“The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham”
February 25th, 2009
Because there’s a war coming, John – if you’re not back on the island when that happens, the wrong side is going to win.
The question of destiny plays a pretty fundamental role in how things operate in the world of Lost. John Locke, of course, was a man who believed in the foundational aspects of destiny, who took on the role of believer while on the island because he had been most affected by its healing, most drawn in by its mystery, most wrapped up in its central nervous system of sorts.
But Locke has never been unwavering in that faith, until more recently; when the island began skipping, his insistence that he needed to go and find the others came from the words of Richard Alpert, and was something that has never made sense in and of itself. Locke does not know why he is to bring them back, or what good it will do, but he has committed himself to Alpert’s word, and to the island that he has some sort of a connection to. We knew, from the show’s fourth season, that Locke got off the island, and that he spoke to the Oceanic Six in order to convince them to return, convince them to come back with him. But what we didn’t know is what drove him to do so, and even before this week’s episode, “The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham,” that point wasn’t entirely clear. Was it fate and destiny that brought him to this place?
There are, however, two faces of fate that linger around this narrative, two people who appear to profit from and are driven by the manipulation of fate, this power lust of sorts for something approaching control. When Locke returns to spread his word, the word that the island told him to tell, he is swept under the wing of two men who lay the same claims, who give the same reasons, and who ultimately offer the same thing: safety, protection, guidance. We have been taught, with time, to trust neither of them, and with the structure of this episode we have to wonder where the show now sits on these two men. The episode, written by series creators Damon Lindelof and Carleton Cuse and directed by Jack Bender, investigates a period in John Locke’s life where he became another man, where that man had his faith tested, and where John Locke was reborn.
And, well, there’s a lot of things to consider with this.
For those who don’t know, this episode (or its concept) was intended to air last week, before the contents of “316.” We have to presume that, in fact, the two bookends of the episode wouldn’t have been present, images of the survivors of the crash of 316 that we wouldn’t have seen yet. We learn quite a few things in those moments: that they’ve stumbled upon a Dharma bunker with a small shotgun, that the man who was sitting across from Hurley was named Cesar, that Cesar saw Hurley disappear before the plane actually crashed, and that the Pilot and a woman left with one of their three boats late in the night in an effort to escape from, or escape to, something. That is, ultimately, all we get of the world where, as we expected, the corpse of John Locke awakes on the island like the day he first arrived, eating mangos and fielding questions about how it is that he got there, precisely.
This is the question the episode seeks to prove, fleshing out what we know took place by answering three main questions: who was helping Locke inform everyone, how did everyone react, and how is it that “Jeremy Bentham” ended up dead? The first and last questions are really interesting fo the show’s dramatic future, but I actually want to focus on the middle question because it offered the episode’s finest moments, in my eyes, in particular a scene which plays on some other events we’ve seen in the past.
In terms of Locke’s visits, all of them had some quality of informing us of something, filling in a gap we didn’t understand. When he went to visit Sayid, Sayid more clearly explained how it was he ended up working for Ben, how long it had been since he stopped, and his own views on the island and those questions. When he went to visit Walt, he found a teenager who still had qualities about him which were magical, but also an innocence (ignorance of his father’s death and his playful banter with friends) that kept Locke from confronting him about returning to the island. When he went to visit Hurley, there’s a lovely moment where you realize that Hurley is honestly more afraid of Locke if he is alive than if he’s a ghost. They’re all moments where you realize how much their time on the island has impacted them, and in many instances the three years has given them something that Locke wasn’t used to hearing, a hard coating of disillusionment that was suddenly even more a threat to his belief system than before.
The two most powerful, though, come from two of the show’s most unfairly maligned characters. Say what you will about Kate, but she was spot on about John Locke: while her argument that it is a lack of love in his life that allowed him to be so devoted to the island is quite simple, there is that moment where John is explaining about why Helen left him, and Kate takes one look at him before asking, to paraphrase, if he’s looked in the mirror lately. He was telling a story of a man who was obsessive and angry – he is coming to Kate, fighting his way in a wheelchair required by his fractured leg, and seems like he is reverting back to that behaviour very quickly. I thought that Evangeline Lilly nailed that scene: you felt like she was truly psycho-analyzing Locke, the believer now suddenly in a whole new time period, with very different people, and missing the language that might have convinced him before.
