Lost, television

Lost Forum: “Ab Aeterno”

I’m ready for my close-up.

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Various obligations today will prevent us from digging too deep into last night’s episode until much later on, so we’re posting earlier than usual and opening the floor for discussion. Last week’s guest blogging panel reached a rather unanimous conclusion about “Recon“; this episode will certainly be more polarizing. We swung from one pole to the other during the course of the episode, so allow us to make points for both sides.

CON: Halfway through, we weren’t sure whether we were still watching “Lost” or some strange cross between Treasure Island and Masterpiece Theater. Did Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof wake up one day and decide to film a mid-19th century Merchant Ivory production? We had Richard in period garb; subtitles; the most unsympathetic priest of all time; a looong, uninterrupted backstory of how Richard landed on the island; and the lingering question: How exactly does this all fit in? The fact nothing was foregrounded in on-island events was, to our mind, a huge problem … unless there was going to be a monumental payoff that justified so much time away from, well, “Lost.”

Tad texted us at exactly this point with, “Good ep?” The jury, we told him, was still out.

PRO: By the end, we could say — and believe us, we did not think we’d come around — that despite all the episode’s flaws and peculiarities, it delivered the goods. We’ll call it the best episode of the season.

The heavy dose of island mythology was like the cup of water that Nemesis/Man in Black (played very effectively by Titus Welliver, who Erin described as a “creepy Billy Joel”) offered Ricardo on the Black Rock: thirst-quenching and deeply satisfying. We learned more about Jacob and MIB’s eternal conflict (ab aeterno being “since the beginning of time”), with MIB wanting off the island (he sympathizes with Richard in chains) and Jacob pulling out a corked wine flask to illustrate how the Man in Black must be contained. Nemesis tried to convince Richard he was in Hell — which, interestingly, Jacob didn’t refute. (He told Richard there were different names for it — “malevolence, evil, darkness.”) Both figures offered Richard something — Nemesis/Man in Black suggested he could reunite Richard with his wife, Isabella, while Jacob told Richard he didn’t have the power to give that to him (or absolve his sins). What he did give Richard, in exchange for becoming Jacob’s island representative, is the same thing Richard feels cursed with in the present day: the inability to die and escape a living hell. (Hence, finally, the answer to why Richard Alpert does not age.) This would probably sour us on Jacob too.

Richard was on his way back to Nemesis, digging up Isabella’s necklace, when Hurley sauntered out of the jungle and proceeded to hold a seance. And this is the scene that got us. Consider just how hokey this could have been in the wrong hands — a character who can speak to the dead interpreting a ghost lover’s message for an ageless man who is caught Job-like between two immortal creatures playing cosmic chess. There’s no way that scene should have worked. And it did. It was surprisingly powerful and emotional. Nestor Carbonell, he of the heavy eyeliner, pulled it off. He made redemption and hope feel tangible.

What “Ab Aeterno” proved for us, not for the first time and probably not the last either, is that the “Lost” creators and writers simply do not have “wrong hands.” Material that would be the kiss of death for other shows works perfectly for the strange, confounding reality of “Lost.” How do they pull this off? It certainly helps to have top-rate actors playing complicated, deeply-sketched characters. Carbonell, Terry O’Quinn, Michael Emerson and Matthew Fox have all hit high points this season. It also helps to have such universal themes — life and death, faith and science, loss, redemption and hope — recast in such a strange, compelling fashion. There’s a lot of Biblical import in the show, and in last night’s episode in particular. But nothing is oversimplified: If Jacob is indeed God, or at least good (and if he can’t absolve sins, that’s a demerit in the God column), he sure doesn’t look like a typical god-figure. Jesus had an edge to him, but we doubt he took Peter down to the shore and threatened to drown him over and over again.

Other pros for the episode: We got an answer for the four-toed statue; an encomium on free will from Jacob (he’s inching back in the “God” direction); and a wink-wink Gerald’s Game reference. Although that was a terrible book.

Questions for discussion:

  • Is it any clearer who is “good” and who is “evil”?
  • Which figure is telling the truth — Jacob or Nemesis/Man in Black? Or is it neither? (Or both?)
  • Has Nestor Carbonell officially atoned for “Suddenly Susan”?
  • Is there more to debate about the most recent season of “Scrubs”? That’s certainly stirred a few people up.

Have at it.

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9 thoughts on “Lost Forum: “Ab Aeterno”

  1. Loved your post, and I’m sad I’ve not found your blog earlier.

    As a person who “sorta” liked Suddenly Susan, I think it is safe to say that Nestor Carbonell has redeemed himself on LOST.

    I believe that I have a semi-lame but plausible theory that when The Black Rock broke the statue, it also destroyed the protection for pregnancy on the Island in the future, which I wrote about tonight in my own recap.

    I believe The Island is purgatory, and since a friend of mine whose worked with J.J. Abrams was told so by him, I see where this show provides the path to the final episode where some of them escape their “cork” purgatory.

