The Altered Universe:
This was a particularly fun one - I quite enjoyed watching mundane high school politics presented with LOST's unique flair for dramatic tension. Given the show's track record I just kept waiting for someone to pull a gun out, but for once we were watching average people behaving somewhat averagely! Ultimately we were given an AU tale more directly parallel to the Original Timeline (OT) Island tale than any yet. Ben is faced with precisely the same decision in this week's AU story as he was in 4.09 (The Shape of Things to Come): His own power or Alex's life? While placing failure to get into Yale on the same level as getting shot in the head might be a touch dubious (There are other good universities out there, right?), the message was clear, and Ben's AU decision to choose Alex this time was made in complete conjunction with his OT decision to stop chasing power and embrace his own failures. Just like with last week when Sayid simultaneously gave into his darker nature in both the AU and the OT, one is left wondering if character's decisions in one timeline directly change the course of their existence in the other. Or are these similarities simply proof that we're watching the same characters in both stories, even if their circumstances have been altered and their connection to Jacob severed.
Also of note was Roger Linus referencing the fact that he and Ben left the Dharma Initiative and the Island. This was the first time any of the AU characters have mentioned having been on the Island (even though we've bumped into people like Ben and Ethan who would have been there in 1977 when the Incident occurred). Some fans have interpreted Ben's and Ethan's presences in the AU to be proof that things pre-1977, pre-Incident, are also different in the AU since we've seen the Island on the ocean floor. To me, Roger Linus mentioning his days on the Island is only further proof of what we were lead to believe by Faraday's plan for changing things and Juliet's other-worldly confirmation that "It worked" -- that the AU came into being (diverging from the OT) precisely when Juliet detonated the Jughead H-Bomb in 1977, and that nothing prior to that moment in the AU happened differently from what occurred in the OT. The whole concept of the AU is complicated and "out there" enough -- I don't see why the writers would differ from the bomb-splitting-the-timeline premise they set up. If the Island is on the ocean floor in the AU, and Roger and Ben left the Dharma Initiative sometime after Jughead detonated, then clearly the Island didn't instantly sink upon the detonation. Maybe the absence of the Swan site's electromagnetic energy pocket (which Jughead wiped out) slowly caused the destruction of the land mass beneath the Island. Maybe the lack of a functioning Island is causing unseen problems in the AU. Maybe the whole point of the AU is to show us what disastrous consequences are going to occur on a global scale if our characters don't sacrifice themselves to save the Island in the OT...
Richard's crisis of faith in this episode's sub-plot was just as compelling as Ben's plea for understanding. Much like Jack, Locke, and Ben before him, Richard was finally driven off the "it's-all-been-meaningless" deep end by the combined impact of losing Jacob, losing everyone at the Temple, and realizing that he'll never know what his thousands (?) of years of service have been for. He reconfirms that his lack of aging is the result of Jacob's touch (which has never been too big a surprise since Jacob's healing powers have previously helped Locke, Juliet's sister Rachel, Dogen's son, and possibly Rose). But Richard goes on to add to his gift/curse his inability to kill himself. While we never saw Michael Dawson get touched by Jacob, "Dawson" WAS on both the Candidates Cave wall and the Lighthouse wheel, so chances are Michael WAS touched by Jacob at some point, and chances are that his inability to kill himself in 4.08 (Meet Kevin Johnson) was our first look at Richard's current plight. Jack wasn't able to kill himself either in the Flashforward of 3.22 (Through the Looking Glass), and now Jack takes destiny by the reigns once again, executing a science experiment to renew his faith in the powers of the island. He still might not be down with taking any orders from Jacob, but having watched that dynamite fuse fizzle out, he now knows Jacob is protecting him. The Others aren't able to boss around or kill still-valid Candidates, and these Candidates are unable to kill themselves. At least not until their duty or role in the Candidate-Search has been fulfilled, as Ghost-Christian Shepard indicated to Michael on the Freighter just before it exploded in 4.13 (There's No Place Like Home) with the words, "You can go now."
Jacob & His Agenda:
But while Jacob seems to be able to protect his Candidates to a certain extent, he certainly doesn't make anything easy for them. In fact, it's almost the exact opposite. One of my favorite revelations of the night was Miles telling Ben that Jacob didn't want to die and was in fact hoping that he was "wrong" about Ben. We all know that Jacob behaved like a mysterious, ungrateful jack-ass to Ben right before Ben knifed him, which leaves us with only one conclusion: Jacob will go to any length, including risking his own life, to force his Candidates to prove their character in the face of unwavering adversity. "Linus" may have been crossed off both the Lighthouse and the Cave wall long ago, but Jacob still wanted to see Ben change, and was willing to give him neither an apology or nor an explanation to ease that transition. Ben's faith had to be proven in the worst possible circumstances. It's reminiscent of God's behavior toward Job in the Old Testament's Book of Job. And if this is the way Jacob feels he needs to treat all his Candidates... perhaps it helps explain just a little bit why the Others haven't been allowed to tell the our heroes ANYTHING about ANYTHING ever. Perhaps if they did, the true test of our heroes' make and mettle would be tainted.
The Man In Black & His Agenda:
The MIB only made a brief appearance to Ben this week, but it spoke volumes. First, he directly contradicted what he said to Sawyer about the Island being a joke that doesn't need protection by telling Ben that he wanted Ben to assume the role of Island leader. Maybe he just needs a sap to take his place as the local "security system," but more obviously: he just tells people whatever they want to hear. If Sawyer wants to hear the Island is a joke and he can leave, that's what Sawyer is told. If Ben wants to hear the Island needs a leader and he can lead, then that's what Ben is told. Claire is told she can have Aaron back. Sayid is told he can have Nadia back. It's just an absolute PARTY at the Man In Black's house tonight! But ultimately, despite their recent crises of faith, Ben and Richard can now form a "We Resisted Temptation" club on the beach. The MIB offered Ben power and Richard answers (much like an ABC promo), but both have walked away from his offers. While the MIB's team grows based on promises, Jacob's team continues to grow based on character...
This plot twist may have been rather clumsily and tangentially tacked on the end of the episode (usually such twists are a bit more carefully segued into), but there's no arguing how good it is for wrapping up this show's mysteries that Widmore has finally made his return to the Island. Questions surround the man like a swarm of gnats, but connecting him into his proper place in the current battle that is being waged will fill in a LOT of blanks from the past seasons. My current hunch is that he's somehow aligned with the MIB, (perhaps having made a pact with Smokey prior to his Ben-influenced banishment from the Island). I say this primarily because he told Locke there was a "war" coming on the Island in 5.07 (The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham), and if he WAS referring to the current coup of the MIB, how would he have known about it back then if he hadn't been in cahoots with Smokey? After all, Richard and the rest of the Other seem to have been caught completely off guard by this "war." Of course there's still a chance he knows nothing of Jacob and the MIB's current conflict and just wants to get revenge on Ben and reclaim The Others as his own... but I doubt it. All points are currently converging. But the biggest question raised by Widmore's reappearance is how did he find the Island? Eloise probably didn't help him, as what with her being the keeper of unsanctioned Island travels she could have easily helped him return at any point over the last 20 years. So either she's had a change of heart on helping Widmore find the place, or maybe he was able to somehow track Ajira 316's trajectory. Now that Widmore's back in the picture, I certainly hope that both Desmond and Eloise will return to action as well. There's much we need to know about their mysterious places in this epic tale.
And that's where we are!