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Finding the key to ‘Lost's’ John Locke

On a first-season episode of "Lost," the castaways are gathered on the beach mulling over the dilemma of how to find food. Suddenly a knife flies through the air. The mysterious bald Locke has revealed that he, at least, has a hunting weapon — but what about the rest of the castaways? In a memorable scene, Locke kicks open a metal box to reveal that he's brought a gleaming array of knives along with him. Weapons for everyone!

It's an incredibly cool scene, and was one of those early "Lost" moments that endeared many viewers to the enigmatic Locke. If you're going to be trapped on an island, especially an island full of polar bears and random monsters and things that go bump in the night, John Locke appeared to be the kind of man you want to have along. Cool in a crisis, armed to the teeth, able to live off the land while the rest of us bumble along, lost without our cappuccino machines and SUVs.

Irony was quick to descend. As Locke's flashback depicted, he was, in fact, a wheelchair-bound peon working in a cube farm. Only in his rich fantasy life was he a military man, a colonel accustomed to giving orders and having them followed. But after the plane crash, on the island, his alter ego seemed to be in charge. On the island, Locke was a man worthy of respect, a man people followed and admired. On the island, Locke could walk.

That was just the start. It was Locke who found the hatch that would eventually lead the castaways into Dharma's Swan station. Locke managed to finally get the hatch blown open (even if he needed Jack's help) and became the station's de facto general manager — wholeheartedly buying in to everything the Dharma orientation film warned about.

And yet ... Let's not forget how Boone died, sent into the Beechcraft when Locke briefly lost use of his legs. Before Boone went, he revealed that Locke never wanted the hatch disclosed to his compadres. Nor has Locke ever let them know about his wheelchair-bound past. Locke's interest in Walt was enough to set Michael off, and it's almost as eerie as his sudden interest in Claire's baby Aaron.

His flashbacks reveal a man filled with rage at betrayal by his kidney-thieving would-be father. That rage was again triggered this season, when prisoner Henry Gale ruminates about Locke being second fiddle to Jack, comments tailor-made to push Locke's buttons. Locke has, shall we say, issues.

So is Locke a force for good or evil on the island?  Is he earnestly trying to lead his fellow castaways to safety (if not rescue) or is he, as the ingenious Channel 4 promo for “Lost” depicts him, the conductor of this whole band, secretly choosing the tune and making everyone play along?

Locke is good?It's easy to line up arguments that John Locke is a good guy. Flashbacks to his pre-crash life reaffirm this notion. Locke was kicked around at work, in his dating life, and by his own family. His mother gave him up at birth (we presume — was that DNA test legit?) and the man who may or may not have been his father claimed one of his kidneys, then turned his back on him. When Locke tried to escape into his fantasy life of war games during a work break, a manager mocked him mercilessly. Who can't help but feel sorry for a man this alone, this abused?

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Yet Locke reacted not with violence, but with the patience of a saint. He carried this attitude with him to the island, where Sawyer once said to Charlie, “You even made Locke take a swing at you. Hell, that's like getting Gandhi to beat his kids!” Though Locke's position on the island was one of strength, he somehow managed to exude a sort of untouchable calm.

Locke landed on the island because he'd flown to Australia hoping for an Outback walkabout, a chance to challenge himself against nature. One problem: At the time of the flight, he'd been in a wheelchair for four years, for a reason the show has yet to explain. When the trip organizers discovered that Locke hadn't exactly been honest about his condition, they refused to take him, setting off a tantrum of desperation in which viewers learned that there's one thing that should never be said to John Locke: Don't tell him there's something he can't do. Somehow, he'll prove you wrong.

On the island, as chaos and fire reigned around him, Locke somehow regained the use of his legs. Rather than sit back and marvel in his miracle, he immediately slipped into a role as doctor Jack's second-in-command, using a strength and confidence that he somehow pulled out of the air to help create order out of disorder. For a man who'd worked in a toy store and at a box company, Locke suddenly seemed to have useful knowledge of everything from how to hunt wild boar to identifying unfamiliar currency as Nigerian naira. He built a cradle for Claire's baby, Aaron, and played backgammon with Michael's son, Walt. Castaways started bringing their problems to Locke, looking to him for strength and answers. He'd come a long way from the nerdy peon who was being berated by a box-company manager.

Locke is evil?Perhaps we shouldn't marvel so much. 

It's entirely possible that, pre-crash, Locke was simply an earnest trivia pack rat with dreams of weekend warmongering glory, a cubicle-bound schlub who tried to view his bad fortune through the sunniest possible prism. It's also entirely possible that Locke has something to hide — something unpleasant and disturbing.

Was Locke's presence in an anger-management group, as depicted in flashback, really due to nothing more than his unresolved anger toward his father?  It's not yet clear precisely what landed him in that group (where he met love interest Helen), or how his stalker-worthy interest in his dad was resolved. Indeed, little about Locke's previous life is clear beyond a few selective shreds of detail.

Locke is a man who rightfully should be filled with rage, who could turn bad if just one wrong button were pushed. It's inspiring to view his outward calmness is the result of a superhuman capacity for forgiveness (his mother, after all, told him he was immaculately conceived, shortly before she conned him into forking over a kidney) but it's reasonable to believe that there are mighty dark corners of Locke's soul.

Consider Locke's erratic behavior when it comes to anything involving the hatch. He told Boone not to reveal its existence. He plotted with Jack to keep it a secret as long as possible. He will accede to anything (and, potenitally, sacrifice anyone) to keep entering the code. Last week, in asking Ana Lucia for her help with prisoner Henry Gale, Locke went so far as to call it “my hatch.”

His hatch obsession has prompted speculation about another possible scenario: that his fascination with wargames, even his trip to Australia, are somehow connected to the Dharma Initiative. The evidence for this theory is admittedly scant, aside from Locke's uncanny knowledge about nearly everything and his slightly creepy interest in Claire's baby Aaron.

But why was he so determined to open the hatch, and yet to keep it secret? Is it possible that Locke was somehow recruited by the Dharma project — or even that he sought out Dharma before landing on the island, perhaps hoping its spooky science would help restore the use of his legs?

Half and half?Though the island seems to be big on duality (castaways vs. Others, faith vs. science, even Locke's own rhapsody about the black and white of backgammon) there's a third plausible option for Locke: He's neither good nor evil, just looking out for himself.

Indeed, his behavior in the past few episodes has detailed a utterly self-interested man whose own sense of importance doesn't take well to being chipped at. After hatch prisoner Henry Gale suggested that Jack, not Locke, might be running the show, Locke exploded in a fit of rage. Locke's obsession with entering the numbers into the hatch computer — and ensuring the countdown doesn't reach zero — is a clear sign that he somehow is more or less OK with the very not-so-OK status quo on the island.

Why would Locke want things to stay as they are, with rampaging boars, smoke monsters and lurking Others?  Perhaps because it's the one place he's in control, where he can manipulate those around him like so many pieces of a board game. For a man struggling to escape an uninteresting life, the island is a chance at total freedom, even with all its perils.

If that's the case, just how far will Locke go to stay in control? Jack intends to build an army, and both he and Locke now seem to be vying for Ana Lucia's fearsome talents. This could be one ugly battle in the making. But maybe, just maybe, it will unveil Locke's true intentions: whether he wants to save his fellow castaways, to destroy them, or to do whatever it takes to keep his beloved fantasy world unchanged.

On the island, after all, no one is who they were before flight 815 plunged from the skies.

Jon Bonné is MSNBC.com's Lifestyle Editor. Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Television Editor.

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