The Los Angeles Timeline
The action picks up well after Oceanic 815 has landed safe and sound, and after John Locke's become a substitute teacher. Ben Linus, the high school history teacher, is lecturing his students about Napoleon's exile on the island of Elba, and how his banishment was a fate worse than death because he was forced to adjust to a life where his title and power meant nothing. For those of you who have just turned 7, this is what we call a moment of Blatant Foreshadowing and Paper-Thin Symbolism™. "Lost" is, again, a really compelling pop mystery with the bad habit of making the subtext into text, and this episode had some groaners. After class, Principal Reynolds (William Atherton) puts Ben on detention monitor watch, temporarily postponing his History Club. Complaining about it later in the teachers' lounge to Dr. Arzt, Ben's overheard by Locke, who suggests that maybe Ben should be principal. His words: "Just sounds like you care about this place, and if the man in charge doesn't, maybe it's time for a change." I get it. Just to be even more horribly clear, Ben asks Locke who would possibly listen to him, and Locke just casually raises a hand and says, "I'm listening." Look. Just: look. It's one thing to have Ben's trauma in one timeline be mirrored or exorcised in the other. It's pretty much the m.o. for the show. But to have the same actors going through the same emotional paces? And to have Ben not just looking to make a change in his life, but to topple the man he works for in an effort to take control and implement his own regime? Too much. Too big. Too easy.
Later on, Ben's at home fixing a TV dinner for his aging dad, who apologizes for their lot in life and says things were better when he, Roger, was with DHARMA, and that they never should have left. So: Does this mean they left in the 1977 evacuation of the island before the Incident, which in this timeline scuttled the whole island? Or did they leave sooner? And what else is the same? Just then, Ben answers his door to find Alex Rousseau, one of his students, who's looking for help studying for the AP history test, and he agrees to tutor her for the next few mornings before school. In this world, he's not her murderous adoptive father, just a schmuck in a sweater vest.
The next morning, Ben and Alex are in the library going over the East India Trading Company (with an illustration that looks a lot like the Black Rock), when she freaks out and says she needs to ace the test to get into Yale, but the only way she'll be able to get in is with a recommendation letter from an alumnus, namely, Principal Reynolds, whom she calls a pervert. (For a moment, I wondered if this was a really weird way to reference Jeffrey Jones, also a red-haired actor, who played the dean in Ferris Bueller's Day Off and was busted for kiddie porn in 2002-03. Then again, that would be weird.) Alex tells Ben she was napping in the nurse's office one day when she woke to hear the nurse and the principal getting it on in the next room, a piece of information she's apparently kept under lock and key until now. Ben promises to keep her secret, but come on.
Later on, Ben asks Arzt if he can hack faculty email, and when he relates what he knows about the principal and the nurse, Arzt agrees to help out if he can have a better parking spot and new equipment when Ben takes over. Ben agrees to the quid pro quo, and Arzt chuckles a bit, saying he had no idea Ben was "a real killer." I get it. Soon enough, Ben visits Reynolds and presents him with the e-mails, and the relish he takes in threatening the man's life and career is reminiscent of the Ben we've known for years. But of course, Reynolds turns the tables and says that if Ben sandbags him, he'll turn around and torch Alex's chances of getting into Yale. The ball's back in Ben's court, and he's honestly conflicted about what to do.
Some time later, Ben enters the principal's office and fiddles with the nameplate when Alex swings by, saying she's there to thank Reynolds for his glowing recommendation. Ben gives a sad grin when he hears how bright her future now looks, and when Reynolds enters, he manages to get in a small jab about History Club being able to meet again just to push the principal around a little and force his hand in front of Alex. He leaves and walks away, watching Alex trot off to class, and you can tell Ben feels good about his choice. Still, a part of me hoped he'd just wait a year for Alex to be off at college when he took down the principal, but the point of the episode wasn't for Ben to outplay someone but to learn that some things are more important.
The Island Timeline
After leaving Sayid at the pool, Ben catches up to Ilana and the gang as they flee through the jungle, and he suggests returning to the castaways' original beach camp to set up a base to repel whatever's coming their way. Suspicious of Ben's story about the smoke monster's actions, Ilana has Miles use the ashes she scooped from the fire that consumed Jacob to find out how the man died and what he was thinking when it happened. He does so and reports that Ben was the killer, which news does not at all sit well with Ilana. (Frank seems noncommittal and kind of bored.) As she leads the gang away, Miles glares at Ben and lets out a sarcastic "Uh oh" that's amazing.
When they get to the beach by morning, Ben's like a puppy trying to regain Ilana's affection, but she ignores him. Ilana tells Sun that she and Jin are candidates to replace Jacob, too -- once the seal's broken for the audience, characters are pretty free with info -- and that there are only six candidates left. While she's chatting, Ben finds Sawyer's old porn stash, Chaim Potok's The Chosen, a book by/about Benjamin Disraeli, and an Oceanic water bottle and tries to make small talk with Frank, making a weird joke of the fact that even though Frank missed his alarm and didn't pilot Oceanic 815, the island got him anyway. Ilana then shows up with her rifle and leads Ben over the hill to the cemetery, where she shackles his leg to a tree and commands him to dig his own grave.
