Best. Episode. Ever. Well, that may be overstating it a bit, but no, not really. Because I do love Benjamin Linus every bit as much as Desmond, Daniel, John, Charlie, Hurley and any other character I’ve ever placed at the top of my hierarchy. And after this week, surely I can stop apologizing for it.
Rarely, if ever, have I gone into an episode with such particular hopes for what would happen. Usually it doesn’t get much more specific than my hoping a certain character won’t get killed off. Oddly, this week, I hoped Ben would be killed, because I kinda figured it was kill or be killed. But nobody died in this episode, and yet Ben still found both redemption and vindication. It was more than I could have hoped for, such utter exhilaration after last week’s desolation that, while I’m still not entirely ready to give up on her yet, if Annie is never mentioned on the show again I’ll probably be okay with that. Alex is enough.
While I would have loved it if a couple of other characters could have crossed paths with Ben in Sideways World - for instance, Nathan and I thought Tom would make a smashing janitor - the ones who did show up were extremely satisfying. I figured that we’d see Ben in the high school setting again in this episode, and my second-favorite of my theories - that he had a doctorate but was teaching high school anyway - turned out to be true. It’s not entirely clear to me why he was there; it seems like some combination of not being able to teach at the college level and wanting to reach out to high school students.
I also figured we’d see John again. Though their scene together was brief, I absolutely loved it, and in this context, John was simply giving Ben a vote of confidence, not a Ring-like temptation. John saw that the current administrator was corrupt and uncaring and that Ben was different. He would shake things up, put the emphasis back on the students where it belonged. I don’t think Ben had any true aspiration to be principal before this point; John put the idea in his head. Even though they barely know each other, the deeply planted seeds of mutual respect are already blooming.
I really didn’t anticipate Arzt, but as soon as he showed up, it was a forehead-slapping moment. Of course they would be colleagues. Who else do we know who’s a high school teacher? I find it hilarious that we’ve now seen almost as much of Arzt in season six as in previous seasons combined. And how fitting that he would show up in an episode that tracked back to Nikki and Paolo! Not to mention the Black Rock. Arzt doesn’t really seem to have changed a lot in Sideways world. He’s still whiny - my goodness, that rant about the parking space! He still tries to bolster his own low self-esteem by denigrating others. He’s annoying. But he’s also basically a decent guy. It’s both fun and fulfilling to see him and Ben riffing off each other, with Ben clearly the less jaded of the pair. “I know you’ve given up,” he tells Leslie, “but I refuse to.”
I didn’t expect Roger, who was oh so frail and still rather caustic but on much better terms with his son - and alive! And receiving life-giving instead of life-taking gas from his son. What’s more, for the first time, we heard someone from Sideways World mention the Island. Ben and Roger remember it. Presumably Emily still died in childbirth. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the first ten or so years of Ben’s life played out in much the same way, and that includes both Horace and Annie. Does Ben know that Horace’s son is working at a nearby hospital? My guess is no. Does Ben still have the doll? I would say yes. But in this case, instead of Annie leaving him, he left her. The situation all got a bit too dicey for Roger and he booked the next sub back to North America. It certainly looks to me as though Ben is a bachelor living alone with his father, serving as his devoted caretaker. And even though I said I’m probably willing to dismiss Annie if it comes to that, I truly believe that she is the one true love of Ben’s life and that Sideways World will reunite them at last.
Principal Reynolds is obnoxious and dismissive. He’s the sort of principal teachers have nightmares about. And Ben is under his thumb. In this episode, Ben is Will Schuster from Glee. He has a tiny but devoted group of students who share his passion for a particular subject, and he really has to fight for the privilege of continuing to mentor them. (Though Figgins is a much better principal than Reynolds.) As the episode progressed, the Island storyline seemed to turn into one big Jacob-bashing party, and I was worried that Sideways was drawing parallels between Reynolds and Jacob. But I’m pretty sure it’s Widmore we’re supposed to be thinking of. Widmore, who seems to have been a pretty lousy leader, a bloodthirsty tyrant, and who was deposed because of an inappropriate relationship. Widmore, who has finally made it back. Who is ordering, “Proceed as planned,” despite his lackey’s objections that there are people on the beach. Sounds to me like he’s planning something pretty unpleasant.
