One of my favorite poker terms is “pot-committed,” which refers to that point in a hand where you’ve got so many chips at stake that you pretty much have to call any raise by your opponent, no matter how big. When you’re pot-committed, the lone advantage to folding is the ability to control information; you’ll lose a ton of money, but at least your opponent won’t know whether you were clinging to weak cards. But what if your opponent is bluffing? If you’re risking a game-changing stack of chips, logic dictates that you stay in the hand, so at least you’ve got a chance to win.
Like a lot of pokerspeak, “pot-committed” has applications even when you step away from the card table. Consider Richard Alpert. For 140 years, he’s been working as Jacob’s intermediary in the world, guiding people to The Island (and guiding them once they’re on The Island) to an end that Jacob has only vaguely explained. Richard has trusted that Jacob knows what he’s doing, and that the other guy—The Man In Black, the first one to touch Richard and offer him help on The Island—is a malevolent force that Jacob’s keeping in check. Not much more seems to have been clarified for Mr. Alpert. He’s primarily been acting on faith, and with Jacob dead, that faith is as shattered as the giant statue that used to guard this Island. What was it all for, ultimately? Is it time for Richard to fold, or does he need to stand behind his bet, now more than ever?
“Ab Aeterno” was the episode that a lot of us have been waiting for all season—the big Richard Alpert origin story, with promises of major reveals about The Island mythology—and I’m anxious to see whether everyone thought it was worth the wait. Myself, I was entranced, even though I don’t know that “Ab Aeterno” was quite what I was expecting. I figured we’d get more sweep, from Richard’s arrival on The Island to his time with The Others and then to now. Instead, we largely stayed in 1867, with an extended explanation of how Richard found himself in Jacob’s service in the first place.
But there was a different kind of mood about the episode that drew me in early, and held me all the way to the end. The editing was different at times, with people talking while the screen showed flashes of action from different times and places. Michael Giacchino’s score was different, particularly at the start of Richard’s story, which introduced (I think) a new musical theme. And the framing of shots was different, catching parts of The Island—an overgrown tree, the beach with The Statue—that we haven’t seen much during the run of the series. One of my favorite aspects of Lost is the way that any given week, the show can whisk us to other places and tell stories in any genre the writers choose. Last week, they dropped us off in a cop show. This week, it was a tragic Victorian romance with Biblical overtones.
We start on the Canary Islands, where poor Richard needs a doctor to save his feverish, consumptive wife Isabella. She gives him her heavily symbolic gold cross to pay for medicine, but the doctor refuses it—“This is worthless,” the doc says, layering meaning upon meaning—and an agitated Richard accidentally kills him. Isabella dies and Richard’s imprisoned, where he’s given a choice between death-by-hanging or joining a man named Mr. Whitfield on an expedition to The New World on The Black Rock. Only after Richard makes the choice to live does he learn that Whitfield means him to be a slave, “property of Magnus Hanso.”
The Black Rock soon gets caught up in a storm and heads towards The Island, where Richard sees The Statue looming through the flashes of lightning. The ship eventualy catches a big wave, crashes into The Statue and demolishes it, before washing up way inland. (I’d dispute the physics of all this, but you know what I always say: It’s a magic island. Sometimes stuff just… happens.) Mr. Whitfield begins slaughtering all the slaves so that they won’t be a drain on Hanso’s resources, but Richard is spared when The Smoke Monster comes whooshing in, killing everybody.
A few days later, Richard sees the ghost of his wife, and hears her scream when the Monster returns. Then the Monster comes back yet again, in human form this time, and tells Richard that “the devil” has Isabella down on the beach by the shattered Statue, and that Richard can get her back if he slays the devil with a special dagger. He’s not to listen to a word the devil—Jacob—says, because if he does, it’ll be too late.
But alas, Richard does listen. Jacob repels Richard’s attack easily, then quickly convinces Richard that The Man In Black is the bad guy, and that Richard, no matter what he believes, is not dead and not in Hell. He proves this by dunking Richard in the ocean three times—ritual baptism, in other words—after which Richard is born again, and ready to do as Jacob asks. At first, Jacob’s not sure what he wants, beyond keeping The Man In Black in check. He explains to Richard that Blackie is a dark stain that will spread throughout the world unless he’s contained in his bottle by “the cork” that is The Island. He explains that Blackie has a gift for manipulating people, and bringing out their worst tendencies. Richard asks why Jacob doesn’t use his own powers of persuasion on the opposite side, and Jacob explains that it’s not right if people are led to the proper path rather than finding it themselves. But then he seems to take Richard’s idea under consideration, and asks if Richard would mind going out into the world as his representative.
