“The Variable,” written by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz and directed by Paul Edwards, is a pretty solid episode of “Lost,” and a worthy enough installment to mark the series’ 100th hour. True to form, it picked up right where the previous episode ended and kept its action tightly focused, covering just a few hours at best. The only real issue is that it seems like the series, or it least the character most committed to the idea that events are governed by fate, might be getting wishy-washy on its determinism. The episode’s title is a nice callback to last season’s “The Constant,” but the point here is, as Daniel Faraday says, that things can maybe change. Faraday says at one point that he’d been so hung up on the constants that he forgot about the variables, i.e., the free-thinking human components of time’s destined march, but that’s the same argument Jack et al. were making earlier. Faraday hasn’t learned anything new per se, he’s just switched sides, and not very convincingly. He doesn’t supply any evidence to show that things can change, even though (a) that would seem pretty necessary to pull such an existential Crazy Ivan, not to mention (b) we know that Desmond Hume himself seems impervious to/above such restrictions as fate or free will, since Faraday was able to roust Desmond from the hatch and alert his future self to Faraday’s plight back when the island was still skipping randomly through time. Why not just point to that, or work from there?
But at least Hurley didn’t talk as much.
The episode opens right after Desmond got shot by Ben, and he’s being wheeled on a gurney through the hospital as Penny and little Charlie run next to him. He’s taken away for surgery, so Penny and the boy wait in the lobby. (There’s a TV show playing on the set bolted to the wall, and I can’t make out what it is, though part of me hopes it’s the latest episode of “Exposé.”) Eloise Hawking shows up and introduces herself to Penny, saying she’s the mother of Daniel Faraday and that it’s hear fault Desmond was shot. It’s good for these characters to meet, though the series as always makes a big deal out of something that’s a revelation for a character and not the viewer. There’s no need to play up the moment when Eloise says she’s Faraday’s mother; this has been known for a while and suspected for even longer.
Back in 1977, Daniel gets off the sub and sees Miles, who’s surprised the scientist decided to come back from Ann Arbor. Daniel whips out a copy of the latest DHARMA recruitment photo and points out Jack, Kate, and Hurley and says, “This is what I’m doing back here.” Miles says they arrived a few days earlier, but Daniel cuts him off and asks to go to Jack’s place right away. Moments later, they’re knocking on Jack’s door as Jack shuffles down the hallway in his boxers, pulling on a shirt. As soon as he opens the door, Daniel strolls in and starts asking him over and over again how Jack got back to the island. Jack eventually shakes off sleep enough to say that they’d been on a plane, and when pressed he admits that it was Eloise who told them to take the plane in the first place. Daniel sighs and says, “And how did she convince you, Jack? Did she tell you it was your destiny?” Jack, taken aback and looking a little put out that his special nature is being called into question, says that’s exactly what happened. Daniel shakes his head and says he’s got some bad news: “You don’t belong here at all. She was wrong.”
First flashback: Young Daniel is sitting at a piano, practicing his Chopin, when his mother comes in, her eyes still wet from crying over something. She knows what she has to do, and the sentence she has to carry out on her son, and it won’t be easy. She sits next to him and launches into a conversation about the meaning of destiny. Eloise tells her young son that people with special gifts need to be nurtured; to prove her point, she stops the metronome that’s been keeping time as Daniel plays and asks him how many beats it’s counted during his practice. He calmly answers 864 like it’s nothing. Mom tells him that he’s got a brain built for science and math, and that it’s her “job” to keep him on the “right path,” which means the piano is out. The boy — in the unfortunately awkward rhythm of a child actor hired for his skill with music instead of line readings — says that he can do both. “I can make time,” he says. Eloise, not one to pass up a chance to play on ominous double meanings, simply says, “If only you could.” And she closes the cover on the keys.
