The Island That Heals: Lost, John Locke, and Disability

Note: This post contains discussion of Lost through season six, episode four, “The Substitute.” That means it is full of spoilers! You have been warned.

John Locke is one of the most central and interesting characters on ABC’s Lost. He is a character with whom I personally struggle as a viewer, especially as a disabled viewer with a critical eye to the depiction of disability on television. And, honestly? I don’t know quite how I feel about John Locke, and probably won’t until Lost concludes, but I’d like to take a gander at writing about him anyway, especially in light of this week’s Locke-centric episode.

And I should note that there is a huge body of myth and theory about John Locke. He’s a character who clearly grips viewers and is intended to. And I am well aware that there are probably some aspects of Locke Theory which would disagree with how I view his character, but I’d like to focus on how I perceive him as a viewer, rather than quickly becoming entangled in conflicting theories. Mainly because, I admit, I have not read a lot of the theory and I don’t want to try to delve into it now.

We were introduced to Locke in the pilot as the man in the wheelchair who walks again as soon as he lands on the Island. This becomes a recurring theme in the series; the Island heals people who are meant to be there, evidently, so John is rewarded for reaching the Island by being cured. At several points in the series, Locke experiences a recurrence of his injury, almost as a warning, before recovering the ability to walk again without any explanation.

He’s a central character in the overarching good versus evil plot which dominates the show, and his back and forth disability, I think, plays into this to some extent, with an emphasis on disability=bad. John is the man of faith who believes in destiny and believes in the Island, and his periodic injuries are viewed by him as tests. When he experiences temporary disability on the Island, it’s sometimes because he has done something bad and against faith. As soon as his faith is restored, the temporary disability resolves. Coincidence? I think not.

His refrain is “you can’t tell me what I can and cannot do” which would feel empowering, except that it’s usually echoed at times of failure, when people are in fact telling him precisely what he can and cannot do, but he doesn’t listen, and he gets in trouble. And he’s depicted as a deeply pathetic character when he see him off-Island in the wheelchair. In the flash sideways timeline, Locke appears defeated and miserable to me, conceding that, yes, people can tell him what he can and cannot do. (Contrast this with the entity using Locke’s body as an avatar on the Island and defiantly telling the mysterious boy that he can’t tell him what to do.)

But Locke also struggles even before the accident which causes his paralysis and the Lost creators did a reasonably good job of avoiding the “once you are disabled, you will be sad forever” trope. Yes, we see Locke frustrated and angry in physical therapy, but it’s not uncommon for people to experience an adjustment period to disability, and it wasn’t at all unreasonable to depict this. After all, if the show had depicted Locke effortlessly adjusting and playing wheelchair rugby in the first week, I would have criticized the show for being unrealistic. We also see John struggling with depression, but that’s after his life falls apart, not because he is a wheelchair user. And we see some of the daily aspects of his life presented in the flash sideways timeline; what do you do when the wheelchair lift on your van breaks? How do you deal with employment discrimination?

Locke also sometimes reminds viewers of some important things. I loved the scene where he didn’t use the designated parking spot and said to Hurley “I don’t have to use it.” I liked the scene in the temp agency where he asserted his desire to work in construction and there was that tight exchange with Rose where he said “if experience is the issue…” as though DARING her to come out and say that she didn’t want to assign him to a construction job because of his mobility impairment. We have seen him at various points challenging people who view him as an object of pity or tragedy, and I’ve like that.

I’m not totally happy with the show’s perspective on Locke’s disability, though. For example, Locke is also shown repeatedly yearning for things he is denied specifically because he uses a wheelchair, most specifically the Walkabout which led him to Australia. I feel like that kind of sends a message that wheelchair users spend their time mooning about wishing they weren’t using a chair so that everything would be magically better. And it implies that using a chair is to encounter a life of denial, to be limited, to be unable to fully enjoy life. Not so much a fan of that.

In a scene with Helen, he makes an angry speech about not wanting her to wait for a miracle (contrast this skeptical Locke with the Man of Faith!). The culmination of that scene is, of course, Helen telling Locke that she’s just been waiting for him, not a miracle, and I admit that I felt a bit conflicted on how I read that scene; I would be curious to know what other people think about the dynamic between Locke and Helen in the flash sideways timeline.

Before his accident, he’s lonely and he yearns for a father figure. He is driven with a need to belong, to fit in, to be important, on some level, and that informs a lot of his activities on the Island. He’s proud of his hunting abilities, for example, and he’s determined to get inside the hatch because he is convinced that something important is waiting for him there. Liz’ piece talking about the use of mobility impairments in narratives about rediscovering masculinity I think hit upon some key aspects of that narrative; Locke is presented as emasculated with his chair (we don’t, for example, see a sex scene with him and Helen) and on the island his manhood is restored and he can fulfill his destiny. Indeed, Locke is convinced that he is important and is a critical piece of a puzzle. And perhaps he is. Or was.

For someone who says that he cannot be told what to do, the original Locke had a powerful belief in fate and predestination.

