The show also demonstrates perhaps an even more impressive ability to jump around between different genres. This characteristic of the series has been no more evident than during the previous two episodes. The Shape of Things to Come consisted of fast-paced action and adventure from start to finish, while Something Nice Back Home offered an intimately detailed psychological drama. Cabin Fever contains a few instances of action and a few scenes of introspection, but it does not fit very neatly into either of those two categories. One might be tempted to classify this episode as science fiction, but on closer examination the story actually fails to incorporate many scientific concepts at all. Ultimately, this particular episode holds more elements in common with works of fantasy and mythology than anything else. As a whole, Cabin Fever almost serves as the equivalent of a superhero origin tale for its most iconic character, John Locke.
Cabin Fever borrows quite liberally and acknowledges these various source materials in religion, literature, and popular culture. One particular scene, in which the ageless Richard Alpert visits John Locke as a child, stands out above all else. Richard’s initiation test for Locke derives from a Buddhist selection ritual for the Dalia Lama. The scene’s language openly suggests that Locke might represent the literal reincarnation of a previous figure. In turn, young John’s choice of the knife recalls a similar choice made by young Achilles, the hero of Homer’s Iliad. Richard’s recruitment angle also recalls the similar words of Professor Xavier of the X-Men franchise from Marvel Comics. The episode hints that Locke possesses at least two potential superhuman powers: immunity from fatal injuries (the car collision before his birth, an eight-story fall, and Ben’s gunshot wound) and psychic ability (implied by his childhood drawings of the smoke monster and his vivid visions during dreams). These three references are just the tip of the iceberg, as there are countless other comparisons that can be drawn to other hero myths across cultures, whether intentional or not.
While these associations offer an interesting lens through which to view the story, this particular story still highlights some important differences. Whether one is analyzing Christian scriptures or Buddhist texts, Star Wars or The Odyssey, Batman or Superman, every myth seeks to convey a unique value system. The tale of John Locke sketched out in Cabin Fever also offers its own set of ideas to consider. The most important question of interpretation for this hero myth is also the most basic: in what sense can we call Locke a hero?
The word hero is used very often in analysis of Lost characters. These discussions tend to be problematic, because there will always be competing perspectives on the meaning of the word. The first and traditional definition centers on a person’s identity: a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability. The John Locke portrayed in this episode indeed does seem to represent a modern day version of this type of hero. Flashbacks and on-island events in this episode highlight the notion that John Locke has always been something more than just an ordinary mortal. Powerful external forces played a key role in his life, beginning with his miraculous birth. The gods, the island, Jacob, or fate (or whatever name you want to give to this outside entity) selected him to be part of a larger design. John received two superhuman abilities that allow him to fulfill his purpose: the ability to survive life-threatening injury, and the ability to see and understand things beyond the realm of human vision. In the classical sense of the Greek word, the Locke of Cabin Fever is a hero, something between humanity and the gods.
The second, more modern, definition of hero focuses on a person’s actions rather than one’s identity: a person admired for his or her achievements or noble qualities. Throughout the series, Lost has offered many examples of this other concept of hero. To be a hero in this sense does not require any natural gifts or divine origin; a person only needs to act in an admirable manner. Essentially, you do not need to be special, but you only need to do special things. When evaluated under this definition of the word, though, Locke’s status as a hero becomes more doubtful. Locke certainly possesses exceptional ability and strength of will, but should we truly admire him? In fact, the hero origin story of Cabin Fever emphasizes his vices more heavily than his virtues.
Three flashback scenes in this episode reveal that John has been called to the island over his whole life. Richard Alpert, the long-time leader of the Others, makes two unsuccessful attempts to recruit Locke first at the age of five and then at the age of sixteen. In both cases, John’s interests fail to coincide with Alpert’s goals. As a child, Locke bypasses the other possessions and assumes the knife as his own. As a teenager, Locke rejects an invitation to join Mittelos Bioscience for analogous reasons. Whatever Alpert’s plans might have been for him, Locke wanted something different out of life. He desired power, importance, adventure, even violence. Cabin Fever even demonstrates exactly why Locke developed his famous aversion to science, and his reasons turn out to be fairly shallow: “things like science camp are the reason why I get stuffed into lockers”. Young Locke wanted to become the alpha male, and shunned the things he associated with weakness. Are the aims of the older Locke any different?
