As one might expect from the title, the seventh episode of this season centers on Ben Linus. We are introduced to the main theme right away as Dr. Linus teaches his European History students about the island of Elba, where Napoleon faced the test of his lost of power. Ben has, from the very beginning, been a power broker. Even in his most difficult positions, he always had a plan. The numerous times he played the role of prisoner, he was really in control of the situation.
This was especially true in the hands of John Locke, from whom he elicited much frustration. Trapped in the Swan Station (Season 2), Ben spurred on a growing friction between Locke and Jack. He manipulated Locke's need to be special, and Jack's need to be right to eventually drive them both away from the station in order to escape. In Season 4, Locke is holding Ben prisoner at a house in the barracks, but in a matter of a few episodes, Ben is living among them as a free man again.
It is interesting to see the role that "Locke" now plays in Ben's life—both as the disguised Man in Black on the Island and as the substitute teacher in the flash-sideways. It is now clear that Ben's struggle was to balance the desire to protect Alex and a desire for power. In the flash-sideways, the well-meaning John Locke encourages him to pursue the job of school principal (a position of power) when he expresses a concern for his History Club (of which Alex is a member). On the Island, Locke tempts him with the job of leading the Island now that Jacob is gone (a position of power), which he sees as his only purpose now that Alex is dead.
In both timelines, Ben's desire for power leads him to do something unethical. As a teacher, he enlists the help of a colleague to find evidence of an "inappropriate relationship" between the school nurse and the current principal in order to blackmail him into retiring. On the Island, he accepts the help of a "man" who should be his enemy if he were truly a follower of Jacob. In both timelines, he faces the choice of sacrificing that which is more dear to him than power—his relationship with Alex.
In the flash-sideways, Ben's attempted power-grab reveals a choice (at the hand of the principal) of becoming the "leader" of the school or letting Alex "live." This is a parallel of the events in the main timeline, where Ben kidnaps baby Alex, but is told by Charles Widmore that the Island wants her dead. Later Ben becomes the leader when he exiles Widmore because of an "inappropriate relationship" with a woman off the Island. Widmore "changes the rules," which causes Alex to be killed. Despite the dark path he takes on the Island, Ben decides to sacrifice his own chance for advancement to give Alex that chance instead. He appears to feel a sense of liberation at this, even offering to give his parking space away. This is a petty thing, but symbolically very unlike the Ben we know from the Island.
When Locke helps him escape from his shackles in this episode, it is his pain over the loss of Alex that stops him from killing Ilana. We see a more human side of him for probably the first time, as he sympathizes with her loss of Jacob. She ultimately gives him the chance at redemption, forgiving him rather than letting him go to Locke. Interestingly, in the seventh episode of Season 1 ("The Moth"), it is John Locke who gives Charlie the chance at redemption from his drug addiction.
This event seems to conclude Ben's story in the same way that "The Substitute" concluded Locke's story, as discussed in an earlier post. They both continue to live, but the life seems to have gone out of them. Basically, they have accepted their fate or embraced their destiny. This episode seems to reveal that Jack has done so as well, but unlike the now-powerless Ben, Jack seems to have found new power in the confidence of his purpose. Only time will tell how this plays out.
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