Who’s Gonna Make S’mores?
The half way point of the final season opens up with a scene that was first part of the Season 5 finale (“The Incident”). Jacob visits Illana in a Russian hospital. The scene was extended to show us that Jacob tasked Illana with protecting the six remaining candidates (who are Jack Shephard, Hugo Reyes, James Ford, Sayid Jarrah, Sun/Jin Kwon, and Kate Austen). Jacob also told her to ask Richard Alpert for further instructions. The Losties and their friends gathered around a fire on the beach. Everyone looks really happy. No, not really! They are all looking to Illana for answers. But she doesn’t have them. She says Richard does. Richard, off in the distance gives a giddy giggle and says he doesn’t know squat. He tells everyone that they are all dead and in hell before he grabs a torch and runs into the jungle.
There is a moment of confusion after Richard departs. Illana grabs her gun to go after him, but Jack talks her out of it. Then he sees Hurley off to in the shadows talking in Spanish to the ocean breezes. He goes over and demands to know what Jacob has said. Hurley says he isn’t talking to Jacob. Jack wants to argue the point. But, Hurley tells him that it isn’t all about Jack and walks off into the jungle. Whoa, dude. Way to smack down Jack!
Do You Take Medicade?
Taking a break from the sideways shuffle. And so we do a flashback. Not ALL the way back – not to ancient Egypt – but back to the Canary Islands. As it turns out, the Canary Islands actually have a connection to ancient Egypt. It’s tenuous, but it’s there. The Canary Islands are named after ‘canaari’, which means, in Latin, “the ones who worship dogs.” Apparently, the indigenous people worshiped dogs as their gods. The other most famous dog-worshipers are in fact the ancient Egyptians, whose god of the afterlife, Anubis (pictured in the hieroglyphics under the Temple wall where Ben encounters the Smoke Monster), is associated with dogs. Historians don’t know whether the people of the Canary Islands were in contact with the Egyptians, though ancient Greek texts establish that the Greeks knew of them.
The flashback drops us off in1867 Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Richard rides up on his horse and goes into his home where his wife, Isabella, is very ill. This is not a “take two aspirins and call me in the morning” thing. No, she coughs up some blood and Richard takes what little money and Isabella’s crucifix to pay for a doctor. He rides through a terrible storm to get the doctor.
Arriving at the doctor’s place he forces his way in past the servant. The doctor doesn’t know that universal healthcare has just been voted into law and refuses to go out in the storm. He tells Richard that he has medicine, but that it’s very expensive. Obviously this doctor is a card-carrying republican. Richard shows him his money, but the doctor to tell him that he doesn’t have enough money. He tosses Isabella’s crucifix to the fire and says it’s worthless. Richard is begging him and he grabs the doctor who is repulsed that a common man would touch him. They struggle as Richard pleads with the asshole doctor and the doctor stumbles and hits his head on the table and dies. Richard takes the medicine and runs out of the house. He arrives home to Isabella, but she has unfortunately already died. A sobbing Richard is taken to prison.
Bless Me Father, For I Have Sinned
Richard is interrupted from reading a bible in prison by a nasty looking priest. Padre looks like he isn’t on a first name basis with soap. Richard makes a confession and is told by Farther dirty that he cannot be forgiven for the sin of murder and will be hung in the morning. Richard desperately pleads for absolution and says he will do any kind of penance to escape hell. The priest doesn’t budge, which seems pretty unpriestly. And the Catholic church wonders why attendance is dropping…
The passage he was reading from the Gospel of Luke, by the way, concerns Jesus rejecting the Devil’s temptations, which is obviously relevant to the episode.
The overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of the Canary Islands were Roman Catholic in the 19th century, so Richard’s spirituality makes sense. While nearly all forms of Christianity (most all religions, probably) have significant views on hell, the Roman Catholic position on hell is different from other branches of Christianity in a few important ways. Most relevant here is that God’s forgiveness – which is what saves one’s soul from hell – needs to be granted through an intermediary. In many other Christian sects, a person is sent to heaven or hell based on what’s in their heart, on “faith alone”. But Roman Catholics, at least until recent times, had to be absolved by priests in order to have their sins cleansed, and absolution was granted only if the person was truly sorry and if they made up for their mistakes by doing good works.
