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No mystery why he’s at the heart of ‘Lost’

Times Staff Writer

Spoiler alert: TiVo viewers be warned. This article contains plot points from recent episodes.

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IN the last two episodes of “Lost,” John Locke told a few lies, killed an “Other,” blew up a hatch full of communication devices and then set off more explosives in the Others’ submarine to prevent anyone from leaving or arriving on the island. It’s a far cry from the weeks he spent in a hole in the ground last season, punching computer buttons, only to emerge feeling like he wasted his time.

“Lost” mythology has cast Locke, played by the Emmy-nominated Terry O’Quinn, as the show’s most enigmatic character. When Locke has his mojo, it seems, so does “Lost.” In fact, the arc of Locke, and even O’Quinn’s own story, closely parallel the highs and lows of the ABC serialized ensemble drama that changed television three years ago. Now, 80 days into the journey of the plane crash survivors, what most viewers intuited from the beginning seems to hold true: Locke is one important dude.

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But is he the most significant castaway? The creators of “Lost” would never say anything that definitively, but they were willing to offer a glimpse of the way they’ve embedded some of the series’ most telling elements in his story from the beginning. Co-creator Damon Lindelof confirms that in the end, Locke will be among the ones who matter most. Executive producer Carlton Cuse added this, with all the finality he could muster: “The character of John Locke is just the very heart of the show.”

When Locke boarded Oceanic Flight 815, he was in a wheelchair. But when the plane crashed, he could mysteriously walk, and that seemed to bond him to the island forever. Wednesday’s episode finally revealed to viewers how he became paralyzed: His con artist of a father, who years ago manipulated Locke into giving him a kidney, pushed him out a high-rise window, hoping to kill him. Then it did what “Lost” does. It delivered another whopper: Locke’s father is tied up and gagged on “Other” territory.

“That was a big ‘What?!’ ” O’Quinn said, describing how he felt when he first read the script. “It leaves you with a big question mark, but there was plenty revealed in this episode too.”

Mysteries, loads of them, are the hallmark of this ABC series, sometimes frustratingly so. Since “Lost” returned in February from its three-month hiatus in a new 10 p.m. slot, it has shed nearly 2 million viewers, though it continues to rank as a top 10 show among the advertiser-coveted 18- to 49-year-olds.

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As a fan of his own show, O’Quinn says he understands the audience’s frustrations with schedule changes and the questions that outnumber the answers in the series, a dilemma brought on mostly by the flashback device that focuses on one character per week and the large number of characters.

“If I take Locke’s story individually and just follow it from its beginning point to now, to me it’s cohesive and it’s understandable and it’s interesting,” O’Quinn said. “But because there are so many people, it’s very patchy. It comes in fits and starts, and that’s tough for the fans of the show to have to work to tie everything together.”

Strong man

IN the first season, Locke was a self-assured survivor who motivated Jack (Matthew Fox) to leadership, helped Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) work through his heroin addiction, built a crib for Claire’s (Emilie de Ravin) baby and insisted that they blow open the hatchway. The unflinching Locke also sacrificed fellow castaway Boone’s life, deliberately broke a transceiver, won his round against the menacing polar bear and dared to look inside “the eye of the island.”

“I would get mail and e-mails from people that said the character had given them hope,” O’Quinn said. “It was touching, and I thought the character was serene and strong. But then he became weak and addled, and I was upset that a strong card had become a weak card.”

After the castaways went down the hatch in the second season, Locke was more than happy to save the world by pushing a button every 108 minutes. But when he learned that the hatch is supposedly a psychological experiment, he assumed the task he had been performing was meaningless, and that’s when his faith began to unravel. Slowly, Locke regressed into the man he had been before the crash: a depressed office worker with no direction. And O’Quinn’s discontent mounted.

“It’s interesting because the actor took a parallel journey to the character,” Cuse said. “Terry’s frustration was really a good thing. And his growing disillusionment with his role was also a really good thing, because that’s exactly what we wanted the character to do.”

As the creators dreamed up Locke, Lindelof couldn’t help but think of the Charles Atlas comic book ads he used to see when he was a child: the scrawny kid on the beach who gets sand kicked in his face by a bully, then starts weightlifting and whacks the bully in the face when he returns.

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“I think that’s basically who John Locke is,” Lindelof said. “We keep showing you stories about him making bad decisions and being abused and conned and suckered, all because he wants to be loved. Now, he’s on the island, he’s not preoccupied with needing to be loved anymore. He just wants to know his place in the world, which I think is something Terry is also experiencing as a human being.”

O’Quinn acknowledges that his fans’ concerns that Locke was being emasculated troubled him because he felt he had never before had the chance to play a “person of strength and clarity, but with a lot of dimension.”

“Maybe that’s because I wasn’t good enough to do it before,” O’Quinn said. “Or maybe nothing suited me quite as well before, but it was a character that evolved, that had a lot of doubt and angles and strength and clarity. I guess what was unique to me was that I was playing a character to whom people responded really strongly and positively.”

Fans have surmised that Locke was named after 17th century philosopher John Locke, who theorized that the mind is a tabula rasa (the title of the third episode of the series) -- that is, individuals are born with a clean slate, without innate mental content, and build knowledge from their experiences.

Dead right, Lindelof said. The fictional Locke had lived a life marked by pain and disappointment until he regained his ability to walk on the island, which he interprets as a sign that destiny brought him there to give him a second chance. In this way, Cuse said, the character is a springboard to explore the issue of faith versus empiricism.

