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