"It's good to see you out of those chains."
Tantalus, the Greek mythological figure who dared eat and drink with the gods on Olympus, was imprisoned in Hades, punished with an unquenchable thirst and with water just out of reach of his chained hands. From Tantalus comes the word "tantalize" as in Lost tantalizes us with the promise of answers in each episode, and all we get is more confusion. But we also get Nestor Carbonell in the performance of a lifetime. A very long lifetime.
This was an episode many fans were waiting for after five long seasons of wondering just who that man of mystery with the great eyelashes was. Melodrama and period piece, the story of Ricardo begins on the 1857 Canary Islands where he was a poor farmer with a consumptive wife. Desperate for help, Richard travels far to the nearest doctor who turned out to be a scum bastard — the beginning of a long line of malevolent authority figures in Richard's backstory.
When the doctor refuses to help, Richard gets angry and the doctor suffers an unfortunate accident. Things get worse. The beloved wife, Isabella, is dead upon Richard's arrival home — it was all for nothing. Richard goes to jail for murder with a sentence of hanging. The priest, not up on his St. Thomas Aquinas who stated that all sins may be forgiven with true repentance, refuses to grant absolution. We encounter yet another evil father on Lost, one of the cloth kind this time, and because his sin of involuntary manslaughter is not forgiven, Richard becomes a slave of sin, a common metaphor in the New Testament.
At the last moment before his capital punishment – it is Richard's "lucky day" after all – he is sold into slavery by Mal Padre to another bad man, the ominous Captain Whitfield. Richard's subsequent sea voyage raises new questions in a series with only eight Tuesdays to explain: 1) how did a ship traveling from the coast of Spain to the New World end up in the Pacific Ocean? 2) how tall was that wave the Black Rock was riding into land? The tsunami was Four-toed Statue-high and traveled presumably so deep into the jungle it took the Oceanic 815 survivors many episodes to find it.
Chained to the wreckage of the ship, thirsty and just out of reach of fresh water dripping into the boat, Richard is passive witness to horrible tragedies (like a television audience, perhaps?). His fellow prisoners are mercilessly run through with a sword by the panicky Captain Whitfield. The Captain's logic for killing everyone seemed a bit dubious: something about not having enough fresh water and supplies (and how does he know this?). This exchange was an example of some pretty clunky dialogue, but there was so much exposition in "Ab Aeterno," 137 years worth, that an occasional "what do you mean by that?" or "so that's great, what do we do now?" or "if I freed you, it would only be a matter of time before you tried to kill me" is excusable.
Captain Whitfield becomes a victim of Smokey, just in the Old Nick of time, before Richard becomes just another casualty. The Prisoner receives a visitation from Isabella, his deceased wife who, with this appearance, adds another level of mystery. Why is she on the island? If it is a momentary Hell, why would Isabella, with her apparent faith, be in Hell? Who does she identify as the Diablo? There is a lot of misdirection, but then again, what should we expect from a hallucination?
In a surprising turn of events, while I was waiting and waiting for Jacob to rescue Richard, the Man in Black ends up the one who sets Richard Hell free from his chains. "As luck would have it – I just happen to have these keys on me – they fell out of the Captain's pocket while I was ruthlessly tearing him limb from limb." Warning, fake dialogue.
This is a nice feint here. Expecting Jacob to be the savior, it is Smokey instead.
The release could have been an Amazing Grace moment: "My chains are gone, I’ve been set free, My God, my Savior has ransomed me." It would have been in keeping with the Christian imagery of Isabella's cross except that neither Smokey nor Jacob are willing to ransom Richard. The Power Players both ask Richard for payment rather than payoff — penance before absolution.
In a parallel narrative to Dogen's tasking Sayid to kill Schlocke, Smokey charges Richard to kill Jacob in the same manner, with the same knife: "Don't let him say anything to you." Just as Sayid was unable to keep Locke from having him at hello, Richard can't keep Jacob's silvery tongue from persuading him to turn the table on MiB. Without much thought, Richard strikes a deal with the devil, Jacob. Flippantly asking for life everlasting, or ab aeterno, because he cannot face the thought of eternal life without his beloved Isabella, Richard gets what he wants, bringing to mind the old adage: be careful what you wish for.
