I cannot remember a more cunning, manipulative, Machiavellian villain on the small screen than LOST's Benjamin Linus. Portrayed brilliantly by Michael Emerson (for which he won an Emmy in 2009), Ben had no remorse whatsoever for his numerous crimes: kidnapping, blackmail, torture, murder, mass murder – which is what makes his eventual redemption the most spectacular character arc of the series.
SPOILER ALERT: Spoilers for all six seasons of LOST, including the series finale, in what follows – read on at your own peril.
From the moment Ben first appeared on screen as “Henry Gale” (2x14: “One of Them”), you simply could not take your eyes off him. Even as the survivors' prisoner, there was never a moment when you felt he wasn't in control, biding his time, toying with the Oceanic survivors like a cat with trapped mice. Though more serious examples of Ben's villainy (perhaps most chillingly – the gassing of the Dharma Initiative residents and the mass burial of their bodies reminiscent of Cambodia's Killing Fields) appeared later in the series, the moment I remember him at his most dangerous was his final scene in that episode when he smiles as the cell door closes behind him.
(Trivia: Michael Emerson was originally cast in just a guest role but the producers were so impressed with his performance as Henry Gale/Ben Linus that they upgraded Ben to leader of the Others. The rest, as they say, is history.)
As we came to know more about Ben, we learnt that what he held most important to him was his power: his control of the mysterious island and all its inhabitants, except Jacob and maybe Richard. Like all autocrats, there was nothing he would not do to preserve that control (a painful reminder of real despots in many parts of the world today). If there was a saving grace, it was Alex, the girl he had kidnapped as an infant and raised as his own. Even Alex, however, was often just a pawn in Ben's intricate mind-games.
And then the moment that changed everything – Alex is executed before Ben's eyes (4x09: “The Shape of Things to Come”).
In Ben's words, “they changed the rules.” This is where his redemptive arc begins. Although Ben didn't realise it, he was now confronted with a choice. He could choose to hold on to his power, and continue the mind-games with Charles Widmore (and everyone else); or he could choose the only person he had ever really loved, even if she was now dead. Choosing his daughter meant relinquishing his role as leader of the Others and embracing his role as a grieving father. Ben reacted to grief in typical fashion – plotting revenge on Widmore.
According to Catholic theologian and Jesuit priest Karl Rahner, freedom involves a fundamental option for or against God (or the Good personified). Ben's fundamental option after Alex's death was his love as a father. This is why, despite his promise to Widmore to kill the latter's daughter, Penny, he was actually unable to do so when he got the chance (5x12: “Dead is Dead”). Having known the pain of losing a loved one, he could not take Penny's life before her son.
Of course, the temptation of power had never completely disappeared. Given the chance to return to the island and continue his power games, he did not resist. Of all Ben's crimes, the one that seemed to shock the most audiences was his murder of John Locke (5x07: “The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham”); just moments after he'd convinced Locke not to commit suicide! This was his ticket back to the island with the Oceanic Six.
Once back, and confronted with a resurrected Locke / Man-in-Black, Ben realised he was no longer interested in the power struggles. His grief over his daughter's death, and his own role in it, led first to his seeking the Smoke Monster to be “judged” and then, eventually, to his killing Jacob (5x17: “The Incident, Part 2”), the island's protector and God-figure. Indeed it's worth noting that, though he'd abandoned the pursuit of power for paternal love, he was still capable of gravely evil acts in his state of grief. There's no redemption on the horizon for him yet.
That requires forgiveness. My favourite scene from the entire series is the one where Ben is finally honest with himself and with another human being, explaining his crimes to Ilana, Jacob's foster-daughter (6x07: “Dr. Linus”). Despite seeing clearly the evil nature of Locke/Man-in-Black, Ben could not fathom an alternative to following Locke because he simply did not believe he could be forgiven.
And then, those three fantastic words: “I'll have you.”
I really do wish we had seen more of Ilana in the series. Until this moment, I had seen Ilana as no more than another soldier in one of the many factions in LOST. Thanks to this one act of mercy, however, I think she established herself as the most altruistic character on the show – surpassing even Hurley and Jacob. She did something they could not: she redeemed Benjamin Linus.
Of course, it is Hurley who gives Ben new purpose as assistant island-protector in the series finale. And the character arc is complete.
You were a great villain, Ben. And I loved every moment of your journey to the Light.
P.S.: Trivia: Did you know that Michael Emerson originally auditioned for the role of Hurley? (EDIT: Correction: Apparently he didn't. I got taken in by the Comic Con video too - see first comment below).