By Todd VanDerWerff
When Michael Emerson's Benjamin Linus came along midway through Lost's second season, the series was having a bit of an identity crisis. In its first season, Lost had been a show full of gently sweet character moments and goofy pulp excess. This became a recipe for a really big hit, a show that blended a big ensemble with a few sci-fi and action-adventure trappings. In the manner of most successful science fiction shows, it managed to build a genre show atop the trappings of a previously successful television template. In the broadest possible terms, Lost basically just took what made The Love Boat so successful (a huge ensemble with weekly storytelling that delves into various characters' backstories), stripped out the guest stars and added a smoke monster.
In its second season, though, Lost faced a big problem: How could a show like this tell a complete, satisfying story without knowing exactly when it would get to tell that story's end? Because Lost was such a huge hit, so vital to the resurrection of ABC as a television network (along with Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy), the series seemed like it might run eight or nine years. It was a good dilemma to have if you wanted to own a TV show that made a lot of money, but it was a disastrous conundrum from a storytelling point of view. Even if we're being optimistic (and most Lost fans probably aren't), the series really only had four or five seasons worth of story to tell. So, like any successful TV show, Lost dithered. A lot. Episodes would end with HUGE PRONOUNCEMENTS like Jack (Matthew Fox) asking Ana Lucia (Michelle Rodriguez) if she would be willing to train an army and then just mostly forgot about them. The tailies ended up being a lot less important to the story than they were purported to be. The Others were crazy Island hillbillies, and then they weren't, and then Michael (Harold Perrineau) was one of them or something. As much seemingly random stuff from season two as Lost is incorporating into this season, especially, it remains exhibit A in the case that Lost masterminds Damon Lindelof and Carleton Cuse (as well as, occasionally, J.J. Abrams) had no real master plan for the series beyond, "Wouldn't it be cool if ...?" For those of us who were big-time Lost apologists, it was a damn dark time.
So midway through season two, when crazy ol' Rousseau (Mira Furlan) captured a man in one of her traps and insisted he was one of the Others (a group we still knew relatively little about other than that they had an old junker of a boat and had kidnapped Walt and were also, possibly, crazy zombies), it felt like another elaborate stall. But the guy playing this man, who insisted he was a balloonist named Henry Gale whose balloon had crashed on the Island and not some member of a shadow-y group of maybe-zombies, was a livewire. His name was Michael Emerson, and he had won an Emmy for playing a serial killer on The Practice. Rumor had it he had only been contracted for a handful of episodes, but his performance ended up being so great that the show's producers kept extending his time on the show. He played someone Lost had desperately needed—a J.R. Ewing. A Cigarette Smoking Man. A seemingly selfish dude with weird motives he never really explained whom you could never trust. Emerson pretty much took over the show at that point, unheard of for a guest star in a show with an ensemble this huge, and while some fans grumbled he was stealing screen time from regulars whose stories were going unexplored, the effect just having Ben THERE had on the show was galvanizing. Lost, as it turned out, had always needed an outright villain, and Emerson was having the time of his life playing him.
So every season, now, Lost turns over a full hour of TV time to letting Emerson do his tricky, complicated dance of deceit, and every season, that episode is among the season's highlights. "Dead Is Dead," this season's Emerson showcase, is probably the best Lost of the season so far and the first episode this season that makes a serious case for its enshrinement in the top five or ten Losts of all time. If Lost season five has been the best the show has been, most likely, that's because it hasn't pushed itself TOO far. The out-there storytelling devices it's employed have kept it from really swinging for the fences. "Dead Is Dead" is the first episode this season to really zig every time you expect it to zag, as Lost does at its best, and the first episode to try to mine the really tricky emotional material some of the better flashbacks (season four's "The Constant," season three's "Flashes Before Your Eyes," season one's "Do No Harm") have gotten into.
