So we finally got to see Ben's flashback. The Man Behind the Curtain still left a lot of questions, but it offered a fascinating glimpse into Ben's past. First big revelation: He wasn't born on the island. (He was born right near Portland, where Dharma seems to have a foothold.) Hmm. So maybe people never could have babies on the island. We saw several kids, but they all were brought there as far as we know. But where did the Hostiles come from? I was really looking forward to this episode because there's so much to learn about Ben. One interesting thing about it was how much time we spent in his childhood. We've never spent more than a few minutes before on a character being portrayed by a different actor than usual. We saw little Jack, Sawyer, Sun and Hurley... Oh, and mini-Walt. But to have more than half of the flashback scenes showing a main character as a child was pretty interesting.
Sterling Beaumon (which strikes me as a very pretentious-sounding name, but I don't suppose he can help that) is a real cutie. Probably too cute to play Ben; the two actors really don't look anything alike to me, but the kid does a great job. He doesn't strike me as an especially disturbed child, just very quiet, which he's probably learned to be by the time he arrives on the island because he knows his father would rather pretend he doesn't exist. He did not have a good childhood. I couldn't help but think a little of Harry Potter, with his ever-present round glasses and the picture that he kept by his bedside so he could gaze wistfully at the pair of loving parents he never knew. His dad is not a Dursley-sized monster, but losing Emily fundamentally altered him, so Ben never had direct experience with that happy man in the photograph. He misses the man his father used to be. But mostly, he misses his mother, with such a ferocity that he begins to see her, and we again wonder whether the jungle is like the planet in the Star Trek episode Shore Leave, where whatever you're thinking about springs to life. (Speaking of white rabbits, Ben had one, and it looked exactly like the one he faked Sawyer out with, except for the lack of a number on its back.) Jack saw his father, who always undermined his sense of self-worth; Kate saw the horse, a symbol of her restless spirit; Hurley saw Dave, whose presence cause him to question his sanity... Was Ben's mother really there? Did he imagine her, or did something else assume her form? Jacob, perhaps, about whom the Smoke Monster theory seems especially plausible now?
It's interesting that John and Ben both have a mother named Emily. Perhaps it's not a coincidence, since the two have pretty parallel lives. Both grew up feeling unloved, yearning for parental affection; both long for a deep sense of connection with the island; both lie incessantly; both are manipulative; both have really creepy smiles. They seem in control, but they really aren't. I feel sorry for them.
Roger was a piece of work. Something seemed slightly off about his character; he seemed a little less real to me somehow than most of the characters, his reactions a bit hokey, like his utter disgust when he got his uniform (at which point I realized with an excited jolt that he was skeletal Roger from Hurley's van, which meant that episode contained a pretty juicy bit of foreshadowing) and his inaction when Ben pulled on a gas mask and whipped out an ominous spray can. He didn't quite gel with me, but in any case, Roger was a pretty crummy dad, though you could tell he felt at least a little badly about it, and the poor guy did lose the love of his life, after all. Still, actually telling Ben it was his fault that she died? That's cold, man...
Poor Ben probably never had a good birthday in his life. His father forgot it every single year, and he was such an introspective kid that nobody else paid much attention to him besides Annie. Horace, maybe, who came across as kind of an affable goofball who nonetheless must have known a lot more than he was telling. And maybe Richard and the gang, once Ben got in with them, though probably not, since the conversation Ben had with him in the present day seemed to indicate birthdays are sort of a foreign subject to most of the community. This year was certainly no exception to the bad birthday rule. John shows up demanding massive insight; Ben's people refuse to restrain John when he goes after Mikhail; his own daughter arms John and, seeing Ben's hurt face, shoots him a snarling, "Happy birthday, Dad." Yes, John is the man of the hour, apparently everything that Ben has never been. He seems almost poised to take over, though I doubt that's really what he wants. He just wants some answers. But Ben doesn't want to enlighten John when he himself is still in the dark.
