Okay, it might all have been planned from episode 1. But luck can play a part as well. “Things I am grateful for”, exec producer Damon Lindelof Tweeted this week, “Alfredo Sauce. My Waterpik. And last but not least, Michael Emerson”. Emerson, of course, was originally cast to play Ben Linus for a handful of episodes only. But not only has it become the Emmy-capturing part of a lifetime for Emerson, Ben Linus has become utterly integral to ‘Lost’: lucky for Darlton, lucky for Emerson, lucky for us.
And this was his finest hour. In what was comfortably the best episode of the season so far – and which will, one suspects, go into the all-time top 10 of many ‘Lost’ fans – Emerson gave us as many different facets of Benjamin Linus as we could wish for, and still left us guessing.
This week there was a clear and explicit link between the flash-sideways and the on-island action, both past and present. We got our first sight of Dr Ben Linus, history teacher, a few episodes ago, and we weren’t disappointed with the fleshed-out portrayal we got here: a conscientious and committed teacher, slightly fussy, devoted to his ailing father, disappointed with his stalled career. Given a chance to satisfy his ambition in a somewhat squalid way – and a way which would involve a substantial betrayal – what will Dr Linus do?
Back on the island we were reminded more than once of what Ben’s ambition had brought him there, as he was unmasked as Jacob’s killer and forced to dig his own grave (I am so not warming to Ilana, BTW), before being offered freedom by Flocke: and, once again, a major choice. And after last week, when we saw Sayid apparently rejecting redemption, it was fascinating to see Ben grapple – in two timelines – with the same possibility.
What gave it emotional depth, of course, was Michael Emerson’s quite astonishing performance. In the past I’ve enjoyed every moment of Emerson’s measured, wry intensity; here he added shades of pathos (“He’s the only one who’ll have me”) on the island, and compassion and empathy off it, resulting in as good an acting performance as we’ve yet had from anyone in ‘Lost’. Even now, though, I find myself wondering whether Ben was being sincere when he made his on-island choice, or whether he’s up to something.
So richly compelling were the Linus plots that they ran the risk of overwhelming the rest of the episode, but there were no makeweight plotlines this week: Jack’s apparent retreat from rationality; more about the candidates; Richard’s immortality; and a terrific Jack/Richard scene in The Black Rock which brought it all together. And, in the final seconds, the return of a very big name indeed to the island. There isn’t that long to go now for ‘Lost’, and on the evidence of last week and this the writers are starting to move through the gears. This, though, was Michael Emerson’s week.