“The Man Behind The Curtain” (originally aired 05/09/2007)

Noel: It’s clichéd to begin a TV review by talking about an episode’s title, but how can we not with “The Man Behind The Curtain?” Here’s a title that speaks directly to so much: the series’ Wizard Of Oz fetish, fans’ anxiety that the big mysteries of The Island will turn out to be another “long con,” and, perhaps most importantly, the question of who’s really in charge here, and whether they deserve to be. When Locke arrives in camp with a dead Cooper over his shoulder and demands the answers Ben promised, Ben tells him that the man he really needs to see is Jacob, and shrugs, “We all answer to someone, John.” But Locke’s not buying it, saying, “You are the man behind the curtain.” So here it is: The Big Question. Does Ben really know anything at all about the power he commands, or does he just know how to fool people into thinking that he does?

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“The Man Behind The Curtain” is one of my favorite Lost episodes, because after years of teases, the show finally starts giving us a lot of what we’d been waiting for. It’s not just that the episode delivers one of the last major character flashbacks (for now), by recounting the adventures of Young Ben Linus. It also gives Ben an origin that few were expecting, showing him as a kid growing with the Dharma Initiative. Up to this point, the story of Dharma and its relationship to The Others had been revealed in dribs and drabs, via the occasional orientation video, stray piece of writing, or rusted-out remains of what Dharma built. But here we’re immersed in Dharma-iana: the jumpsuits, the vans, the Apollo bars, and the world-saving optimism. For fans who’d been gobbling up every tiny clue to the history of The Island, here suddenly is a banquet.

And that’s not even mentioning the long-delayed appearance of “Jacob” (such as it is). Myles, last week you wrote about how masterfully “The Brig” plays with the fan speculation that everyone on The Island is dead and in the afterlife. Well, in “The Man Behind The Curtain,” Lost’s creators wait as long as they can before letting the audience know whether or not Ben is really in communication with some supernatural Island spirit. Ben brings Locke to what looks like a serial-killer cabin, inside an ominous-looking circle of ash, and then gestures to an empty chair, where he says Jacob is sitting. But just when Locke calls Ben “crazy” and is about to leave, the cabin starts rocking, and Locke—and Locke alone—hears a voice whispering, “Help me.” But what/who exactly did Locke hear? And why didn’t Ben hear the same thing?

The bulk of “The Man Behind The Curtain” is about where Ben came from, but it’s telling that Ben reveals almost none of it to Locke. He does confess that he’s been lying to everybody (except Richard, who met him as a kid) about being born on The Island, and he does show Locke the mass grave full of Dharmans that he and the Others gassed to death. But only the viewers learn about Annie, the little girl Ben had a crush on when he first came to The Island; and only we know that Ben grew up with a jerk of a father (like so many folks who end up on The Island) and that he spent most of his youth nurturing an animosity toward Dharma before he destroyed them. In other words, the tragedy of Ben Linus remains his secret, even though Ben does show Locke two key pieces: The mysterious home of an invisible man, and the site of a mass execution. The former Ben barely understands. The latter he understands all too well—as he proves when he shoots Locke and leaves him for dead in that pit of corpses.

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Which brings us back to The Big Question: Who is “the man behind the curtain?” Is it Ben, who at the least appears to be in control of what happens on The Island, if he doesn’t know why? Or maybe Richard, who helped put Ben in that position? Or whatever the hell was in that cabin—an entity which appears to be confined against its will?

I want to talk more about Ben and Locke—two of my favorite Lost characters, and maybe my favorite Lost relationship—but first let me ask you, Myles, whether this episode make you feel more or less kindly toward Ben? And how do you think the “who’s really in charge” theme connects to what’s going on back at the beach this week?

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Myles: “The Man Behind The Curtain” has a high degree of difficulty. In addition to the fan expectations you outline so well, Noel, there’s the fact that this is far and away the longest audiences have had to wait for a character’s first flashback. It has been 29 episodes since “Henry Gale” was caught in Rousseau’s trap, and once we knew for certain that his supposed journey to the Island was fake, there was at least an implicit mystery regarding his background. Who is Benjamin Linus? And how did he rise to power?

My favorite thing about “The Man Behind The Curtain” is that it both lives up to and subverts expectation. Locke, and perhaps some of the audience, went into this hour believing that Ben was going to offer clear answers, but that’s not who Ben is. Ben is, like our castaways, another bystander to something larger, pulled into a conflict where the definition of “hostiles” is highly subjective. He is but another observer, whose flashback offers insight more than revelation, and questions more than answers.

