"Maybe you should be the principal." -LockeWhatever issues I've had with this season of "Lost," there is no problem with the series so great that a little Michael Emerson can't fix it.
Here, Emerson (and a huge group of other creative types, including writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz and special guest director Mario Van Peebles) helped give us easily the most compelling episode of this final season so far, one where all the tumblers clicked into place and I was reminded in so many different ways of why I love "Lost," past, present, future and alternate timeline.
Hell, it was even an episode where I enjoyed all the Jack scenes, and given that I'm told I have a pathological hatred of the character, that's saying something.
For now, I'm sticking with my theory that the flash-sideways are an epilogue in advance - that this is where and when the characters all wound up in the aftermath of the war between Smokey and Jacob's forces. (I have no idea if I'm right, nor will I be upset either way when the reveal comes, but right now it's important for me to have some idea of what the alt-timeline scenes mean, even if it turns out I'm completely wrong. Otherwise, there's no weight to them this late in the "real world" timeline.)
During last week's discussion of "Sundown," some of you speculated that if I'm right, we're seeing key differences in the endings of the characters who sided with Jacob and those who went with Smokey. Sayid goes with Smokey, and in the alt-timeline has a kind of monkey's paw fantasy where he's near Nadia but not with her, and still placed in situations where he has to be the killer he doesn't want to be. Hurley, meanwhile, goes with Jacob and ends up far happier and luckier than he was in the original timeline.
And Ben, who ultimately and movingly turns his back on Smokey at the end of this one, winds up in an alternate life that turns out to be more good than bad. Yes, he's only a European History teacher to a mostly-disinterested group of students, but he has a much healthier relationship with his dad than he did in the timeline we know, has the respect and admiration of Alex (even if Alt-Alex was never stolen from her mom), and turns out to be more capable of choosing love over power than the Ben we know ever could...
...until, that is, we see that our Ben deeply regrets the decision he made with Alex. And faced with the choice of regaining his crown under Smokey or being just another soldier in the army being formed by Jacob's chosen, Ben rejects power in favor of penance, of doing the right thing as a pawn rather than the wrong as a king.
Ben Linus, really, is a character who shouldn't work at all. Because he lies and manipulates at every turn, he could so easily exist solely as crutch of the writers, there to nudge the plot in whatever direction they deem necessary, and to mix lies and truths so deftly that the viewers can never be sure what to believe. But the genius of Michael Emerson's performance is the conviction with which he delivers every one of Ben's lies and shifts in allegiance. I know I should never believe any words that come out of Ben's mouth (at least, not in this timeline), but time and again, I fall for it.
And I sure fell hard for that climactic scene with Ilana, as did Ilana herself. I have every reason to distrust Ben, and she has every reason to put a bullet in him, and by the end of his monologue about the reason he killed Jacob(*), I felt for the little weasel, and I believed that he's finally abandoned his quest for power and is maybe capable of doing the right thing for its own sake, and not because he might benefit from it. I wouldn't be at all surprised to find out Ben played me (and Ilana) once again, but Emerson sold me, just like he always does.
(*) One of the unavoidable design flaws of "Lost" is that characters drift in and out of the narrative so often that it becomes hard sometimes to keep all the relevant details in mind. By the time Ben got all stabby with Jacob, it had been so long in real time since Alex was killed - and even a month since Smokey-as-Alex laid a guilt trip on Ben in "Dead is Dead" - that I left her death out of the equation of vengeance Ben calculated before he put the knife in. At the time, I was just thinking of how frustrated Ben was to have spent all those years as the island's leader without ever actually hearing from Jacob, but of course he'd be consumed with rage that he let his "daughter" be killed in service to this man who had so systematically ignored him. So when Ben said it to Ilana, it gave that climactic moment from "The Incident" even more resonance.
My fear about this final season was that it would devolve into a contest between two supernatural arch-rivals I don't care a whit about, but an episode like this one nicely reframed the story as being about the human cost of Jacob and Smokey's war. Richard has spent centuries blindly following Jacob's orders, and the knowledge that Jacob apparently died with his plan unfinished has made the immortal man a suicidal one. Ben is similarly crushed by sins he committed (or allowed to happen) in Jacob's name. And Jack, our man of science, who wants a rational explanation for everything (even though he's singularly incapable of asking the sorts of questions that might elicit them), was so transformed by his visit to Jacob's lighthouse - finally unable to deny the grand plans of the island any longer - that he was willing to risk his own death because he had faith, deep down, that the dynamite wouldn't go off.