Nowhere was this more clear, however, than in his interaction with Jack. I’ll have more to say about Terry O’Quinn’s performance in the episode in time, but Matthew Fox absolutely nailed the scene in the hospital, where Locke attempts to revert to his old argument about fate and the island and Jack is having none of it. Jack tells him it was just probability, that he ended up in this hospital by the sheer luck of where his accident took place, and then rips into him for his faith, rips into him for thinking he can show up and expect them to listen. But suddenly, Locke shifts gears: Locke brings up Christian, how he’s figured out he is Jack’s father, and all of a sudden the power dynamic shifted. Once a non-believer out of necessity, having put the island behind him to be able to live with himself, the idea that his father had been on board that plane, that he had been his reason for being there, was enough to send Jack that night onto a plane to Sydney to try to return.
This scene works mainly because of Matthew Fox’s uncanny knowledge of this part of Jack’s persona, this angry and vindictive character whose anger and vindictiveness feel repressed, driven down by years of self-delusion in a way. It adds a great deal of depth to what we saw in “Through the Looking Glass,” in actuality: we now understand why he was evoking his father’s name while trying to get drugs from the hospital, and why even with Kate safe in Los Angeles he would be so guilt-riddled so as to fall into disrepair at Locke’s words. Locke hadn’t just convinced Jack he needed to go back, he instead made him start to wonder about fate: was it fate that Christian Shephard died in Australia, that he would be the one to go get him? Suddenly, Jack’s own family lineage was trapped in this story, and he can’t explain that away as probability: this is all of a sudden much bigger than him, and he’s got some important questions to have answered.
Unfortunately, what the rest of the episode demonstrates is only going to frustrate Jack further considering that it implies that fate has two faces, and that the island is not so much a single entity as it is an idea, built up by two men, each wishing to use it for their own private means. The island has physical qualities, no doubt, but at a point it feels like they’re arguing over control of an idea, control of the power of the image of Jacob, of the threatening menace of Smokey, and of the destiny that drives John Locke to take on the persona of Jeremy Bentham and spread the gospel. What we learn in this episode is that Benjamin Linus and Charles Widmore are both trying to claim to be doing exactly the same thing, and considering that we trust neither of them it appears that Locke has very little choice regarding his own destiny in the end: he’s damned if he goes with one, and he’s dead if he goes with the other.
That it is Widmore who first sends Locke on his quest is particularly interesting, primarily because we learn that Matthew Abbadon is in fact a Widmore employee, and because we get a very unique view into Charles Widmore’s head. He sells himself to Locke as one of the Others, their leader once: he talks of how they had met all those years ago, Locke having not changed a bit, and tells him that he was there for three decades in order to protect the island. How much of this is true is really up in the air: it would seemingly mean that Penny was born on the island, which seems like a complicated thing for her to forget and something that Widmore would easily elide in order to simplify his tale to Locke. As he tells him, he was also once connected to the island’s destiny, and as a result he wants to help Locke for the reasons mentioned in the post’s epigraph: there’s a war coming, and Locke needs to be there.
Locke never seems to question this: these people saved his life, so he can’t quite make a run for it, and what Widmore says does appeal to his beliefs. Widmore gives him his fake passport, his new identity, Abbadon to play a game of “Driving Mr. Bentham,” and yet never a real reason for why Widmore believes Locke needs to be there, never a true sense of his destiny. But Locke is beyond that point now: what Sayid asks him is entirely correct, about whether he’s there talking to Sayid because he truly believes it or because he has nothing else to believe, no other option. As the episode unfolds, Locke becomes more and more unhinged from his complacency: he begins to ask Abbadon questions about who he is, why he does what he does. He begins to want to reconnect with Helen, he wants to try to find a reason to stay, to keep operating.
