Although it might seem odd to reveal a story's ground rules just before the final chapter, Lost has always thrived by revealing things out of order. The titles of episodes 5.11 and 5.12 make for an intriguing pair. Whatever Happened, Happened recycles the words spoken by Lost physicist Daniel Faraday twice already this season. In due course, the equally redundant phrase Dead is Dead was also spoken by Ben midway through this episode. These two titles express rather explicitly two main rules of storytelling that have been established and tested over the course of the series. In order to maintain the dramatic weight of any chapter, two principles are necessary. First, the past cannot be changed. Second, death is permanent. Only in science fiction do these basic tautologies of life need to be proven. The life-threatening injury to young Ben Whatever Happened, Happened provided a not-so-subtle lecture followed by a not-so-subtle demonstration of that first rule. The main plotline then went to great lengths to prove that Ben’s gunshot did not kill him, but helped transform him into the man he became, even with some unnecessary amnesia ex machina thrown in to eliminate possible inconsistencies. Again, for the second straight week, the powers that be were asked to judge whether Ben Linus had a right to live. As an child in the hands of adults, and as an adult in the hands of Island gods, the end result turned out to be the same.
The follow-up episode Dead is Dead used a less direct approach to illustrate a related question. Although Lost characters will not be traveling back in time to prevent historical deaths, could the Island offer some other method to escape from the grim reaper? Dead man walking, John Locke, now represents the main exception to the rule of Island death. Three statements appear to be true simultaneously, which creates an impossible contradiction.
(1) Locke is dead.
(2) Dead is dead.
(3) Locke is not dead.
This contradiction might not pose the same threat to the space-time continuum as last week's, but one of those three assumptions must be revised in order for the Lost universe to make sense. When Sun was confronted with the resurrection of Locke, she immediately challenged the first statement. She concluded that Locke’s death must have been staged from the beginning. In the early stages of Season Five, many fans reacted the same way (with some even suggesting that he might have been paralyzed by Dr. Arzt’s Medusa spiders). As Ben knew at the time, and as the audience soon learned, John Locke's body definitely died inside that lonely hotel room.
CHRISTIAN: Claire, your mother is alive, but she’s not really living.
CLAIRE: What the hell’s that supposed to mean?
CHRISTIAN: It means that now may be the time to look at other alternatives.
The next possible explanation is to challenge the second premise: maybe dead does not mean dead. Certainly, the Island can heal people from cancer, paralysis, and nearly fatal wounds. The souls of the dead can already communicate to special people like Miles and Hurley, through words and visions. The resurrection of a month-old corpse would stretch the limits of the Island’s healing powers, but the overall believability would not suffer. (At this point, adding another supernatural feature to the Island would be as difficult to accept as adding another name to Ben’s list of murder victims.) Although Locke cannot explain the details of his transformation, he assures Sun that “I’m the same man I’ve always been.” Another way to read the title phrase is to say that “dead” is dead. In other words, if Locke’s body can be restored to life, then the concept of death no longer carries much meaning on this Island.
Of course, the third explanation is to refute the final premise: Locke actually is dead, despite the appearance to the contrary. More accurately, Locke is not Locke. The man we now see standing on the Island is not the same man who died in Los Angeles. The episode includes a number of suggestions that Locke has become one with the Smoke Monster, in a manner similar to the re-animations of Christian, Yemi, and Alex. Ben’s trial at the mercy of the Monster seems to begin much earlier than his arrival at the Temple; Locke questions a number of Ben’s past decisions in conflict with the Island’s will, ranging from his treatment of John to the use of Dharma’s facilities, and of course, his role in Alex’s death. When Ben summons the creature, and he warns that “what’s about to come out of that jungle is something I can’t control,” Locke arrives in its place. When he reaches the vents beneath the Temple, John conveniently leaves the room while the Smoke delivers its verdict, and then returns as soon as it finishes. Throughout the episode, Locke certainly behaves differently from his previous self. Remnants of his old personality remain (just as Christian’s ghost appeared to retain his old memories), but the new Locke is empowered with unparalleled knowledge, confidence, and mastery over his old weaknesses. At the very least, the Monster has aligned itself completely with John, by using its manifestations to command Ben and Sun to follow his lead.
