The specter of death has long hung-over the inhabitants of Lost but rarely has it struck as brutally or with the frequency it did in last night’s episode, “The Man Behind the Curtain” which detailed the act of betrayal that lead to the mass execution of dozens of employees of the DHARMA Initiative before ultimately snatching up the life of one of the show’s most popular characters…maybe. The angel of death: Ben Linus (Michael Emerson) who both lives up to the Wizard of Oz allusion in the episode’s title while rebuking it seemingly in equal measures. Ben, who you’ll remember once went by the Oz-centric nom de guerre “Henry Gale,” may not be the one pulling the strings behind the scenes, but he’s certainly calling the tune everyone dances to. The revelations of last night’s episode don’t exactly clarify the issue much either, presenting the illusive “Jacob” as both the ravings of a crack-pot (with shades of mother Bates and her boy Norman) as well as a very real and rather terrifying apparition. Is there a show on TV better at having its cake and eating it too?
Long shrouded in mystery, much of it self-generated, “The Man Behind the Curtain” tracks Ben Linus from his traumatic birth, not on the island as he’s long claimed, but in the woods just outside of Portland (this is revealed in a scene that calls to mind M. Night Shayamalan’s The Village), to the snail’s crawl patience required in overthrowing and annihilating DHARMA over the course of more than a decade. Years after his mother dies during childbirth, young Ben (Sterling Beaumon) and his embittered, alcoholic father Roger (Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Gries in one of many bad wigs on display this week) arrive on the island to work for DHARMA, finding it far more hospitable than the castaways would years later. As Ben comes of age on the island, he’s haunted by ghostly visions of the mother he never met (Carrie Preston, a.k.a. Michael Emerson’s spouse) while coming to resent his father, who commits the unforgivable sin of continuously forgetting his son’s birthday.
As Ben reflects on a betrayal from his past he secretly plots another. With great reservation and under protest, Ben agrees to take Locke (having provided the corpse of his father as proof of his commitment to the island) to see Jacob, the highly-secretive leader of “the Others” who we’re lead to believe is not only a technophobe, living in isolation in a Unabomber-style shed, but is also not a man to be trifled with. As he has repeatedly displayed in the past, Locke possesses a “damn the consequences” attitude toward finding his answers, going so far as throttling Bakunin (Andrew Divoff) in front of the entire camp to make his point, simultaneously enthralling and terrifying the once fearsome “Others.”
The encounter between Jacob and Locke begins somewhat anticlimactically, with Ben introducing Locke to an empty chair and claiming emphatically that Jacob is sitting before them, going so far as pantomiming a one-sided conversation where he introduces the two of them. The scene references both the aforementioned Psycho as well as Harvey, but most specifically reminded me of HBO’s long-canceled Carnivàle where “Management” would remain hidden away in his trailer, calling the shots despite all outwardly appearances that he lacked physical form. Locke quickly goes from skeptical to irate, berating Ben as a fraud whom he intends to expose, lashing out less at Ben’s rouse and more at his own foolishness at believing any one person could possibly explain the unexplainable phenomenon of the island.
If Hurley (Jorge Garcia) has often stood in as an audience surrogate for skeptics then Locke (Terry O’Quinn) is the voice of the show’s true-believers, long clinging to the hope that all of the show’s divergent threads will somehow come together in an elaborate tapestry. Lost has a strong grip on the pulse of its audience and, I suspect, as viewer enthusiasm is tempered it can be reflected in Locke. The more he invests himself in the search for answers, the more frustrated he becomes at their lack of availability. The Jacob situation is a perfect example of the way even the most devout of believers grow restless over time, with the futile pursuit of a single, concrete truth turning even the most open of hearts to stone.
Before the scene ends something unexpected happens, or rather would be unexpected for any other show on TV: Jacob turns out to be less Tyler Durden and more Jacob Marley. Tired of Ben and his invisible Messiah, Locke begins to leave when he hears a guttural voice growl “help me” at which point he shines his flashlight on Ben and the room explodes in a frenzy of poltergeist-like activity. Lanterns are shattered, projectiles are hurled through windows, and for one fleeting second we catch a glimpse of the visage of an old man sitting in the once vacant chair.
Like the show’s viewers, Locke is justified in his cynicism, even after bearing witness to this seemingly paranormal event. Ben’s a skilled manipulator and my initial reaction was, much as Locke’s, that this was all a show for his benefit; like a ride at Epcot Center. Yet, as the episode progresses, it becomes clear that if Jacob doesn’t exist, Ben certainly believes in him enough to kill. For all the supposed communicating Ben does with Jacob, he never heard the plea for help that Locke did, which calls into question both Ben’s sanity and his standing with the island “Gods.” Had he really been conversing with Jacob earlier or was that all for show? And if he had been, why would he be unable to hear what’s been said to Locke?
Feeling vulnerable and, most likely, resentful, Ben commits an unspeakable and truly shocking act to close out the episode. Mirroring its opening, Ben seemingly takes another life, here the victim being Locke who is gunned down at point blank range and left to die. Locke’s passing (if that’s ultimately what this is) can be attributed to his own dangerous curiosity, which had already gotten Boone killed, and Ben’s jealousy that Locke may have in fact done what he possibly has not: to honest to goodness hear the voice and see the face of Jacob. We learned last week that Ben intended to humiliate Locke to keep him in his place and this week found “the Others” still in quiet awe of the man. In killing Locke, Ben guarantees his role as Alpha male and spiritual leader to “the Others” even if it’s predicated on half truths and deception.
