Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lost: "Cabin Fever"

When you watch the pilot episode of "Lost" now, two things strike you about the man who would turn out to be John Locke. The first thing is that he barely even appears at all in the episode (the angry-sibling stylings of hottie Boone and hottie Shannon - remember them - jockey for supporting time with Michael's awkward-father act.) The second thing is that he looks old - wearing a white collared shirt and brown slacks, the kind of formal yet comfortable outfit that defines old people of a certain pastoral-suburban temperament. His only real dialogue in the first episode is an exchange with Walt, on backgammon - "Two players. Two sides. One is light... one is dark." Everything about Locke's presentation in the scene - his Buddha-Yoda position with his legs crossed, his philosophical lecture tone, the fact that he's speaking to a ready, willing student - places him as a prototypical Wise Old Man, a suspicion which is enhanced by what he says next: "Do you want to know a secret?"

Who was Locke? A mystery man in a plane full of mystery people. Some kind of outdoorsman, clearly with Special Forces training - maybe a government agent? Did he know something about the island - was that the secret that he told Walt? Of course, back then, we didn't even know if the island was an island, so maybe he was something greater - an angel, say, or some chess-playing baldheaded God Himself. (He had a gash over his eye, suggesting Odin One-Eye, overlord of the Norse pantheon who sacrificed an eye to gain the Wisdom of Ages.) He was played by Terry O'Quinn, who was the dark overlord of the digital world in "Harsh Realm" and a shadowy FBI Director on "Alias" (I actually never saw the show, but knowing JJ Abrams I would imagine that any FBI Director was probably shadowy); he also had three separate guest-starring roles on "The X-Files." Was Locke this show's Smoking Man - the guy with all the answers?

"Walkabout" confirmed those suspicions - the flashback begins with a phone call to Locke, a voice calls him "Colonel" and tells him to meet at the "usual rendezvous point" - and then dashed them completely. Locke was a complete loser, working in cubicle in a box company, with an asshole boss. His one source of joy was playing strategy board games with an ugly co-worker. He spent hours talking to phone sex operators and even asked one to travel with him to Australia. He was in a wheelchair. "Walkabout" was the first "Lost" episode that people called "great."

Terry O'Quinn was fearless in that episode, and has remained so - his Emmy last year was well-deserved, because a lesser actor have been creamed by all the dark, weird places they've taken John Locke. O'Quinn has a tough bald head, a slight twinge of a folksy accent, and craggy features that probably made him look old when he was still in high school. It was the first sign of the show's genius, I think, to cast him in a role which initially seemed exactly natural for his type - strong, silent hunter with secret - and then completely twist the role in the opposite direction, revealing what a fragile, naive, even childlike man John Locke had been before the crash. For my money, the show has only rarely matched the moment at the end of "Walkabout" when John wakes up to the devastation of the plane crash, finds that he can stand up, and, with loud noises of shredding metallic death screams on every side, laughs so hard that you can see his happy tears.

Since that episode, Locke has always seemed much younger to me - and I think this speaks to just what an original character the Lost boys created here. Here's a man who is middle-aged - we learned in "Cabin Fever" that he was 48. But man, he looks much older - and I don't just mean because Terry O'Quinn is 55. Brad Pitt is 45; George Clooney is 48; Tom Cruise is 46; hell, Mel Gibson is 52, and even post-rehab, you can't tell me that you think he actually looks 52. Hell, Terry O'Quinn practically looks older than Al Pacino. I don't mean that as an insult. Like Tommy Lee Jones (who looked sixty long before he actually turned 60), O'Quinn wears his years without a hint of vanity. I think that, in the modern age, because life is so much longer, and because guys like Brad and George and Tom still get photographed in t-shirts for the covers of men's magazines, we're used to thinking of the 40s and even the 50s as being a second youth for men.

Not so for John Locke, whose life looked just about over before he was lucky enough to crash on an island on the ocean. Or was it just luck? That's been one of the central questions of the show - destiny versus coincidence versus choice, etc etc - and Locke has always fallen hard on the side of abject and trusting belief. This has bitten him in the ass over and over - it means he keeps trusting Ben, for one thing - yet "Cabin Fever" seemed to indicate that coming to the island was his destiny. Or at least, certain very powerful immortal men made it his destiny.

There were, by my count, at least 15 moments in "Cabin Fever" which made me and my friend Carlos react in a manner which is, I believe, unique to viewers of "Lost" - it's when something happens that is both a surprise and a long-awaited revelation, something you didn't know was coming until literally a moment before it happened, and you make a noise that's somewhere between screaming and laughing and gagging (because you are fitting many different emotions into a millisecond, because you don't want to talk and miss something), while your body manages to convulse without your ass leaving the seat. The biggest one, I think, came when you saw Richard - eternally young Richard - staring at preemie baby Locke's smoking grandma. Except that there may have been an even bigger one later in the episode, when you realized (almost immediately, certainly long before the camera bothered to show his impeccable face) that the orderly pushing John back to his room was Matthew Abaddon.

Are these two men working together, or working in opposition? Why do they care so much about some bastard child who was born months premature, lived in foster homes, got stuffed into lockers, and met his biological father later in life only to have the man steal his kidney, ruin his almost-marriage to Katey Segal, and then throw him out the window?

