Over the past two weeks, I’ve questioned—mildly, mind you—the effectiveness of Lost’s new “flash-sideways” story-structure, arguing that it’s difficult to get involved with the revised versions of the characters, especially when the separate storylines of a given episode don’t seem to have much to do with each other. Jump back a week, to “What Kate Does.” Unless Island Kate and Alterna-Kate turn out to be the same person (as has been speculated), then the story of these two Kates’ respective adventures with Claire and Sawyer don’t really connect, and thus don’t have much emotional resonance. (At least to me.)
“The Substitute,” though, is a whole different story. Even though we definitely (I think) got the story of two different characters—Alterna-Locke and Not-Locke—this episode resonated like a bastard for me, for a number of reasons. Let’s start with a significant one: The tenuous connection the two Lockes have to the “real” Locke. Y’know, the one who begins the episode dead on a beach? Lying next to a open box? With a crab scuttling on his ripening head?
The fate of Dead-Locke is dealt with in passing tonight, as Sun insists that he be buried, and she, Ilana, Frank and Ben haul the body up to lovely 815 Memorial Cemetery & Stick-Cross Emporium. There, Ben says a few words about Locke being “a believer” and “a better man,” before saying, “I’m sorry I murdered him.” (Frank: “This is the weirdest damn funeral I’ve ever been to.”) With that bit of business out of the way, we’re free to deal with Our Changed Lockes.
When last we saw Not-Locke, he was walking past the corpse of the man whose identity he stole, and heading into the jungle with Richard Alpert slung over his shoulder. We first encounter him in “The Substitute” via a wicked P.O.V. shot, as he Smokeys his way across The Island and then re-Lockes himself in order to talk to Richard, whom he bound in a tree-sack. He tries to recruit Richard, marveling that the devoted Mr. Alpert followed Jacob’s orders for so long without question, and insisting that he would always be frank about his plans. (Read: Faith sucks. Reason rules.) But Richard doesn’t trust Smokey, and though you and I might be inclined to listen to him because he appears to us in such a pleasing form, I have to wonder what I should make of The Little Blond Boy who appears as an apparition before Smokey, and reminds him that The Rules state that he can’t kill Jacob. (Smokey’s Locke-ian reply: “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”)
So Not-Locke whooshes over to Sawyer, the world’s forgotten boy, who’s blaring The Stooges and getting himself good and drunk. Not-Locke rouses Sawyer by promising to answer “the most important question in the world.” (Sawyer: “Guess I better put some pants on.”) And while those two embark on their journey and talk about literature—including Steinbeck, who was “a little after” Smokey’s time—let’s take a moment to consider what it means that Jacob’s Nemesis has taken the form of a man who seemed destined to be Jacob’s Truest Disciple. It it ironic? A cruel joke that The Man In Black is playing on Jacob? Or are Locke and Not-Locke spiritual kin in some way?
After all, it’s not like those two don’t have anything in common. Smokey has a reputation for relying on others to accomplish his goals, and Locke has been known to do the same. (Getting Sawyer to kill Cooper, letting Ben turn the Donkey Wheel, etc.) And both have been, in some way, trapped: Smokey bound to The Island, and Locke stuck in a wheelchair. Stretching the analogy even further, it’s possible that both of the them are in their respective predicaments because they’ve been conned. There’s clearly a story behind how and why Jacob’s been able to keep The Man In Black in check for so long.
And what of Alterna-Locke? In the flash-sideways, we meet a man who seems to have a sense of humor about his condition: chuckling when his van-hydraulics get stuck, or when he falls out of his chair onto his lawn just as the sprinklers come on. And this version of Locke has a companion in Helen, who stuck with him in this reality, and is making their wedding plans. But the more time we spend with Alterna-Locke, the more we see some of the familiar dissatisfaction. His escapade in Australia costs Locke his job at the box company—because his boss Randy, as we all know, is a huge douche—though a chance encounter with Hugo in the parking lot opens new career opportunities, so it’s not like the Locke is cursed or anything. It’s more that he wants to be independent, and is frustrated by how much he needs people: Helen, his new employment counselor Rose, possibly Jack Shepherd. The story of Alterna-Locke—and maybe the actual Locke—seems to be about coming to accept that sometimes there are things he “can’t do.”
This is a lesson that Not-Locke is struggling with as well, though at least he knows from centuries of experience that he can only get what he wants if he’s willing to put other people in play on his behalf. As he leads Sawyer to the “answers,” Smokey talks about how he remembers being a flesh-and-blood man, with the same emotions as anyone. That sense of The Man In Black as a real person with flaws and aches—not just the cloudy embodiment of Eeeeeevillll—is another reason why I dug “The Substitute.” I know it’s late in the game for this show, but I like that these new characters—if Smokey counts as “new”—are being treated with the kind of care the writers have lavished on the people we’ve already gotten to know.
