That’s the controversy raging around the internet (or the “Lost”-centric parts of it, anyway) since last week’s fifth season finale, “The Incident.” And I don’t know if we’ll have an answer until NEXT May… if ever.
A little background. John Locke was practically the face of “Lost.” He was an all-day sucker – a guy conned out of his kidney by a father who popped in and out of his life only for the organ harvest; a guy who would listen to almost anyone who told him he was special; a guy who basically worshipped an island, mainly because it restored his ability to walk after an attempt on his life left him with a crushed spine. On the other hand, Locke was a mystic shaman and all-around badass – a knife-collector and -thrower; a hunter and tracker; someone who seemed uniquely in tune with the island and its secrets. From the beginning there was this split in Locke, and we “Lost” fans were all waiting for him to step up and be handed the key to the kingdom. He seemed destined for greatness.
And then his corpse tumbled out of a metal box, unceremoniously plopped on to the sand.
The beauty of that reveal – in a purely mechanical sense – was that Locke was killed a long time ago. Locke was strangled in a brutal and ugly fashion midway through season 5, right in front of our eyes. And well before that, the big reveal at the end of season 4 was Locke’s placid, embalmed mug lying in a coffin. As shocking as those moments were, I don’t think many of us really thought he was gone. When he was resurrected by the island, it seemed like destiny welcoming him with open arms. THIS character can’t die. THIS character must have redemption. Yes, they titled a recent episode “Dead is Dead.” But that was just a fakeout… wasn’t it..? Knowledgeable characters like Ben Linus and Richard Alpert expressed degrees of doubt about the new Locke. Ben all but said “I don’t think this is the same guy.” There were heavy-handed hints like the fact that during “Dead is Dead,” Locke and the mysterious shape-shifting smoke monster never occupied the screen at the same time. But no, we all said. That’s a red herring. They WANT us to think Locke isn’t Locke.
As it turns out, the writers let us fool ourselves. It was – again, just mechanically – a masterstroke. They let us talk ourselves out of the possibility that Locke wasn’t himself any more. They fed us scenes like the new Locke eating fruit on the beach, staring at the ocean – just like the old Locke. They showed us Locke extending a sympathetic hand to Sun over her separation from her husband, and Terry O’Quinn even laid on the old heartwarming crinkle-eyes.
Ooh, that’s playing dirty.
They fooled us good, yes they did. But what does this mean for “Lost”? Is dead REALLY dead? Is Locke really gone, and in his place just an amorphous immortal being with a prediliction for tormenting and judging the lesser humans drawn to the island by his nemesis, Jacob? We still have O’Quinn but we don’t have Locke, and the more I dwell on that fact, the more it stings. The implications are crushing. Locke may have just been a sucker all along. He may have just been a sap who was being fed messages by the island’s dark half, who was eagerly setting himself up for his own downfall. He may have died without redemption in a dirty hotel room – his suicide attempt interrupted, only for the man who “saved” him to murder him anyway.
I can’t judge the ultimate meaning or value of this plot thread yet because frankly, it’s just too huge. It dwarfs everything the show has ever done before. If this is it for Locke – if dead is REALLY dead – then the writers have huge, brass balls, and they have definitely earned the Glengarry leads. These guys are surely closers. But the thing about closers is: sometimes they play dirty. Sometimes they promise you a beautiful piece of land, and you show up and find it’s a worthless patch of hardscrabble dirt in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes what they sell you is a tragedy disguised as a redemption story.
John: hope to see you – the real you – again next season.