March 10th, 2010
“It was on this island that everything changed.”
I’ve got an extremely early wakeup call tomorrow, so I intend for this to be somewhat less lengthy than previous reviews. However, Lost delivered another solid entry into the sixth season this week, so it’s tough to be too brief: there’s a lot of interesting elements at play in “Dr. Linus” which reveal some new subtleties to the Flash Sideways structure, which reveal more nuance to Michael Emerson’s performance (which I thought was impossible), and which point towards answers to a few key questions without, necessarily, answering them completely.
And so there’s plenty to ruminate, speculate and potentially even pontificate on, so forgive me if my promise of brevity proves to be as inaccurate as the statement above: on the island that we know, everything stays the same, but Benjamin Linus’ story of the island of Elba reminds us that sometimes the most substantial change is how the stagnation of one’s position drives them to the point of disrepair. Napoleon remained Emperor when he was exiled on Elba, but his power was false, and it eventually wore him down: this is the story of a man whose quest for power met a similar end, but it is also a story where change seems plausible and, in another universe, an established fact of life.
From this point forward, it might also be the driving force of this series.
Jack lighting that fuse in the Black Rock was a moment that should have felt dangerous or tense if we really think about it, but it wasn’t. This is not only because we know that the show has no intention of killing Jack, nor is it just because we know that Richard Alpert has other stories to tell that will provide even more detail on his relationship with Jacob and the Black Rock (which we can now safely presume he arrived on, considering his comments regarding his return to the wreckage). Instead, it’s because that scene is the show writ small: Lindelof and Cuse have always been lighting fuses that we knew wouldn’t go off, and thus the tension and suspense is derived from what we learn when they fizzle out or, should they actually go off, what that explosion taught us about the island. Just like Richard and Jack are unable to die by their own hands sitting inside the hull of the Black Rock, this show will not die through the explosion of a single story.
Some might argue that, rather than that scene representing the series itself, the show is instead like Benjamin Linus digging his own grave as Ilana holds him hostage. Perhaps some feel that the show has been on borrowed time for a few seasons, simply driving further and further into insanity because their life has lost all meaning.
I would tend to disagree with those people, but I think that both of these sequences are meaningful to how we read the series as a whole. One scene proves that mortality has become subjective, something that the island is able to control (whether in terms of Richard’s lengthy existence or through Jack’s similar resistance to the dynamite’s potential effect). Meanwhile, Ben has his mortality placed into his own hands, forced to dig his own grave rather than having it dug for him. As one group wrestles with their lack of control, Ben comes to the realization that he gave away control of his own life a long time ago, and actually does something about it: rather than accept the influence of another omnipotent figure within the island’s mythology, Ben chooses to stay with Ilana and the castaways. And, similarly, Jack’s demonstration of the island’s power brings Richard back to the beach with Jack and Hurley, ready to try to adapt to his new situation. Yes, that final scene has both of these men separate from the others, each marked by their experience with Jacob and the toll it has had on their lives. However, both are at the point where they want to discover something more, whether it’s a chance to wash away their past sins or the answers to the questions that they gave their life away for. They are skeptical, and a bit scared, but they feel like they still have a role to play, and they need to embrace change (and choice) in order to do so.
Of course, we as the audience are perhaps more curious about Richard than any other character at this point, and all Lost fans want Ben to play a prominent role, so we don’t tend to view them as outsiders so much as the other castaways do. Accordingly, the episode was a pleasure from a performance perspective: so much of this episode depended on both Nestor Carbonell and Michael Emerson, and both delivered some really great work. I’m guessing most will focus on Emerson, and rightfully so: on island (I’ll get to Off in a second) he was absolutely fantastic discussing Alex’s death with Ilana, and I could watch Emerson dig his own grave for an entire two hours if someone decided to turn it into a feature length film. But I think Carbonell deserves equal amounts of credit for playing Richard’s usual sense of mystery as a sort of wide-eyed insanity: he was still the same character, still talking in riddles and refusing to answer clear questions, but whereas before he was reassuring or even supporting, here he was sporadic and dangerous, unable to deal with the death he found at the Temple and unable to confront the idea that Jacob would abandon him without giving him a clear sense of why he was forced to walk this island for centuries. Emerson got the more emotional material, certainly, but they were notes he has hit before: Carbonell was in less certain territory, and I thought he really brought it.
