It only took about five minutes into the pilot episode of the television series Lost before I was hooked. By the end of the pilot I was addicted, and I remained a faithful viewer right up until the finale six years later. Lost had its fair share of ups and downs, but I stayed with it because when Lost was on its game, it was bold and daring, and it produced some of the best hours of television ever aired on network TV. There are so many aspects of Lost that were truly great, but one that I particularly admired during its six season run was its casting. Be forewarned, the rest of this post is written for those who have seen Lost in its entirety, and therefore spoilers abound.
Casting is hugely important to the success of a television show, because scripts can live or die by the actors saying the lines. A miscast actor is just as detrimental as an incompetent one, and casting can sometimes be the hardest part of the development process. Lost must have been a particular challenge, because it had a sprawling cast that was constantly changing due to Lost’s spectacularly high death count. Remarkably, nearly every part was perfectly cast, and the result was some of finest acting seen outside of cable. In particular, Michael Emerson was incredible as Ben Linus, the ruthless leader of the original inhabitants of Lost’s mysterious island. Introduced in season two as a mystery man claiming to have crash landed on the island in a hot air balloon, Ben was later revealed as the leader of the Others, a group of shadowy figures who had been terrorizing the survivors of Oceanic 815. More often than not, I became incensed watching Ben coldly wield his power to manipulate those around him, and the body count that stacked up due to his actions was shocking, including both his father and daughter. Later, when Ben betrayed and murdered Locke, I became enraged and I concluded that Ben could potentially go down as one of the most dastardly villains in television history. At that point I could see no chance of redemption for this character.
Unbelievably, this feeling changed in the final moments of the episode “Dr. Linus”, when Ben manages to escape from digging his own grave, Ilana’s punishment for Ben’s murder of Jacob, and a showdown between Ben and Ilana follows. As Ben attempts to explain his actions, against all the odds I realized that I felt sorry for the character; a man whose actions had caused pain and suffering to nearly every other character on the show. His words are heartbreaking, and as delivered by Emerson, it is a stunning performance. As his composure crumbles while talking about his daughter, so did my hatred for his character.
Lost was known for its epic storytelling and special effects, but where it really excelled was creating complex, flawed, and relatable characters. Some of the show’s best moments were the little exchanges, handled by superb actors, who laid bare the emotional toll of the journeys their characters were experiencing. Ben’s confession to Ilana ranks in my top five of these moments, and to this day I’m still in awe of the power of that scene. Michael Emerson ultimately received a well deserved Emmy for his work on Lost, and it is my hope that history will remember Ben Linus as one of the greatest characters ever created for television.
A clip of the scene can be found here, but if at all possible, watch the episode as whole for the full emotional impact.