“Ab Aeterno” is one of the better episodes of this season of “Lost” for several reasons, chief among them that this show genuinely enjoys getting caught up in its own complicated backstory. At times, yes, the episode felt like a bit of an exposition dump, but it was the first episode in a long while to stay almost completely in one timeline, and it also filled in some interesting gaps in the history of the island and some major characters. But it was also notable for the way it played into the show’s love of moral ambiguity. If Verbal Kint’s hypothesis was that the Devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world he didn’t exist, then the “Lost” version is that the Devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world that he’s actually God. “Lost” isn’t afraid to call good and evil for what they are, but it’s also not prone to having every single character ally themselves with one of those extremes. Bad guys never think they’re bad, just self-interested; good guys never think they’re good, just oppressed. This week’s episode was a great way to drive that home.
There is no action set in the non-crash world in “Ab Aeterno” (literally “from eternity”; meaning “since the beginning of time” or “for a very long time”); everything happens in the crash timeline, whether on the island in the present or past or in a few other locations. The open actually deals with a brief flashback of Ilana’s time in that Russian hospital where she was badly injured and where Jacob visited her. The scene is a mix of old footage from last season’s “The Incident” and new stuff as Jacob tells her about the candidates. A cut reveals that she’s telling this to everybody now gathered around the fire on the beach: Jack, Hurley, Frank, Sun, Ben, and Richard. She was supposed to ask “Ricardus” what to do when she got to the island, but Richard tells her he has no idea what to do. He gets in Jack’s face and tells them they’re all dead already, and that the island is hell, before grabbing a torch and walking into the jungle. (In addition to setting up the episode, this is a cute way for the showrunners to have some fun with one of the earliest fan theories.)
Jack also notices Hurley talking to no one down by the shore, and he believes it to be Jacob, but Hurley tells Jack that it’s someone else and of a private matter. The rest is just banter between Ben and Frank about how Richard doesn’t age, which leads us to:
Richard is riding on horseback across the Canary Islands in 1867. He arrives at his home to find his wife, Isabella (Mirelly Taylor), still sick and coughing blood. These and several subsequent scenes are performed in Spanish with subtitles, which enhances their atmosphere and reality. Richard pledges to save her, and they have some genuinely sad and sweet moments as he tells her he doesn’t know what to do without her. He sets off again through the rainy night to find the doctor, arriving at the man’s estate in the middle of the night to beg for assistance. The guy is a bit of a douche and says he can sell Richard the medicine depending on how much he can pay. Richard hands over all his coins and then the cross necklace that Isabella gave him before he left. Unmoved by this gesture, the doctor tosses aside the necklace as “worthless,” which sends Richard into a fury. He attacks the man and angrily asks for help, but unfortunately, he winds up dropping his neck against the table edge (or that’s what it looked like), and the guy falls to the ground, dead.
Richard, in a panic, takes the medicine back to Isabella but arrives too late: She’s died in the night. He weeps for his lost love as lawmen arrive (really, really quickly, considering the length of the journey and the whole lack of modern communication) and cart him off to jail. He’s visited there by Father Suarez (Juan Carlos Cantu), who turns out to be the kind of aloof intermediary you really don’t want in a guy who’s gonna read you the Last Rites. Suarez is impressed by Richard’s English-language Bible, and Richard said he’s been learning the language out of a hope he and his wife would one day see the New World. The priest opens the Bible to see Luke chapter 4 verse 37, a chapter that deals with Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the desert and a verse that talks of Jesus’ notoriety spreading. Richard confesses his sin of accidental murder and begs for absolution, but Suarez says no can do: Murder’s too big to just forgive, and Richard doesn’t have time to do any penance because he’s going to be killed in a day. Richard’s having a bad week.
The next day, Richard’s blindfolded and led from his cell only to be stopped in the outer hall by a scruffy, likely drunk Brit named Jonas Whitfield (Steven Elder), who checks out Richard’s teeth and wants to know if he can speak English. Though his blindfold is removed, Richard’s too dumbstruck to speak for a moment, and he’s being drug back to his cell when he coughs up a few words and proves he knows the language. Whitfield offers him passage to the New World, which Richard accepts, and with that the Brit hands money to the priest and officially purchases Richard on behalf of Magnus Hanso. Next thing you know, Richard’s on the ship he obliquely revealed in “Dr. Linus” was his former home: the Black Rock, making its way through stormy seas as Richard and other Spanish-speaking workers are chained below. One of the other men looks between the boards and spots an island, then sees what he claims is the Devil but is actually the very eerily lit statue of Tawaret. The ship has swung around the Americas and been sucked into the island’s vortex of fate-testing adventure, and the storm builds to a fever pitch as the ship tips up and wrecks on the statue.