It is not enough for Richard to be sorry. He must do good works, too, and as his priest tells him, he has no time for that, as he is going to be hanged the following day. Of course, Richard is eventually saved from this fate in exchange for committing to 140 years of Jacob’s work. As far as Catholic theology is concerned, Richard has more than made up for his sin by now. (Most of us Catholics can usually be absolved in return for saying a couple Hail Mary’s, Our Father’s or something.)
A Three Hour Tour…
The next day Richard, thinking he’s being taken to be hanged, is brought to a Mr. Jonas Whitfield, who buys him as a slave to work in ”the new world.” (so that’s why he was in chains!) because Richard speaks English and has strong hands. Whitfield also looked in his mouth, but I’m not sure what that was all about. Aboard the Black Rock, Richard and Mr. Whitfield and the rest of the crew and slaves get caught in a Typhoon (caused by Jacob?). One of the slaves peers through an opening in the side of the ship and sees Diablo! The next thing you know, Richard is making the sign of the cross and the Black Rock is riding a tsunami and runs into the four-toed statue, knocking it down to the ankle!
Now maybe it’s me, but this didn’t make a damned bit of sense to me. We saw Jacob and MIB sitting on the beach on a sunny day as the Black Rock sailed into view. So what the hell happened between that moment and the typhoon in the dark of night that drove the ship into the jungle and, why was there no devastation to the jungle from the giant wave (aka: tsunami) that put the ship so far into the jungle? I mean, come on! I read comics, so I’m willing to suspend belief, but some things just don’t add up here and this is a big one in my humble opinion (IMHO).
Let’s dig a little deeper and do a little fact-checking here. America wasn’t exactly “new” in the 1860s. However, that’s not conclusive enough for me to definitively rule out America as the Black Rock’s destination. I think it likely that Richard was referring to America when he mentioned wanting to start a family with Isabella in the “new world”. A huge number of people from the Canary Islands emigrated to South America during the mid-to-late 19th century, to places like Venezuela. With so many of his countrymen leaving, Richard could have easily wanted to go there.
But I don’t know if Jonas Whitfield was referring to America when he mentioned the “new world”. It’s 1867, the Civil War has just ended and slavery is illegal in the United States. As for South America, it’s possible that varying degrees of indentured servitude were still taking place, so Hanso could have been heading there to sell his captives. I do want to mention another possibility, however. Australia and the Dutch East Indies are very much still a “new world” in the 1860s. Gold had been discovered in the 1850s in Australia, and certain Australian colonies were experiencing gold rushes. There were all sorts of spice plantations in the East Indies. I couldn’t find out whether Australia had indentured servitude at the time, but it was still partly a prison colony for the British, so it seems plausible to me that Hanso was headed to Australia to get rich working his slaves in the mines or trade them to plantation owners in the East Indies.
This would of course also explain how the Black Rock crashed on an island we know to be in the middle of the Pacific (if you sailed from the Canary Islands to America, you wouldn’t cross the Pacific, but you would if you sailed around Africa and your destination was Australia). This also links Richard’s journey, thematically speaking, to the Oceanic 815 survivors.
The following morning, Richard and the slaves awake. They survived the tsunami and are in the hold of the Black Rock in the middle of the jungle. Mr. Whitfield comes below and starts stabbing the slaves with his sword. He tells Richard he’s doing this because they are shipwrecked and he’s afraid they will try to kill him if he sets them free. But just before he kills Richard, Smokey comes and kills the remaining crew members, including Mr. Whitfield.
Richard lives in chains for a few days. He unsuccessfully tries to free himself with a nail he’s retrieved from the ship’s deck. He runs off a wild boar that is eating one of the dead slaves. He sees Isabella who tells him they are dead and in hell. She tries to free him, but is re-killed (I only know this can happen because I’ve seen Beetlejuice) by the smoke monster. Finally, the Man in Black comes to save him. The Man in Black frees him, saying “It’s good to see you out of those chains,” the same line Locke used when he saw Richard in the Season 6 premier. The Man in Black tells Richard that Jacob has his wife and to get her back Richard must stab him in the chest before he says one word (the same thing Dogen told Sayid about killing Locke in Season 6, Episode 6. “
Like A Redheaded Step Child
Richard travels to the four-toed statue and attempts to kill Jacob, but fails. He fails big time! Jacob proceeds to whip his ass. Richard tells Jacob that he is dead and in hell, which Jacob denies. Jacob then repeatedly dunks Richard in the ocean to prove that he’s alive. After swallowing several gallons of the Pacific, Richard agrees that he is, in fact, alive.
