Who is John Locke? There are many different ways to answer that question. The easy answer is that John Locke is the greatest character ever to grace our television screens. While that statement may be true, the answer is not quite complete and certainly not satisfying. So, who is John Locke? When Locke first entered the spotlight in Season One’s Walkabout, he set out on a journey of self-discovery. One would expect that an ordinary man would come to understand himself pretty well after fifty years, but Locke is still trying to find his identity. He features in every scene of Episode 5.07 The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham, as he interacts with characters both young and old, around the globe. Each of those characters offers him a different look into the mirror, to help him answer that same question he set out to answer before boarding Oceanic Flight 815. Who is John Locke? As the episode begins, newcomers Caesar and Ilana set out to understand this mystery man before them. He has a name. He has memories. Even after all of his experiences, I doubt that John himself could offer an answer to that question.
For a story that focuses so heavily on deconstructing all aspects of John Locke, the title of this episode seems out of place. The audience has known for some time that the name Jeremy Bentham is nothing more than an alias to conceal his identity. Thus, the episode’s title refers to a man who never existed at all, except as an idea. Similarly, the Life of Jeremy Bentham and the Death of Jeremy Bentham are both false events. Bentham’s Life consists of a series of apparent failures, which bring about the ultimate success of his mission. Bentham’s Death of course proves to be only temporary, and Locke’s real Life resumes soon afterward. His first words spoken in the episode affirm the true nature of his identity: “My name is John Locke.” The man resurrected on the Island is not Jeremy Bentham, the weak, pathetic failure shown in flashbacks. Bentham is merely the Looking Glass version of Locke, an inverted image of his ultimate identity. The ultimate Life of the man named John Locke exists in his future, not in his past.
The episode opens with two different birth scenes of sorts, both of which correspond to two seminal moments from his life. The adult John Locke was re-born in 2004 on the Island, as shown in Season One's Walkabout. His natural liberty was restored instantly after years of paralysis. By the same token, the newly Resurrected John Locke returns to vitality in the opening scene of this episode. Instead of relying on others to drag him around from one place to another, Locke once again stands on his own two feet, ready to forge his own path. By contrast, Bentham’s Birth scene matches the events off the Island in Cabin Fever. When the infant John Locke was born in 1956 in California, he was helpless and in peril. After surviving a car crash, his life rested entirely in the hands of medical science. He was entirely alone, as his own mother abandoned him without hesitation. Jeremy Bentham arrives in Tunisia under equivalent circumstances. His severe leg injury grants him even less mobility than he had when he was paralyzed. Even with a broken back, he could still use his hands to move around on his own; the pain of his leg makes any movement unbearable. Once again, he must rely on doctors to save his life. Like all newborns, Bentham’s only degree of autonomy rests in his ability to cry out to others for help, but only in a language they do not understand. A powerful figure presides over the event from afar (Richard Alpert in California and Matthew Abbadon in Tunisia), hinting at a greater destiny to come.
As an orphan, John Locke lived the majority of his life pining after a relationship with a father figure. Even his last name came from his mother’s maiden name, not from his father as is customary. His new off-Island self interacts immediately with a paternal figure. Charles Widmore supplies him with a new name, as Anthony Cooper never cared enough to do. Widmore tells John the things he always wanted to hear, that he believes in him, that he wants to protect him from harm, and that he made plans for John to rule in his place. In fact, Widmore had served as Locke’s benefactor for years without his knowledge, and he had sent Abbadon to tell him not to give up, in his time of need. In an episode filled with memorable conversations, I think Locke’s interactions with Widmore might have been the strongest moment. After hearing dozens of Linus’ self-serving, second-hand accounts of Widmore as the boogey-man, Charles finally had the opportunity to make his own case. (On a related note, I think Widmore's appearance added support for a theory that I have maintained for a year, despite all ridicule to the contrary: Widmore never intended to kill all the Oceanic survivors, as Ben claimed repeatedly and then other characters parroted back and forth to one another. He sent Keamy to extract Linus, and his crew only attacked the people who appeared to be protecting Ben.)
Maybe I am a bit naïve, but I found Widmore’s account very credible. The show has proven time and again that Benjamin Linus is both a liar and a killer, single-mindedly selfish. Thus far, Widmore has only been characterized as a killer, but a man of his word. Benjamin is a Machiavellian politician, who uses deception as his primary weapon; Charles instead follows the model of military gentlemen like his idol General MacCutcheon. When young Charles’ first appeared on the island in The Lie, he was dressed in a U.S. military uniform. In the days before modern warfare, soldiers wore uniforms as a matter of principle, so that you could at least see your enemy in plain view. When Charles was interrogated, he did not tell lies, but he merely refused to answer questions. By contrast, in Ben’s first appearance on the island, he dressed in civilian clothes, and he told lies at every opportunity. Linus has always been the wolf in sheep’s clothing, but Widmore makes no efforts to disguise his true intentions.
