Ab Aeterno. From the beginning of time. The long-awaited backstory of Richard Alpert didn’t extend the ageless one’s lifetime to quite that long ago. The title Ab Aeterno can perhaps be interpreted as referring to Jacob and Nameless – that their contest on the Island has been running from the beginning of time. But we’ll get to them. This was Richard’s show – probably his one and only. Who would have thought back in Season 3 that this Richard Alpert. . .
. . . was a rugged, devoted man of faith from 1869 who went by the name Ricardo!
His journey to the Island had quite the epic sweep about it, beginning with his flight to the bad doctor’s house to try and save his wife, Isabella. This meeting with the doctor was filled with symbolic omens. Consider the doctor dressed in black, for example. Here was Ricardo, at his direst need, requesting help from a man in black. And the man in black, when handed a crucifix so dear to Isabella, tossed it aside as worthless. It’s not subtle when laid out like that, eh?
Even the medicine the doctor in black offered was white, looking a little like ground down powder of a certain white stone that Jacob would, later in the episode, use as a symbolic gift for Nameless. The resonance here is hard to miss. Ricardo tries to win the favour of a man in black that casts aside goodness (the crucifix) and dangles the promises of what he wants most (the medicine) before considering him unworthy.
Interestingly the other man that returned and witnessed Ricardo’s struggle with the doctor that resulted in his death was carrying blankets – which did remind me of that time Michael killed Ana Lucia which Libby, carrying blankets, witnessed.
Not saying that was intended, but it was a nice thematic harkening. And it’s not the only time events in The Swan serve as a thematic reference to events in this episode, but that’s big, meaty stuff we’ll get to later. Before then Ricardo was locked behind bars and facing a death sentence. Another man in black, this time a priest, came to offer a chance to repent. But Ricardo didn’t feel fully guilty. He said it was an accident. The priest declined to save his soul as a consequence of his weak confession.
Does this remind anyone of anyone?
“Confess,” Mr. Eko was told, by Yemi, who we now know was Nameless in disguise. Mr. Eko did not confess. He was, like Alpert, steeped in the belief that his regrettable crimes had been a result of actions he could not have controlled. Mr. Eko was served a death sentence as a result. As was Ricardo.
Only Ricardo’s English-speaking urge to visit the New World prompted a visit from Black Rock shipmate Jonas Whitfield. We didn’t get to see the elusive Magnus Hanso, alas, but it was nice that he was mentioned (Magnus Hanso being the forefather of Alvar Hanso, founder of the Dharma Initiative). And so it was, as many of us had long-suspected, that Ricardo came to the Island on the Black Rock as a slave. It would seem the boat we all thought was the Black Rock in The Incident. . .
. . . wasn’t actually the Black Rock at all. As the real Black Rock came crash-landing onto the Island, through statue Taweret’s face, on a stormy, stormy night. (Unless the Black Rock had been to the Island previously and this was something of a return voyage, not entirely impossible due to some timeline discrepancies found within the Black Rock ledger about the date of its disappearance – but I digress.)
We got two birds with one stone, here. An answer as to how the Black Rock wound up in the middle of the jungle (a giant wave picked it up and pretty much threw it there) and an answer as to why the four-toed statue was broken (a ship being picked up by a giant wave slammed into it – presumably both ship and water being forcible impact combined to produce the shattering rubble that remained).
It may seem miraculous that a ship could have slammed into a statue and crashed into the middle of the jungle on a giant wave and still been relatively intact and had people onboard alive – but then, you know, there was that time a passenger aeroplane split into three pieces in mid-air and hurtled to the ground below leaving about a third of the people onboard pretty much fine and dandy. The show set a precedent for miraculous survival events right from the get-go so we can’t go crying foul six seasons in!
Just like how the Oceanic 815 pilot was quickly despatched by the Smoke monster, the crew of the Black Rock were also rapidly wiped out. Justification? Maybe Smokey just gets really mad at those directly responsible for bringing people to the Island! Obviously the root cause is Jacob, who Nameless wants to kill, but as a substitute he goes after the literal people that brought others – for Oceanic 815 it was the pilot, for the Black Rock the crew.
It was lucky for Ricardo that Smokey did run riot, arriving just in time for him to not be shish-kebab on the pointed end of Whitfield’s sword like the other helpless slaves.
