Almost halfway through its third season, Lost has established such an ironclad and unvarying format that even the most casual viewer can probably anticipate its movements with ease. Each week we shift point-of-view to a character at the center of the episode’s storyline, cutting between the present and a self-contained incident from his or her past. These expository digressions usually have prescient themes and pertinent parallels, with the episode’s running time equitably split between “off the island” and “on.”
There have been slight variations on this design: at times multiple characters have shared flashbacks equally in the hour, and in one famous episode, we witnessed 48 days from the vantage point of the island. But one aspect of the show’s flashbacks has remained consistent throughout: the reliability of the narrators. As hallucinatory and bizarre as life has gotten on the island, the depictions of our castaways’ lives pre-crash have never given us reason to question the source. Whether it’s Kate (Evangeline Lily) outrunning the law on multiple continents, Jack (Matthew Fox) performing miracles on the operating table or Claire’s (Emile de Ravin) psychic prophecies, Lost has always presented its fantastic back stories in a straightforward manner grounded in its own heightened reality. Even Hurley’s schizophrenic experiences in the mental institution possessed a lucidity that seemed at least plausible.
Yet Wednesday’s episode “Flashes Before Your Eyes” found the series playing around with form in provocative ways that not only required us to closely scrutinize what we were seeing, but forced the characters to do the same.
“Flashes Before Your Eyes” explores Desmond’s (Henry Ian Cusack) newfound clairvoyance, revealing itself yet again when (ironically enough) he pulls Claire out of the sea, requiring her second rescue of the past few episodes. After taking Hurley (Jorge Garcia) and Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) a mile away from camp to confer with Sayid (Naveen Andrews) and Locke (Terry O’Quinn), Desmond sprints through the jungle, dives into the ocean and pulls a water-logged Claire to safety. Arriving after the fact, a visibly concerned (but also kind of clingy and annoying) Charlie continuously offers his help as Desmond successfully revives Claire.
Twisted by insecurity, and likely fearful of losing Claire to another former inhabitant of the British Isles, Charlie sets out to learn Desmond’s secret with the help of Hurley and a very expensive bottle of whiskey. Desmond demurs all questions about what is now his second intervention on Claire’s behalf, attributing the unlikely chain of events to superior hearing. Perhaps weary of Charlie and his incessant questioning, Desmond initially declines the bottle brought by Charlie and Hurley, only to change his mind once he learns of the rare brand’s name. Once they’re all sufficiently drunk, Charlie again poses the question of Desmond’s ability to, as Hurley puts it, “see into the future,” but Desmond will have none of it and politely excuses himself from the evening. Charlie continues to goad him, though, drunkenly yelling after him and calling him a coward. Incensed, Desmond tackles Charlie, choking him and screaming, “You don’t want to know what happened to me when I turned the key!”—alluding to the explosive events at the end of Season Two.
Of course, we do see what happened when Desmond blew up the hatch. Or at least, what he thinks happened. Blown sky high by the detonation, Desmond awakens in a strange place: the U.K. in the late 90’s. Sprawled out on the floor of his flat and covered in ominous red paint (the after-effects of slipping on a ladder while painting the ceiling), Desmond seemingly is aware that he’s in one of his own flashbacks. Like Dorothy returning from the land Oz, Desmond is unable to reconcile his vivid memories of his time on the island with the fact that he seems to be reliving the heartbreaking days leading up to the dissolution of his relationship with his beloved Penny (Sonya Walger).
As he walks through the familiar paces of a time when he was just an unemployed stage-hand with a devoted woman at his side, Desmond becomes convinced that he can alter his fate; if he marries Penny, as he’d once planned and failed to do, than he can spend his life with her instead of years pressing a series of numbers on a mysterious island halfway around the world. Desperate to convince those around him (including a young Charlie, making a living as a street corner musician) that he has somehow traveled back in time, Desmond is met with understandable skepticism. After all, even his attempts to predict the outcome of a soccer match reveals holes in his theory.
