Saturday, June 25, 2011

"Lost" Fifteen Favorites: "The Constant"

“I know I’ve ruined things. I know you think things are over between us, but they’re not. If there’s any part of you that still believes in us, just give me your number.”

We’re finally finishing up “Lost” Fifteen Favorites with what is not only, in my opinion, the very best episode of “Lost” overall, but my absolute all-time favorite episode of television. It’s “The Constant,” of course. “The Constant” works so well for two major reasons. The first is that it tells a largely contained story. Someone new to the series could probably figure out the basics of what’s happening. Crazy Scottish dude is traveling back and forth in time, and he needs to talk to his estranged girlfriend in order to fix it. The other thing that makes this episode work so well is that even though it’s goes a bit off the deep end with the genre and the timey-wimeyness, it’s grounded in emotion. It’s grounded in Desmond and Penny’s relationship and history, and that is universal. And okay, because it’s “The Constant,” I’m going to add a third wonderful thing about it to my list. The editing of the final, iconic phone call scene is sublime. I still tear up a bit when I watch it, and I can’t even count how many times that’s been. The actual lines and the acting are both wonderful too, of course, but the way the scene cuts back and forth between Desmond and Penny gives it an urgency that couldn’t be achieved otherwise. So in a nutshell, that’s why this is my favorite episode of television.

The episode opens with Frank flying Desmond and Sayid to the Kahana via helicopter. It looks like there’s a storm rolling in, and Frank has to fly right through a thunderhead to stay on the vector Daniel figured out. I guess the turbulence from the storm must have knocked the helicopter of its course slightly, because Desmond suddenly wakes up back in his Army days with the Royal Scottish Regiment. He’s just waking up in the barracks, and he gets in trouble from the Drill Sergeant for lagging behind everyone else. Desmond thinks that what he remembers of being on the helicopter was all a dream. To punish the troops for Desmond’s perceived laziness, the morning PT is extra rigorous. In the middle of crunches, Des finds himself back on the helicopter. But it soon becomes apparent he has no clue where he actually is. He doesn’t even know Sayid, and he freaks out demanding to know how Sayid knows his name.

On the Island, there’s been no word of the helicopter’s fate, and by their perception, it’s been about a day since Desmond and Sayid left. Charlotte is evasive when Jack starts to demand to know what happened. Juliet, who learned to be quite perceptive during her time with the Others, points out that Charlotte must know something she’s not telling, otherwise she would be more worried. Dan, always wanting to make peace, tries to give an explanation for what’s going on. And also because he’s Dan, the explanation doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. He talks about perception of time and such, but the important part is that if people leaving the island don’t follow the precise bearings he calculated, there could be “side effects.” Desmond is showing side effects alright. Somehow Sayid and Frank get him calmed down enough that Frank can safely land the helicopter, but as soon as they land, he starts ranting and raving about how he’s not supposed to be there. The crew are going to take him to sick bay.

Again Desmond is transported back to his Army days. He tells one of his buddies what he saw, and of course the buddy’s first reaction is that Desmond must be trying to get kicked out of the service. Desmond realizes there was only one thing he recognized form the helicopter world, and that was the iconic photo of himself and Penny. Thinking that maybe Penny is a part of all this, he heads for a phone booth to call her. A fellow soldier, pissed as Desmond because of the tougher PT, knocks the change out of his hand, and as Desmond bends down to pick the change up, he zooms back to the freighter again. This is where we first get to know the surly and loving it Martin Keemy. Keemy is evil, but he just has so much fun with it that he’s entertaining to watch. Keemy and an equally surly looking guy named Omar lock Desmond in the sickbay, and of course Desmond starts furiously pounding on the door and yelling that he’s not supposed to be there (sensing a theme?).

Sayid thinks maybe someone back on the Island will understand what’s going on, so he asks Frank to use the sat phone. Frank trades the phone for Sayid’s gun, and Sayid uses the phone to call Jack. Jack passes the phone to Dan, and Dan immediately wants to know if Desmond has been exposed to high levels of radiation or electromagnetism. Jack and Juliet both give quite the WTF faces at this remark, which I find odd considering there was that little thing called a purple sky at the end of season 2. Desmond was right smack in the middle of a whole mess of electromagnetism when he turned the failsafe key. I guess that shows that Desmond wasn’t really all that close to Jack and Juliet. Charlie and Hurley and Jin were more his people, even if Jack was the first Lostie he ever met, before either of them even got to the Island.

