[Spoilers for Lost abound in the article that follows. You are advised to watch all six (epic, amazing, divisive, infuriating, wonderful) seasons of the show before reading this article. The author does not apologize to you should you actively choose to read on despite not having seen the show. Quite the opposite. You have been warned.]
You've been special your whole life—you are sure of it. You have a destiny, a fate that looms somewhere out there like a mountain in the mist; veiled and vague but real, goddamnit. You can see it and despite life's pain, its many setbacks and disappointments, you do not lose your faith.
And then! Oh, and then you are approached, and you are told that you are right! Fate does indeed have something planned just for you. You are called. You are special. Perhaps you refuse the call at first before succumbing, but the refusal doesn't last. The mentor who approached you has convinced you. The supernatural event you've experienced has awoken you. And now?
Now all you have to do is follow someone else's teaching, trust in them, walk through fire and great trial, and you'll receive your ultimate boon. Do these things and you’ll be taking the same steps outlined in the mythological/storytelling template known as The Hero’s Journey, itself embedded in broader cultural consciousness by Joseph Campbell in his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces; steps that outline a path toward hard-won reward and transformation, that offer structure and meaning and purpose.
Structure and meaning and purpose. Reward and transformation. Are you seeking those things? Will you follow the noble call and heed your mentor’s obviously good intentions? Will you undertake great risk for great reward? If so, you just might have what it takes to be a hero!
Then again, you might just be an easy mark.
Confidence games and con men are central to Lost—ABC’s polarizing television epic about a diverse group of individuals trapped on a mysterious Island after a devastating plane crash. That centrality remains over six mind-bending seasons, as Lost evolves from a desert island survival and redemption drama tinged with Prisoner-esque surrealism, to a claustrophobic philosophical struggle between blind faith and smug rationalism, to a sci-fi time travel opus, and eventually to a dramatization of conflict between “God” and “Satan,” hope and nihilism, community and self-interest, for the fate of that (now mythically important) Island and the soul of the world itself. Throughout these increasingly audacious evolutions two ideologically opposed men occupy center stage: Dr. Jack Shephard, man of science, and John Locke, man of faith.
John Locke is a man divided—caught between a life-long yearning for meaning and purpose, and his own repeated refusal of the call to adventure. Despite repeated attempts by the agents of the Island to recruit him through Tibetan ritual and offers of summer camp (yes, summer camp), Locke stymies them each and every time. His doubts, insecurities, self-delusions, and anger at the world keep him adrift and divided in his life, and keep him from responding to the Journey’s call. His internal division manifests in his personality: wise but naive, loving but cold, loyal but stubbornly headstrong. This luckless, sad-sack box-company employee is the product of a cyclically punishing existence that seems designed both by and for him.
When Oceanic flight 815 crashes, stranding that seemingly randomized group of disparate people on that mysterious Island, Locke's yearnings for meaning and purpose are finally fulfilled. To his dazzlement and delight, his wheelchair-bound legs are somehow healed. He acquires status and respect among his fellow castaways, who look to him for aid and comfort. He attains a mysterious but palpable communion with what appears to be the Island itself, acquiring a profound religious certainty in his purpose as a chosen protector and savior. After a lifetime of longing and pain, John Locke is called upon to serve a force and a purpose well beyond his or anyone's initial understanding. He accepts the call to adventure with a glad heart.
Locke’s journey throughout Lost is the Hero’s Journey, and he walks the steps of that journey like a dutiful son. He hears the call to adventure, refuses the call, and then accepts it. He encounters the supernatural via a bizarre, otherworldly “Smoke Monster,” as well as multiple encounters with the strange properties and features of the Island (Polar bears! Ghostly whispers! Electromagnetism! An uncanny and oddly specific ability to know when it will rain and when it will stop raining!). He acquires a mentor in the self-proclaimed leader of the Island’s inhabitants/guardians. He endures trials including the repeated loss and restoration of his legs, human sacrifice both literal and figurative, a lengthy stint living underground in order to push a button every 108 minutes, and a self-imposed banishment from the Island that he loves. He accepts those trials as part of the price that must be paid for his journey, with faith in a righteous higher purpose.
