SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, roast yourself a nice pig, pour yourself a bottle of wine (I suggest a fruity grenache with the pork), cork the bottle extremely tightly and watch last night’s Lost.
We can spend all day talking about the mythology and background revealed on “Ab Aeterno,” an intense episode of Lost–and I’m sure we will–but let’s say this first: fancy story aside, last night showed us a fine hour of acting, plain and simple.
I’ve seen Nestor Carbonell in a variety of roles on TV (from Bat Manuel in The Tick to the CBS soap Cane), and it’s not like he’s been a slouch as Richard on Lost. But until this season, he’s had to play Richard on a single, subdued, sustained note of enigmatic cool. In “Ab Aeterno,” he almost literally made Richard into another character, showing us the decent, desperate, heartbroken man who would be transformed over 140 years as Jacob’s ambassador on the Island.
But first he had to go through hell, and “Ab Aeterno” was a kind of Lost episode unlike any we’ve seen before. It resembled “The Other 48 Days” in being a single-focused story about an earlier time on the Island. But rather than showing us the whole of Richard’s sojourn to the present, it carried him from his home the Canary Islands (site, as Breaking Bad taught us, of the worst aviation disaster ever) to accidental murder to prison to the hold of a slave ship to a survival experience more raw and gruesome than any Lost has ever shown us. (The scene in which the ship’s officer goes below deck and starts murdering slaves who he believes would kill him if freed was more pat cable-like in its brutality than anything I remember on Lost.)
It may have seemed like a lot of time spent to some viewers, but clearly Cuse and Lindelof thought they needed to show, not just tell, the circumstances that brought Richard to his current pass. And Carbonell sold it, embodied Ricardo’s horror as he lived through a Victorian-horror melodrama. Which is important, because they had to place us in the mindset of someone who believes, literally not figuratively, that he is actually in hell.
So are they in hell? (That, and Purgatory, were among the first theories fans spun about Lost.) Are they actually in danger, as Ghost Isabella says, of going to hell? No, but Ricardo has come to what he thinks of as hell, and to a place that someone of his era and mindset will naturally interpret as hell. Unlike, say, Hurley, a religious, penitent man living on the Canary Islands in 1867 has not read sci-fi or seen a monster movie in his life. If he ends up in a place where he sees horrors, where the dead come to life (and are seemingly killed again), and a thing made of smoke snatches men up to their death—well, that’s hell, case closed. Someone of another era will give it a different name.
It’s not hell–right?–but it is, “Ab Aeterno” told us more explicitly than ever, a metaphysical playing ground, where two forces are battling it out through human subjects, not unlike gods in Greek mythology. So what game are Jacob and Smokey/The Man in Black playing? We got the rough outline at the end of season 5–and fans have inferred or theorized most of the rest–but it was still a bit stunning to hear Jacob say it to Ricardo directly.
To wit: Smokey is imprisoned on the Island. He is a malevolent force–call him evil, call him hatred, call him the devil if you want–who, if released, would spread over the world like, well, black smoke. (Or wine. I like the idea of a Wine Monster.) Jacob brings people to the Island, where–whatever they have done in the past–they have a chance to choose good over evil. (He is, metaphorically, the producer of Lost.) Jacob believes people can choose good. Smokey believes (as he said in the season 5 finale) that they always go bad in the end. Smokey tries to manipulate and tempt them toward that end; Jacob believes they must choose of their own free will.
[But! It should go without saying, but: this is what Jacob is telling us the game is. This is what the show has led us to infer the game us. That does not, yet, prove that it is true, or that it is the whole story. Smokey appears to have his own take on it, and while he may just be utter and downright evil, bad guys have turned out to be more than they seem on Lost before. (Take Richard.)]
So far, so God-and-Devily. But what is “right and wrong” in the endgame of Lost, anyway? I’m glad, if this is the case, that the arc of the series is the characters’ redemption, and that they have agency to choose for themselves. Still, is their goodness going to be defined by which side they pick in this Island-god showdown? Why exactly, is it “good” to pick the jackass deity who strands innocent people in an Island hellhole over the jackass deity who deceives and or kills them once they get there? It’s better, maybe, but I’m not sure Jacob’s role in all this seems so holy. You crashed me on this terrifying rock so you could “prove [Smokey] wrong?” Have a freaking debate society and leave me out of it!
In any event, from “Ab Aeterno,” the notion of the Losties finally saying pox-on-both-your-houses and rejecting the whole cosmic game seems less likely. Though I still see signs that Smokey and Jacob may be more alike than they let on: it was certainly interesting to see that, when Smokey tried to enlist Ricardo to kill Jacob, he gave him the knife and the same speech that Dogen (not Jacob, but his servant) gave Sayid to get him to kill Smokey.
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.
Those are all big-picture questions that (I will be a broken record here) are impossible to judge until the season and series are over. As an episode, “Ab Aeterno” again proved Lost’s ability to find the humanity in, and build a connection with, its most seemingly enigmatic characters. Hell of a job.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* Is it just me, or did Titus Welliver get direction to deliver his lines like Terry O’Quinn—or, specifically, as O’Quinn-as-Smokey-as-Locke? Whether intentional or coincidental, Welliver’s phrasing and manner made clear he and O’Quinn were playing the same character in different bodies. Nice work.
* So if Smokey gets off The Island, the world will become plagued with evil, hatred and malevolence. As opposed to…?
* And about Jacob: did he strike anyone else in the 1867 part of this story as more tough and hard-assed than we’ve seen him in the Island’s present? A bit of an Old Testament Jacob?
* By the way, I likened Jacob and Smokey to God and the Devil above, because the discussion about their views of man and free will echo Paradise Lost (among other stories). However, I assume that Jacob’s telling Ricardo that he cannot bring back the dead or absolve his sins was the show’s way of saying, “No, Jacob is not literally God.”
* I’ve been reading elsewhere about the parallels between the plot on the Island and Stephen King’s novels, especially The Stand, which at this point I am glad I haven’t read. But when the Man in Black took out the magic weapon and told Ricardo to kill his enemy, was I the only one reminded of HBO’s Carnivàle, and the murderous eternal war among the avatars?
* When Ricardo saw Isabella in the hold of The Black Rock, the inference was that this was actually Smokey appearing as Isabella to manipulate him. Presumably Smokey had access to Ricardo’s memories after examining and flash-photographing him, yes? I could look this up but I’m not going to: is this the first time we’ve seen Smokey manifest as a person who (unlike Locke, Yemi or Christian) had not physically been on the Island, even as a corpse?
* That CGI butterfly that fluttered into the Black Rock’s hold–I assume it’s significant, and I have no explanation for it. (My one theory, that the Island is actually Pandora from Avatar, is probably not too likely.) Speaking of CGI, credit to Lost for showing some scenes set on the ocean that did not look like a low-budget video game.
* One question “Ab Aeterno” did not answer–how did Ricardo become Ricardus? Is Jacob the one with the penchant for Latin (which the Others demonstrated in the 1950s and later, and which I assume is significant), or did it come from elsewhere? Do we have another journey into the Island’s past coming? (Widmore flashback! Widmore flashback!)
* OK, this may be immature, but was anyone else wondering if Hurley and Richard were going to share a kiss, a la Ghost, when Ricardo was visited by the shade of Isabella? It would have blown the moment, I suppose, but still.
* More seriously, when Isabella told Richard he’d suffered enough, were you thinking he was going to die? More to the point, were you, like me, hoping he would die, as a mercy to him? It’s a tribute to the show that it can cause a reaction like this to a character we’ve long known as one of the bad guys–or so, at least, we thought.