A word about Annie. What a sweet girl. Her relationship with Ben was so tender, probably the only truly meaningful one of his life. She remembered and acknowledged his birthday. She made him feel welcome and loved. But we don't know what happened to her. She could have been killed in the purge, but while we saw Ben respectfully close Horace's eyes - a nice indication of humanity, I thought - the camera didn't linger on any women, and he didn't seem to be looking for her. He stared at the doll she made him and tucked it into his pocket before he went off for his afternoon of father-son bonding and patricide; the air was heavy with emotion, and it seemed to me that whatever had happened, Annie was already gone. Did she leave on the submarine? Run away into the jungle? Get killed by Hostiles? They left it so open-ended that I'm pretty sure they'll revisit this question later. We never saw her as an adult so we don't know what she looked like. Maybe she died in childbirth like Ben's mom, and Alex was abducted as a replacement for the child who never made it into the world. But if Mikhail's timeline is at all credible, the purge must have happened within the past 11 years, so where was Alex during this time? Were the Hostiles taking care of her?
I definitely got a late 60s vibe from the opening scene of the episode, which would put Ben in his mid- to late 30s. He seems older than that; Michael Emerson is in his early 50s, after all. He couldn't just tell us what birthday it was. That would be too simple... But I really don't think Ben can be much older than 40. How did he get to be the apparent leader of the Hostiles when he wasn't one of them to begin with? Did he spend a lot of time with them over the years or only have a couple more brief meetings? Why was it necessary for the Hostiles to kill the members of the Dharma Initiative? The barrier was there; why did they even have to interact with each other? And did the Dharma folks realize the island was inhabited? If so, why didn't they find some other island? Or was it part of their experiment to see if they could get along with the natives?
Richard most definitely didn't look a day younger in the flashbacks, which leads me to think the Hostiles have some sort of Tuck Everlasting kind of deal with the island that leaves them immortal. Which means they could've been there for who knows how long? Though if it had been such a very long time, you wouldn't think they'd sound like a bunch of modern midwestern Americans. Why is Richard taking orders from Ben when Richard is the one who's been on the island for years, who presumably had a big hand in sparing him from the purging? I didn't recognize any of the other folks in gas masks, I don't think. It was a very sad scene, with the elegiac music and the slow panning across the ground littered with bodies, and nobody seemed to be cheering for their victory. It seemed as though they saw it as a necessary evil; I think Richard really felt sorry for Ben when he asked if he wanted to give his father a proper burial. And that would explain why Ben was so obsessed with Locke killing his dad, since the Hostiles made him kill his. It was something part of him had always wanted to do, yet part of him would always resist because he, like Locke, kept seeking his father's love. His eyes were tearing up behind his mask as his father succumbed to the poison gas, but he didn't hesitate. He killed his father in cold blood, so if there was any doubt before, it's time to welcome Ben into the murderers' club. Sigh. And yet, for the most part, the flashback did reinforce my feelings of sympathy toward Ben.
I assume that Mikhail was in his communications base and Kelvin and Radzinsky were busy doing their thing at the time of the purge. Evidently nobody ever got around to smoking them out. Ben claims most of the Others are people he brought to the island; I guess he's been pretty busy in the last few years. For all we know, everybody except Richard is new, but then what happened to the rest of the Hostiles? If they're immortal they certainly shouldn't have up and died. Probably it's a mix, and maybe there are still a lot of Hostiles living deep in the jungle.
So Mikhail is still with Team Other after all. I didn't really think he'd go back to Ben. They certainly don't seem to like each other very much, though Ben did try to intervene on his behalf when John started beating him to a bloody pulp. John really has it in for Mikhail. It's not enough to kill him once; let's do it twice! He's just unnecessarily ferocious, like when he knocked Charlie around after the baptism attempt. It displeases me to see him acting so bloodthirsty. He was kind of like a whiny little kid in this episode, begging his mom for some treat in the store and raising a temper tantrum because he wasn't getting what he wanted right at that moment. Of course, he had been waiting a long time for the revelations he thought he was about to receive, and he had his father killed so he could get them. So he feels like he deserves it. Even if it's just going to lead to yet another crisis of faith.
What was up with Tom? When we actually did see him, infrequently, he was just standing there looking dumbfounded, first when John showed up, then during the fistfight when his lack of action spoke volumes. Mutiny was heavy in the air in that scene, and I was frankly rather shocked to see Tom going along with it. Okay, so everyone else may decide to turn their backs on Ben, but Tom? Tom, Tom, why have you abandoned him? You're all Ben has! He needs you, even if he doesn't realize it! Fight for his honor, doggone it!