So how does all this fit into Lost as we know it?
Well, so many questions were raised by the 1867 action that I’m probably going to fill the CC&CAT section of this review with more verbiage than the recap section. So head down there if you want to contemplate the mysteries straight away. One quick note before you go, though: for those of you worried that Lost is heading down the same “God did it” path that marred Battlestar Galactica for so many fans of that show, I’d advise you to tamp down your fears until the whole story gets told. Note that Jacob says he can’t bring Richard’s wife back and can’t absolve Richard of his sins, though he can grant eternal life. Those sound like the promises of a supernatural being, yes, but not necessarily a Christ figure. (Baptism and gold crosses aside.) Note also that when Jacob makes his offer to Richard, he’s essentially repeating the offer made by Whitfield. Richard is as good as dead, then Jacob offers him life—but only in service. I don’t think that parallel is coincidental.
As for what makes “Ab Aeterno” a Lost story, I have to point to a narrative structure that has the protagonist in shackles and in the dark for a good chunk of the episode. That’s Lost in a nutshell, yes? There’s so much we want to see, and so much we want to know, yet again and again, the writers lock us into one place, and leave us there in ignorance until our spirits are broken. And then just when we're about to give up they take us someplace new and unexpected, and we’re so grateful that we’ll believe anything they tell us. It’s quite canny, how often Lost becomes a metaphor for itself.
I had my doubts at times this week. I thought the opening scenes in 2007 were rushed and shaky, and when Richard flipped out and told Jack that everyone there was dead and in Hell, my heart sunk a little. (“You mean that figuratively, right?” I asked hopefully, echoing Hurley.)
But then, like I said, I got caught up in Richard’s story, as it played out against the backdrop of the old rivalry between Jacob and The Man In Black. So while I loved the final scene of “Ab Aeterno,” back in 1867, with Jacob explaining that there’ll always be a cork to contain the malevolence, and The Man In Black responding by smashing a bottle (thus illustrating that there may be more than one way to escape), I was even more impressed by the final scenes with Richard in 2007. He digs up Isabella’s old cross, buried on The Island 140 years ago, and calls for The Man In Black to take him onto the dark team as he promised to do way back when. Richard’s ready to fold his hand.
Then Hugo shows up, carrying a message from The Ghost Of Isabella to stay in the game. It’s a beautifully conceived, staged and acted scene—rivaling the more emotional Desmond/Penny scenes, in my opinion—with Richard and Isabella standing right next to each other and communicating through Hurley. I keep saying over and over that Lost is not Jacob’s story or The Man In Black’s story, despite the complaints of some frustrated fans. It’s the story of how these characters we’ve lived with for six years deal with the choices and opportunities being offered by these two entities. Whether following Jacob is the right thing to do or not still remains to be seen, but at the moment, doing so does give Richard a sense of purpose and hope that he didn’t have when the episode began. For now, that’s the story.
-Did you, like me, say “good to see you out of those chains” in unison with The Man In Black?
-Felt good to hear the familiar “flashback” sound for the first time in a while.
-This was also the first heavily subtitled episode since “Ji-Yeon,” if I recall correctly.
-Ben notes that he’s known Richard for a long time, and that Richard doesn’t know anything. If anyone’s an expert on Island ignorance, it’s Ben.
-Do “the rules” require that Jacob and Smokey wear white and black? To make them easier to identify?
-We’ve been rightly praising the work of Terry O’Quinn and Michael Emerson this season, but let’s give it up for Nestor Carbonell, who’s finally gotten to play a few notes other than “quiet confidence” this season. His performance in the dynamite scene two weeks ago was so wonderfully raw; I’ve watched it about four times now, and it still gives me a jolt. And I loved his first appearance in this episode, giving a rueful giggle when Ilana asks him what to do next.