And we, Lost fans, should be careful what we wish for. We wanted more answers re Jacob and his Jacobeans, but are we happy with the Jacob in "Ab Aeterno?" This is definitely an Old Testament Jacob rather than the touchy-feely New Testament, Jesus-like Jacob that touches young Kate gently on her nose. Repeatedly holding Richard under water (a rather violent baptism, wouldn't you say?) Jacob is an angry deity when dealing with Richard's grief and confusion. Jacob is literally a "fisher of men" in taking Richard out of the water, forcing him to choose life. In contrast, Man in Black is gentleness, understanding, and promises.
There is a lot of doublespeak on both sides. Blackie calls Jacob the Devil. Jacob denies it. Who do we believe? Their claims and relationship invoke the Liar Paradox (among other things!) of Eubulides of Miletus: "A man says that he is lying. Is what he says true or false?" Is the Man in Black really the Devil and when Jacob denies being the Devil, is he telling the truth? We haven't seen Jacob do any lying, but for that matter, Blackie has been pretty honest in all his dealings too, even as homicidal as they have been.
Although Lost writers have denounced the theory that the island is Purgatory, there is a pronounced Dantean theme to "Ab Aeterno." In The Divine Comedy's "Purgatorio," Dante, having worked his way out of the Inferno, comes to an island mountain, created from Satan's fall from heaven to earth. The cries of the condemned are replaced by the sighs in Purgatory (the forest whispers perhaps?). Dante the hero encounters lost souls who represent the deadly sins (is that why Hurley cannot lose weight?) and the caretaker of the island, the stern and father-like Cato, a replacement for God. Sound familiar? In the second island appearance of Isabella, she is no longer the frightened, directionless character she appeared to be on the wreckage of the Black Rock. She now resembles a Beatrice to Richard's Dante.
In the "Letter to Can Grande," Dante himself explains Purgatario: "the subject is man, in the exercise of his free will, earning or becoming liable to the rewards or punishments of justice." This is Jacob on the Beach talk: "I wanted them to help themselves. To know the difference between right and wrong without me having to tell them. It's all meaningless if I have to force them to do anything."
"Ab Aeterno" is an episode big on action and existentialism, no easy balance to strike. Written by Melinda Hsu Taylor and Greggory Nations, and directed by Tucker Gates, the conflict centers about hapless Richard who is tossed around like a badminton birdie, action defined by that ultimate Man of Action, Blackie: "You and I can talk all day long about what's right or wrong, but the question before you remains the same: do you ever want to see your wife again?" If so, then let's have some murder and mayhem.
The philosophizing in "Ab Aeterno," served up by Jacob on the beach, is on the nature of original sin: "the man who sent you to kill me believes that everyone is corruptible because it is in their very nature to sin. I bring them here to prove him wrong. And when they get here, their past doesn't matter." In this speech, we get very close to what may be the sign of things to come — closure. There's every indication now that the island, the cork in the bottle of wine, is a gate of hell being guarded by forces that use people as playthings in their spare time. And if that is how this series ends, it's okay with me because the dialogues between the Man in Black and Jacob are among the best television moments in history.
My time is up, but first a few questions:
What do we make of the narrative context of Jacob's visit to Ilana? The episode opens with the heavily bandaged, weeping Ilana. We can only assume that she sustained those injuries in the service of Jacob. She seems so upset by Jacob's assignment — did she also make a bad bargain with Jacob? Is Jacob her Cato?
What do we make of Richard's insane laugh at Ilana's question of "What do we do next?" and is he telling the truth when he explains to Jack that they are all dead and living in hell? The writers seem to be having fun here with viewers' theories, but even in the face of writerly scorn, I can't quite shake my Dantean theory.
Captain Whitfield's homicidal ways are pretty extreme. When he says "it's only a matter of time before you tried to kill me" could he be the voice of Jacob? Or the Man in Black?" Isn't there anyone we can trust on this island? Even Hurley seemed a little shaky with his "oh and another thing…"
And finally, what good is a cork to a broken bottle?
'Til next week and "The Package," namaste.