It's a fantastically involving and FUN hour of television, and it makes me feel a little bad for praising even a really solid hour like last week's episode so excessively because it so readily laps every other episode this season. And while the script (by Brian K. Vaughan and Elizabeth Sarnoff) here is good and Stephen Williams turns in a terrific directorial job and Michael Giacchino nails the tricky emotional tones of the material with his score, it's really all about Emerson who takes all of these very good elements and pretty much elevates them to excellent all by his lonesome.
Emerson maybe has the trickiest part to play on Lost. Literally everything he says could be a lie, and we may not find out it was a lie until the series finale. Ben's constant need to manipulate things at first seemed like an attempt to preserve the secrets of the Island, but it's been revealed as the series has gone on as a man who desperately wants to hang on to what little power he has playing the few cards he knows he has over and over to make sure he does hang on to that power. Fans complained extensively about how the Losties never really got Ben into a place where he'd have to answer their questions, but it's also becoming increasingly clear that Ben never really knew all that much about the inner workings of the Island to begin with (tonight, he doesn't even know where to find the Smoke Monster).
Granted, this doesn't excuse all of those scenes when the cast would just stare at Ben as he blabbered on about nothing at gunpoint or something instead of asking him more direct questions, but it does put them all in a more interesting relief. Regardless, Emerson's performance has to hinge entirely on a series of statements that no one, not even the actor himself, can really be sure are truth. Since most acting relies on expressing some form of inner truth as directly as possible, Emerson's ability to be somehow honestly evasive should not come off as effortlessly as it does. (If you want to see how this could all go very, very wrong, look, for example, over at what Cristine Rose, a really good actress, does on Heroes with a very similar part. She's simply unable to find many of the same notes Emerson does, seemingly because she can't lock in to her character's understanding of the terrain on that series.)
An added blessing of "Dead Is Dead" stems from the fact that it turns over so much of the show to Emerson, yes, but also to Terry O'Quinn as the recently resurrected and pleased about it John Locke. Emerson and O'Quinn always, always kill in scenes together (even when those scenes don't make a lot of logical SENSE, as they did oftentimes in seasons two and three), and their status as Lost's sort of elder statesmen gives everything they do an added gravity. The Ben/Locke pairing has always been predicated on the idea that Ben knew just how deeply Locke wanted to understand the Island and exploited that desire to make Locke his puppet. Now that the Island (or the smoke monster or ... someone) speaking through his dead daughter, Alex (Tania Raymonde), has insisted he do whatever Locke says, the roles have been neatly reversed in a way that's sure to drive Ben nuts.
"Dead Is Dead," which might have seemed like it would be the story of how Ben became such an evil bastard instead became the story of how Ben was forced to become Locke's servant and the story of why, exactly, the smoke monster, when it judged him, did not kill him. The final shot of the episode, Williams' camera peering down at Ben in the basement of the Temple, his eyes wide with disbelief as he said, "It let me live," was a great capper, if only because Emerson's eyes revealed a plethora of emotions—shock, sadness, joy, fear, rebellion. Television is a medium reliant on close-ups, and maybe Emerson's so great because he thrives in them.
That whole Temple sequence was the sort of big, mythology-building moment Lost fans tend to geek out over. It felt like Ben and Locke had just randomly taken a field trip into Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the shot of Egyptian god Anubis just chillin' with the smoke monster in hieroglyph form is almost certainly the desktop wallpaper of every Lostpedia regular. Hell, there was quite a bit of fun mythology stuff in this episode, like Ben seeming genuinely mystified by the fact that Locke was alive again or seeming shocked (but possibly faking it?) to realize that some of the Losties are back in 1977 with DHARMA or Lapidus (Jeff Fahey, whose character name should really come with an exclamation mark) being nabbed by yet ANOTHER group with designs on the Island (which is actually starting to get a little tiresome, but at least these folks have a cool password—shades of Desmond asking everyone who came into the Hatch "What did one snowman say to the other snowman?" way back in season two's "Orientation"). This was all well and good, as was the time spent with characters like Locke, Ben, Lapidus and Sun (Yunjin Kim), who've largely fallen by the wayside in the last few weeks.