My favorite image of the episode is probably the shot of Charles Widmore, handing John a glass of water, which he accepts. Season Three included three similar moments. In Flashes Before Your Eyes, Charles Widmore declined to offer a glass to Desmond, after Desmond asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Widmore refused to accept Hume as his successor, and poured only a single glass for himself. In this episode, Charles does not even pour his own glass, but instead gives up his glass to John. Two other characters had also offered a glass to Locke in the past, and he had refused both of them. The Man From Tallahassee himself, Anthony Cooper, tried to give Locke a glass of whiskey, right before he pushed him out an 8-story window. The Man Behind The Curtain himself, Benjamin Linus, also tried to share a drink with Locke, shortly before he shot him and left him in the Dharma grave. Those two con-men used alcohol to weaken Locke’s defenses. Here, Widmore fills Locke's glass with water, an honest liquid if there ever was one. He does not want to dull Locke’s senses, but to sharpen them, to help him “wake up.” As trusting as Locke tends to be at times, he saw through both of those tricks. However, Locke accepts Widmore’s glass without hesitation. Perhaps this image suggests that Locke will become Widmore’s true successor, and he will complete his work on the Island.
(As always, though, this scene leaves signs of ambiguity. If you extend the metaphor between Locke and Jesus, then the entire sequence might take on a different meaning. According to Christian mythology, Jesus ventured out into the desert some time before his Crucifixion, where he was tempted by the Devil. Widmore emphasizes his desire to spare John from his inevitable death. Similarly, the Devil appealed to Jesus’ fear of dying, as he tried to persuade him to escape his Crucifixion.)
With the help of Widmore and Abbadon, Bentham begins his quest to bring everyone back to the Island. In his mind, he probably imagined a relatively simple process. He thought: deep down, everyone must know that they were never supposed to leave. He only needs to remind them of that truth in their souls. He feels so assured that his way of thinking is correct that he barely even attempts to see things from their perspectives. One by one, each of the disciples turns the tables on their would-be leader. He shows no insight into any of his friends, but each of them imparts some wisdom onto him.
Bentham’s first stop takes him to Santo Domingo to speak with Sayid. Past conversations between Sayid and Locke have been antagonistic, most notably in their clash in Season One’s The Greater Good. These two men shared a desire to serve the best interests of the Oceanic survivors, but they disagreed on the means to serve it best. Locke’s motivations for serving the Island have never been adequately defined. He has always assumed that the Island is somehow serving some greater good, but the actual nature of his work is unknown. For two years, Sayid made the equivalent mistake of relying on someone else’s assurances that he was serving a good cause, rather than using his own sense of right and wrong. Above all else, Sayid is a practical man who focuses on things that he can control. He traveled to another tropical island in order to accomplish some tangible good. Locke cannot articulate exactly why the return to the Island would serve any purpose at all, let alone a good purpose. Although Bentham is named for a utilitarian philosopher, Sayid manages to challenge him with a stronger utilitarian argument.
Bentham’s visit with Walt raises further doubts about the morality of his mission. Their brief conversation reaches a stumbling block when Walt mentions his father. Michael’s death offers a reminder that the Island is not a utopia, but a dangerous place to try to live. During Season One, Michael repeatedly warned Locke to stay away from Walt, in an effort to protect his son from harm. Then, Locke led Boone, his only remaining protégé, to his death. The Island that claimed the lives of Boone and Michael might impose the same fate on Walt. Locke’s only justification for leaving Walt alone is “he’s been through enough already.” Locke defies his explicit instructions to bring every one of his friends back. Locke has an intuitive sense that it would be immoral to bring a young man back to the unquestionably dangerous island. If so, then why exactly would bringing anyone else back be different? Previously, he also promised Jin that he would keep Sun off the Island. How could he justify endangering the lives of four adults, but consider it wrong to do the same for one woman and one teenage boy. Perhaps Locke is just trying to keep his promises to Michael and Jin, but if he truly believed that it was in everyone’s best interests to return, then these compromises would be unnecessary.
For destination number three, Locke joins Hugo at the Santa Rosa Mental Health Institute. In half-amusing, half-depression fashion, Hurley reminds Locke of his impending death. More importantly, though, Hurley questions Locke’s rationality throughout the scene. Hallucinations and delusions are two broad symptoms of mental illness. Hurley, of course, suffers from frequent hallucinations; he sees things outside the bounds of reality. Nevertheless, his worldview and his decision-making process remain rational. Hurley thinks clearly enough to point out that Locke’s plan defies logic: you cannot convince adults to abandon their lives without something more tangible than destiny. Locke’s beliefs are not grounded in rational thinking, but they border on delusions. In a sense, Hurley is much saner than Locke. Hurley’s mind falls victim to false sensory experiences, but Locke’s mind had developed a fantastic system of belief about the world, despite any evidence to the contrary.
After Sayid addresses the philosophical angle and Hurley challenges the mental angle, Kate focuses on Locke’s emotions. She makes a sharp observation about Locke’s underlying motivations: one of the main reasons why Locke has always been so desperate to stay on the Island is that no one outside of it ever cared for him. In Kate’s view, only a person with no emotional attachments would want to put an ocean between themselves and the rest of the world. Staying on an island prison is easy to accept if the outside world appears to offer nothing better. She could have easily made the same statement about Sawyer, when he wanted to stay on the Island throughout Season Four. Later on, this idea also applies to Jack: only after Jack found himself alone in the world did he become obsessed with returning to the Island. Locke is also a man without loved ones. His desire to keep everyone on the Island doubles as a personal need to keep his remaining family all in one place.