This was also a big week for the Flash Sideways, which was certainly the closest parallel we’ve had yet to life on the island. It was, quite literally, the real world version of Ben sacrificing his “daughter” for the sake of the island: there were no explosive devices and no deaths, but Ben was put in a position where he could gain ultimate power over a high school (read: the island) if he is willing to throw away his student (read: daughter) Alex’s chances at Yale (read: her life) in order to take down the evil Principal Reynolds. Power is a tricky thing, and from what we know about Ben it’s something that he has always valued above all else: he wrestled it away from Charles Widmore, he protected it against the intrusion of John Locke, and he eventually killed John Locke in order to use him as leverage to maintain power over the Oceanic Six. On the island, Ben chose to pursue power at every turn and lost the one person he truly loved: in the flash sideways, he chooses the smaller victory, using his information as leverage to reinstate the history club, to ensure Alex a good reference, and to ensure that he could still live with himself.
I say this is a big week for the Flash Sideways because we learn, as Ben sits at the dinner table with his father, that the island has not been wiped from history: Dr. Linus was once on that island, and his father ponders what their life could have been if they had stayed there, wonders what would have happened if the Dharma Initiative’s wild ideas had brought them into a whole new world. But while that detail helps us piece together the intricacies, the Flash Sideways is most intriguing if we accept the hypothesis from last week that these are somehow absolute truths. The argument was made that Sayid, at his core, has always had a darkness that could not be erased, and so he turns to the “dark side” in both the island and off-island stories: here, meanwhile, Ben is given opportunities to take the path of power in both scenarios and yet turns them both down, unwilling to become caretaker of the island and unable to sacrifice a student with a bright future for his own selfish (if noble) reasons. Does this mean that at the root of Ben is a good person who was simply corrupted by the island’s influences? And would Sayid have come to similar conclusions if it were not for the darkness that exists within his body which drives him towards that side of this battle, and will he be proven to be a good man in future Flash Sideways episodes now that he found Jin in that walk-in?
These are all, as I note above, really intriguing questions, and what “Dr. Linus” does best is the way it frames them in human contexts. We learn more clearly that the candidacy system is very much like a draft in sports. There are a number of serious candidates, and two sides are trying to give them something they desire: one side promises them power and independence with a considerable cost, while the other promises them meaning and substance but forces them to turn their lives over to receive it. And right now, they’re trying to bring together their lineups, scouting who might be the most vulnerable, the most persuadable, the most likely to help their cause.
But our loyalties unquestionably lie with the candidates and not the management, our interests in their stories and their struggles rather than the battle between different levels of the bureaucracy. We’re not actually concerned about power so much as we are about purpose, and the idea that the characters are actually closer to understanding their purpose when they give up their power over this situation is extremely liberating. That final montage is vintage “Michael Giacchino Piano Melody,” and it reminds us of those simpler times when episodes could end without a foreboding shot of Charles Widmore in a submarine approaching the island with some sort of nefarious scheme. The fact that it does end with that scene could risk undermining the narrative of personal freedom, of stepping out from under the thumb of the epic battle ongoing on the island, but instead it simply reignites the conflict: for Charles Widmore, his plans are not changed by the presence of people on the beach, but something tells me that his success will be highly dependent on how they respond to his requests or demands. The castaways are very much like Dr. Linus: they might want absolute power, but they might be even more satisfied with just enough power to keep upper management in check while they’re able to move on with their lives.
The wonderful thing about Free Agents is that, at the end of the day, they hold all the power: with Jacob dead and Smokey still trying to bring his team together, our characters have a sense of control that has nothing to do with mysticism, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that sort of smaller power, not unlike Ben’s actions in his Flash Sideways, helps bring this series to its rightful conclusion whether you believe it will come in the form of an explosion or a grave.
- I thought the old age makeup on Ben’s father was a bit too apparent, but I liked the attention to detail, and it helped tie the whole episode together.
- Enjoyed William Atherton as Principal Reynolds, although I didn’t recognize him: I hear he was in Ghostbusters and Die Hard. Those are good movies, so I’m going to take people’s word for it that this was something exciting.
- At this point, the race between Emerson and O’Quinn for the Supporting Actor Emmy is really up in the air: O’Quinn got to show more diversity playing both Smokey and old Locke in “The Substitute,” but Emerson was able to show more consistency, which Emmy voters might appreciate just as much considering the confusion surrounding the construct.
- Had never put together that Miles, when returning to the beach, would be able to speak to those buried there: it allowed him to become a very rich man with the help of Nikki and Paolo’s ghosts and their bag of diamonds. Miles’ character is still a little bit aimless, so I’m curious to see when the show decides to offer him some agency of his own.
- Fingers crossed that Widmore’s daughter/son-in-law/grandson are not far behind.