Review of The Man Behind the Curtain by Jeff Jensen.
These are the first words to be uttered on Lost by Jacob, the elusive phantom leader of the Others, maker of Lists and curer of cancer. (Allegedly.) ''Help me,'' said the voice, warped and rumbly as if congested with impending death. They were uttered in the freaky final act of the episode titled ''The Man Behind the Curtain'' to John Locke, our surrogate secret seeker, shortly before Big Bad Ben shot him and left the pappy-killing man of faith to die in an open grave filled with rotting corpses, the putrefying remains of the hippie-era world-saving endeavor that was the Dharma Initiative.
Tell me about it. The 20th episode of Lost's trippy and getting-trippier-by-the-minute third season was one big data dump of Island mythology, character revelations, and What the hell is going on? twists. Perhaps the place to begin would be with my new theory that Ben's profoundly lonely, deeply father-scarred persona has imprinted itself on the Island; it is, in fact, the operating system that runs this freaky fantasyland. Or maybe I should start by offering my condolences to those who've been clinging to the belief that sound science, not sci-fi, will explain all of Lost, as I believe I heard that belief shattering into a thousand little pieces inside Jacob's rocking-'n'-rolling haunted hillbilly mansion. Or maybe I should just shut up with the quasi-intellectual analysis for a change and just break down the story. Yes, let's do that. Because that might actually be doable here at 12:10 a.m., with a 3 a.m. deadline rapidly approaching. Trying to actually figure this sucker out — oh, man, that's gonna take us weeks.
''Help me,'' indeed.
The Flashback: The Secret Origin of Benjamin Linus
The very first scene: Ben is born. Prematurely, too. His mother, Emily, seven months pregnant, was hiking a trail in the forests outside Portland, Ore., with his father, Roger, when she unexpectedly went into labor. Set amid lush green foliage, the sequence echoed with Garden of Eden resonance; with all the blood and Emily's ominous complaints of pain, we were reminded of the curse that resulted from the Fall — that men would be doomed to work the suddenly unfriendly soil and women would be doomed to experience a world of pain during childbirth. Roger would become a literal ''work man'' — a Dharma Initiative janitor — and Emily would die as a result of bringing Ben into the world. Two things: 1. Surely it can't be mere coincidence that Ben was born at seven months and that on the Island, pregnant women die at the end of their second trimester, or roughly at the seven-month mark. (Again, I tell you: Ben's persona, imprinted on the Island.) 2. And surely it can't be mere coincidence that the Linus family was fatefully forged 32 mile outside of Portland (most likely near Salem, the capital of Oregon) and Mittelos Biosciences, through which the Others recruited miracle-grow baby-maker Juliet to the Island, is based outside of Portland. (The episode, which didn't elaborate on the Dharma Initiative as much as I thought it would, didn't clarify its relationship, if any, with Mittelos.)
The next time we saw him, Ben had grown into a bookish, bug-eyed, barely talking boy, and he and his father were arriving on Fantasy Island — er, I mean, the Island during the heyday of the Dharma Initiative. (You gotta admit, the way they stepped off the sub and were greeted by the Dharma welcome wagon with leis and chipper cries of ''Namaste!'' was very Fantasy Island. All that was missing was the obligatory scene in which Mr. Roarke sizes up his newest visitor and explains to Tattoo what's at stake: ''You see, my friend, Ben and his father have come here looking for a job and an education — a new life. Instead, they will find the dark consequences of unresolved anguish and misdirected anger.'' Tattoo would reply, ''Whatever, boss. I just ring the bell when da plane comes.'')
We learned Roger was invited to the Island by Horace Goodspeed, a Dharma doc who with his wife, Olivia, discovered the Linuses stumbling out of the woods shortly after Ben was born. We saw a scene where Roger and Ben were processed in a way that reminded me of either (a) prisoners being processed into jail or (b) immigrants being processed through Ellis Island. Same difference for Roger: The Island, a would-be land of new opportunity for him, would soon become his prison. While Roger bristled at being assigned mere janitorial work (yet another character whose Great Man aspirations are undermined by the Man; see also Jack, Locke, and Desmond), Ben met a young girl who would become his only friend, Annie. We also caught a fleeting glimpse of yet another Dharma video hosted by Dr. Marvin Candle/Dr. Mark Wickmund, speaking ominously of wildlife and sonar fences.
