The episode centered around Richard Alpert's background: how he came to the island, why he doesn't age, and his relationship with Jacob and the Man in Black. And while the episode was chock full of answers to all our questions about Richard, it kind of took the mystery away from the one character I was hoping would remain mysterious.
I tend to think of Richard as Lost's version of Shepherd Book from "Firefly". He's a spiritual leader who isn't exactly what he seems to be, with a background that no one quite knows. In Book's case, there were lots of hints to a dark past, coming to a head with this exchange in "Serenity", the post-"Firefly" theatrical movie:
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: It's of interest to me how much you seem to know about that world.I loved that Joss Whedon made the decision that Book's history would remain a mystery (no rhyme intended), though that's eventually changing with a soon-to-be-released comic from Dark Horse. And not only would I have been fine with J.J. Abrams keeping Richard Alpert's background a secret, I think it would have been cooler.
Shepherd Book: I wasn't born a shepherd, Mal.
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: You have to tell me about that sometime.
Shepherd Book: [pause] No, I don't.
That's not to say that what was revealed about Richard Alpert was bad, far from it. In "Ab Aeterno" (Latin for "from the eternal" or, more loosely translated "since the beginning of time"), we found out that in 1867, Richard -- or Ricardo -- accidentally killed a man while trying to buy medicine for his sick wife (who died that same night) and was sentenced to death by hanging. However, because of his knowledge of English, he was sold into slavery on a ship called The Black Rock, which eventually crashed on The Island. The captain of the ship killed all the other slaves and was right about to plunge his sword into Richard when the black smoke struck, killing everyone above deck, then eventually coming down below deck to kill the captain, but spare Richard.
Richard was still trapped in the ship, chained to the floor, and the Man in Black appeared as his dead wife, attempting to convince Richard that they were dead and trapped in Hell. Eventually the Man in Black appeared as himself and told Richard the same story: that they were in Hell and the only way out was to kill Jacob (or, as he called him to Richard, "the Devil"). He gave him a knife to stab Jacob and told Richard the only way to kill Jacob was to stab him in the heart before he spoke. I liked the parallel between the Man in Black's instructions to Jacob and Dogen's instructions to Sayid earlier this season, with the targets being exact opposites of each other.
Of course, Richard didn't kill Jacob, during a scene in which we saw a much different Jacob than we'd seen before. He beat down Richard physically, then attempted to drown him to convince Richard that he, in fact, was NOT in hell.
What this led to was by far the best scene of the season, the one that gave me the answers I WAS looking for. Jacob explained to Richard what the island is, using an analogy of wine in a jug. The wine represented evil, and the cork in the jug represented the island. The Island exists to keep the evil (the Man in Black) from spreading throughout the world. Seeing that makes me wonder what the consequences are of the Island not existing in the LA-verse (which we didn't see at all in this episode), and hopefully THAT question will get answered in the next seven episodes.
The scene between Jacob and Richard ended with Jacob making Richard his representative for people he brings to the island and granting Richard's request for eternal life (after Jacob said he couldn't bring Richard's wife back or absolve him of his sins). As a whole, the scene really filled in a lot of the blanks on the meaning of the island, the hierarchy of leadership and the balance between Jacob and the Man in Black, without getting overly specific. And everything got brought back to the current island continuity when Hurley used his "speak to the dead" powers to mediate a conversation between Richard and his wife (in a scene that was very reminiscent of "Ghost") and get Richard back on Team Jacob (and I really wish I had a better term for that, so it didn't sound like a "Twilight" reference). And then Hurley gave Richard an ominous warning about stopping the Man in Black, or they all go to Hell.
The episode itself ended with another scene between Jacob and the Man in Black, and it was dripping with symbolism. The white stone, the broken wine jug, even them sitting side-by-side (like they did on the beach in last season's finale), it was all so well-crafted. With this episode revealing so much about Richard, Jacob and the Man in Black remain as the show's last two mysterious characters (at least, in terms of their backgrounds), and again, I'm kind of hoping the show leaves some of that unrevealed.
What I found interesting about the episode in its entirety was that Richard was so convinced the Island was Hell, which is a common theory among "Lost" fans, despite the fact that the creators have dismissed it time and time again. I feel like they were sending a message to the fans with that plot line, the message being "have faith in what we're doing, because you'll get all the answers you need in the end." Having faith worked out for Richard, and hopefully it'll work out for us too.