Lost's Benjamin Linus has hit rock bottom, both morally and psychologically. So now is he going to have a miraculous transformation into the Island's noblest character? Please, no. Just no. Spoilers for last night's Lost ahead.
Ben might well be our favorite Lost character these days — and last night's episode helped remind us why. (It also improved Ben's standing in the awesomeness sweepstakes by making our other two favorite current characters, Miles and Hurley, seem dickish and weak, respectively. But more on that later.) Michael Emerson proved, yet again, that he's probably the best actor on this show, taking some really tough material and just going all-out with it.
I think a big reason why the "flash sideways" in the recent episodes haven't always worked for me as well as they might is the fact that the characters still feel the same. We don't really get to see a different side of these people, or a different version where things worked out really differently. They've tried, a bit, but Island Jack and L.A. Jack just feel like the same guy to me, even with the kid in the mix. But you would not mistake the two versions of Ben in last night's episode for the same person, apart from a few of the same character beats.
L.A. Ben is meek and good-natured, but with a healthy dose of self-loathing over being a "loser." (And he's the second character we've seen whose major daddy issues don't exist in this alternate timeline.) He's no longer Alex's adoptive father, but thanks to some piece of synchronicity, he's still in her life, in a much healthier way. Even when L.A. Ben discovers in himself a piece of Island Ben's famous manipulative streak, it's much more tentative (and less masterful) than the "original" Ben's handiwork. Unless, of course, Ben actually wanted the principal to keep his job but be his bitch? And he maneuvered Reynolds into thinking he'd won? (Nice job casting Dickless as the principal, by the way!)
Meanwhile, Island Ben is not the man he used to be either — he seriously seems to have lost his mojo, unless that's just an act. He's terrified, wracked with remorse, confused, and unable to spin a convincing lie to save his life. Even when he's telling the truth, he looks like he's lying. And that's before he opens his heart to Illana in the heart-rending clip above. His face goes through so many expressions in that one scene, every one of which tells its own story. It's an amazing performance. And yes, it's nice to be reminded of the impact that Alex's death had on Ben — after all, that's how Smokey got a hold on Ben in the first place — by confronting Ben with Alex's "ghost" and having her tell him to obey Flocke's every whim. It really feels like we're seeing into the heart of Ben.
And of course, while Ben pours out his regrets for the death of Alex, the other Ben is refusing to push Alex under a bus this time around, for the sake of power. Have the two Bens learned something?
And yet, I still hope this is a giant fake-out. Something about the idea of Ben redeeming himself just doesn't sit right with me — maybe partly because this show really needs a good villain. Not that Smokey doesn't have his moments of lovely nastiness, but he's just not quite a Ben-level villain yet. (And actually, this is a problem — it feels like the show is trying really hard to show us how bad-ass Smokey is, by having everybody act terrified of him, including Richard Alpert, and showing how he yanked Ben's chain. But the more the show yells at me "SMOKEY IS REALLY SCARY! REALLY!", the less convinced I am. Hmm.)
Ben is one of the all-time great characters on television, and one of the main reasons why Lost will be talked about for decades to come. It's been toothache-level painful to see him so confused and low this season — which I'm sure is the point. But Ben deserves something better than the bog-standard "evil manipulator hits rock bottom, then discovers his inner goodness" arc. Ben deserves something really rich and complicated.
Suffering, leading to redemption, is for lesser characters.
Plus redemption, in Ben's case, would probably mean accepting his status as a pawn, and deciding to be Jacob's pawn instead of Smokey's. The Ben arc I really want to see involves Ben getting his self-respect back, no matter what the cost. I want to see Ben get the better of both Smokey and the smug ghost of Jacob, who have both been using him for far too long. Jacob really deserved what he got, especially from Ben's perspective, and Smokey deserves worse. So let's hope this whole "remorse" thing is at least partly an act, and Ben has some master plan.
Also notable in last night's "A" storyline was the first occasion on which someone in the L.A.-verse has mentioned the island — Roger Linus, who apparently did join the Dharma Initiative in this universe. It's a tad confusing — so Roger and his son Ben did go to the island, and Ethan was presumably still born there. But now they're all in L.A.? How? I don't see how the hydrogen bomb going off in 1977 can explain this. Maybe it's because in the L.A.-verse, the Losties never time-traveled back to 1977, and thus Sayid never shot Ben? (And yes, I know that this universe was created because the Losties traveled back to 1977 and set off that bomb. But it seems as though the divergences from that event must have gone backwards as well as forwards, or Roger and Ben would have sunk with the island.)
So meanwhile, in the "B" plot, it seems like Jack really only has one card up his sleeve nowadays — attempted suicide. Somebody gives Jack a pill for Sayid? He attempts suicide. Somebody wants to blow himself up? He attempts suicide. What does Jack do if someone cuts him off in traffic?
It was neat, though, how Hurley namechecked Arzt in an episode where Arzt made a major comeback.
Oh, and it turns out Jacob was absolutely right about Jack — he just needed to go sit on a hill and brood for a few minutes, and he came around to Jacob's point of view utterly. Jack now totally swallows the "I was brought here for a reason" line once again and is 100 percent ready to be Jacob's monkey-puppet, because Jacob let him see the lighthouse with the mirror showing his childhood house. (Didn't Jack swear that he was done with the "I'm here for a reason" thing, after the last time, when he basically killed Juliet?)
So now that Jacob is dead and Smokey is strutting around in his new, fine-looking body, Richard Alpert is filled with despair and wants to end it all. But because he was touched by Jacob, Richard Alpert can't kill himself — he needs Jack to do it for him, in the most baroque, cartoony way possible.
I guess we're supposed to think that Jack and the other people touched by Jacob are immortal now — although, obviously, Sayid was able to die, for a while anyway. A thousand years of Jack doing his Guilt Guy schtick sounds pretty scary. Is it just that anyone touched by Jacob doesn't age and can't commit suicide? I'm assuming the bomb would have gone off if Jack had left the Black Rock the way Richard wanted him to. So can anyone kill Richard Alpert, or just a candidate, like Jack?
And then the episode ends with the endless slow-mo reunion between Jack, Hurley and Alpert and the gang on the beach, with Ben standing off to one side like the outcast he is. And then the giant reveal that the guy who's coming to the island is our other favorite old villain — the ultra nasty Charles Widmore, in a submarine! Fuck yeah.
I guess we'll get more answers in two weeks, when the giant "Richard Alpert's Excellent Adventure" episode airs. But when do we get the "Ben's Big Score" episode? Come on, Lost!