Lost, “The Constant”
I’m not entirely sure we’ve acquired enough distance from Lost to look back on it with new eyes. The feelings stirred by the show’s finale, either good or bad, are still too close to the surface for many of those who spent six seasons with it. While we have plenty of shows that produce plenty of water-cooler buzz (both actual and virtual), it still feels like there’s an Island-shaped hole in the television landscape. But regardless of where fans stand on Lost’s legacy, most would agree that “The Constant” is one of the show’s defining episodes, if not the defining one. It all depends on how you look at the show as a whole. For those deeply invested in the Island’s secrets, something like the third season finale “Through The Looking Glass” might be the show’s acme. But “The Constant” represents the humanist side of Lost better than any other, using its narrative trickery not to create riddles about smoke monsters and glowing caves, but rather a simple, powerful story about human connection.
The show builds up to a Christmas Eve phone call nearly a decade in the making, as wayward traveler of both time and space Desmond Hume frantically tries to connect with the love of his life, Penny Widmore, simultaneously in two different times separated by eight years. It’s a dizzying framework, one that nearly gave Lost co-executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse nosebleeds while constructing it. But the whole endeavor works not because it somehow out-Stephen Moffats Stephen Moffat; it works because of the beating heart at the center of all its timey-wimeyness, culminating in a holiday-season phone call that represents an emotional high point for the series.
In many ways, Lost came along at the absolute perfect time: high-definition television was in its nascent stages, gorgeously rendering the show’s exotic locales. The rise of DVRs allowed fans to pause and examine the Easter eggs strewn across episodes, designed by the show’s writers with DVR culture in mind. This in turn helped feed the rise of the Internet’s wiki-fication, with fansites popping up more often than Hurley said “dude.” Lost worked incredibly well as a piece of televised entertainment, but truly flourished as a collaborative effort between fans to piece together what was happening onscreen. Just as the show built an onscreen community from people whose only connection seemed to be leaving Sydney on the same flight, it also built a worldwide community based on shared love for the program.
After all, while the setting of The Island gave the show instant visual appeal and separation from other dramas on the air, its cast of characters truly made the show stand out. The survivors of Oceanic 815 represented a refreshing cross-section of a global population in a post-9/11 world. Premiering on Sept. 22, 2004, Lost was never truly about 9/11 in the ways that both 24 and Battlestar Galactica were. But the show dealt with that day’s aftermath in ways well beyond Sayid Jarrah’s time in the Iraqi Republican Army. For some, Lost was a show about hatches, hieroglyphics, and the Hanso Foundation; for others, Lost was about the ways in which society as a whole had splintered in the early part of the 21st century, and the ways in which individuals bonded together in small, discreet units in order to rebuild it, one cluster of people at a time. In that light, “The Constant” crystallizes the show’s main objective and dramatizes it to maximum effect.
By the time that “The Constant” originally aired on Feb. 28, 2008, the schism I just described started to show in the online community. Sure, disagreements had always existed. But with ABC agreeing with Lindelof and Cuse upon an end date for the show during season three, fans had started to think about what the show as a whole actually needed to achieve in those final years. “Looking Glass”— the first episode to employ flash-forwards—was a masterstroke in terms of narrative extension. But it also emphasized the different ways in which people were enjoying the show. If you wanted to go all Lost and break these two sides into camps following different leaders, you could say that one part of the Lost community viewed the mystery of the show as its centrally appealing aspect, and another saw the characters as the primary draw. One side sought answers. The other sought resolutions.
That this takes places on Christmas Eve is helpful in terms of tying all this into The A.V. Club Advent Calendar series, but “The Constant” isn’t really about Christmas Eve in and of itself. Yes, seeing Penny in front of a Christmas tree is a glorious image, and it works like gangbusters visually. But simply seeing the calendar aboard the Kahana was a relief for all that had used everything short of quantum physics to figure out when the hell anything actually happened on this show. Was a day of time on the Island the same as a day off of it? Was there even a world outside of the Island at all? The only way back wasn’t by a specific point on a compass, no matter what Ben Linus might have said. Rather, the only way back for Desmond was to point himself to the most important person in his life.
After all, Lost was a show about faith, but faith in other people rather than in a higher power. Sure, plenty of characters on the show wrestled with their respective religions. But the Unitarian church in which a crucial season six scene occurs is less about the physical space in which those people meet and more about the people themselves. Desmond uses the Kahana calendar to help affix a point in time at which he can call Penny. But that phone call isn’t about talking to someone during the holidays. It’s about the desire of everyone on the show to connect with someone else in fundamentally important ways.
