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Ever Ben Lost?

I have mixed feelings about the Emmy awards. On one hand Bryan Cranston is awesome, but on the other Hugh Laurie is due a statue, albeit probably not for this lacklustre year. On one hand 24 deserved recognition, but on the other Anne Wersching was the best actress on the show – certainly not Cherry Jones. it was awesome to see Brendan Gleeson get some over due love. And there is one decision I’m glad that the Academy made. Michael Emerson deserved an award for his role of everyone’s favourite sociopath.

Ben, the two of us need look no more… We both found what we were looking for.

Where have you, Ben?

Where have you, Ben?

What is it about Benjamin Linus of Lost that is so compelling? Even at the point of the character’s introduction nearly four years ago now, television was already populated with sociopaths – for example, there was the magnificent capacity of Hugh Laurie’s Gregory House to screw over anyone and anything for his own ends. Since then television has been increasingly flooded with similarly charismatic amoral antiheroes – most notably populating shows like Dexter or The Shield or The Sopranos. Still, there’s something absolutely enthralling about Ben as portrayed by Emerson, but what exactly is it?

There’s no denying he gets the best lines and is wonderfully aloof about everything that isn’t directly tied to what he wants. When he kills the man who murdered his daughter, detonating a bomb of the freighter, Locke takes him to task, reminding him he’s killed everyone on that boat. His response? “So?” Or the fantastic moment where Ben, being held up by African mercenaries attempts unsuccessfully to negotiate via English, before being forced to disarm the pair – at which point they beg him not to shoot, leading Ben to observe “So you do speak English?” before shooting them both. Still a dry wit isn’t the sole requirement for an iconic anti hero – certainly not these days.

Maybe it’s the fact that the character seems constructed as a homage to that most iconic of early nineties villains, Hannibal Lector. Similar to Hannibal as portrayed at his most effective (that is, in Silence of the Lambs or Red Dragon rather than Hannibal), Ben isn’t especially outwardly violent. Sure, he can stab and shoot, but he doesn’t brandish knives or guns as a means of threatening anybody. Instead it’s a low-key chilling delivery that strikes at his prey. he manipulates them, he lies and he cheats, he undermines, he turns friends against one another.

It says something about the effectiveness of a character that the audience knows the first thing we need to do if you ever capture him is to stop him talking. Nevermind disarming him (though that may come in handy – his great “Are you look for this?” line before shooting a fellow passenger with their own gun was one of the highlights of the year in television), get his mouth shut. He never relies on brute force to make his point for him, which is something in a show that prides itself on being as shocking and sudden as possible.

Of course Emerson has the role down. He knows his delivery. He knows that he needs to make the character seem as rational as possible. He emulates Hopkins in his delivery – he rarely blinks in character and very rarely makes a sudden move (so when he does it has the full effect). He plays the character like a caged beast and – if there were any justice in the world – this would be a career-making role. Instead it may simply end up being a high point in his career. Emerson is an immensely talented actor, and he’s no stranger to the Emmys – he picked up an award for a guest starring role on The Practice. Here he literally built the role from nothing. The writers have stated that the character was written as a three-episode guest star, before Emerson won them over, becoming a recurring guest star and then a lead. The audience responded to the character as well.

It isn’t all performance, naturally. Nor is it a weird collection of tics and a perchant for witty one liners and killer insight that separates Ben from the pack. It might be the sense that we believe that the character is actually human underneath it all that makes him so compelling. There is an excellent moment in the fourth season where Ben sacrifices his own daughter for the island and for Jacob, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for the manipulative underhanded creep when he gets banished for his bother.

Ben truly believes in what he what he does. Or at least he used to. This year the character (understandably) lost his faith. It’s perhaps understandable that Emerson picked up the Emmy this year – voters like crises of faith in characters. His co-star, Terry O’Quinn, nabbed the award two years ago while Locke underwent a similar forty-day journey into the desert.

Maybe it’s the fact that Ben is truly tragic that draws audiences to him. He has made the tough calls and the hard sacrifices, and been demonised for them (indeed, while we may never completely sympathise with what he does, the series has offered a deeper understanding for his cruelty as it goes on). His arc this year (even ignoring the loss of faith) was a tragic one. His younger self was shot by a temporally-displaced islander, only to be rushed away to The Others. This islander shot Ben because of murders that Ben committed; Ben committed those murders because of his life as an Other; he is an Other because the islander shot him. It seems reasonable to suggest that Ben might not ever have had a chance.

It’s hard to believe that this is anything new. For his lifetime protecting the island, Ben developed terminal cancer. For all the years Ben spent loving his daughter she was cruelly taken from him. For all the protection and guidence he gave John Locke, he was usurped by him. Ben has always wanted to be someone special, and we’ve seen he has the talent and the will, but perhaps he just isn’t special. No matter how bad he wants to be and how hard he tried. The island didn’t want him back when he returned this year, leaving him pretty much alone in the future with the devil and tasked with killing god. Well, assuming that Jacob is god.

Still, the show never lets us sympathise completely with Ben and it’s the better for it. He thinks nothing of taking life or of lying or betraying. He will do anything to get what he wants. He’s a fanatic. But he’s also – despite all this a failure. He isn’t magically brilliant or successful because of his skills, he’s still stuck with being nothing more than an average person. But even an average person can stab god.

Maybe we don’t understand Ben. Maybe we never will. Maybe he likes it that way.

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