Lost Wednesdays: The Cork Island

March 24, 2010
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Tuesday was one of the oddest days in my Lost fandom. I am in Los Angeles, staying a few days following last week’s Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference to do some research in the form of interviewing television producers. So today, I drove up to Burbank, entered Building 23, and sat down with Lost writers Damon Lindelof, Carlton Cuse, and Gregg Nations. It was a great conversation (no spoilers, of course!) that I hope to post to my blog soon enough. And then I watched the show’s east coast feed with TV critic Todd VanDerWerff and his Slingbox, before rewatching the episode on my hotel’s HDTV in west coast time and writing this up to post before I head back early Wednesday morning. So Lost has taken up the majority of the day, limited only by not wearing my What Would John Locke Do t-shirt.

Thankfully “Ab Aterno” is an episode that deserves such attention. It’s quite rare for Lost to focus an entire episode on a single character’s story without flashing back and forth to the contemporary island, especially featuring only one series regular (in which Nestor Carbonell certainly delivers here), but a lot has been leading up to the tale of Richard and the Black Rock. The episode has two main tasks: provide a rationale for Richard’s crisis of faith through an emotional backstory, and unload a bunch of island history to deepen the mythology. It succeeds at both, although I think one was stronger than the other.

Richard’s story is not hugely surprising, as we’d been long suspected that he’d been a Black Rock slave granted eternal life in service of Jacob. The background of his wife’s death and his guilt was emotionally resonant, and it was nice to see a character whose past trauma was not parentally motivated. The first part of the flashback seemed to move a bit slow, but it did establish Richard’s torment before Blackie’s rescue to help motivate his willingness to serve. The emotional core really paid off in the scene with Hurley and Isabel, as Lost hit its romantic melodramatic notes quite well, approaching the feel of another single-character story, “The Constant.”

The mythological revelations about Jacob and Blackie were not quite revelatory enough for me, even though I found their chemistry compelling. We’re still not exactly sure who is telling the truth, and while Jacob seems to be representing the forces of good, he comes across like a tool. Blackie is clearing playing Richard for his own self interest, but I’m still not convinced that popping the island’s cork and releasing the darkness will be as horrible as Jacob warns – and I still contend that’s what the flash-sideways represent. The game and the rules that they are playing by are still unclear, and I’m not certain if there are clear policies for what dead people can appear on the island – why was Isabel there in the 1860s? Was she a manifestation of Smokey as a ploy to earn Richard’s trust? But her body wasn’t on the island, which seems to previously have been a limit.

Based on the gift of the white rock, it appears that the cave probably belongs to Smokey instead of Jacob, suggesting that Locke has not been as truthful to his followers as it had seemed. What with the creepy malevolence of Locke staring from the hillside and Blackie breaking the bottle of wine, the black=bad assumption seems to be settling in, although I’m optimistic that it’s not that simple. And despite sitting a room a few hours ago with people who have all the answers, I still remain unclear as to which side I’m on.

Random favorite fanboy moment: seeing that the Black Rock’s wave-induced journey into the jungle destroyed the statue was a particularly elegant way to answer a bunch of questions with one swift gesture.

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11 Responses to “ Lost Wednesdays: The Cork Island ”

  1. Myles McNutt on March 24, 2010 at 1:03 AM

    Blackie is clearing playing Richard for his own self interest, but I’m still not convinced that popping the island’s cork and releasing the darkness will be as horrible as Jacob warns – and I still contend that’s what the flash-sideways represent.

    I think you’re right that Jacob is overstating things, and if that is what the flash-sideways represent then I wonder if we can view them as another experiment of sorts: if the island is all about testing the inherent balance of good/evil in human beings, then perhaps the flash-sideways are another form of experiment wherein the true ramifications of the evil that they speak of remain at bay due to the potential for human beings to protect against it. Perhaps Jacob and “Blackie” are both underestimating the power of human agency in the face of these challenges?

    Very jealous of your entire Lost day – out of curiosity, did you find it hard to watch the episode without thinking about all of the questions you wish you had asked them earlier in the day (especially since Nations co-wrote this episode)?