Cork In A Bottle
Jacob drags him back up on the beach and fills Richard in on the dynamics of his relationship with the Man in Black, which proves to be one of the most insightful conversations we’ve overheard this season, or any season on Lost. Jacob compares evil to the wine in a wine bottle, saying that the island is like the cork. Without the cork, the wine could get out of the bottle. Without the island, evil could spread and infect the entire world. Jacob works to keep evil, or the Man in Black, contained. Jacob brings people to the island, where their past no longer matters, and allows them to choose between right and wrong. Richard points out that Jacob could just influence people’s decision, but Jacob says that he doesn’t want to interfere. Richard points out that if he, Jacob, doesn’t work with the people brought to the island, MIB will. Jacob sees his point. He then offers Richard the job of mediating between him and the people he brings to the island. Richard agrees and since Jacob can’t reunite him with his wife, or absolve him of his sins and save him from hell, he chooses to never die. Jacob touches him strange music begins, and, there we go, we know now how and why Richard is immortal.
If You Change Your Mind
Richard returns to the Man in Black, who tells Richard if he ever changes his mind, he could always come back to his side. Richard hands him a present from Jacob, a polished white stone. Take that, Man in Black: one point for Jacob. MIB seems pretty cool with all of this. He says that Jacob can be persuasive. He tells Richard that if he ever changes his mind, his offer still stands. And he means ever. Like 200 years from now ever. Apparently he knows that Richard is now immortal. He gives Richard Isabella’s crucifix and disappears. Literally. Richard buries the token.
Three Way With Hurley
We then see Richard in the present, continuing his journey through the jungle. I suddenly realize that the bulk of the program has been a flashback. Wow!
Anyway, Richard has returned to the place where he and MIB had that conversation so long ago. He digs up the crucifix and then yells to the sky that he’s changed his mind and would like to be on the Man in Black’s team now. I can understand how Richard may be a bit disgruntled after all this time with Jacob, but isn’t it a little late in the game to switch teams? There is a noise and Richard turns. Hurley shows up, and mediates a conversation between a dead Isabella and Richard. Isabella tells Richard that he must stop the Man in Black from leaving and if he doesn’t, we’re all going to hell. Off in the distance stands Lock. He doesn’t look happy.
Something To Pass The Time
“Ab Aeterno” ends in a flashback (the last time that happened was in Season 2, with the episode Dave). Jacob bring the Man in Black a bottle of wine. The same bottle of wine that Jacob used for show-and-tell with Richard. The two converse some more about how the Man in Black wants off the island and how Jacob will prevent. MIB says he will find a way to kill Jacob, or his replacement, in order to leave the island. The last image is of the Man in Black smashing the wine bottle, releasing the wine and bypassing the cork. Eerie!
So we learned a lot. Not only did we learn Richard’s backstory, we learned more about Jacob and the Man in Black (I wish we knew his name!). This episode was full of references to hell, good and evil, right and wrong, death, and black and white. One of the most important lessons “Ab Aeterno” brought us was that Jacob isn’t necessarily protecting the island, but he’s protecting the world from evil. Interesting idea, but are we sure that the Man in Black is bad and Jacob is good? I’m not convinced yet.
I’m inclined to believe that Jacob and the Man in Black are simply different entities with some differing philosophies but many of the same operating procedures. Both are expert con men, both murder or allow murders to take place, both have lied to the people who were following them, etc. There are faith and science, destiny and free will questions built up around both of these characters. But good and evil? If anything, MIB is the more sympathetic one, based on the fragments of his history we’ve learned. And for that matter, Jacob’s philosophy seems flawed. He doesn’t want to tell people what to do, but telling Richard to tell people is almost exactly the same thing.
Not that the Man in Black is necessarily Mr. Free Will all the time. When he gives people the choice between obeying him and dying, it’s not really much of a choice. My point is only that far from Jacob being good and MIB being bad, it’s just as likely that both have good and bad in them. Think of the role they play in this episode, as the little angel and the little devil sitting on Richard’s right and left shoulders, just like in all those great cartoon shows. But whenever an angel and a devil appear on a character’s shoulders in other media, isn’t the point usually that both the angel and the devil are misleading the character for their own ends, and that the character would be better off telling both of them to take a hike?
We’ve been given a lot of food for thought this week. With only eight episodes left, Ab Aeterno helped fans dig a bit deeper into the mythology of the island. What next week will bring is a total surprise.