Back in 1977, Daniel and Miles leave Jack’s place for the Orchid, even as Jack hurries out the door after them to try and get Daniel to expound on his whole thing about Jack’s not needing to be on the island. But Daniel and Miles are driving off in the jeep, so Daniel shouts that he’s got an errand to run and can explain later. Moments later, Jack heads to Sawyer’s and fills him in on what’s going down, but Sawyer says he’s busy and can’t really talk about it. Jack, understandably, wants to know what Sawyer is busy with at 6 in the morning, but Juliet tells Sawyer to just invite Jack in and tell him the truth. So he does. Sawyer tells Jack that one of his security guards, Phil, has a tape of Sawyer and Kate taking Baby Ben out to the Hostiles, and that though the tape is still with Phil, Phil’s close at hand. Sawyer opens the hall closet to reveal Phil — bound, gagged, and looking plenty pissed — before making cursory introductions. Jack just shakes his head, digesting what’s becoming a pretty crazy morning, even for him.
Out at the Orchid, Daniel and Miles are sitting in the jeep watching the construction crew when Dr. Chang pulls up in a blue van. “Right on time,” Daniel says, even apparently checking his watch. (How accurate are his notes about the past?) Daniel leaves Miles in the jeep and, journal in hand, heads into the station. He flips through his book’s pages as he descends on the elevator into the underground construction area, glancing over pages of equations. He gets off the lift to hear Chang scolding the construction foreman about the dangers of continuing to drill near the hidden pocket of time-controlling energy — the lecture Chang delivers in the opening sequence of “Because You Left,” the season premiere. Daniel grabs a hard hat and canister and heads toward the wall, bumping into Chang and chatting with Tony the foreman, then runs right back the way he came to catch up with Chang. He reintroduces himself, saying he just came in on the sub but originally came to the island three years ago with LaFleur. Daniel tells Chang that the doctor needs to order the evacuation of the island because the electromagnetic activity “unleashed” by the drilling is going to be a problem. Chang says the energy is contained, which is true, but Daniel tells him that in six hours, a similar explosion of energy is going to happen at the Swan station — the good ol’ hatch — and that one will be 30,000 times greater than what just happened. Daniel calls it “catastrophic,” which seems to be putting it mildly. By this point, Chang and Daniel are riding the elevator back to the surface, and Chang scoffs at Daniel’s warning and asks how he’s qualified to make such a prediction. Taking a breath, Daniel opts for the truth, ridiculous as it sounds: “I’m from the future.”
Next thing you know, Daniel is chasing Chang toward the van and trying to explain himself, showing him pages of advanced equations in his journal, and Miles comes over to see what’s what and break things up before they get out of hand. But Daniel presses on and says, “Dr. Chang, Miles is your son.” He tells Chang it makes sense: They’re both Chinese, and a guy with Chang’s baby’s name shows up at the same time Daniel does, so it can’t be a coincidence. (Or it totally could, since Daniel’s not doing a bang-up job selling himself, but whatever.) Chang, starting to have his doubts, asks Miles if it’s true, but Miles denies it, and Chang hops in the van and drives off. Miles asks what the hell Daniel’s up to, and he replies, “I’m just making sure your father does what he’s supposed to do.”
Second flashaback: It’s Daniel’s graduation from Oxford, and he’s sporting some truly epic hair as he strolls across the campus and introduces his mother to his girlfriend, Theresa, who will eventually be rendered semi-comatose by Daniel’s pink time-travel ray of doom. Eloise ignores Theresa and tells Daniel she wants to celebrate with lunch at a nice restaurant, and when he says they’d love to, she comes right out and says she just wants it to be the two of them without Theresa. Daniel’s unhappy, but takes it. He and Eloise head to a restaurant that doesn’t look at all nice enough to require its customers to make reservations, and when he complains about the way she treated Theresa, Eloise brushes it off and tells Daniel he won’t have time for relationships because of his work. “The women in your life will only be terribly hurt,” she says, which is this week’s Blatant Foreshadowing. Daniel attacks Eloise for pushing him so hard, asking what else he has to do to impress her after becoming the youngest doctorate to graduate from Oxford and securing a lucrative research grant. He doesn’t personally know his benefactor, saying it’s some “industrialist” named Charles Widmore, a revelation that seems to shock and worry Eloise. She shakes her head and says she came not to fight but to congratulate her son, retrieving a gift and passing it to him before leaving. He opens it to find the leatherbound journal he’ll soon fill with notes and one day take to the island. Inside the cover is an inscription: “No matter what, remember, I will always love you.”
