Inevitably, I’ll re-watch the entire run of Lost at some point after the final season is complete. When I do, I expect to look at and understand John Locke in a new, fascinating and ultimately disheartening light.
Lost has been about nothing if not the formation, dissolution and re-formation of factions along ever-shifting lines—The beach or the caves? The camp or the hatch? The castaways or the Others? The freighter or New Otherton?—but the real choice that underpins many of these divisions is the (increasingly crumbling) dichotomy between science and faith, between free will and destiny. And that choice has always been personified in two people: Jack Shephard and John Locke.*
*Of course, we’ve been getting hints for years that Jack would eventually learn to synthesize the two, and demonstrate that the need to choose between them is an ultimately false construct—that’s been set up explicitly since the episode (conveniently) titled “Man of Science, Man of Faith” that opened season two, and had its seeds planted back in the first substantive conversation between Jack and Locke back in season one’s “White Rabbit.”
From the beginning, I was always "Team Locke." At first I trusted him over Jack because I (erroneously) trusted his mysterious communion with the Island. Later, it was because I felt such a distinct affinity for his character arc. A foster child, Locke spent his entire life feeling like an outsider, exiled, rejected. He wanted to belong somewhere else, to be doing something more. He longed for community. His brief prayer in season three, when he says grace over dinner at his hippie-dippie pot-growing commune, stands as one of the show's most humane and touching moments:
"Thank you, Lord. Thank you for the food and the friends. And ... for helping me stop being so angry. And for helping me find a real family -- because they're a hell of a lot better than the one I used to have. So, let's eat. Amen."
Given that he gives this prayer at a casual late-afternoon picnic, this is a strong contender for the title of Most Inappropriately Sincere Grace Ever. However, it also establishes just why John—and the audience—was so relieved when it seemed he had finally found a home amongst the Others, and as their leader, no less.
By the time we saw John's death in a dingy motel room in a season five flashback, we had already been led to believe that he had been resurrected and was at long last the cool, calm, collected master of the Island. But the season ended with The Big Reveal--that John Locke had not been resurrected, that the boar-hunting true believer we had grown to hope would find a family and some form of redemption instead had died an ignominious death in a seedy motel room—and my heart sank.
Jack was right. Locke was just a sad, lonely old man whose delusions that he's special or important stem from a lifetime of being shut out by the people whose approval he most wanted. I’ll be going through my inevitable re-watch knowing that he’s a far less knowledgeable and competent character than he seems, the tool of more powerful men, manipulated at every turn.
Season six hasn't done anything to bolster our estimation of him, either. We started the season with UnLocke telling us John's last thought: "I don't understand." He called Locke a sad little man, raging at the world for telling him what he can't do. Only, the world was correct. The only thing noble or admirable about Locke, UnLocke said, was that he recognized how pathetic his life really was.
And now, to add insult to injury, it seems that in the form of Desmond, we're getting a glimpse of what Locke thought he was all along. Locke always claimed some special knowledge or experience that gave him transcendent authority--a claim that was only reinforced by the folk legend we saw constructed in season five's time loop. Under the guise of Jeremy Bentham, he tracked down the castaways that escaped the Island, claiming that he was important and that they needed to return.
The only thing this show likes to do as much as divide and re-divide its characters into various camps is use one character to mirror and subvert our understanding of another. So of course in "Happily Ever After" and "Everybody Loves Hugo" we've begun to see what that same story looks like when the main character isn't deluded. Desmond really does have special knowledge—his on-Island self and his Sideways self seem to be aware of one another's lives—and he's starting to go around to our castaways to “bring them back” to the Island mentally and emotionally, much like Locke attempted to “bring them back” physically.
However, so far the Scotsman is operating more like Jacob than like Locke. He didn’t go to Hurley making an impassioned case for letting himself remember his pre-Jughead existence. Instead, he talked with Hurley gently, suggested an idea, and let Hurley choose whether to go with it or not.
Granted, Sideways Desmond also ran over Sideways Locke with a car, so we'll see how all this ends up.