Monday, March 29, 2010

The Midside: LOST S6E09 Ab Aeterno

It’s strange, when something you’ve been looking forward to for so long happens. When it’s happening, it’s all a bit surreal. Am I really watching a Richard Alpert episode? Is this really his backstory? When it’s over, there’s a strange mix of awe and remorse. That really just happened. I’m never going to experience that for the first time ever again. On one hand, you’re happy it happened. On the other, a little bit of hope has died. You can no longer look forward to something you’ve looked forward to for a long time.

I’ve anticipated the Alpert adventure since S3, specifically after “The Man Behind the Curtain” when I became convinced that Richard was the man behind the curtain. And I was right, essentially. True, he was acting on behalf of Jacob, but my claim and that fact are the basic contradiction of Richard’s existence. While Jacob gives him the basic guidelines he must live by, he makes decisions in the moment of his own mind (because he necessarily has to). In other words, Richard Alpert is a secondhander. What does that term mean? I’ll explain further below.

The other vein of this episode was a critique of Christianity. From the doctor’s denial of medicine to the MiB and Jacob dichotomy, the writers subtly took on the Christian conception of religion. Since they’re continually trying to confuse us on their definitions of good and evil, it’s tough to say what their perspective on Christianity is in the episode, but the theme and symbolism are undeniable, and I ultimately believe that the episode was intended as a criticism (keeping in line with many themes of the series, most notably the John Locke arc).

Since religion seeks to answer the big questions of life (and the methods in which it does so is it’s ultimate failing), a story such as this one necessarily has an effect on our understanding of the big questions of LOST. I’ll try to sort out how to formulate these questions now, and perhaps answer them. Most importantly, I’ll explain how Jacob still isn’t necessarily the good guy.

Bare with me as we journey deep into the bowels of Richard’s flashback, from his cabin (hmm) to jail to the Black Rock to the island. I may stray into my least favorite type of column for a bit, a recap column. If I do, it’s out of a desire to hit every detail, not bore you with a rehash of what you’ve already seen.


It’s the return of the flashback section and the Duncan McLeod namesake really is pertinent. The opening scene to the Richard Alpert back story could have been an episode of Highlander as he returned to his cabin (symbolism for Jacob?) to his sick, curly-haired wife and vowed to save her. Of course, he couldn’t, and thus began his troubled life of immortality. Seriously, the director must have watched a lot of Highlander in order to create those opening scenes. Everything was the same, right down to the subtitle telling the location and date and Alpert’s beard that made him resemble Duncan. It was eerie.

Alpert’s character is best understood through the lens of two quotes. The first is what he said in present day right before the LOST logo. The second is what the doctor said to him when he tried to buy medicine for Isabella. The former quote describes Alpert in general. The latter describes his journey specific to his flashback (and perhaps the definition of good and evil on the show). Similar to “Flashes Before Your Eyes” and “Meet Kevin Johnson,” the majority of the episode was the back story, framed by the present day story in order to give us the proper understanding of Alpert’s actions. Thus, we can’t understand the ending scene with Hurley until we understand the past. But, due to the framing device, we also can’t understand the past until we discuss the key line. Illana, following Jacob’s command, asks Alpert what to do next. In his suicidal Highlander syndrome, he lashes out:
“So I'm not interested in what Jacob said. In fact, maybe it's time we stopped listening to him and we started listening to someone else. And that's exactly what I'm gonna do.”
What this quote demonstrates is Richard Alpert’s flaw: Second handedness, which essentially means living your life based upon other people rather than yourself. A bit more complexly, it means you derive your values and standards from other people and you make your decisions based upon other people. Look at what Alpert said. He was going to stop listening to one person and do what? Listen to another person. Why, at this point, wouldn’t you decide to trust yourself? Generally, the reason is that you don’t believe yourself worthy of trust. This point is never explained with Alpert, but we do see him putting himself on a lower level than those he lives by.

