Holy cow. As a friend of mine just commented on Twitter, "I haven't cried during a 'Lost' episode in forever. Who knew it would be Ben that broke that streak?"
The arc that Michael Emerson has followed over the course of this series is one of the great happy accidents in TV history, and I find him endlessly watchable. As most 'Lost' fans know, when he was hired to play his role, it was not designed to be as central to the show as it's become, but the producers and the writers watched what he was doing and how audiences were reacting to him, and they shifted things, making Ben Linus a key part of the larger mythology of the Island. And the show is definitely better for it. Ben is one of those characters that they must love writing for, both funny and menacing, sad and scary, all of it depending on the context of the particular episode.
So should it be a surprise that probably the best episode of this final season so far is the one where Ben is the focus? Probably not.
The "previously on" clips this week were short. We saw the death of Jacob, then Jack and Hurley in the lighthouse as Jack's brain melted, then Jacob's warning to Hurley and the rampage where Smokey kicked everyone's ass at the Temple. And then finally, the one beat from last week that I really didn't mention in my recap, when Ben found Sayid sitting over the bodies of Dogen and Lennon and said, "There's still time."
The reaction that Ben had when Sayid said, "Not for me," was quite telling, and it informs pretty much every beat involving Ben this week. Is there ever a moment where it's too late for us to change? Are we ever truly beyond redemption? Can you make a choice to do the right thing even after you've done the wrong thing for so long you don't remember how it began?
This was also probably the best week so far in terms of playing the two timelines off each other thematically. Boy, did that pay off this week. The episode started in TIMELINE B this week, with Ben running through the jungle, obviously terrified. He finds Ilana, Frank, Sun and Miles all walking together. Ilana asks, "Where's Jarrah?"
"I'm fine, thank you," Ben responds. Even in the worst moments, Ben's good for a laugh, and that's one of the things that this show doesn't always get enough credit for. It's a genuinely funny show, and in the oddest ways. It's why I love Hurley and Miles and Sawyer and so many of the characters... they are often hilarious, especially when things are tense. Ben tells everyone what Sayid did, and how he found him over the bodies of Dogen and Lennon, bloody knife in hand. They try to figure out where to go for safety now that the Temple has fallen, and they decide to go back to the beach, where at least it's familiar and they'll have the water at their backs.
In TIMELINE A, we see Ben at the high school where he teaches. We were introduced to that idea in the Locke-centric episode "The Substitute" earlier in the season. Ben teaches history, and he's lecturing on Napoleon when we first see him. He talks about Napoleon's exile to Elba. "What was truly devastating to him was the loss of his power," he says, and that sums up where Ben is on the series right now. It's been a little frustrating as a fan of the character to see him take such a pronounced back seat so far this season, but as with everything else on the show, there seems to be a reason for that. It just took a little time to get there. "Powerless" would be a good way to describe Ben in his role at the high school. We see him interact with Principal Reynolds, played by William "This man has no dick" Atherton with his smarm set to kill. He orders Ben to take care of afternoon detention and shut down his after-school history club, and it's obvious that Reynolds has no regard at all for Ben. As he walks away, he refers to him dismissively as "Linus."
"It's Dr. Linus... actually," Ben mutters to himself. At lunch, we see Ben complaining to Leslie Arzt, the chemistry teacher played by Daniel Roebuck, another off-Island connection being made. He and Ben are bitching about budget and how hard it is to get anything done at the school. Ben grumbles some more about Principal Reynolds, and someone from across the room pipes up.
"Maybe you should be the principal." Sure enough, it's Locke. He points out how obvious it is that Ben cares about his students and the school, so maybe he should be the principal. His words obviously light a fire under Ben, and as he contemplates it, we cut back to TIMELINE B, where Miles asks for some clarification on what just went down in the Temple. As Ben tries to explain, Ilana interrupts to ask Miles about his ability to read the dead. She wants to know how Jacob died, and she hands over his ashes. Miles takes a reading and tells her that Ben stabbed Jacob, throwing Ben's own words about Sayid back at him in the process.