In my assessment, the most likely solution must fall somewhere between the second and third possibilities. The new John Locke appears to be a more evolved, more substantial version of the other incarnations of the Monster. His existence is permanent, and open for everyone to see. If taken at face value, his assertion that he’s ‘the same man as always’ suggests that Locke’s communion with the Monster began well before he exited the coffin. John has survived one fatal injury after another, but his unbreakable body continues to regenerate. The new Locke appears to be both puppet to larger forces, and puppet-master controlling his own destiny. His will, the Island’s will, and the Monster’s will are one and the same. Locke is a man, and simultaneously Locke is not a man. The Catholic conception of the holy Trinity embraces this same paradox of entities that are distinct but the same. The Island is the father, Locke is the son, and the Smoke Monster is the Holy Spirit.
CHANG: Don't be absurd! There are rules, rules that can't be broken.
Somehow, Locke has bypassed one of the most important rules of the Lost universe. The flashbacks of Dead is Dead focus on a different type of rule-breaking, the violation of man-made Island laws. Throughout this decades-long story, the most prominent rule seems to be the segregation of Hostiles and outsiders, preserving the difference between Us and Them. By bringing Benjamin into the Temple, Richard Alpert broke that time-honored code. Later in the episode, Ben reveals that the wall around the Temple was designed to protect it from the wrong kind of people. More correctly, the Temple was built to prevent people like Ben from entering as well. After one seemingly minor exception made for a harmless little boy, the structure of Widmore’s society began to crumble all around him. A decade later, more bastard children are seeping through the cracks. Ben has already taken Ethan, another of Dharma’s lost boys under his wing. Against Widmore’s direct orders, Ben spares the life of Danielle, another foreigner, and then brings her child back to Hostile society. Baby Alex provides Ben with a golden opportunity to undermine Charles’ authority in public. By that point, the rules had already been changed, and the new impure order established.
Although Widmore’s policies might not have been noble, his people certainly embraced a stronger connection to the natural world. The episode offers contrasting glimpses of the Widmore and Linus regimes. King Charles commanded his people from horseback, as they lived in tents surrounding a campfire. Mr. Linus led his people from behind a desk, into their acquired real estate, complete with electricity and running water. Three years after Linus' exit, those yellow houses remain unoccupied, as the Others have re-established their roots. Certainly, the technophobic John Locke shares Widmore’s vision of Island living, and disdains the Linus lifestyle. In the end, it seems doubtful whether Ben ever understood the will of the Island, or whether the con-man simply played the political process better than anyone else. Ben may not have cared about any rules, but he did exploit his people’s reverence for those rules to his own advantage. Eventually, he arranged to exile Widmore from the Island for violating those same boundaries between Us and Them that Alpert and Linus had crossed years before. According to the Hostile rule book, stealing a stranger’s child is acceptable, but fathering your own child off the Island is unforgivable. Widmore was banished by an outsider, because he associated with outsiders.
LOCKE: Because it's not fair! You make people think that you're their family. And then you leave their life in ruins. And I'm not going to let you do it again!
Ironic references to friendship are scattered throughout the script of this episode: from Widmore’s reassurance to Ben that he is ‘among friends now,’ to Caesar’s favorite catch-phrase, to the triple entendre on Our Mutual Friend. When Locke jokes that Ben ‘makes friends everywhere he goes,’ his retort is layered with meaning: “I've found sometimes that friends can be significantly more dangerous than enemies.” Time and again, Ben uses friendship as a weapon. He postures himself as an ally, in order to strike at the most vulnerable point. Widmore and Locke both fell victim to this brand of trickery, and newcomer Caesar suffers a similar fate. Ben manipulates the well-intentioned Ajira leader into distrusting Locke, just so he can put himself back in John’s good graces with a shotgun blast. For an episode ostensibly about atonement for past sins, Ben’s shows absolutely no remorse on his path back to the main Island. His way of apologizing for the murder of one of his closest companions is to lie through his teeth, and then set up another innocent man to be killed.
Unfortunately, our friend Caesar managed to become collateral damage in the dealings of the Island’s triumvirate of Linus, Widmore, and Locke. Apparently, Caesar’s regime on the Island came to an end almost before it began. Although ‘dead is dead’ on Lost, one need only look back one episode for proof that ‘shot in the chest’ does not necessarily mean 'dead' on this show. With such a promising introduction to this character (played by the excellent Saïd Taghmaoui), I hope that Caesar’s longevity matches the model of Octavian rather than Julius. While Linus acted quickly to eliminate the threat presented by Caesar, he seems to have overlooked the greater danger posed by Ilana and her cronies. Two episodes earlier, Ilana claimed to be a bounty working for the Avellino family, one of Widmore’s alleged associates. The presence of a massive steel crate indicates that ... going to Guam ... might not exactly have been her primary objective. Ilana’s coup was swift and merciless, complete with its own secret riddle for separating friends from foes. The game of Island Risk has been suspended for a few years, but the players are ready to resume. Widmore warned Locke of the war coming to the Island, and Ilana’s special delivery seems to put a few pieces into place. (What lies in the shadow of the statue? My answer: Paulo Lies.)