The first person (and current) he lives by is Isabella. As she lies on her death bed, he vows to do anything and give everything, quite literally, to save her. He doesn’t say so, but you get the sense that his life would be meaningless without her. He derives meaning from her, so much so that when the doctor denies him medicine, he goes into a rage, accidentally killing the man. Later he claims he didn’t murder him. While technically correct, under the United States judicial system he’d probably be charged with unintentional manslaughter and sent to prison. Not that I’m a lawyer or anything.

The scene with the doctor is extremely interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it is a typical storytelling convention to have the poor man show up and beg the rich man for goods and the rich man is thus demonized for not being charitable and giving the poor man the goods. The scene certainly began that way, as the doctor sent his assistant for blankets, not for the wet Alpert, but for the wet floor. (By the way, the going to get blankets in a scene with a shocking death was a nice call back to Libby’s death in “Two For The Road.”) However, as the scene progressed, at least to me, the doctor began to look better, and Richard began to look worse, leading up to the deserved guilt for the unnecessary violent action.

The second reason the scene is interesting involves the main symbol of the episode: The cross given to Richard by his wife. The symbol is confusing, as it can be interpreted three different ways, all of which I believe are valid. The first is as a symbol of Richard’s second handedness. In his toughest moments, he turns to it, not himself, for strength. The second is as a symbol of Christian faith in the flashback story specifically (where it represents faith in Jacob as God). The third is as a symbol of good and God in the episode as a whole (where it represents faith in the MiB as God.). The second purpose is most relevant here, as the doctor looks over the cross and throws it on the floor, calling it worthless.

The critique of Christianity begins here, as this line means much more than the cross not having enough monetary value to pay for medicine. A man of science, the doctor, is discarding a symbol of faith, the cross, and declaring it worthless. Could the writers make a more obvious statement against faith? One of the major dichotomies of the show is at center stage and one of the sides is given major preference over the other. The symbolism must be taken seriously.

This theme continues in the next scene as Richard begs the priest for forgiveness, and the priest denies him, telling him he can’t be forgiven because he doesn’t have enough time to earn it. Except, isn’t God supposed to forgive all those who except him in their hearts? Yes, this interpretation of Christianity is very Catholic, but, even so, as Richard is on the eve of his execution, he is showing penance. Essentially, the priest has denied him one of the seven sacraments, the anointing of the sick or the last rites, a chance to be forgiven one last time.

In contrast to the man of science, the man of faith is telling Richard he is inherently guilty, introducing the idea of original sin into the story. When Richard comes to the island (the world of LOST), when his life on the island begins (and I have always argued that life on the island is a metaphor for life on earth), he is inherently bad, as he is still guilty of the sin of killing a man. It is also interesting to consider that both the doctor and the priest are dressed in varying degrees of black and white, where the doctor is whiter and the doctor is blacker. The man of faith looks very bad here, especially as he sells Alpert into slavery; so much for loving all of mankind equally. It’s a truly cynical portrayal (yet probably historically accurate) of religion that continues as the episode goes on.

The ended mythological section of this episode then begins. I’ll get to the Jacob/MiB, Good/Evil stuff in the LOSTology section, but for now I’ll focus on what’s important to Richard. He’s sold into slavery on the Black Rock. The Black Rock crashes on the island. Everyone dies except Richard, who is spared by the MiB. An apparition of Isabella appears. I’m forced to wonder why guys on this show feel the need to yell the name of the women they love. The MiB talks to Richard.

That conversation is where the Christian conception of the devil kicks into over drive. The MiB descends into the bowels of the Black Rock (down, which is where hell is supposed to be). There, Richard is chained up, essentially being tortured, unable to eat or drink or free himself. It’s a position he has reached because of his sin, unintentional manslaughter. The MiB then tells him he is in hell, which could be considered a lie, but could also be considered a metaphoric truth. I just explained how this is hell for Richard; could it also be hell for the MiB? He is trapped on the island. Then, as the devil does, the MiB strikes a deal with his charge in hell and releases him from his chains.