Back on the island, Sawyer is leading a meeting with Jack, Kate, Hurley, Jin, and Juliet to form a plan about what to do next. Sawyer takes charge right away by saying, “Party’s over,” adding that though the Oceanic Six just arrived, he and Juliet have been on the island for three years and have no desire to leave the life they’ve built. Hurley asks if they can’t just tell Phil — the guy who is, you know, bound and gagged in the closet — that the whole thing’s been a misunderstanding. GOOD PLAN HURLEY. Sawyer tells the group that Baby Ben’s absence will be noticed before long, which leaves them with two options: commandeer the sub and bolt, or retreat into the jungle and begin again the long process of trying to live off the land. Jin says he’s not leaving if there’s a chance Sun might still be around somewhere, and Hurley says he doesn’t want to leave after all the work they did to get back there. The meeting is interrupted by a knock at the door, and Sawyer grabs a pistol as he opens it up to see Daniel and Miles. Sawyer softens a bit and delivers the second-funniest line in the episode: “Welcome to the meeting, twitchy. Good to see you again. Pound cake’s in the kitchen. Help yourself to the punch.” As Daniel passes him, Sawyer turns to Miles and quietly asks, “He still crazy?” Miles shrugs and says, “It’s on a whole new level.” This seems like a bit of overkill, since it’s not like Daniel has been running around doing or saying anything weirder than normal, but whatever. In the living room, Daniel apologizes to Jack for being rude earlier but says he’s on a mission of “critical importance” before asking where to find the Hostiles. Sawyer looks uneasy at this, and Juliet wants to know why Daniel needs to find them. Sighing a little, Daniel says that one of them is his mother, and she’s the “only person who can get us back to where we belong.” Daniel does love a good dramatic announcement.
Third flashback: It’s 2004, and Daniel is watching the news footage on TV about the discovered wreckage of Oceanic Flight 815. He’s weeping, but he doesn’t know why. (The first part of the scene is recycled from last season’s “Confirmed Dead,” which is why Jeremy Davies’ hair and makeup don’t quite match up for the entire sequence.) His caretaker, Caroline, asks him why he’s so upset, and he can’t answer. She answers a knock at the door and lets in Charles Widmore, and Daniel stands to greet the man but stammers an apology for not recognizing him, saying that he’s got a “condition” that affects his memory. Widmore tells him not to be embarrassed because they’ve never met, then tells Daniel who he is, and the name of Charles Widmore is enough to job the scientist’s memory. Daniel remembers the name from his research grant and invites Widmore to sit down, which he does after clearing an issue of Wired magazine — one with an article about time travel — from the couch. They talk about Oxford, Daniel still weepy the whole time, and he tells Widmore that he tested “it” on himself first and would never willingly harm Theresa. Widmore says he’s there to give Daniel a new opportunity, and Daniel starts to say he can’t accept it when the TV catches his eye and he starts crying again. “I don’t know why it’s bothering me so much,” he says of the images of the drowned fuselage, but Widmore tells Daniel that the people on the plane aren’t dead, and that the wreck was just an elaborate and expensive fake that he, Widmore, put there. Widmore adds that Daniel will have forgotten learning this by the next day, then says that that Oceanic 815 crashed on an island with “unique scientific properties.” Widmore offers to send Daniel there to further his research, but more importantly, to have his mind and memory healed. Daniel looks so sadly hopeful when he hears this, but he wants to know why Widmore is taking an interest in him. The older man says simply that Daniel is “a man of tremendous gifts, and it would be a shame to see them go to waste.” When Daniel says Widmore is talking like Daniel’s mother, Widmore gives a creepy little chuckle and says, “That’s because we’re old friends.” (Blatant Foreshadowing No. 2!)