“The very original idea for Locke was that we needed a character who was going to have some sort of mystical quotient going on with him,” Lindelof said. “He was going to be very mysterious and quiet. This plane crash is the best thing that’s ever happened to this guy.”

Whether Locke holds the key to the deepest mysteries of the island, O’Quinn has no idea.

“I don’t know how central he is,” he said, “but ... it usually means something when he’s around. I think it’s because of the deeper quality in him. Of this group of characters, he’s the one that’s actively looking for an explanation, not just a way home.”

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O’Quinn, who had worked with co-creator J.J. Abrams on “Alias,” fit the role, Cuse said, because like Locke, he “marches to the tune of his own drummer.” The actor often walks two hours barefoot on the beach from his home on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, to the set.

“While all of the other actors are gathered on Kailua or Lanikai, the populated side of the island, Terry has set up camp away from civilization,” Cuse said. “In many ways, he has the qualities of a kind of powerful and intuitive loner who are in close parallel to Locke as a character. He’s a very self-reliant guy who really forged a life outside his work as an actor, and I think that gives him a quiet strength.”

To the endgame

THROUGH Locke, the creators set up the show’s premise in the only scene in the pilot in which he speaks. In it, Locke and Walt (Malcolm David Kelley) are about to play backgammon and Locke explains the game: “Two players, two sides. One is light, one is dark.” The scene ends with Locke asking, “Walt, do you want to know a secret?”

“That hook coming out of the pilot wasn’t just that secret that he told Walt -- that he used to be in a wheelchair and now he’s mysteriously healed,” Lindelof said. “That’s everything the show is. Do you want to know a secret? And cutting away before you actually answer that question.”

To this day, Locke and the other survivors -- not to mention the viewers -- do not fully understand how momentous it was when the sky turned purple and the ground shook when Locke finally refused to push the button, forcing Desmond to activate a fail-safe device.

“At one point, Locke believed he had found the answer -- the meaning -- and was yet again disappointed,” O’Quinn said. “Although I don’t think he was disappointed to be disappointed. I remember when I was very young, my appendix ruptured and I was unconscious for several days because I had gangrene and everything. And when I woke up, I was surrounded by nuns. And I thought, ‘Oh, I’m in heaven and it’s really gonna suck.’ I think that’s what Locke felt after pushing the button for about a month. ‘Oh, this is my destiny. OK, it sucks.’ ”

Although O’Quinn is not fond of the weaker and unstable version of Locke inhabiting the island, he understands the journey the writers have outlined.

“I think what they’re suggesting is that Locke hasn’t dealt with his past,” O’Quinn said. “That maybe it’s impossible for the past to be simply wiped away. And maybe that’s what they’re saying about the island or the people or the story -- that everyone has something to deal with.”

Now that Locke has blown up the submarine, it seems all of the castaways will have plenty of time for introspection. And fans will have lots of time to ponder. It will be five weeks before viewers see Locke and his father again, but when they do, the results will be an intense set-up for the season’s climax, Lindelof said.

“I think when Locke blew up the submarine he was saying, ‘I’m not going to think too hard about this anymore,’ ” O’Quinn said. “I like it here. I don’t want anybody to come here and mess it up, and I don’t want anyone to leave. It’s not a socially responsible choice. But, hey, if that’s who he is, that’s who he is. Maybe we’ll find out it’s all for a good reason. But I’m not particularly concerned with whether John Locke is a good guy or a bad guy. Just that he’s an interesting guy and he comes from a source of strength.”

maria.elena.fernandez@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Our dearly marooned

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Who else landed on the island with Locke? And what mysteries do they find themselves entangled in?

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To match all the names to faces in the cast, go to latimes.com/lost.

Jack (Matthew Fox): He’s the self-indulgent doctor with the hero complex. What will he do to Locke for blowing up the submarine? Can he forgive Kate’s violation of his commandment: “Thou shalt not come back for me?”

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Sawyer (Josh Holloway): He’s the hothead supply hoarder. Can he really go a week without calling anyone names?

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Kate (Evangeline Lilly): She’s the fugitive who can shoot, climb and make out. Come on already! Is it Jack or Sawyer?

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Sayid (Naveen Andrews): He is the Iraqi soldier who tortures as well as he romances. Should the viewers trust in his distrust of Locke?

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Hurley (Jorge Garcia): He’s Everybody’s Friend. But is he cursed?

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Charlie (Dominic Monaghan): He beat his heroin addiction -- but can

he beat the Grim Reaper? Is he

going to be the next castaway to

die on the island?

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Claire (Emilie de Ravin): She’s the sweet but troubled single mom. What did “the Others” take from her womb? And is her baby more than a baby?

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Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) and Sun (Yunjin Kim): They were unhappily married -- and he was sterile -- before the crash. Now she’s pregnant. Did the island cure his infertility, or is somebody else the baby-daddy?

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Michael (Harold Perrineau) and Walt (Malcolm David Kelley): The estranged father and son were given a pass by the Others last season and sent home on a boat. Does anyone really believe they are on a couch watching cartoons?

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Boone (Ian Somerhalder) and his step-sister Shannon (Maggie Grace): They were annoying and they died. But does that mean we’ll never be subjected to their sort-of incestuous relationship again? Uh, no.

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-- Maria Elena Fernandez


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