And of course, how could I not love the culmination of Sawyer and Not-Locke’s big adventure, which brings them to a rocky oceanside cliff, and then to a succession of rickety ladders (one of which breaks!), and then to a cave with familiar names scrawled on the ceiling, each with a familiar number beside it. That’s classic Lost right there—not just the answers that aren’t really answers, but that sense of being led by torchlight to the kind of secret room that all the best stories contain. And then, naturally, we get a little philosophical debate, though Not-Locke doesn’t present it as such. He tells Sawyer that Jacob had been manipulating him and all his friends, making them believe they were making choices when in fact Jacob was micro-managing their fates. It’s a convincing case that Smokey lays out, as he tells Sawyer that his real choice is to stay still and do nothing, or to try to fulfill Jacob’s demand for a new Island Protector, or to escape with Smokey by his side. But of course Smokey is a man with his own mission, and it’s hard to believe that he’s being any less manipulative than Jacob.
But we don’t know, do we? That’s what makes Lost’s whole endgame so damned exciting. So much still unresolved; so much still in doubt. Does lack of faith in Jacob imply a faith in something else? Is making a bad choice really all that catastrophic, either personally or globally? And then the big question, which I think even Smokey would like to see answered: Why are we here, anyway?
-I suppose I should talk about Sawyer’s “choice,” yes? In the final seconds, Smokey suggests that the two of them can leave The Island, and Sawyer hisses, “Hell, yes.” Presumably this is one of The Rules, that Smokey can’t leave The Island without someone like Sawyer to facilitate his exit. But does Sawyer setting Smokey free mean something apocalyptic is afoot? Some people have complained since last season’s finale that they don’t like the idea of Lost turning into the story of two guys—Jacob and The Man In Black—that we hadn’t met until the end of Season Five. But I think “The Subsitute” shows that this is not Jacob’s story, and it’s not Smokey’s story (no matter how compelling the writers have made him). It’s still about who our heroes align themselves with, and what they learn about themselves as a result. Here’s what we’re about to find out: Just how much of a nihilist is Sawyer?
-I think part of my concern about the flash-sideways is my being over-anxious about where they’re leading. Each week I wonder if we’ve seen the last of Alterna-Kate, Alterna-Locke, or whoever’s episode it happens to be, or if they’re all going to be brought back together before the season’s end. Is it significant that Ben’s a teacher at the school where Locke works as a substitute? Or that Ethan was Claire’s doctor? Or are these just little story payoffs in and of themselves? I should probably just relax and wait to judge until I know the answer to those questions.
-There was something endearingly comic to me about Richard emerging from the jungle (striking his standard hands-out, don’t-hurt-me pose) to warn Sawyer, and then scurrying away like a scared rabbit when Not-Locke returns. One of the reasons I enjoyed this episode so much was those little flashes of humor.
-More humor: When Sawyer and Not-Locke reach the cave, they find a scale with a black stone on one side and a white stone on the other. Not-Locke promptly picks up the white stone and flings into the ocean, muttering that it’s an “inside joke.”
-What happened to everybody else on the beach? Smokey said he was disappointed in them, and then they apparently all dispersed, except for Ilana, Frank, Sun and Ben.
-Love Ben lying to Ilana, who asks if Not-Locke killed Jacob, prompting Ben to answer, “Yes?”
Clues, coincidences and crazy-ass theories:
-I know that our Lost creative team never picks any piece of music at random, so what can we learn from Iggy & The Stooges’ “Search & Destroy?” (Besides the fact that it is maybe the most awesome rock ‘n’ roll song of all time?) The song can be read simply as a reflection of Sawyer’s return to an “I hate the world” attitude, but there might also be something to the lines like, “Somebody gotta save my soul,” and, “Baby penetrate my mind.” Or my favorite line: “Look out mama, ‘cuz I’m usin’ technology.” In the midst of all the “faith vs. reason” and “fate vs. free will” chatter, I still think there’s a little something here about “modernity vs. tradition” too.
-Smokey doesn’t drink the whiskey Sawyer offers him. Can he drink?
-Richard doesn’t appear to notice The Little Blond Boy. But Sawyer sees the kid. Is this why he’s a Candidate? (Incidentally, I loved Sawyer’s response when Not-Locke says, “What kid?” Sawyer squints, smiles thinly, and says, “Riiiiiight.”)
-Written on Helen’s shirt: “Peace & Karma.”
-Even Smokey doesn’t know which Kwon is more significant: Sun or Jin. Sometimes I’m not sure Darlton knows either.
-Ilana saves Jacob’s ashes.
-Ilana also says that Smokey will be stuck as Locke (that is, when he’s not being Smokey).
-Smokey insists that nothing will happen if he and Sawyer choose not to participate in Jacob’s quest for a new Island Protector; in fact he says that Island doesn’t need a Protector. I’m not sure I’m buying what he’s selling. I remember the last time we were told that it doesn’t matter what our heroes do. Someone didn’t push a button. And all hell broke loose.
-Seeing Not-Locke trying to influence Sawyer reminded me of “The Shape Of Things To Come,” when Locke tried to explain what was going on Keamy’s Commandoes, and Sawyer spit, “Who’s Charles Widmore?” For someone so involved in the main story, Sawyer’s remained blissfully unaware—or perhaps just unconcerned—with what’s really going on.
-Back in “The Life And Death Of Jeremy Bentham,” Locke was told that there’s a war coming, and that if Locke wasn’t on the island, the wrong side would win. Which makes me wonder… Which side does Widmore think is the right one? And did he know that Locke would only make it back as a dead man?
-Something I’ve always wondered: Locke was born prematurely. Symbolic?