Back in 1977, Sawyer is still wrapping his head around the fact that Daniel’s mother is an Other, and Daniel says they actually met her when the island skipped to 1954 and she was being called Ellie. Hurley cocks his head and says, “You guys were in 1954? Like, Fonzie times?” NO HURLEY YOU MORON NOT LIKE FONZIE TIMES. Sawyer and Juliet still aren’t happy with Daniel’s desire to find the Hostiles, and Sawyer reminds him of the whole “whatever happened, happened” thing. Jack, who’s starting to change his tune on the destiny angle, tells Sawyer they should listen to Daniel since none of them belong there, but Sawyer says they “belonged just fine” until the Six came back. Jack turns to Kate to ask if she can get them back to the Hostiles’ camp, and Jack and Sawyer engage in a brief power struggle over Kate and the group at large. Jack says that Kate’s reason for coming to the island, whatever it is, isn’t in 1977. Sawyer tells her to stay with them, calling her “Freckles,” and that’s the last straw for Juliet, who looks up and sees that Sawyer still kind of sort of maybe has boy-girl feelings for Kate. Juliet gives Kate the code to the sonar fence — 141717 — and tells her to take Daniel, saying, “It’s over for us here anyway.” Jack and Kate head for the door with Daniel, who asks for Miles to drive them, but Miles just tosses them the keys, though not in an unfriendly way. Sawyer tells them that when they realize their mistake, they’ll find Sawyer and Juliet back the beach, “right where we started.” Jack, Kate, and Daniel take off, and Sawyer turns to the rest and tells them to pack and regroup in 20 minutes. Sawyer tenderly takes Juliet’s hand and says, “Time to go.”
Outside, Jack and Kate head for the arms cabinet at the motor pool while Daniel splits off and beelines for — yep — the little redheaded girl on the swingset. It’s Charlotte. She’s munching on a chocolate bar, and as Daniel approaches, she speaks the words that will also be her last, years later: “I’m not allowed to have chocolate before dinner.” Daniel reassures her that he won’t tell. He hunkers down in front of her and tells her that Dr. Chang is hopefully about to tell people to leave the island, and when he does that, Charlotte and her mom need to get on the submarine and leave. “In case what I do does not work,” Daniel says, “you cannot be here. … I tried to avoid telling you this. I didn’t think I could change things, but maybe I can.” He’s weeping as he says this, which understandably weirds out little Charlotte, who starts to cry as well.
Over at the motor pool, Jack and Kate are loading guns and ammo into a backpack when Daniel shows up. Kate passes him a rifle, which he hands back as he politely asks, “Do you have something for a beginner?” That’s the best line of the night. The trio get ready to move when Radzinsky, that trigger-happy torture-hound, shows up with his posse and wants to know why Daniel isn’t with the other physicists at the Swan site. Daniel starts making up a story about having to help Chang, but Radzinsky spots the pistol in his hand, at which point things start to get hairy pretty fast. Radzinsky’s crew raise their weapons, but Daniel keeps sliding toward the jeep and saying he and his friends are just gonna leave. Radzinsky isn’t down with that at all, so he fires at Daniel, grazing his neck, while Daniel goes down firing at Radzinsky, who gets hit in the arm. His boys open up on Jack and Kate, who return fire. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that a full-on gunfight breaks out and no one comes to see what’s happening. Jack, Kate, and Daniel regroup behind a tool station, and Jack lays down covering fire while the other two scramble to the jeep. He spots a pair of fuel drums and fires at them, rocking back Radiznky’s crew in the explosion as Kate rockets the jeep out of the garage. Jack jumps in as they peel out, their windshield exploding from bullets as they escape. Radzinsky wheels on his men and yells, “Sound the alarm!”
