Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Thoughts on Ab Aeterno...

BIGMOUTH: It remains one of the defining images of the show: a ship sitting intact in the middle of the jungle.  For six seasons, we've wondered how it got there, and what happened to its crew.  In "Ab Aeterno," we finally got the answers.  And while they weren't perhaps as creative as some fan speculations I've read over the years, the episode itself was satisfying and well worth the wait thanks to the outstanding work of Gregg Nations, Nestor Carbonell, and Titus Welliver. 

I knew the script was in good hands when the priest defied cliche by refusing poor Ricardo's plea for absolution prior to his execution.  The wine, bottle, and cork, moreover, were brilliant metaphors on par with anything I've seen on Mad Men or The Wire.  But even the best writing means little without great actors, and Nations had the benefit of two consummate pros in Carbonell and Welliver.  Richard's scenes with his wife, especially his final goodbye to her ghost, were heartbreaking.  And Welliver was pitch perfect as the Man in Black, exuding all the menace and charm you would expect from the Devil.  His performance was particularly impressive given that he was following in the footsteps of Terry O'Quinn, who's no slouch himself at playing the villain.

The Devil betrayed me. He took my body. My humanity.

All things considered, this was my favorite episode of the season thus far, scoring a 9/10 on the Sickness Scale (5 for character, 4 for mythology).  Really, the only thing that kept "Ab Aeterno" from a perfect 10 was the scene where a tidal wave swept the Black Rock inland, smashing the Statue of Taweret.  I get that the Black Rock's miraculous survival was meant to parallel the crash of Oceanic 815.  Still, I had a hard time buying that the ship would survive a collision with the Statue intact.  And the point-of-view shot of the ship approaching the Statute was cheesy and confusing.  I would have preferred a wide shot of the Black Rock buffeted by an enormous wave, something The Perfect Storm (2000) used effectively to depict the awesome power of nature.

Uh oh...

Even more fundamentally, the wave seemed like a missed opportunity to do something cooler.  Per my suggestion in As the Donkey Wheel Turns, I would have liked to see the Island materialize beneath the Black Rock.  I also think dynamite from the ship's hold would have made a more impressive cause of the Statue's demolition.  I had guessed this explosion would result in the demise of the Man in Black's Titus Welliver incarnation.  That didn't happen, but I certainly hope we get to see how Jacob took his "body" and "humanity," maybe in a flashback showing his imprisonment in the Cabin.  Unfortunately, given the leisurely pace of this season, I fear time is running short for such stories. Still, these are minor quibbles with what was, as I say, an excellent episode.

Will you help me, Ilana? Now that we know Jacob's request was for Ilana to protect the last six Candidates, the question becomes what will happen if they fail?  I think we got a hint in "Sundown" when Dogen's death seemed to cause the ash, which had previously kept Smokey at bay, to lose its potency.  Like the Dark Tower, the Island is a place where magic and science co-exist. The ash was the mystical counterpart to the sonic fence technology, and just as the latter needs electricity to run, the former drew upon Dogen for its strength.  Killing him was like shutting off the power.  I suspect the Candidates are similarly the source of whatever Island magic keeps the Man in Black imprisoned.  Without them, it really will become "just an island," and the Devil will be free to depart.

I can see land!  There seems to be some confusion about the storm that crashed the Black Rock.  Some have surmised that Jacob and the Man in Black were discussing a different vessel entirely in "The Incident" because the ship we glimpsed off in the distance arrived under sunny skies.  But that conclusion strikes me as premature.  As Locke informed Boone, the weather changes quickly on the Island.  The sudden storm, moreover, evoked the tempest in Shakespeare's play of the same name, wherein a magician (Prospero) is marooned with his daughter (Miranda) on an isolated island that's also home to a monster (Caliban) and elemental spirit (Ariel).  The play begins with Prospero's conjuring of a terrible storm that wrecks a passing ship with his traitorous brother aboard. 

But who conjured the tempest that wrecked the Black Rock?  The Tempest parallel suggests Jacob, who's roughly analogous to Prospero, while the monstrous Man in Black is Caliban.  Still, it seems unlikely that Jacob would smash his own Statue.  He may have invited them to the Island, but I'll bet  it was the Man in Black who caused the storm.  I'm starting to suspect the latter is behind all of the shipwrecks we've seen, including Danielle and Desmond's.  In fact, if you really want to follow me down the Whackadoo Well, consider the possibility that the Man in Black was the one who actually caused the crash of Oceanic 815.  Maybe his mental push prompted Desmond to notice the tear in Kelvin's suit, and the plane was meant to make a water landing on the Other side of the Island.

