March 23rd, 2010
Considering how important “Ab Aeterno” is to the Lost mythos, and considering how much I enjoyed the epiosde, I don’t think I’m going to have a whole lot to say about it – or, more accurately, I didn’t think I’d have a whole lot to say until I actually started writing about it. This does not mean that the episode didn’t live up to my expectations, or that there isn’t plenty of questions to mull over in the week to come. Instead, I simply mean that things were confirmed more than they were revealed, and the questions that were answered actually provided clarity as opposed to more questions.
In many ways, “Ab Aeterno” (which translates as “since the beginning of time”) is about the interrelationship between “how” and “why,” with its answers addressing issues related to both key questions. Structurally speaking, Season Six is no more clear than it was before, but the brief glimpse of Jacob and the Man in Black from “The Incident” is intricately fleshed out into the story of how Richard Alpert made the decision between a man who offered him everything he once had and the man who could assure him that there would be something to live for.
The result is a simple story of love and loss, and an important turning point in our understanding of why these characters are stranded on this island, and how they may play a role in its eventual destiny.
On the island of Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, Ricardo is a simpler farmer with a dying wife and not enough money to pay for her treatment. The episode starts with this fairly simple story and depicts Richard falling out of his normal life: he, like many others who came to the island, commits a grave sin as he murders a doctor in the midst of an argument over the price of medication to save his wife, and when he returns with that medicine she has already died and he’s sent off to prison. From there, we can piece together the rest: he’s bought by the first mate aboard Captain Magnus Hanso’s Black Rock, and that ship crashes onto the island amidst an enormous storm. While the details were new, and the addition of the love story added some greater purpose to Richard’s plight, the details were things that we had pieced together through simple observation (plus, you know, the show confirmed that Richard had arrived on the Black Rock just a few weeks ago).
As a result, the story was less about the “how” of Richard’s journey and more about “why” it is so important. The episode is filled with little moments where Richard’s experience offers a mirror of what we’ve seen in past episodes: the Smoke Monster takes the form of his dead wife just like it took the form of Alex for Ben, the Man in Black instructs Richard to kill Jacob using the same language Dogen used when instructing Sayid on how to kill in the Man in Black, and the deal that the Man in Black offers (to reunite Richard with Isabella) is identical to the deal he offered Sayid a few weeks ago. Rather than introducing us to new actions or reactions, Jacob and the Man in Black demonstrate that the pattern has always been the same: Jacob brings people to the island, and the Man in Black tries to corrupt them. This is, for the most part, something we’ve known since that opening scene of “The Incident.”
However, what Richard’s story offers us is the chance to listen in as each offers their pitch, in particular Jacob’s explanation for why – not how – he brings people to the island. It is, as we knew before, a test of sorts: the Man in Black believes that everyone is corrupt by nature, led to sin by some inherent part of their beings, while Jacob believes in the potential for human beings to make the right decisions and resist that temptation. Jacob brings these people to the island but feels that he can’t interfere with their actions; if they commit a sin, becoming corrupted, he will do nothing to stop them. He is trying to prove a point to the Man in Black that it is possible that people, when faced with highly complex moral questions, will make the right decisions, and to interfere with that process would render his experiment moot. He wants them to help themselves, which at least confirms that human agency (and thus the agency of our castaways) remains present and in fact incredibly important on the island. Jacob is not a puppetmaster beyond the point where he brings people to the island; after that point, he claims to be entirely hands off.
Of course, what we see here is that Richard is immortal because Jacob sees him as a way to effectively cheat at his own game. He may not want to get involved, he tells Richard, but that doesn’t mean that someone acting on his behalf can’t help him communicate and guide potential candidates towards the proper path. While “Ab Aeterno” doesn’t walk us through previous events on the island that Jacob has had some part in, it’s clear that he is not himself entirely without corruption: after all, Ben murdered the members of the Dharma Initiative in order to restore power to the Others, which would seem to me to be an inherently corrupt act. In fact, that could be why Ben is crossed out on the wheel: while he was a candidate at one point in time, his decision to murder his father and his community labeled him as corrupt, forever placing a barrier between he and Jacob which would never be mended. It’s also the same reason that characters like Jack and Hurley remain candidates now: while they have made some tough decisions, they have never made one quite so vicious or selfish as Ben’s, and perhaps that means there is still hope for them in a way that there is no hope (at least in Jacob’s eyes) for Mr. Linus.
What the scenes really sold, however, is the question of why all of this is happening: why is the Man in Black so desperate to escape the island, and why is Jacob in charge of keeping him at bay. Using a wine bottle, Jacob lays it out for us: the island is the cork on a bottle of swirling evil and disrepair (Read: hell) that is kept at bay from the outside world. Whether you consider that to take the form of the electromagnetism at its core, or whether you choose to believe that it is simply evil in its purest form, it seems that Jacob’s goal is to keep the cork intact, to keep the evil from breaking out into the rest of the world. While it isn’t quite purgatory in truth, despite the Man in Black’s attempts to convince Richard of this, it is a gateway of sorts. And what we can deduce is that the Man in Black wants to open the gate, owing to the fact that he believes everyone is already corrupt anyways, while Jacob wants to keep it closed due to his faith in humankind. There is white, and there is black, and there is the balance: with that balance having shifted, with Jacob having been murdered, the Man in Black has his opportunity to leave the island; the question now becomes how he plans to do it, and more importantly how the remaining candidates (Kate, Sawyer, Jack, Hurley, one of Jin and Sun) are going to be able to stop him from achieving that goal.
