Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Lost, "Ab Aeterno": The man behind the shackles

A review of tonight's "Lost" coming up just as soon as you fetch me some blankets...
"You've suffered enough, Ricardo." -Isabella
It'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?


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Janie said...

According to Jacob, the Man in Black thinks that everyone is corruptible because of their sinful nature. This doesn't contradict Christian theology--original sin led to total depravity of man. However, MiB doesn't follow that up with any idea of grace. As Smokey, he "passes judgment" on people left and right, leaving a pile of bodies in his wake. The only 3 people who have ever faced the flashing pillar of smoke and lived were Mr. Eko, Ben, and Ricardo. What did they have in common? Each of them felt responsible for the death of someone they loved. I think when he saw that guilt in them, he went away so that he could use that to manipulate them. Then he would return in the form of their loved one--Yemi, Alex, Isabella--so that he could tell them what to do. When "Yemi" told Mr. Eko in "The Cost of Living" that it was time to confess his sins, Eko said that he had nothing to confess because he realized that everything he had done was for survival. The guilt was gone. Smokey came and smashed him into a tree.

What you mentioned about MiB making those promises to Sayid, Ricardo, etc. about being reunited with their loved ones--I don't think he can resurrect people from the dead anymore than Jacob can. But if he believes that all human beings are driven by their sinful natures, then wouldn't his assumption be that everyone goes to Hell? In that way, Sayid would see Nadia and/or Shannon again, Ricardo would see Isabella again...when they eventually die and go to Hell.

So Jacob wants to prove him wrong, believing that people can choose the good and ultimately be redeemed. To what end, I wonder?

Bix said...

How would she know about everything in "Flashes..." from the journal?

Dano said...


This is what I'm wondering about now also. "It only ends once..." When sombody finally proves Jacob right is it going to undo all the others who proved him wrong? Is it going to somehow change Smokey's nature? Does this one person's actions convert the Devil/end evil?"

Have any of you guys given much thought to the idea of why Smokey would let the Dharma Initative live so long on the island? Could he really be repelled by that sonic fence or was that all a game? Couldn't he have just flown/jumped up high enough to clear the barriers? Why would he let them build a fence that could stop him? I wonder if there is some parallel between breaking the wine bottle and "The Incident." Maybe Smokey was hoping the Dharma people would somehow break the island by drilling into it like they did. Maybe that explains why Richard would be ok with helping Ben purge Dharma.

Someone else brought up the cabin. I don't understand how it plays into the purpose now. All this time it seemed like people theorized that the ash was either keeping someone in or out. Yet we know that Jacob doesn't live in the cabin and he has no need to fear Smokey killing him so why would they sprinkle a layer of protective ash around it? They obviously hadn't trapped Smokey inside the ring since he was out crusing the island as early as the pilot.

Dano said...

Also, don't you think that anyone who's expecting something "new" out of the Jacob/Smokey thing is going to be disappointed. We live too far after the beginning of science/end of mystery to have Carlton and Cuse come up with something that's really mythological and compelling. It seems like it has to be angel v. demon, aliens, some sort of mythology that's been with us for a long time.

IreneInIdaho said...

To add to the 10 questions posted upstream that need to be answered:
11. Who/what was the child in the jungle this season that FLocke and Sawyer could see, but Richard could not?

I thought this was a great episode and agree with most of Alan's points. But I'm irritated/confused that the bit with Jacob going to see Ilana in the hospital was revisited but then dropped. What was the connection to Richard's story?

And my major gripe re/last week's episode: How could Miles justify going through Sawyer's credit card records??

Sean L said...

How would she know about everything in "Flashes..." from the journal?

What if she insisted that Daniel write everything tha happened in Flashes into his journal (after it all happened), knowing that her past self would need to know it? (And knowing that she must have done so because it was all written into the journal when she read it!)

Allison said...

Flocke gave a big clue to his identity, but I haven't connected it to an ancient figure yet. "I had a crazy mother" and "spent a long time working that out" ...

On the other hand, Flocke may have borrowed Locke's memories and protrayed them as his own as a con. ("Recon" may have a pun-like quality to that title.)

