Getting Lost (Redux): The Constant

“The Constant” is arguably the most popular episode of Lost ever, which in a lot of ways is quite astonishing. Unlike “Through the Looking Glass,” which had a twist that anyone could have anticipated getting a big reaction from fans, “The Constant” is a mythology-heavy time-travel plot involving one character who wasn’t a regular castmember for the show’s first two seasons, and another who was never a regular. Nevertheless, Desmond and Penny, largely because of this episode, became the most compelling romantic relationship on the show for a lot of viewers.*

*This doesn’t say much for the Jack/Kate/Sawyer triangle, or Charlie/Claire, or Sun/Jin, which were set up from the show’s very beginning.

Desmond’s time-traveling ability had been known since “Flashes Before Your Eyes” in Season Three, but whereas that was a more straightforward flashback, “The Constant” cuts back and forth. He has become “unstuck in time” thanks to a storm that interrupts the helicopter flight back to the freighter. The odd time-properties of the Island* cause people who have recently been exposed to radioactive energy or electromagnetism (like say, in an electromagnetic explosion) to lose their grip on time.

*These properties are presumably due to the fact—which we won’t learn completely until Season Five—that the Island is apparently always moving rather erratically in space and time. This is why people—even those who’ve been to the Island—have such trouble locating it, and why Locke is capable of “moving the Island” at the end of Season Four.

Just before the chopper lands, then, Desmond starts freaking out. He thinks it’s 1996—it’s hard to keep track of everything going down on the Island even when you know what year it is, so he’s understandably confused when he lands on the freighter. Once on the freighter, Sayid uses the satellite phone to call the Island and tell them about Desmond’s condition.

This is Daniel Faraday’s time to shine. When he hears what’s up with Desmond, he tells Desmond to go to Oxford during his next flash and find the 1996 version of Faraday. Once there, Faraday begins doing what he does best: explaining the rules of time-travel. It is only Desmond’s consciousness that can flash, and Desmond itself has no control over it. As it progresses, the flashes will occur more frequently and, as Faraday’s guinea pig mouse shows, eventually his brain will “short-circuit” due to an inability to tell the past from the present.

Unless, that is, Desmond has a Constant, something that you care about, that exists in both time-periods, and that can “balance the equation.” Desmond’s Constant is Penny, but things aren’t real peachy between those two in 1996. Nevertheless, if 2004 Desmond can’t contact Penny, then he will have no anchor and probably end up like George Minkowski, a passenger on the ship who underwent the same process and ended up dead.

The episode ends with Desmond showing up at Penny’s house, begging for her phone number yet oddly promising not to call for eight years. Their final phone call, thanks to some solid acting and some great editing, turned the Desmond/Penny relationship from a mere bit a backstory for Desmond into a canonical relationship for Lost’s mythology.

Why is “The Constant” so popular? The easy answer is to attribute it to the acting and chemistry of Henry Ian Cusik and Sonya Walger. That’s certainly part of it, but it’s not really sufficient. The real reason has to do with the delicate weave of mythology and story  in this episode.

Why are time-travel stories so compelling? There’s the novelty factor, sure, but there’s something beyond that. Time-travel stories give the illusion that time itself is not transient, that moments can be re-attained and, thus, re-experienced. It lends a permanence to time, which is inherently transient.

Often, though, when a story dabbles in time-travel for too long (I’m looking at you, Heroes), that permanence gets undercut. Instead of recapturing moments, the time-travel becomes a narrative eraser, used to undo or redo things, which actually makes time even more transient.

Lost, though, completely embraces the permanence of time with the concept of the Constant. What’s so interesting about that final scene between Desmond and Penny is that it cuts between two moments that occur eight years apart. Not only that, but in the intervening eight years, we know that Desmond and Penny hardly saw each other at all. Desmond was in the army, then in prison, then on a boat, then on the Island. And yet, in the consciousness of Desmond, these two moments occur consecutively. The final scene, then, portrays the things we care about and love with a constancy that, in real life, is extremely hard to attain. There really are not many things that you feel as strongly about now as you did eight years ago, I’ll bet.

The thematic resonance of this episode also functions as an important foundation for later storytelling. The constancy of time hints at the “whatever happened, happened” rules of time-travel that Faraday will introduce in Season Five. The dangers of flying through time without an anchor will also come back into play when time-travel becomes a more crucial part of the story.

In terms of storytelling clues, there are a couple that seemed big from “The Constant.” First, there is the one scene in which Jack and Juliet confront Faraday and Charlotte about the time since the helicopter left. Faraday obviously understands this, but I had forgotten Charlotte knew as well, which leads a question: What exactly was her purpose on the Island? We know why Lapidus (to fly the chopper), Miles (to talk to the dead), and Faraday (to understand time-travel) were brought, but why Charlotte? Did she die before she could do what she needed, or am I forgetting something?

The more important thing, though, came when Desmond tracks down Charles Widmore to lead him to Penny. They are in a public bathroom as Widmore washes his hands. Widmore hands Desmond the address—and then oddly leaves the faucet running with the stopper in the sink, which triggers another flash for Desmond. This could just be an accident, but it seems like a very odd thing to do, as if he knew it would cause a flash. Also, the fact that he gives Desmond the address with no fight—after working so hard to keep him away from Penny before—is a little suspicious. How much does Widmore know about Desmond’s purpose on the Island? It seems to me that Widmore may be the biggest loose end still hanging on the show. We know very little about his motivations (even in this week’s episode, we just got a glib statement that Jacob showed him “the error of his ways”). We know about Ben’s lust for power, we know about Locke’s search for faith, and now we even know about Jacob and the Man in Black’s background—but why Widmore would lead Desmond to the Island, why he came after Ben, and what he is doing on the Island are all still unclear.

Tune in tomorrow for a look at “There’s No Place Like Home”…

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2 responses to this post.

  1. […] arrival. The scene between Locke and Widmore is perhaps more confusing now than it was initially. As I’ve said the last few days, it’s looking to me like Charles Widmore may be the hardest aspect of Lost’s plot to reconcile […]

    Reply

  2. […] The Constant: Desmond time-travels […]

    Reply

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