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In the opening scenes of this week’s offering, “The Substitute,” we find (one of) our hero(es), John Locke, lying prone on his front lawn, tossed out of his wheelchair, with sprinklers dousing him with water and humility. As if Locke needed any more humility.

It seems the Lost writers love to reacquaint us with the characters in their off-island lives by showing very familiar experiences for them. When Locke tries to get out of his van, the expression on his face while waiting for the lift to land is priceless. Classic Locke, still not amused by having to live his life in a wheelchair. No doubt any viewer who’s a fan of this show could see Locke falling out of that chair way before it actually happens. Locke’s always leaping without looking, so this is a great literal translation of that.

Notice how this Locke is laughing at his situation, though. It’s subtle, but it’s there. Also, this Locke is still with Helen (Katey Sagal) and successfully engaged to her. Which leads one to wonder, what else is different about this Locke’s life?

I said it last week and I’ll say it again: These sideways versions are leading lives that are very much the same but with subtle differences. How often now have we seen each of these characters looking into mirrors? Jack did it in the season premiere, while on the plane. Kate did it in last week’s episode as she rooted through Claire’s luggage. And now, with “The Substitute,” we find Locke checking himself out in an eye-level (at least, his eye level) magnifying mirror, just before calling up Jack for a free consult. And then hanging up.

Typically, if a person avoids looking into mirrors, it’s an example of that person not living consciously. But these sideways characters are living consciously, for once. Oprah would be very happy.

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These are new-and-improved versions of the characters from the original off-island timeline. These are characters who find ways to overcome and deal with their shortcomings. The shortcomings are still there, but they are no longer the self-centered, blinded, desperate beings they once were.

And as Lost is really such an epic, Joseph Campbell-style hero’s journey, it’s hard to talk about it and not also continually reference other tales of heroic adventure — in film, in literature or otherwise.

So, why stop now?

Who remembers how in Superman II, when the man of steel finds love with Lois, he decides to abandon his alias and tell her the truth about who he really is? The only drawback of doing so is that, according to Marlon Brando, he must sacrifice all of his powers by sticking a bunch of funny-looking, test-tube-like glowing crystals into some notches in his ice fortress. Yeah, kind of a complicated process.

The whole point of that might be so he wouldn’t actually kill Lois with his super lovemaking abilities. But there’s more to it than that. We all know that comic book superheroes have a hard time maintaining their relationships. And the Lost castaways are no different.

When we were first introduced to Locke in season one, we saw a bald man lying flat on his back on a beach, surrounded by burning wreckage from his crashed airplane, looking down at his newly mobile legs and getting up and walking. We watched him develop a kind of invincibility and oneness with the island and struggle to get his fellow survivors to connect the same way he did.

This new, sideways Locke has no such powers, but it doesn’t restrict him the way it did his former off-island self. It’s what we’d have to imagine Superman would eventually have found had he stayed a powerless weakling, a human, in order to be with Lois. Yes, he would have gotten bloodied in bar fights, but he’d have love. And love can do anything.

That is the lesson of the sideways reality in Lost. Notice how the castaways keep showing up in one another’s lives, helping each other with this new sense of universal connection. That is love. But you can only see it if you are open to it. And not one of them was open to it the first time around. The writers wove (or Jacob wove) the characters in and out of one another’s lives in the first few seasons, usually without the characters’ knowledge. These were missed opportunities, paths they weren’t taking.

It’s a shame that it took blowing up a strange 1970s scientific-testing station (created by a cult-like group of hippies), tangling with vicious polar bears, turning a frozen donkey wheel, time traveling, hanging out in cages and any other crazy shenanigans that occurred on the island for their spirits to get to this point of higher development. But that’s Lost for you.

And Lost has always been a great combination of sci-fi action and character studies. In this season, the writers have developed an interesting pace. Just showing the sideways world and how all the characters find closure in their healthier lives would eventually get boring. Just showing the island world, with the Man in Black/Flocke and Jacob and what happens to the castaways after they exploded the Swan station — showing all the answers to island mysteries in each of the final season’s episodes — would get to be too much, too intense.

This storytelling style has more balance to it.

But enough of the psychological analysis. Let’s get back to smoke monsters.

How cool is that shot of Smokey and his perspective as he travels around the island? Man in Black/Flocke/maybe the devil (just my current theory) sure moves a lot faster than sideways Locke does. Something about this scene is a bit reminiscent of The Evil Dead, as well.

When Smokey looks in the window at Sawyer, did anyone else see what looked like a human face inside the clouds? Or maybe even two faces? Was this Flocke or just Sawyer, through the blinds?

Why does Flocke have to string up Richard? He says he “had to do something.” His apology for punching Richard in the neck seems akin to Ben apologizing later in the episode for murdering Locke.

Notice how Flocke gives water to Richard, but he never drinks any himself. Later, when Sawyer offers him whiskey, he can’t drink that either. Is this just more evidence of his lack of humanness? It’s like he’s still getting used to being in a human body.

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It would be wonderful to get some answers as to how the Man in Black can take on the guise of people — and why, as Ilana says, he’s now “stuck” as Flocke. Is this because Jacob died? How does Ilana know these things?