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Those insights do make it easier to understand Ben’s position. Starting with “The Man From Tallahassee,” the show has invested in Locke and Ben as counterpoints, each working to serve the island but receiving very different messages in return. Whereas Locke was healed, Ben was struck ill; whereas The Island delivered Locke the chance to put his past behind him, Ben is haunted by his past every time he looks around. Ben may not have been born on The Island, but it’s telling that none of his flashbacks except for his birth happen before he arrives with his father. The formative years of his life happened on The Island, and that means he feels the weight of its betrayal more than anyone else—how would you feel if a spiritual force who is only supposed to speak to you suddenly speaks to someone else? (Okay, you might feel a little weirded out given how absurd that sounds, first and foremost, but after that you’d feel a tinge of betrayal, trust me.)

I would not say that “The Man Behind The Curtain” renders Ben likable, but it is interested in humanizing him. The process of humanizing a character does not mean that his or her flaws are ignored, but rather indicates when we believe there is hope for redemption. These are things that Ben does not show anyone, not even his colleagues: as you note, he doesn’t tell Locke about Annie, nor does he fully explain how his daddy issues led to the purge. Ben has used these events from his past to fuel his actions in the present, but he has done so selectively in order to present a particular front. But we start to see that front break down when Ben realizes Locke has heard something he hasn’t, and shooting him seems like the best defense mechanism—it pushes out the weak human instinct of jealousy, replacing it with ruthlessness he learned in order to survive, and a ruthlessness born during the purge. John wants to know where Ben came from, but the Ben we know was not born in Portland—this Ben was born in the moment he gassed the encampment and murdered his own father.

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Although the events at the beach in “The Man Behind The Curtain” are still largely invested in building for future stories, there’s a connection in the story’s interest in whether or not The Island is capable of changing people. The question of leadership for the remaining castaways has nothing to do with one’s capacity to lead, and more to do with how that might have been compromised. They don’t trust Juliet because she’s one of them, and they don’t trust Jack because he spent so much time with them. Whereas Locke has reason to believe The Island is capable of saving people, the hostility of the Others and the fate of pregnant women are good reasons to suggest precisely the opposite, making Jack’s slight change in personality enough to inspire talk of upheaval.

It turns out Jack was behind Rousseau’s trip for dynamite, and has a plan, and we can all rest easy knowing Jack is still Jack. But while we might know more about Ben, we still can’t say for sure what it would mean for Ben to be Ben, a mystery that strikes me as even more integral to the episode than Jacob and the Supernatural Rocking Chair, and a key element of one of the show’s strongest two-handers.

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Noel: I’ll get into this more down at the Spoiler Station, but I also think that “The Man Behind The Curtain” exemplifies Lost doing its best job of repurposing the preexisting, and giving it new meaning. Just consider the Dharma van where Ben has his last conversation with his father, “Roger Workman.” Introduced in “Tricia Tanaka Is Dead” as just something else weird and inexplicable on The Island, the van here becomes a poignant symbol of Ben’s lousy childhood, and his ultimate betrayal of the people who raised him. This wasn’t one of the big mysteries that people were waiting impatiently for the show to solve, and yet the writers came up with a satisfying explanation anyway, and one that no one could’ve guessed back when Hurley was trying so hard to get the van up and running again.

And in a way, Ben himself is an example of Lost finding an unexpected use for something it already had on hand. Because Michael Emerson was so much fun to watch, the creative team kept expanding the role of “Henry Gale,” until he became the leader of The Others (a character they’d reportedly only roughly conceived to that point, and certainly hadn’t cast). Similar to the late-arriving Desmond, Ben quickly became not just a fan-favorite, but someone capable of carrying the larger themes of the show in more complicated, sophisticated ways the 815ers. The “man of science”/“man of faith” dynamic of Jack and Locke is a little reductive, while Locke’s gullibility versus Ben’s cynicism has a lot more to offer, especially given Locke’s sense of disdain and moral superiority towards Ben. Look at the way Locke acts toward Ben in this episode: waving off the excuse that one doesn’t just go to Jacob by saying, “Well, I guess there’s a first time for everything.” There’s a cockiness to the way Locke deals with Ben, as though he sees right through him.