Over the course of that journey (thanks in no small part to the serialized long-form nature of the television medium) we in the audience perhaps come to identify with him. His struggles, in the abstract if not in the particulars, remind us of our own struggles (it’s the rare individual who hasn’t longed for meaning and purpose at some point). His triumphs resemble our triumphs. In his confusion and frustration and desperation we see mirrored, perhaps, something of our own confusions, frustrations, and desperations. We share his doubt and his faith in some higher purpose. We want to believe that Locke’s sacrifices and sadness, his trials and his triumphs, mean something more than their own slow accumulation over time.
But Locke’s faith is misplaced, and so is ours. We are betrayed.
John Locke treads the path of the Hero’s Journey as an eager acolyte. He dies a patsy—strangled to death in the culmination of an elaborate confidence game that spans decades if not centuries. The entirety of his Hero’s Journey has been reverse-engineered by the show’s Satan/Shaitan/adversary/Set analogue, the “Man in Black,” in order to build Locke up as a figure of trust and importance in the eyes of the Island’s guardians, then replace and impersonate him. Wearing Locke’s face allows the Man in Black to gain access to and brutally murder his brother, the Island’s mysterious and carefully guarded God/Allah/Yahweh/Ra analogue. Havoc ensues, as the Island is thrown into chaos and the world endangered.
Lost gives its audience an interpretation of the Hero’s Journey that goes beyond the sort of mythopoetic checklist we’ve become accustomed to. It offers a darker view of, and use for, that journey. In the process it asks some genuinely interesting questions not typically asked within the context of a Campbellian hero’s quest:
When is the Hero's Journey poisonous? When does faith lead us astray? When we receive the call to adventure how can we be sure that we should answer it? How can we know whether to trust the thing that calls us?
In a show rife with confidence games and grifters, it’s the use of the Hero’s Journey as a kind of confidence game that resonates with greatest impact. In Lost, the traditional Hero’s Journey is subverted and weaponized by a malign force to be used for its own ends. Locke’s desperate desire to be meaningful and, ironically, his rage and pain at being repeatedly used and betrayed, allow the Man in Black to manipulate him ruthlessly. It’s through this manipulation that the Man in Black is able to establish Locke as a “Hero” in the Campbellian sense of the word, putting him through the various steps in the Hero’s Journey. And it is through the awe and confusion that Locke generates as a result of walking the steps in that Hero’s Journey that the Man in Black is able to use Locke’s burnished reputation to accomplish his own blackly selfish goals, which include the murder of the Island’s “God” figure. In a show that grapples substantively with the complications, blessings and dangers of faith it would seem to be no accident that faith, cultivated and reinforced and shaped to a point by the Hero’s Journey and its corresponding stages, makes it possible to slay the “divine.”
This cynical appropriation of the Hero’s Journey is not only present at the level of manipulating Locke and those around him into believing that Locke is special and trustworthy—it is present in the specific Campbellian steps along the Journey’s path. Locke’s “Calls To Adventure,” which began in his childhood and continue into adulthood, can be viewed in retrospect as carefully engineered acts of sabotage by the bitter and malevolent Man in Black (whose backstory is, in retrospect, strikingly similar to Locke’s). Locke’s Mentor, the crafty and power-corrupted Benjamin Linus, harbors dark and untrustworthy motives for his mentorship, regarding Locke himself as an eminently disposable piece on a game board that he controls. “The Atonement with the Father” that is expected of those who take the Hero’s Journey is never realized in his life. Locke instead falls prey to a particularly amoral and ruthless con as a direct result of that desire to atone. His father—a professional grifter responsible for shoving his own son out of a window and taking away the use of his legs—pointedly rejects atonement and remains an unrepentant sociopath to his very last breath. While Locke’s healing is a positive “Boon,” his “Ultimate Boon”—the prize received after all that trial and tribulation—is death at the hands of his duplicitous mentor. And of course, the Hero’s “Resurrection” is false, with the duplicitous Man in Black assuming his identity.
