By revisiting Lost, can we finally see “The Man Behind The Curtain”?

By revisiting Lost, can we finally see “The Man Behind The Curtain”?

It’s not all humbug

Lost, “The Man Behind The Curtain” (season three, episode 20; originally aired 5/9/2007)

In which Ben Linus and John Locke visit a cabin…

Ryan McGee: Look, truth be told? My favorite episode of Lost is “The Constant,” but that’s an episode I’ve already covered on this site. Besides, it isn’t a very good example of what the show did on a weekly basis. Exceptional as “The Constant” is, it’s as remarkable for how it breaks away from the show’s normal conventions while coloring more or less inside the lines of its narrative template. But “The Man Behind The Curtain” might be the most perfect execution of the show’s two primary storytelling devices: its deep mythology and its use of parallel narratives that draw strength from each other. In many ways, Lost as we knew it ended with this episode, and did so by crystallizing a formula it would raze just two episodes later.

Getting into a detailed plot analysis of this episode is beside the point, because on the surface Lost is one insanely large story played out over six seasons. However, one of the things that’s been overlooked since the series finale is how great the show was at creating episodes that stand on their own as enjoyable mini-arcs. I’ve written more words about Lost than every other show in the history of TV combined, and even I found myself scrambling to catch up with everything involving Jack, Juliet, Sun, and the baby-snatching scheme that The Others hatched in season three. But those elements of “The Man Behind The Curtain” serve as perfunctory, plot-moving scenes that the show needed to include in order to make the final three hours of the season make sense. The bulk of the episode—Ben’s flashback and his modern-day journey with John Locke to Jacob’s cabin—required no deep Google dives for me to reconnect instantly. Why? Because Ben’s journey isn’t really about The Purge, the cabin, or any of the other Easter eggs dropped devilishly into the mix. Rather, Ben’s journey in this episode represents the central interrogation of Lost as a whole: What belief systems do we create in order to make life bearable, and at what cost do we commit to those systems?

The show doesn’t look down on these belief systems, even though many people make many horrible choices based on those systems throughout the course of the series. But the “Live together, die alone” tenet espoused by nominal series protagonist Jack Shephard in the season-one episode “White Rabbit” isn’t just a turn of phrase—it’s an ethos is tested over and over throughout the run of the series. Every major character, Ben included, faces the terror of being alone. How each character decides to be included in some greater part of humanity informs their actions, and that’s where Lost derives most of its narrative power. In other words, the combination of mythology and character-driven storytelling transformed Lost into an analysis of mythmaking itself.

That mythmaking took place offscreen as well as on. Lost was far from the first show to receive intense online scrutiny from critics and fans. However, it arrived at a moment in which several crucial factors clicked into place at the same time. High-definition television, DVRs, and a wiki-fication of pop culture all helped facilitate deep dives into topics like the blackboard in the Dharma Initiative classroom that details the mechanisms of volcanic eruption. Technology made it easier to talk about Lost, but that’s only one small part of the puzzle. Watching Lost said something about those watching, which in turn made “watching Lost” a defining act. Those two elements twinned in the same way the show’s two narrative forces twinned, and the amplification of those aspects turned the show into a major cultural lightning rod.

Yet, what “The Man Behind The Curtain” makes very clear, especially in hindsight, are the pitfalls of that amplification. Ben Linus is in many ways a self-made man, but he’s constructed himself not out of wood (as his childhood friend Annie did for the sole birthday present he ever received) but rather lies, deceit, and manipulation. He creates the idea of a man, rather than a man itself, much in the way that he creates the idea of Jacob in his own mind’s eye—in the hopes that belief in and of itself will make the man materialize. Now, we learn much later in the series that Jacob is an actual man, but not one Ben has ever spoken to or seen. As Ben, Michael Emerson dropped a masterclass in minimalism on a weekly basis, but his performance also mirrored the show’s constant desire to obscure singular answers to any given question. At its worst, Lost indulged that tendency as a narrative-delay tactic. At its best, Lost clouded cut-and-dried answers for the simple fact that the questions themselves had no real answers.

