So who is he? Or rather: what have tptb decided to make him? Because it is not for certain that their plans for Alpert when he first appeared on the show was to make him the Panchen Lama of the island. Actors who do good on Lost can indeed change the future of their characters! That's something we've seen before on the show (Ben and Desmond being the prime examples).
Here goes: what are the clues that Alpert's appearances have given us as to who he really is?
(Information from Lostpedia's entries on various episodes, episode transcripts and their Alpert profile.)
Not In Portland & One Of Us
These two episodes from S3 show us how Juliet was brought to the island. In both of them we see Alpert acting as something of a recruiter for the island, trying to convince Juliet to come work for Mittelos Science. Maybe this is something of his prime function? Because later on of course, we see him attempt to recruit young Locke and successfully sign up young Ben. The dynamics of his conversation with Juliet right before she's drugged and taken to the island is interesting:
RICHARD: I know that erm, six months sounds like an eternity but, you're gonna be amazed at how time flies once you're there.
JULIET: I can't wait to find out where there is.
ETHAN: Doctor Burke? Wanna have a seat, I'd like to take some of your vitals. If that's OK with you?
JULIET: Yeah, sure.
RICHARD: You know everyone at the company's really excited about you coming down Doctor Burke. And I think your research is really gonna have a major impact on us.
[Juliet sees Richard pours a substance into a glass of orange juice]
JULIET: What is that?
RICHARD: That, is orange juice, with a considerable amount of tranquilizer mixed in.
JULIET: [Pause] You want me to drink it?
RICHARD: Oh yes [Smiles], you're gonna wanna be asleep for the trip Doctor Burke.
ETHAN: It can be [Chuckles], kind of intense.
JULIET: Er, OK, I was fine with signing all over your paperwork. Fine with agreeing to not talk to anyone in my life for six months. Fine with the fact that no-one in the medical community has ever heard of Mittelos Bioscience.
RICHARD: Why were you fine?
RICHARD: Why were you fine with those things? It seems like, er, quite a leap for a job opportunity. I mean we're not paying ya that much. I think you're fine because deep down a part of you knows that the place we're taking you to is special.
JULIET: Special huh.
RICHARD: Let me ask you, Juliet. You took a woman, your own sister. Whose reproductive system was ravaged by chemotherapy, who was sterile. And you made her pregnant. You created life where life wasn't supposed to be. That's a gift, Juliet. You have a gift. And don't you think you're meant to do something significant with it? Where we're going, you can do just that.
JULIET: Where exactly are we...
RICHARD: I can't tell you that. But what I can tell you is that, you'll see things there that you never imagined. Now, no-one is forcing you to do anything, so if you change your mind we're happy to take you back to...
[Juliet takes the glass and quickly gulps down the entire drink]
I love that bit when he turns it around on her and asks why she was fine with all the other weird stuff. Ben is maybe Lost's most obvious master manipulator, but I have to wonder if he didn't learn some of his skills from Richard Alpert. It's also interesting how he stresses to Juliet that she has a gift.
There are hints of a more sinister side to Alpert in "Not In Portland". Juliet originally balks at going to work for Mittelos, saying that her ex-husband (the man she works for), would never allow her to go.
ALPERT: What if I told you that you could have complete freedom and money to find out? We think you're special, Dr. Burke. And we want you to lead a team of highly trained people because we think you're just that good.
JULIET: I can't.
ALPERT: Why can't you?
JULIET: My ex-husband wouldn't let me. I...
ALPERT: He wouldn't want you to have this opportunity?
JULIET [upset]: No, he doesn't want me to have anything. He would never give the okay. It's...
ALPERT: Maybe we could reach out to him on your behalf?
JULIET: Don't bother.
ALPERT: There must be something that he would respond to.
JULIET: If he were hit by a bus. How about that? That would work. [she gets tears in her eyes, then is embarrassed] How totally inappropriate.
ALPERT: No, no, no.
"We think you're special". And then Juliet mentions the bus thing. And then her ex does get hit by a bus. Did Richard orchestrate that? Was it just an accident? Or did the island somehow do it (or Jacob?), because it (or fate?) wanted her to come? Is that how the other Losties ended up on flight 815? Fate? Jacob? Human interference?
In "One Of Us" we also see what is supposedly Richard right after the crash of 815. Ben gets Mikhail to contact him in Miami so that they can prove to Juliet that her sister and the sister's child are alive and well.
BEN: Can we uplink to Richard in Acadia Park please.
BEN: [To Juliet] Yesterday you called me a liar. I was hurt by that.
[Ben puts on headphones and talks into a speaker]
BEN: Hello, Richard can you hear me?
[A monitor shows a newspaper front page and then a park]
BEN: Notice today's date, this is live. OK, Richard.
[The camera pans out and tilts to a woman playing with a little boy. It's Rachel. Juliet runs to the monitor crying]
JULIET: Oh my god. Oh! Oh my god!
BEN: A little over two years ago, to everyone's complete surprise, Rachel's cancer went into complete remission. Shortly after she gave birth to a healthy baby boy. His name is Julian. [Holds headphones] OK, thank you Richard. You'll wanna get back here as soon as you can, we may have some new visitors.
