To say that we've been looking forward to seeing Ben's flashback and finally getting "some frigging answers" would be an understatement to the nth degree.. But unlike the flashbacks we got of Juliet, which have pretty much told us everything we need to know about her, 'The Man Behind the Curtain' seems to be more out of the Season 1 school, giving bits and pieces but not filling us in on the whole. And while we will eventually get more of the blanks filled in (but not til Season 5), once again are major word of mouth is Ben himself. And we all know that he's a liar.
Locke has called the bluff he made in the previous episode, and brought back his father's body to the camp. You can tell Ben really didn't think he was capable of it in his attitude. And until now, it's only seemed like Ben's grip has been loosening, now we see actual cracks. Mikhail shows up--- and Ben appears as surprised as anyone to see he's still alive--- and warns them about the woman who Desmond's group fished out of the trees. Considering what he tells them, it does raise the question how Mikhail knows all this--- Naomi was unconscious, and God knows nobody at the beach would've told him. We'll let this go for now. In any case when Locke sees Mikhail, he takes right up where the sonar fence left off, beating him to a pulp. Ben yells for Tom and Richard to do something, but they just watch. Looks like the mighty are about to fall. Even Alex--- who has good reason to loathe her father--- goes out of her way to make sure that Locke is armed before swishing him a disdainful 'Happy Birthday."
So, after nearly a whole season of waiting, Ben finally takes Locke to see Jacob-- the mysterious man that the Others (Ben in particular) have been using as the man behind everything. It's a considerable trek, and its worth noting some of the landmarks. As they walk through the jungle night, they pass a very large line of ash which Ben goes to great trouble to step over. In mythology, a circle of ash is used to keep demons away. It's significance here is hard to figure---- Ben may think that he's keeping others out with it, but it's just as likely that the Others have been using it to keep him sealed inside --- whoever 'him' is. Also, where did the ash come from? We hear mention of a volcano in this episode, but it has never been talked of again-- either in the real world or the flashbacks.
Finally, they come to an isolated cabin.. As they approached, we hear a faint scream, but no one does anything. Ben gives Locke one last warning that Jacob's not going to be happy to see them. This doesn't frighten Locke, so they go in. They turn off their flashlights, and Ben lights a lantern. Inside, there are jars with fluid, and a portrait of a dog (though he isn't playing poker). Then Ben talks to--- an empty chair. He insists that Jacob is in it (it's a brilliant piece of acting by Michael Emerson) and carries on a long conversation. Locke naturally thinks (like the audience is supposed to) that Ben has gone over the high side, and that all of his planning has been part of a graduated insanity. So Locke starts to leave. And then we hear "Help me." And in a moment that caused people across the country to paused their Tivo's, we see--- someone. Then Locke shines the flashlight on him, and the cabin goes crazy. Branches begin shaking, the jars with fluid go flying across the room, the kerosene lamp all but explodes. Locke is terrified, even though Ben seems perfectly calm (though I'm damn sure this isn't what he expected.) and stumbles out of the cabin. Ben emerges and simply says "That's Jacob."
By now, the rabid viewer of Lost has seen so much of that cabin that we probably know it inside and out, but we still don't know for sure--- was that really Jacob in that chair? No matter how many times I watch, it looks like an older version of Locke. And if it really was Jacob, why did he cry out 'Help me"? Did he sense that Locke was someone special or was he trying to find a way to shout out to what was keeping him prisoner? We still haven't gotten answers on this (the creators have to address it in Season 6, or they're not doing their jobs) but there's a very good possibility that Ben or Locke (probably both) were being deceived.
If all this episode delivered was the scene in the cabin, it would be worth the wait. But Ben's flashback is one of the most shocking we've ever had. Ben has had a difficult life. Born two months premature, his early appearance led to his mother's death, and his father's endless contempt for the son who killed him. Ben also lied about being born on the island (he even says so here); rather he came with his father as part of the Dharma Initiative. His father had great ambitions, and was royally pissed when he learned he was just going to be a work man. The only people Ben seemed close to was a girl named Annie and the man who brought them to the island, Horace Goodspeed. Annie seems to be the only person in the world who really loved him (she gave him a birthday present that he is still holding on to nearly thirty years later) and its clear from the way that he watched her before that the feeling was mutual. Which is why it's been very puzzling that we still have no idea what happened to here even now (another question the producers better answer) Horace is more interesting. He doesn't interact with Ben much, but he clearly treats him with more kindness that Roger Linus ever does.
Then Ben, like certain members of Oceanic 815 will, starts seeing dead people. In this case, he sees his mother. But unlike the others, who try to ignore it, Ben desperately wants to escape the hell he's in. So patiently he finds a way to turn off the sonic fence and runs into the jungle--- where he meets Richard. Richard's hair is bushier than it is in the present, but otherwise he looks exactly the same as he does now. Up until now, we've assumed that Ben was the leader; now it seems Richard has been monitoring him, and seems to consider him 'special', like he'll consider Locke several decades later. He tells Ben he can join them, but he'll have to be very patient. We won't learn for a little while longer what that patience will mean, maybe because it hasn't happened yet. (Confused? You ain't seen nothing yet.) The last flashback takes place in the early 90's. Ben has grown up, and is still a work man. He takes his father to a section of the island near the Pearl station (in the van that Hurley would later discover and bring back) We've seen Ben be ruthless before, but I define you not to be chilled to the bone when he cold-blooded gases his father. Simultaneously, the Dharma purge has taken place, and when Richard asks Ben if they want to move his father's body, Ben just tells him to leave it there. Now we get why they were so big on having him kill his father. He also seems to feel compassion towards Horace (he closes his eyes as if he regretted it) but he has no problem with them throwing all the bodies into a mass grave. God help us, he is a monster.
But his most brutal trick is yet to come. After the actions in the cabin, Locke tells Ben that he intends to expose him as a fraud to all the others. Ben repays him by taking him to that same mass grave where the Dharma Initiative have been rotting for nearly fifteen years. Locke knows something is coming but reacts to late, and Ben shoots him. But rather than leave him for dead he demands to know what Jacob said to him. (Which either implies he'd never heard Jacob talk before or what happened in the cabin was news to him.) He appears surprised when he hears Jacob's words, but rather than finish Locke off, he leaves him for dead Ben knows about the healing properties of this island, and he never does anything without a reason. So why didn't he finish him off then and there? Maybe like everyone else, he knows Locke is special, and that this is one more test. Maybe he's trying to regroup on what Mikhail told him. Whatever the reason, their story is not even close to being over.
'The Man Behind the Curtain' is arguably the high point of the season. It reveals Michael Emerson to be one of the premier actors of the shows (he received the first of three consecutive Emmy nods for this episode) and actually gave us a sympathetic portrait of Ben. What happened in the Dharma Initiative shaped him, but there was far more than what we saw in this episode to help turn him into the... person he is today. He may be a monster, but compared to some of what we've seen on this show, he didn't get there alone, and everything he does he does for a reason. But then he is a liar. Isn't he?