The holidays serve as a yearly reminder for many to do exactly that. So we get in our cars, or hop on a plane, and return to our families. But what’s so wonderful about Lost is what’s so wonderful about many of my favorite shows: It shows the creation of a family bound not by blood but by common experience, mutual respect, and love. It’s easy to mock the amount of daddy/mommy issues on Lost, but it’s also easy to see how the show pivots away from “family” in the biological sense toward one defined in a global sense. Cheers showed the denizens of its bar bond with each other at their favorite watering hole, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer showed the Scooby Gang bonding over their favorite Hellmouth. And both are great. But Lost suggests that connections can run just as deep beyond the borders of our towns. They extend beyond our normal experiences. They reside in places that seem foreign but are actually home.
Given how everything played out in the series’ final season, watching “The Constant” feels like watching Lost in what Lindelof and Cuse would consider its purest form. It’s an episode in which crazy sci-fi weirdness services the characters, rather than swallowing them. We had seen seasons of material in which the weird purple energy at the heart of the Island obfuscated its nature, and served only to provoke as many questions as it answered. “The Constant” is not about the search for answers, but the search for connection. Lost never shied away from serving up mysteries. But I don’t think it ever said that answering them was the key to understanding the show. What was paramount were not the answers, but how these characters attempted to either solve them or resign themselves to life’s unknowable quandaries.
In “The Constant,” that energy at the heart of the Island isn’t there to baffle scientists from The Dharma Initiative. It serves as a conduit to reunite Desmond and Penny, even if only for a brief, heart-filling phone call aboard the Kahana. Desmond’s journey throughout the episode is a baffling, time-travelling affair in which we learn along with him what’s going on. But the throughline for the episode couldn’t be clearer: It’s about a guy who needs to get in touch with a girl. Simple. Direct. Strip away all the purple light, all the Island mysteries, all the smoke monsters, and here’s what Lost is all about: people finding their homes not in terms of physical locations, but in the arms of other people.
Does it make any sense that making a phone call will prevent a brain aneurism from killing Desmond? Not really. But we go with it, because the characters understand that there are things that feel emotionally true even if they can’t be explained. Sayid offering to help Desmond fix the communications equipment is akin to Penny giving her number to him in 1994: Both are leaps of faith they make based on their trust of a person they care about. And in Lost, making that leap was more important than learning the answer. Why does Penny stay home on Christmas Eve eight years later? Because she understood the limits of rational thought, and pushed past her mind into her heart to seek understanding there. Lost did that time and again throughout its run. To paraphrase John Lennon, Lost suggested that life is what happens when you’re busy running from smoke monsters.
Lost served up physical and temporal displacement in order to take characters out of their lives, have them examine those lives from a distance, and then reaffirm the type of people they wanted to be. The numbers that suffuse the show are themselves suffused with the personalities assigned to those numbers by Jacob. Those numbers don’t appear simply because it’s fun to count the amount of times that “23” appears onscreen. Those numbers appear throughout these characters’ lives because they are forever seeking each other out, whether they know it or not. They are, in many ways, one another’s constants. “Nobody does it alone, Jack,” says a certain someone in the finale, “You needed all of them, and they needed you.”
Desmond and Penny always needed each other, just as the passengers on Oceanic 815 needed each other. By taking these people out of space-time and isolating them with strangers, The Island forced each person to determine what was truly important to them. “We have to go back!” turned into a key phrase for the series, but its meaning shifted throughout the course of the show’s run. At first, it referred to getting off The Island back to their previous lives. Then, it meant returning to The Island they sought to escape. Finally, it referred not to geography but company: These people had to get back to each other, whether in this life or the next, brutha.
But if you had to pick one phrase from the show that established its humanist ethos, look no further than Jack’s line to the still-forming group in Season 1: “If we can’t live together… then we’re going to die alone.” It’s a statement not just about those people, but those at home watching the show as well. A glimpse into The Island’s history is filled with settlers that come and seek to either understand or conquer it. All of them fail, as laid out by The Man In Black. “They come. They fight. They destroy. They corrupt. It always ends the same.” Why do the 815ers succeed where others have failed? They don’t entirely succeed, if one looks at the death toll of the show. But it’s less about how they die and more about how they lived that determines their ultimate fate. Desmond doesn’t make amends with Penny on Christmas Eve in “The Constant”; he reaffirms a connection that always existed. In our best moments, we reaffirm that connection as well. The holidays offer us a reminder to do so, either with those that are here or absent. But if this show demonstrates anything, it’s that while certain people may be gone, they are never truly lost.
“The Constant” sets up that ethos, an ethos that informs everything from the pilot through the series finale, more clearly than anything else in the series’ run. Its emotional arc may not be as exciting for some as analyzing the glyphs inside The Temple, but it represents a profoundly simple yet powerful view of life. As Penny writes to Desmond in the season two finale, “…all we really need to survive is one person who truly loves us.” From there, communities such as the one formed in the wake of Oceanic 815’s crash can flourish. But it has to start from somewhere. And one person is a pretty great place to start.
Tomorrow: Christmastime is here