That’s a frustrating thing for many people, and I understand why there are those who still haven’t forgiven the program for the way it ended. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. I think there’s something to the fact that neither the show’s characters nor its audience got all the answers to the questions Lost posed. The mythology surrounding Jacob ultimately deflated once the show introduced him, because that introduction dramatically reduced possibility. He couldn’t be everything everyone wanted; that’s not a fault of the show but those who imbued the man with more qualities than any single individual could possibly bear. Jacob’s ultimately prosaic existence isn’t a flaw in the plan of showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse—it’s the exact point of it.

And yet, that makes this episode’s desire to believe in a greater being so powerful. It’s not that the desire for connection isn’t a correct impulse. But Lost demonstrated how often people look for connection in the wrong place, especially when the right one is often staring you right in the face. Titles like “The Others” and “The Hostiles” represent naming as a violent act of separation, defining invisible barriers not unlike a sonic fence. The Island separates its inhabitants from the rest of the world, bringing these differences into sharp focus. Trying to solve the true meaning of the orientation tapes is as fruitless as trying to solve the meaning of Jacob himself. In both cases, those answers only lead to more questions. More crucially, those searches for meaning bring constant, and often bloody, conflict between those trying to get the answer first. In “The Man Behind The Curtain,” that leaves Locke in the bottom of a mass grave with a gunshot wound. Locke, Ben, and Jacob all need help. But none are in a position to give it to the other. Not yet, at least. Living together isn’t possible just yet. But dying alone seems imminent by the end of this well-crafted episode.

I’m curious how the rest of you viewed this episode, now that we’ve had some time and distance away from the show. If you saw the series before, did this episode work better or worse for you? If you’re a Lost newbie, did any of this makes sense, or is the show’s narrative too impenetrable at this point to even have a cursory level of enjoyment?

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I watched every episode of Lost when it was first broadcast, but until now, the only episode I’d seen twice was the pilot. Watching this episode again reinforced my opinion that the word “mythology,” in its modern pop culture sense, ought to be retired. The show was a lot of fun, and it was exciting to monitor it week by week, tracking the writers’ ability to keep all those balls in the air. For most of the six years, it amounted to an exemplary feat of serialized pop storytelling, and if you dig up the old episodes on Hulu, the service will automatically remind you of a bunch of shows that tried the same thing but slammed into a wall after a while (like Heroes and Once Upon A Time) as well as ambitious shows that never achieved takeoff (like FlashForward and Zero Hour). So it’s an impressive achievement.

My problem with Lost is that all of the accumulated hints, loose ends, random connections, and half-broken promises (the “mythology”) made a lot of people—some of whom were charting the course of the narrative—feel as if the most important thing was not to develop a satisfying final shape to the story but some “deeper meaning.” And that’s what led to all those teary-eyed close-ups, sacramental music, and religious imagery in the finale. Deeper meaning is a rare and wondrous thing, and I don’t expect it from a couple of guys who used to write for Nash Bridges. I’m in it for the laughs, the thrills, and the “WTF!?” moments.

The show was good at laying out its red herrings, but the art of Lost was mostly in the acting, and “The Man Behind The Curtain” is a reminder that Terry O’Quinn and Michael Emerson constituted the show’s dream, whether they were working together or pitted against each other. It’s not that I don’t believe that Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof always knew how the series would end. I just wonder how much it means to have an ending to a long story in mind when you’re working in a medium so elastic that you might kill off a major character because the actor doesn’t like Hawaii. In the case of Benjamin Linus, Lost transformed a new, minor player into a linchpin because the casting department struck gold. (With all due respect to William Mapother, if Emerson had been case as Ethan Rom, it’s Ethan who very likely would have turned out to be the king of the Others.) 

Emerson made Benjamin Linus seem like so much more than he was on the page that viewers desperately wanted to know more about him. With some of the show’s other (very well-played) bad guys, the fans were content to see them lying in a ditch with their heads on backward. Ben inspired the writers to reach above their heads and try to write an origin story worthy of him. If the worst thing I can say about revisiting this episode is that it reminded me of all my reasons for being frustrated with the show—which loom large when I try to just sample a taste of it without getting drunk on the whole thing—maybe the best thing I can say about it is that, at the same time, it did make me want to re-watch the whole goddamn thing, paying extra close attention this time. I don’t feel that way about, say, The Rockford Files. On the other hand, I do watch favorite episodes of The Rockford Files all the time; I don’t know if I’ll ever live out my “re-watching Lost” fantasy, because I don’t know when I’m going to have 100 hours to kill.

