Lost Wednesdays: Ben the Follower

March 10, 2010
By | 6 Comments

For all the talk that season 6 functions as a parallel to Lost‘s first season, “Dr. Linus” was the first new episode that really felt like it tapped into the best of season 1. The story was not focused on grand revelations or epic battles between light and dark. Instead, it was a fairly intimate character piece in which the dual timelines both explored a crisis of conscience, with a welcome return to the often-played “joyful slow-motion reunion on the beach” scene. The fact that it ended up being my favorite episode of the season thus far speaks to the power of that formula.

In season 1, the flashback would have provided a backdrop for the character’s actions and choices on the island. Typically, as with Michael and Charlie, the island functioned as a chance for redemption, to try another path to heal a relationship or oneself. But in “Dr. Linus,” the sideways story allows Ben to replay a past island choice: save Alex or seek higher personal power. The fact that he chose the former – and expresses regret on-island that he previously failed to make the right choice – shows that at his core, Ben is a decent man who was corrupted by forces that he never truly understood.

Of course, we were led to believe that he was literally transformed back in 1977, when Richard took him into the temple to heal him with the warning that he would “lose his innocence.” As we’ve seen with Sayid and Claire, character transformations via external forces are a recurring event on the island, and something that we’re still unsure about – are these characters possessed by other forces? Are they simply driven mad by circumstances? Or are they actually able to see things as they really are more than the other characters? And while the on-island Ben ultimately does make a choice to seemingly side with the forces of light over dark, we’re reminded that in this reality, Ben is just a follower looking for a leader to make him feel valuable and wanted.

Juxtaposing “Dr. Linus” and “Sundown” makes me appreciate Sayid’s off-island story more in retrospect – Ben is given another chance at a worthy life (assuming, as I do, that the sideways stories actually take place in some semblance of a literal “after-life” following the island events we’re witnessing this season, as I posted in the comments last week), and makes honorable choices to care for his father and adoptive daughter rather than sentencing them to death. Sayid tries to live on the straight-and-narrow, but ultimately must replay the role of killer regardless of timeline. Many critics complained that the sideways story in “Sundown” is a thematic retread of previous Sayid episodes, but in contrast to the new lives that Ben, Locke, and Jack are leading, the inevitability of the “Sayid as killer” narrative takes on new weight. Some fates are determined, while other choices matter.

As in great season 1 episodes, “Dr. Linus” highlighted the thematic and character unity between the dual timelines, often sacrificing subtlety for dramatic effect. Ben’s history lessons of Napoleonic power grabs, life-altering islands, and 19th century shipping (in the capitalist rather than fandom sense) all resonate with what we know of his own past life as an island dweller, informed by a depth of history inaccessible to first season viewers. This is ultimately what I want from a final season – more than answers, I want to see these characters pay off their own life stories in satisfying ways, and pay off my own investment of years of viewing and fandom. Last night finally delivered that payoff for one of my favorite characters.

It wasn’t all character revelations, of course. We got some theories confirmed: that Richard was “gifted” with immortality by Jacob’s touch, that he arrived on the Black Rock, that Widmore was the one on the way to the island, that Ilana is charged with protecting candidates (about whom she seems to know more about than Richard). And there were some big possibilities raised about why Jack cannot kill himself – we already saw him fail at this, along with Michael and Locke. So perhaps Jacob’s touch (which we never saw conveyed to Michael… yet) is what previously kept them alive? But according to Richard (and seeing other candidates die), they can be killed by other forces & people. And we also got some new wrinkles off-island, with Roger Linus confirming that DHARMA still existed in this timeline, and they were on the island before it sunk. The utter implausibility of Alex Rousseau ending up in the same LA high school as Ben, Locke & Arzt seems to raise the suspicion that this world is more of a construct than a reality. But ultimately, this episode’s pleasures are not mythological as much as emotional, so I’ll leave the pondering about the broader implications of these developments for another day.

Random favorite fanboy moment: Miles name-dropping Nikki & Paolo and then digging up the diamond. How awesome would it be if they came to ultimately matter?!



6 Responses to “ Lost Wednesdays: Ben the Follower ”

  1. Kyle on March 10, 2010 at 10:09 AM

    I’m with you on all of your points: this was the best ep so far in S6; the emotional resonance is what I’ll remember from Lost more than the number of answers I’ll get; and yes, Alex being in L.A. seems like a clue that there’s more than coincidence at work. (I mean, Ben being there was weird enough, but Alex? Totally implausible, unless something is up.)

    I also really appreciate your take on how “Sundown” should be appreciated in the big picture. You helped me think about how the trajectory of episodes before “Dr. Linus” made it so much more tense: after fairly redemptive stories for Kate, Locke, and Jack, we were slammed in the face with killer Sayid, which makes us unable to sit tight when Ben is faced with moral dilemmas. In other words, without “Sundown,” I might have thought, “Oh, this is S6, so I bet Ben will make positive choices,” but while viewing I had no such comfort. Which led to Ilana’s forgiveness just about the most powerful thing I’ve seen on TV…but I’m gushing now.

    Thanks for the recap!

  2. Jonathan Gray on March 10, 2010 at 11:06 AM

    How do I love Michael Emerson’s acting? Let me count the ways.

