Lost, The Morning After: Critical Responses to “Ab Aeterno”

Critical Responses to “Ab Aeterno”

March 24th, 2010

While I remain content with my review of “Ab Aeterno” from last night, I think that this is definitely one of those episodes that warrants a second look based on the kinds of responses I’ve seen to the episode online. While being able to write about the episode in advance of its U.S. airing due to Canadian simulcasting conflicts is wonderful, and will last for another week at least, it means that I’m writing about the episode in a relative bubble, and there’s enough hyper-intelligent people watching this show that things will emerge which complement or contradict my own thoughts.

Considering the depth of mythology material presented by “Ab Aeterno,” and the fact that some people are throwing around comparisons with Season Four’s “The Constant,” there’s plenty of discussions surrounding the episode, so I want to highlight some of those reviews while, admittedly, using them to make some points that have come to me since watching the response last night.

First off, in terms of the mythology, Alan Sepinwall lines things up quite nicely and makes a key connection that I had missed:

What’s this game that Jacob and Smokey are playing? Jacob – while playing jailkeeper to the evil that Smokey represents (with the island as “the cork in the bottle”) – is trying to prove Smokey wrong in his belief that man is inherently prone to sin, and so brings people to the island to perform in one morality play after another.

While Alan doesn’t make the connection himself, I’ll make the leap by arguing that “Ab Aeterno” is definitive proof that Season Three’s “Exposé,” and the entire Nikki and Paolo arc, is extremely relevant to the broad thematic and mythology concerns of the series. It is the most definitive “morality play” in the show’s entire run, the only deaths which fell entirely on the inability for character to overcome their sins off-island once they were on. While other characters have arguably died due to their actors failing to keep their Blood Alcohol below the legal limit while on a real-life island, Nikki and Paolo died because they were unable to live down their sins, while by comparison the castaways we’ve focused on have demonstrated a far more complex understanding of humanity and purpose. So, for those who still question the value of “Exposé” to the series as a whole, I’d suggest giving it a rewatch knowing that it is the prototypical morality play, seen from start to finish, that Jacob has been orchestrating for centuries.

However, in terms of the mythology, I was surprised that so many seemed wholly satisfied by the “answers” being presented; yes, it’s the clearest the show has ever been, but I’m with James Poniewozik in terms of wanting clarification on its ramifications on the rest of the show’s run:

As all this unfolds, I hope that the other conflicts over the Island built over the last five seasons–the “science-based” story, if you will–aren’t wholly subsumed in the Paradise Lost scenario. How does Hanso, and his descendants in the Hanso foundation, figure into all this? Why did they come to see the Island as significant, and what exactly did Dharma want to achieve on the Island? How did Widmore get there in the first place, and what did he want–and what investment, if any, do Smokey and Jacob have in his war with Ben, and vice versa? The closer I get to the center of the onion, the more I want to revisit the layers.

While the episode certainly creates an interesting and compelling framework in which these questions could be answered, I am a little wary of whether or not (as my brother put it) they’re going to expect us to make those connections. I’m hopeful that Widmore’s presence on the island will answer some of his questions, but I wonder whether the lack of any single identifiable character related to Dharma might make that part of the story more challenging…although, I say that now, but with Miles still alive and Pierre Chang still an important part of the show’s mythology, I guess there’s still some potential there. The show has the tools to, as James puts it, revisit the layers, but the question remains how much of that will be in focus with only nine hours left to go.

While I had to skip over much of Maureen Ryan’s thoughts on “Ab Aeterno” out of fear of spoiling Buffy (yes, I know, I need to watch Buffy), she does nicely summarize my thoughts on the biggest comparison being thrown out for the episode:

From the relationship angle, “Ab Aeterno” wasn’t on the level of “The Constant” (after all, we just met Isabella), but it still worked well as a love story, especially in that scene at the end. Whether or not he could see her, Richard felt his wife’s presence again, and you could see, in that moment, how much he had suffered (he would not have suffered more, I imagine, if he had actually landed in the version of Hell he was raised to believe in).

I liked the love story at the centre of “Ab Aeterno,” but comparing it to “The Constant” is overstating things: as Mo points out, Isabella is a pretty basic character with no history, and even Richard had far less development than Desmond did at that point of the fourth season. I think the simplicity of the story actually benefitted the episode at the end of the day, in that it kept it from overshadowing or overcomplicating the laying out of the mythology details, much as “The Constant” was grounded by Desmond and Penny’s love. However, while the episodes might follow the same formula, “Ab Aeterno” is more efficient than it is brilliant, structurally speaking, and certainly not near the levels of the show’s finest hour.

And while I’m with everyone on how great Nestor Carbonell was in this episode, I feel like I need to throw cold water on this contention from Kristin Dos Santos (which has been echoed by many fans across the internet):

Dear Academy of Television Arts and Sciences: You can just go ahead and give Nestor Carbonell that Emmy he clearly earned on tonight’s Lost. No, there’s no need to vote or anything! It’s a done deal. Thanks.

I would have said the same thing about Henry Ian Cusick following “The Constant,” wouldn’t you? And yet, despite Cusick having been nominated two years early for his work in the show’s second season in a guest capacity, Cusick didn’t even make the Top 10 contenders for Best Supporting Actor. Now, you could argue that “Ab Aeterno” is less inherently confusing than “The Constant” due to the lack of time travel, making Richard’s journey more relatable for Emmy voters. You could also argue that the show is going to be in its final season, which means that Emmy voters will be focusing on the show more intently now than ever, which makes Carbonell’s chances that much better.