Ilana tells Ben that Jacob was the closest thing to a father that she's ever known, then turns and walks away, and as Miles walks by with a simple, "Uh-oh," we get the shock cut to LOST, and the first commercial.
The TIMELINE A story deals with Ben's dissatisfaction with his life and his attempt to make a play for the job as principal. We see him at home with his father, who has to breathe with the assist of an oxygen tank, and we get a major puzzle piece in one of their exchanges, when his father says how he wanted more for Ben in life. "That's why I signed up with that damn Dharma Initiative and took you to that Island." At some point, though, they left, and Ben's dad wonders what might have happened if they'd stayed.
We also see that one of Ben's favorite students is Alex. She's in his history club, the one that Reynolds shut down, and he's helping her prep for the AP History exam. She's chasing a scholarship to Yale, and she needs to get it if she has any hope of going there. She mentions how her mother is working several jobs and although we don't see her mom, we do see that Alex's last name is Rousseau. Ben wants to help Alex do well, and he sees a bright future for her... brighter than his own. She needs a letter of recommendation to Yale, though, and the only person she knows who went there is Reynolds, so she needs him to write it. That's what sets up Ben's big crisis. Alex reveals to Ben that she overheard the principal having sex with the school's nurse on campus, so Ben thinks he's got leverage to get Reynolds out of his job, and he enlists Arzt to help him get proof.
In TIMELINE B, Ben goes to the beach with Ilana, Sun, Miles, and Frank, and they end up at the old Oceanic camp. As they start to put it back together, Frank mentions to Ben that he was originally supposed to be the pilot on flight 815, but he overslept. Ben laughs at Frank, saying, "The Island still got you in the end." Ilana interrupts their moment to lead Ben, at gunpoint, to the nearby cemetary, where she shackles him to a tree and orders him to dig a grave. "Who for?" he asks.
"You murdered Jacob. It's for you." Yep. Hammer dropped. He spends much of the rest of the episode digging as slowly as possible. There's a great conversation between him and Miles at one point where he offers Miles the money that Miles tried to extort from him several seasons ago. Miles just laughs it off though and points out that Nikki and Paulo are buried just a few feet away with eight million dollars worth diamonds, so he really doesn't need Ben's money anymore.
He also nails Ben when Ben talks about how Jacob didn't care if he lived or died. Miles tells him that wasn't true. "Right up until the second the knife went through his heart, he was hoping he was wrong about you. I guess he wasn't." Ben reacts to that like he was punched.
Later on, once he's almost done with the grave, there's a familiar sound all around him, and Smokey shows up in the form of Alterna-Locke. He tells Ben that he doesn't want Ben to die, and that there's a way out. He tells Ben that he's planning to leave the Island, and he offers Ben the job of staying behind to take care of the Island. Basically, he's giving it back to him, restoring him to power, or at least dangling it in front of him like a carrot. He tells Ben where there's a gun, and he tells Ben to join them on the smaller island at the Hydra Station as soon as he kills Ilana and escapes. He undoes Ben's shackles, and Ben runs for it.
The episode's cross-cutting works best as the two storylines come to head. In TIMELINE A, Ben confronts Principal Reynolds with his proof of the affair, and he threatens to destroy him if he doesn't resign his position and recommend Ben for the job instead. Principal Reynolds counters by showing Ben the request he got from Alex for a letter of recommendation for Yale. He says he'll step down from his job and let Ben have it, but if he does, he'll torch Alex, forcing Ben to choose between what he wants for himself and what he wants for her. Sound like a familiar position for Ben to be in? Well, in TIMELINE B, Ben gets hold of a rifle and manages to get the drop on Ilana. But instead of shooting her, he tells her that he wants to explain. And in what may be the single most naked, honest, human moment we've seen from Ben Linus in his entire run on the series, he tells Ilana about how he let Alex die, and how he chose Jacob and the Island over his own daughter, and how much he regrets it every minute of every day. Emerson's work here is flawless, and for the first time ever, I saw the soul behind all the plotting and the planning and the manipulation. It was rough when Alex died, but it didn't really pay off until tonight, and it was sort of devastating. He tells Ilana that he understands that she'll never forgive him, and she asks him what he wants. He says he just wants her to let him leave. The exchange that follows is simple, but powerful.
