"You've suffered enough, Ricardo." -IsabellaIt's been almost three years since "The Man Behind the Curtain" aired and viewers saw that Richard Alpert doesn't appear to age. In the ensuing time, the question about why he doesn't has shot to the top of the "Lost" Mysteries That Must Be Solved list - basically the opposite of "where did Jack get those bitchin' tattoos?" - and anticipation built and built for the Richard flashback episode we all knew we'd get sooner or later(*).
(*) Or, at least, we all knew it once CBS canceled Cane and the "Lost" producers were able to lock down Nestor Carbonell's services for these last two seasons. Imagine how annoyed we'd all be if "Cane" had succeeded, and not just because "Cane" sucked.
In other words, "Ab Aetern" had a lot to live up to - maybe more than any episode we're going to get this season other than the finale itself.
And it absolutely lived up to my expectations.
On one level, it answered a whole bunch of "Lost" questions, some long-standing, some relatively recent but crucial:
• Why doesn't Richard age? Because he asked Jacob for that gift to avoid eternal damnation after Jacob couldn't resurrect his wife or absolve him of his sins.
• How did the statue crumble into a four-toed foot? The Black Rock smashed it to pieces on its journey into the island.
• How did the Black Rock wind up in the middle of the jungle? Because Jacob whipped up one hell of a storm to make sure it landed on the island and couldn't leave.
• 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.
• If this whole series has just been one elaborate game between two immortal god-like creatures, why should we care about any action the characters take? Because Jacob is a hands-off deity who believes in free will for all those he brings to the island (as he told Ben before he killed him, "You have a choice"). So whatever actions Jacob took on the mainland to steer them here, what we've seen Jack and Locke and the rest actually do on Craphole Island has been entirely their own doing. (And that in turn takes away one of my big concerns about this final season.)
But if "Ab Aeterno" was just a checklist of answers, it would have been a fairly inert outing (as I've found some previous mythology-intensive episodes like season four's "Cabin Fever").
What made this one a highlight not only of the final season, but of the series' entire run, was what made "Lost" so compelling at the beginning, before hatches and fertility experiments and time-traveling Scotsmen and the rest of the mythology (which I really do like): it was both a great character piece and a white-knuckle thriller.
Carbonell (who once upon a time was known only as The Guy With the Funny Accent on "Suddenly Susan") owned this episode just as much as Michael Emerson did "Dr. Linus" or Terry O'Quinn did "The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham." For three-plus seasons, Richard's been the serene, all-knowing man of mystery, and Carbonell was superb at showing both a cracked, suicidal Richard who has decided he actually knows nothing, and then at showing the very human man he was before Jacob made him immortal. Like "The Constant" (another "Lost" all-timer), we had a time-spanning romance, and if it wasn't one with quite the happy ending that Desmond and Penny got (for now), at least Ricardo finally got a proper goodbye from his beloved Isabella, and her love renewed his belief that he chose the right side of this conflict all those decades ago.
And if we had gotten no relevant answers but every minute of Richard's harrowing ordeal shackled below decks in a ship full of dead men(**), I still would have found "Ab Aeterno" to be an immensely satisfying hour.
(**) There's long been a mutual admiration society between Lindelof, Cuse and Stephen King, and as I watched Richard struggle to free himself of those chains, my thoughts started to turn to King's "Gerald's Game."
Like I've said and said and said, I care about "Lost" answers much less than I care about being entertained. "Ab Aeterno" offered both answers (or, in some cases, important clarifications) and entertainment in spades. If I wasn't so tired, I might pull a John Locke and declare my need to watch it again, immediately.
Some other thoughts:
• I also don't think it's a coincidence that an episode this good was also the first of the season to do without the flash-sideways (and to bring back the more familiar "whoosh" sound effect for the flashbacks). Not only was Richard's story so compelling that we were able to spend the majority of the episode in an uninterrupted flashback, but we know going in that everything we were seeing has relevance to the story we've been following all these seasons. The sideways probably have relevance, but we don't know what that is yet, so those stories tend to succeed or fail almost entirely on whether we have pre-existing affection for the spotlight character. The flashback was not only a ripping yarn on its own, but something that requires no explanation at a later date to be fully appreciated.
• Smokey adopting Locke's form gives the producers an excuse to keep Terry O'Quinn employed, but I have to say that it was nice to see Titus Welliver again as Smokey Classic. He has such great screen presence and darkness and was a very convincing trickster devil in his scenes with Ricardo. (I remember him turning up in a small role as an "ER" doctor in an early "NYPD Blue" episode and asking myself, "Who the hell is this guy?" I was not surprised to see David Milch kept employing Welliver, until "Deadwood" finally raised his profile enough that he now works regularly on shows like this.)
• And the flashback structure also gave us a long glimpse of Mark Pellegrino as Jacob. Interesting to see a much crankier Jacob in his first meeting with Ricardo; this sure seemed like the first time (or first time in a long while) that Smokey tried to break the rules and use a pawn to try to kill Jacob. And note that Smokey's warning to Ricardo about not letting Jacob say a single word is exactly what Dogen told Sayid about Smokey a few weeks back.
• "Everyone's dead and this is Hell" was one of the earliest fan theories about the nature of the island, so it seemed a nice touch for Richard to spend so much of this episode (first in the past, then in the present) believing it to be true.
• As one of my Twitter followers pointed out, it's been a big week for Tenerife on TV. First Walter White talked about it in his speech in the "Breaking Bad" season premiere, and here it's the home of Ricardo and Isabella before her untimely death and his imprisonment.
What did everybody else think?