Lost‘s fourth season stands out for many reasons. It was the first season with “flashforwards” as a storytelling vehicle. It was the first season to begin after the announcement was made that the series would end after the sixth season, a groundbreaking decision that would impact television as a whole moving forward. The season also stands out as Lost‘s shortest, shortened from the planned 16 hours to 14 because of the writers’ strike that happened that year. Lost would be off the air for slightly over a month due to the strike and the first episode back after the strike, “The Shape Of Things To Come”, would fundamentally alter both Ben Linus and the show itself forever.
To put things in a historical context, Lost fans were rabid at this point in time. Week to week, fans devoured every new development in a quest to further develop their own theories, which were shared both in groups of friends (remember the watercooler effect?) and in the show’s huge online community. The wait from Season 3 to Season 4 was nine months long, as the show shifted into its new airing schedule with smaller episode counts and if that wasn’t bad enough, the one month wait from the eighth and ninth episode of the season was excruciating. There were a lot of questions left for Season 4 to answer and the pressure would certainly be on “The Shape Of Things To Come” following the strike-induced break.
The episode didn’t disappoint, at all. “The Shape Of Things To Come” hit on all cylinders, so to speak, offering high-stakes action scenes, suspense, tragedy and heartbreak, advancement of mythology, character evolution and Sawyer screaming “Open the damn door,” an often-repeated line that never ceased to be funny to me. While Jack was still the main character of the story, by this point in the narrative, many fans of the show preferred Ben or Locke episodes (Desmond too), knowing that these characters still had many personality layers still left to explore, as well as deeper connections to the mysteries of the Island. Ben was the “centric character” here, and this episode kick-started his arc for the rest of the series.
I’ve always found the visual of the house in the barracks exploding to be a visual metaphor. Moving towards the endgame of Lost meant change. The death toll would be rising, the locations we would associate with the show were expanding and our ideas of what was really going on here were ever evolving. The story and everything that encompassed before was now at risk. Lost was promising an ending to their story, and watching a team of mercenaries invade the Island (a place we had previously believed to be completely hidden and protected) was a shock to the system. It was one thing for our characters to find the Island, but for a group of soldiers with large weapons, killing our beloved “redshirts” and fan favorite characters alike, as well as literally blowing up the surroundings we had come to take for granted was really unsettling.
Welcome to the war. We knew that Ben Linus did not want the folks from the freighter to make it to the Island, but with a character like Ben you always second guessed everything. Were these people as bad as Ben claimed, or did he have ulterior motives? This episode answered that question, and the answer was both. All Ben Linus ever wanted was to raise his daughter and be in a position of leadership on the Island. “The Shape Of Things To Come” took away both of those things from Ben for good, and began a journey of self for Ben, with him completely broken down and forced to pick himself up and find a new direction forward.
While Ben had lost his power in theory at the end of Season 3, he remained one step ahead of everyone up until this point. Despite being captive, he was in control. The arrival of Martin Keamy and his mercenaries effectively wiped out Ben’s advantage over not only Charles Widmore but also, the survivors of flight 815 and everyone else on the Island. We as an audience knew that Keamy had Alex hostage, after killing both her mother and Karl. We knew that she would be Keamy’s bargaining chip as he and his team marched through the Island towards the barracks in their quest to take Ben and remove him from the Island. We also knew Ben well enough to know that he wasn’t going to go down without a fight, and in his mind, he could out think and manipulate himself out of any situation.
Keamy held Alex execution style and when Ben wouldn’t surrender, he instructed Alex to say her goodbyes to her father. I remember that feeling of thinking that there was no way she would die here. Partly because of the confidence I had built up in Ben’s ability to escape dangerous situations and partly because it just didn’t seem like something that would happen on TV. While the concept of killing a child on TV has become a little more normal over the years, in 2008, when this episode aired, it wasn’t. The final words Alex heard in her young life were from the only father she ever knew, telling the mercenary that he wouldn’t leave the house, that he had stolen Alex as a baby and she meant nothing to him. While the audience knew how Ben really felt about his daughter, the final thoughts that went through her head were questioning whether her father loved her or not before Keamy executed her.
That was the moment that changed everything for Ben. Not only did he fail, not only was his daughter dead, not only did his daughter die thinking that he didn’t love her, the rules had changed. The way Ben thought his war with Charles Widmore would continue to be fought had fundamentally changed. All of the confidence, the bravado, the sense of being two steps ahead of everyone was forever gone from Ben. He was stripped down to a raw version of himself, a version which had nothing to lose. A colder Ben, fueled by a thirst for revenge and a reawakening of pain that his time in charge of The Others had helped him stuff down. After the shock of watching his daughter be murdered right in front of him wore off, Ben took the drastic step of summoning the Smoke Monster.
