February 18, 2010

Lost: "The Substitute"

"What's the eight about?"

"Jacob had a thing for numbers."

Now that's more like it.

I still have major problems with the show spending so much time on an alternate reality that is essentially inscrutable even for the most ardent Lost fan, but I don't need to harp on that for my analysis of this one. Unlike "What Kate Does", "The Substitute" dealt almost entirely with the mission of one Man-in-Black, I mean "Not Locke", I mean Smokey, or perhaps I mean Randall Flagg, as he "recruited" for a battle the nature of which we can only guess at for now. Suffice it to say, the single-minded malice of what may be a revived Egyptian god proved much more interesting than Kate and Claire's adventures in maternity triage. Surprise, Surprise.

In the alternate timeline, we meet a Locke who is engaged to marry the love of his life, who still has a relationship with his Dad, and who winds up working as a substitute teacher at a high school employing one Benjamin Linus. Little happens (though the show continues to establish that the survivors are going to be meeting each other one way or another even in the alternate timeline), but that's not really the interesting part of the episode.

The interesting part is on the Island.

On Time Travel Island, circa 2007, Not Locke is a man on a mission. As the Jacobian cultist whose name I can never quite remember ominously states, he is "recruiting." And who is he recruiting? Everyone's favorite back-talking broken man: James "Sawyer" Ford. As I guessed in my post on "LA X":

Clearly the Man in Black is coming for the Others, and I think he's going to be assembling a team of cynical and defeated people to help him. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if Sawyer (or Jack for that matter) winds up on the wrong team, before being redeemed in the end.

Basically, that guess now appears to be right. Not Locke is assembling a team, a team whose purpose is still unclear, but who the Others very clearly think is ultimately trying to kill them (a frightened Richard Alpert says as much to Sawyer). Why? All we are given in this episode is the notion that Not Locke/The Man in Black was once just a man, and he has been trapped on the Island for a long, long time. He simply wants to be free. Of course, he can also take the form of a pillar of black smoke, and is plagued by images of a golden-haired boy running through the jungle telling him that he "can't kill him." Who is that boy? Who can't the Man in Black kill? I have some guesses (they are really to specious to be called theories at this point) which I elaborate on below.

More interestingly, in attempting to win Sawyer's trust (or in attempting to kill him; the line is very thin you see), the Man in Black takes Sawyer to a cave he claims is Jacob's. On the walls of the cave are a series of names with all but a few crossed off. As Sawyer examines the walls, Not Locke explains that the names are those of the "Candidates", a select group of people who Jacob deemed to be worthy of being his replacements. The only names which have not been crossed off are very recognizable: Ford, Shepard, Locke (crossed off by the Man in Black in this episode), Kwon, Reyes, Jarrah (interestingly not Austen), and all are associated with a number - 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42.

Like the recruitment issue, I guessed that the show would make Jacob-replacement a priority in my post on "LA X":

In this conception, I imagine that towards the end of the season (or in the finale), Jack (or the survivors as a whole) will be asked to make a choice, between saving the Island and taking on some terrible burden (perhaps becoming the new Jacob, forever bound to the Island and its cosmic significance) or forgetting that any of their adventures ever happened. Not only would this choice illustrate one of the main themes of Lost, that of the importance of free will, it would also allow us to adjudge the ramifications of the "wrong" choice through the use of the alternate timeline.

Not that these guesses are anything special (most notably, I now think that the scenario I posited above is far more likely to occur in connection with a converging timeline rather than a divergent one, and more likely then not will fall on someone other than Jack; see below). One of the best things about watching Lost is that the show is generally very fair with its viewers. People like to complain that it asks more questions than it answers, but quite often the show answers questions in a very subtle way before it swings back around and answers them more deliberately. The term "candidate", for instance, was mentioned prominently in Season 5, so the fact that the show might wind up turning on the notion of who is or isn't a candidate (and a candidate for what?) could have (should have) put the notion of Jacob's replacement in play far before the definitive answers presented in this episode.

