Lost: “The Variable”
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Lost: “The Variable”

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Lost

“The Variable”

Season 5, Episode 14

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“How did you get back here?”

Well, that’s what we'd all like to know, isn’t it? When Daniel Farday opens tonight’s episode of Lost with that question to Jack, he’s asking specifically about how the Ajira bunch wound up in 1977, but his question also has larger metaphysical implications. From episode one, Lost has been preoccupied with the notion of free will versus destiny, which means Daniel’s real question is: What particular life-path has brought Jack to this point? And is it as it’s supposed to be? According to Daniel, the answer to the latter question is, “No.”

“The Variable” was one of the most intense, action-packed episodes in Lost history, yet it was also one of the most philosophical, and thought-provoking—and one that confirmed some pieces of long-suspected Lost mythology while shaking up some others. At the center of the whole hour was Daniel Faraday: a man in a hurry, trying to maximize the time he has left before life-changing events occur. (Because with Daniel, everything’s always going to be about time.)

Specifically, Daniel claims early in “The Variable” that in about six hours, the DHARMA Initiative is going to tap into a pocket of electro-magnetic energy that’s going to have a “catastrophic” effect. This will go down in DI history as “the incident,” and will lead to The Swan station being repurposed as kind of elaborate venting system for the forces they’ve unleashed. Then one day Desmond will fail to push a button in time, and Oceanic 815 will crash, and Charles Widmore will send a freighter with Daniel Faraday on it, and so on and so on. So here’s what Daniel proposes: He wants Pierre Chang to order a general evacuation of the island. And then he’d like avert “the incident” by detonating a hydrogen bomb.

Apparently, the old Daniel Faraday of “whatever happened, happened” has had a change of heart during his years off the island in Ann Arbor. Where before he was focused on “constants,” now he’s thinking about “variables.” Maybe there are some random, destiny-bending elements out there. During his few remaining hours on the island, Daniel acts like a total wild card. He tells Dr. Chang that Miles is his son from the future. He goes against what he swore three years ago and tells young Charlotte to get off the island. He’s ready to throw off the shackles of fate and live the life he’s never been allowed to live before.

Cue flashbacks.

Much like the Miles backstory of “Some Like It Hoth,” the Tales Of Young Daniel in “The Variable” were far-reaching in scope and seasoned with little revelations and moments of poignancy.

-We see Daniel as a boy, playing the piano for Eloise and hearing from his mother that he’ll have to forget about frivolous pursuits like music because he has important scientific work to do. “It’s my… job… to keep you on your path,” she insists, while telling him he’ll have no time to dilly-dally. Daniel’s haughty response: “I can make time.”

-We see Daniel graduating from Oxford, and being forced by Eloise to leave his girlfriend/assistant Theresa behind so he can eat Indian food and receive the leather-bound journal that will be so central to his life.

-We see Crying Dan, from back in Season Four’s “Confirmed Dead,” and we learn that his brain has been fried from all his time-travel experiments, such that he weeps over the news of the crash of Oceanic 815 without really knowing why. Then he receives a visitor: Charles Widmore, who confesses that he staged the underwater O815 wreckage, and that he wants Daniel to travel to the island so that his brain will be healed and he can continue his important work.

-We see Daniel just before his trip to the island, unable to play the easy piano piece he knew as a kid, and receiving his final, fateful instructions from Eloise that he has to take Widmore’s offer and go to the island, for reasons she can’t really divulge (because they’re just too terrible).

And while this wasn’t really part of the Daniel flashbacks per se, since a lot of “The Variable” is also about Eloise Hawking I can’t leave the off-island action without noting the old lady’s presence at the hospital where Penny frets over Desmond’s gunshot wound. Long story short: Desmond’s going to be okay. Short story that needs to be longer: We also learn that, as suspected by many, Charles Widmore is Daniel’s father.

Now back to the island, where the pressure is building up to almost unbearable levels. That “paradise lost” feeling that’s been nagging Sawyer and Juliet ever since Jack and Kate and the gang returned becomes a full-blown reality in “The Variable,” as Daniel gets Jack and Kate to take him to The Hostiles so he can get his hydrogen bomb plan rolling, while Miles and Hurley and Jin join Sawyer and Juliet in packing their bags to head back to the beach. None of this, of course, comes easy. Jack and Sawyer bicker over whether they should leave the compound at all, with Sawyer pleading with Kate not to help Daniel and Juliet stepping in and giving Kate and Daniel the code for the sonic fence. “It’s over here for us,” she mutters. Meanwhile Radzinsky’s back in camp and on the prowl, first confronting a gun-toting Jack, Kate and Daniel, and then storming into Sawyer and Juliet’s house and finding the tied-up Phil in the closet.

I imagine there might be some quibbles with what happens next, both in terms of the shocking final scene—which I’ll get to in a moment—and the sudden revelation from Daniel that maybe people can change the future. Me, I’m withholding judgment on the latter point until I see how it plays out. I can see it being a major disaster, with all that alternate timeline hoo-hah and character re-setting that Lost has tried so hard to avoid. Or I can see it taking the series to an even deeper place, thematically. Or—as the old Daniel indicated—maybe nothing will change. Maybe that’s the point the series is ultimately going to make, that the big things don’t change, but that the individuals experiencing those things still do. (More thoughts on that below.)