EKO: Every Sunday after Mass, I would see a young boy waiting in the back of the church. And then one day, the boy confessed to me that he had beaten his dog to death with a shovel. […] And he wanted to know whether he would go to hell for this. I told him that God would understand -- that he would be forgiven, as long as he was sorry. But the boy did not care about forgiveness. He was only afraid that if he did go to hell -- that dog would be there waiting for him.
This episode finally sets the stage for Ben to fulfill the friendly promise he made a season ago, only to close the curtain at the last moment. The purpose of the marina scene seems to be to absolve Ben in the eyes of the audience, before the Monster does the same. Ben’s personal set of rules is a strange one: lying with every breath in your body is expected, stealing children from their parents is mandatory, gassing an entire village is just another day at the office, and shooting an unarmed man is good sport. However, killing a woman in front of her kid is off-limits. After all, the little tyke reminds him of the thing he loves most: himself. Can one good deed redeem an entire lifetime of evil? (Or, to be more precise here, can one momentary-hesitation-before-performing-an-absurdly-heinous-deed redeem an entire lifetime of evil?) In this particular story, the answer seems to be: maybe. Throughout this episode, Ben shows no remorse for any of his actions, except for two. He begs Desmond to forgive him for trying to kill Penny, and he pleads with the Island to spare him after sending Alex to her death. In both cases, the line between genuine repentance and pure fear becomes hard to distinguish. The Monster persuaded him to change his ways, not by appealing to his sense of duty, but to his self-preservation. The manifestation of Alex threatens to hunt him down and destroy him if he disobeys its orders. Ben’s directs an apology to Desmond perhaps for the same reason, because he fears that the raging Scotsman will finish the job he started.
Although Ben survives his encounter with the Monster, his final judgment leaves some room for ambiguity. The prosecution makes no opening statement, but simply recites the evidence. The series of flashes depicts the full span of his relationship with Alex, from the moment he refused to kill her, to the moment he granted Keamy his permission to kill her. The main issue of interpretation seems to be the same question posed by Widmore: did the Island want him to sacrifice Alex? Either way, the verdict would need to be guilty. If the Island wanted Alex to die all along, then Ben disobeyed its will when he adopted her. If the Island wanted Alex to live, then Ben failed the test when he refused to surrender. When Ben confesses that “it was all my fault,” the re-animated Alex agrees with him. Although the verdict is not entirely clear, the sentence is unmistakable. Instead of death, the Monster condemns him to a lifetime of imprisonment, as Locke's servant. (The Island’s policy for capital punishment seems to suffer from some of the same racial biases as the American justice system. The Monster executed Mr. Eko for lesser crimes, and Christian appeared just before Michael’s death. Always the master manipulator, Ben understood how to play the system to his own advantage.) For a man like Linus, submitting to someone else’s leadership might be a fate worse than death. I suspect that Ben will make at least one more attempt to seize power before the series is complete. Perhaps even more certain than the rule of 'dead is dead', we all know that Ben is Ben.
As the instruments of power continue to be passed from one set of hands to the next, every generation believes that it can be special, that it can avoid the mistakes of the past. Ben promised himself that he would not become selfish like Widmore, that he would always serve the Island's best interests. The corruption of that promise began almost immediately after it was made. Ben could not fight the inevitable. Widmore's fall from grace offered a cautionary tale that Ben ignored. Eventually, the younger generation finds itself standing in the same position that it swore to avoid. Now, the torch has been passed from Linus into the hands of Locke. As strong as he may be, he would be naive to overlook the lessons of his predecessors. He must overcome the dangers from his enemies, the dangers from his friends, and the dangers from within. By many indications, though, (particularly the fact that he was recently deceased) Locke is indeed special. He has proven that he would sacrifice anything for the Island, including his own life. He truly is different from the men who preceded him, and that difference alone might be enough to change the rules of the game permanently.