Molly Eichel: Like The Sopranos, I’m the total Lost newbie here (why couldn’t you guys have been massive Gilmore Girls fans?!). Ryan, I love that you brought up the larger sociological (for lack of a better term) implications of Lost because that’s exactly why I missed out on it: I was in college and too poor to afford a DVR for most of its run. By the time I could conceivably catch up (thanks to free rentals at the video store that paid my college bills), I felt like I had already missed out on this huge cultural moment. With the increased prevalence of DVRs, Netflix, and cord-cutting measures, I wonder if my reaction of initial indifference would have been the same. Unlike Breaking Bad, which gained so much popularity later in its run, the conversation around Lost required viewers to be in the here and now.

So, Ryan, I have to put it this simply: I had no idea what the fuck was going on in this episode. I had to ask a Lost-obsessed co-worker to fill me on some pertinent details. (I’m literally Gchatting her questions as I write this.) To be honest, I have been dreading this Roundtable for that exact reason. But, you know what? I totally enjoyed “The Man Behind The Curtain” even though I did not understand the overall plot arcs. Like, at all. 

Phil, I’m glad you brought up the acting because that’s the first element that drew me to this episode. While you mention Michael Emerson’s Ben Linus, to me Terry O’Quinn’s John Locke was just so engrossing. Sure, I didn’t know why they were tromping through the woods together, but their chemistry was so pitch perfect—especially when I figured out how devious Ben was—it didn’t really matter that I had no idea what the purpose of their journey was. O’Quinn demonstrates utter confidence in his physicality, but his face telegraphs how incredibly terrified he, in fact, was of this great sense of the unknown. Phil, you bring up Heroes and Once Upon A Time for their failed “mythology,” but I wonder if those series faltered because they don’t have compelling actors to keep viewers distracted when one of the many balls falls from the air.

I may be a Lost newbie, but I am in no way a virgin to the construction of mystery, and this episode proved to me why Lost became so much a part of the cultural conversation. The flashbacks into Ben’s childhood peel back these important layers, but just as they’re peeled back, more layers are added on, through both Ben and Locke, as well as the conversation about baby-snatching. The writers give the audience just enough so we feel like we can start to unravel the central mystery, and while we’re not looking, other parts of said mystery become more complex. Backstory is easy shorthand for this conundrum, but I think it’s fair to assume that Ben’s history gave far more insight than surface character development. To be fair, I had no interest in the baby-snatching plotline, although, as an informed viewer, that’s probably because it was less self-contained than the Ben-Locke sojourn to Jacob’s cabin. 

So, Erik, are you feeling the WTF-ness of Lost—are you a Lost expert like Ryan, or a comparatively regular viewer like Phil?

Erik Adams: You and I are The Others here, Molly—though I have enough cursory Lost knowledge to drop a namecheck like that, it’s only because of what I picked up from the pop culture of the mid-to-late ’00s. When Lost had its moment, I was more into the TV phenomenon that the show rapidly eclipsed in the fall of 2004: The O.C. (And Gilmore Girls—I was watching a lot of Gilmore Girls reruns between classes at Michigan State.) Those shows could be as engrossing as Lost, but they didn’t require nearly as much investment. When I finally had time to catch up with Lost, it seemed like everyone was talking about how disappointed they were in it; in the interest of avoiding another letdown like The O.C.’s third season, my attention turned elsewhere.

Specifically, my attention turned to Twin Peaks, the granddaddy of the modern mystery show and patient zero for the genre’s preoccupation with duality. When it comes to Phil’s dreaded M-word, the building blocks for TV mythology follow the lead of real-life mythology: They come in pairs. There’s good and bad, quick and dead, eternal paradise and never-ending torture. Light and dark, in the universes of Carnivàle’s and True Detective’s first season; Black Lodge and White Lodge for Twin Peaks. Even to the uninitiated, it’s easy to suss out Lost’s splits, like the one between the Oceanic crew and The Others—and, most compellingly for “The Man Behind The Curtain,” the two Ben Linuses.