Last week I placed myself on a rather precarious limb by predicting that Josh Holloway’s Sawyer would be killed off before the end of the season, citing the resolution of his character’s arc as sufficient grounds to sweep him under the proverbial carpet. And while I’m not ready to back down from that prediction, I probably should concede that I was so wrapped up in Sawyer putting his affairs to rest (by killing the man who destroyed his family) that I failed to acknowledge that Locke was in a similar boat. Like Eko earlier in the season, we can view Locke’s “death” as punishment from the island for losing his faith and acting out of spite in orchestrating Cooper’s death. While obvious in hindsight, I must confess to being only slightly less surprised than Locke that he ended up with a bullet in the belly, dying in a mass grave (filled with the skeletal remains of the DHARMA Initiative members) with Ben standing over him gun in hand.
If Reservoir Dogs has taught us anything it’s that, painful as it might be, it takes a very long time to succumb to a gun shot wound. Still, I’m not holding out much hope for Locke here. Lost has betrayed our trust in the past regarding the fate of its characters (Bakunin wipes away weeks of fan grumbling at surviving a particularly gnarly death scene by claiming “the pylons were not set to a lethal level” as if that doesn’t smack of revisionism), but if the shooting of Ana Lucia and Libby is any indication—appropriately enough that happened in the ante-penultimate episode of last season—things certainly aren’t looking good for Locke. Removing the character from the show is a bold gambit indeed as O’Quinn is not only one of the best actors on the show, but is one of the few characters the writers are consistently able to find new wrinkles in his personality to explore. I had harbored the hope that Locke would grow into a position of prominence with “the Others”, placing him at odds with his former friends, playing up the inherent Lord of the Flies echo in the show, but, alas, that will likely never come to fruition.
If there’s a fundamental flaw to last night’s flashbacks it’s the decision to focus almost exclusively on Ben’s childhood years, leading up to his seduction by “the Others”, only to build towards an ellipse encompassing almost twenty years. It’s only in the final act that we see him carrying out a plan that was decades in the making, giving the act of genocide the rushed feel of an afterthought. The dramatic fulcrum is placed on young Sterling Beaumon for almost the entire hour, putting him in the impossible position of imitating Emerson’s twitchy mannerisms while simultaneously forced into the role of an introvert. This set-up also leads to what I suspect is a disastrous misstep on the part of the show’s producers, where we witness the first encounter between adolescent Ben and Richard Alpert (still played by 39-year-old Nestor Carbonell). That the actor Michael Emerson is a full twelve years older than Carbonell has lead some fans to speculate that Alpert is everything from a clone to a robot to an immortal subject of the island’s anti-aging properties, an unfortunate bit of confusion that probably could have been avoided simply by creating a new character for young Ben to interact with.
To mine eyes the interesting story here is in Ben’s gradual indoctrination and manipulation at the hands of “the Others” and not how little Ben laid in wait to have his revenge. The show would do wise to avoid casting any of its stars as children in the future (I shudder at the thought of years of Jack-as-a-child flashbacks we can look forward to) as it has the unavoidable consequence of rendering the characters as passive narrators of their own story. Furthermore, “The Man Behind the Curtain” had the unfortunate side-effect of depicting the character of Ben as incredibly petty, and the entire “Others” versus DHARMA mythology stunningly myopic. Distilling Ben’s sociopathic need for control down to “dad was a jerk” (again more father issues on Lost island) is downright jejune; it’s like doing the story of Hitler and showing young Adolph never getting that pony he always wanted. Essentially dozens of men, women and children died horribly painful deaths because Ben’s father was a forgetful drunk.
The mass extermination (or “Purge” as it’s been referred to previously) is sufficiently horrific, with the especially squeamish moment coming when Ben asphyxiates his father with a grenade of DHARMA-brand nerve gas while bonding over some beers in a mini-van (Ben’s father is the same “Roger Workman” whose shriveled corpse is discovered in “Tricia Tanaka Ia Dead”), his father grudgingly promising to try and do a better job of remembering Ben’s next birthday. Ben tells him “I don’t think that’s going to happen, Dad” before methodically slipping a gas mask over his own head, and he watches his father slowly choke to death on poison gas.
As Ben strolls through the DHARMA compound, dead bodies littering the ground, it lends a dark shadow to his one-time assertion that “we’re the good guys” as well as casts a pale on their impending raid of the beach in just a few days (this is given a few minutes discussion by the castaways, but by and large the bulk of the show’s ensemble gets the week off). I would be remiss to not point out the show seemingly skips over the fate of little Annie (Madeline Carroll), Ben’s childhood friend who whittled for him the wooden dolls he spends much of the episode clutching longingly. Was she among those killed in the Purge or did her time come long before (and perhaps pave the way for) “the Purge.” It’s possible the show will return to this character down the road, but at the moment it strikes me as a missed opportunity to even acknowledge the very real cost of Ben’s grasp for power. Lost never misses an opportunity to draw simple cause and effect characterizations, I’m a little disappointed they actually skirted this one.
With only two episodes to go and the castaways readying for all out war with “the Others” there’s no telling who may end up joining Locke in the island’s cemetery. For the first time in a long time, the show has given us reason to fear “the Others” as anything but a bunch of khaki-wearing control-freaks. If a character as popular as Locke is expendable than who isn’t? Now let’s just hope next week’s episode doesn’t give us 12-year-old Charlie discovering that Marijuana is, in fact, a gateway drug.