Lost, Episode 20: The Man Behind The Curtain

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Spoilers abound in this review. There’s only one thing you can do. Go online, grab a brew. Then come back when you are through.

Is it a doll, or an action figure? In the case of Ben, the central figure in Lost, Episode 20: The Man Behind The Curtain, it is definitely a doll, but not just any doll. Hand carved and decorated, it represents a link to a part of Ben’s past, a figurine-shaped key that unlocks information to explain why Ben is the way he is.

But he’s not the only one working out his troubled past. On the island environs of Lost, if troubled souls were cordwood then you’d never go a winter’s night without a fire in the hearth. They’re everywhere and their troubles are the stuff of legend. Locke’s life has more sharp turns than a California freeway overpass. Next to Sawyer, Paris Hilton’s infamous ups and downs are a piece of cake.

But Ben.

Now there’s a real hard case for you.

The Man Behind The Curtain is all about Ben. It’s his time to shine. Ben gets the flashback treatment in Lost’s inimitable and very familiar by now, style. In Ben’s case, however, it’s like he’s the guest on “This Is Your Life,” but host Ralph Edwards has been turned into Ralph Edward Scissorhands. Good lord … should any one person have to absorb so much abuse over so much time?

You think you had problems.

You felt dissed after your old man missed your baseball game, school play, and/or science fair final.

Ask Ben.

He had to deal with a dad who never forgave him for the loss of his wife during childbirth, a dad who subsequently ran though the stop sign at every one of his birthdays and any other special event that might have cropped up.

You think your life got a bit wonky when your family moved from, say … Topeka, Kansas, to Abilene, Texas, just before you started the sixth grade.

Ask Ben.

He found himself cast away with an increasingly bitter father in the middle of a commune of peaceniks (surrounded by electric fencing, subject to tectonic outbursts, haunted by the apparition of his dead mother, and under attack by amiable neighbors called “The Hostiles”).

On second thought, maybe you shouldn’t ask Ben.

Woven throughout Ben’s flashbacks is the account of Locke and Ben traveling to meet someone called Jacob, someone who Ben credits with being the one who is completely in charge of his island operation.

Here is a snippet of dialogue that sets the whole plot arc in motion:

Ben: You probably think I’m the leader of this little community, but that’s not entirely true. We all answer to someone, John.

Locke: And who might that be?

Ben: His name is Jacob.

Locke: Okay then, take me to Jacob.

Ben: I can’t do that.

Lock gets up and begins to leave.

Ben: Where are you going?

Locke: Ben, if you don’t want to take me, maybe someone else will. I’ll just go and ask Richard.

Ben: Why would Richard take you? He doesn’t know where Jacob is. He doesn’t talk to Jacob.

Locke: Who does talk to him?

Ben: I do!

Locke: You’re the only one who talks to him?

Ben: That’s right.

Locke: No one else knows where he is?

Ben: I was born on this island … I’m one of the last that was. Most of the people you see, I brought them here. Jacob talks to me, John. He tells me what to do, John … trusts me.

Locke: And no one else has seen him.

Ben: That’s right.

Locke: How convenient.

And this sets up the entire premise for what is going on in this episode. People communicate with other people, or sometimes they don’t. When they do, can they be trusted to tell the truth, and are the people listening to the truth able to recognize it as such.

Just like real life, you say … but with a bit of ‘roid rage mixed in.

In the case of Ben’s revelation about Jacob, Ben says that Jacob speaks to him because he was born on the island, but in his flashbacks we know for a fact that he was not born there and only came when his father relocated there to take a gift job with the Dharma Project.

What else is Ben lying about? How much what he says can be trusted? And even when there is visual evidence to support what he’s saying, how much of that is the delusional mind working magic to persuade, cajole, or browbeat others into doing things they ordinarily wouldn’t.

And just where does the mercurial force of nature named Jacob fit into all of this?

And why doesn’t it want Ben to know what it told Locke?

While the subplots that deal with Jack and Juliette the female spy and the downed aviatrix and her communicator support the action, they will be brought to fruition in upcoming episodes, hopefully with as much staying power as the head on train wreck that is Locke vs. Ben. Nope. What makes this episode click are the performances of Terry O’Quinn and Michael Emerson, respectively acting as Locke and Ben. These two thespians wear their characters as easily as you or I might put on a comfy pair of pajamas. Locke’s gruff exterior and unshaven mug contrast so well with Ben’s sharp beak and laser beam eyes. The banter between them is tightly crafted, and while this ain’t MacBeth, the exchanges are delivered with all the skill of Olivier and Gielgud, resized for TV.

By the show’s end, Ben has put Locke in a rather untenable position and Locke has been forced to admit that while he was wrong about Jacob, he’s hoping that being wrong won’t cost him his life.

In the magical kingdom of Oz, the man behind the curtain was incapable of doing anything for anyone, but in the end it was the Wizard who seized his destiny and found a way for Dorothy to return to Kansas.

All this metaphor lacks are Munchkins.

But don’t tell that to Damon Lindelof.

He might just produce a few for Episode 21. 

Then again, Locke might look pretty fine in those ruby red slippers.

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