Tonight we learned the story of Richard Alpert, Lost's most enigmatic character. And it turns out that Richard's arrival on the island was something of a turning point for everyone concerned. But what did it mean? Spoilers ahead...

When Richard Alpert, the bedraggled slave shackled on the Black Rock, washed up on the island, his life was transformed forever. But it was also a huge turning point for Jacob and his adversary, the Man In Black. Jacob tells us that he's been bringing people to the island for a very, very long time, just like the people on the Black Rock. Jacob brings them to the island so that they can make good choices and prove that Jacob is right and people are capable of being good. But the Man In Black, aka Smokey, believes people are basically corruptible, and he always tries to tempt these visitors into doing the wrong thing.

Presumably this is the status quo that Jacob and Smokey are talking about at the start of the season five finale, "The Incident":

JACOB: I take it you're here 'cause of the ship.
MAN IN BLACK: I am. How did they find the Island?
JACOB: You'll have to ask 'em when they get here.
MAN IN BLACK: I don't have to ask. You brought them here. Still trying to prove me wrong, aren't you?
JACOB: You are wrong.
MAN IN BLACK: Am I? They come. They fight. They destroy. They corrupt. It always ends the same.
JACOB: It only ends once. Anything that happens before that is just progress.
MAN IN BLACK: Do you have any idea how badly I wanna kill you?
JACOB: Yes.
MAN IN BLACK: One of these days, sooner or later... I'm going to find a loophole, my friend.
JACOB: Well, when you do, I'll be right here.

We know this conversation takes place before Richard's arrival, because Richard's ship smashes the four-toed statue of Tawaret, and the statue's intact when Richard's ship wrecks on the island. So even though the Man In Black is very vocal about his desire to kill Jacob, he's never actually tried to do so — until now. The Man In Black kills everyone on the ship, except for Ricardo, in whom he sees some kind of potential.

Richard Alpert's Still A Slave, Man

Why does Ricardo have so much potential? Well, he's wracked with guilt over killing a doctor who refused to help cure his dying wife because Ricardo didn't have enough money. A priest told Ricardo he couldn't be absolved of this crime — just before the priest sold Ricardo into slavery on the Black Rock. And then Ricardo watched his shipmates die senselessly — first in the crash (thanks, Jacob!), then at the hands of a psycho officer, then finally at the "hands" of the Smoke Monster. And then Ricardo's dead wife, Isabelle, appears to him and tells him that they're in Hell — before running away and apparently falling victim to supernatural forces.

Having met his dead wife, Ricardo is apparently easy prey for the Man In Black, who sets him free and tells him that Ricardo can save his wife and escape the island, if he just kills the Devil (aka Jacob.) Apparently, Ricardo is as much a fan of Supernatural as we are, since he believes Mark Pellegrino is Satan. And it's a similar deal to when Dogen sent Sayid to kill the Man In Black — if he speaks to you, it's already too late.

Richard Alpert's Still A Slave, Man

So why is this a turning point? According to Jacob, it's the first time the Man In Black has actually tried to kill him. Or at least, Jacob seems pretty surprised at the attempt, when he talks to Smokey about it afterwards. And then, it's the first time Jacob seems interested in recruiting for his own team. Until now, it seems like Jacob's been content to keep the visitors to the island at arm's length, but with Smokey trying to mobilize them against Jacob, he decides to appoint a representative. A vicar, if you will.

Somehow, over the decades, this turns into Richard being the advisor to a group of people who live on the island and consider themselves followers of Jacob, but never actually meet him or hear from him directly. Did Richard just approach every new castaway in the name of Jacob after this point, or was there some other way that people were chosen to join the "Others"? And if Richard did approach every new castaway for a while, why did he stop?

So the island isn't just sitting on a source of electromagnetic energy, which Marvin Candle tried to tap — it's also a cork, imprisoning a source of pure evil, or Hell, from getting out into the world. The sort of stuff that would burn down your house and incinerate your parents if they were to touch it.

Richard Alpert's Still A Slave, Man

Which makes one wonder - if Jacob is so concerned about the Man In Black escaping, why jeopardize his situation by bringing so many people to the island? People whom the Man In Black can use as weapons against Jacob, or at least use to chip away at Jacob's control over the island? Boredom? Hubris? Curiosity?

Anyway, after scores of years as Jacob's representative, Richard Alpert discovers that Jacob is dead, and the Man In Black is preparing to bust loose, in the body of the recently departed John Locke. (And Richard was the one who led the Man In Black and his chosen assassin, Ben, to Jacob.) Somehow this leads to Richard deciding that Jacob has lied to him, and wanting to die. Failing that, he decides that the island really is Hell, and he's better off joining up with the Man In Black after all. He nearly does it, too, until Hurley reveals that he's been speaking to Richard's dead wife and she wants Richard to help stop the Man In Black escaping.

All in all, it was pretty moving stuff — especially the sequence where Richard's dead wife appears to Hurley, and Hurley acts as a go-between for Richard and Isabelle. (I got a tad confused as to whether Hurley just stopped repeating what she was saying at some point, but I guess it was just that we were supposed to assume that was happening, for the sake of running length.) Ricardo/Richard loses the one person who means anything to him, right at the beginning of his journey, and he commits a terrible act to save her, to no avail.

After that, Ricardo just wants two things — his wife back, and absolution for the murder he committed. The Man In Black offers him at least one of those things, but Jacob says he can't have either one. It makes you realize how much Lost is actually about loss, for many of these characters.

Richard Alpert's Still A Slave, Man

Ricardo's situation, mourning his wife forever, is also a great parallel to Sawyer's, mourning the death of Juliet.

In any case, Ricardo comes to the island as a slave, and he remains a slave after that. The only question, throughout the episode, is whose slave he's going to be — the Man In Black's, or Jacob's? Whichever side he chooses, he's going to find himself constrained by that choice forever afterwards, "claimed" by one party or the other as a pawn. Even though Jacob says your past doesn't matter when you come to the island, Ricardo knows differently. He'll always be imprisoned by the memory of what he did and the woman he lost, and whichever guiding hand he chooses, he'll be a pawn afterwards.

Of course, Jacob says he's in favor of free will, which is why he doesn't step in and tell people what to do. But by insisting that things have to fit into a binary framework, where there's the right choice and the wrong choice, and his side and Smokey's side, he's already constraining people's freedom of choice considerably.

So it seems like Richard's crisis of faith is over, and he's ready to return to Dumbledore's Jacob's Army. So what now? How do the castaways figure out which one of them is the winning candidate, and how does that person step forward to take his/her (probably his) place as Smokey's new jailer? I guess we'll find out soon enough.

What did you think?