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Balancing the Scales: The Allegory of the Cave on "Lost"

"Don't tell me what I can't do!" - John Locke

Last night's powerful and evocative episode of Lost ("The Substitute"), written by Elizabeth Sarnoff and Melinda Hsu Taylor and directed by Tucker Gates, focused on two very different incarnations of John Locke, one that has been co-opted by the enigmatic Man in Black and the other who never crashed on the island and therefore never gained his defining faith in the mysteries of the universe.

Last night's installment not only offered us a study of Locke in life and in death, but also provided some tangible answers about some of the series' most enduring mysteries, including the nature of the recurring numbers, the relationship between Jacob and the Man in the Black, and why these specific people have been brought to the island.

So, what did I think of last night's episode of Lost? Turn on some Iggy Pop, pour yourself a whiskey, hold on to that rope ladder, and let's discuss "The Substitute."

With the end of Lost fast approaching, I thought that last night's episode provided perhaps the single most illuminating episode in quite some time, paying off the promises made by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse about answering some of the big questions that the five seasons of the series have kicked up.

One of the central conflicts within the series has been that between Jack's man of science and Locke's man of faith, a struggle in itself between free will and fate, and between coincidence and design. Did the castaways crash on this island for a particular reason? Were they called forth for a purpose? Is it part and parcel of their larger destiny?

John Locke has been a character at the heart of these discussions, a man who received the blessing of the island and was brought back to life by a spiritual resurrection that saw the island give him the returned use of his legs. This gift was proof of a larger miracle, the miracle of the island itself, and Locke was its central believer, the keeper of its mysteries, and the prime candidate for the role of protector.

It was, after all, no accident that these particular people ended up on the island. Jacob selected several of them, approaching them at difficult times in their life and bestowing his blessing with a touch. As we've already seen at the end of last season, Jack, Kate, Hurley, Sawyer, Sayid, Locke, and Jin and Sun each received a calling from Jacob (along with Ilana, it was revealed earlier this season, though she was specifically not touched by Jacob). It had been divined that these people would make their way to the island and had been claimed by Jacob as possible candidates.

Candidates for what exactly, though? We'll get to that in a little bit. Last week, I brought up Aristotle's Four Causes and this week it's Plato's teachings that hover over the action here this week on Lost, vis-a-vis his Allegory of the Cave. (Rather funnily, I discussed just Plato's Allegory of the Cave with The Prisoner screenwriter Bill Gallagher here in regard to the AMC miniseries, which also dealt with layers of reality, perception, and the subconscious.)

Plato had offered an allegory or metaphor for the clouding of perception as it relates to the world around us. Here's a very simplified breakdown of the allegory: a group of men are imprisoned within a cave and are forced to watch a series of shadows on the wall. These shadows are produced by a fire but the prisoners begin to describe the forms that the shadows take and begin to believe that they are real, given that they have no means of seeing the truth. Like the castaways, these prisoners are able to escape the cave but when faced with the reality of the world, they believe that the shadows are "real" and the objects that cast them are not. The sunlight would be blinding as the prisoners' eyes had grown accustomed to see in the darkness of the cave. But the prisoners would adapt and eventually see the truth of the world around them... and would then have to return to the cave to tell the others of the truth and to force their eyes open.

Hmmm... Like in the allegory of the cave, several of the castaways were imprisoned, released, and returned. Some of them still believe in the shadows and others are determined to reveal the foolishness of their beliefs. But this is Lost and some of those shadows are very, very real, and very dangerous.

Smokey. I thought it was a brilliant stroke to have the opening of the episode unfold from the perspective of the smoke monster. Lost, after all, deals quite a lot with the nature of perception, with the way that we view our pasts and our destinies. Only fitting then that the Man in Black/Smoke Monster would get an episode that begins with his journey through the island landscape as we see the world through his/its eyes, as it pauses outside Sawyer's old house at the Barracks (loved the reflection in the window) before finding a machete with which to cut down Richard Alpert.

It's interesting that the Man in Black feels the need to open Richard's eyes in particular... and that while he has no compunction about injuring Richard, he doesn't seem to want to kill him. He believes that Richard has been foolishly following all of Jacob's commands without knowing WHY, trusting in the shadows of the cave wall without seeing just who and what is casting them. But Richard, like Locke, is a man of faith, trusting in the instructions he's been given without needing to know the reasons behind them.

