In my write-up of Lost’s Season Four finale, I wrote the following about one Benjamin Linus:
I’ve got a theory about Ben. Watching him manhandle the Dharma Initiative’s expensive machinery in order to access the “frozen donkey wheel,” and remembering how he told Locke earlier this season that he doesn’t know what “the smoke monster” is, I’m starting to think that Ben is like one of those guys in every office who knows how to make his computer do what he needs it to do, but doesn’t know why he’s doing it. In his time on the island, with and without The Hostiles, I think Ben has learned how to manipulate the devices of Dharma and the island, but he doesn’t really understand any of it. It’s all spit and bailing wire with him.
Nothing I’ve seen of Ben over the past year has altered that impression. Ben’s clearly a man of great ambition, masking deep need. He's been trying to overcome his feelings of abandonment by maneuvering his way into paternal and/or man-in-charge positions—even if they're phony. He doesn’t really know much about Jacob, or The Candidates, and may not even know much about what The Temple was for; he’s just very good at pretending.
So watching the flash-sideways of “Dr. Linus,” I was interested to see what kind of Ben we’d get. And what we got was kind of an alternate origin story for Ben Linus, Evil Mastermind—this time with a different outcome.
In the Alterna-World, Ben—as seen in “The Substitute”—is a high school history teacher, unhappy with the indifference of his fellow faculty members and of his boss, Principal William Atherton Reynolds. At home, Ben takes care of his infirm father Roger, who wonders what might’ve happened if they’d stayed on The Island with The DHARMA Initiative. (“Who knows what you would’ve become?” Roger asks, way too pointedly.) Ben’s only source of pride seems to be the school’s History Club, and his prize student: Alexandra Rousseau, who’s trying to get into Yale. Then, during one AP test-prep session, Alex lets slip that Principal Reynolds is having an affair with the school nurse. Immediately, the latent Evil Ben rises to the surface, as he makes deals with the computer savvy Doc Arzt to help him tap into the school’s e-mails and use what he gathers to push out Reynolds and take his job. (“Linus, you’re a real killer,” Arzt says, again way too pointedly.) But when Ben presents his blackmail offer to Reynolds, the principal offers Ben a choice of his own: he can go through with the coup, but if he does, Reynolds won’t write a recommendation letter to Yale for Alex.
And why couldn’t Ben just say, “No, I’ve got all the cards here so you’ll write that letter too?” I have no idea. I’m not usually a nitpicker when it comes to Lost’s convenient-but-not-too-sensible plot twists, but this one was a bit too dumb even for me. I understand that the show was trying to create an opportunity for Ben to rewrite history and save Alex, but surely there was a way to do that without everything being so binary. This or that. In or out.
Meanwhile, on The Island, we meet Ben mid-scamper, racing from the now-infected Temple to find Ilana’s crew. But when he reconnects with them, Ben discovers that he’s not welcome. Ilana hands her sack of Jacob-ash to Miles and asks him to listen to what the dead man has to say about how he died. And what Miles sees is Ben standing over Jacob’s body with a bloody knife. (Making matters worse, he later tells Ben that among Jacob’s last thoughts were, “He was hoping he was wrong about you.”) When the expedition reaches the beach camp, Ben tries to cozy up to Ilana and sow seeds of doubt about Miles, Ben-style, but instead she chains him to a tree and gets him started digging his own grave. And as he started on the task, and I contemplated the prospect of spending the rest of the episode with a shackled Ben grappling with his guilt, I confess that my faith wavered, and I typed these words into my Lost notes: “Is this the best use of our time?”
But like a lot of Losts this season, “Dr. Linus” overcame a shaky start with a strong finish. Granted, it was a very shaky start. From Lapidus wondering aloud (way too... well, y'know) about how different his life would’ve been if he hadn’t overslept the day he was supposed to pilot 815, to Dr. Linus teaching about Napoleon’s days as a mere figurehead, every scene and line in this episode seemed designed to make sure that we got the point about the cruelty of fate, the burden of power, and so on and so on.
The payoffs though? Worth it, I thought. There was something very creepy about Alterna-Locke encouraging Dr. Linus to become the principal early in the episode, as a parallel to Not-Locke freeing Ben and inviting him to Hydra Island, to begin the transfer or Island power into Ben’s greedy hands. And there was something satisfying about the parallels in the way the two storylines resolved. I may not have bought Dr. Linus’ dilemma, but it was nice to see him “save” Alex this time; and I was pretty moved by Ben’s explanation to Ilana as to why he was following Not-Locke: “Because he’s the only one that’ll have me.”
My favorite Island business this week though involved Jack and Hurley’s encounter with Richard, who leads them away from The Temple and toward The Black Rock, where, “There’s something I need to do. Die.” Angry and despairing about having spent centuries serving a man who just up and died without ever explaining his “plan,” Richard tells Hurley that the next time he talks to Ghost Jacob, “don’t believe him,” and he asks Jack to light a stick of the Black Rock dynamite so that he can end his pointless life. (“When Jacob touches you, it’s not a gift, it’s a curse,” he says, by way of explaining both his boyish good looks and inability to commit suicide by his own hand.) Jack does light the dynamite, but only to prove to Richard that Jack can’t kill himself either, because Jacob considers Jack part of his “plan” too. It was an exciting scene, even though I was (mostly) sure that the dynamite wouldn’t go off.