Locke’s “don’t tell me what I can’t do” mantra originally served as a source of inspiration, evidence of the man’s determination to overcome his disability and achieve his dreams. Scenes from The Man from Tallahassee implied that Locke’s physical therapist encouraged him to shift his attention away from the negatives outside of his control and onto his positive potential. The flashbacks of Cabin Fever have now rewritten the origins of that phrase in a much less uplifting manner. The teenaged John Locke lashes out due to his feelings of powerlessness, jealousy, and perceived inferiority. The science teacher offers a very reasonable claim: “You can’t be a superhero.” Notice that the teacher’s claims describe only what Locke can ‘be’ rather than what he can ‘do’. Normally, Locke’s response would seem ridiculous here, except for the incidental reality that Locke actually was destined to become a superhero. The scene postures Locke more as a pathetic figure than a sympathetic figure, and might even suggest shades of villainy rather than heroism.
Later in life, John receives a different visitor, the mysterious Matthew Abbadon, who uses a different approach to direct Locke towards the island. Abbadon appeals directly to Locke’s ego and his desires. The knife, which Richard Alpert regarded with such disdain, serves as the centerpiece of Abbadon’s sales pitch:
“You need to go on a walkabout. […] It’s a journey of self-discovery. You go out into the Australian Outback with nothing more than your knife and your wits. […] I went on my walkabout convinced I was one thing, but I came back another. I found out what I was made of, who I was.”
When Alpert walked away from young Locke in disappointment, he noted that “John isn’t quite ready.” One could argue that Locke eventually matured in his outlook before he came to the island, but I would suggest a different interpretation. This progression of flashback scenes do not indicate that John steadily evolved, but rather that he remained the same. The young child, the teenage boy, and the middle-aged man all seem to be driven by the same underlying motivation: which is not altruism or any other higher ideal, but merely his own desire for strength.
Unfortunately for him, though, the depiction of Locke on the island still shows many signs of weakness. One of the opening scenes of this episode highlights Locke’s nearly absurd level of dependence. In the midst of this dangerous crisis, the trio of Locke, Hurley, and Ben has been wandering around in the jungle for a full day in search of the cabin. Only when they stop and talk to each other do they realize that they have no idea where to go. Locke thought he was following Ben’s direction, Ben was following Hurley, and Hurley had been following Locke. After receiving a dream, Locke receives instructions from Horace, whose purpose is to tell him exactly where to go, so that he can find yet another man to tell him what to do. Presumably, Christian in turn serves as only a puppet who can speak for the real man in charge, Jacob, who presumably works in the best interests of the island, which presumably serves the best interests of the people on the island. Locke’s actions only become benevolent if every assumption in that chain turns out to be correct. Christian does not even leave enough time for a quid pro quo exchange to answer any of Locke’s questions. The man in the cabin only has enough time to tell Locke what he needs to do to serve the island. For a story imbedded with themes of empowerment and self-actualization, this new course of action seems absolutely uninspiring.
The knife not only serves as a recurring image associated with John Locke, but it also serves as a symbol for what he has become. Locke has chosen to become a mere instrument, guided by the hand of other forces more powerful than himself. Most dramatically, Locke used his knife to murder Naomi at the end of Season Three. He killed her not as a result of his own judgment, but because he trusted someone else’s orders. If we commend Locke’s judgment, then that comment really only reflects on the wisdom of his masters, and not his own capacities for reason. If the audience truly believes that Locke is doing the right thing, then we also must rely completely on our faith in the island. The vast majority of the audience seems to believe that the forces guiding John Locke do so with the best intentions. There are no guarantees (and indeed no evidence at all) that the island's ultimate aims are benevolent. If we look into Locke’s past, then we can see that he often trusts others for the wrong reasons. In the end, the island could turn out to be merely a more sophisticated version of the conman Anthony Cooper, who preyed on Locke’s emotions in order to use him, and then cast his son aside. John seems to be no wiser than he was back then, but he only appears to have latched onto a kinder manipulator.
Christian's son, Jack Shephard makes only a brief appearance in this episode, but still offers an intriguing contrast to his old nemesis. Near the end of the episode, both Jack and Locke come to different conclusions about what they should do next. Jack receives a message from the helicopter and reasons that “I think he wants us to follow him,” while Locke relays direct instructions from Christian, “He wants us to move the island”. By all indications, Locke seems to be taking the right course of action, while Shephard seems to be leading his flock into a disaster. To me, the underlying morality of this turn of events seems highly questionable. Locke only knows what to do because he listened dutifully to what someone told him. Jack’s reasoning seems very foolish here, but he is at least thinking for himself. Jack assumes responsibility, both positive and negative, for his own choices. Locke dodges the decision-making responsibility, and passes on the burden to the island. Does this story reward Locke for blindly trusting an authority figure, and simultaneously comdemn Jack for trying to be an independent thinker? Which man should we admire more than the other?
