Before you read this post, whip up a batch of waffles—don’t burn the bacon!—and watch last night’s Lost.
If you had a time machine, what would you do? I don’t really need to ask, do I? “I’d go back and kill Hitler!” Everybody kills Hitler. The only question is: do you do it before or after you go back and bet on every World Series, upset-victory horse race and championship boxing match? They shouldn’t even call them time machines. They should call them Kill-Hitler Machines.
Except, except. What if you had to kill Hitler when he was a baby? What if he was a 12-year-old boy, with an abusive dad, who had done you a kindness when you were vulnerable? What if he was a sickly kid with glasses who, if you squinted at him just right, looked like he was Harry Potter?
Now, Ben Linus is not Hitler. (Notwithstanding Sayid’s hyperbolic statement that he was guilty of “genocide”–though mass murder’s bad enough.) He’s still a murderous, dangerous man who, from the reasonable standpoint of most of Oceanic 815’s veterans, the world would be better off without. The fact remains that wanting someone dead is one thing; actually doing the deed, and doing it when the person is vulnerable, is quite another. Killing an abstraction is one thing; killing an actual child is another. Right thing to do or not, it requires a capability that many of us don’t have. It requires killing a part of yourself, if that part is not already dead.
This is the drama that played out in Sayid’s shocker shooting of young Ben. (Notice I said “shooting,” not “killing.” We’re operating on Lost rules here: if they don’t sever the head and burn the body, he ain’t dead.) Making an audience see this is the difference between treating your characters as plot devices and treating them as people. And that was the achievement of “He’s Our You,” which—if not as revelation-packed or breathtaking as other Lost episodes—was emotionally a point-blank hit.
First, there’s the Sayid side of the equation. This was a kind of return to old Lost flashback episodes, in which an accumulation of details from a character’s past life reveal his flaws and challenges and inform his decisions in the present. In this case, to be honest, they told us a lot of what we already knew about Sayid. (1) That he sees himself as fundamentally damaged (though the interesting question is, did that damage result from his life of violence, or did it lead to it?). And (2) that he really, really hates Ben.
More interesting to me was what unfolded for Sayid in the “present” time on the Island. We are used to thinking of Lost as a show about redemption. People come to the Island who have great crimes and regrets in the past, and are here to deal with them—even if they often end up repeating the same mistakes. But what Sayid ends up deciding seems to be something different. The usual arc you might expect from this kind of story is that Sayid has been broken down, sees himself–as he says under truth serum–as a “bad man’ who must make penance. Typically, you’d expect him to redeem himself through some act of self-sacrifice, breaking his pattern of violence.
But Sayid’s decision, even though he seems to arrive at it by hitting the emotional bottom and recognizing the emptiness of his deeds, is the opposite. He is a bad man, he decides. And the sacrifice he must make is a moral sacrifice: he must continue to be a bad man, and do one more very bad thing, for the greater good. He is not going to redeem himself and save his soul; his purpose on the Island, he decides, is to sacrifice his soul, surrender to his nature as a murderer, and do one more hit job. His soul is going to fall on its sword.
This part of the story made the final scene powerful and, to me at least, shocking. (I realized, once we flashed back to the scene at the dock, that Sayid would decide to kill young Ben; but I didn’t think he’d be able to pull the trigger.) But that was the easy part, since we’ve known and loved Sayid for five seasons now.
The tricky part was humanizing Ben, or at least young Ben, and that’s where it becomes clear that Lost would not be a great genre drama if it were not also a great character drama. The ending only really works if Lost gets you to a place where you are willing to sympathize with its arch-villain. And even when you depict that villain as a kid getting knocked around by his dad, that’s easier said than done. This was the whole project of the Star Wars prequels, after all: taking the character you’d been taught to despise for three movies and making him human. Sterling Beaumon made me more sympathetic for Ben Linus in a few episodes than the Star Wars did in three movies for Anakin.
The “killing” still leaves plenty of questions. Foremost, of course: is he dead? I’ve already said I think not, for the usual Twelve Monkeys, you-can’t-change-the-past reasons (to which add: apparently Ben knew that Jin was alive and on the Island because he saw him before being shot). My money’s got to be on healed-by-the-Island, right? But some people have advanced theories that there are signs the past has been changed (like the state of the Others/Dharma compound Sun and Frank visit). Certainly, if it turns out that Daniel Faraday was wrong, things get interesting.
But maybe there are other reasons besides quantum physics that we should assume Ben lived to become Big Ben. At this point, of course, Young Ben was already drawn to the Others, but he’s not necessarily bad yet. What better way to become bad, however, than to find that you can trust no one, that your dad beats you, that you can bring a stranger sandwiches and help him when no one else will and then, first chance he gets, he plugs you in the heart for no apparent reason?
Maybe it’s true, in other words, that you can’t change the past because of logical paradoxes. But maybe it’s also true, in a moral sense, that one can’t go back and rid the world of an evil, when by traveling back to do the deed, you carry the legacy of that evil with you. Maybe if you accept that it is you destiny to be “a bad man,” you can’t help but sow bad.
Or put it another way: if you can’t even change yourself, how can you possibly expect to change history?
Now for the hail of bullets:
* Any Carlos Casteneda fans care to weigh in on the significance of Ben giving Sayid A Separate Reality? (That’ll take off on Amazon, I’m sure.)
* Any thoughts on when exactly Sayid came to the realization he had to kill Young Ben? It seems plain that he wasn’t thinking that when he first encountered him, nor when Ben was knocked around by his dad. And even when Sayid said that he knew the reason he returned to the Island after taking Oldham’s happy juice, I’m not entirely sure that that was his meaning then, or if he came to the decision when Ben came to free him. Thoughts?
* Assuming Ben isn’t dead, I’m looking forward to his and Sayid’s first reunion scene. Is Ben still aggrieved that Sayid shot him or—having come to know what he does now—is it just another piece of useful information that allowed him to use Sayid as a killer? In a perfect world, in which I had no other deadlines, I’d unpack my Lost DVDs and re-watch every pre-Oceanic Six scene involving Ben and Sayid. If anyone wants to do that, report back.
* “Make a decision, or I’ll call Ann Arbor.” As a University of Michigan alumnus, I can honestly say this is the first time I’ve heard Ann Arbor referenced menacingly for anything not involving football or law school.
* Speaking of which, according to Lost’s timeline, I believe Dharma was still active pre-purge—and presumably still headquartered in Ann Arbor—while I was on campus there. I am not at liberty to answer questions about any “experiments” I participated in as an undergraduate.
* I love it that Sayid and Sawyer had a scene together and Sawyer was the straight man. “How you doing?” “A 12 year old Ben Linus brought me a chicken salad sandwich. How do you think I’m doing?” (Though I did like “Even the new mom wants you dead” later in the episode.) Oh, and nice callback to the chicken in the first scene. No wonder dude’s not hungry.
* Excellent casting of Wiliam Sanderson, whom I always enjoy but who, here, managed to be menacing, but menacing in a different way than you’d expect. (Ditto, in a different way, the character of Horace, who manages to be believably geeky, yet with a hint of cult-leader creepiness, as when he presses Lafleur to make the vote unanimous. He’s the scariest nonprofit administrator I’ve ever seen on TV.)
* “John Locke is dead. I think he was murdered.” Oh, Ben, you card!