Who is that handsome devil in that picture?

"Lost" writers Melinda Hsu Taylor and Greggory Nations had one of the most difficult jobs in the entire history of the series tonight, and they more than rose to the occasion.  Before I pressed "play" on my DVR this evening, I actually hesitated.  This is one of those episodes we've been waiting to see for quite a while, and as much as I was looking forward to it, it also made me sad.  This really is the home stretch now.  In two months, it will all be over.  No matter what we think of the answers we're getting, we are getting answers, and for a "Lost" fan, that's almost disconcerting at this point.

Richard Alpert was first introduced to the series in "Not In Portland," way back in season three of the show, and little by little, he's taken focus as one of the most significant characters of the entire series.  Until this episode, though, just how significant was unclear.  If you're one of those people who still complains that the show is more question than answer, tonight must have knocked you for a loop, because it was pretty much answer from start to finish.  It also broke the formula that this season has followed.  Instead of a flash sideways to the alternative timeline we've followed all year, we returned to the simple flashbacks that were such a staple of the series in the first few seasons.

The "previously on" scenes focused, unsurprisingly, on Richard.  I found the first image especially poignant, a shot of him working on a ship in a bottle.  The rest of the clips set up that Richard's been on the Island for a very, very long time, and that he's falling apart because the purpose he thought he had in his life is no longer true.  Or at least, he doesn't believe it's true anymore.

So what exactly does Richard believe?

For that, we have to go back to Tenerife in the Canary Islands in the year 1867, where Richard was still Ricardo, and he was married to the lovely and very sick Isabella.  When he sees her coughing up blood, he sets out on horseback to summon a doctor.  It's a half-day's ride, and when he finally gets there, the doctor refuses to go with Ricardo.  He has the medicine that will save Isabella, but Ricardo doesn't have the money for it, and a struggle ensues that leaves the doctor dead on the floor.  Richardo flees the scene, but by the time he gets back to Isabella, she's dead.

Ricardo ends up in prison, sentenced to hang.  A priest comes to visit him, and Richardo confesses his sins, then begs for forgiveness.  The priest tells him that it's impossible, and that Ricardo doesn't have time to do penance before his execution.  "No, my son, I'm afraid the devil awaits you in Hell," he says before walking away. 

The priest takes note of the English-language Bible that Ricardo is reading, though, and the next morning, Ricardo is fetched from his cell and taken to meet Mr. Whitfield, who promptly inspects his hands, his teeth, and tests his ability to speak English.  Satisfied, Whitfield buys Ricardo from the priest on behalf of Captain Magnus Hanso, then sneers at him.  "Hope you don't get seasick."

We find The Black Rock out at sea in the middle of a storm, and in the slave hold below, Ricardo is chained up with some other  slaves, and one of them can see outside.  He spots the Island, then spots the statue on the beach, which he immediately takes for the Devil, right before a wave carries the ship right through the statue, dropping it in the jungle.

The slaves wake up in the morning, still chained in the hold, and when they hear people outside, they call for help.  Mr. Whitfield is the one who answers their call, but when he shows up, he starts to run the slaves through with his sword, figuring they're going to run out of resources soon, and there's not enough fresh water or food to go around.  Sure, they're on an island, but that doesn't seem to matter to Whitfield.  When he finally gets to Richard, he's about to stab him, but a familiar sound interrupts.

Yep... it's Smokey.  And he kills everybody.  The show's gotten great at using Smokey and staging the scenes where he rampages, and there are some iconic, crazy shots in this sequence.  Smokey approaches Richard at the end of the rampage, once everyone else is dead, and then hesitates, sizing him up.  Finally, Smokey retreats, leaving Richard chained up and alone.  Days pass and Ricardo starts to go crazy as he starves and gets dehydrated.  Isabella appears to him and explains that he's just as dead as she is and that they're in Hell now.  She refers to Smokey as the Devil and tells Ricardo they need to escape.  Before she can help him, though, she hears Smokey outside, and she tries to run.  Ricardo hears her screams, and he's powerless to do anything about it.

It's interesting how many references to the Devil and Hell show up in this episode.  A friend of mine has already advanced the theory that the show pretty much just told viewers exactly what's going on, and I think he's sort of right, although I'm not sure I believe the show's going to come down to a Judeo-Christian God versus the Devil battle for the world.  Still, there are reasons to think he may be right.  I referred to the way Alterna-Locke keeps making deals with people this season a few recaps ago, and this week, it was highlighted again.

When Ricardo reaches his breaking point, still chained up and dying, the Man In Black appears to him and brings water for him to drink.

"Who are you?"

"A friend."

"I am... in Hell?"

"Yes, I'm afraid you are."