Time travel has been a sub-theme of Lost since the show’s beginning, with seeming incongruities in the island’s mythology (such as the existence of the 19th century slaving ship in the middle of the jungle as well the giant four-toed foot that appears to have been swiped from ancient Greece) possibly explained by a bending of time and space. As recently as last week there was the anagram Mittelos (“lost time”) and a character reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. There is, however, a simpler explanation for the strange temporal quarry Desmond has found himself in—one even he begins to suspect.
While searching out an engagement ring for Penny, Desmond “returns” to a quaint jeweler where the kindly Ms. Hawking (Fionnula Flanagan) helps him pick out the perfect ring for a man of limited means. Yet when he expresses his desire to purchase the ring, she recoils, informing him that he’s not supposed to propose to Penny. His destiny, she reminds him, is to break Penny’s heart and push the buttons or the world will end. Poor Flanagan: she spends most of the episode stuck in the lecturing, Morpheus-like role, revisiting the show’s theories about fate versus free-will and the futility of trying to change the future as the universe “course-corrects.” Desmond accuses Ms. Hawking of being a manifestation of his subconscious—an astute observation, but not in the way I suspect he intended. Ms. Hawking may in fact be a figment of his imagination, but not one that simply externalizes his fears about marrying Penny. Rather, I see the whole flashback (which occupies roughly 80% of the episode) as a Jacob’s Ladder-like alternate reality, conceived of by Desmond as he lay concussed in the wake of the Swan’s meltdown.
Earlier in the episode we see Desmond belittled by Penny’s wealthy industrialist father Charles Widmore (Alan Dale). Widmore makes a show of consuming a rare vintage of scotch to illustrate how Desmond will never be an important man, and certainly never worthy of his daughter. Despite Penny’s unwavering encouragement, Desmond will never overcome the seed of self-doubt that Penny’s father planted; it’s what drives him to join the military and sends him on the voyage around the world that ultimately deposits him on the island. In the past he was a man of no consequence, yet through an unforeseen series of events, he’s ended up singlehandedly saving the world for three straight years.
The appearance of Ms. Hawking assuages Desmond’s guilt for poor past decisions by validating his self-fulfilling prophecy. He believes that if he didn’t go to the island (or—flashback-present-tense—if he chose not to duplicate the course of action that led him to the island) than Penny would die along with the rest of humanity.
On the island, Desmond has clung to the belief that his life, and the time spent away from Penny, has served an important purpose. It’s all that his kept him alive, and should his faith waver in this regard, he’s not sure he could bear it. In his dream, Penny also referred to him as a “coward.” No doubt hearing the insult from Charlie forced him to once again explore the choices he’d made.
To invoke a certain rotund mobster on another network, this episode served as a “test dream,” forcing Desmond to explore the allusive uncharted territories of his subsconsious, to answer questions he does not yet know how to ask. The episode is chock full of the sort of visual and auditory echoing that manifests itself in dreams. From a Mama Cass song playing in the pub (Cass was also playing when we first met Desmond back in “Man of Science, Man of Faith”) to the utterance of familiar numbers by a courier to the beeping of the microwave (unmistakably the same sound cue as the Hatch’s countdown beep) “Flashes Before Your Eyes” bleeds Desmond’s two “realities” together till it becomes hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
Contorting himself in the present to repeatedly save one of the castaways on the island from an untimely death, Desmond transposes his grim philosophy on pre-determination and “course correcting” to sentence a character to death. Desmond is convinced that no matter what he does, this particular person is going to die. That the doomed character is revealed to be Charlie and not Claire is, however, somewhat of a relief. As I wrote last week, this show really has it in for attractive young women (albiet one who, in this case, is personality-free). The thought of killing-off a fourth character in that demo in less than two years would have validated claims that Lost has a misogynist streak.
On the other hand, Charlie has become nearly insufferable of late, coming across as needy and co-dependent more often than not. After Charlie was ostracized from the rest of the survivors and was revealed to have accosted Sun in order to provoke a war, I harbored hopes that he might “turn to the dark side”—perhaps running off to join the Dharma people. But these days he’s mostly caring for baby Aaron and puffing out his feathers for Claire’s benefit. I don’t know what the future holds for Charlie or whether there’s any basis to Desmond’s prophecy. I just hope he has time to redeem himself and interject a little drama into the show before he makes a good-looking corpse.