It’s unfortunate that the script has to go and underline the most potent thread of “The Man Behind The Curtain”: Ben isn’t lying when he says he was born on The Island. When he stands on the edge of the mass grave and fills Locke in on this thematically juicy notion, it was a few scenes after I’d picked up the thread myself—and I barely know Ben Linus from Linus Van Pelt. This reveal falls in line with the spiritual elements that Ryan mentions above, in that it’s the kind of experience certain Christian sects would describe as being “born again.” It even comes with its own type of baptism, because “purge” is just another way of saying “cleanse.” “The Man Behind The Curtain” makes for a compelling origin story, and if we follow the observation that the episode is a seismic shift for Lost—yet another way for the show to create a division—I’m more interested in what came after than I am in what came before. Though, from what I hear, it’s mostly downhill from here on out. 

RM: Molly and Erik, I love that you both point out something that’s true on an almost exponential level since Lost ended: There’s a finite window in which certain pieces of pop culture can be consumed before any further consumption is done in a vacuum. You each mention that you only had an opportunity to dive in at a point in which the collective tide was turning against the show, which stunted your desire to leap in and/or catch up. Now that window is even tighter: How does one engage with True Detective outside its eight-episode run? At what point does attention turn away from shows like House Of Cards, or hybrid entertainments like the recent Veronica Mars movie?

But what’s a potential bummer from an engagement perspective turns into something promising from a content perspective. In other words, for the two of you, “The Man Behind The Curtain” wasn’t part of some overwhelming, all-consuming conspiracy, but rather just an episode of television. And I mean Lost no disrespect when I say that’s all it often was. But it had so many interesting ancillary (and ultimately unfulfilled) aspects that just calling it “an amazingly well-constructed show” seems like a slam. I spent literally months of my life teasing out theories as to how Annie would factor into the show’s endgame, when the show had no larger intentions for her other than what's depicted on-screen. 

Still, I have few regrets about such dead-end analysis, since Lost offered up so much more to think about atop its deep cast of interesting, flawed characters. It encouraged audience investigation for investigation’s sake, making the act of tracking down novels, reading up on philosophers, and plumbing the depths of The Mamas And The Papas catalog for clues. Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend didn’t reveal the true nature of The Island, but that isn’t the point. The point is that names, places, objects, songs, and other bits of the world’s flotsam and jetsam have different meanings depending upon whom comes into contact with them. John Locke looked into what he thought was the eye of The Island in season one, and described what he saw as “beautiful.” Over the course of its run, Lost never debunked the importance of those interpretations, but it did suggest that people often put so much faith into objects that they end up putting little faith in one another. 

Symbols, numbers, smoke monsters… these were all ultimately distractions. They were immensely fun distractions for me, but not unlike the recent search for The Yellow King, an immensely frustrating one for others. What I’m absolutely dying to find out, as we approach the 10th anniversary of the show this fall, is how watching Lost out of that original six-year window plays out. When you can find out answers to certain questions in days or weeks rather than months or years, does that increase enjoyment? Decrease it? If you don’t devote the seven days between new episodes to reading every recap, casting announcement, and latest tease from Lindelof/Cuse, does the show reveal itself in a purer way? All of this is a way of asking: Considering the weekly review culture that we all participate in, how can we best facilitate/augment enjoyment without, to use a very Lost-esque phrase, sending ourselves or our readership through the looking glass?

PDN: I try to keep the reference stuff, what Ryan called the “wiki-fication” factor, in perspective. There is a precedent for it. In one of his ’60s movies, Jean-Luc Godard indicated which of the characters were bad-guy representatives of the Establishment by naming them Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon. In Lost, naming characters after famous philosophers can be seen as working the same way, as a joke and a form of shorthand, to indicate core beliefs and the function they serve in the show. And I sure can’t think of anything wrong with giving people a reason to buy a copy of The Third Policeman. Some of the references in the show, seen from a distance, seem to work as signposts and consumer advisories, linking Lost to other things that people who enjoyed this show might also enjoy. But they don’t contain vital clues to any of the mysteries people wanted answered, and I don’t believe they made the content of the show any richer.

