Over the past week on Twitter, Damon Lindelof had pledged that “the conversation will change” after “Happily Ever After,” while Carlton Cuse promised “a new chapter in the season.” Add in the fact that Lindelof and Cuse wrote this episode, that Lost A-lister Jack Bender directed it, and that it’s focused on Desmond—the character who’s provided some of the show’s most mind-bending and emotional moments—and it’s fair to say that the bar was set pretty high for “Happily Ever After.”
And damned if Darlton didn’t clear it. With room to spare.
I want to begin at the end, with the last five minutes, which had me on the edge of my seat and more outright nervous than any other stretch of Lost this season, outside of maybe the climactic scenes of “The Substitute” and “Sundown.” Right before Alt-Desmond (or can I even can call him that anymore?) slipped into the back of George Minkowski’s limo and asked him to be the Abaddon to his Locke, to drive him around Los Angeles to round up the 815ers so he could “show them something,” I was certain that Alt-Desmond was going to get killed. I actually breathed a sigh of relif when Minkowski didn’t pull out a gun and shoot Desmond right in the groceries.
Maybe I was still anxious from the scene immediately before, on The Island, where Desmond agrees to help Widmore prevent The End Of Everything, then suddenly Sayid emerges from the shadows to whisk Desmond away. Once again, I was briefly terrified, sure that Desmond, now so full of answers we haven't yet heard, was about to be snuffed. Instead, he falls right into step with Sayid, calmly saying “Aye, of course” to Sayid’s offer of escape. Does he go with Sayid because that’s actually part of Widmore’s plan? Was he lying to Widmore and hoping to escape all along? Or is it just that Desmond, never “a big fan of surprises” before, is beginning to accept his lot as The Guy Who Ends Up Places?
There were a lot of questions raised by “Happily Ever After,” but I want to stick with two big ones:
1. What Does Desmond Know?
Nearly all of “Happily Ever After” takes place in the sideways world, after a profoundly creepy on-Island opening sequence in which Widmore’s Nerd Squad rouses Desmond from a stupor and then drags him into a shack in which two gigantic electromagnetic thingies blast our beloved brother into another life. We pick up then with Alt-Desmond at the L.A. airport, where he offers assistance to Claire and gets a helpful tip from Hurley, before hopping in a limo with Minkowski and heading to the office of his boss, Charles Widmore.
Widmore asks his favorite employee to babysit a musician: Drive Shaft’s own Charlie Pace, whom Widmore’s wife would like to perform alongside their son at a charity event. When Desmond picks up Charlie from jail, Charlie proceeds to walk right into traffic (I was just waiting for Des to shout, “You gon’ die, Chahlee!" weren't you?) and then to deliver a long monologue to Desmond about how when he almost died on the plane back in "LA X," Charlie had a revelation that the world around them wasn’t exactly real, and that he really belonged in the arms of a pretty blond woman he’d never met. He offers to show Desmond what he means, by steering his car off a harbor and into the water, where the two proceed to re-enact scenes from their favorite Lost episode, “Through The Looking Glass.”
Later, while being treated at the hospital, Desmond starts experiencing deja vu when an MRI technician sticks him inside yet another electromagnetic thingy—one that makes noises that reminiscent of the countdown clock in The Swan. Desmond has a flash and remembers Penny, and demands to be let out of the MRI. He then runs into Jack, and then into a fleeing Charlie, and asks the latter if he knows who Penny is. Frustrated by the lack of answers, Desmond eventually ends up meeting with Mrs. Widmore—Mrs. Eloise Widmore—who’s none too pleased when Desmond starts asking questions about Penny. She pulls him aside, as is her wont, and warns him that this kind of questioning of the reality they’re in “is, in fact, a violation.” (Of “the rules,” no doubt.)