Which makes me wonder just how and why Richard Alpert has been kept alive this long and by whose hand. He has served Jacob faithfully for centuries and would appear to have been "recruited" by him to advise and guide the Others, a group of people who live on the island but who recently, through an as yet undisclosed reason, are unable to reproduce and therefore need to recruit new members to their ranks through other means.

Was Richard a former candidate turned chalice-bearer for Jacob? Had he too been selected by Jacob before he arrived on the island? Is he protected from action against him as seemingly the other candidates are? I'd say... no to both.

The Boy in the Jungle. Just who is it that Smokey sees in the jungle and why can't Richard Alpert see him? Answer: another incarnation of Jacob. Unlike the Man in Black, who appears to be confined to the island, Jacob exists in multiple incarnations and within multiple levels of time and space, able to appear on the island, off-island, and in various guises, such as the teenage boy (his arms covered in blood) glimpsed here and the old man that Locke saw within the cabin. Smokey can see him because he is aware of Jacob and has already seen him in various guises.

Sawyer, likewise, can see the boy because he had been visited by Jacob and had been blessed by him. (I'd also guess that the others whom Jacob had visited would also be able to see this presence.) Given that Richard can't, I'd therefore say that Richard isn't a candidate and didn't receive Jacob's "blessing." He isn't within the circle of protection that's afforded to those in Jacob's coterie.

Even more interesting is that Smokey appears to be quite afraid when the boy appears. Since Smokey has often been the one casting the shadows, isn't only fair that he's on the receiving end for a change? And couldn't it mean that some of the spirits we've glimpsed on the series might not be manifestations of Smokey but of Jacob? Hmmm...

What Can't He Do? Only fitting that the man wearing John Locke's skin should yell at the figure, "Don't tell me what I can't do!" But the response is in reference to the boy's statement that the Man in Black can't "kill him." So who is the him in this sentence? Sawyer, of course. The Smoke Monster has killed many people on the island but has never lifted a hand against those candidates whom Jacob selected. Given that Saywer is one of those candidates (and is protected by the numbers), he's untouchable and killing Sawyer is off limits to the Man in Black...

Yet the Man in Black DOES move to save Sawyer's life when he nearly falls off the rope and bamboo ladder on the cliffside. Could it be that he can't kill him but also can't let him die either? If that's the case, why is it so essential for the candidates to be protected within the Temple? Not because they'll be killed by the Man in Black but because they might be recruited by him?

Locke-X. While the Man in Black is using Locke's form on the island, we're also given a glimpse into another version of John Locke, one who never had the chance to claim his destiny. Returning from Sydney without having convinced the excursion company to allow him on the walkabout, Locke comes home to his fiancee Helen and some very different circumstances in his life. For one, Anthony Cooper doesn't appear to be the cause of Locke's paralysis as he had been in the other reality. (Otherwise, Locke wouldn't have been so open to inviting him to the wedding or their possible elopement, nor would Helen have suggested it in the first place.) It also appears that he never split from Helen and the two were planning their nuptials... and that he went to Sydney on the pretense of attending a conference and used his company's money to finance his airfare to Australia, where he promptly ditched the conference and attempted to go on a walkabout.

This fact is quickly discovered by the loathsome Randy, who fires Locke. But despite the fact that Oceanic Flight 815 never crashed, these castaways are still bound by invisible strings. While he ultimately decides not to call Jack for a free consult, Locke nevertheless crosses paths with two other would-be castaways in the form of Hurley, who owns the box company where Locke had been employed, and Rose, who oversees a temp agency (also owned by Hurley) where Locke is sent for a new job. (Rose, meanwhile, still has terminal cancer but is attempting to live the life she has left. It's a moment of epiphany for Locke when she reveals this.)

Locke is so focused on proving everyone wrong about his condition that he isn't thinking about what is right for him, what's suitable, and what will be worthwhile. The job that Locke eventually gets is that of substitute teacher. Given the episode title, it's not only a fitting employment prospect but also refers to several other current situations currently ensnaring John Locke in multiple realities. There's a man with his face running around the island but he's an impostor, a substitute. Likewise, Locke would have appeared to have been the prime candidate for ascending and replacing Jacob but his death has axed him from the running, leading the PTB to find a substitute, another candidate. Curious that.

I'm also intrigued by Locke's decision not to seek a cure for his condition. He wants Helen to accept him for who he is, in the state he's in, and says that he doesn't believe in miracles. It's a diametrically opposite position to the Locke in the mainstream reality and one that will likely have some severe consequences down the road.

