When word got out that Lost Season 6 would feature a Richard Alpert centric episode, anticipation was at a fever pitch. While characters such as Jacob and the Man In Black’s backstories could have potentially yielded more mythological answers, fans such as myself had waited years to learn more about Richard. We’d seen glimpses of him throughout different time periods on the Island during the time travel of Season 5, but “Ab Aeterno” promised to give us so much more. Unlike the often fractured responses in the rest of Season 6, this episode was universally praised.
We got to see that Richard was married to a woman named Isabella, with the story starting off in 1867 in the Canary Islands. Richard’s wife was dying, and after riding his horse in the pouring rain to bring a doctor back to help Isabella, the doctor refused the necklace Richard offered as payment. Richard begged the doctor, cornering him and accidentally killing him when the doctor fell backwards, his head striking a table. Richard stole the medicine in an attempt to save his wife, but it was too late. She was dead by the time he made it home, and Richard was arrested.
Upon rewatching this episode, I was struck by the similarities between Richard and Desmond. Both men were pleading with someone who fell back and hit their head, instantly dying (Desmond in Season 2’s “Live Together, Die Alone”, with Kelvin). Both men were in boats that wrecked on The Island. Both mens’ actions prior to arriving on The Island were completely driven by their feelings for the women each of them loved, loves that would never go away regardless of time apart. Both men would go on to be a part of their respective groups on The Island, but were also very much loners who didn’t fit in.
Lost fans were treated to an interesting Easter egg of sorts when Richard was bought as a slave from the prison he was in, by a man working for Magnus Hanso, a name long floated around the show’s mythology. We would never see Hanso in the episode, but we do know that he died when the ship wrecked in the jungle. Fans of Lost’s alternative reality games know that Magnus Hanso was the great grandfather of Alvar Hanso, a man connected to the origins of the Dharma Initiative. While there’s no narrative evidence to make any firm connections here, one can’t help but wonder if Alvar was determined the find the final resting place of his legendary great grandfather, and as a result of this quest, the Dharma Initiative would eventually find their home on The Island.
Of course, the actual wreck of the ship itself is something that provided a few major answers all at once. The ship was indeed The Black Rock, first discovered all the way back in Season 1, and it was indeed the ship Jacob was summoning in the opening scene of Season 5’s “The Incident”. A violent storm at sea carried The Black Rock high and the ship hit the statue of Taweret, resulting in the statue becoming the four toed foot we would see remaining on The Island and the force took the ship all the way into the middle of the jungle.
Once the ship wrecked, the game was on between Jacob and the Man in Black. MIB, as the Smoke Monster, slaughtered all of the officers from the ship, minus one, who in turn killed all of the slaves except Richard. He was about to kill Richard before Smokey intervened. For whatever reason, Richard was the chosen one from this crew. The one person who could live to prove whether MIB was correct in his philosophy about people or if Jacob was the one making a valid point. MIB made his move first. His attempts at manipulation included playing off Richard’s fear (that he was in hell) and his love of his wife (claiming that Jacob was the devil and had her). He instructed Richard to kill Jacob so he could help save his wife.
Richard’s attempt to kill Jacob was a failed one, of course, but the real power of the scene came after. Jacob explained to Richard that he was not in hell, and his wife was in fact dead. He leveled with him and Richard questioned why Jacob didn’t want to intervene in situations on The Island, why he wouldn’t step in to help people. It reminded me a lot of when people question why, if there’s a God, then why does that God allow bad things to happen? Why isn’t there some intervention to make sure kids don’t get cancer, why natural disasters don’t happen, and so on. Jacob’s stance was that he didn’t want to. That he wanted people to do things for themselves, to do prove his long standing theory that people were good and not inherently corrupt without any kind of nudging from him. Jacob’s offering the job of being his intermediary to Richard in exchange for eternal life felt like a fail safe to me. If people couldn’t prove Jacob right on their own, Richard would be there to guide them. While there are obvious religious connections to be made there, I’m also reminded of Desmond, who wound up also being a fail safe for Jacob, and who also turned the key to an actual fail safe to implode the Swan Hatch at the end of Season 2. The connections between Richard and Desmond continue.
One of the most interesting parts of the entire episode to me was Jacob’s explanation to Richard of what The Island is. Jacob used a bottle of wine, illustrating that the wine was “evil” and The Island was the cork designed to contain the evil. This was a simplified explanation of what we would ultimately get in “Across the Sea”, when Mother would explain to Jacob what the role of the protector of The Island was. Not just that though, there was a very noticeable difference in perspective between Jacob and Mother. Mother’s outlook was that The Island needed to be protected from those trying to corrupt the light, the energy source at the heart of The Island. Jacob’s outlook was that The Island was protecting the rest of the world from the evil that was here. That’s not to say that Jacob valued protecting the light any less than Mother, but it does lend credence to the belief that Mother was the Smoke Monster before MIB. If she was both the yin and the yang, the light and the dark, roles that would be divided by her twins, then she wouldn’t be concerned with keeping the evil on The Island the way that Jacob was. Those who oppose this theory will point to Jacob throwing his brother into the light and call that the birth of the Smoke Monster but “Across the Sea” makes that a very debatable point.
“Ab Aeterno” was at its core a love story designed to solve Richard’s crisis of faith and re-activate him for the end run of the series. It provided a lot of answers and filled in a lot of backstory in a way that all viewers seemed to enjoy, unlike the much more polarizing “Across the Sea” later in the season. The episode succeeded in terms of giving enough away and then leaving enough just vague enough to where fans still had room to draw some of their own conclusions, which is the winning formula for an episode of Lost. Something as big as finally getting Richard Alpert’s backstory was bound to have ridiculously high expectations but “Ab Aeterno” hit the mark. An all time classic episode of Lost, that did the near impossible task of pleasing everyone in the final season.