“Flashes Before Your Eyes” (originally aired 02/14/2007)

Noel: Whenever I research a TV episode, I’m often a little taken aback when I see its original airdate. In my memory I tend to lump a series into the era in which it debuted, and I forget that it may have lasted long enough to run parallel to other shows—and to real-world events. For example, it’s odd to me how much of Friends aired post-9/11, because that show defines “1990s.” And I’m fascinated by how the parameters of what constitutes a “season” have changed over the decades, whenever I recall that most of M*A*S*H’s ended in March.

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The airdate for “Flashes Before Your Eyes” is significant for a couple of reasons. First off, the episode originally ran on Valentine’s Day, which is apt, given that it’s about Lost’s most romantic couple: Desmond and Penny. For all the dramatic tension that Lost’s writers tried to generate from the Jack-Kate-Sawyer love triangle (and then quadrangle, once Juliet entered the picture), they also kept introducing new characters that a lot of fans found more compelling than the originals. Maybe that’s because by the end of season two Lost had figured out how to construct characters that better fit the master-plot, or maybe the excessive flashbacking of the first three seasons just exhausted a lot of the interest in the 815 survivors, making any new characters and new stories more welcome. (Another theory: Once Lost was an established hit, it was able to attract better actors.) Whatever the reason, by this point in the season three, Desmond had become one of the show’s most fascinating heroes, and his troubled love affair with Penny had become maybe Lost’s best off-Island storyline.

“Flashes Before Your Eyes” falls a notch below season four’s “The Constant” when it comes to Desmond/Penny stories—but that’s mainly because “The Constant” is one of television’s great achievements, let alone Lost’s. If I were making a list of Top 10 Lost episodes though, “Flashes Before Your Eyes” would be a strong contender, because it features so much of what makes the show special: impossible choices, mind-bending twists, and spiritual/philosophical yearning.

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“Flashes Before Your Eyes” is also noteworthy for shaking up the series’ structure a little—something that would soon be happening more often. Rather than jumping between the action on The Island and a related flashback, all of the Island business is presented as a framing device, as Charlie and Hurley get Desmond drunk to try and coax him into explaining why he suddenly, to quote our Hugo, “sees the future, dude.” The bulk of the episode then is an uninterrupted off-Island Desmond story, though not one that can be called a “flashback,” per se. Instead, Desmond actually relives—with nearly full awareness of what’s happening—the moment from his past when he backed away from asking Penny to marry him. It’s a flashback only inasmuch as we’re told that this is what happened to Desmond after The Swan exploded: He traveled back in time, and spent a few days in London before being yanked back to The Island.

That one little storytelling wrinkle makes a huge difference in the mood and meaning of “Flashes Before Your Eyes,” which becomes a kind of “Last Temptation Of Desmond Hume.” Desmond being given the chance to re-experience the happiness he once felt with Penny—and then being told by the similarly unstuck-in-time jewelry store clerk that the universe demands he make the same choice to break up with her that he made years ago—adds a layer of poignancy to this story that merely contrasting it with some Island B- and C-plot wouldn’t have.

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That’s not to say that what happens on The Island isn’t highly connected to this “flashback,” though. Specifically, the lesson Desmond derives from his little sojourn to London is that he can’t permanently affect the future, and that his premonitions that Charlie’s “gonna die” are bound to come true. Those two little tidbits will have huge repercussions, both at the end of this season and for the rest of Lost.

Which brings me to the other relevant point about when “Flashes Before Your Eyes” aired. On February 25th, 11 days later, NBC broadcast “Company Man,” the best episode of Heroes (written by Pushing Daisies/Hannibal honcho Bryan Fuller). At the time, Heroes was being hailed as a show that had learned from Lost “what not to do” with a serialized, densely mythological action-adventure show, and “Company Man” was exhibit A in the “Heroes is better than Lost” argument. But as you noted last week, Myles, in retrospect the excellent “Not In Portland” signaled the start of a Lost comeback, which “Flashes Before Your Eyes” confirmed. Neither episode really pushes the master-plot forward in a major way (although “Flashes Before Your Eyes” does introduce the mysterious jewelry store clerk (credit as Eloise Hawking), as well as the idea that the universe “course-corrects” whenever someone tries to alter their destiny). And there are a few rocky episodes ahead before season three kicks into high gear at the end—ultimately kicking Heroes’ ass with their respective season finales. But I remember “Flashes Before Your Eyes” being highly reassuring at the time, as a reminder that so long as Lost was capable of producing an episode this good, it was going to be worth following across any rough patches.