And then, of course, there is Alex. It’s so perfect that she actually is a student of his. Why is Danielle in L. A., and apparently doing menial work instead of changing the world with her scientific discoveries? What happened this time to cause the fallout between her and Robert? Because I certainly got the sense that Ben is the closest thing that Alex has to a father. They have a curiously close relationship; considering that she shows up on his doorstep (though he sagely suggests the library as a study spot), I almost wonder if Ben has always been a part of her life - a neighbor, maybe, or perhaps they attend the same church. (I don’t know about Alex, but my money’s on Ben being a church-goer.) But her explanation to him of the problems in her life suggests that he doesn’t know Danielle, at least not nearly as well as Alex. So perhaps it’s just that she is one of those students every teacher longs for and he is just the sort of teacher who can help push her to greatness.
It was so touching to see this relationship between them, that of beloved student and revered teacher, uncomplicated by the whole Island infertility problem and typical teenage rebellion against one’s parents. Glancing over at Lostpedia, I discovered that Alex’s full name was Alexandra Rousseau. I’d always thought it was Linus. So back on the Island, not only did Ben retain the first name Danielle gave her, which struck me as a very respectful gesture, apparently he also kept her last name. Sideways Ben clearly cares about Alex deeply. But instead of clinging to her, he longs to see her spread her wings and make a less disappointing life for herself than he feels he’s had. There was a touch of Mr. Holland’s Opus in here, I thought. Ben didn’t set out to be a high school teacher. But he’s really, really good at it. He’s not just intelligent, he’s empathetic, and he doesn’t want to see anyone fall through the cracks. Ben, I nominate you for a Golden Apple Award. Look at what Ben was willing to give up for Alex’s sake, and to not even hint to her that he did so! Benjamin is a Good Guy.
Back on the Island, I didn’t really expect Ben to meet up again with Team Ilana. I figured he’d go running off somewhere all by himself and that he would remain in isolation for the majority of the episode, though I hoped for a meeting with Hurley and I feared a confrontation with Sayid. I was a little surprised he stuck with the group after Miles revealed that he had murdered Jacob. Did he really think he could lie his way out of that one? I was also rather surprised he continued to try. He ought to know when the jig is up.
Miles actually had a very important role in this episode. He’s the one who broke the fateful news to Ilana, in such a delightfully snarky manner - though I think she’d suspected it for some time - and he’s also the one who delivered the revelation that seems to have shaken Ben to the core. Jacob did care. “Right up until the second the knife went through his heart, he was hoping he was wrong about you.” Jacob, like Dumbledore with Draco, hoped that Ben would make a different decision. Miles also gave me one of the biggest laughs of the night by bringing up Nikki and Paolo’s diamonds and then proceeding to dig them up just as he’d hinted he would do. How did he know they were there? Did Sawyer confess it one time, or did Miles go through that graveyard and listen in on the dying moments of everyone buried there? If that’s the case, he’s got a lot of interesting information rattling around in his head right now. Also... Was Miles the real reason Ilana brought the ash with her? Ilana seems to have been debriefed on his special abilities. It also is starting to look like Miles won’t be joining Team Smokey after all.
The only thing in this episode I wasn’t crazy about was that it gave me a sinking suspicion about the direction they were taking Jacob in. But that too was gone by the conclusion. Here, we see almost everyone expressing some degree of frustration with Jacob. Ilana, that he didn’t let her know which Kwon she was supposed to be protecting. Jack, that he was watching him all those years. Ben. “I sacrificed everything for him, and he didn’t even care.” Richard... “I devoted my life, longer than you can possibly imagine, in service of a man who told me that everything was happening for a reason, that he had a plan and that when the time was right, he would share it with me.” Poor, poor Richard. I think we can safely say now that the Black Rock theory was right - that Richard arrived on that ship. For more than a century, he was the ultimate Man of Faith, and now that faith has been shattered. Jacob is dead, and he kept all sorts of secrets from him, and Richard extrapolates and decides the result of this is that his own life has been rendered meaningless.
