Getting Lost: Ab Aeterno

It’s time for another installment of “Getting Lost,” where John S takes you through all the salient questions from last night’s episode of Lost:

Well, let’s start with the obvious: What exactly does “Ab Aeterno”—the title of last night’s episode—mean? Come on, you can’t Google it? Apparently, it can be loosely translated as “from the beginning of time,” “from eternity,” “from the everlasting,” etc. Basically, it means some shit is really, really old, as we discover in this episode that Richard Alpert has looked more or less the same for over 140 years.

Speaking of which, were people really still calling America “the New World” in 1867? I mean, the United States was pushing 100 at that point, and Europe had known about the continent for almost four centuries… Yeah, that part of the episode didn’t ring all that true to me. On the whole, I was a little wary of the entire Canary Island part of Richard’s story. Richard is an important character in terms of the Island’s overall mythology—and he’s almost always a good addition to a scene or episode, despite not always getting a lot of chances to shine, as he did two weeks ago in his dynamite scene—but he’s not really a character at the emotional center of the story. We didn’t meet him until Season Three, and we didn’t know much about his character until, really, this season.

And, unlike a lot of viewers, I really wasn’t especially interested in the whole “Richard doesn’t age” phenomenon. I didn’t really need a whole episode devoted to explaining it, since the supernatural is such an ingrained part of Lost by now. So centering an entire episode around Richard—with pretty much none of the main characters—was a rather bold move. People generally hated an episode like “The Other 48 Days” from Season Two for the same reason.

It wasn’t THAT bad, was it? Of course not. As I said, Richard is a very appealing character, but I thought the whole prologue about his wife Isabella was a little tedious, even if it did ultimately pay off. The reappearance of Isabella on the Black Rock was another interesting clue on the whole “dead people on the Island front”: Telling Richard that he was in Hell was obviously a myth that the Man in Black (in his first corporeal appearance of Season Six!) wanted to perpetuate.

It was only really after that, though, that the episode started to pick up. Once the Man in Black showed up to let Richard out of his chains,* things got very interesting. This episode really got to the nature of the conflict between Jacob and the Man in Black, something I noted the importance of before the season began. In Richard’s first scenes with both characters, they gave him more of an explanation than any other character has gotten over the course of the show.

*“It’s good to see you out of those chains,” which the Man in Black told Richard upon freeing him, was of course what Locke 2.0 said to Richard back in “LA X” when he emerged from the Temple to tell everyone how “disappointed” he was in them.

To hear the Man in Black tell it, Jacob isn’t all he’s cracked up to be: Jacob evidently stole both MiB’s body and MiB’s humanity. His perspective is that he himself is as imprisoned as Richard was in his chains. This Island is Hell and Jacob is, according to the Man in Black, “the devil.”

Yeah, this episode sure laid the religious stuff on thick, didn’t it? It sure did. Aside from the devil/Hell stuff, there was the priest in Spain telling Richard that he wouldn’t be absolved for his sins, since he can only earn absolution through penance; there was the Cross that Richard kept as a keepsake of Isabella. There were also more “subtle” things like Richard being a shipwrecked prisoner and Jacob dunking him in the water three times to get him to accept that he wanted to live and that he wasn’t in Hell.

All of this religious imagery reinforces the idea that the Jacob/Man in Black rivalry is really just a Good vs. Evil debate; and although the Man in Black keeps calling Jacob “the devil,” Jacob is clearly the good one in the dichotomy of the show: In their final scene together, the camera panned over the Man in Black (played by Titus Welliver [what a name!]), and the music swelled up as if he were Darth Vader.

Well, he did try to have Jacob killed. Yeah, and it’s worth pointing out that the instructions he gave Richard on how to kill Jacob were the exact same instructions Dogen gave Sayid back in “Sundown” for killing Locke 2.0: Stab him in the chest BEFORE he talks to you. It’s also worth noting that the promise he offers Richard—seeing a deceased loved one—is the same one that Locke 2.0 used to win Sayid over in the same episode.

As the Man in Black tells Richard, he’s lost something and he wants it back, and he believes Jacob is to blame for that loss.

He may have a point there. Well, the extent to which Jacob has meddled in these people’s lives, he may very well be responsible for the losses they’ve suffered. I mean, he seemed pretty goddamn responsible for Sayid’s loss.

Jacob’s explanation of himself is actually quite God-like, and by that I mean it’s terrible: He is bringing people to the Island as part of a grand experiment designed to prove that man is inherently good—except that he’s going to keep bringing people until he’s proven right. This is not exactly a scientifically rigid experiment system. And he refuses to interfere directly but has no problem interfering in a variety of convoluted indirect ways. He also claims that the Island is guarding an Evil from the rest of the world, and yet he refuses to say how or why. If the Man in Black is this “Evil”, then why is Jacob so bent on convincing him that man is good? Jacob is just as inconsistent, irrational, and self-absorbed as the God of the Old Testament…and not even Tim likes that one.

