Saturday, March 13, 2010

LOST - Episode 6.7 - "Dr. Linus"

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are master of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
‘Brutus,’ and ‘Caesar.’ What should be in that ‘Caesar’?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together: yours is as fair a name.

—William Shakespeare
Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene II, lines 135-144

Since the climax of “The Incident,” I’ve been struck by the thought that Benjamin Linus shares much in common with Brutus, one of the main characters of Shakespeare’s morally ambiguous Julius Caesar. Both LOST and Caesar share much in common: both have no truly definable protagonist, nor are we able to clearly define whether the actions of its characters are right or wrong. We see this evident most in the character of Brutus in Caesar and Linus in LOST.

Brutus is a man who truly sees himself as noble and good. He is a stoic who believes that the universe has a rational foundation guided by fate. The key of having a great life is becoming morally righteous, pursuing intellectual understanding, and not giving into subjective emotional responses. Amongst the Romans, Brutus was valued as a strong leader and a good friend of Caesar’s. It wasn’t until he believed Caesar had gotten too big for his britches that he began to consider staging a coup.

One of the biggest questions I’ve always had about Caesar – which I’ve had the privilege of teaching several times now – is whether or not Brutus is a man in denial about his own lust for power. He tortures himself with his decisions, and it’s not until the machinations of Cassius and the other conspirators force him to make his choice that we get an insight into what might be Brutus’ “true self.” This leads him to stabbing a man he once saw as a friend, yet couldn’t help feeling somewhat betrayed by. Brutus talks the talk of being morally righteous and suppressing his feelings, but in the end he is as much a slave to them as everyone else.

Benjamin Linus’ path is very similar. Like Brutus, he has mostly seen himself as virtuous due to his alignment with Jacob. In the season two finale, “Live Together, Die Alone,” he remarks to Jack that the Others are “the good guys.” This assertion does not seem to change until he allows Keamy to kill Alex, and even then, he makes it his mission to still fulfill what he believes is Jacob’s mission by gathering the Oceanic Six and bringing them back to the Island. He is an intellectual with a vast library and a cache of passports with identities pulled out of classic literature. And, he is a firm believer in destiny, which he sees as a “fickle bitch.”

It wasn’t until Ben realized that Jacob was not his friend, and didn’t even seem to think about him that Ben, like Brutus before him, decided to plunge the knife and put an end to what he thought was tyrannical rule.

This episode, “Dr. Linus,” makes the connection between Ben and Brutus much clearer, and may give us some direction as to where Ben’s character arc is heading for the duration of the series.

Flash-Sideways Ben

In Ben’s compelling flash-sideways, the comparisons to Brutus continue. Both are well-qualified men. Cassius, in Act I, reminds Brutus that he should be the ruler of the Romans; he is the people’s choice. We know from Brutus’ history that he was an important man during Pompey’s regime, and was pardoned by Caesar upon Caesar’s victory over Pompey in 49 B.C. This pardon led to Brutus becoming part of Caesar’s cabinet, and he was given the governorship of Gaul and the position of Praetor, a distinguished governmental position. By comparison, Ben is a Ph.D in European History – not exactly the sort of credentials you’ll find at your local high school. He is the head of the History Club, and appears to have a strong standing among the teachers in the school.

Locke, playing the role of Cassius, encourages him to take over the principal position at the high school. So, Ben, like Brutus, goes through his dark period of brooding and ambivalence until Alex provides him with the info he needs to give him the righteous indignation necessary to stage a coup. He finds a fellow conspirator in Dr. Arzt, and makes his blackmail play – the equivalent of back stabbing, especially since he flat-out lied to Alex about keeping the principal’s sexual secrets secret.

But here is where the comparisons end. Unlike Brutus, Ben is capable of recognizing that his power play might ruin the life and reputation of the one student he seems to care about most: Alex. In Caesar, Brutus does not seem to consider how his actions might affect his beautiful wife, Portia. When we are first introduced to Portia, she is a strong woman who wants to know the inner workings of her husband’s heart and mind. Brutus’ unwillingness to share leads her to quote one of Shakespeare’s most feminist lines: “Portia is Brutus’ harlot, not his wife.” Brutus is slightly moved, but as he becomes more and more consumed with his plan to murder Caesar, he pushes her away till we learn in later as Brutus and Cassius are making plans for war with Antony’s army that Portia killed herself by “swallowing fire.” (Apparently, history has it that she indeed killed herself by swallowing hot coals – who needs prescription drug overdose, huh?)

Ben, though, in the flash-sideways, is capable of making the right decision. This must have something to do with the fact that he and his father left the Island after Roger joined the Dharma Initiative. For whatever reason that led to their leaving, Roger did not become the raging alcoholic and monstrous father we met back in season three’s classic “Man Behind the Curtain.” Certainly he wasn’t the best father, but he wasn’t bad enough to make Ben want to murder him. Instead, Ben is changing the old man’s oxygen tank instead of gassing him to death. (I remember doing that for my mom before she passed away – this scene gave me flashbacks.) This Ben, we realize, is not the cold, hardened man we know on the Island. He has the potential for it, but the potential for evil is not as strong as his potential for grace.

Island Ben

On the Island, Ben is dealing with the consequences of stabbing Caesar. We discover, through the powers of Miles, that while Jacob did not say a word to Ben as Ben plunged the knife, he did think “Et tu, Brute” in his own way. “Right up until the second the knife went through his heart, he was hoping he was wrong about you,” Miles tells him. So, Ben realizes, Jacob did notice him, did think about him, did care.

This is in stark contrast to the judgment Ben received at the hands of the Smoke Monster in season five’s episode, “Dead is Dead.” In the cavern under the Temple, the Smoke Monster appears to Ben in the form of Alex’s ghost and condemns him, much like the moment in Caesar when the ghost of Caesar appears to Brutus, damning him as an “evil spirit” and letting Brutus know when he will die.

It’s in these conflicting ideas that makes LOST so compelling. Ben, by way of Miles and the Smoke Monster, is visited by the ghosts of those he has killed. While Smokey is harsh, though, Jacob is gentle. Jacob has faith and hope that Ben will make the right choice. And at the end of the episode, Jacob is proven correct. In both the flash-sideways and on the Island, Ben chooses to align himself with the “right” side.

Where Are We Headed?

One of the big questions at this point in season six is, “Which is the right side?” Is it the Man-in-Black, who seems tired of Jacob’s secrecy and wants nothing more than to leave the Island behind? Or is it Jacob, who champions freedom of choice while pulling puppet strings? I think we finally got our answer in “Dr. Linus,” which is ironic being that Ben Linus is the last character whose story arc we would ever consider bringing us answers about the show’s morality. But it did.

True goodness comes in forgiveness. And that is what Ben Linus received from Ilana.

Would the Man-in-Black offer the same to anyone who had wronged him? My guess is no. He seems to hold long grudges: against Jacob, against Richard, against those at the Temple. Jacob, for all his manipulations, may be doing what is right – our perspective just isn’t set accordingly, yet.

Unlike Brutus, Ben Linus got his opportunity to make the right decision. And he took it, on his own terms. We shouldn’t expect anything less.

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