The next morning, Richard and the other slaves awake to find themselves mercifully alive (well, some anyway), though still chained to the walls of the ship. They shout for help from the figures moving about topside, which is when Whitfield comes below deck and starts getting really wacky, taking out his sword and running through one man after another. A panicked Richard asks why he’s doing this, and Whitfield says that they’re wrecked in the jungle with no water, no supplies, and just a handful of officers left; if he doesn’t kill Richard, it’d just be a matter of time before Richard came after him. He rears back for the killing blow but is stopped by the familiar whine and rattle of the approaching smoke monster. He looks up through a grate and calls for explanation as a line of blood falls from above, at which point the monster bursts down through the ceiling and makes off with him, killing him in a probably very uncomfortable way. The monster swoops below and stops in front of Richard, checking him out, but Richard shuts his eyes and fervently prays, after which the monster bails.
Thus begins Richard’s lengthy bout of solitary confinement on the ship. What happens to him there is fascinating to watch knowing what we do by know about the shape-shifting abilities of the Man in Black. At one point, Richard awakens to see Isabella before him, who tells him that they are indeed in hell together but that they need to escape before the monster returns. As the noise picks up from outside, he tells her to flee, and she does, disappearing topside only to scream in agony at her “death.” The fun of these scenes, though, is to watch the way the Man in Black appears in multiple forms before Richard to mess with his head and get him to a place where he’s ready to do the Enemy’s bidding. Later on, the original Man in Black himself appears — the one we haven’t seen since last year’s finale — and offers to free Richard if Richard promises to help him. He tells Richard that he can see his wife again and escape from hell if Richard heads into the jungle to kill the Devil. Richard agrees, and the Man in Black takes the keyring he “found” (read: took off a corpse of a man he’d slaughtered) and sets Richard free, remarking, “It’s good to see you out of those chains.” This is the way Fake Locke greeted Richard in the first episode of this season, so it’s a nice callback/fill-in, depending on how you look at the timeline.
Later, they eat as the Man in Black gives Richard a knife — the one Dogen will give Sayid in 140 years — and tells him to head due west to the statue, “where you’ll find the Devil.” Richard wants to know how he’s supposed to kill a smoke being, but the Man in Black admits to being the smoke monster, then uses some kind of weird logic to convince Richard that his wife is still okay but just taken by the Devil. Richard hikes to the statue and sees only the foot, with wreckage strewn about in the shallow water, proving that it was the wreck of the Black Rock that destroyed the Tawaret monument. He looks around but is ambushed and beaten up by a man that turns out to be Jacob, who’s a whole lot pissier and antagonistic than the one who’ll be killed in a century and a half. When a battered Richard reveals the point of his mission, Jacob asks if he met a man in the jungle dressed in black. Richard’s belief that he’s dead and in hell gets him brutally dunked four times in the water by Jacob, who gets Richard to admit that he wants to live.
Then comes Jacob’s explanation of what’s up with the Man in Black, and it’s both a new take on the situation and somehow just a rehash of everything we already had learned in bits and pieces. Jacob says that the Man in Black is pure evil, chaos, hell, all of it, and compares the Man in Black to wine in a bottle and the island to the cork that prevents its escape and spread. He holds up a bottle of wine to make his point visually. Jacob brings people to the island to fend for themselves, learn right from wrong, and fight the Man in Black by keeping him in check. Richard calls shenanigans and says that Jacob should at least intervene a bit, but Jacob balks and says, “It’s all meaningless if I have to force them to do anything.” Richard counters that the Man in Black gets involved in their lives, so Jacob should do the same. Jacob then offers him that very job, to act as a mediator between Jacob and the people he recruits for the island. He offers Richard anything he wants, but says he can’t bring Isabella back or provide absolution for Richard’s crime. Richard almost casually utters that he wants to live forever, a statement born of the fear of facing eternal damnation for his crime, but Jacob grins and places a hand on his shoulder, saying, “Now that I can do.” Poor Richard. He just wanted to do his penance, but he wound up with so much more to do.
