February 25, 2009

Lost: "The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham"

"There's a war coming, John."

Wow. What an hour of television that was. I think that only the creators of Lost could take an episode featuring 80-90% information we already knew (or thought we knew), and make it as twisting and riveting as anything else on television. From the very start (Where are we? When are we? Is that Locke? Is he...resurrected?), this episode fires on all cylinders and never looks back. And as the icing on the cake, the performances are fantastic. I haven't been a fan of Locke as a character for some time, but the look of utter despair on his face at the very end, after the way the Oceanic Six treated him...heartbreaking.

But before we got to that emotional endpoint, we got a whole lot of back story on what happened after Locke turned the wheel of fate but before the "crash" of fated Flight 316. Because this episode is, at the end of the day, very similar in style to the "answer dump" I described in my coverage of Galactica's "No Exit", I think it's probably useful to do the same thing as I did there-summarize the new information we learned about the show's timeline before delving a bit deeper into the important bits in my "Quick Thoughts" section.

Without further ado, here is what we now know (or think we know) about Island life after witnessing the events in "Bentham":

-1950s: Widmore takes over the island to lead his people, the Others.

-1980s: Widmore is exiled from the Island through Ben's trickery. (As we have seen no real evidence of this move (the Dharma purge?) and because the information comes from Widmore's mouth, this should be taken with a grain of salt.)

-2004: Ben spins the frozen donkey wheel of fate.

-2004 (relatively speaking): Locke spins the frozen donkey wheel of fate.

-2005: Ben awakens in the Tunisian desert (from Season 4).

-2005-2007: Widmore sets up a camera to monitor the Island's "exit point" in Tunisia.

-2007: Locke (2004 edition) awakens in the Tunisian desert.

-Widmore tells Locke his story and promises to help him. He gives Locke the "Jeremy Bentham" passport.

-Locke hooks up with Abaddon. He recognizes Abaddon as the man who gave him the idea to go on his Australian walk-about.

-Locke approaches Sayid, Walt, Hurley, Kate, and Jack in various manners in an effort to get them to return to the Island (the bulk of this episode).

-Jack buys a round trip ticket to Australia (in an effort to crash on the Island).

-Having "failed" in his mission, Locke prepares for his suicide before being talked down by Ben.

-Ben, upon hearing some important bit of information from Locke (either about Jin or Mrs. Hawking, see below), alters his approach and murders Locke.

-Locke is resurrected after the crash of Flight 316.

As you can see, there is a lot to take in here, and the pieces are disparate enough that I think my "Quick Thoughts" section is better suited to giving each piece a proper discussion. Suffice it to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the episode and have absolutely loved this season so far. If there is any regret I have about the way "316" and "Bentham" lined up, it is that we have been far too long without seeing Sawyer, Faraday, or the rest of the Team Time Traveler. Judging by the ending of "316", however, that seems likely to change in the very near term.

My Quick Thoughts:

Supernatural - Unless the writers have an out that I'm not thinking of (a distinct possibility given the apparent intelligence of the show's writing staff), I think Locke's miracle resurrection and the magical disappearing Six means it's about time to talk about whether or not Lost is, at the end of the day, science fiction or high fantasy. I mentioned this a little bit last week, but the show's mysticism quotient has been going up fairly steadily ever since the ghost of Jacob was introduced way back in Season 3. I, for one, prefer my Lost with a more steady dose of science fiction rather than with apparitions, resurrections, and other supernatural occurrences, but Locke's revival certainly seems to have taken us down a mystical road from which we may never return.

Truth be told, the introduction of amateur ghost buster Miles might also be correctly pointed at as the moment when Lost exchanged its regular robot shark jumping for something more of the ghost variety, but if not then, than certainly now. I mean, how can Locke's resurrection be explained through "natural" means? A really convincing coma? And what about the "why?" Why was Locke revived? What makes him so special? How did the Island accomplish so miraculous a task? Even time travel seems unlikely to yield a satisfactory answer. I recognize that the show's writers wanted us to ask these questions, but I just don't see a scientific way for the show to answer them. That being the case, my hopes for a satisfying resolution to the show, though still high, took a significant hit with this one. I suspect they will continue to take significant hits as the show becomes more and more obviously supernatural in its leanings. I hope I'm wrong.

