‘Lost’ (S3): What did the ”Flashes” episode mean?
THE 10-WORD TEASE!
In which we ask the executive producers of Lost to give us a tantalizing tidbit about tonight’s new episode.
This week, the focus is once again on Jack — father-haunted, Thai-tatted spinal surgeon supreme, currently held captive by those deceitful, manipulative, grilled cheese-serving Others. Your 10-word tease from Carlton Cuse is:
”Can a six-thousand-mile journey help Jack find himself?”
Like many tireless, truth-seeking Lost theorists (or, if you prefer, ”scarily obsessed freakjobs”), Ed Markel from Nebraska became instantly fixated with the now-notorious ”aversion therapy film” when the ”Not In Portland” episode strobed his pupils on Feb. 7. A thick block of geek eye-candy, embedded with enough gummy wonder to keep folks like Markel and me chewing for weeks, the ATF immediately joined The Comic Book, The Orientation Film, and The Map as one of the richest, most delicious pieces of theory fodder in Lost history. Clearly, we must spend some serious time exploring this densely coded flick…but not this week.
No, this week, Doc Jensen needs to respond to the alarming abundance of 9-1-1 calls that I’ve received in the wake of last week’s Desmond-centric episode, ”Flashes Before Your Eyes,” in which the lovelorn Scot seemed to travel back in time immediately after turning the failsafe key in The Hatch and (allegedly) blowing it up. Waking up in the London flat that he shared with his one true love, Penelope Widmore, the poor and proud set designer once again experienced his profound humiliation at the hands of Penelope’s rich industrialist Dad, Charles Widmore, and once again experienced his breakup with Pen. Crucial to the story was Desmond’s crushing awareness of future events and his mounting conviction that there was nothing he could do to effectively avert his Button-pushing, marooned-on-Mystery Island destiny.
This trippy tale of time travel and romantic fatalism seems to have inflicted a Perplexity Pox upon the Lost Nation. Symptoms: head-scratching, head-shaking, just plain headaches. Did Desmond really travel through time — or was it all a hallucination? What was up with Ms. Hawking, the creepy old lady in the ring store who knew everything about Desmond’s unstuck-in-time plight? And how does any of this explain Desmond’s flashes-of-the-future, which portend to purport Charlie’s certain death? My interactions with Lost watchers this week have turned into proverbial house calls: ”What was that about?! Do you have ANY idea?!”
And of course I do. Several ideas — and one wild theory. First, however, let’s establish some context, including a clarification or two from the co-writer of the episode, executive producer Damon Lindelof:
1. The episode is essentially an ironic riff on some Big Ideas put forth by Desmond’s namesake, the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Those big ideas include a skeptical posture regarding the notions of interlocking cause-and-effect and seemingly miraculous phenomenon.
2. According to Lindelof, the events that transpired in Desmond’s flashback ”did NOT happen ”solely in Desmond’s imagination.”
3. If Desmond truly did travel back in time, says Lindelof, then ”ANY changes he made during this series of ‘flashbacks’ indeed DID happen… and thusly, the ramifications of said changes might reverberate later.”
4. It would be a faulty leap in logic to assume that because Desmond’s flashbacks were a form of time travel, then ALL flashbacks on Lost have been a form of time travel. ”I don’t really see anything in the show to support that,” says Lindelof.
5. Otherwise, the episode is open to interpretation.
With that said, here are my best guesses (at the moment) at how to explain ”Flashes Before Your Eyes.”
THE ”IT’S IN THE TITLE, STUPID” HYPOTHESIS
IN A NUTSHELL: Desmond never really traveled back in time.
HUH? The episode was called ”Flashes Before Your Eyes” — as in ”Your life flashes before your eyes during a near-death experience,” which the episode chose cleverly to dramatize as something akin to time travel. To wit: you would probably experience such a thing interactively, not passively, like watching yourself in a movie. Re-experiencing your past with your present frame of mind… well, that would probably feel like some pretty freaky déjà vu.
WHAT IT DOESN’T EXPLAIN: How the heck did Desmond survive the implosion/explosion of The Hatch? Moreover, this hypothesis still doesn’t explain Desmond’s hot flashes-of-the-future precognitive abilities. Additionally, there’s the puzzling cipher of Ms. Hawking, aka The Creepy Old Lady.
DOC JENSEN SAYS: Ms. Hawking — who bullied Desmond into following in his past footsteps with her severe take on predestination and ominous threats (she told Desmond that if he didn’t repeat his past actions, ”every single one of us is dead!”) — could be the embodiment of Desmond’s survival instinct. Remember, this is a near-death experience; physically, Desmond is fighting for his life while he’s tripping through memories. Had he defied Ms. Hawking and proposed to Penelope and lived happily ever after, Desmond would have created a fantasy more preferable to his reality, and so choosing that fantasy would have meant choosing death. (Also see: Open Your Eyes, or its U.S. remake starring Tom Cruise, Vanilla Sky.)
