly Lost’s most fascinating (and well-played).
The structure of “Life and Death” is pretty predictable once you get into the swing of it. It opens on the Island, where Locke meets our two new recurring players, Caesar (Saïd Taghmaoui) and Ilana (Zuleikha Robinson), and spills a little information on the Island and how he came to be there (including the ominous line, “I remember dying”). From there, the show pulls a straight-up flashback for the first time this season (complete with flashback whoosh-y noise and everything), sending us off-Island to see what happened after Locke pushed the giant wheel at the end of the season’s fifth episode. From there, the episode consists of a series of scenes designed to build Locke up and then tear him down. It seemed a bit plodding at first, until you got into its rhythm and remembered that all passion plays are driven as much by the great, underground tug of the power of ritual as by anything else. Locke’s crusade takes on something of that ritualistic fervor by the end of the episode, as he is stripped of all support, of all things he believes to be true about himself, of his very reason for being. Locke’s decision to commit suicide might have been a grand sacrifice the Island required, but it was also a choice made by a man filled with despair, as pointed out to him by Matthew Abbadon (the great Lance Reddick making what would seem to be his first AND last appearance this season). Something about the way Locke visited first Widmore (Alan Dale), then Sayid (Naveen Andrews), then Walt (Malcolm David Kelley), then Hurley (Jorge Garcia), then Kate (Evangeline Lilly) and then the grave of his former girlfriend Helen felt grandly pageant-like, vaguely reminiscent of something like the Stations of the Cross. It all ended with a visitation from Jack in the hospital, Locke’s Thomas, to be sure, but also his Peter, the person constantly in denial of what Locke knows to be true. Fittingly enough, the episode ended with Locke’s very own Judas, Ben (Michael Emerson), arriving at the seedy hotel Locke was staying in to interrupt Locke’s suicide attempt and then go ahead and strangle the guy anyway. All the episode needed was to have Locke’s arms outstretched, crucifix-style, at the end of the episode as his body hung from the ceiling to hammer the point home even more.
Lost is rarely subtle in these sorts of things, but I was surprised at how in-character and graceful much of the writing in the individual scenes was. Freed from the need to serve character needs AND move the plot forward, the characters stopped being mere game pieces on a giant chessboard and became a group of people who had been changed, some for the better, some for the worse, by a life-altering tragedy, and the scenes took on some of the feel of ABC’s fascinatingly flawed The Nine from a few seasons back, which was a show dedicated almost ENTIRELY to understanding how post-traumatic stress disorder might bring a band of disparate survivors together by improbable means, but was also a very small-scale character drama. This being Lost, we were soon back on the Island (or, rather, the smaller Island off the coast of the main Island, if eagle-eyed viewers who saw that Caesar had stumbled across Hydra station were to be believed) and back into the intrigue of the series proper, but “Life and Death” was primarily a one-episode chance to focus on one person and how their life had or hadn’t been changed by the Island. It has the kind of subtle character writing that the show just couldn’t do, seemingly, in its first few seasons, and it really marks just how far Cuse and Lindelof have come AS WRITERS since the show began.
Locke, for his part, doesn’t seem all that INTERESTED in bringing everyone back to the Island. He’s going to make a go of it at the behest of Widmore, but he seems properly skeptical of the man’s motives for sending him back, as it’s hard to just write off a dude sending a freighter full of people looking to kill anything that moves. Locke seems to bond with Abbadon during their time together, and Abbadon’s talks with him seem to slowly suggest that it’s possible Locke needn’t go back to the Island, that he could build SOME sort of life off-Island that would approach the kind of confidence he found on the Island. Abbadon, who indirectly put Locke on the plane that brought him to the Island, says he gets people where they need to go, but he also seems to understand that Locke has a choice—not just a choice to die or live, but a choice to go back to the Island or to stay in the real world, to eke out a new living there. Of course, Abbadon is shot by Ben in a thrillingly edited sequence that punctuates the episode just when it might become too solemn. Locke, as he so often does, attempts to escape the assassin and only gets into more trouble, landing in a catastrophic car crash that sends him to the hospital where Jack met him.
But there was more going on in the attempts to get Locke to stay on the mainland—indeed, to get ALL of the characters to stay on the mainland. The writers of Lost seem to see the Island as something of a trap. It gives you what you THINK you want, but it also takes away so much. When you come to a kind of peace with your past, it inevitably kills you, for example, and its tendrils extend into the “real world,” to the point where those who leave are filled almost with a compulsion for it. The Island is one of those all-purpose metaphors authors of pulp love so much, and when its motives are mysterious, it makes the show more of a fun guessing game, but for Locke, the Island has always been his everything, just because it healed him in the first season, made him able to walk again. Indeed, as soon as he lands back on the mainland, he’s in a wheelchair again from the broken leg he suffered falling into a hole, though he’s slowly regaining his mobility throughout the episode. Locke, to his mind, is helpless, but the episode is filled with signifiers that he may not necessarily HAVE to be helpless.