Richard returns to the Man in Black with a gift from Jacob: a white rock. (Probably the same one they keep passing back and forth, and that Fake Locke removes from Jacob’s scale and tosses into the ocean in “The Substitute.”) The Man in Black isn’t upset so much as disappointed, and he reiterates that his offer to help Richard escape and see his wife again still stands and always will. This is such a great way to play evil: Casual, accepting, and always ready to bargain. As one last jab, the Man in Black slips Isabella’s cross necklace into Richard’s hand before vanishing. Unable to deal with it, Richard, buries the necklace next to a nearby tree and tells his love goodbye. And that takes us back to:
Richard emerges from the jungle at the same spot we just saw him standing, only 140 years later, and he heads to the tree and digs up the necklace. “I’ve changed my mind,” he says, then begins shouting to the unseen Enemy that he’s willing to take him up on his offer. Richard’s work for Jacob was predicated in part on the belief that Jacob would always be around and was in many ways unkillable, but Jacob’s true nature seems to be a kind of force that can become physical but transfer (I am wildly speculating) into/onto another candidate. Richard’s understandably feeling betrayed by Jacob and like he’s worked his whole ageless life for a lie, but he just doesn’t have all the facts. That’s a great way to play the story. Anyway: Richard turns, expecting to see Fake Locke there ready to welcome him home, but instead it’s Hurley emerging from the jungle. “Your wife sent me,” Hurley says, as the memory of the ghost he was talking to earlier clicks into place. He stuns Richard with this but proves he’s telling the truth by talking to him about the necklace. Isabella appears next to Richard, unseen by him but seen by Hurley, and in a Ghost-like mirror of the opening sequence, Richard closes his eyes as Hurley relays Isabella’s final message of love, comfort, and devotion. It’s a legitimately sweet scene, and Nestor Carbonell uses pure body language to convey the fatigue and sorrow that have haunted him for decades as he deals with the memory of his dead wife. She puts his penance to rest, telling him, “You’ve suffered enough.” She leaves him again, more alone but less defeated. He slips on the necklace and thanks Hurley (who looks away and acts stoic), but Hurley’s got one more piece of instruction from Isabella. He says that she wants Richard to stop the Man in Black. Otherwise, “we all go to hell.” From a distance, Fake Locke watches with quiet concern.
There’s one more tag, and it’s set back in the past: The Man in Black is toying with the white rock as Jacob saunters up and sits beside him. He admits to sending Richard to kill Jacob because he wants to leave. “Just let me leave, Jacob,” he says wearily. Jacob says that he won’t allow that as long as he’s alive, adding that if he’s killed, someone will just step in and replace him. The Man in Black says he’ll just kill that person, too. (He’s devoted, that’s for sure.) Jacob passes him the wine bottle and says it’s to help pass the time, and with that he leaves, saying, “See you around.” The Man in Black, never one to let a dramatic gesture go to waste, mutters, “Sooner than you think,” then smashes the bottle on the rock at his feet.
And that’s that. Overall, just a really solid episode. I liked the parallel of Jesus being tempted in the desert with Richard being tempted in the jungle, and I also like the idea of what might be the core of the show: Basically, what if the ultimate evil were trapped on an island, and forced to play little mind games to earn his escape, and it was up to humans to outsmart him? That’s not a bad little generator for a show’s mythology, though I do wonder how much it’ll be able to tie into larger or other issues. (DHARMA, Walt, etc.) The concept of the island as either a gateway to or checkpoint for hell or evil is a little reminiscent of the Hellmouth from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but not in a bad way. I don’t think Hurley’s message from Isabella about going to hell was a literal one, more like they’ll be in a world of unchecked evil. It was also interesting to see how the Black Rock crashed and to realize that it wasn’t the ship we saw Jacob and the Man in Black discussing in last season’s finale; Jacob himself admitted to Richard that there had been “many” people come to the island before the Black Rock, so who knows how many ships of innocent people those figures pitted against each other. I also liked the moralizing between Jacob and the Man in Black, whose exact roles in the world still seem a little unclear but who allow the characters they interact with to make interesting choices. “Lost” is big on the tension between fate and free will, and it was thrilling to have some of the previously conceived notions of fate pushed aside just a bit for Jacob’s claim to want his potential candidates to work everything out on their own. How this will affect Jack and the rest, only time will tell.