I suppose it was silly to think that Richard’s agelessness might simply cease in the wake of Jacob’s death. After seeing him running around the jungle in a bloody panic three weeks ago, I must say he looks awfully good this week. All of his wounds seem to have healed. But his psychological wounds fester. It was so strange to hear serene Richard so shell-shocked and bitter. “Whatever he told you, don’t believe him.” So darkly funny to hear his one-word answer to Jack’s query. Richard has to go die. Like the crew of the Black Pearl, this former Black Rock passenger has been waiting for death for a long time.
We’ve seen many characters experience a crisis of faith. Hurley’s was off the Island, when he began receiving visits from the deceased and concluded he was crazy. He felt cursed, not blessed, just like Richard. But Hurley bounced back in a big way, demonstrated this week by his trying to trick Jack into wandering around the jungle to stall for time so they could avoid the Temple, as per Jacob’s wishes. (And how great was the adventure music in that scene? And the fact that Hurley and Richard finally got to interact? And that, just a few weeks after asking if Sayid was a zombie, Hurley got to ask if Richard is a cyborg?) Despite his frustrations, it appears that Jack is now a Man of Faith as well. He is taking big leaps this season, none bigger than waiting out the dynamite with Richard, who is already on the road to restored faith.
Yes, Jacob has been far less than forthcoming with his plans. But that doesn’t make him the bad guy. And I have to laugh, because you know who Jacob reminded me of in this episode at every turn? Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. Yes, I feel that most of the complaints lodged against Jacob, particularly by Richard, are attacks Darlton have experienced and anticipated with renewed force once the show started up again. Like Richard, we feel we have faithfully stuck with this show for years and our reward might be nothing but confusion and unanswered questions. We’re afraid that Darlton will let us down. But I believe in the writers, and I believe in Jacob. All will be well. As Sideways Ben said, “It was on this island that everything changed, that everything finally became clear.”
Ben began this episode running for his life, convinced that Sayid was out to kill him, and Smokey too. At this point, what does he want? Just life, I think. And a shot at redemption. He falls back in with the good guys, figuring he’s safer with them. He’s so unanchored and afraid that he remains with them even when his role in Jacob’s death is revealed. Ben does not want to be alone. He seems like such a frightened, abandoned child in this episode, just longing for someone to accept him.
Ilana is one tough cookie, and no doubt she could take Trigger-Happy Cortez in hand-to-hand combat. But she is no AnaLucia (though, lest I come down too hard on her, it occurs to me that AnaLucia did save Ben’s life). She is a much deeper character, with depth of feeling to balance out her brash physical style, with a shrouded history that could possibly go as far back as Richard’s. There’s something very special about her relationship with Jacob, and I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that she, too, had been granted an impressive span of years. Which could explain in part why it felt like Ben - who, like the boy wizard his bespectacled younger self rather resembles, has spent his life desperately longing for the mother he never knew - seemed to embrace her, at the end, as a mother figure. (I think it’s interesting that in Sideways World, Ben always wears his glasses. If I’m going to compare him to Harry, I might suggest that his glasses are symbolic of his better nature, his ability to see clearly what is truly important.) There was certainly something very maternal in her response, with all the conviction of true understanding and not, I think, a simple “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” mentality. “I’ll have you,” she said. And though he killed Jacob, I believe she meant it. She has brought him back into the fold, and at last he can begin to find the acceptance that has so eluded him.