Flocke said in the the first episode this year ("LA X") he knew real Locke's emotions when he died and at some point, talked about knowing Real Locke's past fears.

Unknown said...

Just one guys & gals,
People are making comments that the Black Rock destroyed the statue and it was lame. A wooden ship would certainly not destroy a solid stone statue.
More likely the violent onslaught of massive tidal waves is what did the trick, would certainly level a skyscraper/some cities

ps sweet episode

dez said...

Someone else brought up the cabin. I don't understand how it plays into the purpose now. All this time it seemed like people theorized that the ash was either keeping someone in or out. Yet we know that Jacob doesn't live in the cabin and he has no need to fear Smokey killing him so why would they sprinkle a layer of protective ash around it? They obviously hadn't trapped Smokey inside the ring since he was out crusing the island as early as the pilot.

That confuses me, too, which is why I brought it up. Plus, Ben was able to summon Smokey to kill the mercernaries, which is weird because why would Smokey protect the island from Keamey & co. if he so desperately wants to get off it? I hope we get some answers on this, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

Sean L said...

If we assume that Ben killing Jacob was planned by Smokey/MiB well in advance, then it would be in his interests to keep Ben alive by killing Keamy's mercenaries.

Dennis said...

I am sure someone here can answer my Widmore-related questions so here goes:

1: how did he "find" the Island in the first place? Was he one of the Dharma crew?

2: what were the circumstances that lead to his dismissal by Ben? I can remember the scene where he left - I recall him walking down the wharf to the waiting sub - but I can't remember the events that lead to it.

Thanks in advance.

Hatfield said...


Widmore was shown on the island as early as 1954 when he had a confrontation with Sawyer and Juliet. We don't know when he first came to the island or why yet.

As for his banishment, Ben said something about how he kept leaving to visit his off-island family and life (presumably Penny and whoever her mother is).

Tim said...

Was I the only one to have noticed/thought that Jacob opened the door behind Richard after his wife died. It was really breif, but someone, who I think looked like Jacob w/ a mustache came in the door. So it would appear that Jacob had intended to have Richard brought to the Island.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Was I the only one to have noticed/thought that Jacob opened the door behind Richard after his wife died. It was really breif, but someone, who I think looked like Jacob w/ a mustache came in the door.

That was the doctor's manservant, who had been sent out to fetch blankets to keep Richard from dripping too much water on the doctor's previous floors.

Chrissy said...

The cabin is even more mysterious now - it seemed pretty clear that Ilana expected Jacob to be there, but could tell that it was being used by someone else. Ben also connected it with Jacob (although I'm not sure if he really believed Jacob was there). But in the 1860s and again today, Jacob is shown to occupy the statue. When did he move, and why? Why did he move back? Why does Ilana know more then Ben? Does she know more or less than Richard, or just different things?

Who the flip are all of these people!?! Sigh. Is it possible Ilana and pals actually passed Jacob's test, and that is why he seemed to care for her and trust her?

Target Addict said...

Love the character of Richard Alpert.
Love the acting job by Nestor Carbonell.
Love your recap, Alan (as always).
But I didn't love the episode - sorry.
Perhaps it'll grow on me with another viewing. I did enjoy exploring Richard's backstory (FINALLY) and getting some answers about what the island is, and why MIB wants to get off it. But compared to other episodes, this one was just lukewarm for me.

Dennis said...

Hatfield: thanks for that, bud!

I thought perhaps I'd missed something but for the life of me I couldn't remember how Widmore wound up on the island. Is the story that he first became intrigued with the island after having purchased Hanso's diary or ship log at an auction? Is that where he found the co-ordinates to find the island?

there's such an area to mine that we'll never grasp it all but even though I love the Richard character and liked his backstory I echo others comments when they say they would have liked to see some of the groups Richard counseled over the years; the obvious group being the Widmore/Lady Faraday collection.

Of course there's still time to see a snippet of that what with Widmore about to re-enter the radar and Richard about to soul search to try and determine what it is he has to do.

thejhelf said...

"I'm sure the gaps will be filled in, but I find it interesting that no one survived the tests of the island until after Richard came to be Jacob's voice of reason."

Possible that he only survived because he was the only one that couldnt be killed.
He was granted eternal life.