So this week you’re siding with the Man in Black? Well, I think the Man in Black is so obviously being portrayed as Evil that it’s pretty difficult to truly side with him. With that said, I again appreciated the touch of making MiB’s offer open-ended—the forgiving nature of the Man in Black and Locke 2.0 has probably been his most appealing characteristic. Nevertheless, there’s very little doubt now that he has been assuming the form of the dead to manipulate the living.

Jacob at least goes through an intermediary to use the dead. The final scene at the end was a well-done emotional moment for the show, and was an example of how advancing the plot can also showcase character moments. As soon as Hurley was shown on the beach speaking Spanish to nobody, it was clear that he would soon be translating deadspeak to convince Richard to come back, but it was still a poignant moment pulled off by Carbonell.

Any other thoughts? The brief moments that did include other characters were nicely done in this episode. I liked Jack being so certain that Jacob’s instructions had to be right, and I liked Ben’s newest one-liner: “If it makes you feel any better, it’s not exactly Locke.”

We also opened the episode on another character’s eye, and not the one you’d might expect: Ilana’s. I don’t think we’ll get to find out much about Ilana, but I think opening with her as opposed to Richard might signal something about her future importance.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that even an episode like this, which answered so many questions, raised so many new ones. For example: Q) Why doesn’t Richard age? A) Because he asked Jacob for immortality in lieu of absolution. New Q) Why can Jacob grant immortality but not absolution? Why can’t he bring back Isabella? Also: Q) How did the statue get destroyed? A) The Black Rock destroyed it when Jacob brought it onto the Island. New Q) Why did Jacob bring the Black Rock to the Island if he couldn’t recognize Richard, the only survivor? Q) Why does Jacob need to protect the Island? A) Because it serves as the “cork” of the world’s Evil. New Q) How can the Island be the source of the world’s Evil if the Man in Black does not seem to be indigenous to it?

All of this is important in showing the insufficiency of any answers on this show. It’s not that Lost chooses not to address its mysteries; it’s that addressing them ultimately only deepens them, and makes them more mysterious. The Lost mythology does not function like a puzzle to which you gradually add more pieces. It’s more like a bedsheet that is too small for the bed: Once you finally get a corner covered, another one pops undone. This doesn’t mean I think the ending of the show will be unsatisfying, but that I think those hoping for “answers” will be gravely disappointed.

Predictions for next week? As I pointed out last week, this episode marks the midway point of the season. Since this episode was almost entirely devoted to Richard’s flashback, though, all the pieces are more or less still where they were, with only Jin and Sun needing to be dealt with. I’ll just repeat what I said last week, then: I think Sun will find out where Jin is and ultimately abandon her group on the beach in favor of Locke 2.0’s crew, but only to be near her husband. She will immediately regret this decision.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Tim on March 24, 2010 at 11:13 AM

    Like you, I wasn’t nearly as big a fan of this episode as most people. Everyone seemed to enjoy all the “answers” it provided, but I found it deceptively opaque. What do we really learn in the episode, aside from why Richard doesn’t age (a dilemma that was potentially interesting but ultimately not really)? We find out that he was on the Black Rock, which we knew. We find out the Man in Black doesn’t like Jacob, wants to kill him but can’t kill him himself, and feels trapped by him. We knew all these things, and we still don’t know the why of any of them. It should be clear now that nothing Jacob nor MiB says should be taken at face value; is the MiB really the “world’s evil”? Is Jacob the devil? Both characters are just propagandists (although Jacob doesn’t slip up like the MiB does and come out and say things like, “Oh yeah, Richard, I’m that smoky thing that killed everyone and, as logic would follow, probably took the apparition of your wife”). It’s also unclear why MiB left Richard and Richard alone alive from the Black Rock; does he have the power to discern that, maybe, Richard is strong enough to kill Jacob? That he can be manipulated to do so? If so, he probably chose the wrong guy on the ship. It seems the other mates could have been convinced by the MiB more easily. Also, you mention how MiB manipulates the dead, but it seems as if Jacob does that as well with Isabella.

    Your questions about the game Jacob and MiB are playing are legitimate; it doesn’t seem as if they’ve really figured out their own rules. Their constant impositions on the lives of their test subjects (Jacob indirectly; MiB by killing a whole lot of them) render whatever conclusions they reach worthless.

    As for Richard and Isabella, I had little to no investment in their story. The supposed climax with Hurley translating for them and Richard and Isabella kissing had very little emotional power for me; you don’t get to achieve a romantic catharsis over the course of one episode, and the fact that this episode spent so much of its time in one time period (1867), it fails to emphasize that RIchard has gone 140 years without seeing his wife.

    Minor squabbles: The dialogue around the fire at the episode’s start struck me as some of the show’s worst, but I don’t remember why.

    I’m pretty sure there’s no way a wooden ship could destroy a statue like that.

    Reply

  2. […] the absence of a new Lost episode last night (ABC ran a rerun of “Ab Aeterno” instead), this week’s “Getting Lost” will look at where the show’s final season stands […]

    Reply

  3. […] we talk about the episode now? I guess. This was, it seems, a big one. Like “Ab Aeterno,” this episode eschewed any of the present day or Sideways storytelling in favor of the background of […]

    Reply

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