I won’t argue that he has no chance at an Emmy, or that he doesn’t deserve consideration, but I’m not convinced that Emmy voters are going to be focused so intently on a mythology-heavy episode like this. I would expect that whatever characters feature prominently in the finale are those who are going to end up with Emmy attention for the series, in that every Emmy voter will probably be watching that finale even if they’re not watching the season as a whole. “Ab Aeterno,” like “The Constant,” is incredibly important to fans, but its importance may be lost on Emmy voters regardless of how strong Carbonell is in the role.

And finally, Todd VanDerWerff sums up why I was legitimately surprised to see so many people fall in love with this episode:

Ever since the season three episode when first we saw him, “Lost” fans have been wondering what the deal is with Richard Alpert. First, we found out that he was instrumental in helping the Others. Then, we learned that he was their conduit to someone named “Jacob.” And, finally and most chillingly of all, we learned that the guy doesn’t age, that he’s been the same, smooth-faced, seemingly sinister fellow for as long as our characters have known him. Certainly Ben, who was probably closest to Richard at one time out of our main characters, had known him to look exactly the same to him when he was a child as he did when Ben was an adult. Every new fact we learned about Richard was a new question, a new thing we wanted answered sooner rather than later.

Todd nicely captures the mystery of Richard, which built him up to be some sort of eternal figure of power. To learn that he was just another pawn, driven by love to commit a grevious sin and then condemned to a life of servitude which never ends even if there are no physical chains involved, makes the character compelling, and certainly proved an effective episode, but that Richard was simply a viewpoint into the island’s mysteries rather than a part of them is sort of disappointing. Fans had built up this intrigue around Richard that, in some ways, was eliminated by the love story, and the episode took some risks by reducing Richard to the fairly straightforward relationship. That it worked as well as it did is a testament to Carbonell’s performance, but the story was still a little bit lighter than perhaps we had anticipated.

I think it’s a good step forward for the series’ fans, though, in terms of accepting the show’s version of events rather than challenging them. This is a big turning point for the show, in terms of laying out the framework of the island’s mechanics and all, and I’m glad to see more people jumping on the “what does this mean” bandwagon as opposed to the “that’s not what I wanted it to mean” train.

Cultural Observations

  • All of this is not to say that some didn’t love the episode: Jace Lacob was lukewarm on the episode for some logical reasons, while Emily Nussbaum is unquestionably frustrated with the show’s direction (and, to my mind, misses some of the nuances present in the philosophical discussions). I may end up more positive on the episode than they are, but I can see their complaints and was surprised that there wasn’t more responses along those lines.


Filed under Lost

10 responses to “Lost, The Morning After: Critical Responses to “Ab Aeterno”

  1. So if your Nikki/Paolo theory is correct does that mean Jacob killed them? The AV club board has an interesting discussion about the butterfly in this episode and how animals have been used in the series. One theory was Jacob controlled them somehow. The Hurleybird, Kate’s horse, Sawyer’s pig etc. Any thoughts on Jacob using the spider to kill them off?

    • It’s been pretty much established (via a podcast with Lindelof on March 21, 2008) that it was the Black Smoke that offed Nikki & Paulo. The spiders coincided with the black smoke sound, apparently, and that’s been confirmed as being intentional.

  2. d. Geste

    To argue a little against the Todd VanDerWerff-explicated “so Richard is just another pawn after all” fan disappointment, and to also riff on why Jacob mightn’t exactly be cheating by recruiting Richard, as you mentioned in your previous post, consider these two little nuggets:

    1. Jacob doesn’t want to use his own status as a god/djinn/supernatural being as a tool to coerce people onto the right path. But Richard, who seems to have always been understood by Ben and the Others as fully human (albeit specially favored), can nudge people to consider their options/actions/ethics without having the awe-inspiring and/or coercive force that Jacob and the MIB have as an unavoidable effect of their supernatural status. Even knowing, as they do, that Richard is linked to Jacob, Ben and others are still, I think, more free to doubt him, argue with him, negotiate with him than with a diety-like figure. Think of how Richard acted as a sort of ambassador/opposing attourney figure when he dealt with Horace or, in 1974, Sawyer. So Richard does potentially offer Jacob a way to make his points without such direct risk of coercion, so Jacob’s bargain is not necessarily a straightforward cheat.

    2. When Richard accepted Jacob’s deal, all the people who came before him were dead. Starting with Richard, there is, for a hundred-plus years, a slow-growing community of survivors. He is the seed and protector of this singularity. As such, he is not simply another in the series of pawns of Jacob and/or the MIB that we’ve seen. He is the founder of the current ongoing experiment in achieving some sort of righteousness or pennance or earned grace or whatever. Of course, we don’t really know what the “community survival time” record was before Richard. Certainly the various island monuments suggest groups of people that had to have survived for a while. And, judging from the differing styles of these monuments (pseudo-Egyptian for the statue, but more meso-american for the temple and orchid, as far as I can tell), there’ve been multiple periods of rise and decline on the island. But none of that detracts from the fact that Richard lies at the origin of the current attempt, an attempt that might well be unique and different from those that went before.

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