In terms of ratio of “screen time” to “audience knowledge about the character,” Richard Alpert might be the most mysterious character on “Lost” today. When rumors flew around that last season’s penultimate episode “Follow the Leader” would be Alpert-centric, many fans salivated at the thought of finally learning more information about this eyeliner-wearing enigma. However, most of the episode featured Alpert looking more confused than Kim Kardashian being forced to solve a Faraday-esque physics equation. Not terrifically satisfying.
Now, I generally don’t listen to rumors for exactly this reason. Supposed “sources” are just fanfic filtered through a dozen hyperlinks until they magically turn into “fact” on the interwebs. But such disappointment did demonstrate the intense interest around Alpert in the fan community. People want to know more about this apparently ageless man, a figure that might be a Rosetta Stone towards understanding the history of the Others as well as the Island. Other than that? He’s not too important, really.
Key in understanding Richard Alpert is the key to understanding any character: what does he want? From that answer flows all action, in theory. But figuring that out has been quite puzzling. He’s a man who seemingly answers to a higher authority, although it’s clear by the end of Season 5 that he’s lied about his marching orders or at the very least delivered them on a need-to-know basis. He’s a constant presence in The Others, but it’s unclear if he considers himself part of that group or merely a liaison between them and The Power(s) That Be.
But most of all, having acted completely in the interest of a mysterious third party, we’ve rarely seen him act for himself. In other words: it’s hard to figure out his self-interest when we’ve seen so little self. We have precious few moments that show insight into his true nature, but from those I’m going to propose a theory that, while hardly foolproof, intrigues me enough to write about it now: Richard Alpert wants to die. Everything he does in the show is in the service of releasing himself from the curse of immortality.
The clue that kicked this all off for me? Alpert’s first appearance in the aforementioned “Leader,” in which he is meticulously working on a ship inside a bottle that looks curiously like The Black Rock. To me, that signified a metaphor both for Alpert’s origins and his current trapped status. It does NOT automatically mean that Alpert himself came over on the Black Rock, though I can easily see this being revealed in the series finale. But the visual imagery is clear enough: throughout history, various parties have been summoned to the Island in various modes of transportation, unwilling parties in a sociological experiment enabled by two ageless entities.
Alpert’s agelessness is the result of two things: either he was once an ordinary flesh-and-blood man given the power of immortality via the Island/Jacob, or he’s a figure akin to Jacob/The Man in Black himself. In other words, Alpert looks human, feels human, and sounds human; he’s just merely using the guise of humanity to conceal his true nature. He’s a more somber Puck to Jacob’s Oberon and The Man in Black’s bearded Titania. (Can you tell I saw a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” recently? Although it wasn’t the most accurate ever. Most glitter-filled, though.)
I’m fine with either explanation. I sorta dig the latter one, though, since it potentially avoids a really awkward flashback in which “Lost” tries to accurately recreate life on a 19th-century slave ship or ancient Egyptian vessel. But in either case, I think there’s a powerful hatred lurking under Alpert’s servitude. His job in this scenario? Find the human being worthy of assuming ownership of the Island. Once that job is complete, Richard, Jacob, and The Man in Black are no longer necessary. Thus, Jacob’s continual renewal of the cycle in which new batches of people on the Island is both another chance for Richard to prove his worth while simultaneously a reflection of his previous failure.
In the next entry, I’ll look at specific examples in the show to try and show moments in which Richard’s frustrations come out, his confusions are revealed, and his desire to finally end Jacob’s notion of “progress” come to the forefront.
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