Landing on Hydra Island -One of the most disorienting aspects of this episode was its very beginning. Despite the fact that we could immediately recognize the man we would soon call "Caesar" from his brief cameo in last week's "316", the introduction of the woman who was escorting Sayid in that same scene threw things for a loop. At least for me. My mind immediately began jumping to conclusions. Is this a flashback? Did they know each before Flight 316? If this is the Island, are we seeing scenes from the past in order to show us that these people were also on 316 in an effort to return? If it is the Island, why can we see Locke looking off at a major landmass off the Island's coast?

Speaking of Locke, the addition of the one man who we were pretty sure was dead in the last episode made it even more difficult to see the scene for what it was: The 2007 crash of Flight 316 on "Hydra" island (where the Others held a captive Jack, Kate, and Sawyer prisoner at the start of Season 3) combined with the miraculous reappearance of John Locke. It's a testament to the show's producers that they continue to make scenes like these interesting ones when the same would most assuredly be quite a bit less so in the hands of a more tentative crew.

Putting the Pieces Into Place - Finally, we get a main character (Abaddon) admitting to having manipulated the lives of the Flight 815 survivors (or at least John) for his own "nefarious" ends. It's been evident for some time that the survivors have lived lives of shared destinies (this has been the case ever since various players in the castaway's back stories began making regular appearances in the back stories of other castaways). The only question has been whether, narratively speaking, we were meant to assume that this was all intended as a meditation on coincidence or whether or not shadow players were manipulating things behind the scenes.

Now we know of at least two factions (Widmore and Mrs. Hawking (who herself may or may not be beholden to Ben)) who have been manipulating the lives of the castaways in an effort to get to a certain endgame scenario. The question is why? If the future is as immutable as Faraday suggests, there should be no "game" here. Either Locke is ruler of the island in 2012 (or whatever day the "war" is won) or he isn't. Nothing that Ben, or Widmore, or God himself does to try to change that fact should have any effect. And yet we see both sides in this power struggle investing unfathomable resources (a permanent camera fixated on a small piece of Tunisian desert anyone?) in an attempt to win it. Something more must be going on here.

Can Locke Walk? - One question which the show deliberately avoids answering is whether Locke can walk when he's off the Island. Because of the leg injury he sustained in his fall in the well of destiny (not to be confused with the wheel of destiny, it's in the next room over), it's plausible that Locke simply has a broken leg throughout this episode's events. That being said, it's also plausible that he simply can't walk once off the Island and that he's using his broken leg as a "crutch" (pun intended) so as to not reveal that fact to the Six. Just something to ponder.

Dead Men Tell No Tales - Perhaps my favorite scene of the episode began with Hurley's nonchalance upon Locke's arrival. "Didn't make it, huh?" Of course Locke has no idea what he's talking about, but to Hurley, John must be just the latest in a long procession of recently deceased visitors. One wonders though, if the scene can't be viewed as having a greater meaning.

Hurley's reaction to Locke's arrival implies that at least he thinks he has been getting something like "dead person" updates from the Island. In other words, he may have been visited by Charlotte or any other recently killed Islander who he wouldn't otherwise know to be dead. What makes this even more interesting is the possibility that Hurley may be privy to some "future" events on the Island. Remember, to the Six the year is 2007, but assuming that we aren't just going to skip over years of the Islander's lives, when the Six return to the Island the year will be 2004 (at least relatively speaking). If someone died in the three years between the two points, (Juliet as an example), could Hurley have already been visited by that person's ghost when he arrives on the Island? Wouldn't a plot line featuring Hurley and a person he is sure will die be an interesting one?

A Christian Shepard Indeed - It's interesting to note that the only reason Locke "succeeds" in Operation Island is because he receives information from the "ghost" of Christian Shepard telling him to say hello to his son. And also because Locke's smart enough to figure out the identity of Christian's progeny. (Though I don't understand why Christian couldn't be Hurley's father. What, he couldn't just have a Hispanic mother? Christian's too good looking? That's racist, man. Or why Locke assumes that Christian's son has to be one of the Six at all? I digress.) Without that little piece of information, Jack would never have realized that his father was still "alive" and the events we have seen this season would never have occurred.