While the episode leaves plenty of open questions surrounding the mythology of the island, I think it helps us better understand some of the key eras in its history. For example, we can presume that the Dharma Initiative (having been funded by Hanso) was considered a threat to the island because they viewed its unique properties as scientific research; while the Others were there to protect the island, the Dharma Initiative wanted to use its unique properties for the benefit of science and progress, so we can understand why there would be conflict between those two groups amidst concerns regarding the island being revealed to the world and its greater meaning becoming compromised. The episode doesn’t answer every question surrounding these ideas (I’d expect we’ll get at least some minor insight into the Dharma questions considering that Widmore is on the island), but it continues to lay the groundwork. Part of the fun of Lost is the theorizing, so some nice philosophical discussions of Jacob and the Man in Black’s roles in the grand scheme of things is just the right amount of crumbs for us to stay alive until next week.
The episode spends very little time in the present, but I thought that side of things was nicely executed: having Hurley’s Ghost Whisperer abilities (which we presume to be distinct from Miles’ abilities, at least as far as we can tell) end up reuniting Isabella and Richard made for a nice emotional moment to centre the episode, and having Richard’s desperate attempt to find some sense of purpose by searching out the Man in Black was a nice beat to lead into his eventual acceptance of his fate and his decision to work with, and not against, the candidates. Ilana was very explicitly told by Jacob that Richard has the answer to “what next,” and perhaps we even saw that answer hidden within the backstory that was provided. The point now is that we understand why Richard is important, and even if the episode didn’t entirely surprise us with the details of his past it was able to resituate the character so as to lead us into the mid-point of the season.
As always, the performances are what really sells this, and this is particularly challenging when the episode features so little of the “regular” castaways. So, it’s a testament to Nestor Carbonell that he was able to sell Richard’s story so effectively in two languages, drawing us into his love for Isabella and his position as the monkey in the middle of Jacob and in the Man in Black with just the right level of hysteria. It’s not entirely dissimilar to the role that Henry Ian Cusick played in “The Constant,” although that character had been given more development and that episode will never be topped by the series in terms of an emotional story. Still, a low-grade “Constant” is still pretty effective, and having Mark Pellegrino and Titus Welliver back in order to serve as the voice of the island’s past was just as welcome as it was before. The show is great with casting, and while Carbonell getting a job on “Cane” robbed of us having more time to spend with him, I think this was a fine culmination of the character that does what every good “flashback” should do: it tells us who the character used to be but also demonstrates their relevance in both the present and the future. Richard Alpert is not irrelevant now that we know how he arrived on the island; rather, his story offered some important insight, and his journey has placed him at the heart of the battle which we’ll see unfold in the weeks to come.
Perhaps some might say that “Ab Aeterno” is disappointing because Richard wasn’t some sort of Rosetta Stone, and his story only answered (for example) why the statue fell down as opposed to why it exists or what it means. But if Richard existed only to provide answers, and not to advance the story through his relationship with both the “how” and “why” of this series’ mythology, then it would have been cheap and ineffective. There will be no master key that unlocks all of the show’s mysteries, but this season has been crafting a scenario where those answers are actually possible: it has brought characters to realizations (Jack in the Lighthouse, Sawyer through Juliet’s death, Sayid through his near-death experience, Kate through her interactions with Claire, Ben through his burying of Locke) that force them to consider and wager their own agency amidst a looming conflict. And now Richard joins that group, bringing with him a lot of baggage but also another key to unlocking the puzzle that is the show’s sixth season.
Some fans, like Richard, may have grown impatient with the world around them, anxious to discover the “why” during a period where they expect answers but receive none. However, to those fans, I suggest using Richard as an example: a brief period of uncertainty should not lead you to jump to the dark side, but should rather force you to re-examine why you were watching and waiting. Me personally, I’ve been watching to enjoy some strong dramatic television, and everything I’ve seen thus far in Season Six has lived up to that expectation; if you are only watching to discover the “why” without enjoying the “how,” then feel free to make a bargain with the Man in Black anytime now.
- From my notes as we first spot Richard galloping across the Canary Islands: “Dances with Polar Bears.”
- Did you know that the deadliest accident in aviation history took place on Tenerife Island? I doubt this is a coincidence.
- I totally didn’t realize that until this episode Jack didn’t know that Locke was still alive – I think everyone else has had some sort of altercation with him (except maybe Hurley?), but sometimes you forget that the characters have been separated. This isn’t quite like the days where all of the characters were together but just conveniently kept secrets or anything, so at least it makes plenty of sense.
- Interesting that Jacob is able to grant Richard eternal life but is unable to absolve him of his sins or bring his wife back to life. Perhaps Richard is only able to deal with life while the Man in Black is responsible for all things related to death – that certainly makes sense in terms of their colours, no?
- The one lingering question is the way Ben was able to command the Smoke Monster in “The Shape of Things to Come;” it was a Dharma housing development, so does this mean that they were using the monster for their own purposes, and that the Man in Black was in some way trying to corrupt their experiments in order to continue to prove Jacob wrong?
- I’m not sure on the timeline, but was Locke still a candidate when Jacob was talking to Ilana? If not, who are the six candidates remaining that he is referring to?
- Nice that Michael Giacchino wrote a new love theme for Richard and Isabella – looking forward to the soundtrack.
- Forgot to mention one of my favourite moments of the episode: the transition from Richard burying the necklace at the bench and then, over a hundred years later, the towering tree above the bench.