'Lost': Richard Alpert, starring in a David Lean film
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.
So to say that "Ab Aeterno" was the kind of episode "Lost" fans work themselves into a frothing anticipation for is a bit of an understatement. This was the episode that everyone was counting on to bring the answers (or whatever). This was the one that had to be so completely crazy that no other episode (except maybe the finale) could possibly hope to live up to it. This was the episode that was going to take all of our fan questions about just what's up with the whole season and send us giddily into the season's final episodes.
Well, "Ab Aeterno" was kind of none of those things. It was also awesome.
I'm going to be honest with you, readers. I watched this one twice. The first time I saw it, I knew I had enjoyed it, but I wasn't sure if I liked it on the level of some of the best episodes or if I just thought it was pretty good. I think that I was clinging to my idea that the episode was going to take us through the full sweep of Richard's life, showing us when he first came to the Island and how he first met Jacob and then taking us to his time with the Others, or in between his early days and the Others. There are more than 100 years of history to cover here, and I was hoping we'd get to see as much of that as could be crammed into an hour and six minutes (minus commercials).
Instead, we got a sweeping romantic epic set in the 1800s that took a hard left into something straight out of E.C. comics and then turned into some sort of spot the biblical symbol game. All of these things were good, and they definitely skewed toward the epic. But it was so far from my expectations that I wasn't sure what to make of it, beyond the fact that Nestor Carbonell proved that the series was genius to hire him as a day player back in its third season and then figure out a way to keep him around after his series "Cane" was canceled (in the fourth season of "Lost"). He gave a legitimately great performance, filling in every inch of the character's story with sheer pathos and tragedy. Even if the episode was nothing more than Carbonell struggling to get out of his chains in the hold of the Black Rock, it would have been better than most TV.
But on the second viewing, able to release myself from my expectations, I realized that this is yet another all-timer for the show, an episode that hearkens back to the days of season one in the best possible way: by filling in the backstory of a character we're intrigued by and like but don't yet really understand. "Ab Aeterno" has a fairly large pile of answers to big questions in the show's mythology, but what makes the episode work is that it's the story of a man who's ripped out of his life by a long series of circumstances and makes an ill-advised wish. I don't think it's an accident that both Jacob and the Man in Black have made fairly similar offers to the people in their circles (Jacob via Dogen), nor do I think it's an accident that Jacob describes the Island as a "cork." The cork is what you put in the top of the bottle when you want to keep the genie in, the genie that grants the wishes you think you want but only in the most horrifying way possible.
Let's just say here that introducing yet another doomed romance into the series' cosmos shouldn't work. You've got Desmond and Penny and Sun and Jin and the Sawyer-Kate-Jack triangle and Sayid and Nadia and Locke and Helen and ... well, the list could go on for whole paragraphs. So learning that Richard's motivated by losing his beloved wife Isabella felt like it might be piling on one relationship too many. But, somehow, Carbonell completely sold the sorrow Richard felt at the loss of Isabella, and by the arrival of the final scene where Hurley acted as an intermediary between Richard and Isabella's spirit, I was completely invested in the love of these two characters, even though I'd just met one of them a little over 45 minutes earlier.
Now, much of that is due to Carbonell's riveting performance. But just as much is due to the script by Melinda Hsu Taylor and Greggory Nations and the direction by Tucker Gates. This episode embraces the fact that Richard's story begins in 1867 and just goes with it. It's not every show on TV that can pull off swooningly romantic shots of a bearded man galloping through the jungles of the Canary Islands on a horse. (Specifically, Richard is from Tenerife, which, if you know your "Breaking Bad," is the site of the worst air disaster in history.) This episode doesn't back away from the fact that it's going to include a lot of spoken Spanish or that it's going to feature Richard accidentally killing the doctor he tries to fetch for Isabella in a fit of pique. The twists and turns in this one might as well be out of a potboiler novel from the period, but they work because the show embraces them as whole-hog as it embraced putting Sawyer and Miles in the middle of a cop show last week.
But what I like even more is the turn things take from there. Richard, imprisoned and about to be hung after even the local priest won't give him absolution, is sold into slavery (to a man named Magnus Hanso -- cue everyone who writes on Lostpedia feverishly updating the history of half a dozen characters). He ends up on the Black Rock, imprisoned in the hold, on his way to work labor for Hanso, when the ship comes across the devil himself in the dark, then smashes through it. (The devil, of course, is the four-toed statue, but the show does a nice job of making it look especially menacing in the shadows and gloom.)
From here, the episode turns into something like a horror movie, as Richard is unable to leave his chains in the ship to take his place at Jacob's side, bearing witness to a marvelously constructed attack by the Smoke Monster, everything shot from the perspective of Richard watching the monster go by above decks while he's down below. Once he's freed from his chains -- by the Man in Black (the great Titus Welliver returning to the role he originated) -- he begins his quest to regain his wife, which quickly turns into a quest to help the man he just met keep the genie in the bottle.