    • Jason Mittell on March 24, 2010 at 1:15 AM

      “Perhaps Jacob and “Blackie” are both underestimating the power of human agency in the face of these challenges?”
      - Yes, which would mean that Sawyer’s line in “Recon” is key: let the two head honchos fight it out while we take off in the sub!

      As for my questions – no regrets, as we didn’t really talk about plot or current story issues. I didn’t want to brush up against spoilers (which they wouldn’t have provided, but it would have stalled the conversation). Gregg was definitely intrigued by my take on why fans have been lukewarm on the sideways stories though…

      • Sean on March 24, 2010 at 4:31 PM

        What is your take on why they’ve been lukewarm on the sideways stories? Did you blog it?

        I actually love the sideways stories, much more than the flashforwards. Partially, I enjoy the game of figuring out which former castmember is going to show up in a cameo role, but also because it throws much of the established character background out the window and provides a new, interesting reconfiguration of the same people. I’m not sure how it’s going to end up, but I’m enjoying the ride immensely so far.

        • Sean on March 24, 2010 at 4:37 PM

          Additionally, I was thinking about this today — the alternatives to the sideways stories aren’t terribly clear. If we had more flashforwards, well, that wouldn’t make a lot of sense given everyone’s back on the island and in one common time period. If we went back to flashbacks, that was all wrapped up by the end of season 3 (with notable exceptions like “Ab Aeterno”) and there’s nothing to plunder there.

          Either their choice was to dispose of the intercut time period structure they’ve had since the first season, or to try something different with it — the sideways timeline seems intriguing given the role that choice has had within the show, and seeing versions of the characters who made different choices in their lives has been satisfying for me as a viewer. It gives some sort of closure to the characters’ backstories to see Jack get over his daddy issues with his sideways-son, or Sawyer choosing to be a cop rather than a con man.

          Now, execution is a whole other matter and I suspect many fans have a problem with that, but I think the sideways timeline idea is the perfect way to end out the series. IMHO, of course.

  2. Sean C. Duncan on March 24, 2010 at 6:06 AM

    I personally loved the change of pace and the melodrama with Ricardo/Isabella throughout the beginning — Carbonell transformed into a completely different character, and deserves a lot of praise for carrying this episode much better than I thought he could. He was amazing.

    This is one of my favorite two or three episodes of the series, and I think we got a fair amount of backstory here, I just fear that we’ve been so inured with the idea that nothing is what it seems that once we start getting unequivocal explanations, we’re prone to be suspicious of them. For now, I’m along for the ride and taking Jacob’s explanation quite literally — Smokey bad, island cork, Losties need to make the right decisions. The most intriguing thing for me was Smokey’s claim that he “took my body” — this immediately made me wonder if Jacob’s body was actually originally Smokey’s? This two-Aaron theory I’ve had could fit this, with this being both Aarons struggling over the same body (note, we did see the sideways timeline Aaron wink out of existence for a brief time during Ethan’s examination in “What Kate Does.”)

    Great acting, great pacing, great writing, great episode.

    • Jonathan Gray on March 24, 2010 at 10:15 AM

      Yeah, I’m with Sean here in thinking that it’s time to believe in something, so I’m going with this (at least for now!).

      The scenes of Richard in chains dragged on a bit, but maybe that’s the point? There was a real “No Exit” feel to those scenes that helped sell the idea of Hell. So I’ll second Sean’s final par. there

      • Sean on March 24, 2010 at 12:34 PM

        Yeah, one of the most chilling images of the show in recent memory is that giddy look of joy on Ricardo’s face as the Man in Black unlocks him and his head falls back, resting comfortably on the lap of a corpse behind him. The sheer amount of time he was stuck in chains was very affecting, IMHO.