EITHER THAT, OR… Since The Island seems to behave like a sentient entity, with its own agenda, maybe Ms. Hawking was an expression of its own survival instinct. For some reason, this loopy locale NEEDS to keep Desmond around.
BOTTOM LINE: Plausible, but incomplete, and perhaps flirts too much with ”It’s all taking place inside Desmond’s head,” which Damon Lindelof says isn’t the case.
ESTIMATED CHANCE OF ACCURACY: 51%.
THE MINDF— HYPOTHESIS (Doc Jensen’s Paranoid Conspiracy Theory of the Week!)
IN A NUTSHELL: Desmond really didn’t travel through time, and he really doesn’t have precognitive powers — but he’s been brainwashed into thinking otherwise.
HUH? Clearly, The Dharma Initiative was fond of playing mind games with its participants (see: the Swan and Pearl orientation films). And The Others are clearly engaged in some kind of brainwashing/aversion therapy inside Room 23 at The Hydra Station. What if some powerful agency — maybe Dharma, maybe The Others, maybe the as yet unseen Patchy or Jacob, or maybe The Island — has messed with his memory?
PAST PRECEDENT: Desmond’s experience could be a more focused version of what happened to Charlie in last season’s equally bizarre ”Fire + Water” episode. (It was the one where everyone thought Charlie was back on dope and trying to kill Claire’s baby.) To date, the matter of Charlie’s feverish hallucinations — self-generated delusion or telepathic assault? — remains unresolved.
WHAT IT DOESN’T EXPLAIN: Ms. Hawking. The Hatch implosion/explosion mystery, and how Desmond survived it. And the motivations behind what would be a pretty extravagant conspiracy.
OBLIGATORY MS. HAWKING EXPLANATION: She could be a false memory, implanted to compel Desmond toward certain actions that benefit this nebulous ”conspiracy.” In fact, perhaps she’ll eventually be revealed as an agent in this conspiracy. Did she handle Desmond’s brainwashing personally?
DOC JENSEN SAYS: Remember that Dharma was conducting experiments in psychology, parapsychology (mind over matter; telepathy), and meteorology. That could mean that Dharma had developed the means to control the weather. And that could mean that someone intentionally generated the deadly lightning strike that Desmond forecasted and thwarted — maybe the same someone who implanted in Desmond the memory that said lightning strike would happen.
BOTTOM LINE: It would be a rather subversive and downright evil twist on the cosmic themes of fate and free will that Desmond represents.
ESTIMATED CHANCE OF ACCURACY: 66.6%
THE DR. MANHATTAN HYPOTHESIS (also known as: The ”Desmond Goes Jedi” Conjecture)
WARNING: Piles of quasi-legitimate pop-science poppycock are about to be thrown at you like a hyperactive dimwitted monkey throwing balls of turd at traumatized visitors to a zoo for demented animals.
IN A NUTSHELL: Desmond really did travel backward — and forward — in time.
HUH? Inspired by a character in the classic Alan Moore comic book Watchmen, The Dr. Manhattan Hypothesis can represent any explanation that hinges on the idea that Desmond really toggled through time. In Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan was an all-powerful figure who experienced his past, present and (to some degree) future all at once. And just so you know, Watchmen ain’t no arbitrary, pulled-out-of-my-ass reference; Damon Lindelof has cited the work as a seminal influence.
THE SCIENCE: Dr. Manhattan was a scientist who in a similar fashion to Desmond got blown up in an experiment gone awry, but through force of will managed to reform himself, albeit into a being of pure energy — the embodiment of quantum mechanics. The tragic irony of his new Superman state — despite being profoundly disconnected from humanity — was that he experienced his own omnipotence most impotently. For Dr. Manhattan, time was a fixed constant; he could do nothing to change it. (In real science, this strict bit of logic is known as the Novikov self-consistency principle.)
WHAT DOES ANY OF THIS HAVE TO DO WITH DESMOND? According to the Orientation Film inside The Hatch, the occupants of Station 3: The Swan were originally conducting experiments on The Island’s ”unique electromagnetic fluctuations” — and according to quantum physics, all matter is suffused with electromagnetic energy. Moreover, recall that the Dharma Initiative was conducting experiments involving ”parapsychology,” or mind over matter. Think of it along Star Wars lines: Dharma was basically messing around with The Force.
AGAIN — WHAT THE HELL?! After Desmond blew up The Hatch and himself, he managed the biggest Jedi mind trick of all time: he rebuilt himself by manipulating this electromagnetic energy — a matter of mind over matter, a la Dr. Manhattan. Moreover, when Desmond was (momentarily) obliterated, his ”blast radius” extended across both space and time — forward and backward — like a ripple expanding on the surface of a pond. When Desmond rebuilt himself, that ripple contracted, and in the process, he brought back with him knowledge of the future.