The confidence trick on Ricardo began with a scanning. Just like Mr. Eko and in the same fashion Juliet and Kate once got flash-scanned in the jungle, Black Smoke took a deep look at Ricardo and then retreated to formulate a plan. First, it left him trapped, thirsty and desperate. Ricardo pulled out a loose nail only for a boar (that I don’t think was the Black Smoke in disguise but just another nice reference to earlier episodes with pesky boars truffling through dead people) to knock it away. Then Black Smoke took on the form of Isabella, the one thing Nameless knew Ricardo wanted more than anything else.
Managing to convince Ricardo he was in hell, Nameless (as Isabella) managed the conjuring trick of making it sound like the Black Smoke was approaching. Let’s just pause for a second and consider this, because there is a reasonable explanation. See, there’s the big Black Smoke we are now well-familiar with, but there have been fleeting appearances of the ‘little’ Black Smoke.
Now I’ll venture this little wispy Black Smoke, like some kind of extra offshoot, is the bit that can transform into other people. The big Black Smoke is the one that can scan, travel long distances and, of course, pick people up and drag them off and smack them around to death. No doubt the ‘wispy’ bit rejoins the main Black Smoke when it’s not been sent off, clicking away, on manifestation duties. Maybe I'm over-thinking it. But I digress.
Through this Isabella encounter, and then faking her ‘death’, Nameless turned up in the ‘man in black’ form we have, perhaps, considered to be his original body but which, by the episode’s end, we can figure probably isn’t. Nameless would later remark that Jacob had stolen his body. Maybe that means Jacob now physically occupies the body that was once his – or the body that was once his is long gone and he has since had to exist in different forms, such as Man In Black and Locke.
Nameless had now got Ricardo mentally and physically in a state where he was very amenable for coercion and, with the offer of some food that this time Ricardo did take (note that previously, with the priest in black, Ricardo declined the food offered in prison – he was of stronger will back then – but it was left there for him, for later!), he was ready to believe he was in hell and that there was a devil out there he could kill with a dagger through the heart, just so long as he didn’t let him speak, which would earn him the gift of seeing Isabella again.
A few things here. First, Nameless’ promise that Ricardo would see Isabella again is certainly one he could provide. He’d done it once already! Sure, Ricardo, you can see her again – just give me a minute to go and turn into her. . . In that sense, Ricardo wasn’t quite making the bargain he thought he was (and makes me figure the promises he's been making to The Others and the Candidates is also equally rife with 'not quite as it seems' smallprint). Second, this business of a dagger through the heart before the victim could speak was, of course, the same instruction given to Sayid to use against Locke (as Nameless).
Locke managed to speak before Sayid stabbed him, and Jacob managed to intercept Ricardo when he attempted his assassination. Are we to believe that if Sayid or Ricardo had managed to stab Jacob or Nameless before they spoke it would have killed them? Is it really so vital, the not-getting-to-say-a-word-beforehand part? I don’t have an answer for that.
Also rather flummoxing was why Nameless, when speaking to Ricardo, elected to divulge that he was, in fact, the Black Smoke. For viewers watching it did make us wonder whether Nameless was really the honest one, and that what he was telling Ricardo about Jacob could potentially be the truth. But why tell Ricardo this?
Me? I think he made a mistake. I think Nameless, so filled with such bitterness and evidently cut off from humanity, wasn’t quite as refined a confidence trickster with Ricardo as when he became Locke and manipulated Ben. With Ricardo he didn’t rein in his own way with the truth quite enough, but he’d learn better as we recently saw when he omitted telling The Temple Others that he was the Black Smoke that had slaughtered the people left behind. Jacob, too, when he had eventually battered and drown-threatened Ricardo into accepting he wasn’t really dead, came to a new realisation that showed him he needed to refine how he was conducting himself on the Island.
Jacob’s attitude was that people’s innate goodness would ultimately rise above Nameless’ tactics, would surpass their corrupt ways, and they would find their own realisation about how to be good without him having to “step in”. Ricardo’s remarks that Nameless certainly would step in gave him pause. How does Jacob, who needs man to use his own free will to find the right path, get around this? He appoints an advisor, a go-between.
Unlike Nameless, Jacob would not grant promises he could not keep. He could not bring Isabella back, nor could he absolve Ricardo of his sins. And so, to avoid a fate in hell (very important, his belief in hell), Ricardo didn’t want to die. One touch from Jacob later, instant immortality is granted. And for the next 150 years Ricardo served Jacob’s bidding, changing into Richard and seeing the Island become more populated with people – Others – considered to be ‘good people’ that, unbeknownst to Richard, were potential candidates as Jacob’s successor.