  3. Sean C. Duncan on March 24, 2010 at 9:57 AM

    I hate to fill up the comments with more Lost theories, but this IS Lost afterall, and any discussion of an episode is bound to unlock more thoughts on the show’s overarching story/mythology…

    One thing that dawned on me when rewatching this morning was that the manipulation of Richard might have gone much deeper than we realized. Still unresolved is how Richard communicated with Jacob during the 130 or so years between his first arrival and the Oceanics’ arrival. We know of the way that Ben (supposedly) communicated with Jacob — using the cabin, which was created by Horace post-1974 or so — and it doesn’t seem that Richard found that method to be particularly troubling. So, it looks, perhaps, like Richard was also duped by The Man in Black throughout the period that Ben was being manipulated by The Man in Black.

    I wonder if this goes a long way toward explaining the Ben/Widmore conflict, as well as the real reason the Dharma Initiative was there. Widmore’s back, and setting up a sonic fence, so it seems clear he’s not in with Smokey — Ben was manipulated by Smokey during his time as leader of the Others (with, apparently, Richard in tow). If Widmore’s banishment from the island had to do with his discovery that Ben was actually working for Smokey rather than the Others, perhaps this makes Dharma’s role clearer: they were ultimately Jacob’s people, up to … something? We know that Jacob manipulated the Black Rock to come to the island (Captain Magnus Hanso), so maybe the link is now staring us in the face — his great-grandson Alvar Hanso’s Dharma Initiative was similarly manipulated/employed by Jacob. Who Widmore may be working with now.

    With this said, then perhaps Ilana and her people have some link to the Dharma Initiative we’ll see in coming weeks. The “pieces” on the “board” of the game are clearly being organized for some big confrontation, and I suspect there will be some revelations soon that will unify a number of these strands.

    Just more thoughts, thanks for indulging me. :-)

  4. crosscurrent on March 25, 2010 at 10:31 AM

    remember when Locke’s dad was tied to the totem and Locke was told to kill him in order to join the others. Nobody (in the blogs i’ve read) bring up the point about the others being a band of killers. Can’t be too virtuous, kind (opposite of malevolent?) while performing ritual killings. Also, what about the gassing of dharmaville, the flaming arrows, Dagons order to “kill them” when the losties first arrived at the temple. I will be disappointed in the story if the Jacob side are the “good guys” –what a way to prove whatever the opposite of malevolent.

  5. LostnLost on March 26, 2010 at 8:03 PM

    Good episode, Give Nestor an emmy now! Who knew he had such acting chops. And the love story with he and Isobella…Ummm. Ranks up there with Desmond & Penelope and Sawyer and Juliet for me.

    As for the story…first 1/2 hour was a bit slow for me considering we pretty much knew he was a slave on the black rock.

    My hope and expectations were that they would do Richards back story of how he got to the Island quick (like Jacob at the end quickly wrapping up the Cork keeping evil on the island).

    The story I was hoping to see was Richards timeline on the Island. We could have found out how the orginal others got to the island (did any blackrock people survive smokey), When and how Hanso got the Dharma people here. Why Richard endorsed Ben in Killing DharmaVille. Where the Temple Other came from. And as always more secrets of the Island. I thought Richard had the opportunity to have the most unique Island Centric story that would have answered a lot of questions about what happened since 1867.

    But with that Pet Peeve, Good Episode, Out of this World Acting by Nestor. Heck, even the Real MIB this was the first time I got to see how creepy with his facial expressions and how good of an actor he is. Ashame Locke is getting all the Smoke time as the Original MIB is Great Also.

  6. LostnLost on March 26, 2010 at 8:09 PM

    Also, I guess we found out that Hurley’s gift from Jacob’s touch is his Sixth Sense!

    I mean Dude can really see Dead people (Charlie, Eko, Anna Lucia, Jacob, Isobella maybe Yemi?).

    While he was in the Psyche Ward, I thought he was just seeing things in his mind or perhaps the Island was showing him want it wanted him to see.

    Now I firmly believe Hurley’s gift is “Dude Can See Dead People”

    On a related but seperate note, if we assume MIB Scanned Ricardo and presented Isobella on the black rock (which I think is a first because most of MIB’s body take overs were of dead people on the island)…How was Hurley able to see Isobella on the Island if she had never been there before???