But, OK, yes, that's fun, but what was unexpected about this episode was the way it laid out exactly why Ben wasn't killed by the monster. He wasn't killed because he was so awesomely evil the Island just needed him on its side nor because everything he did was for the benefit of the Island nor because he was secretly a good guy all along. The monster didn't kill him because he was weak, he was human. It's so damn cliché to give the bad guy a puppy or a baby he really cares about, but Lost has reinvigorated this a bit by having Ben seemingly only really realize just how much he loved Alex after she was killed by his enemies.
Sure, he showed affection for her before, but she always seemed like someone he held at arm's length, lest he had to turn her into yet another pawn, as he did with everyone else in his life. When she became a pawn in another man's game, his anger at that moment crystallized into sadness (watching Ben pick up Alex's corpse while the smoke monster crackled around him in season four's "The Shape of Things to Come" may be my favorite single shot in the series), and everything since then has been about him trying to process the emotion of grief. There's a moment late in the episode when Ben has just shot Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) in the groceries and is pulling a gun on Penny (Sonya Walger), about to kill her to have his revenge on constant-thorn-in-his-side Widmore (Alan Dale) when he sees Penny's son climb up from belowdecks on she and Desmond's boat. Because every Lost fan pretty much assumed Ben had killed Penny in this confrontation, that he spared her because she was a mother initially feels shocking until you realize it's yet another move straight out of the bad-guy-with-an-occasional-heart-of-gold playbook and you've seen this a million times before.
But then there's a shot between Ben lowering his gun and Desmond unleashing his fists of fury on Ben's face, just a quick shot, of Ben, realizing what killing Penny would MEAN, exactly, of his eyes glazing over, then quickly crystallizing again, so much history in them, and before those fists land, before he can be plunged into the ocean, blood streaming from his nose, you are reminded, just for a moment, of just how much TV needs actors like Emerson, just how much can be said with the eyes.
Some other thoughts:
- I kinda undersold Williams' work on this episode above. It was a deeply, deeply gorgeous piece of TV directing, from the eerie Temple sequence to the sunset shots of Locke and Ben arriving at the Island to the grubby quality of all of the flashbacks. Williams is one of the series' regular directors, and he's done quite a bit of good work this season, but he tends to work in the shadow of head director Jack Bender. Here's hoping the stuff he's done this year gets him more noticed.
- OK, so, how is Desmond still a regular? I think everyone assumed Penny would die, and that would lead Desmond to return to the Island to kill Ben and exact his revenge and then Daniel (Jeremy Davies) would be all, "You can save Penny, Desmond!" and he wouldn't kill Ben and whatever. But now, as it turns out, Penny didn't die, so how is it at all possible that Desmond would ever return to the Island? Oh well. Cusick's in the opening credits still, so I guess we'll find out.
- I kinda hope Caesar's (Saïd Taghmaoui) not dead, even though there's pretty much no way Ben didn't kill him with that blast to the chest. I like Taghmaoui, and his performance so far was intriguing, but Lost has gotten a bit of a reputation for killing its interesting guest stars out of the blue.
- So when are we gonna go inside the actual Temple itself? Season finale? Series finale? Somewhere in the middle of season six? I hope Rose, Bernard and Vincent are in there!
- Writing all of that above made me wonder if we're ever going to get a few quick storypoints that would wrap up the story of the true Henry Gale. Probably not, but it could be interesting.
- My favorite speculation from another comment board: Locke isn't really alive. He's yet another manifestation of the smoke monster, since the monster only arrived after Locke left and left before Locke returned. This may be reading too much into things, but it's a neat idea.
- Man, in addition to everything else, this was a pretty amusing episode. Emerson's a funny dude. That's another thing that makes his performance so appealing.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark and co-host of the podcast TV on the Internet. His writing also appears at The AV Club.