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'Lost': Ben gets his doctorate

March 10, 2010 | 12:08 am

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Benjamin Linus is a character that shouldn't work whatsoever. Everything the guy says might be a lie, to the point where the actor playing him has genuinely no idea of what the truth of what he's saying actually is. At any given moment, he might shift his allegiance on a whim, flipping sides if it's what will most keep him alive or gain him power. He's a man who pretended to have all of the answers and actually had almost none of them. And all too often, he's used as a shock card by the writers, a character they can have do pretty much anything because they figure they can explain it later. When this show is over, I'm not sure the whole relationship between the Others and DHARMA and Ben will be adequately explained (for one thing, I still find it odd that the Others seemed to have supernatural powers in the early going of the show), but I will know this: Ben Linus is one of the all-time great TV villains.

Some of that has to do with the writers, who have always given Ben some of their brightest and funniest material. Some of it has to do with the sheer audacity of a show having a character who's so self-serving that he essentially tries to reinvent reality as he sees fit. (To make an odd TV connection, Ben is basically the Don Draper of the Island.) But the vast majority of what makes Ben work is the fact that he's played by Michael Emerson, a journeyman character actor, who'd done tons of great work on stage and just as many great TV guest appearances, but one who seemed unlikely to ever become a household name. Indeed, "Lost" mostly brought him on for a tiny guest arc and then kept expanding his role and his character as the producers saw just how good the actor was.

It's not like Emerson -- who had a guest actor Emmy before his "Lost" gig, after all -- was unknown or not respected within the industry, but his work on "Lost" is the clearest case of the show figuring out how to play to a gifted actor's strengths in its entire run. Every show that has a recurring villain like Ben is at its best when it figures out a way to humanize that villain. Every show that has a recurring villain like Ben will inevitably try to figure out a way to put him on the side of the good guys. And every show that has a recurring villain like Ben will go out of its way to keep that villain as slippery in his motivations as possible. To see just how easily this can go badly, look at how "Heroes" kept rewiring the character of Sylar to keep a talented actor around when it was clear that the character was a one-season one the series had no earthly idea what to do with after that first season.

But Emerson's work on "Lost" shows just how well the right actor can sell something as cliche as, say, the bad guy having a daughter that he cares for very, very much. The relationship between Ben and Alex has never been the most compelling thing on the show, but darn it, Emerson was going to make you feel like it was every time it came up again. The season four episode "The Shape of Things to Come," which climaxed with the nearly operatic image of Ben cradling his daughter's dead body while the smoke monster crackled and hissed around him was at once the stuff pulpy dreams are made of and intensely moving. That Emerson could project so much grief under such bizarre circumstances -- in wide shot, no less -- showed just how thoroughly the show had realized what he could do and just how far he could push what the series was capable of.

So to say that I was looking forward to Ben's showcase episode -- titled "Dr. Linus," so you knew it had to be about him -- is an understatement. Every season's Ben showcase has been a season highlight, from the "This is how a villain is born!" origin story of "The Man Behind the Curtain" to the tale of a man cast adrift by a faith he no longer properly understood in "Dead Is Dead" (for which Emerson won his second Emmy last year). Once Ben turned up in Locke's flash-sideways a few weeks ago, it became obvious that there was more to the alternate timeline than the writers had previously let on. Somehow, young Ben had gotten off the Island before it was (presumably) nuked, and somehow, he'd become a history teacher at a high school. Naturally, of course, he and Locke were still cast into the same orbit in this timeline, but Terry O'Quinn and Emerson play off of each other so well that it seemed almost certain this would happen anyway.

But what I wasn't anticipating was just how emotional Ben's flash-sideways would be, how it acted almost as a flip-side of every other Ben story we've gotten so far. It's once again about a man who craves power, but it's also about a man who eventually realizes that power has its limits, that there are things that must be cast aside if the people around him are going to have the kinds of lives they deserve to lead. There's some force at work in this alternate world that keeps drawing people together, that somehow pushes Alex into Ben's life yet again, even though there's no terribly good reason for the daughter of French researchers to be living in Los Angeles.

118533_0219_pre For a while now, "Lost" has been using these flash-sideways plots as a way to comment on the main action, showing just how far these characters have come, and a way to play a sort of guessing game about just how much of this life is fate and just how much is happenstance. Outside of Jack having a kid in his flash-sideways, these plots have mostly played fair. They're relatively solid versions of just what life might have been like without Jacob, the Man in Black and the Island and/or reflections of what the characters most wanted or most feared (if you buy the theory that these flash-sideways plots represent a gigantic epilogue for the show that we're getting piecemeal instead of all at the end, which I don't). But too much of these flash-sideways plots have used our information of the other timeline against us in a gimmicky fashion. Using our knowledge of what's coming against us is a trick that "Lost" has used numerous times before (most notably in season four, when the show turned to flash-forwards to create an ironic distance between the on-Island and off-Island action), but too many flash-sideways plots have made it seem as if the whole reason they exist is to toss the characters together in new configurations. I'm on record as liking the flash-sideways plots, and I do substantially, but sometimes, it seems as though the show is tossing Jin into a Sayid storyline or Claire into a Kate one at random, as if it's just winking at us for the sake of winking at us.