Ben had told Juliet her sister's cancer was back, but that if Juliet stayed on the island, then Jacob would cure her sister: "Jacob said he would take care of it himself." But did that cancer ever actually come back at all? Was it all a fakeout? Or did Richard cure the sister? Alpert sure seems to have been traveling around a lot off-island with relative ease. I wonder how he got off the island and exactly how he and Ethan got Juliet to the island originally.
The Man From Tallahassee & The Brig
In these two episodes we see Alpert interacting with Ben and Locke primarily. Alpert was apparently sent off the island by Ben about 8 days after the crash to go fetch Locke's dad. Why? One can only wonder. So that Locke can kill his father? Why? To manipulate Locke? It would seem that at that early stage already Ben, and probably Alpert (knowing what we now know about his backstory with Locke) knew Locke was going to be important somehow. One thing I just thought of: IF Alpert can time travel with relative ease, is it possible that he went back into Locke's past at this point (ie right after the crash of 815) to investigate Locke some more? If he did not time travel, but had in fact already been to see Locke when he was a child, it must have seemed rather important to him that John Locke had finally made it to the island!
Then comes "The Brig", where Locke is told by Ben that he has to kill his father. And he is given a knife to do the deed with. Is it the same knife Alpert once offered to Locke as a young boy? The one item he chose that seemed to upset Alpert? Maybe, because Alpert gives Locke a way out of killing his dad: get Sawyer to do it.
RICHARD: It's beautiful isn't it. No matter how much time you spend on the Island you just never get tired of this view. We haven't been formally introduced, I'm Richard.
[They shake hands]
RICHARD: You mind if I, join you here.
LOCKE: Nah sure.
RICHARD: He wanted to embarrass you.
LOCKE: I'm sorry?
RICHARD: Ben knew you weren't gonna kill your own father. He put you in front of everyone in our camp just so they could all watch ya fail.
RICHARD: Cause when word got back here that there was a man with a broken spine on the plane who could suddenly walk again, well, people here began to get very excited because that, that could only happen to someone who was extremely special. But Ben doesn't want anyone to think you're special, John.
LOCKE: And why are you telling me this?
RICHARD: Ben has been wasting our time with novelties like fertility problems. We're looking for someone to remind us that we're here for more important reasons.
LOCKE: What do you want from me?
RICHARD: I want for you to find your purpose. And to do that, your father has to go, John. And since you're not gonna do it, I'm gonna suggest someone else.
Again with the "special" thing, again with the intimation that the person being "recruited" has a purpose they need to fulfill, just like with Juliet. Why does Locke's father have to die? I still have no idea about that.
The Man Behind The Curtain
Once Locke brings his dad's body to Ben, Locke demands to find out "everything" about the island (boy, will he ever be disappointed!). What Ben tells Locke is interesting as it pertains to Alpert, and also because Ben is lying:
BEN: You probably think I'm the leader of this little community, but that's not entirely true. We all answer to someone, John.
LOCKE: And whom might that be?
BEN: His name is Jacob.
LOCKE: Okay, then. Take me to Jacob.
BEN: I can't do that.
[John gets up and heads to leave]
BEN: Where are you going?
LOCKE: Hell, Ben, if you don't wanna take me, maybe someone else will. I'll just go and ask Richard...
BEN: Why would Richard take you? He doesn't know where Jacob is. He doesn't talk to Jacob...
LOCKE: Well, who talks to him?
BEN: I do.
LOCKE: So you're the only one who talks to him?
BEN: That's right!
LOCKE: And no one else knows where he is?
BEN: I was born here on this Island. I'm one of the last that was. Most of these people you see—I brought them here. So Jacob talks to me, John. He tells me what to do, trusts me.
LOCKE: And no one else has ever seen him?
BEN: That's right.
LOCKE: How convenient. You know what I think, Ben? I think there is no Jacob. I think your people are idiots if they believe you take orders from someone else. You are the man behind the curtain, the Wizard of Oz. And you're a liar.
And of course he is a liar. He wasn't born on the island. Is he also lying about being the only one who can see and talk to Jacob? And about how Richard can't do either of those things? Is he maybe even lying about being able to see and hear Jacob himself? Is that why he is so shocked when it turns out Locke does see and hear something in Jacob's cabin?
Alpert looks shocked when Ben says he's taking Locke to Jacob. Mikhail states that it's a bad idea. Why is Alpert so shocked? If he thinks Locke is special, why would it be a bad idea to take him to Jacob?
In a Ben flashback we get to see how he is recruited in a fashion by Alpert. Ben has seen his dead mother appear outside his window and tries to find her again. He heads off into the jungle, outside the sonic fence:
BEN: Mom..? Mom? Mom! Mom! Mom!
[Ben hears the whispers, and then turns to see a long-haired Richard Alpert standing behind him]
RICHARD: Whoa whoa whoa whoa. Whoa. Whoa, hey, hey, whoa, I didn't mean to scare you. Wait, wait! Are you lost? Wait!
BEN: Are you one of them?