Anonymous said...

I still think that Jacob and Smokey are two sides of the same person.

I think that he (they) are the son of adam and eve... he saw his mother conned by the devil and then killed by his father, thus creating the split.... one side who believes in the good of man (free will to make their own decisions) and evil (corruptible by the devil and predestined to be fallible/do evil).

When Jacob saw his father murder his mother he was split in two... much like Sawyer... Now these two sides of one man are in an eternal struggle for the soul of man.
When Smokey says he wants to "go home" he really means he wants to be re-united with his other half in human form.

Also... a lot of what the show does is leave the viewer to decide what is the right/wrong thing to do... what choices would we make? I think they are putting us in the shoes of certain characters in a way.... given what we know (not much) about the truth... what choices / decisions about people/ situations do we make.

Anonymous said...

I think the "two sides of the same man" theory jives well with Smokey's comment on his body being stolen. Perhaps his only way to leave the island is to merge back with Jacob. Following that theory, perhaps that is why he kicked Jacob's body into the flames. By destroying their body he released Jacob's spirit. Now perhaps he has to find a way to get himself killed (Widmore?) so that their two spirits can merge and he can finally be free. I would be happy with that sort of development.

Connie said...

This column from The Huffington Post about the multiverse and biocentrism opened up possibilities for the significance of the sideways flashes: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-lanza/do-you-only-live-once-exp_b_508440.html.

Anonymous said...

Re-reading the comments about whether the Candidates have all killed people. In addition to all the accidental deaths Hurley feels responsible for, he also ran over an Other with the Dharma bus.
~The Mutt

SLR said...

I thought the wine bottle symbolism was the most important part of this episode, representing the crux of the show. They are all living in purgatory, they will all eventually go to heaven or hell form the island -- however one of them must stay to keep the demons from escaping into the world through purgatory -- which offers a potential entry point for the evil spirits. HAHA. Just kidding. No idea where this is going! I hope it ends with Jack and Kate at a diner on the island, listening to "Don't STop Believing" eating onion rings...Hurly is late because he tripped over a log. Jacob stops in wearing a members only jacket...

guinness said...

Why does everyone assume Smokey is bad and Jacob is good? First of all, Smokey has yet to lie to anyone. He may not have told the whole truth but he hasn't lied. And he's only killed those sided with Jacob (after giving them a chance to side with him) and evil people. He killed the slavers on the Black Rock and the other enslaved CRIMINALS. Richard was the only non-Evil person on that ship. Also, I find that the fact Esau (MiB) thinks that humans are inherently evil is telling. It's usually the devout religious persons who believe that men are evil and must be shown the right path. Isn't evil the one that believe men are neutral and willing choose to be evil? If evil believes men are inherently evil, they wouldn't need to do anything to promote evil. However, if men aren't evil, they need to convince them to make evil choices. Jacob can't do it directly, but he can through manipulation and using Richard (like the devil using minions).
Finally, Jacob has had a hand in killing many innocent people (like the Dharma Initiative) and that the flash sideways for the most part that the castaways are better off without having been touched by Jacob. Have we forgotten that?
One final thought...maybe the island really is hell and the flash sideways are heaven?

Granger said...

Why couldn't Jacob absolve Richard of his sins, but he COULD give him eternal life? If he's the God-character, that makes no sense.

And just because Smokey goes around killing people doesn't mean he's "evil." Think about how many times in the Old Testament God kills huge numbers of people because they aren't following his word (the great flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the parting of the red sea, etc).

I think there's a very good chance the MiB is "good," trying to protect the island from the people how might do it harm; while Jacob is slowly destroying it with his constant experiments.

Anonymous said...

IreneInIdaho: "I'm irritated/confused that the bit with Jacob going to see Ilana in the hospital was revisited but then dropped. What was the connection to Richard's story?"

Maybe Ilana is Jacob's choice for a Richard replacement (assuming Richard will be dead or free to leave the island and age normally by the end of this season)... to counsel whoever ends up being Jacob's own replacement.

Q said...

Carbonell (also once upon a time was known only as The Gigolo With the Funny Accent on "M.U.S.C.L.E. -- a very weird show from the either the WB or UPN's first season")

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