Ben-X. The real stunner, however, is that Ben is a teacher at the school where Locke receives his substitute teaching gig. First of all, I think it's absolutely perfect that Benjamin Linus would be an anal European History teacher at a high school and would chastise his colleagues for not cleaning out the used coffee grinds from the machine. (How absolutely perfect.) But I am scratching my head about how Ben is in this reality as he should have drowned on the island when The Incident occurred as he wasn't one of the children aboard the submarine when it departed before The Incident. Hmmm... Could it be that Ben himself is somehow protected and that someone--or something--course-corrected in order to ensure that Ben would be alive within this divergent reality? Or is it that the castaways' actions produced many significant changes under the surface? Curious... Let's hope these two become fast friends.

Ben. The Ben in the other reality, however, offered a few words at the impromptu burial of John Locke in the little cemetery by the castaway's old beach home. (Interesting that the men here--Ben and Frank--were wearing white shirts, while the women--Sun and Ilana--had on black shirts. Balance, as always.) He admitted that Locke was a better man that he would ever be and that he had murdered him, an admission that doesn't seem to shock the others too much. Does anyone else feel that Locke and Ben were perhaps the two men most suited to taking over for Jacob and the Man in Black? Notice that he's less than forthcoming about the fact that he killed Jacob, instead pinning the blame on the Locke lookalike.

(Aside: am also intrigued by the fact that Ilana scooped up the ash that was left behind after Jacob's corpse went up in flames. Is this the same ash--the remnants of the protector--that they have been using to block out the Man in Black from certain locations?)

Sawyer. Poor Sawyer, meanwhile, ends up stuck with the Man in Black after he's been living in his own filth and swigging whiskey for days in the home he once shared with Juliet. But Sawyer's no fool and the Man in Black should know better than to con a con man; Sawyer knows straightaway that he's not John Locke and asks "what" he is. While he doesn't get an answer, he's willing to embark on a journey to get some answers about why he's on the island, even when he's warned otherwise by Richard Alpert. Loved that he pulled a gun on Fake Locke but I'm also glad that he didn't fire, given what happened to Ilana's team.

But the Man in Black would seem to share some qualities with Sawyer himself. He says that he was a man once too, a man like Sawyer, and that he too lost someone he loved. (Hmmm...) It would therefore appear that both Jacob and the Man in Black didn't always serve in their positions and had taken over for people before them. Which made me think once more of the corpses that have been described as "Adam and Eve." (Remember the black and white stones accompanying their bodies?) Were these failed candidates? Previous protectors whose bodies seemingly decayed at an infinitesimal rate over time? (Or, under the same circumstances, the loved ones of Jacob and the Man in Black?)

The Cave. On the edge of the island, there lies a cave (aha, Plato again!), which I thought might have been the home of the Man in Black but it's something else entirely. It's here that the MiB takes Sawyer to show him the truth about his purpose on the island and it contains a scale on which sit a large white stone and a large black stone but the scales are tipped over to the black side when the Man in Black throws the white stone into the sea, an "inside joke" that nonetheless could also represent Jacob's recent death at the hands of Ben. But the front room with its Libra-like scales isn't what he wants Sawyer to see... Rather it's the walls of the darkened cave behind, which contains many, many crossed-out names, some unknown and some quite familiar.

The Candidates and The Numbers. Among those not crossed out, several passengers aboard Oceanic Flight 815, including those who were visited by Jacob: Jack, Sawyer, Sayid, Kwon (though whether it was Jin or Sun is unclear), Hurley, and Locke. These individuals would seem to be candidates to replace Jacob, to take his place on the island and serve his purpose: to protect the island from harm, to keep the scale balanced and preserve the delicate relationship between good and evil. Jacob can travel off-island and wants to protect it; The Man in Black is bound to the island and wants to leave. Their cross-purposes once more create an equilibrium, maintaining the balance. Jacob's death however has tipped the scales towards the black. So, will one of these people succeed Jacob now that he's died? And what makes them more or less a better candidate than the others?

Each of the castaways whose names appear on the cave wall have a number assigned to them:

4 - John Locke
8 - Hugo Reyes
15 - James Ford
16 - Sayid Jarrah
23 - Jack Shephard
42 - Kwon

Those numbers, of course, correspond to the so-called cursed numbers that have encircled the story since the very first episode. The Man in Black said that Jacob had "a thing for numbers" and, interestingly, the names that are crossed out (other than Locke's, which the Man in Black draws a line through) correlate to numbers that aren't these cursed (or perhaps blessed numbers). Curious, that.