Estamos en el infierno. Isabella confirmed Richard's worst fears by telling him "we're in hell."  And while I suspect she was actually the Man in Black speaking, at least initially, I wouldn't be too quick to dismiss the notion they're in hell.  I've long believed that the Island is the inspiration for myths and legends concerning the underworld.  I'm not sure it's literally a place where the souls of bad folks go when they die.  I do wonder, however, if the ghosts that Smokey conjures to haunt Jacob's invitees are, in some sense, real.  Isabella was copied from Richard's memory to serve the Man in Black's nefarious purposes.  But maybe, like the visitors in Solaris, she has agency and consciousness once created.  Did she rebel against her master to save Richard from making a mistake?

She said you have to stop the Man in Black.

Then we're agreed.  The Man in Black's freeing Richard from his chains obviously paralleled when Randall Flagg releases Lloyd Henreid from prison in The Stand.  I half expected to see a desperate Richard resort to eating a rat (or even cannibalism) like Henreid does to stave off starvation.  The Stand parallel was reinforced later in the episode when Richard produced a white rock that Jacob had given him, presumably as a sign to the Man in Black that he'd chosen light over dark.  When Flagg releases Henreid, he gives the man a black stone with a red flaw as a symbol of Lloyd’s allegiance to Flagg.  I noted in a prior recap that Flagg is reincarnated on a tropical island in the epilogue to The Stand.  You have to wonder: is LOST actually an oblique sequel to King's epic?

Malevolence, evil, darkness. Jacob's description of the Man in Black reminded me once again of "The Howling Man," a classic Twilight Zone episode I've mentioned before.  A traveler in post-WWI Europe takes refuge from a storm in a monastery where he encounters a man claiming to be the prisoner of religious nuts.  The head of the monastery explains that the prisoner is, in fact, the Devil himself, trapped there by a magical talisman called the Staff of Truth.  The traveler disbelieves the monk and removes the Staff, releasing the prisoner who transforms before his eyes into Satan.  Realizing the mistake, the traveler spends several decades tracking the Devil, finally trapping him in a hotel room with the Staff.  Unfortunately, a maid releases him, unleashing evil once again.

Watch the Howling Man online...

The Man in Black may not be Satan himself, but the "Howling Man" offers good illustration of what will happen if he escapes.  It's not that the Man in Black is the source of all evil in the world.  Human beings do plenty of bad things even without the Devil's temptation.  The idea is more that his presence will exacerbate this natural propensity.  In the "Howling Man," Satan's imprisonment gives the world five years of relative peace.  His release is responsible for WWII, the Korean War, and the development of nuclear weapons.  I think it's possible that the Man in Black's exodus from the Island would have consequences that were as bad, if not worse.  Indeed, I can't be the only one who thought of the Valenzetti Equation's prediction of human extinction during Jacob's speech.

Where's the money, Lebowski?

They're all dead.  That's what Jacob admitted to Richard had happened to the other Candidates.  Richard's reply was that Jacob should consider taking a more active role in helping his Candidates.  Now that we're down to the very last six, I think we're finally seeing Jacob take Richard's advice.  Those "pushes" were, as we've discussed, Jacob's efforts to compensate for the Man in Black's manipulation.  I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Jacob never touched any Candidates until the final six.  It also wouldn't surprise me if Jacob has one last ace in the hole in case all six die, as I suspect they may.  The Wheel only lists surnames like Shephard and Kwon.  Watch for Jacob to exploit this loophole by substituting Aaron and Ji-Yeon as Candidates.  Over to you, Wayne...

* * *

WAYNE: On the Sickness Scale, I give this a straight up 10: 5 for mythology, and 5 for characterization.

The man comes around. Let's just get this out of the way first, Nestor Carbonell offered up the best acting of his career in this installment, from his Heath Ledger-esque laugh around the campfire near the beginning of the episode, to the telling of how and why he came to be on the Island. Alpert has been demystified over the last year due in great part to the time flash that allowed the Man in Black to provide vital, yet misleading, information to both Richard and the true John Locke. I remember being vocal in my comments at the time that Richard's slow action had allowed Eloise to shoot Faraday.  And Jacob's intermediary seemed quite agitated after the swim to the underground tunnels. Indeed, he completely unraveled upon hearing of Jacob's death, although it seemed he was suicidal due to lack of understanding rather than guilt at allowing the Man in Black -- and his unwitting cohort Ben -- into the statue.

Richard's entire back story told of a man driven from his home to a cell, saved from execution by being sold into slavery, then subjected to experiments in free will and determinism by the Man in Black and Jacob. The episode was an amazing tour-de-force, and I stopped reading the subtitles early on because I didn't need them to feel the character's hopelessness, guilt, and later, his terror. Years ago, I went to the theater to see Passion Of The Christ. A small group of men sat in front of me, and two of them were blind. A man who sat between them explained scenes no more than three times. This was a film not in Spanish, but for the most part in Aramaic, a dead language. Part of me wishes that I could watch "Ab Aeterno" with my eyes shut, without having seen it once before,  so I could savor the at Richard's desperation at Isabella's illness, his pleadings with both the the doctor and the priest, the sound of the crashing waves over smashed Tarawet, and finally, the familiar howl of the smoke monster.