I want to talk more about fate and duty—the recurring themes for Desmond episodes—but Myles, what do you make of the formal deviances of “Flashes Before Your Eyes?” And do you recall the great Lost/Heroes wars of ’07?

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Myles: “Don’t you dare rewrite history,” Penny tells Desmond, and I take that advice to heart. The institutional history of Lost is something I referenced in greater detail last week, but your evocation of “Company Man” here rightfully reminds us that Lost exists in a larger context. And so the initial reception was not simply understood relative to Lost as a contained—albeit complex—entity, but rather Lost as part of a larger television landscape.

I remember those wars well, and hold onto “Company Man” as Heroes’ finest hour, but even at the time I was skeptical of claims that Lost was broken in ways Heroes was not. And while 2007 Myles had a lot of thoughts on this subject, in hindsight the point is clear: whereas “Company Man” was a case of Heroes’ abandoning its general storytelling strategies to create an exceptional hour of television, Lost created strong hours like “Flashes Before Your Eyes” by digging deeper into the strategies they had already developed.

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Don’t get me wrong, “Flashes Before Your Eyes” is distinguished by its flashback, which is a character recalling a sequence of events in which said character relives a series of previous events—there’s no other episode of the show identical to it. However, the themes found in this episode—returning to your past, reflecting on your choices, confronting your “fate”—are inherent to the flashback structure, and to the way we understand the show’s characters. Lost didn’t need to reinvent the wheel in order to blow open their mythology and embrace the temporal—all they had to do was to hold their hands in a different position on the wheel, with Desmond occupying both the position of the subject and the spectator in his own life, as though he watched his own flashback episode.

Lost was consistently vague about whether we could understand its flashbacks as memories the characters are distinctly reflecting on in the context of the episode itself. In “Not In Portland,” for example, we could surmise that Juliet would logically be reflecting on the steps that brought her to the island after Ben gives her the opportunity to return home, and would have likely been thinking about those fateful events throughout this tying process. However, the show rarely makes clear a one-to-one relationship between the transitioning scenes in and out of the flashbacks and the flashbacks themselves, meaning the flashbacks function less as explicit recollections and more as a selective sequence of events that have value to character in the way they are valued—either directly or indirectly—by characters.

Desmond’s temporal displacement gives him greater agency, though. He may not have chosen to journey back to the days leading up to his separation from Penny, but he’s there nonetheless, and he must live the experience of confronting his past and reconciling it with his present. The slow disruption of his former existence by the Island—the numbers on the parcel delivery, the polar bear on the wall, the appearance of Charlie—means this is far from just a “memory,” and is instead an effort to reconcile who he is with who he was. So much of the show has been focused on characters having experiences that put their lives into perspective, and which undoubtedly force reflection on how the experience of crash-landing—or shipwrecking, or being coerced—onto the island would alter their past and future actions. Desmond is the (first) character to put this into practice, but it’s in an environment—whether real or virtual, that particular point is less clear—that won’t allow it, with Hawking governing over the universe in question.

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It also, despite the fact that the episode exists almost exclusively as flashback, manages to connect well to the island storyline itself. The entire story is about Desmond’s cowardice being reframed as sacrifice: where once Desmond was too afraid to marry Penny in light of her father’s disapproval and his own perception of his self-worth, this time he makes the choice not to marry her in light of what he perceives as his larger responsibility. And whereas the second season began with Desmond running away from his responsibility, the third season ended with him taking it on, and “Flashes Before Your Eyes” does a great job of reframing Desmond’s esoteric behavior in this light. The twist—that it was Charlie, not Claire, who he has saved from electrocution and drowning—is a tough moment, but it also makes Charlie’s appearance in the “flashback” prescient, and for the first time gives Desmond a clear goal on the island in addition to his goal to return to Penny. It’s a strong piece of character work, in much the same way—if not the same form—as the series’ strongest episodes.

Noel: Charlie’s appearance in London is also an example of this episode’s charmingly puckish sense of humor. When Charlie sings “Wonderwall” and gets to the line “you’re gonna be the one that saves me”…well, that’s quite a premonition, isn’t it?