He offers to set Ricardo free, but before he does, he makes him promise that he will do anything he can to help the Man in Black.  The way he words it is very formal, lending more credence to the idea that these are binding agreements.  He helps Ricardo up and tells him he's going to need his strength if they're going to escape.  "There's only one way to escape from Hell.  You have to kill the Devil."

The conversation continues on the beach, where the Man in Black confesses to Ricardo that he is the Smoke Monster, but that he's not the Devil.  He says the Devil actually lives in the statue that Ricardo's ship destroyed when it was washed ashore, and he gives Ricardo a knife to use on him.  "Do not let him say a word.  If he speaks, it will already be too late."  Interesting how that little tip was given to Sayid when he was sent to kill the Man in Black.

The actual meeting between Jacob and Ricardo on the beach, there by the foot of the statue, is one of the biggest moments in the series, loaded with symbolism.  When Ricardo walks up to the statue, Jacob attacks him and disarms him.  Ricardo tells him what the Man In Black said and how he's convinced that he's dead and in Hell.  Jacob drags him to the water's edge and dunks him repeatedly until Ricardo finally cries out, "I want to live!"  It's a blatant baptism, and once he's done, Jacob drags Ricardo back up to the beach for a talk.  As Jacob tells Ricardo about bringing the ship to the Island, they share a bottle of wine in a distinctly communion-like manner.  The wine bottle serves another purpose in the scene, though, as Jacob makes an analogy to explain the purpose of the Island.  He describes the Man in Black as darkness, and the bottle as the thing that contains that darkness, and the cork, which is the Island, as the only thing holding that darkness in its container.

Jacob explains that the Man In Black believes everyone can be corrupted and that it is basic human nature to sin.  Jacob brings people to the Island to prove him wrong.  Ricardo is horrified by the idea that Jacob just turns these people loose without any help at all, but Jacob feels that it's wrong to interfere, and that if he tells people the difference between right and wrong, it's useless.  He wants them to figure it out for themselves.  Ricardo points out that the Man In Black is more than happy to interfere, and Jacob considers the point for a moment before offering Ricardo a job.  He wants him to be his representative on the Island, so he can deal with people instead of Jacob doing it directly.  Ricardo asks what he gets for doing the job, and Jacob asks what he wants.

"I want my wife back."

"I can't do that."

"Can you absolve me of my sins so I don't go to Hell?"

"I can't do that, either."

"Then I never want to die.  I want to live forever."

"Now that I can do."

Jacob touches Ricardo on the shoulder, giving him the gift of eternal life, then sends him back to where the Man In Black is waiting.  Ricardo gives the Man In Black a message from Jacob in the form of a single white stone.  Instead of getting mad, the Man In Black tells Ricardo that he understands how persuasive Jacob can be, but if Ricardo ever changes his mind about who he wants to help, the offer stands.  He returns Isabella's cross to Ricardo, then disappears.

Ricardo takes the cross to a specific spot on the Island, where he buries it and says goodbye to Isabella, which finally brings us back to present day, where Richard digs up the cross.  He stands up and looks around, not sure how to proceed.  He calls out, "I've changed my mind.  Does the offer still stand?"  He ends up yelling the question over and over until Hurley walks up and interrupts.

"What offer, dude?"  Richard's mad at Hurley for following him until Hurley tells him that Isabella sent him.  Earlier in the episode, Hurley was on the beach talking to someone unseen in Spanish, and it turns out that it's her, standing right next to Richard.  She wants to know why he buried her cross, and she wants to say goodbye to Richard and to tell him that she's always with him.  This one moment pays off the whole episode, and it also explains Richard's behavior all season.  Before Hurley walks away, he tells Richard that she said one last thing.

"You have to stop the Man In Black.  You have to stop him from leaving the Island.  Because if you don't... we all go to Hell."

And in the distance, Alterna-Locke stands listening.

One of the things that "Lost" has always done well is closing images, and this week's pretty much lays out the major conflict for the rest of the season.  Back in the past, Jacob goes to visit the Man In Black to make sure he got the white rock.  The Man In Black tell him not to gloat, then begs Jacob to let him leave.  Jacob says he can't do that, and he won't, and the Man In Black vows to kill Jacob and anyone who replaces him.  Jacob gives him the bottle of wine.  "Something for you to pass the time."

Once Jacob walks away, the Man In Black sneers and quietly says, "Sooner than you think," then smashes the bottle.  Metaphor loud and clear, "Lost," and with this episode, it really does seem like the big picture is clear now.  Sure, there are smaller details to fill in, and the way things play out will still be full of surprises, but I don't think "Lost" is a mystery anymore.

It's a strange feeling to reach this point, but a good one, and the way the show presented all of this material was both emotional and exciting.  It's a heck of a balance to strike, and a great example of why this is one of the strangest, richest, and most rewarding rides in television history.

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