The metaphor deepens still, as the now free Richard is “tempted” by the MiB, who uses all the argument techniques Christianity teaches us the devil will use. He emphasizes Richard’s personal desire, asking him if he ever wants to see his wife again. He tells Richard that in order to see Isabella again, Richard will have to kill Jacob or, if considered metaphorically, he has to deny God’s benevolence and omnipotence by insolently rebelling against him. The MiB gives Richard the same speech about Jacob that Dogen gave Sayid about The MiB, further confusing us as to who is bad and who is good (in the long term).

Richard, intent on killing Jacob, treks across the island and is met by the fists of his savior on the island. Jacob plunges him into the ocean, demanding that he express his desire to live; it is Richard’s baptism and a metaphor for born again Christianity all in one. Accepting God into your heart is supposed to be your acknowledgement of truly wanting to live because the only way you can do so is through God. Then, Jacob presents his argument, and his rhetoric is strikingly similar to the Christian conception of God. He brings people to the island to prove they can be good and “when they get here, their pasts don’t matter.” In other words, if coming to the island is being born into a life of Jacob, as he brings you to the island and looks over you when you’re there, then what you’ve done before the island is your original sin, most obviously symbolized by Richard’s unintentional killing of the doctor. And just like God, when you come to the island, when you’re born into his life, the original sin doesn’t matter (your past doesn’t matter), because he forgives you.

The duo converse until Richard makes the point that if Jacob doesn’t step into people’s lives on the island, the MiB will. Jacob looks like Richard said something he hadn’t thought of, and then asks Richard for the one thing God always asks for. Rather than encouraging him to follow his own selfish desire, Jacob asks Richard to do Jacob’s work on the island for him, to give his life selflessly for the agenda of Jacob, which is supposed to improve life on the island for everyone.

Richard accepts Jacob into his heart and is thus rewarded the only way Jacob can reward him, the major promise you’re given for accepting the Christian way of belief: Eternal life. Richard asks for his wife back. Jacob can’t do that. Richard asks to be absolved of his sins. Jacob also can’t do that. (Which is an interesting little trick of Christianity no one really talks about; it’s not that God erases your sins, it’s that he’s so generous, he loves you anyway. Basically, you still suck, but God doesn’t care, because he’s the only one that doesn’t suck.) But eternal life, that Jacob can do. So he touches Richard and sends him back into the jungle after the MiB.

The flashback story is completed as the symbol of the cross returns, and so does our second interpretation of it. Having found his faith in God (Jacob), his cross is returned to him (by MiB). He buries it in honor of his wife, because he’s accepted her death the only way it is possible for man to: By accepting the pain and suffering inherent in life and giving his life over to a higher purpose. Richard can now work toward his penance. He’s acknowledged he’s a sinner, and that his life is pain, and through Jacob he can overcome.

Except, as we know in the present, all Richard wants to do is die, because if life is suffering, and Jacob means nothing, then what is the point in living? Here’s another dirty little secret of Christianity: That first sentence is the basic logic of most Christians. Actually, it’s the basic logic of most religious people. Religion is an easy answer to the search for meaning in life. And Richard’s S6 plot is about what happens when you lose that faith, when that meaning is lost. What did happen? Richard essentially became a suicide bomber.

Thanks to Ghost Whisperer Hurley (can we trade him for Jennifer Love Hewitt?), Richard was able to finally come to real terms with Isabella’s death as she told him, “My love. We are already together.” If you know your wife loved you, and she dies, she doesn’t stop being with you. She was never disloyal. She always loved you. True, you can never interact with her, but you will always have the memories and knowledge of the truth of her and your relationship with her. Except, it isn’t quite that simple for Richard.