Ben's time in Dharma utopia/captivity was far from blissful. His schooldays were interrupted by explosions and gunfire from Dharma's ''skirmishes'' with elusive, barely seen ''Hostiles.'' His nights, presumably, were filled with taking care of his drunken, disenchanted father, who in his worst moments had no problem telling Ben how he blamed the boy for killing his one true love, Emily. On one emotionally bruising evening, Ben looked out his bedroom window, and who should he see but his mother — a creepy moment that evoked a whole body of ''white lady'' ghost lore, not to mention the underrated 1988 supernatural thriller Lady in White.
Ben became obsessed with being reunited with his mom, who was surely an Island apparition, conjured by and embedded with Ben's deepest yearnings. When he first tried to run away into the jungle to find her, she appeared to him on the other side of the sonic fence and told him that he must wait: ''It's not yet time,'' she said. The next time, Ben escaped with his pet white rabbit (take your pick: an allusion to Alice in Wonderland or to Harvey, the famous Jimmy Stewart film about a man with an imaginary friend) and encountered a Hostile in the whispering jungles: none other than Richard Alpert, looking no younger than he does in the Island present (apparently, Island ''natives'' either don't age or age very slowly) and sporting some nifty guerrilla-rebel togs. The thing I thought was most interesting about this encounter was Alpert's challenging Ben on his use of the word ''Hostiles'': ''Do you even know what that word means?'' Alpert's reaction was similar to Ben's own offense over the use of the term ''Others'' to describe his people. But I also wonder if his question to Ben is an invitation to us to investigate the true definition of the word. Check out this explanation of ''hostility'' from Wikipedia:
''In psychological terms, George Kelly defined hostility as the willful refusal to accept evidence that one's perceptions of the world are wrong. Instead of reconsidering, the hostile person attempts to force or coerce the world to fit their view, even if this is a forlorn hope, and however harmful the cost....Psychologically, it can be said that reality is being held to ransom, and in this sense hostility is a form of psychological extortion — an attempt to force reality to produce the desired feedback, in order that preconceptions become validated.''
How does this apply to Lost? You tell me. Send to: JeffJensenEW@aol.com.
Alpert was clearly intrigued with Ben and his claims of seeing his dead mother on the Island, but he still denied Ben's request to join his forest-dwelling merry men. Instead, Alpert told him to be patient, and to wait. And Ben did. Years passed. Ben became an adult, still living on the Island, a workman now, just like his dad. On his birthday, Ben and his neglectful pop (seems Roger can never actually remember his son's birthday) made a beer run out to the Pearl Station — the only time any of the stations of Dharma were referenced in the episode. (Guess those video-screen watchers need to stay a little buzzed while they keep their diaries.) Roger tried vainly to connect with Ben, but it was too little, too late, and the coldly brilliant young man had made up his mind and a plan: Unable to abide his father's resentment toward him, Ben killed him with poison gas inside a Dharma bus (now we know the backstory from that Hurley episode) and, moreover, either gassed all of the Dharma folk or helped the Hostiles do so. Hence, ''the Purge.''
As a result of his treachery, Ben gained entry into the Hostile community, as well as an extraordinary amount of luster in their eyes. Apparently, nothing says ''Island glory boy'' like patricide. Which helps to explain why Ben was so eager to humiliate Locke in front of the Others last week. Locke presented a challenge to his authority and perhaps to his control over the Island. When Locke wimped out, Ben was basically saying, ''Who's your daddy? I'm your daddy. Why? Because I can kill my daddy.''
But as it turned out, Locke could, too. (With a little help from Sawyer, of course.)
Ben and Locke: Holy War
Ben's flashback was interwoven with a present-day Island story that began with Locke showing up with his dead dad in a sack and demanding the answers Ben had promised should he pull off the feat. Ben told Locke that the answers lay with Jacob, the true boss of the Others, but that, unfortunately, Ben was a little too tied up plotting the Passover-style abduction of Sun and all the child-bearing castaway ladies on the Beach. Apparently, the plan was collapsing — Alpert seemed to have forgotten to get new instructions to Juliet. And when Mikhail Bakunin showed up to reveal that Naomi had fallen out of the sky and has a ship 170 clicks off shore waiting to rescue the castaways, Ben had even more reason to back-burner Locke. But the man of faith wouldn't be denied and forced the issue by brutally beating up Bakunin, who appeared to be Ben's only certain ally among the Others at the moment. There's a crisis of leadership — and you got the sense that the Others would like nothing more than for Locke to assume the mantle. But why? Why Locke? What does he represent to them? What agenda could his communion with the Island serve?
