Here I am. Saturday night, 8 PM, Florida, Spring Break, sitting at a random kitchen table writing a LOST column. Doesn’t seem much different than normal, does it? You’re right, and do you know why? There’s nothing I can think of that I’d rather be doing right now. I guess I could go to a bar or find some random people to hang out with, but I’d doubt it’d be as much fun as I’m having right now. I’m writing a LOST column. I’m drinking a Cherry Coke. College basketball conference tournaments are on in the background.
Why am I opening with this story? I have two reasons. First, I want to make a philosophical point. Do what you’d most like to be doing in your everyday life. Don’t let prescribed days of celebration or enjoyment be the only time you live life in the way you want. What’s the point of living if you’re not, well, living? (The question is rhetorical. The point is that there is none.) Second, I want you to understand that you’re getting my best effort. I’m not saying you don’t usually get it, but I feel like emphasizing it right now.
This week, my best effort consists of writing this column based on my memory of the episode. I did rewatch it, but that event was a couple days ago. Since then, I’ve driven ten hours, slept in my car, spent an hour in an airport, spent a day at the beach, talked to lots of randos, and slept on the floor (definitely not in that order). The good news is, I get to move to the couch tonight. The bad news is, I don’t have a downloaded copy of the episode on my computer to open whenever I need an exact quote or want to recall a precise moment. Thus, I will be going off of my own mind. (Yes, I understand I could use LOSTpedia or another such recap, but those write ups are filtered through other people’s minds and I trust myself more than them.)
The following assertion is more than safe: This episode was the best of the season so far. It recalled S1 in tone, content, and style. Like most of the episodes this season, the story followed only a few characters and mainly focused on the incredibly personal journey of two. I love how when such an epic battle is supposed to be going on, the writers are able to use such a limited scope. On one hand, S4 and S5’s larger nature makes them feel more important (because we’re told what happens to more people/everyone else is important). On the other hand, we learn more and experience more of what life is like (because life is lived on an individual level). More than any other centric this season, Ben’s story was truly about him and no one else; and you know what? For all 44 minutes, I didn’t care about anyone else (well, except for Richard…and the inexplicable absence of Sawyer).
WHAT WOULD QUINN MALLORY DO?
Ben’s character has become symbolized by one decision: His allowing Keamy to kill Alex rather than giving up his own freedom. Before we delve into the moral discussion of the episode, I’d like to make a relevant point that sort of makes the whole discussion moot (not mute, moot--pet peeve). Ben is not morally responsible for Alex’s death. A person cannot be held accountable for someone else’s action. Keamy made the decision to kill Alex. The guilt is solely his. His attempted coercion of Ben was nothing but a rhetorical tactic, an attempt to pre-guilt Ben for something Ben should have no guilt for. We know, though, that Ben has had guilt for it ever since, as the MiB used Alex’s form to manipulate him in S5’s "Dead is Dead." This episode took on a similar tone.
While the Ben P story revolved around another decision of whether to sacrifice Alex or not, the Ben O story revolved around guilt he really does have: Guilt over his decision to kill Jacob. On a very basic level, Ben’s character seems to be about a key, loaded word in our culture: Selfishness. Ben does “evil” things because he is selfish. Think of the two actions I’ve discussed so far in this column.
First, he allowed Alex to die so he could be free. In other words, he chose himself over another person--his adopted daughter. Second, he killed Jacob because he felt that he had been neglected by the man (if Jacob is indeed a man) without any concern for Jacob’s involvement with anyone else’s life. In other words, he chose himself over everyone else. You can apply this sort of analysis to every other action we’ve seen Ben O take throughout the series. For instance, take the way he treated Juliet. He wanted her, so he acted like a psychopath, essentially stalking her (not that stalking is hard on the island) and sending the man she was sleeping with to be killed by Ana Lucia (not that he thought Goodwin would be killed, but he knew it was an extremely dangerous mission). In other words, he considered himself over the supposed object of his affection, Juliet. Likewise, consider his most horrific act: The purge of Dharma and the extremely personal murder of his father. Once again, he chose what he wanted over everyone else, quite literally. Hell, he didn’t even consider his father---HIS FATHER. Even Luke Skywalker felt bad about his father’s death in Return of the Jedi. Man, Ben must be one selfish jerk, right?
