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March 3, 2008 |

By Daniel Carlson | Lost Recaps | March 3, 2008 |

“One end of this string represents your birth; the other end, your death. You tie the ends together and your life is a loop. Ball the loop and the days of your life touch each other out of sequence. Therefore, leaping from one point in the string to another—”
“Would move you back and forth within your own lifetime.”

I received another frantic text message from a friend in another time zone on the night of “The Constant,” the fifth episode of the fourth season of “Lost.” It’s not that I’m internationally renowned; it’s just that the typical postcollegiate diaspora has spread my friends far and wide. She wrote: “Lost is so great/crazy. Seriously it’s going to f with your mind this week. Also I cry at Lost almost as much as Friday Night Lights. … Seriously I’m in love with this show.” It’s a special kind of irony that a friend of mine living two or three hours in the future will often alert me to the pleasures of an episode of a show that deals fundamentally with time shifting, and which this week takes its greatest and most daring detour yet into that greatest of genre standbys, time travel. “The Constant” was a flat-out fantastic episode, and like the best of “Lost,” it managed to deepen the mythology of the series, enhance the characters’ relationships, and function as en exciting, prime example of engaging storytelling. There were no flashforwards or flashbacks per se in the episode, because Desmond wound up jumping back and forth in time himself. It’s a wonderful way to use the series’ sawhorse of shifting time periods and making it fresh by keeping Desmond’s consciousness intact between the jumps, which in turns pulls the viewer further into the show and makes them an participant with an even more active than usual stake in the story’s outcome. But in short: It’s just a damn good episode.

The episode opens without a “previously on” recap, which is rare and maybe unprecedented for the series. (Somebody look that up for me.) Desmond and Sayid are flying with Frank on the chopper on their way to the freighter. Desmond is staring at his Penny photo and looking pensive, while Sayid looks like he’s planning for possible hostage situations upon arrival. Sayid notices that Frank is navigating by use of a cheat sheet Daniel gave him, which is just a small scrap from a yellow legal pad with a crude sketch of their vector. Sayid, understandably concerned about Frank’s techniques, asks him about the paper, but Frank tells him to can it, and reiterates this when Sayid points out that they’re headed for a large thunderhead. Frank does his best to stay on the course Daniel laid out for him at the end of “The Economist,” but he winds up veering off the path for a bit. Desmond grabs his seat to steady himself and bam — he’s on his back in a barracks with the Scottish army, and the sergeant is bellowing at him to get out of his rack and join his fellow soldiers. The sergeant asks what’s up, and Desmond responds he was having a weird dream about being in a helicopter in a storm. Henry Ian Cusick, who plays Desmond, is perfect in the transition, using his eyes to transmit the confusion and disbelief Demond’s feeling, making it clear that (a) even if he hadn’t spoken, this is obviously the same Desmond from the chopper, and (b) something’s happened in his mind to reset his memories, making the past the present and the present just a dream of the future. And all this happens in maybe seven seconds. Outside, the sergeant has the men do push-ups and crunches in the rain, at which point Desmond flashes back to the chopper. In a panic, he tries to escape, and when Sayid attempts to calm him, Desmond wheels on him and yells, “Who are you? How do you know my name?

Back on Hell Island, Jack and Juliet are getting impatient with Daniel and Charlotte. Charlotte repeats that she doesn’t know anything, but Juliet totally calls her out for not being worried, which is curious. Daniel cracks and tells Jack and Juliet what we already know, which is that the perception of time for people on the island is “not necessarily” accurate. Daniel says that the chopper crew is probably fine, unless Frank strayed from the path Daniel laid out, in which case “there might be side effects.” Out on the chopper, these effects are making themselves known: Desmond still doesn’t know where he is, or why. They land on board the freighter, called the Kahana, and are met by two thuggish-looking guys who turn out to be named Keamy (really?) and Omar. Keamy’s pissed that Frank brought some of the Flight 815 survivors back to the boat, but his concerns get back-burnered when Desmond starts to freak out again. Keamy tells Sayid they’re gonna escort Desmond down to sickbay, and he makes Sayid stay up on the deck. Sayid, luscious man locks blown by the ocean breeze, reluctantly agrees. Desmond shouts, “I’m not supposed to be here!” But in the middle of his declaration, he jumps again to the rain-soaked Scottish regiment, finishing his sentence while his sergeant shouts at him. Again, the episode is smart in the way it both enforces the cut from one time period to another — the ambient noise of the ship and even the nondiegetic music stops abruptly — while maintaining the continuity of Desmond’s character — he starts speaking in one time and finishes in another, and the tracking shot that was revolving around him on the boat continues its path in the rainy field, making for a transition that’s smooth and jarring all at once.