And it is this which I think will be interesting to play out in season six, as we see the characters on the Island and in the flash sideways. In the season premiere, Jack and John met in the lost luggage office while Jack attempted to determine the whereabouts of his father and Locke filed a claim for his missing knives1. And, at the culmination of their meeting, Jack asks John what happened, attempting to excuse the invasive question by mentioning that he is a spinal surgeon.

Locke firmly states that he is paralyzed with no hope of recovery, and Jack implies that he can fix John and hands him his card. Is the cure of John’s paralysis meant to happen, in which case, are we going to be treated to a miracle cure scene in which Jack heals John? Or is the flash sideways reinforcing that everything goes awry off Island, in which case, is John not going to get the surgery at all, or get the surgery and have it be a failure? Or are we going to see Locke consciously decide to reject the surgery, as seemed to be the direction he might be headed in with “The Substitute”? I am very interested to see how this is handled, because it seems like something which could be a total disaster, or not, depending on some small things.

  1. The significance of having the knives turn up after Locke’s unsuccessful call to Jack was not lost on me.

5 Comments

  1. I had never thought about the island as handing out temporary disability to him as a narrative conceit, but it makes me think of how other characters experience disability. Sawyer and Jack both had temporary disability that seemed to affect them very little. Boone seems to die rather than living with one leg.

    Given the adventure genre qualities of the show and the constant physical danger and isolation of the characters, disability would seem to be a necessary part of the show that is maybe not fully enough explored – folks get sick/hurt and are immediately healed or dead except with John Locke.

    On the sideways universe: I don’t think I agree that he was entirely emasculated in a sexual sense w/r/t his relationship with Helen. There’s not a sex scene, but we do see them making out.

    Didn’t know what to think of his teaching sex ed, though. And I thought that the bath scene was troublesome – is bathing just not a private thing with them? Particularly juxtaposed with the water in the definitively emasculating scene of him on the lawn.

  2. In a scene with Helen, he makes an angry speech about not wanting her to wait for a miracle (contrast this skeptical Locke with the Man of Faith!). The culmination of that scene is, of course, Helen telling Locke that sheโ€™s just been waiting for him, not a miracle, and I admit that I felt a bit conflicted on how I read that scene; I would be curious to know what other people think about the dynamic between Locke and Helen in the flash sideways timeline.

    Yay! I’m glad there’s a post on Locke over here. I just got a chance to watch, and I did so knowing there was an FWD post waiting for after, so I paid more attention to the disability stuff than I might have (although it’s a standard feature of Locke story lines, as you mentioned).

    I think that the way I interpret that scene will be determined by how the rest of the season plays out.

    On most other shows, I would be busting out a ticker tape parade for the conversation between Locke and Helen in which he tells her that he wants to learn to live as a person with a disability, and not let searching for a magic cure define the rest of his life. In many ways it reminds me of the conversation Rose and Bernard have about her cancer, when she tells him that she wants to live the life she has left and not waste time on something that will never be (and I don’t think that’s a coincidence, which I’ll get to in a second). If flashsideways Locke really does live this way, and focuses on becoming a happy person with a disability, I think it will be a very progressive and amazing storyline. What I’m worried will happen, however, is that we will be shown that Locke is a tragic figure for admitting doubt rather than having faith in remote possibilities, and that if he had only let Jack operate (a show of Faith) he would have been cured as he was on the island (where he was the Man of Faith).

    I think that Rose was the HR person because we are meant to recall her conversation with Bernard that was mirrored in John’s talk with Helen. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about equating the two situation. There are some areas in which terminal illness and disability intersect, but I worry that it contributes to the idea that being disabled is 1) necessarily tragic and 2) that it necessarily involves a lower quality of life.

  3. And I thought that the bath scene was troublesome โ€“ is bathing just not a private thing with them?

    Isn’t that how it is with live-in couples in general? I would have taken more notice if he were having a conversation with Helen with the door closed, but maybe my family is weird. I also am not sure I agree he as emasculated, because as RMJ mentioned we did see them making out – and definitely like ‘I think you are sexy’ making out, not just an affectionate peck – and it wasn’t any more abbreviated than the last time we saw them making out (when he was able-bodied). (In both cases, I do think they showed less kissing with Locke than they would have with any other character, but I would suspect that is because Locke is older/not “hot”).

    There are some areas in which terminal illness and disability intersect, but I worry that it contributes to the idea that being disabled is 1) necessarily tragic and 2) that it necessarily involves a lower quality of life.

    This is interesting to me, because I read it as implying that Locke’s quality of life could be as high as any able-bodied person, but for that to happen he would have to accept what was and stop fantasizing about what wasn’t. But, I could also see how some viewers would read it as implying the things you say. In this one very specific instance, I feel like the show wasn’t implying these things were true, but people who assume they are true might assume that it was (like: I read flash-sideways Locke to have a happy ending in this episode, but I could see that some people might have thought “giving up” on the surgery would be a sad ending). Which… is an annoying situation I have no insightful things to say about.