You kind of have to approach these pure Jacob and Man in Black scenes in the spirit they're intended to be approached, I think. I long ago theorized that the two fulfill some of the same roles that God and his adversary (who isn't even Satan yet) fulfill in the book of Job, and I think this episode bears that out. The Man in Black believes that all humans are inherently corruptible, that there's something rotten at our cores that makes us willing to be his cohorts, whether we know it or not. Jacob believes we can overcome our sins and find a way back to something like righteousness. The two, then, are bringing people to their experimental Island to play games, to place bets, to spend their time idly, as demigods are wont to do. What they don't seem to acknowledge (or, rather, what Jacob doesn't seem to acknowledge) is just how much pain they cause in doing so.
Look at it this way: Hundreds of people have died since Jacob and the Man in Black began their little games, playing in a game that none of them would ever fully understand. But even more people are collateral damage in this scenario. Jacob brings the Black Rock to the Island, sure, not only destroying his statue and the ship (which gets tossed inland by the giant storm he cooks up) but also the lives of everyone on board other than Richard. The others in this scenario are just people whom neither participant in the game cares too terribly about. All they care about is the game, and the pawns are sacrificial. Indeed, it takes Richard to make Jacob realize just how ridiculous one of his conditions in the game (that people be allowed to make their way to something like justice on their own) is, since the Man in Black doesn't even begin to care about it. I wouldn't call either of these men good or evil, exactly. They're probably bigger and older than concepts like that. But they're definitely not good for the world as a whole (as everyone who recoils from the thought of the Man in Black escaping avers).
And, yeah, there's a pretty giant infodump about the Island in this episode, but the show mostly finds a way to do so organically. The Island, see, is not just the playground of Jacob and the Man in Black. It's also the place that the Man in Black is kept imprisoned, so that he might not corrupt the entire world. We learned that Richard is ageless because that was his third wish to Jacob. (The first two -- the return of Isabella and the absolution of his sins -- could not be granted). And the Island is not Hell, and the people on it are not dead, as Jacob proves when he practically baptizes Richard to show him he's still alive. (Notice, once Richard is done being baptized, he's reborn as a servant of his new lord. Hmmm.)
But none of this would work without the emotional core at the center of the episode, which is the story of Richard Alpert and the woman he loved and lost, and the way the Island could bring them together, but not really. We've talked about how the Man in Black gives you what you want, but there's always some sort of twist that keeps you from really having it, and how Jacob gives you what you want but in such a way that you can never really have it. And so, Jacob and the Island returns Isabella to Richard for a few moments more, but only a few moments. You can never really get what you want in this world or in the world of "Lost." Richard Alpert has spent a lifetime trying to get back a handful of moments, a silvery cross that proves ultimately worthless to everyone but him. Things slip through your fingers, and the Island, then, acts as a kind of repository, a place where you can live out those last moments one more time before getting on to the work you have to do. It's a hard life, but someone has to live it, over and over and over again.
Some other thoughts:
- * Really love the new Richard Alpert theme the score breaks out tonight. Lyrical and haunting, like the best of the show's work in that regard.
- * Honestly, I was disappointed that we didn't get more of Ilana's backstory in this episode. I assume that's coming shortly, but when the episode opened with her in the hospital, I thought I might be getting an intertwined backstory of her and Richard. Not to be, I suppose!
- * And, let's face it. Those opening scenes are way too rushed, designed to show that the characters know they're all candidates and then to send Richard on his jungle trek. It all happens just a little too quickly.
- * I've seen a few fans complaining that that last scene was heavy-handed. And while it was, I'm always happy to see Mark Pellegrino and Welliver sharing screen time, and I think they made the most of some pretty over-the-top symbolism. (Smashing open the wine bottle? Really?)
- * So. The Isabella Richard saw in the hold of the Black Rock: some sort of genuine spirit, a hallucination or the Smoke Monster? I think it's probably the monster, since when Richard talks to Isabella at the end, he needs Hurley as an interpreter.
- * It's rare to see an episode of TV that relies as little on the regular cast as this one does. Sure, Carbonell's in practically every frame, but everyone else gets a bit of a breather. Heck, Terry O'Quinn just turns up to look malevolent as he curses missing his bus or whatever it was that caused him to get there too late to take Richard up on his offer.
- * So we're running out of space for character flashbacks/flash-sidewayses. One has to assume there will be a Sun and Jin episode at some point and probably a Jacob and Man in Black episode, but beyond that, the sky's the limit. I remain almost alone in hoping we get some red-hot Lapidus action.
- * I was a little disappointed that Richard was learning English before coming to the Island. I liked imagining that everyone who came to the Island had to learn it.
- * And with that, I'll have to head out well before I'd like to (though I'd like to get this up before tomorrow, so). Remember to post your theories in comments and send me your links via e-mail or Twitter.
-- Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)
Photos: Above, Richard (Nestor Carbonell, left) thinks Jacob (Mark Pellegrino) has taken his wife from him. He is mistaken. Below, the Man in Black (Titus Welliver) makes his return. Credit: ABC