I love origin stories.
The very first issue of The Uncanny X-Men I ever bought was #138, in which Scott Summers stands over Jean Grey’s grave and reflects on the entire story of their love affair, as threaded through the history of the X-Men. It was the absolute perfect place for my 10-year-old self to start with the X-Men. I got a broad outline of what had happened up to that point, delivered in a narrative that was limited to the perspective of a single character, but which hinted and referred to a much larger universe of characters and adventures. It was all so darned enticing. If you hook me on part of a story, and imply that there’s so much more to tell, I’ll be inclined to stick around.
I became hooked for good on Ben Linus’ story after Season Three’s “The Man Behind The Curtain,” an episode that both put the character’s wicked behavior into a larger context and introduced some long-awaited backstory on the DHARMA initiative and The Hostiles. So I was especially primed for tonight’s Ben-centered “Dead Is Dead," which I expected to extend the Ben origin. And though it was an origin story of a kind, it wasn’t quite the origin I was expecting. And I think I enjoyed it all the more for it being such a curveball.
After a brief flashback (about which I’ll say more in a moment), we pick up where we left off at the end of “Whatever Happened, Happened,” with a battered Ben gazing up in surprise at a resurrected John Locke. Ben quickly scrambles to get on top of the situation by saying, essentially, “Great! My plan to kill you so that you’d be brought back to life worked perfectly. (Homina-homina-homina.)” Ben then explains that he knows he “broke the rules” but that now he’s a Sad Ben, a Melancholy Ben, a Small and Sorry Ben, an Oh-John-I-am-glad-to-see-you Ben, and that he’s back on the island to take his medicine. “I believe you call it the monster,” he says.
I’ve long-enjoyed the relationship between Ben and Locke, which has gone through a lot of changes over time, from adversarial to collegial. From the first time they met on the island, Ben’s been playing the angles with Locke, trying to manipulate him by teasing him with information about this island he loves so much, and then pushing Locke to doubt the meaning of that information. But while Locke has been made to look like a sucker at times, he’s actually been taking more or less what he needs from Ben. He’s been learning how to be a leader. And how not to be one.
Consider what happens on the beach at the start of this episode. Ben has a little chat with Caesar, and just by way of keeping his options open, Ben starts planting seeds of doubt in Caesar about Locke (that strange man who wasn’t on the plane but claims to be resurrected). By baiting Caesar, Ben learns that Caesar has found a gun, which Ben promptly swipes. Then when Locke and Ben are about to take a boat to the main island and Caesar tries to stop them, Locke attempts to play peacemaker, while Ben just pulls out that gun and blows Caesar away. These two guys—longtime rivals for the position of Island Guru—clearly have different ways of doing business.
What I liked most about that scene was the aftermath, once Ben and Locke had reached the DHARMA dock and Ben—always playing the put-upon, nobody-understands-me good guy—tells Locke that he had to shoot Caesar in order to keep Caesar from shooting Locke. To which Locke replies, sardonically, “No sense in my dying twice, right?”
I loved the Locke we saw tonight. I loved him asking Ben some of the questions about his own death and resurrection that we viewers have had over the past few weeks, starting with the question of why Ben killed him instead of just letting him hang himself. (The answer: Because Locke had vital information, and once he’d spilled that information, “I just didn’t have time to talk you back into hanging yourself.”) And I loved Locke’s quiet confidence, as he began to understand once and for all that he really does have the upper hand on Ben.
I said up top that “Dead Is Dead” was a different kind of origin story than what I was expecting, and here’s what I mean by that: I had assumed, after last week’s episode, that we would see Lil’ Ben enter The Temple with Richard and thus get transformed, while in the flash-forwards we’d see him face down Smokey and see the sins of his past displayed. Instead the episode skipped The Temple ceremony altogether, saved the Smokey confrontation until the end, and did a more conventional flashback structure, taking us through some of the key moments in Ben’s life as he marched toward his destiny with Locke. The real origin story here wasn’t whatever happened in The Temple in 1977; it’s what happened on the way to (and then under) The Temple in 2007. And what happened was this: Any lingering faith we might’ve had in Benjamin Linus as any kind of all-powerful puppetmaster was shattered. This wasn’t the story of how a man became powerful; it was the story of how he never had much power in the first place.
