SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, strap yourself it, hang on to your panic button, and watch last night’s Lost.
You could make a good argument that Desmond Hume is the protagonist of Lost. That, despite the fact that we didn’t meet him until season 2 and he disappears for vast stretches of the action, Lost is about him more than about anybody else.
He’s “special,” as Daniel Faraday once told him. Many of the big revelations about how the universe of Lost works—what was down the Hatch, the funky nature of time on the Island, the notion of the Constant, the themes of predestination vs. change—have been told through him. He, with Penny, arguably has the most compelling emotional story in the series. You look at the episode description for a Lost and think, “All right! It’s a Desmond!”. If not the literal protagonist, he is at least the linchpin. Maybe the key, as in answer key.
In other words, you can often count on Desmond to introduce a paradigm shift, to substantially change the way we view Lost. And in “Happily Ever After,” he gave us perspective on how to see the flash-sideways, and more clues than ever about what they are—and, more important, what they aren’t.
As he learns from Charlie, they may not be, in some sense, reality. And if they are, it looks like they are not the happy ending they’ve seemed to be all this season. “You really do have the life,” Charles Widmore tells Desmond at the beginning of the flash-sideways—but with no attachments, no entanglements, no family, no Penny, only the approbation of Widmore, he really doesn’t have anything at all.
Life is good in Desmond’s flash-sideways, as it has been for Hurley, for Ben, and so on. But it’s too good. His life that we’ve known—the life with struggle and heartache and entanglements—that’s what he wants. And for the first time (although we had signs with Jack’s scar that glimpses of the other reality were slipping through into this one), he and Charlie become aware of a reality beyond the one they seem to know.
Why is it important that we learn this through Des? Because he’s special. In this case, just as he was uniquely able to unstick in time and see the future, here he seems to be uniquely able to consciously inhabit both Island reality and flash-sideways reality. No, we don’t know yet how the alt-universe works, what created it, or what it’s for, but we know that it’s connected in space-time with Island reality; it’s not a dream, or Heaven, or a glimpse of the future. And Desmond, it appears, is again the key.
Now the floor is open for theories as to what the alt-universe is: some kind of gnostic illusion, or (as Faraday’s scrawled note suggested) a parallel existence in “imaginary time,” or whatever. We can speculate how it was created, for whom and why. (Eloise Hawking’s warning to Desmond that he wasn’t “ready” to find what he was looking for suggests it serves some purpose.) But after “Happily Ever After,” I am finally fully confident that it means something, and this leaves me feeling very good about the remaining episodes.
Also, and this may be an issue of personal preference, I was happy to see the “science” side of Lost’s science fiction foregrounded again with the arrival of Widmore’s crew. I’m hardly a hardcore sci-fi guy, and I personally have no problem with a BSG-like ending in which the Island’s peculiarities are partly explained by science, partly explained by mysticism/religion, and partly unexplained. But after a season 5 that was almost wholly dedicated to the sci-fi and time-travel aspects of Lost, it’s been a bit jarring to see season 6 so wholly concentrate on the Jacob/Smokey spiritual conflict. I don’t need a detailed scientific explanation of how the Island works, nor will I be fact-checking the accuracy of the references to Gauss fields; I just want the show to show how its science and faith sides interrelate. Maybe Desmond’s significance is that he’s the character through whom, more than any other, they come together.
Another key in this episode: love. Both Charlie and Desmond are awakened to another plane of existence by recalling someone they loved there. If that’s too corny for you, sorry. I like this idea: here, “love at first sight” is not just fate, but a flash of awareness of a life that you are meant to have. It is, literally, a moment of clarity, in which you see beyond the confines of time and space. If that’s corny, it works for me–not just emotionally but in terms of Lost’s alt-universe story.
And speaking of love: loved, loved Henry Ian Cusick’s performance in the episode. The man has a wonderfully dynamic, expressive face, and let me just mention two scenes you could notice it here: that crazy twitch in his lip just before he tries to insert his IV stand in Widmore’s skull, and his flashes of recognition as he’s strapped into the MRI machine, where literally his eyes have to do all the work.
It’s like, as we watch those eyes, our own eyes are starting to open as to how Lost’s final season works. Desmond, like some of the other characters, is living his “happy ending.” Now he must figure out how to escape it.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* There were a huge amount of callbacks in the episode, some of which I’m sure I missed, but a few of my favorites: the parallelism of Penny running the stairs; Eloise’s “What happened, happened”; Eloise’s reprising her role from Desmond’s vision; the return of both Minkowski and the bunny (named Angstrom, for John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom); Widmore pouring Des the 60-year-old Scotch.
* Yes, I paused on Faraday’s quantum-physics sketch. No, I have no idea what it means. But a question: will he, at some point, come to realize that undoing the H-bomb’s changing of the future—if that’s what it comes down to—will mean negating his own existence?
* In the alt-universe, Penny–Penny Milton–is still Faraday’s half-sister. Who is her mother? [Update: Or would it be crazy to ask, Who is her father? Why the new surname?]
* Note the “Milton.” In Paradise Lost, John Milton addressed the notion of God placing man in a world in which he had free will, not unlike Jacob. Go ahead and run with that.
* Desmond seems equally eager at the end to help Widmore, and to follow Zombie Sayid, who tells him Widmore’s people are not to be trusted. It may just be exhaustion, but I can’t yet explain this.
* I’m not sure if Charlie running in a hospital gown was supposed to be funny. But a dude running in a hospital gown is pretty much never not funny.