As is fitting, Jacob didn’t even tell Richard more than bare minimum (he, too, needed to have free will to choose the right path) which, following Jacob’s death, was what caused his crisis of faith and made him return to that deep-rooted belief that the Island really was hell and Jacob had lied to him all along. Thank goodness for Hurley!
Richard’s collapse of faith meant he finally stepped up to the door Nameless had left open for him all those many years ago with that invitation to return should he change his mind. The longterm strategy very nearly paid off; Richard almost gave himself over to ‘the dark side’ until Hurley popped up with messages from Isabella.
Now, if the Isabella Richard saw and interacted with on the Black Rock was really Nameless in disguise – as it surely was – then what is this apparition that Hurley can see and speak to? It would appear to be a stronger manifestation of the same spiritual life-after-death world that Miles can tap into. It’s not something exclusive to the Island, but it’s a capacity that Miles and Hurley have perhaps only possessed because they have been on the Island. There are dead people on the Island that are Nameless in disguise. And there are dead people seen that aren't him, which must be sourced from somewhere else. . .
Let’s hold on to the idea of their being a ‘source’ for dead souls, like Isabella, as we consider the metaphor Jacob presented to Ricardo about the function of the Island.
Jacob: “Think of this wine as what you keep calling hell. There’s many other names for it too: malevolence, evil, darkness. Here it is, swirling around in the bottle, unable to get out because if it did it would spread. The cork is this island and it’s the only thing keeping the darkness where it belongs.”
I mentioned earlier that this episode induced parallels with The Swan Station, and this metaphor of Jacob’s is a big one. Consider The Swan, and the function of pushing the button every 108 minutes to vent electromagnetism. Fundamentally The Swan functioned as the only thing keeping this devastating power in check. Seems the Island works on a similar principle, serving as a cap on a nebulous mass of all that is bad to prevent it from spreading out into the world.
It’s a pretty big concept to swallow, no question. But whilst we’re here, let’s really think big about this.
I believe Lost may be trying to introduce notions of there being a good and evil – sources for each that exist in the world. Now we are presented with Jacob, and Nameless, and our religion-aware minds wonder if they are representations of characters we know already. Is Jacob God, Nameless the Devil? Or are they angels – one fallen, one pure? I am forming up a belief that Jacob and Nameless, these notions of good and evil, they’re not of religious iconography, these are what religious ideas are based on.
Jacob remarked that Ricardo called it hell. That is, in Ricardo’s understanding of the world due to his religious upbringing, the place where all evil lies is termed hell. But hell is just a name, a religious interpretation of the real truth which is this nebulous source of darkness and evil the Island sits above, like a cork in a wine bottle. And maybe, if there’s this vague source of evil that some religions call hell, there is also the opposite – the white to this black – that some religions call heaven. Is this where the likes of Isabella, that Hurley can see, stem from? Is there a paradise Island somewhere, serving as a cork for this place also? Or does the Island cover both these sources – evil and goodness together – hence why both can, indeed need to, exist there?
Black and white, opposing forces, locked together. The theme has been there from the very beginning and the Island might just be the epicentre of both.
Jacob and Nameless, it would seem, are the determining balancing act keeping a lid on things. If one leaves then, like a one-sided see-saw, there is an upset in the equilibrium and the cork pops off and it all goes wrong. If Nameless leaves, it’s over.
When they spoke together at the end of the episode, Nameless once more re-stated his urge to leave with the connotation being that it was Jacob, and purely Jacob, that was preventing him from doing so. The only way he can go is over Jacob’s dead body, and even that comes with the caveat of their being no replacement to take over, to take up the seat on the other side of the see-saw and return the balance.
The real ab aeterno we’re interested in concerns these two – the story of Jacob and Nameless, of how Nameless lost his body and developed the urge to kill Jacob. That, I feel, is subject matter for a finale. The finale. In the end we’re going to need to understand the beginning, and I am starting to believe the end is going to represent a new beginning.
Some day, maybe, these two men will sit together on the Island. . .
. . . immortally locked in an opposing battle on the Island interminably. They’ll watch over the Island, expecting more people to come, and the game will go on. Lost was originally going to be called 'Circle'; maybe with Jack and Locke as replacement guardians of the Island everything will come full circle and start anew with them, ab aeterno.