Of course, "definitive" might not be the right word for the answers presented in this one. To call the Man in Black an unreliable narrator would be to undersell the very concept. Interesting indeed.

15 hours remain...

Quick Thoughts

You Must Go and Make Your Stand: I've been down this road before, but this episode made it quite clear that Lost is hurtling towards an endgame that is going to share quite a bit in common with Stephen King's seminal work "The Stand". As in that book, we are now seeing in Lost a storyline focused on an "evil" entity preying upon cynicism and weakness to recruit an army to fight against the light (here, Jacob). Unlike in that book, we don't really see an army of light preparing to similarly make their stand against the forces of darkness. Jack may have been willing to swallow a poison capsule, but he's got a fair bit of growing left to do if he's going to lead the armies of God (or Jacob as the case may be). In "The Stand", after all, it wasn't a mere willingness to lead, but a willingness to die that was necessary to carry the day. I don't really see that coming from any of the Temple-bound Losties just yet.

Benjamin Linus: I feel like I've said this a lot already before (in truth, I have, but it was with respect to Gaius Baltar on Battlestar Galactica), but what is the plan with Ben? In this one, we see him admit to the murder of John Locke and appear to exhibit genuine signs of remorse. It's as if he regrets killing Jacob and unleashing whatever it is he unleashed, but, in truth, what side was Ben ever on? Jacob effectively goaded Ben into killing him, and there was clearly no "Linus" on Jacob's wall. Furthermore, we've seen Ben "control" smokey who we all assumed was working for Jacob at the time, but has since been revealed to be Jacob's arch-nemesis. We know that Jacob never spoke to Ben, and that Ben only faked being able to see Jacob in the Goodspeed Cabin. So what was/is Ben's purpose? Was Jacob just using him? Was Smokey? I suspect that even if they resolve most of the plot lines on this show in a satisfactory manner, that some of the earlier seasons are not going to line up quite right, and I think Ben's extremely fluid relationship to everything that's happened is going to be something that people are just going to have to ignore. I'll be happy to be proved wrong, though.

The Hot List: So, if the Others have been making lists all this time, and referring to them as Jacob's lists (a connection I still can't quite understand since we get confirmation that the Others were actually drafting the lists in Season 3), how is it that the Losties we know and love were only referenced on one such list at the start of this season, when we now know that Jacob has been keeping track of them all this time. Did the "Candidate Six" need to experience life out on the Island for a time? Did Jacob only recently identify them? More ominously, is the Man in Black just telling Sawyer a pack of lies while they are in the cave? Rather than candidates, do the markings on the wall instead show a kind of "Kill Bill" style hit list drafted by Smokey himself? We did see him cross off Locke's name in this one, and it's quite clear that we aren't supposed to take the Man in Black at face value (obviously the Island needs protecting from something, despite what he tells Sawyer). Questions, questions, questions, with barely an answer to glean.

A Hole in the World: Alright, so here's my weekly diatribe on the state of Lost post the introduction of the alternate universe flashes. As I mentioned last week, one of the problems with the alternate universe is that the characters we are watching are clearly different from the ones we have been following for the five previous years. Let's look at the questions Locke's "flash" leaves us after this episode:

(1) What is Locke's relationship with his Dad?
(2) If his relationship with his Dad is good (as is implied by Helen's suggestion that Locke invite his dad to their wedding), what events have transpired in Locke's dad's past which causes him to not push his son from an apartment window?
(3) Did Locke's dad steal his kidney?
(4) If Locke's Dad didn't push him from a window, how was Locke paralyzed (and for how long has he been that way)?
(5) How did Locke meet Helen (remember they met in a support group related to Locke's abuse at the hands of his father the first time around)?
(6) If Locke wasn't pushed out a window, then was he ever in the hospital at the right time to have Abaddon tell him he needed to go on walkabout? If not, why did he decide to go on walkabout?
(7) What did Locke do for a week in Australia? (In the original timeline it was at least strongly implied that the ticket the walkabout company purchased for Locke was very soon to depart after he was rejected from participating in the tour.)
(8) If Locke's Dad is a nice guy now, what effect does that have on Sawyer's alternate story? Are Sawyer's parents alive?