Desmond discusses what’s going on with his friend Billy, and he maintains that what’s been going on was more real than just a dream. Desmond remembers having a photo of Penny on the boat, and he goes to call her at a pay phone, but before he gets there, he jumps back to the boat. The opening credits aren’t even done yet, and already the episode has exploded any expectations about structure or method. Keamy and Omar escort Desmond down to the sickbay, which is just a couple of cots in a room that will never be hygienic enough for medicinal purposes. They shut the door and run, and Desmond turns to see a man — Fisher Stevens, who’s been doing all the talking on the sat phone with the castaways — strapped down in a bed across the room. The man raises his head and says, “It’s been happening to you, too, hasn’t it?” This is pretty much the last thing you ever want to hear from a man who’s been handcuffed to a bed.

Back up on the deck, Sayid is scoping out the digs and coming to the silent conclusion that the freighter is not a place he wants to spend a lot of time. Frank stonewalls him on info, especially when Sayid brings up his concern that they took off from the island at sunset and landed at noon. Sayid gets the sat phone in exchange for his pistol, and finally calls Jack, who’s been very worried. Jack puts him on speaker, and Sayid relates to the listening group that Desmond is wigging out, which makes Daniel bow his head in total guilt and understanding. Daniel asks if Desmond has been exposed to high levels of radiation or electromagnetism, which stumps Jack and Juliet, but makes me pretty sure that the giant purple explosion from a couple seasons ago was as unhealthy as it looked. Daniel says that people can get “confused” traveling to and from the island, and he states that it’s not amnesia.

Down in the sickbay, Fisher wakes up and starts rambling again. A doctor, Ray, comes in and promptly injects him with some kind of sedative to put him under before turning and inspecting Desmond. He flashes a light in Desmond’s eyes, which seemingly triggers another jump: While the doctor is speaking, Desmond is suddenly back in the rainy past, picking up his change on the ground outside the phone booth. He steps inside and calls Penny, who’s not in the mood to talk to her ex, especially after he’s dumped her and now calls up acting like he’s confused by his involuntary time travel. He asks to come and see her, but she refuses, and before he can get much further, he jumps back to the ship, finishing his sentence while talking to the doc. Sayid and Frank barge in with the sat phone, saying that Daniel needs to talk to Desmond. The doctor hits the alarm as Desmond takes the phone and listens to Daniel begin to explain the wacky world of temporal fluxes. Daniel asks Desmond what year he thinks it is, to which Desmond responds, “What do you mean, what year do I think it is? It’s 1996!” Jack and Juliet look concerned, but Daniel takes this with disturbing grace. Desmond tells Daniel he’s supposed to be in Scotland, and Daniel tells Desmond that the next time he goes, he needs to get on a train and go to Oxford University to meet Daniel and tell him to “set the device to 2.342 … and it must be oscillating at 11 Hz.” Daniel tells Desmond to say that he knows about Eloise, whoever that is, as a shibboleth when he gets to Oxford. Keamy and Omar break in to stop the call, but Desmond jumps before they reach him.

He awakes to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that are not his own sitting in the phone booth he’d used to call Penny. He looks immediately at his hand, where he’d written the numbers Daniel gave him to remember, and they’re not there. This is important because it establishes what Daniel will explain in a few minutes anyway. (“Lost” is nothing if not devoted to its periodic habit of showing something and then explaining it in great detail as if the showing had never happened.) Anyway, the missing ink — coupled with the earlier sight of Fisher slipping in and out of a coma — affirms that Desmond’s consciousness, and not his body, is what’s making the leap from one time period to another; he can’t change his appearance or take anything with him beyond what’s in his head. He stands up and a few seconds later is striding across the lawn at Oxford, which is admittedly one of the episode’s concessions to the suspension of disbelief; Desmond (literally) doesn’t have the time to wonder what’s going on, and he needs to meet up with Daniel anyway, so he goes. He finds an even more Dahmerish version of Daniel and tells him about his time traveling issues. Daniel thinks it’s a set-up from colleagues, and his brush-off is a nice meta-nod to the episode as a whole: “Don’t you think my esteemed colleagues could have come up with something a little more original? What kind of prank is that? A time paradox.” He shuffles away, but Desmond mentions the numbers and that he knows about the flux capacitorEloise, which totally works.

