NOTE: This is a Recap for Episode 4x09 - The Shape of Things to Come. We tried to post this yesterday, but had some technical difficulties.
For better or for worse, The Shape of Things to Come is much different from almost any other episode of Lost. As the title implies, Episode 4.09 establishes many new trends for the remainder of this season and perhaps the entire series. Fan reception for this episode has been overwhelmingly positive, even though this episode barely resembles anything that preceded it. Many fundamental changes in the show’s nature are now undeniable. What began has an intimate ensemble drama with detailed character studies has transformed into an elaborate game board manipulated by two masterful super-villains, Benjamin Linus and Charles Widmore.
The setting for the war has expanded both in space and in time. Battles take place not only on the coveted Island, but occur on a global backdrop in Los Angeles, Tunisia, Iraq, and England. One of the early scenes in the episode incorporates the board game Risk: The Game of World Conquest, which serves as a new metaphor for the show’s central conflict, and drops hints about other key locations. The final scene indicates that these two opponents will continue to compete against each other for a long-time into the future. The freighter crew, the Smoke Monster, Jacob, Sayid, and even Locke have all become weapons in this war, and the collateral damage has been significant. Unlike the game of Risk, the audience cannot just pick up an instruction booklet that will explain this competition. Whatever stakes are at play and whatever rules of engagement apply to this war remain unknown to everyone except the two men in charge.
The title of the episode strongly suggests that the events of The Shape of Things to Come will hold great significance in the future of the show. Ben's quest to kill Penelope and Widmore's ongoing search for the island certainly will become major story arcs. Although people have a tendency to overestimate the importance of any particular episode soon after it airs, this episode felt almost like the pilot of a brand-new series. Many people have compared the opening shot of Ben’s flash-forward in this episode to Jack’s introductory scene in Lost’s Pilot episode. Although the two shots bear a strong resemblance, the differences between the two scenes are even more significant. The very first shot of the series involved a close-up of one of Jack’s eyes opening. This iconic image has been repeated several times throughout the series to introduce the audience to other characters in depth. The effect of this shot has always been to create an intimacy between the viewer and the character, to convey the idea that the audience will get inside someone’s head and see the world through the eyes of that character.
Neither The Shape of Things To Come nor the previous Ben episode The Man Behind the Curtain uses this same visual technique. Instead, the camera keeps a distance from Benjamin’s open eyes, and for good reason. Both episodes elected not to dig very deeply into the mind of the character. The Man Behind the Curtain omitted the most important part of its story, as it chose not to reveal whatever events sparked Ben’s transformation from troubled child into mass murder. Similarly, The Shape of Things to Come offers only surface details of the ongoing war against Widmore, while Ben’s true motivations still remain a mystery. The story provides the broad outline of the conflict, but the viewer is left to speculate on the true meaning behind this war. Certainly, Ben and Widmore are battling for possession of the island, but this story leaves us little indication of their ultimate aims, and what these two men hope to accomplish through the island.
At the end of the episode, Charles Widmore remarks that he knows who and what Ben truly is. However, the viewer cannot say the same thing. After three seasons of Ben, the show still offers us very little understanding of what is going on inside his mind. We certainly have seen Ben do and say a great number of things, and we can describe many of his characteristics. Ben has established an identity an extremely motivated individual, obsessed and single-minded in his devotion to his cause. Nevertheless, the show keeps the essence of this character's motives under wraps. Ben remains a static character: his personality never evolves, but only his actions change in response to different situations. This aspect of Ben’s character development (or, more accurately, his lack of character development) is not an accident, but an intentional choice. For Benjamin Linus, there is almost zero distinction between the plot and his character. His history is intimately linked to the mystery of the island. In order to understand his motives, the story must first uncover his secret knowledge of the island. For many viewers, this unique quality makes him the most intriguing character on the show, but for others, this reason makes him one of the least interesting (and least likable).
In this episode, the heated disputes between Locke and Sawyer parallels this central difference of opinion on Ben. Conflict between Locke and his followers had been growing for some time, as Sawyer, Hurley, Kate, and Claire all voiced objections against Locke’s alliance with Ben. Sawyer has become the leading voice of dissent against Locke. Their two responses to the assault on the camp speak volumes about their different perspectives on the situation. Throughout the firefight, Locke essentially serves as Ben’s sidekick, blindly following his orders rather than thinking for himself. Sawyer, on the other hand, ventures outside in a hail of bullets to bring Claire to safety, and then he proceeds to question Ben’s orders every step of the way. Sawyer reasons that “our best chance is to toss him out and fend for ourselves,” and this position makes a great deal of sense. Sawyer thinks that there is plenty of reason to doubt Ben’s claims about Widmore, but Locke trusts Ben’s word as a matter of faith. If Widmore indeed did give an order to execute everyone, then this order puts his group at a tactical disadvantage. The order makes very little sense from Widmore's standpoint, because it only serves to transform Ben’s adversaries into allies.