Final flashback: Daniel is once again at his mother’s piano, struggling a little with the piece he’d been able to play so expertly as a boy. Eloise walks in and pulls up a chair next to him, saying she would have called, but Daniel glumly says he’d have forgotten anyway if she had. She asks him if he’s been offered a job, saying it’s her business to know such things, and doesn’t even wait for an answer before telling him that it’s very important he accept Widmore’s offer. Daniel wells up again — this guy cries a lot; maybe too much — and says he can’t do it. Widmore wants him to perform “really, really complex space-time calibrations and calculate bearings,” and Daniel doesn’t know how to do that anymore. Eloise tells Daniel that the island can help him in his work and make him better. He asks if she really wants him to go, and if it’ll make her proud of him, and though she answers in the affirmative to both, it’s clearly breaking her to do so. She doesn’t want him to go, or rather, she does but isn’t comfortable with that. Daniel nods and says, “Then I’ll do it.”
Out on the island, Jack, Kate, and Daniel arrive at the sonic fence, and Kate deactivates the pylons while Jack examines Daniel’s wound. He says Daniel will be fine, to which Daniel responds, “I guess I’m lucky.” Jack asks what role luck plays in it, since Daniel purportedly said “whatever happened, happened,” but Jack is making the critical mistake of mixing up personal time and global time. This happens a lot. Miles already explained it a few episodes ago, saying that the events in 1977 had already happened (global time) but that the Oceanic Six hadn’t experienced how they turned out yet (personal time). Jack has forgotten that he’s in his own present, and can of course be hurt or die. He is always at the latest point in his personal timeline, even if earlier points in that timeline occurred in the global future. “Any one of us can die, Jack,” Daniel says, and on that happy note, the three of them head off into the jungle.
Back at the Barracks, Sawyer and Juliet are packing when he apologizes for not heeding her warning that the return of the Oceanic Six would be trouble. “You still got my back?” he asks her, but she coolly says, “You still got mine?” They’re either gonna break up or one of them will die; either way, something bad will happen. Before Sawyer can respond, the alarm begins to blare. Radzinsky and his men pass Hurley and Jin outside before barging into Sawyer’s place, and Radzinsky is plenty pissed about being shot by a physicist. “We’ve been infiltrated,” he says. Sawyer tries to calm him down, but Radzinsy’s distracted by the thumping sound coming from the closet. When Sawyer tries to play off the sound as coming from outside, Radzinsky walks over to the closet and opens it to find Phil, who by now is probably very thirsty, kicking around. He turns and raises his gun at Sawyer, telling him to get down on the ground, and Sawyer and Juliet reluctantly comply.
In the jungle, Jack, Kate, and Daniel stop to rest by a stream. Jack asks Daniel why needs to be armed to visit Eloise, and Daniel shrugs and says, “You don’t know my mother.” He then proceeds to explain his urgency. In four hours, the DHARMA team at the Swan will drill into a pocket of energy the release of which would be catastrophic, so they’ll cement the whole thing in “like Chernobyl.” That’s the birth of what the castaways refer to as the hatch, and because of the accident, the DHARMA people will spend the next 20 years keeping the energy contained by pushing a button every 108 minutes, a button Desmond will be charged with pushing and whose failure to be pushed will cause the crash of Oceanic 815. (This is all pretty well known.) Daniel says that the entire chain of events that led them to that moment will begin that afternoon, and he believes that can be changed. He says that he’d been so focused on the constants in the equation — the unchanging past — that he forgot to account for the variables, i.e., the free-thinking humans involved in the mix. And people can control their destiny, so Daniel wants to undo the damage at the Swan and stop the whole mess from ever happening, rewriting a few decades of history in the process. Kate asks how he plans to do this, and he replies, “I’m gonna detonate a hydrogen bomb.” Her dumbfounded reaction is perfect.