As Ben digs, he tries to offer Miles money via his network of contacts back home if Miles will let him free, but Miles blows him off and gestures to some nearby graves and says that Nikki and Paulo, those "jabronis," were buried with $8 million in diamonds. He also tells Ben that Jacob had hoped, up till the minute he died, that his fears about Ben were unfounded and that the man would do the right thing. Later on, Ben's grave is almost dug when Fake Locke appears with a rattle of noise and smoke that somehow no one else hears or sees. The Enemy uses the Force to pop Ben's shackles and tells him that there's a rifle waiting by a tree a couple hundred yards inland, and if he hurries, he can get the weapon, get the drop on Ilana, and meet up with rest of the Enemy's crew on Hydra Island. Ben, cornered, decides it's worth a shot, so he hauls ass into the jungle as Ilana sees him and gives chase.
He reaches the gun in time to turn on Ilana and get her to drop her own weapon, but rather than kill her, he tearfully confesses that he knows how she's feeling. After all, he let his daughter die out of service to the island, to Jacob, and realized too late the error of his ways. He pleads with Ilana to just let him go to Locke (and he actually calls him "John Locke," though whether out of habit or because it's easier than saying "the shapeshifting bad guy," it's hard to say), saying that he has to go there because no one else will have him. Ilana, in a remarkable act of grace, doesn't even wipe away her tears as she says, "I'll have you," then turns to go to the beach. And like that, after years of toil and betrayal, Ben finally starts to work toward something better. I won't go all the way and call it redemption, but it's a start.
While all this is happening, the action occasionally cuts to Jack and Hurley as they make their way from the Lighthouse back to what passes for civilization on Craphole Island. Hurley's napping in the tall grass (even muttering "cheese curds") when Jack wakes him up, and of course Hurley's first request is food because I get it, he's fat, let's have a fat joke on page 37. They set off for the Temple as Hurley clearly tries to stall or take them down wrong paths, but it isn't long before they run into Richard, who agrees to lead them there. Jack falls quickly in line, snapping to Hurley that "at least he's not stalling."
As they hike, Hurley asks Richard if he's a time traveler or a Terminator, and while either would be a fun twist, he's neither. They come into a clearing to find the Black Rock, and Richard said he lied about their destination because everyone at the Temple is dead. Hurley mentions talking to Jacob, and Richard gets intense, saying, "Whatever he says, don't believe him." Maybe he's pissed and disillusioned; maybe he figures that since Jacob's dead, the Enemy can try and appear in his form. With that, he marches off and announces his intentions to die.
Inside the ship, Richard pulls out the sticks of dynamite from the stash that destroyed Arzt, but futile attempts to detonate drive home his point that he can't kill himself. He asks for Jack's help, and Jack agrees to help the guy out, to Hurley's confusion. Richard sits as Jack extends one of the fuses and lights it, but rather than bail, he sits down and asks Richard to start talking. Hurley tries to get Jack to leave, but the guy won't, so Hurley reluctantly gets free from danger. Richard also warns Jack that the explosion will kill him, but Jack says that he wouldn't have seen what he did at the Lighthouse if he didn't have a purpose on the island. He sits back and closes his eyes as the dynamite's fuse extinguishes on its own before reaching the head. This is an interesting way to bring Jack home for the series: Rather than have him pitted in a battle with Locke, he's actually forced to evolve from the man of science into the man of faith, taking up Locke's mantle to fight the thing masquerading as John. Nice move. Richard's sufficiently won over by this trick, and when he asks what Jack wants to do, Jack says they need to go back to where they started.
So that's how the island-based threads from this week's episode meet up. Jack and Hurley arrive at the battered beach camp with Richard in tow, and the slow-mo arrival scene is heavily reminiscent of the first season (particularly, just off the top of my head, Sayid and Shannon's return to camp at the end of "Do No Harm" before they know about Boone's death). Everyone shakes hands and hugs; this is, after all, the first time they've all met up since the Ajira flight crashed and sent half of them back to 1977. Ben stands apart, still penitent, but somehow part of the group.
And that's when the action shifts out to sea, as a submarine's periscope rises from the water's surface to see the reunion as it happens. Below deck, it turns out that the tiny vessel is under the command of (at long last) Charles Widmore. Upon hearing that there are people on the beach, he tells the man at the periscope not to stop but to "proceed as planned."
And that's that. Overall, a solid episode aside from some howlers having to do with Ben's various confessions and schemes. I liked seeing Richard suicidal and frustrated, no longer pretending to be happy that he'd been "touched by Jacob," a phrase that made me wonder if Jack and the other candidates, though susceptible to external forces and death (as Richard apparently is, hence his request for assisted suicide), might be able to live forever if left unmolested. It was also good to see Widmore return, but what he hopes to do on the island and how the hell he even found it are questions for another day. The real meat of the episode was the way it punctured several characters' notions of what it meant to follow a hero or leader, and how they were forced to question the methods and costs of the sacrifices they'd made. That's one of the reasons the book about Disraeli was discovered with The Chosen; the latter is about a reconciliation between worlds, but the man himself was an embodied contradiction, born of Jewish parents but baptized as a Christian as a young boy and willing to see the two as somehow compatible. The characters on "Lost" are no longer fighting for their survival, but for how they want to define that survival, and when the battle isn't between good and evil but just in figuring out whether there's any difference, you get some really good stories. And good television.