Richard dug up the cross and began yelling for the MiB, saying he changed his mind. Our third interpretation of the cross starts here. Looking at this scene without the confusion of the flashback, it seems to be the portrayal of a man repenting, asking God to take him back after the mistake he made, because the MiB told him that if he ever changed his mind, the MiB would still be there (a very God-like statement). Except, something interesting happened here, which will lead will into the LOSTology section.

In one final twist, Isabella told Richard what he had to do next: Kill the MiB. This command raises a couple important questions: How did Isabella know about the MiB? Where did the command come from? It also reminds us of what the MiB told Sawyer in recon: It’s kill or be killed.


Based upon Isabella’s life, how she never knew about the island, there is only one possible way she could know about the MiB to tell Richard, as Hurley said, “She said you have to stop the Man in Black. You have to stop him from leaving the island. Because if you don't, todos los vamos al infierno.” We already know whose agenda it is to stop the MiB from leaving the island. We also know he’s dead and in ghost form. It makes sense that ghosts would be able to talk to each other or, at the very least, Jacob could talk to Hurley who could talk to Isabella. Either way, the point remains the same, Jacob had to have told Isabella what was going on and what to tell Richard. (The other option is that Isabella has been watching Richard since she died, which is possible, but there is even less evidence for that, especially considering how/where she died.)

Let’s return to Isabella’s statement for a moment, which will return us to Jacob’s explanation of the island. She told Richard, “You have to stop him from leaving the island. Because if you don't, todos los vamos al infierno.” From the perspective of Jacob, this statement is completely true. The pair of the MiB and Jacob represent diametrically opposed viewpoints that became more fleshed out in this episode. The MiB wants to make deals with you, trading with you as an equal, encouraging you to acknowledge and pursue your own desires, or to think selfishly. Jacob wants you to live for his plan, to trust him, to do as he says, accepting his argument about what the island is means accepting his command as to how to protect it. Even with Jack, who he wants to find his own way, Jacob isn’t letting Jack “figure it out” for the sake of Jack, he is letting Jack do so for the sake of “protecting the island.” In other words, Jacob wants you to live selflessly, as best demonstrated by Richard as I explained above. Except, Jacob’s perspective is even worse than that.

Considering that Isabella could have only known about the MiB from Jacob and that Jacob told Illana that Richard would know what to do next, the ending of the episode confirms what the MiB claimed to Sawyer: For him, it’s kill or be killed. In Jacob’s worldview, the MiB cannot exist. There is no choice. There is no selfishness. There is no unprotected island. You either follow Jacob’s command selflessly and protect the island, or you are an enemy. This truth, of course, in turn makes Jacob the MiB’s enemy, because if someone is trying to stop you from even existing, then you have a right to protect yourself from them.

Now we understand why Jacob and the MiB are enemies, and the key line is what the MiB told Richard: “You aren't the only one who's lost something, my friend. The devil betrayed me. He took my body, my humanity.” The body part raises some interesting questions (Is Jacob’s body the MiB’s original body?), but the key part is Jacob taking the MiB’s humanity. By trapping him on the island and telling him what he can and can’t do, Jacob is inhibiting the MiB’s humanity, as what makes us human is our ability to choose freely with our minds--free will and reason.

Yes, the obvious following statement is that Jacob has done the same to all the people he has brought to the island. By choosing the path of their lives, he has taken their humanity from them. I point back to the “deal” between Richard and Jacob. In order to have eternal life, Richard had to give up his humanity, he had to live for and by Jacob’s word. Applying this idea to Jacob’s touching of certain characters and the parallel universe is even more interesting.

As I asserted last week, the parallel universe is the world in which Jacob didn’t affect the lives of the characters. However, based upon this week, it is also the universe where the MiB is freed from the island (because the island is sunk). Therefore, based upon Jacob’s description of the island, the parallel universe must necessarily be the worse of the two universes. Except, at this point, it isn't. Based upon the original timeline, Jacob would have already touched Kate, Locke, Jack, Sawyer, Sun, and Jin at the times we saw (will see) into their parallel lives.