I do think the content itself holds up as pretty rich. As I said, I suspect that even the best episodes don’t work as standalone entertainment as well as they do in the context of a big binge-watch. And I doubt that re-watching the show now, in its complete form, with that ongoing-cliffhanger buzz subtracted from the total effect, makes the experience simply better or worse. It makes parts of watching it less exciting—because we know how things turned out—and parts of it remain as good as ever. Lost was always a ripping adventure yarn more than it was a riddle for the ages. Even if you miss that buzz, it’s easier to see the show’s virtues and defects now than it was seven years ago, when Lost was a 24-hour multimedia fun house playing in your head. That can only be a good thing.

ME: Phil, it’s interesting that you talk about how knowing the end has affected how it’s viewed culturally. Knowing that the end caused disappointment has certainly kept me from diving into Lost, even though I believe a television show is about the journey, rather than the final episode. This might be purely anecdotal, but Lost doesn’t feel like it’s talked about frequently in binge-watching catch-up talk. Is it because of the lack of buzz Phil mentions? Is it because the answers—or lack thereof—to the mysteries have echoed in pop culture, minus the affection of true fans like Ryan?

As this Roundtable theme comes to a close, I want to look at the similarities between our episodes. In each instance, a character controls a narrative in an altered light. Tony Soprano’s psyche is laid bare through his food poisoning, Roseanne remembers her own past incorrectly through a haze of pot smoke, and Dr. House hides his story behind a lesson. These skewed narratives all come from fundamental pieces of each character. Ben Linus’ lies—or, as Erik points out, symbolic rebirth—seem to be such a major part of his character, and have an ongoing effect on The Island itself.

Is that crazy talk, Erik? Or, if you buy in to this theory, what does it say about us weirdos?

EA: That’s not crazy talk—it’s as sane as it gets. On a daily basis, our brains receive a constant stream of data from an infinite number of sources; drawing connections and identifying patterns are two of the ways we cope with that otherwise overwhelming amount of information. It’s how we make sense of the world around us, and the mental rewards of finding these solutions (regardless of their dubiousness) is intoxicating. Life is full of confusion, contradiction, and tragedy, and there’s a cold comfort in concluding that all the world’s ills are the work of scheming elites or outer-space reptiles. We’re always constructing these sorts of mythologies and narratives for our everyday lives—shows like Lost or The X-Files took that concept to the next logical step, by treating mythology as narrative and vice versa.

But here’s the problem that plagues conspiracy-theory and television mythology alike: They pose “Why,” “How,” and “Who” questions, but their answers really only address the “What” of it all. Molly’s spot-on in her observation that this Roundtable group favors unreliable narration in its favorite episodes, but any attempt to explain why we favor these types of episodes would be inconclusive at best and disingenuous at worst—just like the many attempts to clear away the muck obscuring Lost’s true purpose. We’re certainly not alone in calling out the distracting nature of Lost’s unsolved mysteries and red herrings, but that paints an inaccurately menacing portrait of Lindelof, Cuse, and their colleagues. If Lost “tricked” anyone, it was a magician’s trick and not a con—literary allusions and philosophical lifts snuck into the act in order to gussy up a story that’s been told before and will be told again. 

I don’t mean to sound like I’m setting up a ring of beer-can men only to knock them down: “The Man Behind The Curtain” tells a timeless tale of people seeking something more out of life, going to desperate measures to find it. It’s classic, it’s compelling, and if there’s a bunch of dead ends scattered around it, so what? If you’re only watching to crack The Others’ baby-snatching plot, you are being distracted—from the anguish hidden in Michael Emerson’s steely blue gaze, from the resonant conclusion that we all strand ourselves on islands of our own making. Fuck the curtain—it’s the man standing behind it that gives us any reason to invest in this stuff.

Next time: Pilot Viruet and her group don’t want to hear it, because they know what they’ve done—specifically, they’ve watched Degrassi’s “Accidents Will Happen.”

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