-“If it makes you feel any better, it’s not exactly Locke.”
-“She says your English is awesome.”
-What would’ve happened if Cane had become a big hit?
-Are Archie comics ripping off Lost? Mr. Andrews seems to be spending a lot of time in Mirror Universes lately. Payback for "Jughead," I guess.
Clues, coincidences and crazy-ass theories:
-How did The Black Rock’s ledger end up at auction? Was it planted there by Jacob/Richard, as part of a scheme to get Desmond to The Island, via Charles Widmore/Libby?
-The episode opens with Jacob visiting Ilana and filling her in on her duties as a protector. Do I detect a tone of despair in Ilana that she’s not a candidate herself?
-Add Richard to the list of people on The Island who’ve killed. Apparently it doesn’t matter whether you kill someone intentionally or accidentally. Take a life and, “I’m afraid the devil awaits you in hell.”
-Just as Not-Locke did last week, The Man In Black confesses to Richard that he’s The Smoke Monster. He lies about other stuff, but he doesn’t seem to mind sharing that one embarrassing secret about himself.
-Is it significant that only after The Black Rock destroys The Statue, Jacob decides that he needs to take a more active role in human affairs?
-Richard gives The Man In Black a white rock from Jacob, symbolizing something. Another soul claimed, perhaps?
-If Richard became Jacob’s intermediary in 1867, what happened in the interim to get Widmore involved? And Hawking? And Linus? How did we end up with tribes and “leaders?” And how did our Oceanic 815ers become “candidates?” There’s a lot more story to be told, but if Lost really is about the elemental clash of good and evil, I get the feeling that it may also be about how religion intercedes and confuses things.
-The Man In Black tells Richard not to listen to Jacob because, “He can be very… convincing.” I get the feeling that Jacob may have talked his nemesis onto The Island in the first place. Thinking back to “The Incident” last season, I can’t help but dwell on The Man In Black saying to Jacob “still trying to prove me wrong” and Jacob reminding his nemesis that “it only ends once… anything that happens before that is progress.” But progress for whom? Perhaps not for mankind; perhaps for The Man In Black, who’s being kept on The Island until he learns the lesson that Jacob’s been trying to teach him for centuries.
-Speaking of which, I’ve been sitting on a theory for a few weeks. There have been rumors for a while that we’d hear The Island summed up in a single word in this episode, and that the word would be “cork.” Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about bottles and genies and granting wishes, though I don’t know whether “Ab Aeterno” supports The Genie Theory or not. I’m thinking probably not, but here’s a proposition: What if The Man In Black is a genie, and what if he once tempted Jacob with promises, and Jacob turned the tables? Again, I’m betting against this theory given what we learned tonight, but I’ve been saving it in my back pocket and didn’t want to waste it.
-And by the way, how much different would the world be if The Man In Black were allowed to escape? It’s not like there’s not evil out there already. Or is it just that a freed Blackie would tip the scale?
-At one point in the episode, the camera moved slowly in on The Black Rock, and I saw what looked to be a computer-generated butterfly flapping into the boat. I assumed for a moment that it would turn out to be Jacob, taking a different form—as fauna, like Kate’s horse—much like The Man In Black’s smokey self. It didn’t turn out to be so, but it did make me wonder whether Jacob can change the way his nemesis can.
-Thinking about animals also makes me think of Walt, which reminds me of one of the major lingering questions still far, far from answered by Lost: What’s up with all the magic powers?
-I defined “pot-committed” up top, but that’s really only half the definition. The term can also describe a situation where you have a clear advantage, and your odds are just too strong to fold. Because there are times, in poker as in life, where there’s really only one reasonable play: All-in.
I posted this in the comments late last week (and on Twitter/Facebook), but for those who missed it, I participated in the Zap2It “Orientation: Ryan Station” podcast, co-hosted by Zap2It’s Ryan McGee and The Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan. We re-watched “Recon” and talked about it in pretty close to real time. (We often talked past the commercials; hence the periodic breaks to re-set.) I had a great time and hope to get invited back before the season's over. Anyway, I think I acquitted myself well, mainly by sharing the kind of theories about the “flash-sideways” and the ultimate meaning of the show that we all kick around here every week. So I credit y’all with the assist.