"Where will you go?"
"Because he's the only one who will have me."
Ben breaks as he says it, and the idea that he's going to give himself up to what he's fairly sure at this point is Evil with a capital E simply because it's the only option left... heartbreaking. Ilana's response, though, really pushes the scene over.
"... I'll have you." She says it simply, then turns and walks away. And as Ben stands there, stunned, he realizes he still has a choice. And he follows her.
And in TIMELINE A, we see the aftermath of whatever choice Ben made. He's in the principal's office, and Alex comes to see him. She's excited because Reynolds wrote her an amazing letter. As she's telling Ben about it, Reynolds shows up, obviously still the principal. Ben chose her. Ben gave her a future. In return, he got his history club back, so it's at least a wee tiny personal victory. As he watches Alex walk away, though, it's obvious that Ben doesn't care, and that he made the choice that will reward him in the long run.
The episode's closing moments are in TIMELINE B, with Ben joining Ilana, Sun, Frank, and Miles on the beach. Ben pitches in to help Sun build a shelter, happy to have a place with them. There's a quick shot of Miles studying a diamond which made me laugh out loud. And then Hurley, Jack, and Richard show up for a reunion, and we get one of those silent slow-mo "Lost" endings with a great Giacchino score moment, a reprise of some of the themes from season four. And on what should be one of the happiest moments we've had on the show in a while, we suddenly cut to a POV of the beach from out in the ocean. Someone's watching this reunion through a periscope. And as we follow it down, a crew member turns to someone and says, "Sir, there are people on the beach."
Who's he talking to? Why, Charles Widmore, of course. He's back. Which means the real war is just heating up.
Speaking of Richard, Hurley, and Jack, the other storyline this week is all set in TIMELINE B, on the Island, and involves the three of them. It doesn't take up much time, but it did provide another amazing moment. Hurley and Jack are heading back to the Temple, and Hurley's stalling as much as possible, reluctant to tell Jack what Jacob warned him about. They find Richard in the jungle, and he offers to take them to the Temple. I loved Hurley's interrogation of Richard about why he never ages. "Are you a cyborg? How about a vampire?"
Richard explains that Jacob gave him a "gift," but over the course of the episode, it becomes apparent that Richard really thinks Jacob cursed him. He's bitter, and instead of taking them to the Temple, he takes them to the Black Rock. He takes them aboard, emotional when he sees the slave chains hanging there, and tells Jack that he wants to die, but he can't do so by his own hand. He starts stuffing the dynamite he finds in one of the crates into his pants and asks Jack to light the fuse for him. Jack does so, then sits down across from Richard, telling him it's time to talk. Jack wants some answers.
What's great about the sequence is that Jack has become the ultimate man of faith now. He's reversed his position completely from earlier in the series, when he used to argue against Locke constantly. Jack stakes his very life on his conviction that Jacob's plan meant something. What he saw in the Lighthouse rattled him, and he's obviously convinced now that he has a role to play on the Island. When the dynamite fails to go off, it seems to shake Richard out of his anger and his pain, and he starts to believe again. I have a feeling that Richard-centric episode is coming soon, and that he's still got an important part to play in the conflict ahead.
All in all, a great episode. Hats off to Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz for an amazing script on this one, and to the series in general for continuing to take these characters to new and impressive places, even as we reach the home stretch. It's not all about plot, and it never has been for fans of "Lost." Tonight just proved that the series isn't going to abandon the big character moments, and that those are the things that really wow us when they work.
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