The presence of Benjamin Linus continues to cast an ominous shadow over Locke’s journey. The brief visit to the mass Dharma grave offers a reminder that job requirements for the island's protector might require cold-blooded murder. At the climax of the episode, Christian invites Locke to ask the ‘one question that does matter’ to him. Importantly, John does not ask how to save his friends, but only asks “How do I save the island?”. Much like his mentor Linus, Locke now values the island itself more than the lives of the people on it. Knowing Locke’s current priorities, would he have acted any differently from Ben in such a situation? If Locke already murdered Naomi without so much as a second thought, then he might not hestitate to kill on a larger scale if given the order. Ben’s comment that Locke is ‘certainly not’ the same as him can be interpreted literally or ironically. At this point, though, Locke appears to be both willing and capable of becoming the island’s next Benjamin Linus.
Even though he has seemingly freed himself from his paralysis, his father, and now surpassed Ben Linus, Locke still does not seem to have achieved any meaningful form of freedom. The ultimate irony of Locke’s new path is that it contradicts his mantra. The man who famously declared ‘don’t tell me what I can’t do’ now relies on a higher authority that tells him exactly what to do. Ben’s comments in this episode foreshadow that Locke’s new life of the chosen one will not be as appealing as he suspects:
“I was told a lot of things too – that I was chosen, that I was special. I ended up with a tumor on my spine and my daughter’s blood all over my hands. [...] These things had to happen to me. That was my destiny. But you’ll understand soon enough that there are consequences to being chosen … because, destiny, John, is a fickle bitch.”
Essentially, Ben’s response here exposes the inevitable downside of a belief in destiny. In order to accept the will of the island, a person needs to sacrifice their own free will. In exchange for his powerful destiny, the island also demands that Locke must sacrifice the ability to direct his own life. From this perspective, even a person's actions cease to carry any meaning. Ben still refuses to take any of the responsibility for his past crimes, his downfall, and Alex’s death. Instead, he shifts the blame onto fate and then wallows in self-pity because things did not go his way. If the island truly is using him, then Locke will be headed down a similar path. Locke has no guarantee that he will never fall out of favor either. How long will it be before the island tells Locke what he cannot do? When that time comes, will he rebel against those external controls or will he remain a faithful servant?
Beyond these relationships with his usual nemeses Jack and Ben, the episode also includes a more subtle comparison between Locke and Michael. Events on the freighter remind us that Michael also possesses seemingly the same supernatural ability as Locke. Neither man can be killed, because the island still demands that they have work to do. The island's refusal to let people die serves as the ultimate instance of 'telling someone what they can't do'. Locke’s situation is framed in a positive light, while Michael’s loss of free will represents one of the gloomiest elements of the story. One man's heaven becomes another man's hell. Michael exists almost as a hollow shell of a human being, living a life of agony as nothing more than a slave to the island's will. Even the show’s personification of death itself, Martin Keamy, cannot end Michael’s suffering. At the moment, Locke serves as a willing servant of the island and he even enjoys this role. In due course of time, John might be doomed to lead an existence similar to Michael's current one, in which he must spend every moment in servitude until it finally decides to grant him the release of death.
While John Locke meets some ideas of a hero, the story of Cabin Fever offers a somewhat twisted vision of his heroism. This episode portrays Locke as a man who lusts for power, who blindly follows the direction of a higher authority, who follows in the footsteps of Benjamin Linus, and who values the well-being of his island more than the lives of his friends. I can understand why a person would regard him as heroic, but I can also understand how a person could characterize him as a villain. Still, perhaps one alternative definition of a hero is the most appropriate description for Locke: the principal character in a literary or dramatic work. Regardless of whether he is admirable, Locke still may be the closest thing to a primary protagonist in the overall story. Throughout the course of four seasons, the high and low points of his island odyssey have paralleled the ups and downs of the series. During Season One, Locke felt inspired with an unparalleled amount of energy. John hit something of a quiet period in the second season and felt unsure about his path. He did not fully regain his stride until halfway through the third season, but he carried that momentum into the first part of Season Four.
Now, as the fourth season approaches its conclusion, it is difficult to know what to make of John Locke. Clearly, he is now playing a role in major, large-scale events of epic proportion. Still, he does not seem to be in control of his own destiny. He has caught a glimpse of a few important pieces of the puzzle, but he does not have any real clue as to what in the world is happening on this island. Even his trip to the cabin offered confusion rather than clarity. His understanding is limited, so he must rely only on his faith that everything is happening for a reason. As the story continues to expand in countless directions, Lost viewers cannot help but feel the same way.