Ben's sideways flash, however, does something else entirely. It takes the basic components of Ben's fall from grace on the Island and uses them in a new fashion, reinventing not just the story of how he became who he was but also the story of who he is at his core. Ben has always been a man whose lust for power and desire to make sure everyone got that he was in charge resulted in him losing almost everything he cared about. The moment in the season five finale when he stabbed Jacob resonated so much because it felt like a man realizing everything he'd believed in, everything he'd sacrificed his whole life for, was, if not a lie, at least a misdirection. "Lost" often does its best painting in broad strokes, and "Dr. Linus" recasts the roles of Ben's story ably, creating a sense that these people may be occasionally caught in vicious circles where the same things happen over and over again but that, unlike with Sayid, there are chances to break out of that cycle.

I can quibble with some of the stuff in the Ben storyline. There are lines here that are too on-the-nose (like Arzt -- Arzt! -- telling Ben that he's a "real killer" in the flash-sideways). The dilemma drawn between Ben taking the principal's job and helping Alex go to the college of her choice is a little too black and white when there are at least a few grey options here. And there are a few too gimmicky moments here, like when you learn that the Island Ben is talking about is Elba, where Napoleon was exiled, a shadow of his former self (a moment that is a little too brimming with obvious self-commentary AND one that uses Island misdirection poorly). 

But Emerson so sells this storyline, so sells his connection to Alex, even though she's just one of his students that it creates, weirdly, a motivation for the on-Island action, where Ben's digging his grave. (A friend points out that Ben's been metaphorically digging his grave since the character popped up on the show, so it's nice to see the show take that into the literal realm.) It's seemed obvious for at least a few seasons now that the series would do what it could to make Ben be one of the righteous angels as the series approached its end, so this was always going to be the "Can Ben Linus go good?" episode. But I'm surprised at the panache the series and Emerson pulled it off with. The moment when Ben is racing to join the Man in Black because he's the only one who will have him and he somehow talks Ilana into the difficult choice of letting him live (a choice she clearly struggles with) is poignant and gorgeously acted. The flash-sideways show us a Ben who's realized that power isn't everything it's cracked up to be, that there's a world where he can be happy preparing his dying father organic frozen meals and helping his best students move on to better lives. He's not the most important man anymore, no, but he's a man who can be a gatekeeper, a man who can help others on their way. And, in their own way, they show us that Ben can be that man on the Island too, to make his transition at episode's end, to a small, humble figure, ready to serve as best he can, less jarring.

More and more, I'm convinced that "Lost" has brought us these flash-sideways plots because it wants to show us that it's a series about both how much free will we have and how little free will we have. We all have the ultimate decision over our own lives, but we're also limited by certain factors, by where we're born, by the kinds of people we have as parents, by the very makeup of our physical and mental beings. Ben, no matter where he is, no matter how much he dismisses his father's talk of what might have happened had they not left the Island (so it DID exist!), will always be someone who wants more than he has. More and more, "Lost" is arguing that sometimes what we want is not actually what we need, that the most important thing in life is not free will or destiny but contentment. "Dr. Linus" is probably the series' best expression of this to date, and to that end, it may be the series' best episode since "The Constant."

Some other thoughts:

  • * My apologies for the lateness. I was unavoidably detained at an event this evening. 'Twon't happen again.
  • * So, yeah, Jack and Hurley wandered around with Richard, who seemed to confirm he'd come in on the Black Rock. While that scene where Jack and Richard faced off over the lit dynamite was kind of irritating in how little it explained about what was going on, but man, that scene was still terrific. There's just something about the way the characters both seemed so sure of what was about to happen that made the tension unbearable, even though you knew what was going to happen. (Kill Matthew Fox? Never gonna happen.)
  • * I kept expecting Principal Reynolds to be someone we'd seen before, but I'm pretty sure he wasn't. Unless I missed something.
  • * As a matter of fact, if I missed anything at all, please let me know. I wrote this one much more quickly than I normally write these pieces and after only one viewing of the episode, so it's possible I missed a lot.
  • * Is the East India Trading Company thing supposed to suggest where the Black Rock came from? Or is that I'm reading too much into it? (After all, Arzt showed up in the same episode as the dynamite, so there's clearly some connection.)
  • * Some nice shoutouts: Nikki and Paolo get a callback, when I thought the show would completely ignore them, and the series returns to Miles' initial motivation of wanting lots of money.
  • * And with that, I'll throw it to you. I feel like I only began to plumb the depths of this episode, and there's no more time to talk, so take it away! E-mail and Twitter are open for business as usual.

--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photos: Above: Ben (Michael Emerson, left) and Arzt (Daniel Roebuck) hatch a scheme. Below: Richard (Nestor Carbonell) contemplates his mortality or lack thereof. Credit: ABC

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