Permanent Exit - Another interesting tidbit is the fact that the wheel of destiny does not randomly spit out people (or polar bears) to parts unknown. It spits them out at a very specific (specific enough to be watched by camera) spot in the Tunisian desert. Why Tunisia? I have a theory on that. Tunisia is literally on the other side of the world from the likely South Pacific home of the Island. Nice symbolism isn't it? The Island literally can't send someone any further from its confines without also sending that person off the Earth entirely. Exile, indeed.

The Stand - Though I know I've mentioned Stephen King's literary masterwork,The Stand, when discussing Battlestar Galactica, I think it bears examining again in connection with the morality play which Lost is quickly becoming. In the book, Good and Evil (capital letters both) famously fight for the fate of humanity in the remains of an Earth ravaged by the superflu. After the apocalypse, those few who are immune from the disease split into groups based on their decision to align with the forces of Good (in virtuous Boulder, Colorado) or Evil (in less virtuous Las Vegas). The decisions made by these innocents decide the fate of mankind, and it is implied throughout King's work that although virtuous characters have a destiny, that destiny could just as easily be shaped by Evil if allowed. The creators of Lost have often said that they have been influenced by The Stand in creating their own masterpiece, but no where is that more evident than in Widmore's claim
in this one that a war is brewing and that it's result will ultimately be decided by one John Locke. Widmore's "call to arms" even echoes the warnings made by The Stand's own Mother Abigail that "there's a storm coming" though whether or not this was an intentional reference by the show's writers (or simply a case of similar ideas requiring similar language) is anybody's guess.

Good and Evil - As I mentioned when talking about The Stand above, it is very clear that Lost is slowly but surely being turned into a type of morality play of epic proportions. Unlike Stephen King's work, however, there are still substantial questions in Lost about which side is actually playing on the side of the angels. Throughout the first few seasons of the show, we were led to believe that Ben was Evil incarnate. And truth be told, he is as manipulative a character as has ever appeared on prime time television. But is he Evil? At the end of Season 2 Ben did claim to be one of the "good guys." Ever since, we have been slowly but surely led around to his way of thinking. After all, Widmore sent a group of armed men to take back the Island and kill the survivors didn't he? Well, what if, as Widmore suggests in this episode, Ben is and always has been the root of Evil as it relates to the Island? Is it an act of evil to remove him from his perch? Of course not.

But the truth is that we simply can't know which side of this fight to root for at this point. Both men seem to have virtually unlimited resources, and both seem to be capable of committing atrocious acts (Despite Widmore's protestations in this episode, I don't believe for a second that he didn't authorize the murder of Alex last season.) Indeed, if one man is the Devil and the other is an Angel, we have received no evidence about which is which at this time. As a matter of fact, I think, and have thought for a while, that neither Ben nor Widmore is playing the role of Good here. Instead, I strongly suspect that the Six (or at least Locke) will have to protect the Island themselves to prevent it from being exploited by either man. In other words, the choice between Ben and Widmore may well wind up being the show's biggest red herring.

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff - An interesting question surrounding the magic of the time traveling Losties has been what exactly is causing them to "flash" when none of the people around them (like a young Charles Widmore) are traveling along with. What makes the Losties so special? Well this episode gives us a little greater insight into that, if only because Flight 316 contains some people that "flashed" and some people that didn't. (We'll disregard for the time being that according to the show's rules Jack and company should have "flashed" in mid-air with everything they were touching at the time (like their airplane seats)).

Jack, Kate, and Hurley...all flashers. Lapidus, Ben, and Locke...no flashing. Sun and Sayid...still open questions, if only because they weren't seen in one timeline or the other during the events of "316" or "Bentham". What separates the two lists? I have no idea. Both contain people that had been on the Island before, and the later list contains people that were on the Island for fewer, more, and exactly the same number of days as the Six. (Of course, maybe the Island should have "flashed" Locke but it had to choose whether to send his dead body back into the 70s or simply resurrect his tired butt. Decisions, decisions.) Whatever the reason (and I hope there's a reason), the distinction certainly seems to be an important one.