WRONG (says Kevin Spacey in Superman Returns)!
It is my contention that Ben O’s actions demonstrate extreme selflessness rather than selfishness. First, we must consider what he always claims to be working for: “The island.” (Note: It is interesting to ask yourself here why Widmore, Ben’s nemesis, wants to return to the island.) In other words, Ben O never claimed to be making decisions based upon himself; he claimed to be making them based on the island. As the show developed, we learned that he was actually making decisions based upon what Jacob told him (which he learned through what Richard told him). This fact changes the way we look at Ben’s murder of Jacob. As I noted in my column for "The Incident," Jacob’s last words were a question to Ben: “What about you?” By asking it, Jacob was pointing out that Ben’s decision to kill Jacob was entirely based upon Jacob and not Ben…huh?
Napoleon Dynamite). Ben went from taking self-esteem from one father figure to the other: Uncle Rico to the island to Jacob. Ben O was never Ben O; he was the dude who did stuff cause of these other things. He ran away and met Richard in the jungle because Uncle Rico was a depressed drunk douchebag (awesome alliteration FTW). He then started doing things to protect the island. Later, he started to do things based on the island.
What does all of this Ben O stuff have to do with Ben P? Ben P faced a similar decision that similarly seemed to be based upon selfishness vs. selflessness. However, if properly understood, the situation once again turns these ideas on their head. Initially, the definition seems to be pretty clear. Does Ben choose himself, pursuing power, or Alex, allowing her to have a wonderful recommendation written for her by the principal. However, the complexity of this situation is revealed through a couple important details.
Ben P’s value for children (somewhat ironic considering he was obsessed with the fertility issues on the island) was apparent through two elements. First, he expressed such a value to the principal. The principal claimed that History Club was about Ben. Ben retorted that it was about the kids. Second, Ben actually acted on that value, giving extra educational attention to his best.student.ever, Alex. Thus, the conflict of the episode seemed to be whether Ben would choose to pick himself over the children. However, it actually wasn’t that conflict at all.
In actuality, Ben P was deciding the best way to help kids have the best education. What he ultimately decided was that a utilitarian ethic does not work. You can’t help kids become educated by sacrificing the education of one--in this case, Alex. The only reason we believe this decision was about Ben P’s self-esteem is because of our preconceived notion of Ben O, a man with no self-esteem who sought to gain it by taking power positions and thus having others see him as powerful. What is our evidence that Ben P is indeed different from Ben O? The only logical option is what I haven’t mentioned yet--the scene between Ben P and Uncle Rico P.
While Ben P was still taking care of his father, the roles in the relationship seemed to be different: Uncle Rico P was at the mercy of Ben P rather than Ben O being at the mercy of Uncle Rico O. Uncle Rico P showed concern and sympathy for his son. Ben P showed trust in his father, opening up to him. Here we did see Ben P still looking for self-esteem to a certain extent, expressing that his PhD doesn’t even get him respect. The end of the scene is, then, extremely important. Alex rings the doorbell asking for Ben P’s help, and he has a bit of a moment of clarity. He is important, and it’s because he is good at what he does and his values are strong.
Yes, Ben P is still stuck in high school, clearly evidenced by the fact that he is friends with Dr. Arzt P when we all know Dr. Arzt O was obsessed with high school himself, droning on about things like the A Team (and not the Mr. T version). However, he is different from Ben O in that he never talked about doing things because of other people. Sure he did things for people, but doing things for people is an action you choose. This tension is the real difference between selflessness and selfishness.
In selflessness, you do things because of other people/things. In selfishness, you do things because of yourself. In either, you can do things for other people, but what is important is your basis for doing those things. This distinction also gives us a new light in which to look at Ben O. After baring his soul, Illyana asks him why he is going with the MiB. Ben replies, “Because he is the only one who will have me.” Illyana replies that she will, and he follows her.
Ben O is still making decisions based on other people. He didn’t figure where he wanted to go; he went where he was accepted. What is interesting is that he did end up choosing Jacob’s group over the MiB. However, I would put forward that this choice is similar to Jack’s. Both are looking for self-definition, but rather than pursuing it, they are putting their trust in someone who will give it to them: Jacob. (I’ll return to this idea in the LOSTology section.)
