Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2005, Volume 25, No. 1
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Lost, ABC Television, Wednesdays at 8PM (EST). Cast: Terry O'Quinn (Locke), Matthew Fox (Jack), Evangeline Lilly (Kate), Malcolm David Kelley (Walt), Dominic Monaghan (Charlie). Creators: J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof.

Reviewed by Laura Tropp, Marymount Manhattan College

In the same week that the former Superman star turned disability poster child Christopher Reeve died (the week of October 11, 2004), the new television program Lost aired an episode about a character who unexpectedly recovers from a disability. While the timing of these events may be coincidental, their messages about disability overlap significantly. Reeve's fame made him a potentially valuable spokesperson for people with disabilities. But for many, his decision to focus on impairment as a problem in need of a cure rather than to agitate for a less disabling society represented a lost opportunity. While Reeve's death may have ended this debate, the program Lost raises similar questions as to what constitutes ideologically useful representation of people with disabilities.

Lost, a one-hour drama, features a group of people stranded on an island with no hope of rescue. A featured character on this program is Locke, a former paraplegic turned walking man. The physical transformation of Locke is revealed to the audience in the fourth episode. Until this point, Locke is portrayed first as creepy, then as possessing special powers, and finally as deserving of compassion, having spent his life disabled. Locke is seen talking to a child and eerily asking him "do you want to know a secret?" He demonstrates his knowledge about the wilderness by identifying distant animals as wild boar. He locates the child's lost dog through whistling and magnanimously offers the credit to the child's estranged father. However, at the beginning of the fourth episode, Locke seems alarming as he appears with a suitcase full of knives, offering to hunt for a boar. In fact, Jack, the hero of the program, remarks that it makes him nervous to be trapped on an island with a guy who had a bunch of knives on a plane. We are predisposed, then, to be wary of this man and to see him as a bit frightening at times. Yet, the October 13th episode uses flashbacks to change audience expectations and understanding of this character.

The audience learns that Locke had worked a day job as an accountant. On the phone in his office, he refers to himself as Colonel but his boss later reveals that the human resource department has no record of his military service. We are left to assume he is engaging in some type of military game. When Locke is at work discussing his upcoming wilderness trek, his boss taunts him. Locke's response to his boss, which will become a constant refrain for him, is "don't tell me what I can't do." The audience also sees Locke talking to a woman. When he offers her a plane ticket to join him on his trek, we learn that this woman is someone he pays to call. Thus, Locke is depicted as victimized, sad, and out of touch with reality. Later, due to his disability, he is denied permission to join the trek, and the plane crashes on Locke's return home.

By waiting until the end of the program to reveal to the audience that he is disabled and has used a wheelchair during all these scenes, the program creates an "Ah hah/Sixth Sense" moment for the audience. The surprise of the disability places the audience in the position of reevaluating all that had become before. To the audience, it suddenly makes sense that he was denied access to the trek, lived a fantasy military life, and that he has to pay to call a woman. Instead of being a freak, he is redeemed as sympathetic. Thus, the program, while revealing the challenges facing people with disabilities, also implies that people with disabilities are forced to live in fantasy worlds and face trouble finding people to love.

By the end of the episode, Locke has succeeded in hunting a boar, despite being told by others that he will not be able to do it. Thus, his victory and his worth are connected to doing something that involves his newfound ability to walk. As the title of the program suggests, he is lost until he finds himself on this island. While for some, being on the island is a trap, for him it is liberating because it is a chance to reinvent himself as a non-disabled person. At the end of the episode, he does not reveal to others his transformation, choosing to let them believe that he could always walk (although in hindsight this may be the secret he revealed to the child). Ultimately, the program implies a separation between disabled people and the rest of society. Locke is a freak in the "real world," but on this island, he is able to create a new identity for himself that involves him doing everything he previously was unable to achieve when a paraplegic. By the next episode, it is as if Locke could always walk. His wilderness skills have earned him a position of respect among the others. Providing counsel to hero Jack, Locke even describes himself as just a normal guy.

In effect, Locke's ability to finally offer something to society is tied into his ability to perform tasks above and beyond his non-disabled counterparts. Locke's disability is seen as an individual problem that becomes "fixed" when he is magically able to walk again. While the flashbacks reveal that Locke led a sad, victimized life (his mean boss, a fake romantic relationship, being denied access to his trek), there is no mention of the larger social structures that are complicit in the oppression of people with disabilities. Thus, the show contributes to the Reeve representation of disability--encouraging audiences to see people with disabilities as facing temporary lives while waiting for the "problem" to disappear. Locke's transformation comes at a cost. The standpoint of a man with a disability, and the possibility for others on the island to grow through their interactions with him, are what is truly lost on the show.