It is easy to identify and focus on a villain’s negative traits. In books and movies, the forces opposing the hero display a wide range of undesirable, nightmarish traits. They’re supposed to scare us and in most situations, it works.
But we don’t always hate the bad guy. Sometimes, a villain’s magnetism is simply too strong for an audience to ignore.
I believe this is the case when it comes to Benjamin Linus, “Lost” series’ villain turned anti-hero turned absolutely-lovable character. Bear with me. I’ll explain.
• SPOILERS AHEAD •
First, let me begin this segment by thanking John Edward [yes, psychic medium J. E.] for introducing me to “Lost” and for making it possible for me to watch the entire series at a time when the show was not available for streaming on any European platform. He also put forward some very strong arguments related to the series message and impact, so I decided to embark on the six-season journey.
118 episodes and several spoilers from John later [Sorry, I had to say it! :)], I had completed the island adventure and was left with plenty of themes to reflect upon, an outcome well known to most “Lost” fans. Ben’s place in the picture is one of them. Hence, this article.
Benjamin Linus is my favorite character from “Lost”. I think the writers provided him with one of the best character developments we’ve ever seen in a TV show. Starting as one of the Others, revealed as their leader, and seen as the main negative character for most of the series, Ben is an enigmatic presence, with motives and actions that for the most part seem to only make sense to him.
He stops at nothing to achieve his goals or fulfill what he considers his purpose, i.e. protecting the island. He lies, cheats, manipulates, and even kills if that’s the step that takes him in the desired direction. Obviously, this doesn’t make him very popular among the Oceanic 815 survivors and most of the other characters of the “Lost” universe. He is somehow tolerated by them toward the end of the series – after he stops trying to kill them and starts providing assistance in dealing with the mysteries of the island – but never truly liked or accepted.
However, things are different for the audience. Benjamin Linus is one of the characters that charmed viewers the most, his presence and inner dynamic, baffling and intriguing at the same time, prompting countless themes for analysis and personal reflection.
Whether they hated or loved him, fans of “Lost” were attracted to the bad guy. You may hate his ways, but there’s something about this character that resonates in all of us. Below, I will address 10 main Psychological Reasons why we like Benjamin Linus.
1. He is relatable.
The elements that make up Ben’s life story are experiences that many viewers can recognize in their own life. The troubled childhood, the experience of immense loss and severe illness, his marginalized social status, are all things that make us empathize with the character. We understand where he is coming from, what adversities shaped him. When we understand, we are less likely to blame and more prone to sympathize.
2. He is ambitious.
Ben does not settle for his initial social status – the son of a Dharma janitor, bound to blindly follow orders and paths set by others. He wants more for himself and sets high personal achievements as his main mission. It is why, as a young boy, he asks Richard to join the Hostiles and why later on he contributes to Charles Widmore’s exile and makes himself the leader of the Others and the honorary protector of the island.
3. He is highly intelligent.
One is not a proper book or movie villain if they’re not worthy of the “mastermind” label. High intelligence paired with evil, selfish intent is what makes all the negative characters that I have already covered in this segment, memorable. Yes, they are sociopathic in nature, but their madness is fueled and supported by impressive cognitive abilities. Ben Linus can achieve his most daring plans because his intelligence can weave schemes and traps that the others cannot escape.
4. He follows the rules.
His own rules, but mostly the rules of the island. He follows them and allows these bits of morals to guide – even his immoral – actions. If we take a closer look at all of those fictional bad guys and girls that we love, principles appear to be a significant portion of what makes them acceptable or even likable. Dexter Morgan, Michael Corleone, they had codes and played by the rules. It is the same with Ben. He is in control, no action is senseless, and everything counts toward the bigger goal. In fact, Linus even calls out those who stray from the playbook. “He changed the rules.” – about Widmore when one of the men sent by him on the island killed Ben’s daughter.
5. He is authentic.
I know how that sounds – “The liar and master manipulator of the show is authentic”. But consider this: Once revealed as the leader of Others, Ben does not make any additional effort in hiding his true main intentions. He lets others see who he is intention-wise and allows them to react to him. Characters may fall for some of his side schemes, but no one truly trusts Ben because they’ve seen the real him and can always inform their decisions using those experiences. Also, because everyone seems to always be a step behind him, oftentimes there is simply no reason for Linus to further conceal the truth of a situation. “I lied. That’s what I do.” – to [fake] Locke, season 5, ep. 16, when admitting that he had never, in fact, meet Jacob, and only pretended to.
6. He is loyal.
To himself, to Jacob, to the island. He follows Jacob’s rules even though he had never met him. He protects the Others and the island motivated by what he considered an implied promise that he will be Jacob’s successor. He wants it all to be true because if everything about the island is true then he must be special too. In his desperate search for acceptance and meaning, he needs the island and Jacob to be what they appear to be – symbols of power. This ultimate promise and goal keep him loyal to the whole setting.
7. He makes mistakes.
Benjamin Linus fails. Plenty of times. In significant, direction-shifting ways. He misunderstands his role on the island, he is wrong about what he can achieve as a leader of the Others – i.e. solving the pregnancy issue, but most of all, his recklessness leads to his daughter’s death. Mistakes humanize villains and once again, we empathize and can relate to them.
8. He owns his mistakes.
Because he is guided by a set of principles – even if they are only valid on the island or in Ben’s mind, he accepts the consequences of his mistakes. Ben Linus does not try to turn his failures into success stories. He admits to them and sometimes even tries to correct things if possible. At times, he even tries to compensate a wrong action with a morally acceptable one. For example, he kills Dharma members but spares Danielle Rousseau’s life and raises Alex as his own daughter. It’s almost like he believes in karma. Also, Ben is one of those bad guys who apologize quite often. Unlike other villains, his moral compass is not missing. He is just temporarily skewing it to fit his purpose, while at the same time fully acknowledging its power.
9. He is brave.
Benjamin Linus loves risk. He is willing to bet everything on a future move that he is convinced is going to put him in an optimized position of power. He dares like no other character in “Lost”. He’s taking the most leaps, mostly calculated, in his race to reach the top. It takes courage to do the things Ben did to first escape Dharma and join the Hostiles, to return and become the leader of the Others, and to survive after his power was gone. In my opinion, when it comes to skills, he is the ultimate survivor in “Lost”. Also, his ability to adapt is absolutely impressive.
10. Redemption? Yes, please.
All “Lost” characters were placed in a blank slate context on the island and in the flash-sideways settings. After the crash, they were given a chance to make different choices and achieve better outcomes than those that have marked their previous existence. Most of them took the opportunity but with Ben, the arc is incredible. The path that he walked on, on a moral level, is the most striking one. From narcissistic evil leader extraordinaire to Hurley’s reliable associate to Dr. Linus, the journey is amazing.
In the end, Benjamin Linus is one of the greatest tragic characters to ever appear in a TV show and Michael Emerson’s magnificent portrayal of him played a pivotal role in how the character is perceived. He always struggles, always tries, but never quite reaches his goals, especially social ones. He ultimately cannot fully connect with people, he is never completely accepted as one of their own – regardless of the group he is trying to join. He remains alone, just like we see him in the series finale.
In fact, if there’s one line in “Lost” that fully broke me and made me ultimately decide on Ben as my favorite character, it’s what he said to Ilana when she asked him why he would go to Locke [the Black Man]: “Because he’s the only one that’ll have me“[Season 6, Ep. 7].