He never finds it, of course. Abbadon’s answer is frustratingly simple: he was a station agent of sorts, helping people find their way to the island. There’s some bigger questions here that will need to be answered in time: did he do this for all of the castaways, or only important ones like Locke? I don’t feel like we’ve seen the last of Lance Reddick, and if we did his death was a disappointment: this guy felt larger than life, all-knowing in ways that seemed uncanny, and while time travel has explained the latter it still rings false for him to die. But it’s another setback for Locke, now without this connection to Widmore and quite literally on the run. What he doesn’t find out until it’s too late, but what we see as early as his visit with Walt, is that Ben is aware of his plans, and is on his way to stop him.
Last week, I noted that we still don’t quite understand why Ben was helping the Oceanic Six return to the island; sure, we could presume it was about something approaching control, that it was an effort to retake his place of power, but it still needed further explication. We’re starting to see that here, although in a really subtle way that I find extremely fascinating. Ben is always so cool and collected, normally: calculated is the right word to explain who Benjamin Linus is, and yet when he visits Locke at his lowest point we begin to see that he hasn’t thought this through. Something in what Locke tells him changes Ben’s mind – he stopped Locke from hanging himself to get information, to learn what Locke knew, to piece together the things that he had yet to piece together.
Locke and Ben are almost equally desperate in this moment. Locke is desperate to die, desperate to return to the one thing that he knows he trusts for sure, the voice of Richard Alpert. We still don’t understand what voice this is, precisely, but it is the one that led Locke to come back, that gave him this mission, and he seems to realize at that point that his belief lies in the island itself and not those who are mixed up in this struggle for power and control. Locke believes in his word: he keeps Jin’s promise, as we knew he would despite Ben bringing out the ring two weeks ago, and while at an emotionally low point in terms of his character he is actually being quite honest, quite open, quite exposed. I was waiting all episode for Terry O’Quinn to really get to break free, ala his Emmy-winning outburst in “The Man from Tallahassee,” but you realize that he isn’t about anger and rage. He is at peace with this, frustrated with Ben’s intervention but determined nonetheless.
But Ben is at the end of his rope: he brings Locke down, but you can see his eyes shift when he learns that Jin is alive. Immediately, he shifts from helping John to strangling him, a cold-blooded move that is one of those moments that while fairly easy to predict (no way with Ben at that door was John just going to commit suicide, and his death was clearly imminent) but was no less powerful with the sheer desperation in Ben’s eyes. There’s something about Jin being alive that makes Ben’s plan something different, the same way that Locke knowing who Eloise Hawking was seemed as if to set Ben off. Was it because Ben didn’t know her name, that he was as blind as he was? Or was it that he knew Sun had been in communication with Widmore, and that she was planning on going after Ben, and that he would be able to use Jin’s existence as leverage to get her on the plane and save his own life?
I remain convinced that Ben remains a character shrouded by grey intentions, albeit selfish ones. He is trying to prove himself to Jacob, to the Others, to the island, that he is worthy: it’s why he moved the island even when he wasn’t the one who was supposed to do it according to Jacob, trying to prove himself more worthy. Perhaps this is why he kills Locke, because he wants to be the one responsible for rounding everyone together: perhaps he and Widmore both believe that the way back into the island’s heart, the way to reconnect with its principle of destiny, is to be the one to bring its sheep back to the flock, to play shepherd to, well, Jack Shephard and company.
This episode offers no definitive view of destiny: it is one that can be manipulated, controlled, fabricated by these two men, but they both seem themselves desperate to get destiny on their side, not entirely able to recreate it. Widmore says he sent the boat to the island to keep Linus away, to unseat him from power, but what ousted him from power in the first place: Ben would argue that moment was the island’s will, and Widmore would view it as disregarding fate. This idea of destiny is so different for everyone, but for Locke it was almost always the same: once Alpert spoke to him, once he felt like he had this mission, it was his – at the end of “Jeremy Bentham,” he was willing to give himself over to the island as a sacrifice, something that we’ve seen at the very least Ben do in the past (and all he got was a lousy trip to Tunisia).
