Sunday, August 22, 2010

30 Day TV Challenge - Day 14: "How many times do I have to tell you, John? I always have a plan."

14. Your favorite male character.

(MASSIVE spoilers for Lost. In fact, even giving you this character's name spoils pretty much everything past the halfway point of season 2 for you. So feel free not to read today's if you would rather not know. In fact, I'm putting the rest of this under a jump break, though you won't be helped if you're reading in a RSS feed. So then.)

Benjamin Linus
"Those things had to happen to me. That was my destiny. But you’ll understand soon enough that there are consequences to being chosen. Because destiny, John…is a fickle bitch."

In case you missed it from my self-branding as an "evil genius," I love villains. It's always been like that for the television shows I follow -- the Dominion, the Romulans, the Cigarette-Smoking Man, the Cylons, hell, even Pinky and the Brain could probably be considered villains from a standard viewpoint. But Ben Linus, the puppetmaster and leader of Lost's mysterious Others, is not only the best villain, but my favorite television character of all time. One of Lost's most prevalent motifs is that of the con, and over the course of the series, we see that not only is Ben the master of it, he is the biggest mark of them all.

Like most great villains, though, Ben doesn't actually think he's the bad guy -- in fact, he insists that his Others, who we've seen murdering at will and kidnapping children, are "the good guys." Ben reveals himself to the Oceanic 815 survivors, particularly John Locke, as the key to understanding the island's deepest secrets. He dangles those truths just out of reach, luring his nemeses into striking distance, and then takes joy in their failures, always ready with a barbed comment.

But it's a lie. Ben actually knows virtually nothing at all about the island he's lived on for most of his life. It's a show -- a smokescreen, masking his ignorance. It's a secret he keeps from nearly everyone; even his own people give him far more credit than he deserves. He's lived his life suckered into servitude, tricked by an all-knowing god he's never even seen, let alone spoken to. And his reward for this unwavering service, for his vigilance and loyalty? He's stricken with cancer, on an island where no one ever falls ill. His people are given a plague, and his daughter is murdered. And then things get really bad.

The brilliant thing about Ben's arc -- by far the most compelling on a show filled with great characters -- is that he's no one near as evil as you're led believe for, oh, I think three or four whole season. Oh: he's evil, don't get me wrong. He's a pathological liar and a murderer. Even the positive things in his life -- his love for Alex, his adoration for Juliet -- he twists into dark, violent horrors. But the cracks in his bad guy demeanor appear early on, and as they spread, you realize how much of Ben's wicked deeds were beyond his control. By the end of the fifth season, when we learn how very, very little Ben actually understood about the nature of things on Craphole Island, it's clear how much of a patsy he's been. The height of his tragedy: he finally confronts his god, and demands answers; he wants to know what his reward is for his decades of loyalty, what he's earned for all the murders and kidnappings and death.
BEN: Thirty-five years I lived on this island, and all I ever heard was your name over and over. Richard would bring me your instructions -- all those slips of paper, all those lists -- and I never questioned anything. I did as I was told. But when I dared to ask to see you myself, I was told, "You have to wait. You have to be patient." ...What was it that was so wrong with me? What about me?

JACOB: What about you?
BEN: [furiously stabs Jacob to death]
So Ben murders his god. But, of course, even this, his one moment of defiance, isn't genuine: he's been manipulated yet again, this time by Jacob's nemesis -- the treacherous Smoke Monster, disguised as Ben's most recent victim, John Locke.

(If you didn't heed my spoiler warning at the beginning, seriously, get out now, because I'm about the spoil the final episode. Go!)

This leads to my favorite part of Ben's arc: his desperate, spastic attempts at redemption. The most heartbreaking moment of the series? In "The End," when we see the characters together in the Afterlife, in the alternate world they'd created as a meeting place for their souls. Despite his wickedness, Ben had redeemed himself: he had been "a good number two" to Hurley, the island's new steward, and earned his place among those who'd once called him an enemy. They are gathered at the church for the final step, the moment when they will "move on" from this purgatory together. Locke, the man he'd deceived and murdered, approaches him in the parking lot. And their conversation gets me choked up every time.
BEN: I'm sorry, John. I'm sorry for what I did to you. I was angry, selfish. I wanted what you had.

LOCKE: What did I have?

BEN: You were special. And I wasn't.

LOCKE: Well. If it helps, I forgive you, Ben.

BEN: ....Thank you, John. It does help.

LOCKE: Are you going to come in?

BEN: I'm not quite ready to leave yet. I have some things I still need to work out here.
And they leave him there.

Ben is forgiven for his sins by the others, even by the one who he'd hurt most. But he can't forgive himself. And he chooses to stay behind in this lifeless, timeless purgatory world, living a false life in an attempt to atone for a real one he filled with lies. I can't think of a more fitting -- or poignant -- end for him.

He started as a prisoner; then a villain; then a monster; then a victim; and finally, a contrite soul seeking redemption. He gave everything to save his island, and then lost it all. As he said: destiny is a fickle bitch.

(You know, I somehow managed to get all the way through this without ever mentioning Michael Emerson's performance. I've already gone way, way too long on this, so I'll just say it was very, very good.)

No comments:

Post a Comment