Lost Encounters: The Substitute
Sawyer: "I thought you were dead."
Locke: "I am."
Fasten your seat belts – a great television series is coming to a bumpy end.
Lost began its final season two weeks ago with a glorious two-hour opener. Full of action and beautiful people, the series' first episode actually started to answer some long-vexing questions, just as writer/producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse promised. We found out what Smokey the Monster was. Or at least, we thought we found out. We discovered what happened to Sawyer's gal, Juliet. Poor Juliet of the Thousand Deaths. Thankfully she is reincarnated in ABC's "V."
Then the Lost world suffered a big setback in last week's "What Kate Does." An episode that was alternately boring (why is furious Sawyer storming off into the jungle for the umpteenth time) and infuriating (why would pregnant Claire get back into the car with a carjacker?). It was an episode that posed the question: how in the world can we handle yet another band of "Others" who don't answer questions?
At this point, as I throw around all these names, I'd like to interrupt our regular broadcast schedule and assume that, if you are reading this, you are somewhat acquainted with the major characters and major plot lines (such as they are), probably much more so than this befuddled viewer.
Sawyer to Locke: "I don't give a damn if you're dead, or time traveling, or the Ghost of Christmas Past. I only care about this whiskey. So bottom's up, and get the hell out of this house."
I suspect that someday Sawyer is going to wish he insisted that Locke did indeed leave the house.
"The Substitute" redeemed Season Six immediately, as good as "What Kate Does" was bad, veering the traveling island back on course. There was lots of humor — Frank Lapidus muttering "This is the weirdest damned funeral I've ever been to….," — we can always count on Captain Lapidus to voice what the audience is probably thinking — there was lots of action – fragile rope ladders over breathtaking ocean cliffs. And there were a couple more answers.
We find out that "Jacob had a thing for numbers" and discover that the mysterious numbers, a motif that has been woven throughout the series since the beginning, have a significance beyond winning lotteries. Each original crash survivor that Jacob visited in the Season Five finale had a designated number: 4 – Locke, 8 – Hurley, 15 – Sawyer, 16 – Sayid, 23 – Jack Shephard, 42 – Sun or Jin. This leaves out Kate. She is not a candidate, at least according to the Man in Black/Smokey/John Locke. And this is okay with me. Kate is not a compelling character. Apparently Jacob agrees with me.
The titles of Lost episodes are never lightly chosen. "The Substitute" means much more than just the job that John Locke, in his alternate reality, finds himself. To his delight, I might add, with a surprised tone. The whole episode plays with the idea of substituting one reality for another, one character for another, one paradigm for another.
We begin with John Locke in his flash-sideways life, undergoing tasks seemingly geared to show the futility of his existence. He is confined to a wheelchair, frustrated at the obstacles of everyday situations, except there is a ray of light. In an example of how the characters' sideways lives are not simply a "what would have happened if the plane didn't crash," Helen (the wonderful Katey Segal) is back in the picture. Helen is now his fiancee. She did not refuse his proposal as she had done in season two. In fact, they are picking out fabric swatches for the wedding. It's all very cozy, except it is a puzzlement that Helen speaks of inviting John's father to the wedding. Didn't John's father push him out the window? Is that the kind of wedding guest you want?
As you can see here, Locke was not yet wheelchair bound when he popped the question in season two. Plus he had a bad hair piece.
It was good to see Helen back because she personifies the leap of trust that Locke will need: "miracles do happen." And John Locke will need some kind of miracle. Things look a bit grim for him on the island. He is dead, after all. Even if Sawyer doesn't care if Locke is dead, it's still a huge obstacle to a happy, fulfilled life. A Lazarus-type of miracle will be needed.
In a nicely twisted bit of irony, the man of faith in this episode is Sawyer, substituting for the persona of John Locke, man of faith. Sawyer blindly follows the unholy trinity that makes up the Man in Black/Smokey/John Locke person. Smokey (which I will call him for clarity's sake) promised Sawyer that he will find the answers to his questions if he will just follow him. Sawyer, who used to be such a pragmatist, is now a believer, a man of faith. He follows along.
There was a lot of biblical imagery in this episode, the Garden of Eden specifically came to mind in the exchanges between Smokey and Sawyer. Hopefully for Sawyer, his quest for knowledge will end up happier than it did for Adam and Eve at the Tree of Knowledge.
Is Smokey the malevolent creature he appears to be? Does he speak with the forked tongue of a serpent? Judging by the bodies he has left in his wake, I have to assume so. However Smokey accuses Jacob of denying the crash survivors their free will, telling Sawyer that Jacob has been "pushing you to the island."
In contrast, Smokey gives Sawyer free will. He presents Sawyer three choices: "Do nothing and see how it plays out" – crossing out Locke's name and indicating how well that played out; "accept the job" – meaning to become the new Jacob and protect the island, from what we do not know, and finally, the third choice – "get off the island." I think the response was "Hell, yes."
The episode was a chance for Terry O'Quinn (Locke) and Josh Holloway (Sawyer) to show off their acting chops, and it also advanced, ever so slightly, the alternate reality, drawing more characters into each other's lives in seemingly random (but we know better) ways. This episode made the flash-sideways world much more intriguing. Plain-speaking Rose makes an appearance as a HR person hiring John Locke. Her boss is Hugo Reyes, otherwise known as Hurley. And I have to say, Hurley looks so much happier in this new world, I'd hate to have this not turn out well for him.
Rose's appearance seemed to have the purpose of reminding John Locke about reality and how best to deal with it. She reveals to Locke that she has terminal cancer and describes how she has come to terms with it. In this exchange, John replaces the blind faith of his failed Walkabout experiment with some commonsense which might serve him well with future encounters with his father.
Ben Linus also makes an appearance in the episode. Once as a speaker at John Locke's funeral with one of the funniest elegies in television history: "He was a believer, a man of faith, a much better man than I will ever be. I'm very sorry I murdered him." Ben is also going to be a co-worker at John Locke's new job on Planet Alternate Reality. He is a European History teacher at the school where Locke is the new substitute. Hmmm. History. As in those who don't learn from history are doomed…
There remains much undiscussed here about "The Substitute" – a prepubescent Jacob for one. I look forward to your thoughts and theories.
Research and contributions by Nora Kennon