I startled everyone in the room when Ben uncovered a copy of The Chosen back at the beach. After chuckling appreciatively over Ben’s disgusted response to the porn magazine, I couldn’t help letting out a whoop, because only the day before, after watching A Serious Man, I’d told Dad that he really ought to read that book. There’s so much synchronicity in my life right now it’s scary. But it does seem a very fitting text. Reuven (who wears glasses) has a brilliant mind for mathematics, but he longs to be a rabbi. Danny is expected to become a rabbi but longs to expand his mind in other directions. Like youthful John, the chosen one rejects the call; like Ben, the other yearns to feel chosen himself. Jacob, like Danny’s father, maintains distance from his children and keeps frustrating silence; though it seems a cruel path, he has valid reasons for doing so. Other relevant elements in the novel: a complete obsession with numbers and a baseball game precipitating a life-changing incident.
I also couldn’t help thinking of The Princess Bride during the scene in which Miles offers Ben food. He peeks down at Ben and notes that it seems to be pretty slow going; Ben responds he’s not in much of a hurry. Seemed very Cliffs of Insanity to me, with Inigo impatiently waiting for Westley to reach the top so he can get on with the duel and Westley not feeling too inclined to speed things up, as Inigo is simply waiting around to kill him. Not that I think Miles is all that impatient; I imagine he’s fine with sticking around for a while, as that gives him time to dig up the diamonds. (Also, that’s a really cool shovel Ben was using, and it reminded me very much of the one featured on American Inventor a couple years ago. Made out of a tree, I suppose?)
Ben’s “forgive me” was taken out of context; what he really said was, “I don’t expect you to forgive me, because I can never forgive myself.” But it was as good as begging for forgiveness. When Smokey turned up, dangling leadership in front of Ben much as the White Witch did to Edmund, I worried. I thought, “Oh, please, Ben, don’t go with him! And for goodness’ sake, don’t kill Ilana!” Though his fluid drop-the-shovel, leap-out-of-the-ditch-and-run maneuver made me laugh, it was so brilliantly executed. But execution was not on the menu for today. Ben pointed the gun but never intended to use it. He didn’t want to kill Ilana. All he wanted was to live. And when he realized that she was giving him a second chance, he meekly followed along, profoundly moved and grateful to be wanted at last.
Back in season two, Sun and Jin were the first on the beach to reach out to AnaLucia, aside from Jack, who had previous experience with her. They brought her some fish and a reason to hope that although she killed one of their own, there might be a future for her here. In this episode, when Ben returns to the beach, he first approaches Sun, and she accepts his offer of help. The moment when Ben lays his gun down against her hut got me all choked up both times I watched. All the brilliance of this episode distilled into one tiny, breathtakingly beautiful moment.
Meanwhile, Frank is his usual caustic self, and he repeats Smokey-John’s sarcastic season-five assertion that Ben really makes friends easily. He also muses about how different his life would’ve been if he’d flown 815, just as Roger muses about how different his life would’ve been if they’d stayed on the Island. These conversations made me briefly doubt my Sideways = Future Theory, but by the end of the episode I was on board with it again. We’ll see. Ben didn’t sacrifice his life this week, but he did sacrifice power (and to the accompaniment of such gorgeous music in both scenes). Life may come later; if it does, I‘ll be ready.
Next week’s episode is called Recon, which leads me to believe that it will be a Sawyer episode. It’s about gathering information - reconnaissance - so he can pull his biggest con yet - re-con. When the song in the preview began to play, I shrieked in delight, as for a brief moment I thought it was Bridge Over Troubled Water. After I’d shattered everyone’s eardrums, I realized it was a different song entirely. The song - not one I think I know - is a Leonard Cohen song called Bird on the Wire. I’ve now read the lyrics, and there are so many LOST resonances that I think I’ll need to devote a post just to that. But funny to hear that when it was another Cohen song, Hallelujah, that prompted my reflection on Alex that turned out to be strangely prescient. Finally, there‘s this: Bird on the Wire is all about redemption. And it’s coming for all of them. At this point, after the perfection that was this episode, I feel like there is no possible way that the last season of LOST can let me down.