They head off to Daniel’s office to try and fix things. Daniel asks if his future self remembered their 1996 meeting, and Desmond says no. Desmond asks if what they’re doing is changing the future, to which Daniel responds, “You can’t change the future.” He puts on a lead apron to safeguard against radiation and plucks a rat named Eloise from its cage and places it at the beginning of a large maze on his table. He fires up a machine hanging overhead and enters the numbers Desmond gave him, then blasts Eloise with a ray of pink radiation designed to “unstick (her) in time,” which made me regret using up all my Tralfamadorian references a couple recaps ago. Eloise looks dazed, and Daniel says, “She’s not back yet,” but she eventually comes to. Daniel opens the door to the maze and lets Eloise out, and she runs the thing flawlessly in just a few seconds. “It worked!” he yells, but Desmond doesn’t see the point. Daniel replies that he’s not going to teach Eloise how to run the maze for another hour, thus (apparently) confirming her jump forward in time and safe return. Of course, let’s hope Daniel remembers to actually teach her the course in the future so she can run it in the past. Daniel starts to explain to Desmond the whole only-your-consciousness-is-jumping thing, but Desmond starts getting testy and wants to know how this will help him. Daniel asks why he came back and came to Oxford, but Desmond says he doesn’t know, and adds that in the future Daniel is on an island. Daniel asks why he’d ever go to an island when Desmond jumps back to the ship, where the alarm is still going off.

Desmond and Sayid get locked in the sickbay, and Desmond grabs the doctor’s penlight and starts flashing it in his eyes, trying to self-induce another jump. At the mention of Desmond’s name, the man on the bed picks up his head and identifies himself as George Minkowski, the communications officer. Minkowski says that before he went Section 8 and got strapped to the bed, he was responsible for all calls to and from the ship, and he reveals that he occasionally received calls from Desmond’s ex, Penelope Widmore, but he was under orders never to answer them. So Penny knew about the boat somehow? She told Charlie she didn’t, and he even died communicating that message. So why was she calling them?

Desmond’s next jump happens during the commercial break: He wakes up back in Daniel’s Oxford office, where Daniel is working the chalkboard like a madman trying to figure everything out. Desmond says he was in the future again for maybe five minutes, and Daniel said he was out cold for 75. Daniel says that Desmond’s jumps are exponential, meaning it’s going to be harder for his consciousness to keep making the leaps. Desmond notices that Eloise is dead now, and Daniel shrugs it off and says it was probably a brain aneurysm. Daniel’s pretty cavalier about the whole life/death thing, but then again, he’s also pretty cozy with the idea of time travel, so maybe it’s just tough to shake him. Daniel hypothesizes that Eloise’s brain “short-circuited” because her consciousness lost the ability to distinguish which time period was its home. He says she needed an anchor, a constant, a familiar object or presence in both time periods that could hold her steady. Daniel says Desmond has no constant, and until he gets one, he won’t be able to control the jumps or settle down. Desmond figures out that the only thing similar in both eras is Penny, but when he tries to call her, he gets a message that her number is disconnected. He takes off down the stairwell in the hall, presumably to find her, but he passes out against the wall and jumps back to the ship.

Back in the present/future, Desmond tells Sayid that he needs to call Penny so that he can have a constant for his past/present. Minkowski, who’s now bleeding from the nose and looking awfully close to a messy end, tells Desmond and Sayid that somebody destroyed the radio equipment two days earlier, severing all ties with the mainland. “I probably could have fixed it,” Minkowski says, “but then I went nuts.” At least he’s forthcoming. Sayid and Desmond start to free Minkowski, but Sayid wonders how they’re going to get out and make their way to the busted communications room. Minkowski points to the door, which is now open a few inches, saying, “It looks like you guys have a friend on this boat.” Is this Ben’s inside man, or just another guy who wants to see Sayid and Desmond break out?

The three are about to leave when Desmond jumps back to the Oxford stairwell, and it’s another wonderfully jarring moment; Sayid is cut off in mid-sentence, and Michael Giacchino’s score halts in mid-swell. After four seasons of flashbacks or flashforwards that announce themselves with that growing roar of a rising tide, it’s nice to see the series getting more creative and immediate with the transitions, if only for an episode. Desmond staggers to his feet and gets moving, but then there’s another cut that’s just as beautifully stunning. It’s a painting of a ship, the Black Rock, and an auctioneer is describing its history to a room of swanky-looking people who are eagerly eyeing the glass case that contains Lot #2342, a journal of the Black Rock’s first mate. The ship supposedly set sail on March 22, 1845, but was lost at sea, and the journal was discovered seven years later on an island near Madagascar. And as if the further use of the magic numbers and the left-field craziness of the Black Rock wasn’t enough to turn your crank, the seller is none other than Tovard Hanso, who we can pretty reasonably assume is tied to the Hanso Foundation, which financed the Dharma Initiative. Just … what the hell. Start cooking up your theories.