Back in 2008, Eloise and Penny are at the hospital, and Penny is coping with the fact that she’s talking to the woman Desmond was sent to Los Angeles to find. Eloise apologizes again for what’s happened, saying that Desmond is “a casualty in a conflict that’s bigger than him, that’s bigger than any of us.” Penny panics and asks if Desmond will survive, but Eloise says she doesn’t know, and that for the first time in a long while, she doesn’t know what’s going to happen. But Penny is spared any more moments of wondering if her husband will live; a nurse appears and tells her Desmond is in the recovery room, and that she can go see him. Eloise slips out as Penny heads to Desmond’s room, finding him looking surprisingly well for a dude who just got shot. They have a tearful and sweet reunion. Outside, Eloise runs into Widmore — this guy is freaking everywhere now — who asks how Desmond is doing. Eloise says he’s fine, then tells him to go in and say hello to his daughter. Widmore says that his relationship with Penny is one of the things he had to sacrifice, but she comes right back and tells him she can beat him when it comes to sacrifices, since she sent Daniel back to the island knowing what would happen. Widmore cuts her off with the reminder: “He’s my son, too, Eloise.” Hey now. Eloise just slaps him and gets in a cab.
In the island, Daniel is leading the way through the jungle as Kate tells Jack that the plan to rewrite history is insane. Jack shrugs it off by saying, “We disappeared off a plane in midair and ended up in 1977. I’m getting kind of used to insane.” New Jack is definitely more fun than Old Jack. They come upon the Hostiles’ camp in a clearing below, and Daniel wastes no time charging down the hill. Jack tries to follow, but Kate holds him back. Daniel makes his way slowly into the camp and gets pretty far before he’s finally spotted, but he fires a couple rounds into the ground to keep the nearby Hostile from reaching for a weapon. He moves into the camp as the Hostiles hold their hands up, but he calls out that he doesn’t want to hurt anyone and only wants to speak to Eloise. Richard Alpert appears and says Eloise isn’t around right now, and he and Daniel have a wonderful moment of recognition. Richard asks how they know each other, but Daniel asks where he can find the hydrogen bomb he told Richard and his people to bury. Richard repeatedly asks him to lower his weapon, but Daniel instead foolishly gives Richard three seconds to comply. He counts down, and a shot rings out, but of course he wasn’t the one to fire. Daniel looks down to see blood spreading on his chest, and he slumps to the ground to reveal Eloise (!) holding a smoking rifle. She was the one who murdered her son, and knew every day she raised him that she’d one day send him back to be killed by her own hand. Richard furiously asks why she fired, saying that he wasn’t in danger and calling Eloise by name. Daniel, lying on the ground, looks up into his young mother’s eyes as it all comes crashing home. “You knew this was going to happen,” he says. “You sent me here anyway.” Eloise asks who he is, and with his last breath, he says, “I’m your son.” And with that, Daniel Faraday dies.
And that’s the episode. Among other things, it’s clear that anyone who crewed on the Kahana is probably in for a rough time: Keamy’s dead, doc had his throat cut, Minkowski got unstuck in time, Naomi’s dead, Charlotte and Daniel are dead, Frank’s unconscious and probably being held captive by the cabal of Ilana and Bram, and Miles hangs out with Hurley. Also, it’s possible that Daniel had indeed met Widmore before that day he came to visit, since his condition as a result of his temporal experiments would have made him forget it anyway. Plus, it looks like Daniel and Penny are half-siblings; Widmore was banished by Ben for (among other things) starting a family with an outsider, but having a kid with Eloise might be kosher for the Hostiles. I guess the issue I’m still working out is Daniel’s sudden change of heart in re: destiny. Daniel’s argument about wanting to change the past didn’t seem to be quite in line with his stated beliefs about history being unchangeable, since the events of 1977 were part of the global time and not seemingly up for grabs. Plus, Chang himself reminded his foreman that you couldn’t, say, go back and kill Hitler. The past is the past; 1939 is 1977, etc. Why did Daniel think it would work? Maybe I’m just too close to it to see it. I welcome, as always, lively discussion.