We’ve been waiting for this week’s episode of Lost since… well, ab aeterno. And it was just as brilliant as I had hoped, one of the series most ambitious episodes yet with some of the best acting we’ve ever seen on the show and a big clue to the biggest secrets of the series.
The episode begins with a little more of the flashback from the season 5 finale, where Jacob visits a heavily bandaged Ilana in a Russian hospital. He tells her to look after the six candidates, and tells her that once she’s brought them to the Temple, Richard would know what to do next. Back on the island, as Jacob’s group sits around the campfire, Richard laughs at this notion. He has no idea of what to do next, he’s given up on Jacob after a lifetime of servitude, and has decided to go to the other side. He runs away.
On the island of Tenerefe, in the mid-19th Century, Ricardo arrives at his home on horseback. His beloved wife Isabella is terribly sick, so he travels for miles to see the Doctor, a rich man with little time for those without money. He refuses to travel in the rain, and the medicine is too expensive, even when Richard hands all the money he has. When the doctor throws away Isabella’s crucifix necklace, regarding it as worthless, they struggle and the doctor fatally is struck on the head. Richard flees with the medicine, but it is too late, Isabelle is dead and he is quickly arrested. In his cell, he is met with a Priest who, taking a contrary view to the rest of the Church, refuses to absolve the sins of a murderer. He tells Richard that the only way he can avoid Hell is through a lifetime of penance, but this would be impossible as he is to be hung in the morning. Luckily, because he speaks English, his life is spared and he is sold to a ship – the Black Rock.
As the crew of the Black Rock tries to navigate through a treacherous storm, Richard is chained below decks with the other slaves. One of the slaves can see land through a hole in the ship, and then sees the enormous statue of Taweret, which he thinks is the devil. A huge tidal wave knocks down the statue and sets the Black Rock down in the middle of the jungle. When everyone wakes up, it emerges that Captain Hanso is dead and there are only enough supplies for the surviving crew, so all of the slaves are killed one by one, a dark moment even for Lost. Suddenly the smoke monster arrives and kills everyone except for Richard, who comes kills them all, and approaches Richard flashes him with bright lights, like it did to Mr Eko, downloading his memories. In a beautifully shot sequence we see Richard desperately trying to free himself and trying to get some water as a boar feasts on one of the other slaves. Just as he gives up all hope of escaping, he sees a vision of the Isabella, who then appears to be caught by the smoke monster. Richard thinks he’s in Hell, we know that it was the smoke monster taking her form, and sure enough the Man in Black appears, in his earlier form (portrayed by the excellent Titus Welliver), and once again declining the opportunity to give his name, once again raising suspicion that his name is important. He tells Richard that he is in Hell and the Devil took Isabella, and he will free him if he agrees to do what he says. Richard gratefully agrees, and as the Man in Black unlocks his shackles, he says the same words he’d repeat 150 years later: “It’s good to see you out of those chains.”
The Man in Black tells Richard that they will have to escape Hell, and the only way to do this is to kill the Devil. Don’t forget that, as a religious 19th century farm-hand, the idea of the island being Hell is entirely logical and would make perfect sense to him. He tells Richard that the devil betrayed him and stole his body and his humanity. Can we take this literally? What if Jacob is using his body, which is why he is a pillar of black smoke who takes the form of the dead? Of course, he could just be speaking metaphorically, or just lying. He hands him the same dagger and uses the same words Dogen told Sayid, about making sure that he kills him before he speaks, because he is very persuasive.
When Richard gets to the remnants of Taweret’s statue, Jacob easily beats him. Richard insists he is in Hell, so Jacob subjects him to a baptism-like drowning to prove that he is alive. Jacob uses a wine bottle to explain that the island is like a cork, preventing evil from escaping to the outside world. He believes men are good, while the Man in Black believes people are corruptible and will always sin in the end. Jacob brings people to the island to try to prove his theory right but, as the Man in Black said in the season five finale: “They come. They fight. They destroy. They corrupt. It always ends the same.” While Jacob takes the stance that he should not interfere and allow people to work out the difference between right and wrong, the Man in Black interferes, manipulating people with lies and promises. This goes to the very heart of the show, the conflict over free will. It explains a lot, including why Jacob was disappointed Ben killed him, when he thought he would do the right thing. However, it doesn’t mark Jacob out as “the good guy”, bringing hundreds of people to their deaths on the island. After the puzzle being over which of Jacob and the Man in Black is the good side, it seems that they might be just as bad as each other.
Jacob recruits Richard to do the things he can’t, interact with people and be his intermediary. Jacob is not a God – he cannot bring back Isabella, and he cannot absolve sins, so Richard decides that the only way to avoid Hell is to live forever. That, Jacob can do. Richard goes back to the Man in Black, handing him a white rock, another little in-joke in this cosmic game of backgammon. The Man in Black, ever the seemingly reasonable and charismatic man, keeps his offer open.
Back in the present day, and Richard finally wants to take him up on that offer (remember that he didn’t a few episodes ago when he was tied up in the jungle). But instead, Hurley arrives. He is with the ghost of Isabella, and using his “I see dead people” powers, she talks to Richard through him. It’s a very emotional moment, as she tells him how good his English is and that he shouldn’t blame himself for her death. It’s a testament to the actors that this relationship that only had a few minutes of screen time carried more emotional resonance than many of the others in the show. It was close to, but not quite, at the level of Penny and Des’ phone call in The Constant. After she has gone, Hurley pensively reveals that she told him one more thing, they have to stop the Man in Black (using that name) from leaving the island, or “we all go to hell.” Menacingly, the Man in Black, in Locke’s form, looks on from distance.
The episode ends with a final flashback with the Man in Black and Jacob sitting together, a scene quite similar to the one in The Incident. Jacob tells the him that, as long as he is alive, he won’t be allowed to leave the island. The Man in Black says that’s why he’s trying to kill him. Jacob replies that if he does, someone will replace him. He leaves the bottle of wine he had earlier used as a metaphor for the island, saying that he’ll see him around. When he’s gone, the Man in Black says “sooner than you think”, and smashes the bottle. This image, of Jacob and the Man in Black sitting together on the hilltop looking over the island, makes me think of them sitting and watching all of the events that we’ve seen play out over the six seasons.
It was an amazing episode. It had everything, a beautiful emotional story, quite stunning character development, and an enormous chunk of mythology and answers, pointing us very clearly in the direction of where the show is headed in its final nine hours. It included some of the best acting I’ve ever seen on the show, with Nestor Carbonell surely deserving of at least an Emmy nomination for his performance. The episode was very well-directed by Tucker Gates, one of the less well-known directors on the show, at times looking more like a movie than a TV series. Melinda Hsu Taylor and Gregg Nations wrote a wonderful script, making an excellent decision to run the flashback in full (like Meet Kevin Johnson and The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham) rather than breaking it up by going back and forth to the present day. And Micheal Giachinno’s score was, once again, perfect, with Ricardo and Isabella’s love theme being another piece to add to the list of wonderful pieces of music from the show.
Every so often Lost comes up with an episode that makes you realise that this is a very, very special television programme. Walkabout, Deus Ex Machina, Through the Looking Glass, The Constant and now, Ab Aeterno.