In last night’s Ben-centric episode, we got a chance to see the character at his lowest, as he literally dug his own grave at gunpoint, and at his best, in ParalleLA, where he passed on an opportunity to follow through on a “Machiavellian plan” in order to secure a bright and winning future for Alex Rousseau, of all people.
Here’s how it went: early in the episode, Ben, having been separated from Ilana & company, in a failed attempt to “save” Sayid, meets back up with them in the jungle. Ilana wastes no time in asking Ben whether or not Fake Locke killed Jacob. Ben says of course, but Ilana is skeptical. So she shoves the ashen remains of Jacob into Miles’ hands and demands that he confirm Ben’s account. Miles, being the top-notch communicator with the dead that he is, immediately discerns Ben’s lie.
This is when Ilana decides to march Ben into the brush, shackle his ankle and force him to dig a grave which, once complete, she fully intends to fill with his cold dead body.
Meanwhile, Ben’s “flash-sideways” occurs in the school where we last saw him (in this season’s Locke-centric episode), working as a history teacher. We learn that he is mild-mannered and very invested in his job. He’s also bullied by the school principal, who demands that he forego his duties as faculty leader of the History Club in order to supervise afterschool detention. When the principal cuts their conversation short, curtly addressing him as “‘Mister’ Linus,” Ben waits till his superior is gone to correct him, “It’s Doctor. Doctor Linus.”
At his home, he cares for his very-much-alive, though dependent on oxygen, father—who is supportive and mild, just as this version of Ben is. While Ben serves him a heated TV dinner, his dad laments “not staying” with the Dharma Initiative, claiming that it was full of people “much smarter than he’d ever be” and wistfully sighing, “Who knows what you would’ve become?” He says he wanted more for Ben than a cuckolded life as a high school history teacher. Ben agrees that his life is pretty full of suck.
In other news, guess who Ben’s star pupil is?! Alex Rousseau! In this version of life, they only know each other as teacher and student (though she does improbably show up at his home—at night—to ask why he suspended History Club and to beg for college-prep tutoring).
Long story short: Alex lets slip that the principal’s having an affair with the nurse; Ben decides to use this info to blackmail the principal into resigning and recommending Ben as his successor. (The idea to pursue the principal gig came from Substitute Teacher Locke.) Ben gets his leverage from Arntz (who is best remembered as the dude blown to bits, holding dynamite on the island, at the Black Rock). In ParalleLA, Arntz has the same profession as he did on the island: science teacher. Add to his skills computer hacking; he breaks into the nurse’s email account and forwards Ben her tawdry correspondence with the principal. The principal tells Ben that if he goes through with his “Machiavellian scheme,” he will “torch” Alex and her future. Alex has requested a letter of recommendation from the principal, as she aspires to attend Yale and the principal is an alum and have you heard enough of this beside-the-point storyline yet?
Back on the island, a few things are afoot. First, Hurley and Jack are on their way back to the Temple from the Lighthouse, where we last saw Jack gazing out at the ocean, while Hurley conferred with Dead Jacob about Jack’s much-touted “purpose.”
They run into Richard, while arguing about directions, and Richard offers to lead them back to the Temple. Before long, he tells them he lied; he won’t take them back to the Temple, because everyone there is dead. Jack discovers Hurley already knew this. Instead, Richard leads them to the Black Rock, where he has decided to find more unstable dynamite and end his seemingly-endless life.
Hurley does that annoying thing, where he tries to get a character to answer the viewers’ questions by being all meta. He asks Richard if he’s a time-traveler and if not, why doesn’t he age? Richard deflects. Of course.
Anyway, in the end, Richard asks Hurley and Jack to blow him up, because he is unable to kill himself. He knows because he’s tried. He’s like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, but with more eyeliner. He says now that Jacob’s dead, he sees that devoting his life to him, in exchange for a promise that Jacob would tell him his purpose for living, was an utter waste of time. Jack agrees to kill him and lights a fuse. Hurley tries to get Jack to run; Jack won’t. Instead, he sits very near Richard and they have a little chat.
Jack is confident he won’t die, because of what he saw in the mirrors he shattered back at the Lighthouse. He swears he has a Purpose and it isn’t to blow up. Surprise, surprise: he’s right. The lit fuse conveniently fizzles just before reaching the dynamite stick. Jack laughs; Richard looks awed (though I’m not entirely sure why, since by his own account, this kind of thing happens to him all the time).
A few more things and I promise you I’m done: we find, in the end, that Bizarro Ben loves Alex more than the idea of a promotion at his job, so he bites his tongue about the affair and she winds up with a glowing letter of rec.
Back on the island, Fake Locke appears to Ben and convinces him to meet him at Hydra station, where he’s assembling his motley crew of defectors (including Sawyer, Claire, Sayid, and Kate). He says after they leave the Island, he’ll need someone to protect it. He doesn’t mention the business of Jacob’s candidates and how there’s no way in hell Ben is gonna wind up “protecting” the island because his name is nowhere near the Sundial of Destiny or the Cave of Chalked-In Last Names. Then, he tells Ben to run and Ben looks down to find that his shackle has opened.
He takes off; Ilana chases him. Eventually she catches up to him, but by then, he’s got a rifle trained on her. They have a little chat in which he asks for a chance to “explain” why he killed Jacob. Ilana, who earlier in the episode said Jacob was the “closest thing she had to a father,” really isn’t interested. But Ben launches into his Tale of Woe anyway. He insists that even though Alex wound up dead because he thought he was pursuing Jacob’s higher will, Jacob didn’t care. (He holds fast to this lie, even though Miles told him earlier that Jacob did care and “right up until the knife went into his chest, he hoped he was wrong about [Ben].”)
Ilana, inexplicably, buys this story. But then she’s like, what d’ya want me to do about it? Ben asks to be released to Fake Locke, who’s the “only one who’ll have him.” Ilana shrugs and says she’ll have him. So he follows her.
I’m making light of this scene, but it should be said that Michael Emerson really sold it. Emerson sold pretty much all of this, no matter how absurd it got (and Alex as his prized pupil was the height of absurdity… and creepiness. Watching their scenes together made me realize that he totally could’ve nailed Stanley Tucci’s role in The Lovely Bones).
But no matter how great an actor Emerson is—and he’s pretty spectacular—this was yet another episode in a row where the non-island plot seemed utterly superfluous. Who cares that Ben is a better off-island person? Who cares that his dad’s on oxygen and that Alex is going to Yale because Ben decided not to be self-serving?
Until we figure out the point of the flash-sideways, until we find out whether or not the Losties actually get to rejoin these (mostly) better lives they’re living on this alternate timeline, we can’t fully invest in any of these “revelations” (Jack’s son, Locke’s engagement, Ben’s humanity). For all we know, the writers’ll throw us another loop and these people will wind up on-island forever, never knowing how (arguably) awesome their lives could’ve been (except for Sayid, of course, who’s doomed to murderous rages no matter what universe he lives in. And maybe Kate).
In the final seconds of the ep, as a musical montage reunites Jack, Hurley and Richard, with Sun, Ilana, Ben and everyone else on the beach, a periscope breaks the surface of ocean and we see that it leads to a submarine. Inside, a worker informs his boss that there are people on the shore. The boss says they should move ahead, undeterred, and that boss? Dun dun duuuuun! Is Charles Widmore.
Last season, when Widmore was around, things sort of picked up a bit. Remember when he used to be this big puppeteering supervillain? Maybe his arrival will mean a reprieve from this season’s snooze-fest.