A few things jumped out at me here. For one, it's interesting that the Man in Black isn't sure whether Kwon refers to either Jin or Sun. I'm thinking that might be because it could refer to them as a single unit and that their duality represents a sense of balance, their fates inexorably bound together. Which could mean that something is intentionally keeping the two apart and that there was a specific reason why Sun did not travel into the past with the other members of the Oceanic Six, a reason that is connected with keeping the couple as separate as possible. There's also another possibility: that Kwon doesn't refer to them at all but rather their offspring, Ji-Yeon, who is also a Kwon... but isn't on the island. (Neither is Aaron, though, and I'd think he'd be a prime candidate.)

I'm also concerned by the fact that, despite Jacob contacting both Kate and Ilana in the same fashion as the others, neither of their names is glimpsed on the wall and neither has been given a number that correlates with one of Jacob's favored numbers. While the Kwon entry is vague and ambiguous, the other names all refer to men rather than women. It is possible that only men can act as substitutes for Jacob and the Man in Black once they are released from their obligations, despite the fact that Kate and Ilana were seemingly selected for a purpose by Jacob. Unless, of course, they have another position to fill... Ilana, as mentioned above, was visited by Jacob but not touched, which means she could be a foot soldier in his employ but not a candidate. But what does that mean about Kate? Hmmm...

Which brings us to the crossroads at the end of the episode. Sawyer can take one of three possible paths: he can do nothing and see how things turn out; he can take over for Jacob and protect the island (which the Man in Black says doesn't need to be protected); or he can leave the island with the Man in Black.

Sawyer chooses the latter, which makes me very nervous indeed because if leaving the island were simple, the Man in Black would have done so a long time ago and he would appear to be imprisoned here. Does he need the choice of one of Jacob's candidates in order to flee? And what would his arrive off of his floating island prison mean for the rest of the world?

All in all, a fantastic episode that provided some much needed answers to some central mysteries on the series and made me anxious for next Tuesday evening already. Especially intriguing: next week's episode marks the series' 108th hour. Given the importance of the numbers (which, as we all know, add up to 108), I can't help but feel that next week's episode will be a hell of a ride. Buckle up, Lost fans.

What did you think of this week's episode? What are your theories about what's going on? Agree or disagree with the above. Discuss.

Next week on Lost ("Lighthouse"), Hurley must convince Jack to accompany him on an unspecified mission and Jin stumbles across an old friend.


Bennett said…
The Locke-centric episodes have always been my favorite and this was no exception. I loved the sideways flash and Locke's encounter with Hurley, who is much more cool and confident in the parallel world. I also loved his interaction with Ben at the school and Ben fussing about the coffee. Classic! Back on the island, Locke's funeral was equally disturbing and brilliant. Just a fantastic episode. (And a fantastic write up as well...thanks!)
Unknown said…
One thing I don't understand is Man in Black's explanation of Jacob's calling these people to the island through intervention and manipulation: he only made contact with Sayid after he had left the island - he lays his hand on his shoulder when Nadia gets run over, after they have been reunited with Sayid as one of the Oceanic Six. The same also applies to Hurley, who was also only contacted by Jacob after he had already left the island. Which makes me believe that maybe nothing Man-in-Black says can be trusted.

I also think the gender issue with the names is very interesting, and hope it will be addressed in some way, especially as, if memory serves, the original concept of the show was to have Kate, rather than Jack, as the main character.

Thanks for the write-up.
Anonymous said…
Richard Alpert was a prisoner/slave on the Black Rock ship. That is why Smokey/Locke mentions seeing him in chains when they meet on the beach.
HipHopAnonymous said…
The main thing I learned from last night's episode is that Elizabeth Sarnoff is a helluva great writer. She did some of the best eps of DEADWOOD, and almost all of the LOST eps with her name attached to them have been outstanding. Kudos to her and Melinda Hsu Taylor for making the 'flash-sideways' interesting again. I was already starting to get tired of this device, but Locke-X really made it work for me. And Terry O'Quinn's wonderful performance actually managed to supersede my own growing impatience over the duel-timeline mystery.

And is it just me, or is Hurley-X almost... 'Jacob-like' in his newfound serene demeanor and optimism?
Jace Lacob said…

Yes, I discussed that either in last week's write-up or the week before.
Anonymous said…
The kid vs MIB "you can't kill him" business sent me back to the exchange between Ben and Charles Widmore on the same subject. Wonder if we've been choosing up teams all along.
Eric said…
1. Richard does not age because "Jacob made him that way" - which challenges your assumption that Richard is not "Jacob blessed". Not saying you are wrong, but Jacob has "blessed" Richard in some form.