I really thought we would meet Jacob in Ben's flashbacks. Silly me. His appearance was scarcely an appearance at all. What do we know about him? That he's not a normal person, that's for sure. That we're not even positive he exists. But what was all that chaos in the cabin about? And was there a figure in the shadows or just some invisible force? I think some of what Ben said and did was an act, but I don't know how much. Can he hear Jacob? When Jacob talks to someone, can he only be heard by that person? If he really was talking to Jacob, they don't have a very good relationship. If he wasn't and Jacob doesn't exist, he was just trying to pull one over on John, but if he thinks Jacob is real and just hasn't had the pleasure of conversing with him, what was he playing at? I think he does believe that Jacob is real but perhaps he has never actually communicated with him because he is unworthy, and he resents the fact that John is worthy. But how can John help Jacob, especially when he's such a formless being? Maybe Jacob really is the Smoke Monster. But John already "looked into the eye of this island"; shouldn't he have had a spark of recognition if that was the case?
We're not done with Jacob, or Ben, or John. (I love the fact that Ben told John that Jacob "feels the same way about technology that you do." It broke the tension, and it once again emphasized John's connectedness.) No way in the world that John is dead. Now, I suppose it's possible he could die in the next two episodes, but I certainly hope not, since he's such a core character and so intriguingly linked to the island. A bullet to the belly can't undo Locke, though, especially at the rate he's healing. Speaking of which, Ben barely seemed to need his cane throughout the trek. Seems to be healing quite nicely. It's interesting that the last two episodes focused on a journey of two people, one of whom was Locke, to a secret location where a strange man was waiting. Last week, Locke led the way; this week, it was Ben calling the shots, though only just. He may have been out in front, but this seemed like a trip he didn't want to make. I think he is genuinely afraid of Jacob, who I'm convinced is real.
I'm still not sure if Ben knew beforehand that the attack on his village was going to happen. He knew he had to kill his father at that designated time in order to win the acceptance of the Hostiles, but I'm not sure if he was fully aware of their grand scheme. I think he was a little shell-shocked when he came back and saw everyone dead. He seemed traumatized to me, though Ben usually hides his emotions well. The puffy eyes, the way time seemed to stand still... Whether or not he knew beforehand, I think it affected him at some deep level, even if he didn't feel any real sense of closeness to anyone in the community. If he was in on it, though, that speaks much more strongly for the possibility of him being an evil psychopath, even if he was merely acting out of self-preservation. Still. I'm not ready to give up on Ben yet.
Oh, and then there was the beach. Just barely. I wouldn't have been surprised if we hadn't seen it at all, but we got just enough of a hint of it to ease the segue into the final episode. Well, and next week too, but I don't think the Juliet stuff is going to come into play that strongly next week. It's set-up for the season finale. It would appear that Jack and Juliet are trustworthy after all, which I had hoped was the case, but you never can tell. It was nice of John to give Sawyer that tape so they had a bit of fair warning. But I guess they didn't really need it if Jack really is on their side and is cooking up a plan.
The beach scenes were very minimal, though. First time through, I caught several very brief glances of Desmond looking thoughtful and didn't see Hurley and Charlie at all. Second time around, I noticed Charlie hanging around with Claire, and I know I caught wisps of a conversation between Hurley and Desmond regarding haggis, but I couldn't make out most of the words, which is a shame...
Next week's episode may well be the most emotionally gripping of the season for me. They've been building up to it since Flashes Before Your Eyes, and something major is going to happen. Desmond says his number's up: "I'm sorry, brother, but this time, this time, you have to die." Yup. Charlie's definitely going to go for that: "Oh, well, if you say so, Des, better get on with it then, shall we?" Riiiiight. Charlie will not go gentle into that good night. But with all this extreme buildup, something spectacular is going to have to happen if we are expected to believe that Charlie is in no greater immediate danger than the other castaways. TV Guide said this episode would answer the question once and for all. So if he doesn't die, I have a feeling someone else will, and that someone will probably be Desmond, since their lifelines are so intimately connected now. If both of them make it out of Greatest Hits alive, you will see one supremely relieved Erin.