    I wouldn’t say Jacob is good, but I don’t think he is evil, either, if that makes sense.

  2. I gave up after 15 minutes last night and started working on our taxes. That was my last episode of Lost – I’ll watch the finale but that’s it. I am done.

  3. Agreed Tad. I said the exact same thing when I was watching. That was a full immersion baptism. .. and one that I wish more churches would try.

  4. I must sheepishly confess that what was blindingly obvious to everyone else — that Jacob was baptizing Richard — was not at all to me. Perhaps a little more reflection would have helped, but maybe not: us Presbyterians do our baptisms pretty tame.

    I had a conversation with a “Lost” fan today who said she couldn’t bring herself to believe that Jacob is good and Man in Black is bad (define “good” and “bad” as you will) because it would be — quote — “too obvious.” She’s come to believe that anything too obvious in “Lost” can’t be trusted. And with good reason.

    I would submit that in this case, we should trust the obvious. I think the fact the writers have us so suspicious of what really appears to be going on is a testament to how skillful and crafty they’ve been. They have us doubting the truth even when it finally marches onstage.

    Why should we trust that Jacob is good/God/not-the-devil? 1. He hasn’t killed anyone. MIB has. (Lots.) 2. He believes in free will. 3. He can grant eternal life. 4. He’s mysterious, lives on the beach and likes to fish. (Note: #4 is kinda irrelevant, but no matter.)

    I could supply counterpoints here — Doc Jensen isn’t too keen on the Jacob = God/good idea — and they’re all valid ones: Jacob can’t absolve Richard of his sins. He doesn’t seem to believe in Original Sin. Mark Pellegrino currently plays Lucifer on “Supernatural.” But they’re not as compelling.

    What I’m saying here is: If I had to choose sides, I’d choose Jacob.

  5. Over at Slate’s TV Club, Chadwick Matlin makes a less religious case for the Jacob/MIB relation: Jacob is a warden and MIB is the prisoner. He also finds Jacob’s behavior last night “petty and selfish,” and accuses him of being “like a pretentious friend who thinks that just knowing what’s right and wrong makes him a good person.”

  6. “like a pretentious friend who thinks that just knowing what’s right and wrong makes him a good person” – Ben, what are you saying about me.

    I got sucked into another Lost discussion somewhere else (forgive me) and these interesting tidbits came up:

    “The complaint is that it seems to break down to the rather lame (because so familiar) “personified good v personified evil” “myth”. There are a billion archetypical ones, yet this is, it seems, another variation on the “judeo-christian” narrative. I just wished they had surprised us with the conclusion as much as they confused us with the narrative. ”

    and this:

    “Exactly. What they were doing seasons 1-5 had been fascinating – when they get to their “answers” it’s dull. What could have been done is much more interesting to think about than what is actually being done.”

    If I say I’m done why the hell can’t I step away….Mike is right….I am a douche.

  7. “What they were doing seasons 1-5 had been fascinating – when they get to their “answers” it’s dull. What could have been done is much more interesting to think about than what is actually being done.”

    I’m feeling very much the same thing. And it was the same feeling I had with Battlestar Galactica. Shows with mysteries at their heart are often quite compelling, but it’s really hard for them to deliver–perhaps part of the problem is that they’ve built us up over so many hours and hours of story-telling that it’s hard to measure up. It’s a problem that a film, for instance, doesn’t have, because it can be a neat little puzzle with a clever solution instead of a big messy mythology with, too often, an unsatisfactorily-simple solution. But hey, maybe Lost will surprise me yet.

    On another note, am I right in thinking that we have reason to believe that every dead person we’ve seen on the island (I mean, other than ones who’ve been seen only by Miles or Hurley) have been a manifestation of the MIB (a friend of mine likes to call him Esau by contrast with Jacob… I’m not really sold on it)? It seems like that’s been the case in recent memory, and that seems confirmed by Jacob’s claim that he can’t give Ricardo his wife back.

    So we’ve established, have we not, that Jacob typically brings people to the island to test his and MIB’s competing ideas about human nature? At the same time, it’s a chance to start over, to be redeemed from a life gone wrong in some way. And through much of the series, that seems to have been the case. This element had been one of the compelling aspects of the show, the way that we see a character’s character through flashback compared with the way they have developed–or have refused to develop–through their second chance on the island. Nonetheless, now in this season we’re to understand that Jacob brought them to the island to find a successor, knowing he’d be killed? Am I getting something wrong there? I can’t help wondering if this was planned by the writers or tacked on (I find myself wondering that often). In either case, I think I found those character-revealing and character-changing stories the most interesting. Who’s going to take Jacob’s place? ::yawn:: (by comparison, anyway)

    For what it’s worth, in this comment I’m just following what I suspect was the writers’ method through the early seasons–throw a bunch of things out and see what sticks…

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