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But this is where it pays off for Ben to cast so much of what he knows about The Island as esoteric juju. He tells Locke that learning the truth is “not as simple as opening a dusty old book,” which is pretty convenient, because that means Ben can interpret the concepts of “Jacob” and “The Island” in whatever way will make him seem sage and plugged-in. Myles, you ask what it means for Ben to be Ben, and I’d say that just about every day for him is new. He improvises, he scrambles, he lies… and somehow he turns situations to his advantage. Locke’s fundamental sense of decency makes it easy for a guy like Ben to subvert his will.

Similar to interpreting episode titles, it’s tempting to see the meta-textual implications in Lost’s storytelling choices; and sometimes it’s unavoidable. We’ve discussed the “Lindelof and Cuse are feeling trapped in a cage” quality to the first six episodes of this season, which was hard to ignore. Is it also possible that Lost’s writers identify a little with Ben, as the guardians of the show’s secrets—and as people who know how to use Lost’s magic to produce a spectacular effect, even if it’s just to get through another episode?

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One of the reasons I love “The Man Behind The Curtain” is that its soul is part Ben, part Locke. It spins a convincing yarn, but it also believes. This episode sees the significance of everything, from Dharma vans to spooky cabins in the woods. Nothing is exactly as it seems, or exactly as it’s touted. There’s always something else to peel back.

Stray observations:

  • Some unnecessary but nifty structural connectivity in this episode, which takes place on Ben’s birthday in every segment, no matter the era. [NM]
  • Casting Michael Emerson’s wife as his flashback mother is super Freudian, but it brings the great Carrie Preston into the universe, and her ghostly presence—more below—makes an impact. [MM]
  • Also a nice bit of foreshadowing of Richard’s agelessness when Ben mentions it’s his birthday and says, “You do remember birthdays, don’t you Richard?” [NM]
  • Myles has to go back: I don’t remember picking up at on that detail when I watched the episode originally, but records show 2007 Myles was suitably curious about his appearance. 2007 Myles—who loved the episode—also felt Ben was full of it in the cabin: “To what extent, then, is Ben crazy? He was clearly acting, but was it all a ploy to learn more or rather an attempt to…ah hell, we basically know no more about his current state now than we did before.” [MM]
  • First sign that Young Ben may not be all that nice of a kid: He sends his pet bunny (!) through the Sonic Weapon Fence, to make sure that he’d turned it off properly. [NM]
  • The process of casting a younger version of a character can be something of a difficult one, so Sterling Beaumon must win some kind of an award for playing Young Ben Linus (well) and then following it up eight years later playing Young Walker—as the younger Sharlto Copley—on Powers. [MM]
  • “The Man Behind The Curtain” was Michael Emerson’s submission to the 2007 Emmy Awards, which meant his portions of the episode were screened to would-be voters. However, it was joined by “The Man From Tallahassee,” Terry O’Quinn’s submission, which meant that voters got a double dose of Ben/Locke greatness. Unfortunately for Emerson, O’Quinn has a significant amount of screen time in both episodes, which I think was a huge part of O’Quinn winning the Emmy he should have won in season one. [MM]

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Spoiler Station (only read if you’ve seen the entire series):

  • This isn’t the last time we’ll see Young Ben Linus. He reappears in the time-travel-heavy fifth season, and gets a further wrinkle to his origin when we find out that he was “changed” by The Others as part of their saving him from a gunshot wound. Unlike the “best repurposing” of Roger’s van and the Ben character that I mentioned above, I’ve never been a fan of this particular Lost retcon. My biggest beef about the final seasons (beyond the meager payoff for the whole “flash sideways” concept) is that there are a lot of these midichlorian-like justifications for who people are and what they do. Even though it helps to explain Ben’s communion with The Island, the whole “Ben gets infected by The Man In Black” idea is less compelling to me than “Ben turns evil because his life sucks.” The compulsion to give too many Island questions a supernatural answer is a weakness I think, because it takes some of the human free will out of the equation. (Only some, though. There are too many layers to Lost for any flimsy one to wreck the show.) [NM]
  • As a counterpoint, though, the ghostly apparitions that visit Ben—and which Locke may or may not have seen in the cabin—are presented as supernatural, but eventually gain greater clarity once we know who is responsible. The efforts in the final season to “ground” the supernatural in a larger conflict may have had its issues, but they also solidified some details that on rewatch are less “Whoa, it’s another ghost” and more “Yeah, it’s The Man In Black, we get it.” [MM]

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Next Week: ”Greatest Hits,” and 2007 Myles’ greatest error in judgment.