I am sure there are hundreds more that could be asked about Locke or any of the other alternate versions of the castaways, but therein lies the problem. We don't know who alternate Locke is any better than we know who, for instance, Cindy the stewardess is. There's a hole in the narrative that makes it impossible to be certain what things actually happened in the story we are being told. I don't see any way around this for the show's producers and it's becoming more and more troublesome.

Ashes to Ashes: Is it possible that in Lost, like Galactica, "this has all happened before and it will happen again." We are talking a lot about rites of succession in this one, after all. And note the seeming importance placed on Jacob's ashes in this episode. Is it possible, for instance, that the ashes of Jacob can be used to keep Smokey at bay, just like the ashes of previous Island protectors? I wonder.

Useful Narrative Constructs: It is clear now, four episodes in, that the alternate timeline Losties are to be of the same general archetype as their original recipe counterparts, but that the details that got them there may or may not be different. Kate is a fugitive in both timelines, but she may or may not be innocent in the alternate. Locke almost certainly was not thrown through a window in the alternate timeline, but that didn't stop him from becoming a paraplegic. While the show's creators seem to enjoy this bit of cleverness, I can't help but think that it's simply a useful narrative device. After all, if the alternate versions of the characters weren't of the same rough type as the version we've already met, then we would have absolutely no basis on which to relate to them.

I think the usefulness of such a device is limited, however, and may even be damaging, because it's too easy for a viewer (including myself) to forget when watching alternate Locke in the bathtub, for instance, that he may or may not have the capability of reflecting on that time his kidney was stolen, because he may or may not have experienced that in his life. It creates ambiguity and uncertainty where none existed before, and it risks making the whole darn enterprise impenetrable. We simply don't know what we don't know.

Combined with the fact that apparently the Man in Black can no longer change his form (he can change into a pillar of smoke, but not into another human shape, that makes a lot of sense), presumably because the brilliant Terry O'Quinn would otherwise have nothing to do on the series, and I can't help but think that the writers are taking easy outs when they should be pulling out all the stops.

Wasting Away: I know I promised not to harp on this, but it's clear now that the alternate timeline is actively conspiring to deny us forward movement in the main storyline. Last week we were denied any follow-up on an evil god taking an immortal slave into the jungle. This week, we see no mention of an aboriginal Claire or any of the other Temple-bound Losties. This makes every episode feel like it contains so much filler, even when large portions of it are interesting. This too is troubling.

To Err is Human, to Converge, Divine: I think it's pretty obvious now that the name of the game in terms of the alternate timeline is convergence. That even though these people didn't otherwise meet in a terrible plane crash, the universe and its constant course correction will bring everyone together in the end. The only problem with that, of course, is that the notion of course correction was pretty firmly established throughout the events of Season 3. Why is it so important now? (And how do the two universes co-exist, anyway?)

Who is that Boy I see?: This episode's contribution to Twin Peaks style weirdness took the form of a young blond boy who appeared in the jungle, but only to Not Locke and Sawyer (notably, Alpert can't see him). Who was he, and why did he tell Not Locke that according to the "rules" he couldn't kill "him"? I don't have any idea, but it's worth noting that this is not the first time we've heard of the "rules." In Season 4, we saw a grieving Ben Linus confront a sleeping Charles Widmore with the claim that Widmore had broken the "rules" when he had ordered the murder of Ben's "daughter" Alex. At the time, it was difficult to say whether the "rules" applied simply to a compact between the men, or to something more cosmic in significance. In this episode, though, we have a clearly supernatural entity (whether or not he is divine is up for some debate), telling an Island dweller, what they "can't do." Interestingly, the person being told this has otherwise appeared to be a god in the context of the show's narrative, a personification of darkness (the Man in Black), against Jacob's light.