To be a fan of Benjamin Linus requires a certain degree of reverence toward him. Since Ben always knows more than the audience does, the viewer is never on an even plane with the character. John Locke now has become the ultimate fan of Ben. He would rather die than live on without ever learning Ben’s inside knowledge about the island. The Ben-Locke relationship, which was close to a balanced dynamic in Season Three, has become entirely one-sided in Season Four. Locke’s transformation into an Other is now complete. At the end of the episode, Locke dutifully turns his gun against Sawyer’s back, even though Ben does not need to say a word or move a muscle. Effectively, Locke kidnapped his friend Hurley (and by all indications Hurley's experience at Jacob's cabin will not be a positive one). Ben’s comments about Jacob indicate that soon Locke will lose his agency to an even further degree. He describes Jacob as “the man who’s going to tell us what to do next.” This proposed course of action appeals to Locke, but Sawyer feels disgusted by this type of servitude.
Looking forward, Locke’s developing relationship with Ben and Jacob may prove to be critical in the overall direction of the story. At the moment, it seems that Locke’s ultimate destiny might be to become nothing more than a servant. If this trend continues, he will spend the rest of his days just waiting for someone to tell him what to do. During Season Two, Locke similarly became a slave to the button in the Swan hatch. Ultimately, he lashed out against this prison, and he refused to be a “puppet on strings”. In his pre-island flashbacks, Locke time and again became a victim of Anthony Cooper for similar reasons. Interestingly, Locke never confronted his previous master directly, but even then he relied on Sawyer to free him from Cooper’s influence. Locke’s devolution into a slave is troubling enough on it own, but some of the reactions toward that development are even more disturbing. Many of the show’s fans, and perhaps even the writers themselves, seem to view this change as a very good thing for Locke. Will he ever break free from all of these puppet-masters, and seize control of his own destiny?
Unfortunately, Locke is not the only character living in the shadow of another more powerful figure. As a whole, the main storyline of Season Four continues to shift its focus gradually onto the interests of Linus and Widmore. Many of the mysteries introduced in this season are essentially ‘whodunit’ questions concerning these two figures. Who killed Karl and Danielle? (Solved.) Who faked the plane wreckage? (Still unknown.) Who killed Nadia? (New one.) Who is responsible for Alex’s death? (Debatable.) These types of questions might start to grow tiresome, because there is so little substantive difference between Linus and Widmore. Regardless of who did what, our opinions of the two characters do not change. Essentially, the show provides no reasons to root either for Ben or for Charles. In a way, Linus and Widmore have become almost the same character; the episode’s final scene supports this idea, both with its visual mirroring, and in the suggestion that neither man can kill the other. The central question of “Who will win the war?” would be much more interesting if the audience had some idea of what victory would mean for either side. Currently, fans are relying only on pure faith that there will be a legitimate ideological conflict at play in their story.
A side effect of the show’s expanded plot has been to overshadow the lives and deaths of secondary characters. Death has always been an important element of the show, and for the most part the show has regarded the loss of human life with due seriousness. Even the deaths of very minor characters such as Joanna, Scott, Nathan, and Pickett were utilized to create dramatic tension and to develop other characters in meaningful ways. By contrast, death becomes very whimsical and arbitrary in this episode. Doc Ray, Karl, Danielle, Alex, Nadia, three crash survivors, a nameless Tunisian henchman, and the Widmore employee Bakir are all confirmed dead within this episode. Of these deaths, only the murder of Alex receives any legitimate dramatic weight. All of the other deaths in the episode serve merely as minor footnotes in the battle between Linus and Widmore. The murder of the three Oceanic survivors in Locke’s camp seem to be a particularly hollow event. Not only does this scene fail to create any tension, but their senseless slaughter creates a comedic effect, especially alongside Sawyer’s laughably improbable survival. Afterwards, the main characters act as if those three characters never existed in the first place. The violence in Ben’s first flash-forward scene is equally gratuitous and by all indications irrelevant to the story. Seemingly, the characters, the writers, and the audience all have become desensitized to death on the show.
The unceremonious death of Danielle Rousseau is perhaps the most incredible development of the episode. The way in which her death has been handled does not fit the previous development of her character. Originally, Rousseau was the very first character on the island who was not part of Oceanic 815. The French radio transmission during the Pilot episode ranks as perhaps the show’s first island mystery. Her past still remains something of an enigma, without the benefit of any flashbacks. Since her reunion with Alex at the end of Season Three, not a single scene developed their complicated relationship in any depth. Further, the story never adequately explored the connection between Danielle and the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, aside from perhaps a vague reference to the idea of the noble savage. Why would a character of such tremendous importance and potential simply be ignored and eliminated?