I’ve been suggesting since late last year—from the moment Ben blew up the DHARMA time machines—that maybe he’s not someone who really understands the deep mysteries of the island, but instead is someone who knows how to use the right words and push the right buttons to get what he wants. And I think “Dead Is Dead” was largely a confirmation of that. When Ben and Locke arrive at the old DHARMA barracks, they find Sun and Frank, and after all concerned catch up—conveniently during a commercial break—Ben goes into his secret chamber, sticks his hand into a muddy puddle, pulls a stopper and summons the monster. And while he’s outside waiting for his judgment, he confesses to Sun that contrary to what he said to Locke, he had no idea that Locke would come back to life. (“Dead is dead,” he insists.) Is he lying to Sun? Well, Ben can’t help but lie, we all know that. But when he later tells Locke that he doesn’t know where Smokey lives—and Locke says, puckishly, “I do”—I think that backed up what Ben said to Sun. He really doesn’t know as much about the island as he lets on.
So Locke leads Ben to The Temple, and explains that they’re going to have to head underground. (We don’t actually get to see The Temple itself, and I have a feeling we won’t until next season. That’s some of that “hooking me on part of a story” stuff I was talking about.) After Ben falls through the floor to a secret chamber, he sees a hieroglyph with Anubis summoning a snake-creature. And out of a grate beneath that hieroglyph, Smokey emerges. And though Smokey has one ultimate message—“You better listen to John Locke and stop killin’ him all the time.”—before it delivers that message it reminds Ben of all the bad stuff he’s done. Then it gives him a chance to make up for it all.
So what has Ben done wrong? Well, we don’t get a full accounting, but let’s recap the flashbacks:
1. We see a man rushing into a camp on a horse in a scene that I briefly thought was going to be from long, long ago. Instead it was 1977, and a dashing young Charles Widmore galloping in to meet the new Hostile, a badly wounded Ben, and to inform the recruit that when the time his right, he’ll have to re-join his Dad at DHARMA.
2. We see a badly wigged Ben (alongside Young Ethan) storm Rousseau’s camp, seize Baby Alex, and warn Rousseau that if she causes a fuss she’ll be killed. (“Every time you hear whispers, you run the other way,” he warns.) In the very next flashback, we find out that Charles ordered Ben to kill Rousseau and the baby, not to bring the baby back. But Ben argues that Jacob would never have wanted a baby to come to harm. (My theory: Neither Charles nor Ben really know what Jacob wants. They’re both charlatans.)
3. We see the banishment of Charles Widmore, for committing the sins of leaving the island frequently and for fathering a child with an outsider. (One of which will soon become Ben’s forte.)
4. In two nerve-wracking flashbacks, we see Ben head to the harbor in L.A. to kill Penny. He shoots Desmond’s groceries, and is preparing to pull the trigger on Penny when he spies little Charlie. (Kids are kind of Ben Linus’ Kryptonite.) While Ben hesitates, Desmond jumps him, kicks the crap out of him, and dumps him in the drink.
Yet when Ben finally confronts Smokey, the sin foremost on his mind is the way he let Alex die, rather than allowing Widmore’s Commandoes to remove him from the island. Smokey even takes the form of Alex, to make sure it has Ben’s attention when it orders him to become Locke’s disciple.
As I’ve often confessed, I tend to grit my teeth and wince a little when Lost goes too far into the mystical mumbo-jumbo. I understand that this is an irreducible element of the show, and that talk of monsters and spiritual destinies is part of what drives the plot. As much as I prefer the hints and mysteries, I know that answers are important too, so more often than not, I just endure the loopier stuff.