"Some Woman" - Despite previously setting foot on the Island throughout the whole of season 4, one of the many people who didn't "disappear" during the crash of Flight 316 was apparently Mr. Frank Lapidus. We don't get a lot of information about his whereabouts in this one save for the notion that he escaped with "some woman" and one of Island's three longboats. Who is the woman? Could it simply be the plane's stewardess? That answer seems almost too inconsequential to merit mention. If it's one of the Six (Sun?) why didn't she "disappear" with her fellow Flight 815 survivors?

As a side note, the presence of the longboats themselves essentially confirms the notion that the survivors of 316 at some point in the future (and probably at Locke's suggestion) take the two remaining boats over to Flight 815's beach. It is here where the time travelers stumble upon them and steal one of the boats for themselves. The only question now is whether Locke or Ben is one of the figures shooting at Sawyer and friends during the events of "The Little Prince".

Helen of Santa Monica - While it's simply another sad footnote in the practically continuously sad life of John Locke, the death of Locke's one true friend, Helen, is used by the show's writers here as a poignant touchstone to discuss what it means to have a destiny. When Abaddon tries to allay Locke's sadness by telling him that Helen would have died with or without him, one can't help but be struck by the simpleness of Locke's response: "Would she?" I couldn't help but be reminded of all the many stories we hear about long time spouses following their newly departed mates off the mortal coil in relatively short order. Sometimes relationships can be destiny too, and the reminder of that in an episode brimming with other more "important things" is the type of thing that truly elevates Lost above the rest.

Locke's Motivation - Ever since the end of Season 3, I had assumed that the suicide that so affected Jack (which, at the time, I also assumed was either Locke's or Ben's) was some kind of ruse. Primary characters don't usually commit suicide on prime time TV. When, earlier this season, Richard informed Locke that he would have to die in order to convince the Six to return, I assumed that was the key. Locke really was going to commit suicide, but it would be with the knowledge that his death would save the Island. It would be a noble sacrifice, like Michael's. Of course that's not how the scene played out. Instead, Locke's suicidal desires were played as being very, very real. Locke viewed himself as a failure, and he intended to kill himself for being incapable of saving the friends and Island that he loved. As I mentioned, this was a surprise to me, if only because Locke had at this point been told of his "need" to die. I would think a man like Locke, a man so tied up in his own fate, his own destiny, would have viewed his suicide as a tool. I guess Jack's angry speech really got to him.

(The fact that Jack's speech actually did lead Locke over the edge, before being talked down by an inscrutable Ben Linus, also helps to explain why Jack takes the news of Locke's "suicide" so poorly in Season 3. He did, in a very real way, cause Locke to become suicidal through his words.)

Why did Ben Kill? - Though I don't believe we can yet know the answer to this one, it's worth discussing just what happens in the scene between Ben and Locke. At first, Ben seems very honestly concerned about saving Locke from his own suicidal desires. This makes sense, because there is simply no reason for Ben to save Locke if he was just planning on murdering him and making the murder look like the very sucide he had just spent so much time preventing. What then makes Ben change his mind? It's difficult to say, but it appears to me that it is the moment he learns of Jin's survival that he decides to kill Locke. (As an alternative theory, it could also be the moment he learns that Mrs. Hawking has the key to returning to the Island, but I think his gaze turns sinister before that revelation). What then is Jin's importance to this story?

As I said above, I don't think that we can know what this scene is all about at this point. If I had to hazard a guess, I would bet that Jin wasn't "supposed" to survive the explosion on the freighter. Like Ben's previous warning to Widmore about "changing the rules," perhaps the fact that Jin's alive means that whatever knowledge of the future Ben had been working with has somehow been irrevocably altered. Maybe Ben had, at the beginning of the scene, accepted that he had to help Locke, but Jin's survival meant that everything was essentially up for grabs. All of this is, of course, rampant speculation on my part, but that's part of the fun, isn't it?

WAAAAAAAAALT! - How about seeing good old Walt again? The fact that Locke goes to visit him at all implies that there's some benefit to having him come back to the Island (or rather Abaddon's acceptance of the trip implies the benefit). What could it be? And if Walt's vision is correct (as we are almost certainly supposed to assume), in what kind of trouble does Locke find himself on the Island (after wearing the suit that the show's producer's used as code for his death). Could the Others be rallied against him? Or does Ben awake and convince the Flight 316 survivors that Locke is not to be trusted (which would of course be true irony from Mr. Linus)? Hmmmmm...

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