When Desmond wakes up on The Island at the end of the episode—after some more business that I’ll get to in a moment—the image of him rising from the ground is clearly meant to parallel “The Constant.” Much as he did when he time-traveled, and much as he did when Eloise spoke to him about destiny in “Flashes Before Your Eyes,” Desmond now appears to be moving his consciousness back-and-forth from The Island to elsewhere. Moreover, Desmond wakes up knowing what Island Widmore was talking about when he warned Desmond that he’d have to make a choice and a sacrifice to save everything they both held dear. Desmond now says he understands; but what does he understand? That little bit of mystery began the sublime final five minutes of “Happily Ever After,” turning a good episode into a great one, in my opinion.
One thing’s not a mystery though; at least not anymore. The whole Alt-World-as-Lost-epilogue theory? I think think we have to call that off, at least in its current form. That is to say: I wouldn’t be shocked if Alt-World ends up figuring heavily into how Lost ends, but I don’t think we’re going to end with Jack waking up on 815 and Season Six’s sideways about to start. And that, to me at least, is a great relief.
2. What Is Desmond’s Choice?
One of the main reasons I loved this episode is that it continued to muddy the waters—Temple-style!—when it comes to the question of “good” versus “evil.” I was dismayed and a little depressed a few weeks ago by “Sundown,” which seemed to argue for the impossibility of free will, as character after character was offered a choice that was no real choice at all. That theme returned here again. When Desmond explained to Charlie that he could do Widmore a favor or he could see his career end for good, Charlie answers, “Doesn’t really seem like a choice.” And when Widmore tells Desmond that he needs his help or else their entire world will cease to exist, that doesn’t really seem like a choice either.
But by the end of “Happily Ever After,” the question is a lot more open. Desmond meets with Daniel Fara… I mean Daniel Widmore, who's intrigued by Desmond’s quest for a woman he’s never met. He tells Desmond a story about a similar experience of deja vu, and how he woke up and scribbled a complicated bit of quantum mechanics in his notebook. (Asked what it means, Daniel says, “I’m a musician. I have no idea.”) He also tells Desmond that Penny does in fact exist—and she’s Dan's half-sister! So Desmond tracks Penny down at the same stadium where (in another life) he once ran into Jack, and when he shakes Penny’s hand, he passes out, at the exact moment (presumably) that he wakes up on The Island.
Now I’ll leave it to you lot to puzzle out whether Daniel was drawn to tell Desmond about blowing up reality with a nuclear bomb because Desmond is Daniel’s Constant, or if Desmond began consciousness-traveling after he met Penny because Penny is his Constant. (Or if Desmond stopped consciousness-traveling at the moment, which is also a possibility.) I’m more curious about why Desmond seems so keen to wake up the other 815ers after he meets Penny, especially since he now knows that he can find his one true love in the Alt-World.
Is it because he wants the others to have a real choice too? To realize that they don’t have to live or die by the good graces of all these Island and Off-Island gamesmen, but can in fact quit the game entirely? Desmond calls Penny “an idea,” and she’s an idea that seems to sum up all the dissatisfaction he’d been unable to admit to before. But now she’s not just an idea; she’s a real person that he can touch and talk to and take out for coffee. So he chooses to do just that. Soon we will know the ramifications.
-When Widmore tells Desmond that he’s back on The Island, he says, “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling.” The answer? Desmond’s IV-stand-whippin’ mad! And who can blame him? It’s been so hard for him to leave this hunk of rock, which still—still!—“isn’t done with him.”
-Widmore does apologize though to Desmond for yanking him away from his family, continuing the conciliatory, helpful Widmore tone so familiar from his last few Lost appearances. Is he really trying to make things right because “my son died?” Or is he using emotional appeals to accomplish some other end? Notice that no matter how nice Widmore seemed in Alt-World, when Desmond disappointed him, he snapped, “When I give you a job to do, I expect you to do it!” That version of Widmore is apparently always close to the surface.
-Great line from Eloise: “It’s a tragedy we haven’t met before. It’s about time.” Yes, it is about “time,” isn’t it? Or at least it was last season. And speaking of last season, here’s Eloise’s thoughts on Desmond’s failure to secure Charlie: “What happened, happened.”
-Daniel talks about having his own flash when he sees a redhead at a museum—clearly meant to be Charlotte. Even better: she was eating a chocolate bar.