Others 101. That's where Juliet jokingly claimed to have learned to speak Latin. I was surprised to find that Richard was a product of Tenerife in 1867, an island off the coast of Morocco. Tenerife is part of the Canary Islands, which, of course, has a connection to Lost: there is an outermost isle, St. Bernard's, that is more legend than reality. Many claim to have seen it, yet you can't find it on Google Earth. And, as many have long surmised in comments here, the arrival of the Black Rock destroyed the statue and settled it far inland, Wizard of Oz style. How could that serene scene from "The Incident," the Black Rock bobbing in the waters (while "Ride, Captain, Ride" by Blues Image played in my head ) turn into a hellish storm with twenty-foot waves? I believe we were seeing the same type of electrical storms that Ajira 316 encountered, but traveling at hundreds of miles an hour. These storms, which may also have crashed Naomi's helicopter, are like a reef that's invisible until close proximity. I'm guessing these storms also keep the Man in Black from escaping from the Island. 

Late in the episode, Richard asked Jacob if other people were brought to the Island before the Black Rock, to which Jacob replies, "yes, many." Jacob admitted that the others are all dead, hearkening back to the conversation in "The Incident" where the Man in Black spoke of how those brought to the Island always fight, destroy, and corrupt. Indeed, the Man in Black's point was made perfectly in "Ab Aeterno" when the surviving crewmen from the Black Rock decided to kill their prisoners rather than share the food with them. The Man in Black took care of the selfish crewmen, then scanned Richard's mind to find the images of Isabella so he could take her form in the days to come. After laying this emotional groundwork, the Man in Black finally appeared in person and recruited Richard to kill Jacob in a conversation that mirrored that of Dogen when he told Sayid to kill the Man in Black in 2007.

But I want to get back to the statue and the lack of Latin in the episode, other than the title, which translates to "for eternity." I mentioned in last week's recap that Charlotte's cameo in the Mirror reality felt like a waste to me. Many of you commented that her character might reappear, and I acknowledged that, if this turned out to be the case, I would change my mind in a snap. But I forgot some very useful information that Charlotte gave to Faraday seconds before dying in "This Place is Death." In a matter-of-fact tone, she said "I know more about Carthage than Hannibal himself." Carthage was a series of cities on the Gulf of Tunis, which was started as a Phoenician colony in the first millennium BCE. The main city was built on a promontory, a mass of land that overlooks a body of water, much like the location of the Lighthouse on the Island. Carthage was crushed in 146 BCE by the Romans. I'll lay odds there were Romans in the Island's past. Latin, anyone?

When you gonna let me get sober? "Bottle of Wine" was a song written and recorded by Tom Paxton in the late 1960s, and the chorus relates to the Man in Black's supposed plight: Bottle of wine, fruit of the vine, when you gonna let me get sober? Leave me alone, let me go home, let me go home and start over. Jacob shows Richard the circular bottle of wine that's half filled or half empty, depending on your perspective. The cork represents the Island, the only thing that keeps the evil wine from being unleashed on the world. Jacob tells Richard that he brings people to the Island so they can know right from wrong for themselves. As he explains: "It's all meaningless if I have to force them to do anything. Why should I have to step in?" Richard, who has now had a taste of how both Jacob and the Man in Black conduct business, replies: "Because if you don't, he will." And Richard sides with Jacob, taking on the job as advisor. I'm curious whether Richard was offered this position because he was the first person that the Man in Black had ever sent to kill Jacob.  Was he Jacob's first convert?

Several commentators have asked me to explain my idea of a "pocket universe." I think I can do so using the wine bottle as an analogy, if you'll allow me to get my geek on. Imagine  that Jacob's bottle of wine is the Crash reality, while the Mirror reality is an adjoining glass bubble. In 1985, DC Comics did some house-cleaning for their fiftieth anniversary with a series titled Crisis on Infinite Earths. Every alternate universe was combined into one, and multiple characters were explained away (e.g., there was no longer a Superman or a Batman in the 1940s). Existing characters were updated, the prime example being Superman, whose new origin had him never appearing in uniform until he was in his twenties  -- i.e., no Superboy. This created continuity problems because Superboy was the inspiration for the Legion of Super-Heroes. The writers solved this conundrum by having a villain called Time Trapper create a "pocket universe" from a tiny slice of pre-Crisis Earth where Superboy grew up to be Superman and inspired the Legion's formation one-thousand years later. 

This is how I see the Mirror reality. The only portion of it that needs to exist is the part that the Man in Black uses to gain recruits -- i.e., an L.A. with Nadia alive and happy, Jack has his son David, etc. The cork in Jacob's bottle is the barrier between the two realities. This is why I believe we will never see a Mirror-reality New York, London, or Seoul. All that is needed for the Man in Black is right there on the other side of the cork. In some way, he will get his recruits to push the cork from the Crash reality and let it fall in the Mirror reality, allowing him to escape the Island that is his prison.
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