Left to their own humanity, as Jacob did not control their lives, each of these characters seemingly improved their lives. Having not been made to feel guilty about stealing the lunchbox because Jacob never reprimanded her for it, Kate did not believe herself to be bad, declaring to Claire that she was innocent of her crime, and not running away when Claire needed help. Having not been made to feel sorrow for what happened to him because Jacob never expressed his condolences over it, Locke accepted his condition and found a job and woman he was suited for. Having never held onto the idea that he needed “a little push” from his father because Jacob never told him that, Jack was able to be open and honest with his son, establishing a good relationship with his son David. Having never held onto the sense of injustice writing the letter reminded him of because Jacob never gave him a pen to finish it, Sawyer was able to become a cop and eventually open up to his partner Miles. The only problem with my pointing all of these changes out is, they’re from a selfish perspective, which is opposed to what Jacob believes.

I am considering each character from his perspective and asking myself what would be best for his life. This viewpoint is selfish, as I am not asking about humanity as a whole (an indefinable concept, really), but each individual person. In contrast, Jacob’s view is for “the greater good” (the name of a S2 Sayid episode, hmm). The response would that viewpoint would be: It doesn’t matter if each of their lives is better. It matters if everyone’s lives are better throughout the world (a utilitarian, numbers-based argument; the greater the number of better off people, the greater the morality in the world).

The interesting thing to see is where the writers will go from here. Will they go in the obvious and easy direction and make the parallel universe end up sucking? Will they go in a difficult decision narratively and have the parallel universe end up as the only remaining universe, seemingly cheating us? Will they leave the ending ambiguous, making us decide on our own which side we agree with? Personally, I think they will leave the ending ambiguous, as to not piss any specific group of viewers off, but there will be only one valid interpretation of the series material. (Hence their statement that there will be a short term reaction and a long term reaction. The short term reaction will be acceptance. The long term reaction will be understanding.)

What is the only valid interpretation? I have to return to John Locke’s faith in the island, in Jacob, and harp on the fact that it lead to his death. Seeing as how the MiB is no longer synonymous with the island and Jacob is so very obviously selfless about the island, we can now reconsider S5. I do not believe the S5 long con was orchestrated by the MiB to kill Jacob, but was orchestrated by Jacob to bait the MiB into killing him as a small part of an overall series long con to keep the MiB trapped on the island. Consider how Jacob let Ben kill him. Now think about Jacob’s question to Ben, “What about you?” It’s not about you, Ben, at least according to Jacob. Jacob thinks your selfishness is what caused you to kill him. (Even though it was your selflessness in ignoring developing your own ego that lead you to killing him). In fact, Jacob’s death is a logical outcome of his own belief system: Like Jesus, he selflessly gave his life for the betterment of mankind as a whole. He gave his life as part of a series long con to keep the MiB trapped on the island.

An epic ending to LOST would be to have the MiB trapped in the form of Locke stuck with Jack as the new Jacob with us realizing the giant con that was played on the MiB just as he does. However, I don’t think this ending will happen, as it would be too definitive a statement as to which side is right and which side is wrong. I do, however, think we will see some sort of similar ending. Locke walks down to the beach and says to Jack who is roasting a fish: You have no idea how badly I want to kill you right now. LOST.


Next week will be a big episode as to much of what I theorized. Jacob touched Jin and Sun, telling them how important their marriage was. In the parallel universe, Sun was called Ms. Paik. Are they not married in that universe? Did Sun not run at the airport and leave Jin in the original universe because Jacob touched her? If they aren’t married in the parallel universe, will their lives be better? We shall see.

In other news, 24 has been officially canceled and is ending the day after LOST, May 24th. It’s going to be a rough two days for me, but it’s really cool that 24 is ending on the 24th…which makes me think:

LOST is ending on May 23rd. Who is candidate #23? Jack Shephard. It’s too perfect, and if you don’t agree, I only ask that you do one thing:

Think about it.

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