Anyway, Desmond shows up at the auction just as the journal is bought by bidder 755, who turns out to be Penny’s father, Charles. (For the really detail-oriented kids out there, 75/5 is the apparent ratio from Desmond’s recent jump of time in 1996 comatose — 75 minutes — versus time on the ship — 5 minutes. There’s nothing the interwebs can’t teach us.) Charles and Desmond go to the bathroom to talk, as men apparently do in England, and Desmond pleads for a way to get in touch with Penny. Charles decides to make things tougher for Desmond and gives him Penny’s address but not her number, and he leaves without turning off the faucet in the sink, which seems like nothing more than a gimmick trigger Desmond’s next jump back to the ship. Sure enough, as soon as Desmond turns the knob, he’s back in the grimy sickbay.

As Sayid and Desmond make their way down the hall with Minkowski, the injured man uses his waning energy on some helpful exposition. He tells Desmond that the jumps will come quicker now and will be harder to make. Minkowski relates how he and another crewmember, Brandon, were bored out their minds while the ship was anchored off the island, so they decided to set off for shore in a small boat. “We just wanted to see the island,” he says, “but Brandon started acting crazy, so we had to turn around.” Brandon died not long after. They make it to the radio room, at which point Minkowski passes out for his last jump. Sayid asks Desmond for Penny’s number, but he doesn’t remember it because he hasn’t learned it yet. Desmond sees a wall calendar and realizes it’s 2004, and Sayid says that it’s almost Christmas. Minkowski suddenly has a fit and eventually gurgles, “I can’t get back,” before dying in Desmond’s arms. I feel a little bad for Fisher Stevens; guy gets hired for voice work and acts in one episode, then he’s murdered by the space-time continuum.

Another commercial break, another journey through time: Desmond wakes up on the floor of the bathroom at the auction house, with the water still running. He makes his way to Penny’s house, banging on the door until she opens up. Penny tells him to leave because she’s been trying to make a clean break, but Desmond won’t be ignored. She eventually lets him in, at which point he does his best to explain that he needs her phone number so he can call her in eight years — December 24, 2004. “If there’s any part of you that believes in us” you’ll give me the number, he tells her. Penny, on the verge of tears and deeply confused, gives Desmond the number and kicks him out. Desmond then pounds on her door and says that he’s not crazy, which has got to be in some book of things an ex shouldn’t do, but he jumps back to the ship before it’s a problem.

When he comes to, Desmond gives the number to Sayid, who’s rigged a temporary fix on the ship’s phone with the kind of blanket skills he has whenever the writers need him to repair something techy. The phone starts to dial, the piano kicks in, and damn if I don’t bite down hard on the emotional homecoming the show’s been selling for the entire episode, and in fact since Desmond was introduced. Penny picks up, and they finally talk after eight years. “You answered, Penny.” They both start crying as Desmond explains that he’s been on a boat, and on an island, signaling the return of his memory and his realignment in time. “You believed me. You still care about me,” he says. “I’ve been looking for you for the past three years. I know about the island,” she tells him. The signal goes in and out, but she mentions Charlie before the static gets even worse. The panic in Desmond’s eyes as he almost loses the call, and the relief when it lasts for just a few more seconds, is one of the series’ most resonant moments. There’s an almost casual power in the quick cutting and overlapping professions of love during the final moments of their conversation, and the entire sequence is a sweet catharsis.

Desmond thanks Sayid by name, and is pretty much back to normal. “I’m perfect,” he says. Back on Hell Island, Daniel is flipping through the notebook from which he’d culled the data to have Desmond feed his past self. He’s looking at the pages with a touch of bewilderment, as if he might not remember writing all of it. He eventually comes to a page where he reads the words: “If anything goes wrong, Desmond Hume will be my constant.” But that’s only half the kicker: The other is the look on Daniel’s face, the one that seems to say, “Oh, of course. How could I have forgotten?” Daniel clearly has memory problems: Charlotte was testing him a couple episodes ago with a deck of cards, seeing which ones he could remember, so maybe his radiation exposure and trip to the island have loosened his grip on the timestream, which would be why he didn’t remember meting Desmond. But really, pondering it too long is making my brain into a pretzel, so I’d be more than happy to hear theories. In the end, though, “The Constant” was a prime example of what can happen when “Lost” is on its game. If the rest of the show plays out with as much attention to storytelling as this season has, we’ve got nothing to worry about.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

Try to See It My Way, Only Time Will Tell If I Am Right or I Am Wrong

"Lost: The Constant" (S4/E5) Recap / Daniel Carlson

Lost Recaps | March 3, 2008 |

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