The whole scene with Flocke trying to recruit Richard is the closest we get to him seeming very much like the devil (or the snake in the Garden of Eden) in this episode. He wants to offer people knowledge that he says they deserve, he tries to tempt them — much like in the Biblical story. He tries to use the same tricks on Richard as he used on Ben, but they don’t work. Maybe this is because Richard has better people skills? With that scared, guyliner-gone-wild look on his face, it’s obvious he can tell that Flocke is one bad dude.

It’s funny how the usually very calm Richard is frantic for this entire episode. Just another sign that the island has gone off-kilter. Another literal translation of that? Check out Sawyer’s house. Much like all of abandoned Dharmaville, it’s a mess. (Much like he is at this point. Both physically and emotionally. Ugh, those boxers. Is it really hard to do laundry on the island? I’ve always wondered that.)

But in Sawyer’s house, the really interesting thing that’s off-kilter is the paintings on the wall. They are each paintings of the island. And not one of them appears to be hanging straight.

Something about Flocke’s request of Richard, “Come with me,” reminds me very much of Willy Wonka. Yeah, it wasn’t a great idea to follow that guy either.

What do you suppose Flocke means when he says that people “rarely get a second chance”?

The parallels between Flocke trying to recruit people and Locke unsuccessfully doing so in past seasons are interesting. Flocke does it in an entirely different way, something that Sawyer can see through immediately. He tells him he can tell he’s not Locke because Locke was “always scared.”

Another thing that can definitely be gleaned from this episode is that you can’t con a con man. Even in his drunken, destitute, aggrieved and angry state, Sawyer can see that what he’s dealing with is not good and is not going to actually help him. I don’t believe for one minute that he’s going to actually follow Flocke. Do you? I think Sawyer’s going to con Flocke into believing that he’s going to help him get off the island, just so he can find a way out of there himself.

So, who do you think that crazy Children of the Corn boy is? Jacob? Some are saying Aaron, but I’ve never been a fan of this whole notion that grown-up Aaron will be coming back to the island at some point. Why can’t people just leave Aaron alone? Let him stay at home and drink his milk. Or whatever it was he wanted so badly …

The random little-blond-boy apparition is dressed like Jacob and is standing in a very Christ-like pose. Why are his arms all bloody? Why is it that Richard can’t see him but, later on, Sawyer can?

There are a few rather poignant moments in this episode. Ben’s eulogy over Locke’s grave and Helen’s explanation of her belief in miracles are both tear jerkers. It’s nice to see Locke getting some credit for once, instead of constantly frustrating everyone.

There are a lot of great symbolic uses of the colors black and white, as well. Notice how Jacob’s ashes are white, as opposed to the black ashes we’ve seen thus far. The rocks on the scale in the hidden cave are black and white, but the black one is slightly heavier. This symbolizes how the black/darkness has taken over the island. Flocke tosses the white rock into the ocean, much like Sawyer did with his engagement ring.

What is the black and white supposed to really stand for? Is it the backgammon pieces? Is it God and the devil? Is it fate and free will? Is it simply good and evil?

I’m betting on that last one.

In case anyone is still doubting whether this Man in Black is truly the bad guy, check out how he murdered all those innocent people in Jacob’s Foot house (sorry, but there’s really no other good way to describe it). Yeah, no good guy would do that. And everything he says and does is completely manipulative — he’s like Ben times 10. Sawyer seems able to see through it more than anyone because he’s also a master at that art.

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Plus, when Flocke enters Sawyer’s house, the music playing is “Search and Destroy.” What more appropriate theme song could there be for this character?

The single best scene of this episode, that might indicate how this will all end, is when Flocke chases after little boy Jacob and then trips on a tree root. It’s just an example of Jacob’s connection to the island still and proof that, in the end, he will trip Flocke up. And then Flocke looks up at the little boy, who still towers over him, even in death, and the boy tells him, “Remember the rules: You can’t kill him.”

To which Flocke replies, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”

This was Locke’s constant reply to everything that used to frustrate him about his handicap, about any limitation he had throughout his life. He seems to get closure on that in the sideways-world part of this episode. But Flocke is using it in a very different way here. He’s like the ultimate atheist, angry that his free will can never fully alter the course of events.

Okay, strike that, there is another best scene in this answer-packed episode … Flocke revealing the numbers to Sawyer. And the list of names.

Finally, we get to see that the numbers represent six of the castaways’ names, something that probably made many long-time Lost fans slap themselves on the forehead in disgust. They should have figured that one out by now.

One major remaining question is this: Where’s Kate’s name? Is she number 108?

As usual, thoughts, comments, questions and (answers) are all welcome below — especially if they involve how incredibly awesome Terry O’Quinn is. This guy played an evil, devilish dude who travels in a cloud of smoke, a real, very vulnerable man and a corpse all in one episode. In one world, he’s a substitute teacher who has to teach track while in a wheelchair. In the other, he’s a substitute body for an evil spirit. I mean, c’mon.

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By Laura Carney

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