Naturally, Ben would rather his people not know the answers to any of those questions, and so he decided to drop everything to take a smugly satisfied, prematurely triumphant Locke for a date with destiny. Thus began a passage of scenes that promise to shape the direction of Lost for moons to come. Locke and Ben arrived at the shack, home to Jacob. They found a trail of ashes leading to the door. Ashes — a symbol of mortal decay in the Bible; a symbol of penance and forgiveness in Christianity; and, perhaps most pertinent here, part and parcel of the phoenix resurrection myth in Egyptian mythology.
Before they entered the shack, Ben told Locke to turn off his flashlight; Jacob is a technology-hating Luddite, and Ben conspicuously pointed out that it's a trait Locke shares. This, I'm guessing, is either a clue or a red herring suggesting/denying that Jacob is actually a time-warped Locke, from either the future or an alternate reality. But more interesting was Ben asking Locke, ''Are you sure this is what you want?'' That, of course, is also a question for us in the audience: We say we want answers, but do we really? What happens when we get them? Will we really be satisfied? For me, Ben's line was what ''The Man Behind the Curtain'' was all about: this tension between the romance of mystery and the quest for certainty.
Lucky for us, the truth waiting inside Jacob's house — your typical creepy cabin in the woods, home to your Blair Witches and garden-variety chainsaw-wielding Texan inbreds — was the kind that doesn't puncture mysteries but begets more of them. Inside a cobwebby room (what was this house, anyway?) was an empty rocking chair — except according to Ben, it wasn't empty. Jacob was sitting in it. And talking to him, too. The simple madness of it all broke Locke's heart. Ben was either playing with him or just crazy. You know, kinda like another famous true-believer pop-culture Linus — Charlie Brown's friend Linus, the guy with the zany delusion/belief in the Great Pumpkin. Locke turned to leave, then heard it. ''Help me.'' Locke spun around and turned on his flashlight to investigate, and suddenly, the room went wild with psychic weirdness, like the end of Carrie or Poltergeist. Ben was thrown against the wall, and when the camera panned back to the rocking chair — there! A fleeting glimpse of a man, weakened and half bald. From the voice and silhouette, I'm going to agree with the time-loop/alternate-reality crowd on this one: Jacob is Locke.
In the aftermath, Locke denied his own eyes and demanded that Ben come clean about faking the ''Help me'' voice. Ben allowed that he had stretched the truth before — like his claiming that he's always lived on the Island. Clearly not the literal truth, but perhaps, in Ben's mind, it's true in that Ben Kenobi ''from a certain point of view'' kind of way. In the episode's final scene, Ben took Locke to the Dharma mass grave — a grotesque marker of the event that made Ben into the monster he is today. And there, Ben shot Locke. The reason seems self-explanatory: In order to preserve everything that gives his life meaning, Ben needed to put down the threat that Locke embodied: being replaced, becoming obsolete. You saw it in his eyes when he heard what Jacob had said to Locke. It was the look of a man who had just been told that his idealized father — a father who genuinely needed him; a father who gave his life importance — had found a new favorite son.
1. In the other subplot, Sawyer brought back the tape Locke gave him incriminating Juliet, but just when it seemed the castaways were about to string her up, Juliet revealed that there was more content on the back of the tape — content that spelled out Ben's master plan to raid the camp and swipe Sun. All of this seemed a little rushed to me, and I wanted more, especially from Jack, but I guess we'll have to wait one more week for his conversion back to hero of the beach. What do you think his plan is? And do you think Naomi is on the up-and-up about her rescue boat, or is this a trick?
2. I'd love to hear your thoughts about Ben's friend, Annie, and the significance of the dolls she gave him. What did they mean to Ben? And where did Annie go?
3. What do you think is the backstory about Alpert and his gang of Hostiles?
4. Bakunin revealed that he survived his encounter with the sonic fence because, fortunately, the fence was set at a ''nonlethal level.'' Do you believe him?
5. Finally, do you think there's a link between the emphasis on patience and waiting for fate and destiny to play out (think: Ben's mom, telling him to wait; Alpert, telling him to wait) and the Room 23 brainwashing/aversion-therapy video, whose messages were all thematically linked by the idea of patience, waiting, trusting, etc.? Has Ben been maintaining his hold on his people by using the video?
By Jeff Jensen