    Or let me go to one particular second. When Alex comes out of the principal’s office, all happy about life and Yale, Ben’s little mouth shrug is brilliant. The resignation that it suggested to me of being a very small cog in a world of larger ones and more important forces was really powerful, and told more about Ben than even his impassioned defense of himself on the island. Of course, it also had extra resonance as a teacher — he put in all this energy, and then, there she goes. So Ben’s impassioned defense would surely be the Emmy nomination reel moment, but that little mouth shrug said as much if not more about his character. I love how he can be so utterly pathetic and powerless at the same time as he is vaguely charismatic and powerful. He really is one of the best actors on television.

    That said, one annoyance with the writing: why did he have to pick Alex or the principal role? Why not let the doofus write a letter for Alex, wait a month, then use renew the blackmail? (or perhaps his little act of getting history club reinstated in its old slot was meant to open the door to this possibility?).

    • Jason Mittell on March 10, 2010 at 11:51 AM

      I agree about the plot nitpick, and have read it elsewhere. Here’s a defense: the principal’s letter gambit didn’t force Ben to choose between Alex and power. Instead, it made him rethink why he wanted power anyway – after all, principals don’t get to work with great students like Alex. So he retooled his blackmail to reinstate History Club, allowing him to do what he most wants to do (help kids) instead of reform the system or wield power. Maybe there was a deleted scene to that effect? Or maybe it’s just my rationalization talking…

  3. LostnLost on March 10, 2010 at 2:47 PM

    Great Recap and I could not have agreed with your POV More. In fact, I have liked the last two episodes greatly. Sayid the tortured soul who aspires to be a better man and walk the rigeous path despite is past appears destined to be killer choosing his more base instincts when the moment of choice occurs.

    Ben, who I thought Illana or Widmore were still going to kill possibly finds redemption? Who Knew! Stunning charater portayal by the always slimey, manipulative, and Scene stealing Micheal Emerson. Yet to see him laid bare and a defeated man without a “Go To” Lie or manipulation as he explained why he killed Jacob and why he was following Unlocke. Classic, heartful and along with the slow mo beach scene is Lost at it’s Character-driven Best. And I write this even if I am not totally convinced Ben has changed (ok, he has burned us too many times before :–).

    And I agree with you this was not grandiose reveals. Still the confirmations of answers we thought we knew and set up of Widmore coming was nice for those of us who want some payback and direction for believing there is purpose to this six years of holding back information and never showing us key peices to the .

    Confirming (I think based on UnLockes comments earlier in the season that it been a long time since he has seen richard out of his chains) that Richard indeed was a Slave on the BlackRock which would make him 100’s of year old as I think the ship was brought there in the late 1800.

    Which begs the question if Richard has been there that long, what has been going on on the island?

    And the Biggest Charater question from this epsiode I am left pondering is Where Was Richard? Is answer of “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you (given all the craziness the losties have witnessed what wouldn’t they believe?), coupled with now know he has lived for hundreds of years(I always he was time traveling but wouldn’t age in earlier times). I am wondering what key he will unviel (or if it is something as simple as I was hiding).

    And Thx Jason, just as I was wrapping my mind around the sideways world would somehow become the Results and Reality world after the Island activies are resolved you go and burst my bubble :–).

    Roger Linus mentioning a connect they he and Ben had been to Dharmiville was the first direct connection to the sideways world that I remember.

    Alex and it was great seeing her again in this episode, I did not think about the reality timeline that theoretically should could not be around sideways world if the bomb splintered events. Yeah, I know there is a possibility that something else caused the Alterna-Reality but as you wrote, it does seem like a construct so we veiwers can see the “What If” world of our characters if the bomb or plane never went down.

    Anyway I just found your posts and analysis in season six. Great Job!

  4. Martyn Pedler on March 11, 2010 at 3:41 PM

    I don’t know if it’s just that years of comic book fandom have trained me to appreciate parallel universes, but I’m currently enjoying what’s happening off-island action much more than the on-island antics. In fact – and I know they could never have done this without the internet exploding – I keep thinking how intriguing / daring / shark-jumping it would have been if the ‘reboot’ had worked; the entire last season could’ve consisted of these small character pieces set in the ‘real world’…

    (And that is why I don’t have my own network TV show, obviously.)

  5. amanda klein on March 13, 2010 at 9:41 AM

    Like Jonathan I was also annoyed that Ben was forced to choose between becoming principal or helping Alex (just blackmail him later, right?), but I like your explanation–that perhaps his bid tobecome principal was just an attempt to have some control, control which he ultimately achieved without sacrificing Alex’s future.

    While I agree that this was a strong, emotionally-centered episode, I am finding it difficult to engage with the “sideways” stories of this season. Not knowing their status–are they hypothetical worlds, parallel universes, etc.–I almost don’t care what happens in them. I felt this most sharply in the episode in which we discover Jack has a son–how can I emotionally invest in that storyline when I’ve just learned about this character? So while I find these sideways stories interesting from a fan’s perspective–what characters are going to pop up this week?–I find it hard to commit to them emotionally.

    Having said that, I was truly moved by the “joyful slow motion reunion on the beach.” Yes, LOST recreates this scene a lot but the look of joy on Sun’s face as she saw Hurley come around the corner actually moved me to tears. It was lovely. And my favorite Emerson moment occurred in this scene–as everyone was embracing each other, he was just standing there, shoulders hunched, looking sad and small. It was perfect.