For me, I think, this episode (and, in many ways, much of this show's history) all came down to the scene in Locke's high school, when perhaps the nerdiest science teacher to ever appear in narrative filmmaking told Locke that he had a tremendous scientific gift, and that he would be wrong to squander that by trying to be a sportsman - the subtext, I think, being, "Son, you're a nerd, and jocks are going to be stuffing you into lockers for the rest of high school, and if you try to be a jock, if you try to be popular, then you'll still be unpopular and you'll still get stuck in lockers, but you won't get good grades like a nerd and you won't go to college and you'll probably end up working at a box company when you're old and bald and all alone." The teacher was basically telling Locke not to try to be some other person - that the person he already was was enough.

When we first met Locke, we all thought he was a violent man, a frontiersman, some kind of soldier or cowboy knight. It's clear that Locke fashioned himself that way. Here, courtesy of Lostpedia, is what Richard laid in front of 5-year-old John Locke, asking him which already belonged to him. A baseball glove, a book called the "Book of Laws,' a vial of greyish material that could have been seeds (or maybe gunpowder), a brass compass, a comic book, and a knife. Each of these items has all sorts of resonance - we remember how much Walt loved comic books, and we try to remember who on the show has used a compass (Locke, Michael, and Sayid, not to mention all the various discussions this season of "following the precise bearing" back to the island) - but who was surprised when John, who over four decades later would throwstab Naomi in the back, picked the knife? And who wasn't surprised when Richard, like an embarrassed grail knight, told John that he'd chosen poorly? Is Locke supposed to be a hero? How does a man move an island, exactly?

"Cabin Fever" caps a true unbroken stretch of brilliance for the show - throw this one in next to last week's "Something Nice Back Home" and Ben's The Shape of Things To Come," and you've got a genuine trilogy, of sorts. Together, they form a panoramic portrait of the show's three protagonists, Ben, Jack, and Locke - three men who epitomize the warring themes and factions on the island, who each consider themselves heroes, who find themselves often betraying (and betrayed by) everything they hold dear.

Prediction: We've got three hours of "Lost" left this season, and it's still not quite clear to me what kind of hours they are - because the last hour was only added on a few weeks ago, which would seem to indicate that the creator already had a plan for the last hour and it kept on expanding. Before this episode, I had made the prediction that this year's season finale was going to follow on the heels of season 2 and season 3 - focusing in one single character (I predicted Locke. WRONG!) I still believe that we are going to get, with this season finale, an island flashforward - that is, in the midst of the final battle of the season - (between Keamy's men and the castaways - god, don't you love Keamy? I bet he's this year's Henry Gale - a character hired for a tiny story arc who will expand in importance the next couple years. Is that too much to hope for? With only about 35 episodes left, is there no more room for awesome new characters?) - we are going to cut to the final battle of the series, which will end with the Oceanic Six set adrift in the middle of the ocean. Who is the final battle between? Hell, who would even be participating? The castaways, sure; the freighter folk, if there's anyone left; the Natives, sure; the Smoke monster, if it's even a monster at all.

Is it possible that this year's finale would actually be more similar to season 1 - flashforwards for everyone? We still don't know what happens to half of the cast in the future - are Sawyer, Jin, Juliet, Rose, Locke, Bernard, Miles, Faraday, Charlotte, and Lapidus still on the island? Could there be a huge group flashforward to life after the Oceanic Six, when some of the castaways live in seclusion in the caves (led by Sawyer), and Charlotte and Faraday live with the natives studying the island, and Locke leads his own merry band of true believers (wouldn't Rose believe in him?), and Juliet lives off in the jungle like Rousseau, trapped forever on the island she hates?

Or am I completely on acid? The two castaways who haven't had episodes yet - Claire and Sawyer - each offer their own fascinating possibilities. My brother pointed out something that I hadn't thought about - that seeing Claire in the cabin with her perhaps-dead father felt right for the character, that they had finally gotten that baby-shaped lodestone off her neck, and with it, the air of tragic self-importance that has dogged her for years. Is she already dead, as many have theorized? I don't think so - that would break the creators' own rules. (People who die on the island die; dead people who are brought to the island, on the other hand...) I do think that she is moving to some higher state of island existence - and that an hour with the new Claire, perhaps chatting with Christian, would make for hellishly awesome television.

My money is on some kind of group flash, either forward or back or more likely some combination of the two. I am a bit fascinated, however, by the choice to leave Desmond on the freighter. Something about his assertion that he was never going back to the island felt quite final. I've written before about how distant Desmond's storyline is from the other characters, and it seems like this new development will only strengthen that distance. Before, I had expected that the freighter would be sinking, Titanic style, by season's end, but now I wonder if Desmond isn't going to spend next season as the offshore King of Freighterville, mediating between island and outside world, not wanting to leave his friends but at the same time wanting nothing more than to fix those engines and set sail for Fiji, as quick as possible.

You have to love this show - you not only don't know what's going to happen in the season finale, you also don't even know in what style the season finale will be told.

Here's crazy thought - what if it's a Christian Shepard flashback?

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