    One thing I find interesting about five seasons of “remasculated” island-Locke is considering it in light of the recent revelations that a) the Others thought Locke was special because Flocke set that in motion to happen, and b) Locke died thinking “I don’t understand.” In the island timeline, he got the use of his legs back, he felt happy and purposeful and at one with the island and like he was fulfilling a special destiny… and then he died a confused failure who might have been an unwitting pawn all along. And, as Sawyer astutely pointed out this week, even when he was pretending he wasn’t, he was scared, always. On the surface – and the way the show played it all along – it seemed like the island was a blessing for Locke. But ultimately, it led to his being seriously morally compromised and eventually dying, miserable and alone. In the flash sideways, I suspect they are going to make it so Locke stays disabled (and after this week’s episode I will be really pissed off if they don’t, so this might be partly wishful thinking on my part), but there he’s happy and in love. Add that to my own speculation about Jacob not being as good as he seems, and Flocke maybe being right about the island not being quite as big a deal as people make it out to be, and I wonder if ultimately the show will, to some extent, subvert the narrative it set up with Locke – if in the end, the physical healing of the island won’t have been worth the misery it caused him, if he would have been better served by telling destiny to step off, if we’ll see he should have been sad and bitter and angry for a while and then spent some time in therapy and made his peace with it. (especially considering that a) the other thing Locke couldn’t make his peace with was his father’s horribleness, and he also would have been served by letting that go, and b) Jack, maybe Locke’s biggest parallel character on the show, has been defined as being Unable To Let Go Of Things, and for Jack that’s a bad thing – maybe we’ll see it was also that way for Locke).

    Speculation, and I agree there are a couple things they could do in the episodes we have left that could veer this into the disastrous. But I could theoretically see them going down this road, and it’s one I’d find interesting.

  4. Great post! I found the last episode really problematic from a disability rights perspective. It seems Locke was so frustrated by his disability and there was so much focus on THE CHAIR. It reminds me of the common notion that all those with disabilities lead incomplete lives and/or spend all their time yearning to be able bodied. I agree that there are some good factors (including having a key character that deals with disability – a rarity in itself) and that only time will tell if Lost ultimately ascribes to able bodied privilege and a demonizing/dehumanizing of disability.

  5. I just recently watched the last few seasons of Lost and caught up on this season, so I was very excited to come back and actually be able to read this post! YAY!

    One thing I liked was that Locke’s depression and feelings of incompetence and stubbornness, etc. all came *before* he became paralyzed and needed the chair. They made a point of that by showing him arguing about disability benefits for his depression pre-chair. It would have been easy for them to just blame it all on his disability. But he was a pathetic character way before the paralysis. If anything, becoming disabled and using the wheelchair seems to have made him stronger. His motto of “you can’t tell me what to do!” and his attempt to go on the walkabout show how he has continued to fight to do what he wants and feels is right for himself, when previously he gave in a lot and felt like a failure most of the time.

    So while, yes, Sawyer was right that Locke was scared all the time even when he was pretending not to be, I think that can be said for everyone. What’s the saying about bravery, how it’s not about not being scared but about facing the fear and doing it anyway? That’s Island-Locke to a T. Of course he’s scared, but he fights anyway, constantly, for what he thinks is right for himself, his people, and the island. That’s how I see him, anyway.

    Obviously there are still a lot of disability issues that are dealt with at the very least in complex ways, if not super problematic, or downright ableist. The fact that the island heals people and that this is a good thing right away shows a bias against people with disabilities. OTOH, I can see how this would be an important plot device because when I tried to think about how much the show would be changed if they had a lot of disabled, sick, and injured people to deal with, it was hard to even imagine. They are constantly changing camp, running from threats, venturing out into the jungle for various purposes, etc. If they’d had to stop and think about the guy who has to be carried by two people or how to get the wheelchair up the rocky mountain or what to do about those women who can’t walk as quickly as the others, it would have made things even more confusing! So, okay, people on the island are either cured or die quickly. That simplifies things.

    But then since the island (or is it Jacob or Smoke Monster?) heals those it/he/they want around and not the others, it does imply the message that disability and sickness are BAD because BAD people get affected by them. I wonder how much the writers and producers of the show thought about those implications…

    As far as the flashsideways with Helen, it’s interesting how Locke more easily reaches the acceptance stage. But I wonder if some of that isn’t part of his fear of failure coming in. How much is it the healthy acceptance that his life really has changed now, and how much is it him just giving up because he doesn’t want to fight anymore? It’s hard to say. It’s hard enough for me to figure that out for myself in my own life, much less a fictional character on television!

    I actually really liked the bathtub scene, btw, because it was so intimate. The two of them just talking the way close couples do when they’re alone and performing normal daily mundane tasks. She wasn’t in a position of power over him, she was just hanging out with him while he bathed. And I can’t speak to the emasculation aspect as it’s not something I know much about, but I thought the affection shared between the two of them was very nice.

    As far as her saying she was just waiting for him, not a miracle, I think it fit with what we saw about their relationship in the previous timeline. She always saw possibility in him that he could recover from his anger at his father and at life and be happy, but he never quite got there. And that’s why she left him in the previous timeline – because she realized he’d never get there. In this other timeline, she’s still waiting for him to get over some emotional stuff and just allow himself to be happy, which he seems to finally be doing. Frankly, I wish some of my loved ones would stop waiting for a miracle and join me in the acceptance stage! ๐Ÿ˜‰