SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, unclog that nasty drain in your bathroom and watch last night’s episode of Lost.
Would it be possible to retool Lost as a picaresque buddy adventure about a resurrected dead guy and his wisecracking evil sidekick? Because I could watch that pretty much every week. Looking through my notes for “Dead Is Dead,” I could pretty much fill up a post simply by reprinting the various exchanges between Lost’s two best characters and actors. But attention must be paid to what made this episode so rewarding, and that—not to give short shrift to Terry O’Quinn—was the work of Michael Emerson.
A little while ago, I made a wisecrack about how the portrayal of Young Ben made me feel more sympathy for him than three entire prequel movies did for Anakin Skywalker. I rip on the Star Wars prequels, because, hey, who doesn’t? But it’s worth pointing out that the project of those movies—humanizing one of science fiction’s most famous villains, and in the process retroactively changing our view of him in the three original films—would, had it been pulled off better, have been awesome. Unfortunately, as we all know, George Lucas was more interested in CGI Gungans than in anything approaching human character development, and the rest is history.
Lost, on the other hand—with the advantage of more screen time in which to do it—has fascinatingly complicated our view of Ben. And not in the simplistic “He had a bad childhood and he was brainwashed, but he’s not really that bad.” From what we have learned of Ben, in fact, it turns out that in many ways he is that bad. But it’s not that simple, as his various flashbacks show. He is ruthless and mendacious, even now he’s untrustworthy. But he has his limits, and he is motivated, on some level, by principle other than gaining and maintaining power.
It’s been very popular lately for TV to give us antiheroes: characters like FX’s protagonists, whose flaws make us complicit in cheering for them. Ben is sort of the equivalent in villain form—an anti-antihero?—in that, while he is undoubtedly on balance a bad guy, he is human enough to feel sympathy for without excusing him.
To do this, to make Ben a complicated villain—perhaps a “better” villain than Widmore?—but a villain nonetheless, requires a feat of writing. But it absolutely cannot work without an actor of Michael Emerson’s skills. You need somebody who can not just deliver the snappy lines, but allow conflicting motives and emotions play across his face at once without speaking a word.
There were plenty enough examples of this last night: his steely resolve to kill Penny, suddenly disrupted by the sight of young Charlie; his fear and resignation at encountering Smokey; and his happiness and heartbreak at seeing Alex, or her apparition—without which I would have been taken out of the scene by the painfully stiff performance of Tania Raymonde, the Sofia Coppola of Lost. (Why not just let her direct instead? There would be haunting visuals and a really awesome soundtrack!) Emerson’s exposed-nerves humanity helped ground a Temple scene which otherwise could have seemed very hokey. (And, OK, probably still did for some viewers. As he stood before the Anubis altar, Mrs. Tuned In remarked: “This looks like a Nicholas Cage movie.”)
But all that built up to the crowning image of Ben looking up at Locke—having pledged to his dead daughter to give up control and follow Locke from now on—telling him that Smokey had let him live. This scene absolutely would not have worked with a lesser actor. With Ben, you see just the slightest tinge of relief, but above all exhaustion, horror and sadness at having to admit that he is no longer the Island’s right-hand man. “It let me live,” Ben says. And makes it sound like a death sentence.
If I’m making predictions, I have got to imagine that this series doesn’t end with Ben walking away alive, that in some way he ends up called to account and winds up dead, in the “dead is dead” sense. The only mystery is whether he dies redeemed or not. Either way, I’m expecting one hell of a final scene from Michael Emerson.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* So what do you think Smokey’s judgment was on Ben? The setup the episode implied was that either Widmore had broken the rules (by ordering Alex killed) or Ben had (by letting her live). It is, I guess, entirely possible they both broke the rules—and it’s not as if anyone expected Ben to die last night. Is he guilty, but less so than Widmore? Is he on probation?
* We will have to see how thoroughly Ben cleans up his act in the future as second banana to Locke. Up to the end of this episode, Ben was still Ben, though: kissing up to Locke, then backstabbing him, then saving him by shooting Caesar (whom I assume is alive for now, based on the Lost not-until-they-sever-and-burn-the-head rule). The biggest contradiction: he tells Locke he knew he would come back to life, but tells Sun he had no idea it would happen, and that the resurrection scares the living hell out of him. The fact that he suddenly seems to have less inside info than Locke (and the episode title) seems to imply he’s telling the truth to Sun. But is he?
* Before I completely short-shrift Terry O’Quinn, I like how he played the newly confident Locke. (Though not the newly infallible Locke, as he set himself up for Ben to potentially double-cross him with Caesar.)
* I’m guessing that, appropriate to the season, the tunnels beneath the Temple and the carvings contain some Easter eggs. Feel free to share or to speculate. As for what we could see right in front of us: was that carving actually Anubis, or just an Anubis-like figure?
* As much as Emerson humanizes Ben in this episode—and the Alex backstory does a lot to establish Widmore as the Bigger Bad—it was still a satisfying beat-down from Desmond. I want to get that image of bloody Ben underwater as my screensaver.
* OK, so I said there was no point in listing one Locke-Ben exchange after another. Still: ”I was hoping we could talk about the elephant in the room.” “I assume you’re referring to the fact that I killed you.” And “[Tosses the shotgun to Locke] Consider that my apology.”
* Any Mountain Goats fans in the audience? Doesn’t the dyed-hair ’80s Ben look a little like John Darnielle?
* It’s understandable enough why Ben wouldn’t kill the baby. But why not kill Rousseau? It’s not as if he hasn’t done worse. (The Purge presumably killed mothers and children—though  it may be easier for him to have others do that killing for him and  I’m not sure, depending when the baby-plague hit, how young the youngest Dharma member would have been by the time of the Purge.) Why do you suppose Ben spared her? Is it the parallel to his own mother, who died in childbirth?
* And speaking of moments from Ben’s past, while I admire Emerson for keeping it real in the Smokey scene, I could have done with a little less-is-more there. I mean, we knew from Eko that people see images from their past in the smoke clouds, but the CGI here was a little too hyperreal and Wizard of Oz to me.
* Finally, Zuleikha Robinson is almost as weak a link for me as Raymonde, but at least Ilana’s role is becoming interesting. What is her game?