Take, for example, Locke’s first visit, which is to Sayid. Sayid is working on building homes for the poor in the jungles of Central America. He’s extricated himself from the web of death Ben had trapped him in when he was working as an assassin, and while he seems mournful over the death of his wife, Nadia, he also says that he’s doing good work. He invites Locke to come help him when he gives up his quest to return, and Locke politely declines, but he also doesn’t insist too heavily to Sayid that he return, after he learns all that being trapped between Widmore and Ben has taken from Sayid. Locke’s meeting with Walt is frustratingly short (and given how important Walt was to the show’s first season, I hope this isn’t the last time we see him), but it also points to a potential life off the Island, as Walt inquires after his father and seems to be trying to live a relatively normal pre-pubescent life. Hurley, meanwhile, suggests that it IS possible to rebuild after returning; everyone else has after all. It’s Kate, finally, who raises the specter of Helen, the woman Locke loved and the one person he says he might give up his Island quest to be with. Both Kate and Jack rub in to Locke that he was just a lonely old man who found a new lease on life on the Island, but his speech to Kate, pointing out that he was bitter and obsessed and that’s why he lost Helen, shows that he didn’t HAVE to be a lonely old man. It was, instead, kind of a choice he made that was buoyed by the circumstances he was born into.
The only other thing Locke has to hang on to is that he’s special, but all of this seems fairly specious. This being Lost, I’m going to assume he IS as special as everyone says he is. Locke’s specialness, his purpose, though, is not terribly well spelled-out to him. Widmore’s answer when he asks why he’s special is that he just is, which seems a bit lacking, and Ben refuses, as always, to speak in specifics. So when Jack attacks the final thing holding up the pedestal Locke has placed himself upon it hurts Locke more than anything even Kate had said. He’s already, seemingly, decided that he’s too old and too lonely to try to make another go of it, and he’s struck out with everyone he’s tried to convince to return to the Island (though I wonder why he didn’t have Desmond on his list). And so, so chastened, he returns to his hotel room to hang himself in the middle of the night in a strikingly-shot sequence that concludes with Ben cleaning up the aftermath of his murder, the shadow of Locke’s corpse looming large on the wall behind him.
It’s, really, as fine a portrayal of a man pushed to the brink as a show with a marauding smoke monster might be able to pull off. Since this is Lost, Locke probably really IS important, and all of the people who got off the Island are going to end up forced to go back there for one reason or another, but I’m glad the show was so tenacious in showing us Locke reach his breaking point. The Lost writers seem dedicated to doing this at least once a season, and it helps that O’Quinn always delivers, but this episode featured standout work for the other cast members who appeared, even Lilly, who was probably the best she’s ever been on the show, gently needling Locke but still driving the knives in deep.
Lost is, at its core, a religious show. That’s what drives its engines, really. It may say it’s about men of science and men of faith, but it’s always come down so hard on the side of the men of faith that the argument always seemed too one-sided to really be focused on. That may be why its best characters are men like Locke and Ben, men driven by a small voice inside of them that’s just always telling them what the Island wants them to be doing. Lost pretends to be a science fiction show some of the time with stuff like time travel thrown in there, but it’s really a show about a group of religious pilgrims, in thrall to a force they don’t really understand and throwing their weight behind a series of imperfect leaders. It was this episode’s greatest conceit that it so deeply humanized one of those leaders.
Some other thoughts:
Geez, so much for my Left Behind theories from last week. I guess flight 316 made some sort of crash landing (on the runway on the smaller Island?), and then a few of the survivors, including Lapidus (hurrah!) took off to the larger Island in some of the boats. Seems we’re obviously going to see those in the boats shooting at those left behind in the episode “Jughead” in a few weeks.
Great, great shots on the beach tonight, which made me all the more depressed that my ABC HD continues to be out. That pan from Locke’s shoes sitting atop his neatly folded suit jacket to the man himself staring out into the blue, blue waves, a look of contentment on his face, was pretty exquisite.
On the other hand, Locke apparently playing a monk at the episode’s very beginning? Not so much.
So, anyway, is 24 just gonna START OVER? I know that the show’s kind of done that in the past by blowing up the nuclear bomb with several episodes left in Season Two and by shifting the threat after the first 13 episodes in Season One, but this is just a blatant way for the show to remove itself from a plot conceived before the writers’ strike that didn’t make a ton of sense and embark on a new plot. Here’s hoping for better from what’s to come. At least, if I’m going to keep watching, that is.
So if Jack, Kate, Hurley and Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) are in the 1970s with the DHARMA Initiative (along with Dan (Jeremy Faraday), if the season premiere began with a flash-forward, of sorts), and Locke, Ilana, Caesar and Lapidus are in the present (with Sun (Yunjin Kim), presumably, since the show seems dedicated to keeping her and Jin apart), where are all of our other players going to land, exactly? I guess we’ll find out next week.
I’m assuming this coming war will be the driving narrative force for Season Six, but it really seems as though we’re being set up to not especially trust EITHER side in the war (both Ben and Widmore seem pretty evil at this point). Perhaps the Island needs Locke because it knows he will lead a small force of parties not loyal to either side that will finally bring peace to its shores. But who can tell? Widmore seemed intent on returning him to the Island, while Ben wanted to kill him.
And on that note, does Ben REALLY expect Locke to resurrect when he gets to the Island? He was very insistent that the corpse needed to be with the Oceanic Six when they went back, but when he leaves Locke’s hotel room after killing him, he sure seems to act as though he’ll never see Locke again.
Man, seedy-lookin’ hotels are just a great setting for TV shows. Every show should have at least one major set piece per season set in one.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.