WHAT THIS THEORY DOESN’T EXPLAIN: Ms. Hawking, whose staunch stance against changing the past makes her the embodiment of the Novikov principle.
CRACKING EASTER EGGS: Do the hidden clues in ”Not In Portland” — the Juliet-centric episode that aired a week before the Desmond-focused ”Flashes Before Your Eyes” — help clarify the puzzle of Lost‘s newest mystery (old) lady? Ms. Hawking shares the same name as Stephen Hawking, whose book A Brief History of Time was referenced in ”Not In Portland.” The book was being read by an Other named Aldo; the page he was studying dealt with how black holes can warp the fabric of space-time. Finally, it was revealed that Juliet was recruited by The Others via their off-Island company, Mittelos Biosciences. ”Mittelos” is an anagram for ”Lost Time.” Perhaps Ms. Hawking is one of The Others, and her presence/intervention in Desmond’s life/story services their agenda. (P.S.: Ms. Hawking was played by Fionnula Flanagan, who starred in a certain famous Nicole Kidman horror flick called… The Others.)
BOTTOM LINE: What can I say? I’m a big geek.
ESTIMATED CHANCE OF ACCURACY: 90%
THE ”DESMOND IS GOD” POSTULATION (Doc Jensen’s ”Leave ’em even more confused than they were before” theory of the week!)
IN A NUTSHELL: The point of ”Flashes Before Your Eyes” wasn’t to suggest that Desmond traveled through time, or that he was brainwashed by Dharma or The Others — it was to suggest that Desmond is subconsciously shaping reality on The Island, and by extension — the history of the world!
HUH? Lost is a fantastic allegory for a very relevant and real idea: the dynamic interplay between people and their environment. The show puts forth an extraordinarily profound question: What kind of world do you get when it’s filled with people living unexamined lives?
BUT WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH TIME TRAVEL?!?! Absolutely nothing. And that’s the whole point.
AND THE POINT IS?!?! According to the mythology of The Dharma Initiative, the island is fluctuating with ”unique electromagnetic” energy. We’ve also been told that Dharma was studying ”parapsychology.” Big words and weird science, I know, but really, all you need to know is this: The Island is a place where mind over matter is possible. Got it?
NOT REALLY — BUT CONTINUE. AND CAN YOU KEEP IT BRIEF? Sure. When Desmond crashed on The Island, he basically rebooted reality on The Island. The Dharma Initiative, The Others, The Monster — all these things are expressions of Desmond’s subconscious. And now, they’ve taken on lives of their own, both on and off The Island.
WHERE’S YOUR PROOF? In the ”Flashes Before Your Eyes” episode, did you catch the painting in Charles Widmore’s office? It was a weird thing, with a polar bear, an upside down Buddha, and the word NAMASTE spelled backwards. All these things are elements of The Dharma Initiative. Moreover, we learned that Desmond used to be a set designer — meaning he used to work in showbiz, which is in the business of illusion, of creating utterly believable artificial realities. The Dharma hatches are clearly elaborately detailed sets. And hey: one of them even included costumes and theatrical glue!
IN OTHER WORDS: The Island is chockablock with details from Desmond’s life that have been reassembled into a wholly new, original reality that’s cosmetically unrecognizable to the very dude who created it, but spiritually suffused with his hopes and fears. Hope of rescue, redemption, and reuniting with Penelope; fear that fate and powerful forces are conspiring against him. One has to wonder what will happen to reality on The Island when Desmond finally examines his life and starts making these connections himself.
THIS IS GOING TO COOK YOUR NOODLE. We know that Lost is fond of anagrams and Easter egg clues. Well, check this out. We’ve been told that DHARMA is an acronym for ”Department of Heuristics And Research on Material Applications.” (Yes, you sticklers: according to official sources, the ”And” is part of the acronym, but ”of” and ”on” are not.) I haven’t worked all of this out yet, but I’m thinking that full title is an anagram for something — a sentence that might reveal a big secret of Lost. A sentence that includes the words ”DESMOND HUME” and ”PENELOPE.” (Work it out — the names are totally in there. But what’s the rest of the sentence? Email me with your theory directly to my special new Doc J mailbox: JeffJensenEW@aol.com!)
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF MS. HAWKING: Your tell-tale clue is the brooch she was wearing — an ouroboros, or a snake swallowing its own tail. An ouroboros can symbolize many things — including Lost theorists who chase after their own tails to make sense of everything — but in the dream-come-true context of the ”Desmond is God” theory, I appeal to Carl Jung, who believed that the ouroboros was a symbol of… self-creation. I suspect that ultimately, Ms. Hawking will stand revealed as an ally to Desmond. Her job: to make sure he doesn’t deviate from the unfolding story of reality that he himself is authoring — a story that ultimately will lead him back to Penelope.
ESTIMATED CHANCE OF ACCURACY: Keep dreamin’, Doc J. Maybe one day, one of these theories will come true.
Until next week, when I’ll do my darndest to REALLY confuse you —