When Des calms down a bit, he meets another patient in sickbay, George Minkowski. Minkowski is unstuck in time as well, although it’s his present-day consciousness traveling back to when he was riding on a Ferris wheel. With Desmond, it’s his past consciousness traveling forward in time. The ship’s doctor arrives and gives Minkowski a sedative, and this makes Desmond freak out (again). The doctor barely has time to ask him a few questions before Des is back in 1996. He finally uses the phone booth to call Penny, but she’s not having any of it. She is understandably still really pissed that he ran off and joined the army instead of proposing to her, so no matter how much he says he needs her, she doesn’t want to speak to him. She’s even moved out of the flat they shared.

Back in 2004, Sayid arrives with the sat phone just as Desmond is coming to. The doctor doesn’t think talking to the Island is a good idea, and he sets off the alarm. Sayid has to barricade the door to keep Keemy and his goons out long enough for Des to talk to Dan. After hearing Desmond’s story, Dan tells Desmond that the next time he’s in 1996, he should go to Oxford and find him in Queens College physics department. Desmond does just this, but Dan doesn’t quite know what to make of him when they first meet. When Des tells him that he’s from the future, Daniel thinks his colleagues are playing a practical joke on him. Des has to use the code words future Dan told him. He tells him certain settings (which include some of the Numbers, of course) for a device, and he says that he “knows about Eloise.” At that, Dan ushers Desmond into his lab to see “the things that Oxford frowns upon.” While Dan is setting up his experiment, he tries to understand what’s going on. He wants to know why he doesn’t remember this meeting in the future. Probably because future Dan’s brain is a bit scrambled. After treating Eloise the rat with some radiation set at the levels Desmond told him, Dan and Desmond watch as Eloise runs a maze perfectly that she isn’t supposed to learn for several hours.

Back in 2004, Des and Sayid are locked in sickbay by Keemy and his goons. Minkowski tells Desmond that he’s been getting a lot of calls on the ship for Desmond that he wasn’t supposed to answer. The calls were from Penny. Des doesn’t have much time to process that before he wakes up in a chair in Dan’s lab back in 1996. Unfortunately, Eloise is dead, and Desmond probably will be soon as well if he doesn’t get himself stuck back in time where he’s supposed to be. At this point, I actually wondered if the show’s producers might actually kill Desmond. Desmond demands to know how to survive this, and Dan says he needs a constant. Right now, Des isn’t anchored in either time period. He needs to find something or someone familiar to him in both 1996 and 2004. Desmond instantly thinks of Penny and tries to call her, but the number has been disconnected.

The switches between time periods start coming faster now. In 2004, Minkowski offers to take Desmond and Sayid to the radio room to try and call Penny, even though the communications equipment has been pretty badly sabotaged. They find that the once locked sickbay door is now open, and Minkowski speculates that Des and Sayid have a friend on the boat. Before they can leave, Des flashes back to 1996, where Charles Widmore is trying to win the diary of the Black Rock’s first mate at auction. I remember this being a really great surprise when I first saw it. “Lost” is certainly a rewarding show for those of us who keep track of the mythology. Desmond talks to Widmore because he wants Penny’s number, and Widmore makes Desmond follow him into the reset room to continue their conversation. Widmore does like to take any possible opportunity to demean Desmond, of course. Widmore gives Desmond Penny’s address, because he thinks it would be good for Penny to tell Desmond off personally, then he leaves the rest room, still leaving the water on in the sink.

When Des flashes back to 2004, he, Sayid, and Minkowski make their way to the communications room. The place is a mess, with seemingly every wire cut. Sayid, because he’s badass like that, just nonchalantly says that he only needs a minute to rig up a way for Des to call Penny. And then the stakes get ratcheted up big time. Sayid notices that Desmond’s nose is starting to bleed like Minkowski’s has been. To make things worse, Minkowski starts to struggle to come back from a flash, and he dies in Desmond’s arms. Sayid does get a phone rigged up quickly, but there’s still one problem. Des doesn’t know Penny’s new phone number. He decides to take care of that on his next flash to 1996. He goes to Penny’s house and just flat out begs for her phone number, promising he won’t call her until December 24, 2004. And for some reason, Penny actually listens to him and gives him the number. Then she kicks him out.

Back in 2004, Desmond gives Sayid the number, and Sayid dials before handing the phone to Desmond. After quite a few rings, Penny actually picks up, and I think Desmond is just as surprised as I was the first time I watched this episode. Penny tells Desmond that she knows about the Island, and when she spoke to Charlie, she knew Desmond was there. As the battery on Desmond’s phone wears out, Des and Penny both pledge their love and promise to reunite. That’s the scene that gets me every time. After the battery dies out, Desmond is back to his old self again. He recognizes Sayid, and when Sayid asks if he’s okay, Des says he’s “perfect.” That would be a great note to end on by itself, but we take a quick detour back to the Island, where Dan is going through his notebook. He has made the notation that if anything should go wrong, Desmond should be his Constant. Unfortunately, I don’t think that ever came into play, because it was good fun at the time.

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