It’s also a command, which is pretty much par for the course for Desmond episodes. I think one of the reasons why Lost fans were so instantly drawn to Desmond is because he suffers so nobly, and so relatably. He’s a workaday grunt in a lot of ways, who spends years pushing a button, and turns his back on the woman he loves, because that’s what he believes he has to do. At the end of the “Flashes Before Your Eyes” flashback, as Desmond stumbles into one of his own predictions, gets clunked on the head, and wakes up on the island, there’s something so sad in the way he cries, “Let me go back one more time.” This is the Desmond Hume story: Even when he gets to be with Penny, he doesn’t appreciate it enough until after he’s pulled back to his world-saving responsibilities. At least in this episode he realizes that even if he can’t change fate, he can stall it—and that maybe if he does that enough he’ll be able to carve out something like a happy life.

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But back to the subject of Lost’s reputation around the time this episode aired, and how it’s so different in retrospect. Along with being pleasantly surprised to see that “Flashes Before Your Eyes” aired on Valentine’s Day, I enjoyed looking back through some of the reviews from February of 2007—not all of which were glowing. This was the era when viewers were starting to complain about the paucity of “answers” from Lost, and at the time, “Flashes Before Your Eyes” seemed to some critics like another episode that didn’t move the audience any closer to the finish line.

What a pleasure it is then for us to get to play Desmond with this episode and this season: to walk back through it fully conscious of where we’re headed, while understanding how important it is to enjoy the company, while we can.

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Stray observations:

  • Boy, London looks lovely in this episode, doesn’t it? I’ve always been a big fan of Lost’s globe-hopping, which is one of the elements that no one could’ve predicted when the show debuted—back when people wondered how ABC could eke enough story out of a single island. [NM]
  • True, although the show has its usual issues with how far virtual backdrops could help them pull off the trickery involved in creating “London.” There are some shots on the Thames that betray the conceit, but I did appreciate how the reveal of Desmond and Penny’s photo being done against the fake backdrop steers into the lack of verisimilitude. [MM]
  • Per last week’s tremendous oral history from Javier Grillo-Marxuach, I appreciated how the episode used the physicist to explore the scientific potential for time travel, in line with the network’s desire for practical logic supporting the show’s “supernatural” elements. It doesn’t rip the show from its science fiction roots, but it offers the possibility of rational explanation, which would further Desmond’s own struggle over its meaning. [MM]
  • I don’t want to dwell too much about Eloise Hawking, whose role in the series become more pronounced in the later seasons. But I do so love the half-Matrix/half-Wrinkle In Time quality she brings to her scenes in this episode. She’s both the classic fantasy story “explainer” and the dotty little old British lady of so many children’s books. [NM]
  • Daddy(-in-Law) Issues Alert: We’ve had plenty of evidence to suggest that Charles Widmore was kind of a terrible person, but there’s something about the display with the whiskey that puts him over the top. If he wasn’t in the same show as Anthony Cooper, I feel like we’d see him as even more of a monster than we already do. [MM]
  • Since you brought up the lyrical play with “Wonderwall”—which is also, undoubtedly, calling out the Oasis overtones in Charlie’s back story—I also got a good chuckle out of the use of Sarah McLachlan’s “Building A Mystery” over one of the early Desmond and Penny scenes. [MM]
  • Myles Has To Go Back: Per your discussion of past reviews, my own was fairly positive, although it presages—fittingly, given the episode—my terrible 2007 opinion on “Greatest Hits” as I discuss the question of whether we care if Charlie dies: “Honestly, at this point, do we care? While nature’s at it, they can pick off the two unseen newbies as well and…you could probably kill some randoms too. I’d like to be able to get a better scale of things, it would be for the best.” [MM]

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Spoiler Station (only read if you’ve seen the entire series):

  • In retrospect, “Flashes Before Your Eyes” kind of lays the thematic groundwork for season six, doesn’t it? When we arrive at the “flash sideways,” we’re eventually told that the reason why the 815 survivors were stuck together in purgatory is because they meant so much to each other during their time on The Island. In this episode Desmond goes back to the past rather than slipping into another life, but the principle is kind of the same: He’s back with the person he loves once more, and the reason why doesn’t matter as much as the opportunity to see her again. [NM]
  • Extending that point, I would argue that Desmond’s flashback most signals the Flash Sideways’ interest in intersections of various versions of the self. Here, Desmond as we know him is forced to relive the steps of a previous version of Desmond, with the two worlds over time folding in on one another. The Flash Sideways suffered from stringing this out too long and focusing on mystery over meaning, but the idea of these new identities intersecting with their old ones is a huge part of their value, and something they definitely play with here. [MM]

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