2. Jacob did not touch Ilana, therefore she was not contacted in the same fashion as the others. She also knew Jacob when he came to her.
Amrie said…
Hi there - I had the SAME thought about the "Kwon" referring not to Sun or Jin, but their child!

And my theory led me to a "what if Jacob's touching them enabled them to have children on the island," but I'm still working on the hows and whys of that one!

A really great ep that has me excited about the end of the series (unlike last week's episode that left me feeling cold).
TK said…
I really have nothing to add to the analysis (which is great, I enjoy these and they make my viewings better), but I wanted to note that the first thing that popped into my head when the Man in Black said he didn't know if "Kwon" meant Jin or Sun was that Sun-X's last name is Paik.
Ang said…
How can you be sure that "Shephard" refers to Jack? Couldn't it be Christian?
Jesse said…
I think it's a fair assumption considering a) Christian is dead (an most likely being used as a 'skin' for MiB b)Jacob touched Jack, not Christian.
Ron Buckmire said…

I'm really glad Ifound this site--I'll be back as the final season of LOST hurtles to a conclusion.

Is it also possible that Shephard could refer to Aaron? Isn't he a Shephard as well (Jack's nephew). Heck, it could even refer to Claire.

My favorite character is Richard (one because Richard Alpert is so smoking hot!) and I really hope that they clarify his role very soon.

I hadn't noticed who wrote this episode, but I will be taking note in the future. I hope we get a Sayid-focused episode sometime.
ralome said…
Well thank you so much Jace for all the hard work you are doing here. I just want to tell you that like most people your site is the first to visit after I watched another episode of Lost. Because no matter how hard I try I always miss something you saw no matter if it is something from the other episodes coming full circle or something that lies beyond the visible.

Just let me say it’s almost mandatory to read your thoughts about the series and the developments we all witnessed.

Lost was the topic that brought me to your blog and since this is the last season I might be leaving soon but before I am doing that I want to share some of my thoughts with you:

Faith and science as you mentioned before play a major role throughout Lost and since Locke-x in the other verse seems to me to be in the hands of medical science now losing all the faith in miracles while listening to a person that has terminal cancer.
Meanwhile on the island the MiB is not only stuck in Lockes Body but as Ilana mentioned seems to be rather locke(d) in now. He cannot change his disguise anymore and that brings me to a strange thought. Not being able to kill Jacob, not being able to leave the island, not being able to change his appearance. This can only mean there are rules in place – rules even the MiB has to obey no matter what. And since he is always telling us that he wants to be free – to be able to leave the island I am pretty sure its all about these rules he tries to brake. Because these rules tell him what he can do and what he cannot do.

Its fun to think about it. Evil always follows the same patterns. Most of the time it’s a downward spiral for everyone that becomes evil or does evil in the world. And look at these con men they also have to follow rules to convice and betray people they have to stick to the path they lay out (their lies) and once they want to step beyond the path the lies might reveal themselves with tragic consequences. So I assume being evil is a narrow path full of rules one has to obey. While only the honest might wander free around choosing their own path and destiny – like our choosen few.

I am also pretty sure the MiB does not want to leave the island for good but rather wants to be able to travel like Jacob was able to. Richard told us he wants to kill everybody on the island not leave at all. And since he is telling us that the island does not need protection I am sure he is referring to the fact that the island won’t need any protecting once he is in charge and alone. Free to rule and use is as he sees fit. In that case everyone who would want to protect it would be his sworn enemy. Good for Sawyer he always knows what the right choice might be.
Andalado said…
This is an excelent analisis of the episode. about Kate: i think she could be the sum of the cualities of all the "candidates" i mean she deliver aaron (doctor), she tricks a guy into robbing a bank (con woman), she's been married etc. she's like a backup plan of jacob, what i meant is that she could be the sum of all the numbers 4+8+15+16+23+42=108.
i'm just guessing here, we have to wait to see what is coming in the show.
PS: I'm from colombia so forgive me for my english.
Emily_elf said…
Fantastic read again - really good work. I look forward to reading your blog almost as much as the episodes. Fascinating stuff. Can't wait to see how Locke's story really ends - surely he can't be dead?!
Raphael said…

nice write-up for the best episode so far in this season in my opinion.

Just wanted to add one thing though: Smokey has already tried to hurt at least one of Jacob's candidates before. In one of the last episodes of season 1, Locke was dragged by Smokey to a hole and then saved by Jack.
Of course we could argue what smokey's real intension was, but I think it's safe to assume that it was going to hurt Locke someway.

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