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant is sometimes considered to be the successor to Danielle's namesake, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The show has never included a specific reference to Immanuel Kant (at least not yet). Regardless, though, his ideas still serve as a valuable analysis tool for the show’s characters, and Ben in particular. Among his other contributions to philosophy, Kant developed a theory that described the categorical imperative, the essence of morality. The second formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative translates to the following rule:
Act in such a way that you treat humanity, in yourself or in any other, always as an end in itself and never merely as a means to an end.
For an illustration of how this principle operates, look no further than the central character of this episode, Benjamin Linus. Throughout his entire character arc, Ben seems to operate under the exact opposite version of Kant’s moral law. Ben always treats other individuals as a means to some end. When he looks at any other human being, he does not see them as rational agents, but merely as instruments to be used to serve his own agenda. Locke, Hurley, and Sayid in this episode serve as the latest playing pieces that he manipulates to his own advantage. Ben takes an interest in Locke and Hurley not because he values their lives, but because he needs their help to perform a task for him at Jacob’s cabin. Similarly, he shows no true kinship with Sayid, but he only deals with the Iraqi soldier long enough to make him into another slave. In his negotiations with Keamy, Ben even notes that all of his other followers are willing to sacrifice themselves in service to his cause. Quite possibly, Ben even views himself just as a mere means to an end: a tool to serve the will of Jacob or the Island.
Seemingly, Ben’s relationship with Alex might present an exception to this trend. Keamy manage to capture the one person who mattered to him not only as a chess piece. Is it possible that Ben regarded Alex as a person with intrinsic value rather than instrumental value? While Ben does not show any understanding of the concept of love, he does feel something for Alex, and does experience pain upon her death. For once, Ben does show that he is capable of feeling emotional attachment toward another human being. Regardless, though, his actions never matched these emotions.
Ben’s final words to Alex exemplify this disconnect between his feelings and his actions. Ben stands there motionless, as he watches her execution: “She's not my daughter. I stole her as a baby from an insane woman. She's a pawn, nothing more. She means nothing to me. I'm not coming out of this house. So if you want to kill her, go ahead and do it.” In Ben’s mind, this statement is a lie; the words coming out of his mouth do not match the feelings inside his head. Morally, though, a person does not receive credit just for their emotions. Only actions carry moral weight, and Ben acted as if she meant nothing to him. Kant makes this distinction clear in every formulation of the categorical imperative. It is not enough to view humanity as an end in itself, but you need to embody that view in your actions. Ben possessed many other bargaining chips he could have used to save her life, because he did not value her life enough to forfeit them.
Of course, there will be many counter-arguments against this interpretation of Alex’s death. Some people feel willing to give Ben the benefit of even the biggest doubts, and craft intricate apologies for him. One could say that Ben was relying on his belief that Widmore would adhere to some ‘rule’ against killing her, so he never believed she was in danger. Or, you could also say the opposite, that Ben assumed that Alex had zero chance to survive even if he surrendered. Personally, I would expect that the scene would have played out exactly the same way regardless of these circumstances. Given that same choice a hundred different ways, the choice between his own surrender and Alex’s death, I would predict that Ben would make the same decision a hundred times. He cared about her, but not nearly enough to change his actions.
The Shape of Things to Come speaks volumes about the possible future of Lost. Quite possibly, the series could continue onward in the current direction of Season Four: to shift our attention away from the journey of the original characters and onto the war between Benjamin Linus and Charles Widmore for possession of the island. In this case, characters will no longer be important in and of themselves, but only important in terms of their relevance to the plot. Internal conflicts will be overshadowed by external ones. Complexity of character will be replaced by intricacy of plot. We will see more of the things that characterized The Shape of Things to Come: frequent murders, standoffs at gunpoint, explosions, monster attacks, heroic dashes through gunfire, razzle and dazzle, teleportation machines, secret rooms with ancient heiroglyphics, and more arbitrary rules that keep Linus and Widmore alive. In this case, Lost will conform to Ben Linus’ view of the world: humanity is not an end in itself, but a means to an end (in this case, the plot).
Over four seasons, Lost has developed an amazing collection of dynamic characters along with an amazingly complex web of mysteries and storylines. The series will never abandon one element in favor of the other, but the show could be in danger of losing its all-important equilibrium between plot and character. The Shape of Things to Come offers plenty of excitement, but falls short in the human element. This episode shifts the balance almost entirely in favor of plot development, and thus raises an alarming question about the true nature of the show. Are the characters of Lost mere instruments through which to tell the story of the island, or does the island serve as the instrument to tell the story of the characters?