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Lostwatch: Charlie Brown, the Football and Linus

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, pop an organic TV dinner in the microwave and watch last night’s episode of Lost.

One of the great riddles of this last season of Lost has been the meaning of the flash-sideways stories. Are they reality? Alternate reality? Will the universe they represent somehow merge with the one in which our friends are still on the Island? And if not—what are they for? For that matter, if the flash-sideways are the real reality, created by the H-bomb explosion, then why do the events on the Island matter? We’ll know by the end of the season—I assume—and I’m OK with waiting. But in the meantime, we gotta guess.

Thematically, at least, I’m getting a better guess at what they’re about. In the old flashbacks, and even the flashforwards, we saw the main characters struggling with the same conflicts as in the Island timeline, but ultimately, they succumb to the same failings. Kate will always run away. Sawyer will always con. Locke will always get conned.  Hurley will always have bad luck. Sayid will always have to kill some dude. Jack will never get over his daddy issues. Charlie Brown will never kick the football.

The flash-sideways are different, it seems. In the flash-sideways, Charlie Brown kicks the football. The characters are, at least a little bit, able to break the cycle and achieve some kind of progress or peace that’s been denied them. Kate stops running long enough to help Claire. Locke comes to accept his limitations. Hurley is the luckiest man in the world. I’m not quite sure the positive change / redemption in Sayid, who did, in “Sundown,” have to kill a dude, but we can gather from its ending that his flash-sideways story is not over.

And in “Dr. Linus,” the most affecting of the flash-sideways yet, Ben sacrifices his self-interest for the sake of Alex, whom he let die rather than give up power in Island time. (Which would leave him, as he analogizes himself, like Napoleon on Elba, alive but better off dead.) What’s more, he does so anonymously, making it a higher mitzvah.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Michael Emerson turned in another great performance. What he accomplished so well in his flash-sideways was to show us Ben as simultaneously a very different man and yet the same man, gone in another direction. He’s honest, moral and giving of himself; yet you also see in him the same fastidiousness and the same sense of injustice edged with bitterness that we’ve seen in Bad Old Ben. So it’s not surprising that he cannily comes up with a way to backstab the principal he hates and take his job, though he gives up the opportunity rather than hurt Alex. (Of course, there’s nothing save his word to keep him from burning Principal Reynolds later; but we’ve seen that even the Evil Ben of the Island can sometimes, almost rigidly, be a man of his word.)

Something changed in this Ben, or rather, didn’t change, didn’t make him go wrong. “Dr. Linus” makes the case more explicitly than any other season six episode that the failings of this character are specifically the products of circumstance: here, that staying on the Island led Ben to go bad. “Imagine how different our lives would have been if we’d have stayed,” Ben’s dad, having lived to old age, wistfully tells him. If only you knew, dude. The only gas your son would have given you would not have been oxygen.

Here, Ben’s redemption in the alt-universe mirrors his story in the Island story. On the Island, for once, he gets the drop on someone but does not shoot. He recognizes how he failed Alex, and how he himself was badly used. (Like Richard, by the way. Anyone still convinced Jacob is a good guy?) He considers going with Smocke, but only, he recognizes miserably, “because he’s the only one who’ll have me.” All this feeds my Ben-as-AnakinSkywalker theory of Lost: the kid with potential led to the dark side, who may yet have a chance to rip off the black mask and do some good before he dies. (Update: Not just my theory! Sorry, Dave!) With our old buddy Widmore pulling up to the Island—well, we’ll see how soon that is.

In the second storyline, man of science Jack is acting more and more like a man of faith, sitting Richard down in the Black Rock—after we learned, sort of, why he’s cursedly ageless—letting the dynamite fuse burn down and trusting that Jacob will not allow it to go off, because he brought Jack to the Island “for a reason.” Between this and the poison pill scene, I’ve gotta say: I like Crazy Deathwish Jack.

Though I’m still foggy on this season’s direction and taking it on faith—I still operate on the theory that this is one big episode and we just have to see how it ends—”Dr. Linus” gave me reason to hope. Between Richard’s story and Ben’s, it told us that we’re not here to cheer Team Jacob or Team Smokey in whatever megalomaniac game they have going, but to cheer our characters in their progress. One of the characters I care about most at this point, God help me, is Benjamin Linus, and if nothing else, this episode reminded me why.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* So we’ve learned, that Richard was on the Black Rock when he got to the Island. Given the history cram session in the flash-sideways, did the ship have any connection with the British East India Company?

* Followup to which: so if Jacob touches you, you have a “gift”? Does the gift vary, or does it always mean you can’t die? And I know the whole Internet is looking this up now, so I’ll just ask: so who have we seen Jacob touch?

* Loved the callback to Nikki and Paolo, as Miles’ spidey sense leads him to realize where their diamonds are buried—and, oh yeah, that they were buried alive. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

* In addition to being a fine dramatic actor, Emerson is one of the better comic players on the show, and “Dr. Linus” gave him some good material. Tie between “I’m fine, thank you” (on being asked where Sayid is) and “The things people bring on a trip” (upon finding the big-butts magazine in a tent).

* Still, the star of Lost the Comedy this week had to be our old friend Leslie Arzt, dreaming of a parking space where “I get the shade from the maple tree but not all that maple tree crap all over my car!”

* So Widmore is the guy who Jacob said was coming to the Island? Fine, since I was wondering when and if his story would re-enter the picture. On the other hand: I still want me my Desmond!

* “Cheese curds.” Mmmm, indeed.