That "godhood" is thrown into sharp relief, however, by the reaffirmation in this episode that he has to play by some form of rules (the first time rules were referred to for the Man in Black was in the Season 5 finale, in which it was implied that the Man in Black wanted to kill Jacob but couldn't, and that through Ben he found a loophole in the cosmic laws). So who is the boy? He's someone (or a representative of someone) who has greater power than the Man in Black (and, I would posit, Jacob). In my estimation, that leaves only one possibility: he's God (or a representative), or more precisely in the conception of god that the show contemplates, he's the essence of the divine (whatever that may be).

A Prison for Your Mind: Now, I know that I said that convergence is the name of the game up above, and I believe that in the macro sense, but allow me to take a small step back. In this episode, the Man in Black intimates that the Island is his prison. Now Jacob may or may not be his prison guard, or simply another prisoner, but ask yourself this: If the nuclear detonation in 1977 destroyed the Island (or otherwise led to the destruction of the Island), was the Man in Black (or Jacob, or both) freed as a result? If he was freed, is there some great evil at work in the alternate timeline that we just aren't privy to at this moment? Might the purpose of the alternate timeline actually be to show the viewer just how unintended, unintended consequences can be? Ominous.

Ladder, Ladder: I thought the ladder bit in this episode was utterly pointless. It was patently evident that Sawyer wasn't in any real danger, and the sequence just seemed to go on and on. Was the episode running a little short, guys?

Let the Right Kwon In: One of the more interesting things that the Man in Black says in this episode is that he doesn't know which Kwon (Sun or Jin) is a candidate for Jacob's replacement (we even see a flashback to Jacob touching them both to add to the ambiguity). It's possible that this is the Man in Black's weakness. If the candidates hold some sort of power over the Island and its inhabitants, then the Man in Black's inability to identify one of them may be of supreme importance. I can see this playing out to some significant effect in the show's endgame.

The Jacobian Candidate: This may simply be the "gun in the first act" rule on an epic scale, but I can't believe for one minute that, with the concept of replacing Jacob introduced, we won't see one of the Losties taking up that mantle. Now the most obvious candidate (no pun intended) is Jack, if only because he is the centerpiece of the show and the entry point for the audience, but I think things might take a different direction. If I'm right, taking on Jacob's responsibilities will be accompanied by some form of significant burden. Maybe it's simply being trapped on the Island for so long, maybe it's something worse, either way, like in "The Stand", the person willing to take on Jacob's role will also have to be willing to make a major sacrifice. A sacrifice that could redeem a person's soul. To my eye, it's Sawyer's story, not Jack's that is setting up best for that kind of redemptive arc. Sawyer will play on the side of darkness for a time, but mark my words, when it comes time to save his friends (or simply Kate, blech) he will step up to the plate. That's my guess anyway.

Of Mice and Men: A pretty obvious callback to Season 3 in having Sawyer reference Of Mice and Men while traipsing through the jungle with Not Locke. Thematically, I'm not sure it worked other than to set up the moment when Sawyer pulls his gun on Not Locke (in so far as I haven't been able to identify any commonality between Ben's interrogations of Sawyer in Season 3 and Sawyer's "broken man" persona in Season 6), but that doesn't change the fact that I always enjoy when the show references itself rewarding long-time viewers.


  1. All I know is that I feel more confused than before. Perhaps I cannot watch this show except on DVD.

  2. First of all, I am feeling like the only way that they could effectively tell all of their stories in a one hour timeslot, they would have to stop throwing in so much filler and GET TO THE POINT.

    Second of all, I can't get over Moira Kelly saying, "Don't tell me what I can't do," in that delightful movie.

    Third of all, I love Terry O'Quinn and I'm perfectly happy ignoring the fact that Smokey can appear however he pleases because I would probably get bored with another actor.

    And lastly, we are going to rewatch the entire season after the finale so you can point out all the important stuff I missed the first time around, right?