This has always been an interesting point for me. We see Ben enter a secret room in his room and go off somewhere else, and shortly after he returns, we hear the monster. Ben claims to have summoned it, before we watch the Smoke Monster kill a majority of the mercenaries. This was a big revelation at the time, that Ben could summon it, but in the penultimate episode of the entire series, “What They Died For,” Ben would change his claim, now saying that the monster was really summoning him instead of the other way around. This would imply that the monster was for years giving Ben the feeling that he was in control, manipulating Ben and keeping him firmly on his side of his war with Jacob, all with the goal in mind of Ben one day being the one to kill Jacob. As Sawyer might say, that’s one helluva long con.
One Year Later
While we had learned earlier in the season that Ben would eventually leave the Island and be employing Sayid as a hitman, “The Shape Of Things To Come” took things back a step and filled in a few missing pieces. Ben waking up in the Sahara Desert at the time made little sense, although we would later learn that it was the “exit point” for those who left the Island. The concept of time was definitely blurry here. All we had to go on was Ben, while in Tunisia, asking what the date was and learning that it was the fall of 2005, a full year after Oceanic 815 crashed. This episode established that those on the freighter, time-wise, were slightly behind those on the Island, when the dead body of the freighter’s doctor washed ashore on the Island—but was very much alive on the freighter at that exact same time. Was there a difference in time between “the real world” and the Island? One would assume so, but it couldn’t be stated with any degree of certainty at this point.
The Season 4 finale would show us that Ben had moved the Island, which resulted in him showing up at the exit point in the desert. “The Shape Of Things To Come” showed us the beginning of Ben’s war now that he was off the Island, on a quest for vengeance against everyone in Charles Widmore’s orbit. This colder, nothing-to-lose Ben was still every bit the opportunist and when he found Sayid, he took Sayid’s grief over his wife’s death and used it to manipulate Sayid into thinking Ben’s war was also his. Ben needed a killer in his employ and Sayid thought he needed revenge. Was Sayid’s wife actually murdered at Charles Widmore’s command? Or was her death a case of someone running a red light and then not stopping, hence Jacob stopping Sayid as we would see later in “The Incident”? That’s a question we never got an answer to, but the most logical explanation to me is that Ben lied to Sayid for his own purposes, setting up a crisis of self for perhaps Lost‘s most tragic character.
The final scene of the episode, where Ben enters Widmore’s suite late at night for their first face to face meeting since Widmore was exiled from the Island in the early ’90s, was reminiscent of the scene from Heat when Robert De Niro and Al Pacino sit at the same table in a diner and talk. Here’s Ben and Widmore, the greatest of enemies, having this conversation about their conflict, with Ben now threatening to kill Widmore’s daughter. However, there’s no possibility of violence here in this moment. It was two enemies, declaring their intentions, making it known that the stakes had been raised and the rules had changed. There was a power in that, that these two men weren’t going to resort to any cheap tricks. Their war was too big and too personal to end with a middle of the night bedroom skirmish. It would be big and the stakes high. Both men wanted to lay claim to the Island again, as if it were either of theirs ever to begin with. Their war had entered a new chapter.
“The Shape Of Things To Come” served many purposes, most notably setting Ben forth on his final journey. The episode brought the show back from a hiatus in grand fashion and reaffirmed that change was here. All bets were off. The brutality of Alex’s murder tends to be the most remembered part of this episode (and for good reason) but I’m also equally captivated by how tragic Sayid is. Sayid’s entire life was tragic. He had a chance at a happy ending but it was taken from him. This episode showed him in a state of raw grief and how he was willing to align with a man he had considered a sworn enemy, and resorted to killing on his behalf because somewhere in his mind, Sayid had convinced himself that killing was the only thing he was good at—that he didn’t deserve more in life and this was all he could provide the world. The grief wasn’t overplayed but if you give yourself a moment to sit and try and think from Sayid’s perspective here, it’s absolutely heartbreaking.
This episode really does have all of the elements you want from an episode of Lost, but pain is the underlying factor that holds it all together. In a sense, I suppose that’s true for all of Lost though. While this particular episode might not be remembered as fondly as classics such as “The Constant” or “Through The Looking Glass,” it certainly deserves to be. Until next time, namaste and good luck.