In summation, I quote my co-blogger at CulturEsponse: “If Ben Linus ends up on the ‘good guy’ side, I'm writing an angry letter to Lindelof.” I concur and will tweet at him incessantly until he admits his and Cuse’s error. Ben O’s purge of Dharma for completely ridiculous reasons is inexcusable. However, his apparent siding with Jacob is strong evidence for my inversion idea. At the very least, it means the writers have a similar understanding of morality as me, and that I may simply disagree with them on their end conclusion, as all my favorite characters will be on the “bad” side. Ben O being a good guy is inconceivable, even if he did say, “We’re the good guys, Michael.”
HEY, AT LEAST IT BUILDS CHARACTER
Besides Miles being awesome and totally owning Ben multiple times, this episode really only featured development for two other characters: Richard and Jack. With Richard, we finally learned what his real personality is like. With Jack, we continued to watch his downward spiral.
Richard Alpert kind-of-predictably has Highlander syndrome. As I pointed out to my group that I watch with, his character in this episode specifically reminded me of Connor McLeod’s plot in Highlander Endgame. I know the movie was unpopular among fans of the franchise, but I liked it, damn it. Basically, Connor is so sick of living, since he is immortal and lives forever (or until his head is cut off), that he removes himself from the game by being placed in a chemically induced “sanctuary.” When that safety is destroyed, he then (spoiler alert) gives his life to Duncan. Richard pulled the same whiny crap, but took it a bit farther, actually complaining about a similar thing both Ben and Jack did. “Whaaa, my whole life is meaningless because some external force didn’t make it meaningful.”
Of course, Jack then swooped in and tried to prove their lives were meaningful because Jacob “stopped” a stick of dynamite from blowing up. Am I the only one that caught onto Jack’s twisted logic here? Richard told him that people who Jacob touched couldn’t kill themselves (as evidence by Michael in "Meet Kevin Johnson"). Jack, then, in an attempt to prove he and Richard had a greater purpose, lit the fuse for the dynamite and waited for it not to explode. For me, there was no tension. The dynamite couldn’t blow up because Jack was touched by Jacob. If it blew up, Jack would have killed himself. Thus, all that was proved was that Jacob touched Jack. Instead, Jack thinks he now has some higher purpose. Has anyone ever changed their belief system so much and still been a total tool? There’s like two scenes in the entire series where Jack is kind of badass. Every other time he’s an idiot.
Also, this is why I hate Jacob. He uses this mysterious thing to manipulate people by pretending to be a God or something. Oh look, perfect transition FTW.
I’d like to point out another important distinction between Jacob and the MiB. I may have pointed it out before, but I don’t think so, so bare with me if I did. Jacob makes promises. The MiB makes deal.
Jacob promises people happiness and self worth. He then disappears and does nothing to fulfill his promise. This action is how he pretends to be a god. It would be easy to argue here that he is actually allowing people to be self-reliant, which is consistent with my philosophy explicated in these columns. However, this argument fails for the same reason faith fails, as I pointed out in my column for "The Substitute." Jacob does not present reasons and decisions to people. He presents commands and/or limitations/abilities (see: Touching). Then, he expects people to accept these commands and limitations/abilities without questioning them or him. People never say Jacob presented a good argument or Jacob asked them to do it. They say Jacob told them to do it. God is considered exactly the same way. You don’t question God. God has reasons beyond our understanding. Look at how Jacob treated Hurley. Exactly.
In contrast, the MiB offers deals. He told Claire he would get Aaron back. He told Sayid he would get Nadia back. He told Ben that Ben could run the island. He told Sawyer that Sawyer could leave the island. In exchange, they have to help him. See, he’s making deals, like a businessman (and a businessman is returning to the island, hmm). Plus, he sticks around. He talks to people. He does things. Most importantly, he explains himself. Remember that scene with Richard. “Oh, Jacob only tells Jackie Chan about candidates. Yeah, that makes sense to me.” Doesn’t make sense to me either, MiB.
Which one of those two people sounds good and which sounds bad? I’m just sayin', it’s the first one.
In conclusion: Widmore (is awesome). I’m just sayin'.
Think about it.