RICHARD: One of who?
BEN: A hostile.
RICHARD: Do you even know what that word means? What's your name?
RICHARD: Ben? So you wanna tell me what you're doing in the middle of the jungle all by yourself?
BEN: I left home, and...I'm looking for my Mom.
RICHARD: You think she's out here?
BEN: You wouldn't believe me.
RICHARD: Try me.
BEN: She's dead.
RICHARD: Did she die here, on the Island?
BEN: No. When I was a baby.
RICHARD: Did you see her, out here, Ben, in the jungle?
BEN: She talked to me.
RICHARD: What did she say?
BEN: That I couldn't come with her. She said it wasn't time yet.
RICHARD: You should go home now, your people will be looking for you.
BEN: I don't want to go back there! I hate it there! Take me with you.
RICHARD: Maybe that can happen, maybe. But if that's what you really want, Ben, if that's what you want, I want you to really think about that. And you're gonna have to be very, very patient.
Alpert's questions are interesting. He doesn't question the fact that Ben has seen his dead mother, but he wants to know specifics: did she die on the island? did Ben see her in the jungle? Why are those things important? Do the answers mean that Alpert is fishing for information about whether Ben is "special"? Seeing dead people who died on the island is somehow different than seeing dead people who died elsewhere... Things that make you go hmmm.
Greatest Hits & Through The Looking Glass
In these two episodes, Alpert doesn't really do much except take orders from Ben who doesn't tell him that he shot Locke after they went to see Jacob.
And from Through The Looking Glass:
RICHARD: Ben, what's going on?
BEN: Where's Ryan?
RICHARD: He's at his tent, are you....
BEN: It's time to get them.
RICHARD: [Mumbles] But you said tomorrow.
BEN: Jacob wants it to happen now.
RICHARD: Look, what happened out there--did John see...BEN: John had an accident.
RICHARD: We're going to the radio tower?
BEN: Not we, Richard, me. You're going to take everyone to the temple as planned.
RICHARD: Now might not be the best time to go tromping off on your own.
BEN: Oh really and why not?
RICHARD: Because people are asking questions, Ben. About leaving home, about what happened to Locke, about Jacob. Not to mention the rapidly spreading rumour that everyone that went down to the beach is dead.
People are asking questions about Jacob? What would they be asking? If he exists at all? What does Richard know about Jacob?
Well, this episode is fresh in everyone's memory. Alpert is there when Locke is in his incubator as a newborn. A nurse asks if it's the father but Locke's grandmother says she doesn't know the man. Then Alpert shows up doing his Panchen Lama thing with little Locke, admiring his smoke monster drawing and then becoming upset when Locke picks the knife. (What should he have picked? The book of laws?)
RICHARD: Okay, now tell me, John, which of these things belong to you?
JOHN: To--to keep?
RICHARD: No, no, John. Which of these things belong to you already?
(John takes a vial of some kind of substance, a compass and after a pause, a knife.)
RICHARD: Are you sure the knife belongs to you, John?
RICAHRD: You sure about that?
RICHARD: Well, it doesn't.
(Richard snatches the knife away)
WOMAN: How did he do?
RICHARD: I'm afraid John isn't quite ready for our school. I'm sorry I've wasted your time.
So did Locke fail or is it just that Alpert doesn't want him to know that he passed? And is the whole thing time-travelly or was Alpert legitimately there in the 1950s? Inquiring minds want to know! ASAP.
There's No Place Like Home
In this episode we see Alpert take Kate and Sayid prisoner in the jungle, then apparently make a deal with them: if they help The Others save Ben from Keamy, then Kate and Sayid will be able to go free and leave the island. This mirrors the deal that was made with Michael when he went to free Ben to get Walt back. Ben seems unsure of his standing with Richard when he sees him again, but he doesn't question the deal (maybe because he knows that if people have "work to do" on the island, the island will make damn sure they come back?).
BEN: Thank you for coming, Richard.
RICHARD: My pleasure.
(Ben reaches his bound hands toward Kate, who has picked up Keamy's knife that Sayid dropped in the fight.)
BEN: Could you cut me free, Kate?
(Kate cuts the plastic bindings off of Ben's hands.)
BEN: What was the arrangement?
RICHARD: They, uh, help us free you, and we let 'em off the island.
BEN: Fair enough. The helicopter is yours. You and Sayid have a safe journey back.
KATE: So we can go? Off the island? That's it?
BEN: That's it.
Why did Alpert recruit Kate and Sayid? By what we've seen The Others do, they could have freed Ben themselves... And Richard does end up shooting Keamy when he tries to kill Sayid. Alpert seems interested in freeing Ben, but not that worried about him... which is a bit weird I guess. And then, Alpert's last line in S4:
RICHARD: Hello, John. Welcome home.Alpert saying Locke belongs on the island. Even though we know that Locke eventually ends up dead OFF the island. And that "bad things" happened after the O6 left. How many times has Richard experienced the island moving I wonder? Is he ancient? Is he from the future? All I know is this: S5 or S6 better have a juicy Alpert flashback.
All screencaps thanks to Lostpedia.