All of this leads to an alternately poignant and tense final minutes, as Jack and Hurley reunite with Sun at the beach—a familiar scene, but one that Lost always does well—and we see a submarine approaching ferrying Charles Widmore. But during all that, my favorite part were the few shots of Ilana, cradling the sack full of the ashes of “the closest thing I’ve ever had to a father,” and weeping. Ilana has been trying to do the job that Jacob asked her to do, protecting the Candidates, but when it comes to deciding if someone like Ben Linus lives or dies, it’s clear that she had “a choice” all of her own. And as she sat by herself, crying, unsure whether she’d done the right thing, I typed in another note: “That’s the Lost I love.”
-As I’ve said, I’m growing accustomed to the flash-sideways as a storytelling/theme-developing concept, but an episode like tonight’s reminds me what we miss by eliminating the possibility of flashbacks for our main characters. Simply put, I would’ve like to have seen more of Ben’s rise to power on The Island, not the shadow-version we got in “Dr. Linus.” Maybe Richard’s story will fill in some of the blanks.
-Arzt: “You know what gets out formaldehyde? Nothing.”
-“The things people will bring on a trip,” Ben tsks. Like a copy of Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen (ha ha!), and the latest issue of Booty Babes.
-Hurley was dreaming about cheese curds.
-Richard to Hurley, in response to question about his eternal youth: “No, I’m not a cyborg.” Amusing, but I think the writers are going to the well too often with the "Hurley asks the questions the audience has been asking" bit.
-Another fun Hurley fact: at the end of the episode, Hurley returns to the beach for the first time since the Season Four opener.
-I’m not usually inclined to do gender critiques of movies or TV shows, but man do the women on Lost ever get screwed over. Will Sun find Jin? Who will Kate end up with? Anna Lucia, Libby, Juliet, Shannon: all dead. And now Ilana… assigned as protector of Candidates, not a Candidate herself. Will the show address this disparity before the season ends?
-I miss Sawyer. Thank Jacob we’ll get to spend a lot of time with him next week.
-Looking forward to buying this.
Clues, coincidences and crazy-ass theories:
-In the comment section last week, I promised to explain why I don’t think the flash-sideways represent the epilogue to Lost. The reason is kind of mundane, and is based on past comments made by Lindelof and Cuse, so feel free to skip ahead if you prefer to keep your speculation about the show rooted in what actually happens on the show. My reasoning is this: When talking about their decision to introduce this new storytelling technique to Lost, Lindelof and Cuse have said that they were intrigued by the question of what would happen if the exploding Jughead really worked as Faraday said it would. To paraphrase their EW interview: “For at least a couple of years, we knew that the ending of the time travel season was going to be an attempt to reboot. And as a result, the audience was going to come out of the ‘do-over moment’ thinking we were either going start over or just say it didn’t work and continue on. Wouldn’t it be great if we did both? That was the origin of the story.” Now, assuming we can trust what Darlton say about their process, they’ve had the final scenes and the final image of Lost in their heads since Season One. Given that, and given that they the reboot idea didn’t come up until recently, it doesn’t really make sense that the flash-sideways are Lost’s “ending.” I could be wrong, but that's my logic.
-Note that Ben says Sayid killed Dogen and “the interpreter.” He doesn’t mention Lennon by name. Do they even know each other?
-Like us, Ilana has no idea whether Jin or Sun is a Candidate. She just knows that there’s only six left, and some Kwon is one.
-Miles digs out Nikki and Paolo’s diamonds. He’s rich!
-Is it a coincidence that the Black Rock dynamite returns in the same episode that Arzt returns? I think not.
-Most intriguing line of the night? Richard answering Jack and Hurley’s questions about where he’d been with, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” I look forward to finding out more about that little tidbit, perhaps in two weeks.
-During the flash-sideways, I was looking for relevance in things that I’m not sure were relevant: like the shot from under the Linuses sink while Ben changed his dad’s oxygen tanks. Parallel to some earlier episode? Symbolic in some way? Or, more likely, director Mario Van Peebles showing off? (In fact, I wonder how much of the weakness of this episode can be attributed to Van Peebles missing what the tone should be. A lot of scenes seemed overplayed to me. Or maybe the fault can be laid at the feet of credited writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who were also responsible for “What Kate Does” earlier this season. The Kitsis/Horowitz team has written some of my favorite Losts, like “Greatest Hits,” “The Economist” and, yes, “Exposé,” but they also wrote “Fire And Water,” “Something Nice Back Home,” “The Lie,” and some others to which I’m either indifferent or hostile. But on a show like Lost, it’s hard to know how to assign credit and blame.)
-A couple of Season Five moments popped into my head while watching “Dr. Linus.” I thought back to “Jughead,” and the first time that Richard Alpert said to Locke, “Hey John, you’re in charge!” As we’ve learned since, that phrase really has no meaning when Richard says it. I also thought back to “Dead Is Dead,” and the decades-old struggle between Ben and Charles Widmore for control of The Island. We don’t yet know how Widmore and Eloise Hawking assumed control, but we do know that Widmore clearly thought of Ben as kind of a Muggle: not born to this life, but a usurper. “New money,” as it were. Coming soon: the class war between Ben and Widmore resumes.
-You may be sick of this meme already, but it made me laugh: