'The Constant' turns 10: Revisiting the great Lost time-twist episode a decade later
It was 2008 and you never know what kind of show Lost would be. The fourth season of ABC’s island mystery returned in January after an eight-month hiatus — unusual, exhausting, tantalizing, back before everything had an 18-month hiatus. Week-to-week, there might be flashbacks or flashforwards, new characters introduced, old characters reintroduced, old characters brutally disposed of. The scope felt bigger. Typical episode logline, “Ben wakes up in the Sahara, flies to Iraq, then flies to London.” And yet it would be the shortest season, a mere 14 episodes, including a three-part finale, back before every season had 10 episodes.
An embarrassment of riches, is what I’m saying, and then there’s “The Constant.” Ten years ago, on Feb. 28, 2008, Lost aired the fifth episode of the fourth season. It’s about a man unstuck in time, trapped in confusing calculus, searching for true romance.
Revisiting “The Constant” on its own can be strange. By season 4, tracking the greater serialized story of Lost was a microsecond-rewarding viewing experience, especially as mediated by my former colleague/guru Jeff Jensen. (I assume half the stuff I noticed on a rewatch, he already wrote about a decade ago; consider all this supplementary material.) There are revelations in “The Constant” weeks or years in the making: the first appearance of the long-promised Freighter, the final confirmation that time travel is possible no flux capacitor required. If you were locked into the Great Game of Lost, then maybe your mindblowing memory from “The Constant” was a painting of a terrible old ship.
But context collapse helps with “The Constant.” After all, the story of the episode is context collapse. Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) is on a helicopter, looking at a picture of his beloved Penny (Sonya Walger). The helicopter flies through a lightning storm, and now suddenly Desmond’s in the past. No more Jesus beard, no more Jesus hair: He’s a military man, waking up in a Full Metal Jacket nightmare, with a vague memory of flying a helicopter through a lightning storm.
And then Desmond’s back in the present, the helicopter landing on a ship in the ocean. But see now the Desmond of the present has been memory-wiped back to his past self, before the Island, before the Numbers. Charming: Here in the show’s most riotously complicated episode, the main character is the one person who has no clue about anything that has ever happened on Lost.
Is this why “The Constant” lives more in memory than so many other Lost episodes? It helps, I guess, that Desmond always seemed to be in his own very specific kind of TV show. His episodes were complicated, time-tossed and chrono-triggered, but his arc was the most straightforward: A Quest Toward Lost Love, a story so archaic that it’s literally archaic. (Penny is, of course, named after the patient wife from The Odyssey.) Desmond’s stories always ran up against the borderlands of mythology, nefarious lingering Big Bads and mad science. But those borderlands were distant from anyone you’d call a Main Character On Lost. Typical for a Desmond episode, “The Constant” reduces initial/eventual hero Jack (Matthew Fox) to the role of Exposition Demander, the confused audience member asking brilliant scientist Daniel Faraday (Jeremy Davies) to explain what the hell is going on.
Rewatching “The Constant” this week, it struck me how quiet the episode is. Everyone’s whispering. Amnesiac Desmond and Sayid (Naveen Andrews) are on a ship full of people they can’t trust. Daniel is revealing the secrets of the time continuum in his trademark low-gravel voice. In other episodes, flashbacks are announced with a whoosh sound. But as Desmond’s mind literally flashes back and forward, there’s no announcement sound, just timelines slipping through in a moment. (Charming: For the first time on Lost, a character onscreen knows the flashbacks are happening, the non-diegetic trope gone hyper-diegetic, like if one day Jack Bauer reached across the 24 splitscreens to grab the latest terrorist-affiliated evil corporate white guy, or if Darth Vader started humming “The Imperial March.”)
If you’re any of kind of TV watcher, you’ve seen the time-tripping episode done elsewhere by now, maybe better. Two years before “The Constant,” Doctor Who aired “The Girl in the Fireplace,” a lifespanning romance toggling between a far-future spaceship and Versailles before the Revolution. Today, Rick & Morty would circle the plot concept for “The Constant” four times before the opening credits end, and the most decaf CW superhero has met two alternate past versions of their own mother.
What’s still sets “The Constant” apart? It helps, I think, that writer-showrunners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof frontload the sci-fi complexity, then teeter suddenly into radically sincere emotion. Past-Desmond flees to Oxford, where Past-Daniel explains how time-travel sickness works. The problem, see, is that Present-Desmond is in a strange place with nothing around him he recognizes. He needs to find something on that Freighter to connect his past to his present — or someone.
There’s this big idea of Desmond that sets him apart from so many other Lost characters. Everyone else is running away from something, seeking curious tropical redemption from a sad past, the drugs, the murder, the father you betrayed or betrayed you. For Desmond, the past is the goal. He doesn’t carry a picture of her, he carries a picture of them, his own past self taunting him with a smile. Odysseus is the clear comparison here, but there’s something Full Gatsby in Desmond’s outline. He knows his dream is already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity, etc. For him, the way forward is the way backward — and so he’s also an Ebenezer Scrooge, another yuletide time traveler borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Desmond’s story isn’t as tragic as Gatsby’s. (Or maybe it secretly is: His scattered appearances in seasons 5 and 6 dead-end into an eerily ineffective pointless act of non-heroism, and one of the last things he says on the show is, “It didn’t work.”) But there’s something a bit tougher in the meaning of “The Constant,” an idea that goes beyond heroics: Not that you can change yourself, but that you have to connect yourself to who you once were. The bearded wanderer of 2004 must reconnect with the young man he once was, must create continuity in his own life.
That continuity is Penny. So she is a person but also a token, a remembrance of lost time. This made Penny an icon in a few minutes of screen time, but it would weirdly reduce her as the show reached its endgame, and she started to feel more like a contrivance, a “love interest” in the most old-fashioned and grandest sense. There’s a trickier version of what Lost became where we see Penny’s journey as clearly as Desmond’s. Actually, that could just literally be Lindelof’s follow-up series The Leftovers, which tracked Kevin’s shamanistic hero’s journey before concluding that the Book of Nora offered harsher, deeper, tricker truths.
So is Desmond’s journey romantic, or narcissistic? Is he seeking Penny — or the man he was with Penny? No right answer, and the secret ambiguity lingers because the execution is so damned perfect. In the past, Desmond goes to Penny’s house, begs her to A) give him her new phone number, and B) receive a phone call from him on Christmas Eve in 2004. That this scene works at all is largely due to Walger; you watch her performance once to see her lingering feelings for Desmond, and then watch it again to see a sensible woman trying to get her weird ex out of her house. Past-Desmond walks away from her door, looks up at the window, sees Penny close the curtain. Present-Desmond makes a hail-mary phone call from a satellite phone; what young-ish adult person kept the same phone number from 1996-2004?
But Penny answers! And there’s a Christmas tree! The episode’s director, eternal Lost pro Jack Bender, ups the quick cuts, a close-up on Desmond, on Penny, on Past-Desmond getting a glimmer of hope. The closing door, the answered phone, the lonely young man, that young man older and lonely no more. Penny tells him she’s been looking for him for years — so actually, she’s Odysseus the globetrotting searcher, and he’s the patient one waiting on the island kingdom. “I love you!” they say. Space and time collapse, and they’re together in London and the Pacific, 1996 is 2004 is 2008 is 2018. Love is the answer, and that’s just science, brotha.