-Lost does love its bunnies, don’t it? Like poor widdle Angstrom, waiting patiently in his cage for his chance to get frazzled by electromagnetic energy. Happy Easter, Angstrom!
-You know what I kept thinking about, watching The Generator blast folks? Well, two things: the Hulk origin story, and that scene from Altered States where William Hurt slams against a wall to jar himself out of his, well, altered state.
-So good to see Charlie again for more than just a cameo. Too bad that he and Penny have been living in an alternate reality called Flash Forward.
-Every time I saw Minkowski, I turned to my wife and said, “Hey, it’s Oscar-winner Fisher Stevens!”
-Another way I know it’s a good episode of Lost: when I realize the hour’s almost up and I feel a sense of imminent loss.
-Desmond was moved to The Island directly from the hospital by Widmore’s people. Does Widmore have some pull with the hospital staff or does that hospital just have really lax security?
-As of this week, I’ve written over 25,000 words about Season Six. To put that in context, National Novel Writing Month requires that submissions be at least 50,000 words long. Halfway there!
Clues, coincidences and crazy-ass theories:
-Eloise uses the phrase “not ready yet” regarding Desmond’s visions of Penny and The Island, a phrase which was echoed tonight in the rushed on-Island preparation of The Generator, and also in some of the more cryptic pronouncements some characters have made this season: like Richard telling Hurley and Jack that they “wouldn’t believe” him if he told them where he’d been. Just what is everyone waiting for, I wonder?
-Desmond is chosen by Widmore for a special task because he’s survived a catastrophic electromagnetic event before. Is The Failsafe Key—or something similar—about to come back into play?
-Two classic Widmore/Desmond signifiers in the former’s Los Angeles office: a glass of McCutcheon and a sailboat.
-Did Desmond get driven into the drink at the same harbor where Ben plugged him last season?
-Before Penny showed up, I was trying to figure out the chronology by which she wouldn’t exist in Alt-World. Like: If Charles was never leader of The Others, then he never snuck off The Island to father Penny. Except that he apparently did father Penny in this reality. And Daniel too. But in which order? And when did he and Eloise leave The Island? Or in the wake of Eloise’s implication that this whole reality is manufactured, have we been thinking about the alt-chronology all wrong? In other words, can we now assume that not only is the Alt-World not an epilogue, but it’s also not a reality that diverged directly from the reality with which we’re familiar? All our past questions about whether people did get on or off The Island before Jughead, or whether Jughead even sunk The Island… I think we can toss all those out the window.
-If a near-death experience in Alt-World causes you to see The Truth, does the opposite happen on The Island? If so, does this back up my theory that Sun’s whack on the head last week sent part of her reeling into the alterna-verse, where she doesn’t know English?
-I feel like a dolt for not mentioning this before, given how much I’ve talked about Lost’s “twin” theme in the past, but isn’t this whole alternate reality concept sort of the ultimate example of twinning?
-Not to go all Doc Jensen on you, but if you’ve never read the comic book Astro City, I’d strongly recommend seeking out the collection Confession, which includes the Lost-relevant story “The Nearness Of You.” Here’s a recap.
-I’m sure the main tidbit from the Eloise scenes that a lot of Lost fans are going to go mad trying to decipher—in much the same way they tried to assign everybody “constants” two years ago—is in what way the Alt-World represents everyone’s fondest wish. Eloise says that Desmond shouldn’t rock the boat, because now he lives in a place where he has Widmore’s respect, which is what he’s always wanted. But that’s not all he’s always wanted, is it? What I’m trying to say is: Before we go sideways-by-sideways and try to figure out how each is some kind of wish-fulfillment, we should note that it’s clearly not that cut-and-dried. Either the Genie that’s granting wishes is from the Monkey’s Paw school of making dreams come true—always with a cruel twist—or Lost is trying to show that no version of reality will ever be exactly perfect for our heroes, whether it’s been officially approved by Jacob or Smokey. Me, I’m still clinging to my theory that Lost is going to turn out to be a show about how real heroes don’t micro-manage.