The scene in the belly of the Black Rock was a great one for Matthew Fox, so well-played that I was mostly able to set aside my usual frustration at how none of the Lostaways are ever able to get a straight answer out of one of The Others. Richard shows up and says "you wouldn't believe me if I told you" where he was, and when Jack offers to try, Richard says, "Not yet."(**) And when I thought for sure Jack was going to use Richard's desperate need for Jack to play Dynamite Dr. Kevorkian to force some answers out of him, he instead lit the fuse, and left their relationship in a place where Richard now considers Jack to be the one with the answers. But because Fox and Nestor Carbonell were so good, I was able to suppress most of my eye-roll reflexes and just go with a very cool moment.
(**) Immediately after Richard says his maddening "Not yet," Kitsis and Horowitz provide a very meta exchange between Jack and Hurley, where Hurley asks why Jack would trust Richard, and Jack replies, "At least he's not stalling." For that matter, I wonder if Alt-Arzt's ability to get Alt-Ben to so quickly explain his plan was also a kind of meta-commentary - that of course Arzt, who in his brief tenure on the show served as a guy who voiced many of the complaints and questions the audience had in season one, would be much better at getting people like Ben to talk than Jack ever was. Suddenly, the idea of an alternate version of the show built around what Arzt, Nikki and Paolo were up to - "Expose" as a series - sounds almost intriguing, and not just because Miles finally dug up the diamonds that got buried with those twits.
Smokey only has a brief cameo, and we don't see any of the people who willingly or reluctantly joined his army, but at least the two sides of the conflict are starting to take shape. Ben has cast his lot with Ilana, and Jack, Hurley and Richard have now joined them (in the kind of dialogue-free, Giacchino-heavy sequence the show so effectively ended many episodes on in seasons past). And in the episode's final, mostly chilling(***) moments, we see a wild-card enter the mix, as Charles Widmore arrives in a submarine, intentions unknown.
(***) Would have been more chilling, of course, if I hadn't spotted Alan Dale's name in the guest credits. Lindelof and Cuse have said there's no way around that, because of SAG rules - even though "Battlestar Galactica" famously managed to circumvent those rules once in an episode where listing the actor in question's name would have ruined everything - and it's a shame. I'm sure the Guild has much larger problems to worry about than credit placement, but it would be nice if they could be more flexible on waivers for shows like this that often depend so heavily on surprising you with the return of a familiar face.
Clearly, this is the "someone" Jacob said was coming to the island, and he has the resources to tip the balance of power one way or the other, or to make things even worse if his agenda runs counter to both parties.
Hell of an episode. Can't wait for the next one.
Some other thoughts on "Dr. Linus":
• One name I was very happy to see in the guest credits: William Atherton, who hit the D-bag trifecta with roles in three of my favorite '80s movies ("Ghostbusters," "Die Hard" and "Real Genius"), and who was perfectly cast as Principal Reynolds, a man sleazy enough to deserve Alt-Ben's hate, but also slick enough to out-maneuver Ben. When Atherton had a recurring role on the second and final season of "Life," I made it my mission to feature an Atherton '80s movie quote in each post about an episode he appeared in. I exhausted most of the good ones then, so instead, go watch this scene from "Real Genius."
• Okay, I recognized Chaim Potok's "The Chosen" (a nice riff on the idea of "candidates") among the books Miles found in Sawyer's tent, but could someone tell what the Benjamin Disraeli book was?
• And speaking of candidates, Ilana confirms that they're candidates to replace Jacob, not Smokey.
• With a bunch of characters now hanging at the beach, armed with rifles, should I get my hopes up about completing the circuit of the outrigger shoot-out? Or am I better off, again, assuming that's one of those things Team Darlton decided to drop for season six?
• A nice touch in the scene with Alt-Ben and Alt-Roger: Ben gives his father gas, only here it's something to keep him alive (oxygen), rather than to kill him (the nerve gas from the purge).
• I also liked that, in the final scene between Alt-Ben and Principal Reynolds, it's implied that even though Ben dropped his demand to take Reynolds' job, he's still finding ways to exploit the power of those e-mails, here getting him to re-open the History Club. (And five'll get ya ten that Arzt winds up having to supervise detention, albeit with a better parking space.)
• Hurley drops his usual "Star Wars" references to ask if Richard is a cyborg like from "Terminator."
• The scene on the beach at the end is the first time Sun has seen Hurley or Jack since the Ajira crash, right? Again, characters flit in and out that I'm worried I might have forgotten something. In character time, it's only been a few days (or weeks at most) since she's seen them, but it's been a while for us.
After reminding you about the No Spoilers rule - which extends to discussing the content of the previews for next week's episode - let me ask... what did everybody else think?