Within his own lifetime Locke’s story is one of profound and unanswered sadness. It is a story of faith betrayed and rejected. If Locke were a biblical figure he might be Job. For all his pain and all his efforts to seek for some redeeming meaning in what seems like unrelenting suffering and betrayal, his search for meaning is never directly, truly answered in the span of his own lifetime. Locke simply dies, strangled by a mentor whose bewildered pain closely resembles his own, and whose desperate faith, anger, and need for meaning have been sinisterly manipulated. Perhaps worse, in death Locke is purposefully used to divide and radicalize the very people he had sincerely tried to help and befriend in his life. The very qualities that drew others to him—his conviction, his faith, his preternatural feel for the Island—are ruthlessly leveraged against his fellow castaways.
There is a grander sweep to Lost’s story; an ultimate “God’s eye” narrative that seeks to redeem Locke’s struggles, place them in a more expansive narrative framework, and thus reassure the audience of a greater meaning behind the world. This is a meaning in which Locke plays the role of John the Baptist as opposed to Job, inspiring fellow castaway and ideological opposite Jack Shephard to finally place his faith in something greater than himself. Locke’s faith teaches Jack about the importance of choosing positive meaning from the shapeless narrative of our lives, and directly motivates Jack to give his life in service of something more meaningful and more important than any one individual. “Turns out [Locke] was right about most everything,” Jack finally proclaims at the end of the series, “I just wish I could’ve told him that while he was still alive.”
By saying this Jack reassures both himself and the audience that Locke’s life and all its struggles contained real purpose and meaning, but it’s the sort of reassurance that the “God’s eye” perspective granted by storytelling provides—a perspective that lets audience and character alike experience a narrative from a distance and a vantage point that “real” life does not often grant us. We get to see Jack’s epiphany because we float freely in time and in space between all the story’s characters; Locke does not. Long dead by the time Jack’s realization takes place, Locke can only experience the meaning and the grander scheme that Jack asserts for him thanks to an extended storyline that takes place in an afterlife we here on earth cannot know exists. At the end of Locke’s life, as Locke experiences it, there is no such reassurance; he dies as a man who has been repeatedly conned up to the very last moment. He dies potently aware of that fact.
Ultimately, and true to Lost’s overarching themes—its evident obsession with the powers and dangers of faith and rationalism, community and isolation, trust and distrust—it is arguably unclear whether Locke’s dark-mirror Hero’s Journey is truly necessary to obtain the ultimate victory that Lost shows us through its other characters, or whether Locke’s eager embrace of someone else’s proposed purpose, his desperate desire for meaning, creates darkness and havoc that did not have to exist.
Locke’s journey serves as a compelling example of how the Hero’s Journey—like all myth, religion, or even storytelling as a whole—is a weapon in the wrong hands. The urge to be seen as special and to be called for some kind of a special purpose is one that most everyone has felt. Being told that you’re special can activate a hero. But it can also radicalize a fanatic, or prep a mark to be conned. John Locke’s story dramatizes the disquieting idea that it is impossible for us to know with certainty which one we are. Without the ability to cast our eyes across the length and breadth of a narrative and consider its intended and/or unintended meaning(s), we are ultimately unable to ascertain or assign the meaning of a journey (or indeed whether any meaning exists), and are thus potential prey to forces who might deign to try and shape that journey for their own ends. This leaves us all vulnerable to those who would exploit our need for meaning, whether they would do so in a secular or a spiritual sense, whether they want to control, divert, guide, or destroy us.
We are each of us living our own stories with our own (demythologized) calls to adventure, our own mentors, our own trials and triumphs, and all crucially without the “God’s eye” perspective that being a member of the audience necessarily affords us.
And without that perspective, how can we ever know whether or not to trust the thing that calls us?