But I thought “Dead Is Dead”—much like the “frozen donkey wheel” segment of last season’s finale—struck exactly the right tone to make the mumbo-jumbo work. I think of that lovely long shot at sunset on the pier, making Locke and Ben’s conversation about Bizarre Island Stuff seem smaller and better contained. I think of Locke’s cheery wave to Sun and Frank after Ben announces that he’s alive. There was a nice balance in "Dead Is Dead" between beauty and whimsy, all leading up to the scene under The Temple, with Ben surrounded by electrically charged smoke. Handled wrong, that scene might’ve looked goofy. (Heck, I’m sure some of you did think it was goofy.) But personally, I was a-tingle. In serious awe. That scene was like something out of Raiders Of The Lost Ark: at once kitschy, cool, brazen, and fully alive.
One of the things I’ve always liked about comic book origin stories is that they tend to be at once breezy and matter-of-fact. They zip along, saying, "Look, this happened; don’t dwell on it." But “Dead Is Dead” reminded me that you can’t have those kind of “scenes from a larger adventure” stories if you don’t also have that larger adventure too. Like Ben Linus says: It’s one thing to believe it; it’s another thing to see it.
-I had a lot of admiration for what Ron Moore and the folks at Battlestar Galactica chose to do with their final half-season, mixing “Okay, let’s do this!” action episodes with surreal, contemplative, rehashing-what-we-know mood pieces. I don’t think Lost could do anything like that, and I’m not sure I’d want them to, but tonight I think we got a little taste of what a BSG-style Lost might be. This episode was like one of those BSG mood pieces mixed with “Okay, let’s do this!”
-Last week’s episode was all about exploring the emotions and motivations of a couple of key characters. Tonight was hardcore mythology, but it didn’t leave the emotion/motivation behind. We got see to see what Locke has become, and we now understand Ben a little better. The ongoing partnership of those two should now be more interesting than ever.
Clues, coincidences and crazy-ass theories:
-So… “What lies in the shadow of the statue?” You didn’t think I was going to end this write-up without bringing up that little chestnut, did you? Ilana asks this of the returning Frank, and when he doesn’t know the answer, she clocks him. Clearly she and a few of the other passengers have some knowledge of the island after all, and perhaps are part of a secret society completely unrelated to DHARMA or The Hostiles. But here’s my question: Did Ben shooting Caesar set something in motion? Did it force Ilana to tip her hand early? Is this going to be like Sayid shooting Ben and Jack refusing to operate on him: A case where a careless decision proves to be a major mistake?
-When Ben walks into his old house, that same game of Risk that Sawyer, Locke and Hurley were playing when Keamy attacked is still set up.
-We’ve never seen Ben and Christian together, have we? Christian’s story is still a total mystery.
-I know this has been asked before, but it bears repeating: I wonder if Ben’s tumor from early Season Three is related in any way to him being shot as a boy?
-What did Richard and Ben do in The Temple anyway? Ben doesn’t seem especially different when he’s meeting Widmore shortly after the healing ceremony, and he certainly remembers DHARMA and his dad. But in 2007, he seems genuinely surprised to learn that the Oceanic folks went back in time. What's up with that?
-If Ben and Charles are charlatans, what does that make Richard? Or Jacob for that matter?
-In last week’s podcast, Darlton announced that the codename for this season finale’s big twist ending will be “The Fork In The Outlet.” The name was suggested by a viewer and selected by fan—none of whom know what that last scene will actually be—but Damon and Carlton have claimed that the name is apt. I don’t know what “The Fork In The Outlet” suggests to you, but I find myself thinking about Ben sticking all the “inorganic matter” into the DHARMA time machine in last season’s finale. I think we may be in for another desperate “rule-breaking” maneuver designed to reset time again and bring our scattered heroes back together.
-Rewatching “Whatever Happened, Happened” over the weekend, I was struck by Richard saying of Ben, “He will always be one of us.” I don’t know why I hadn’t made the connection to the title of the terrific Season Three episode, where Juliet comes to the Island in flashback and to the Oceanic camp in the main story. Maybe the meaning of “one of us” for Ben is as fluid as it is for Juliet.