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The first two seasons of the show built up this mystery about a hostile group of indigenous island inhabitants that we came to know as the Others. Then in Season 3, we finally got to put faces and names to many of them and learned where and how they lived and who their leader was and where a few of them came from. But this still wasn't really the full picture of who the Others really are, but rather, what we were seeing was a particular lifestyle of the Others unique to a period that I call the "Linus Regime", when Ben Linus was their leader, from the day of the Purge on December 19, 1992 to the day the Oceanic survivors captured Ben on December 21, 2004. During the times outside of the Linus Regime, the Others appeared to live a very different lifestyle, as we observed in the different time periods during Season 5. I believe that to truly understand who the Others are and what they're about, we need to separate out which aspects of the Others are relevant to their full history and which aspects of them were strictly Ben's influence during his reign.
Aspects of the Others observed only during the Linus Regime:
- Living in and using modern facilities leftover from the DHARMA Initiative. Not just living in their houses, but actually living like a modern society -- having book club meetings and wearing modern clothes. Ben even provides Juliet with her own fully-stocked house as a perk for working for them.
- Recruiting members from the outside world. (We don't know for sure that the Others didn't recruit members during other regimes, but we've thus far seen no evidence to suggest that they did.)
- Focusing efforts on solving the pregnancy problem. This was the sole reason Ben recruited Juliet. And according to what Richard told Locke, the fertility issues are less important than their main purpose (whatever that might be).
- Abducting Oceanic survivors (either as new members or to aid in their pregnancy research). The DHARMA Initiative never indicated that the Hostiles ever abducted any of their members. The Others' reaction to the U.S. Army presence was to simply wipe them out. No one ever expresses any interest in kidnapping the Ajira survivors (unless you count Ilana capturing Frank).
- Deceiving his own people (lying about Bonnie and Greta and the Looking Glass, the threat of Charles Widmore).
- Using conning methods towards outsiders. (sending spies, using Michael, decoy village, manipulating Jack, Mittelos Bioscience)
- Playing the "Jacob" card. ("Jacob wanted it." "Is that what Jacob wanted?")
It's also interesting to note that at one point, Flocke questions Ben on whether it was his idea to move his people into the Barracks after the Purge, and Flocke says, "It just doesn't seem like something the Island would want." Knowing now that this was Flocke (MIB) saying this, it puts it in a rather significant perspective. And Ben never answered Flocke's question as to whether it was his idea. Did Jacob want them to live in the Barracks and live a modernized life for a while? Or has the philosophy of the Others always been that their lifestyle is whatever their leader chooses?
That's actually a theory that I'm leaning towards at the moment -- that whatever the Others' overall permanent goals may be, part of it involves living as whatever type of society on the Island that their current leader wants them to be. The book club scene in the Season 3 opener is the only true look at the Others' everyday life that we've seen so far, but I see it as the biggest evidence that the Others have no trouble embracing a modernized life, nor giving it up at a moment's notice. Perhaps part of the appeal of being an Other is the whole concept of knowing that they can be whatever type of society they want to be on the Island, whether that means living in tents and dressing in old dirty rags, or acting like stupid people wearing expensive clothes. This could explain why they were seen living in the leftover U.S. Army tents in 1954. Perhaps it's always been a common practice for the Others to take advantage of facilities and equipment left behind by outside visitors to the Island, if they chose to do so. (The beach camp left behind by the time-travelling Losties just might not have been useful enough to be worth occupying.)
On the other hand, it may be just as likely that Ben's style of leading the Others went completely against what Jacob wanted for his people. Did Jacob really want Ben to move his people into the Barracks and take full advantage of the modern immenities? Didn't Ben himself claim that Jacob hated technology? And did Jacob want Ben to recruit Juliet to research the pregnancy problem? What about Others like Tom Friendly, Danny and Colleen Pickett, Mikhail Bakunin, Ryan Pryce and Bea Klugh, all of whom seem like they probably came from civilized backgrounds... and Ethan Rom who we now know was originally a DHARMA baby?
Whether these particular fruits of Ben's leadership were truly for the good of the Island -- whether they were truly directed by Jacob, manipulated by the Man in Black, or done completely on Ben's own initiative -- we just simply don't know at this point. But looking at the overall picture of the Others that we know at this point, it's quite clear that the Linus Regime was a very unique period in the history of the Others.