Locke has always been one of the show’s strongest characters, and Jack Bender has directed many of his key moments. We got to return to some of those here, just by the nature of Locke returning to his wheelchair: he is so helpless in that chair, so alone and out of repair, that when Abbadon first takes it out of the car you realize how we are returning to an old angle for Locke, a lower angle. His direction here was great overall, but there may be no more impressive shot on the show this season than the one where Ben is cleaning and staging Locke’s suicide, all the while a shadow of Locke’s hanging corpse sits on the wall behind him. It’s an eerie shot, and it makes you really consider what Ben has done. Of course, the episode then flashes forward again to the abandoned Dharma building, with its Life Magazine about the Hydrogen Bomb and its Folders of Notes about the space/time continuum, where Locke discovers that Ben is amongst the injured who crashed with Flight 316. We leave the episode there, with Locke aware of Ben’s murder but leaving us as an audience unsure of his next move.
This isn’t an episode about reinventing the wheel: what gaps are filled in are effective less because they offer new information, but rather they begin to formalize some of the driving forces for the show’s remaining narrative. If in fact there is a war coming, who represents the two sides: both Ben and Widmore seem convinced that Locke needs to be there in some capacity, but he can’t possible be playing for both sides. We presume that Widmore and Ben are the ones fighting, but is it that simple? These questions, practical more than anything, are only hints here: Lindelof and Cuse have written the episode as a character piece for Locke first and foremost, but so much of the show’s central thesis is trapped within his body that it can’t help but feel, like last week’s episode, a piece of staging on which future actions will be drawn.
I’m all for this, personally – this is the kind of episode that Lost does tremendously well, and when you come off of last week’s cliffhanger with all sorts of questions (Where’s the other passengers? Why did they zoom out but the others didn’t? When are they, where are they, etc.) and feel entirely fine with waiting a week for them to be answered, you know that the show is operating at the level where the doubters will, in time, become believers.
The trick now is knowing who to believe in – for now, Lindelof and Cuse will have to do.
- Any bets on whether or not the bunker of sorts that they’re in is the one that the Tailies ended up in, with that box featuring the Dharma film and the few artifacts? We know they’re in the 1970s based on the newness of Jin’s van last week, and I figure that that particular laboratory looks like the kind of place that’s a) really dark and b) featuring some questions of Dharma activity/island lore which might explain the cut out section of tape hidden.
- It appears that Cesar, the other first class passenger, knows the woman who was escorting Sayid onto Flight 316 – I don’t think they would have gotten that familiar so quickly, and I’ll be really curious if we see how precisely he took over control of their little outfit.
- I really need to stop reading the Lost credits: Alan Dale is rarely a surprise, but Lance Reddick and Malcolm David Kelley were ruined for me. Abbadon’s entrance, though, in the curtains out of focus as Locke went under, was a great piece of direction, and a strong way to reintroduce his character.
- I do love Alan Dale, though – my favourite moment being his reason for giving Locke Jeremy Bentham as a new name, saying that his parents has a sense of humour, so so could he. I have to wonder though: I discussed way back last season about Bentham’s connection, that his body is now actually on display after his death in some sort of chamber, so one wonders if Widmore chose the name also because he knew Locke’s eventual fate. This would be weird considering that he says he has no knowledge of why Alpert would tell him he needed to die.
- What do we make of Walt’s dream – he sees Locke wearing a suit on the island, and that there are people who want to hurt him. The boy has magic powers, and I’m curious to know if this is the last we see Walt: is this is his last prophecy, or will there come a time where his role becomes less indirect and more involved?
- One of the other powerful images in the episode was Ben praying on his knees for Locke not to hang himself – it was such a cold use of his own faith and belief against him in that moment, and Emerson deserves credit (as do all of the actors, really) for nailing their scenes opposite O’Quinn. This was kind of like the Lost version of In Treatment in a way, one character the same but the other one changing, and all were up to the task by my judgment.