Locke’s next trip takes him to the graveyard for an even more depressing look into the mirror. Helen's tombstone reveals that the only woman he had loved died in April of 2006. From Locke’s mental calendar, the time for him should be only around early 2005. He jumped to the future without ever setting foot in the year of Helen’s death. Sayid, at least, was able to spend nine months with Nadia before she died, which he referred to as the happiest time of his life. Time and Death have combined forces to play a particularly cruel trick on John. Those years of opportunity simply vanished into nothing. If he somehow had landed in an earlier time, he might have enjoyed a few months of love. Instead, their future had already been predetermined, carved in stone long before he even arrived to make any choices about it. Helen was fated to die of a brain aneurysm, Abbadon was fated to die of gunshot wounds in the middle of a graveyard, and Locke was fated to end up hanging from his hotel room ceiling.
The final two stops on the Jeremy Bentham grand tour are unscheduled. Locke does not approach Jack of his own free will, but the collision course is inevitable. Shephard ignores any notion of bedside manner and attacks Locke right where it hurts most. Every one of Locke’s own attempts for trying to lead everyone back to the Island failed. Christian supplied to him the only idea that worked, proof of a miracle. Bentham had no liberty and no power of his own. He was nothing more than a puppet to deliver this message from the Island. The most important image of the scene appears at the same point in the conversation. When Jack stands up to leave, he casts a prominent dark shadow on the wall behind him. This same lighting effect has been used twice before on the show, during Jack’s visit to Hurley in Something Nice Back Home and his exchange with Hawking in 316. These three scenes share one more common element: someone reminds Jack that Christian is not through with him yet.
Psychologist Carl Jung used the idea of the shadow to describe something quite similar to Jack’s perception of Christian and Locke. In Jung’s framework, the shadow is a part of the self that the conscious mind refuses to accept. Each person’s shadow contains his own repressed weaknesses. The unconscious mind tends to project these perceived deficiencies outwardly onto someone else who reminds them of these shortcomings. Jack reserves this special brand of emotional intensity for Christian, and Locke by proxy. “Have you ever stopped to think that these delusions that you're special aren't real? That maybe there's nothing important about you at all? Maybe you are just a lonely old man that crashed on an Island. That’s it.” Jack’s remarks do not reflect his opinion of Locke, but his opinion of himself. Years of disappointment, failure, and loneliness destroyed the belief that his father instilled in him, that he was destined for greatness. His conclusion that “we were never special” forces Locke's own self-doubt to the surface. Like Michael before him and Jack after him, Locke seeks the only permanent end his suffering.
The Locke/Jesus metaphor layered throughout the story would be incomplete without a Judas Iscariot. Lost's Benjamin Linus is ideally suited for the task. Despite warnings from Christian, Widmore, and Sayid, Locke lets his guard down in Ben’s persence one more time. Ancient texts actually present two different versions of the story of Judas. The canonical gospels portray Judas as a villain, the apostle who pretended to be loyal to Jesus, but then betrayed him in the same act for thirty pieces of silver. Ben deceives Locke with a quite convincing display of loyalty. After he talks Locke down from the noose, he extracts the necessary information. He strikes immediately after Locke mentions the name of Eloise Hawking, as the one person who can help him return to the Island. Ben profits even further from the transaction, pocketing not silver, but a piece of gold, Jin's wedding ring.
Although unacknowledged by Christian theology, the Gospel of Judas presents a different account of Judas’ motivations. According to this text, Judas did not send Jesus to death for selfish reasons. Instead, it portrays Judas as the only apostle who understood Jesus' destiny: a second agent was needed to set in motion the planned course of events that included the Resurrection. In this view, Judas’ act freed Jesus from the spiritual prison of his body, so that all his followers might one day enjoy eternal life. The second interpretation of Linus’ actions follows the same general logic. Perhaps Ben did not kill Locke in his self-centered quest to restore his own reign on the Island, but as a necessary act of obedience to the larger plan.
The brief life of Jeremy Bentham serves as its own inverted form of walkabout, without any actual walking. As Matthew Abbadon described the experience: "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 Locke's off-island journey began, he was convinced that he was a special individual with an all-important purpose in life. A series of cruel reversals deconstructs that self-image. Maybe he has been helping the wrong side. Maybe he is not serving the greater good. Maybe he is leading more people to their deaths. Maybe he is suffering from delusions. Maybe he is just reacting out of loneliness. Maybe he has no free will. Maybe he was never special. Maybe he is better off dead. The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham forced Locke to confront every one of his weaknesses. He suffered and he died, and he somehow emerged again stronger on the other side. John Locke still has not found his answer to the question: who am I? His latest journey of self-discovery proved one thing above all else: he can survive anything. If struggle is nature's way of strengthening, then Locke is better prepared than any one to take on whatever challenges lie ahead.