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On ‘Lost,’ Eko is a man divided

There was Eko, standing in a clearing on this week's "Lost," staring down the island's black smoke of doom.

Oh, sure, it thundered into view with the usual explosive force. But Eko stood his ground. He stared, it stared back — as much as a deadly faceless wisp of smoke can stare — and after they shared a moment, it turned tail and fled.

"What the bloody hell did you do?" asked Charlie, scampering down from the tree where Eko sent him to hide.

"I did nothing," replied the tail-enders' spiritual leader. "I was not afraid of it."

Here, obviously, is a dude you don't mess with.

Eko has been quietly fearsome from the first moment viewers saw him, charging the beach as Jin tried to run away. He sat silent for 40 days, carving Scripture into his EkoStick (or as Charlie called it, his "Jesus stick").  He has been a man of few words and decisive actions, and after seeming menacing, then almost saintly as this season has churned along, we finally began to learn Wednesday night just what motivates him.

That his youth in Nigeria would factor into his backstory seemed likely, given the floating around in recent days.  So when, in a scene devastatingly reminiscent of both real life and , armed thugs drove into a Nigerian village to haul away the children, the obvious assumption was that the young boy handed a pistol would be Eko.

Of course not. Nothing is ever that simple on "Lost," and indeed that turned out to be Eko's brother Yemi, who Eko would save in a split moment: ripping the gun out of his younger brother's hand and executing the old man whom the heartless band singled out.

"Look at Mr. Eko," said the thugs' leader, as he tore a cross from the boy's neck and threw it on the ground. "No hesitation. A born killer."

Good, bad or other?Such was the nature of Eko's sacrifice — reluctantly embracing evil to try and do good, making a sacrifice for his brother — that would resonate again and again as he grew into a powerful Nigerian warlord (again, as speculated) with a very hidden agenda. And of course, you could certainly understand why he was upset when the Others stole away with the tail-enders' kids.

When Eko struck a drug deal with a bunch of seedy Moroccans, it was in an attempt to get the drugs out of Nigeria, and he didn't flinch at slitting a throat or two after the deal was done: embracing evil in hopes of embracing a greater good, even if his brother, who would grow up to be a priest, would never accept his moral hair-splitting.

Eko was equally unimpressed with Yemi's black-and-white morality. Grabbing his lost cross from inside his brother's frock, he reminded him of his first murder, demanding: "Is what I did that day a sin or is it forgiven because it is you that was saved?"

Though Eko obviously had a dark past, the fact it is this morally tangled makes him perhaps the most compelling character on the island. His only counterpart, obviously, is Locke — who like Eko is a man half in the light and half in darkness, filled with faith but more than capable of violence (remember Boone's demise?), torn between their greater and lesser natures.

Even more than Locke, Eko is a man divided: half-good, half-evil, torn between the forces within him. The hints have been growing that the island will be the stage for a battle between good and evil — that's apparently what the Others want, if you believe Otherly Goodwin — and Eko and Locke are destined to be the perfect candidates to lead that fight.

Remember how Goodwin, after breaking one of the castaways' necks, told Ana-Lucia: "Nathan was not a good person. That's why he wasn't on the list."  That, it seems, is how the Others view the world, though just how good and evil factor into the Dharma philosophy is going to take a while to hash out.

That Eko can stare down the black smoke and live to tell about it shows just how powerful he is, and how morally split.  (By the way, is the black smoke the "monster" we were promised a view of?  If so, that leaves a lot to explain, like just what snagged the pilot from the cockpit in the show's pilot and had it as an afternoon snack. My bet's on monsters in multiple forms, though it could be an oozing cousin to the "X-Files" black oil.)

Like Locke, who views the island as his own personal salvation patch, Eko is a man in search of redemption (and in case you missed that point, the "Wild Kingdom"-esque narrator in Wednesday's clip show asked of Eko, "How does a man find redemption?"), perhaps because Yemi ultimately died trying to save his brother — by calling in Nigerian troops and trying to keep Eko off the doomed Beechcraft that would ultimately crash on the island.

Irony of ironies, it was one of Eko's own henchmen who betrayed him, pushing him off the plane to be captured. And it was his disguise as a priest that confused the soldiers and apparently let him go free to find his fate.  It was Yemi's desire to save his brother that prompted the arrival of the soldiers who would, instead, fatally shoot the real priest and let Eko live.

Eko is a man saved by the pettiness of evil, and spurned by the blindsidedness of good.  If anyone can survive the island, it's Eko — and Locke, whose goodness is always tainted by a nasty streak. The two men are opposites, and once they stop scouting each other out, they'll either be a formidable force against the Others (who once again were nowhere to be seen) or will tear each other apart.

How much of this is fable, and how much simple coincidence, is left to see. As Eko previously told Locke in the Swan station, "Don't confuse coincidence for fate."

Unsolved mysteriesAfter all, there's plenty more mystery to unravel about the tail-enders' mystery man.

How would a rickety twin-prop plane filled with a dead real priest (Yemi) and a living fake priest (Eko's betraying henchman) make it to an island in a mysterious South Pacific location, thousands of miles away?  There's enough possibilities there to make your head spin, anything from the usual "Lost"-as-limbo stuff to the notion of the island as a big floating ship.

Why is Eko so intrepidly devout, saying a prayer over the henchman's corpse and reciting the 23rd Psalm (the episode's title) after setting the plane wreckage aflame?  Why did he tell Charlie he was a priest? And when Claire sees his carving Scripture citations on his stick, and asks what he's writing, why does he reply: "Things I need to remember"?

With Michael girding for a fight with the Others, and Locke helping him to prepare — even indulging Michael in a little target practice with a jar of Dharma ranch dressing — the forces of light and darkness seem due for a battle before long, with number-obsessed Locke and fearless Eko the presumptive field generals.

Eko tells his brother: "I understand you live in a world where righteousness and evil seem very far apart. But that is not the real world."

Nor, perhaps, is it so on "Lost's" crazy island, where good and evil are much more subtle than they initially seem.

MSNBC.com lifestyle editor Jon Bonné is staring at aeronautical charts, plotting hypothetical flight paths east from Nigeria.

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