Anyway, even if it turns out that we’re heading down a very dangerous narrative path here, I still loved “The Variable” because it was exciting as all get-out. As we reach the end of Season Five, we seem to be rushing headlong towards crisis, as is usually the case with Lost finales. The writers are experts at ratcheting up the intensity as they approach finish lines. Nevertheless, this episode still found time for some tender moments, like Sawyer grabbing Juliet’s hand, and him apologetically asking, “You still got my back?” (Her terse, I-love-you-but-I’m-still-pissed-at-you reply: “You still got mine?”) And it had time for some quirky moments, like Daniel asking if Kate had any guns “for a beginner,” shortly before the thrillingly choreographed shootout with Radzinsky and his crew.

Mostly though, I loved the way this episode kept introducing the concept of time in subtle ways, whether it be Daniel noting that Pierre Chang arrives at The Swan “right on time” or the way he tells Jack and Kate he’ll be “back in ten minutes” before he goes to talk to Charlotte. Everything surrounding Daniel just seemed so orderly and on-schedule, including his appearance in the mysterious season-opening scene (repeated tonight), and his fateful arrival in The Hostiles camp, where he’s ultimately shot and killed by… Eloise Hawking.

Why did Ms. Hawking groom her son to be the victim of her younger self? Will Daniel’s H-bomb plan effectively bring him back to life? If Daniel could go back in time and do it all over again, would he maybe take off his jumpsuit and come into The Hostiles camp with his gun down? Or did all of this happen exactly as it was supposed to happen?

And then there’s this: Just how much am I going to miss Daniel Faraday? A lot, I fear. A tremendous lot.

Grade: A

Stray observations:

-It was clever of Apple to run the time-travel version of the Mac/PC commercial tonight.

-Miles figured Daniel would’ve gotten rich in Ann Arbor by “inventing the DVD or something.”

-Was Sawyer’s quip to Jack that he’d “love to trade theories about this but I’m a little busy at the moment” a subtle nod to we Lost fans?

-“Your mother is an Other?”

-“You guys were back in 1954? Like, Fonzie-times?”

-“I just got shot by a physicist!”

-Oh by the way, congrats to Lost on reaching 100 episodes. I may have to celebrate by watching Kimmel tonight, which features an all-Lost-related package including interviews with J.J. Abrams (talking about Star Trek, mostly) and Dominic Monaghan (talking about Wolverine, mostly).

Clues, coincidences and crazy-ass theories:

-Okay, here’s what I’m thinking: All this time-travel stuff, all season long… It’s all been a red herring. This isn’t really a show about time-travel, and the mysteries of the island aren’t really time-travel-centered. This is a show about eternal conflicts and personal change, and I think all this time-travel stuff has been fun and useful from a narrative and thematic point of view, but I’m betting that when this season ends, it’ll hardly be a factor anymore. I’m thinking next season will be about that struggle through the ages between opposing forces, and that the finale in two weeks is going to set that up in some surprising and unexpected ways. Anyway, that’s my theory at the moment, though it’s subject to change. I also have a theory about Jacob, but I think I’ll save it for next week.

-Why was Daniel crying at the sight of the plane crash? Is it possible that during his experiments at Oxford that his consciousness jumped ahead to the future, and that he has a vague memory of something related to O815 and the island?

-By the way, in the Crying Dan scene, I thought I caught a glimpse of the cover text on the Wired magazine Daniel was reading and I thought it said “The Impossible Gets Possible,” but I couldn’t confirm that as a real Wired cover during my five minutes of research on-line.

-A thought for the episodes to come: Suppose that a community’s top scientist determines that something terrible is going to happen, and decides to save his son’s life by sending him away to another world, where he’ll have special powers… Does that story remind you of anything?

Flashbackin’:

So I watched the clip show last week, and though I didn’t spot any clues that I’d previously missed, I did have a couple of thoughts:

1. Even when just attempting to recap a dozen or so episodes, Lost is very hard to encapsulate. I actually though this season’s story—with the flash-forward scenes from last season edited in—made a lot of sense when condensed, and that certain aspects that I’d found confusing before were less so after watching the clip show. (Example: The time-frame from Locke’s death to the take-off of Ajira 316. “The Life And Death Of Jeremy Bentham” made it seem as though Jack bought his ticket for 316 on the night Locke was murdered, but on the clip show it was clearer that after meeting Locke, Jack started taking his “let’s see what happens” flights, as seen in the Season Three finale.) I also found that in excerpt form—with narration added—the whole emotional journey of the O6 from happy rescuees to “We have to go back!” went a lot smoother. But the special also tried to explain what happened on the island this season, which proved to be more than one clip show could handle. Because this season’s arc hasn’t been completed yet, the special just seemed to… end. Kind of abruptly. And unsatisfyingly.

2. I feel much more confident about this season’s endgame than I did about last season’s. Don’t get me wrong: I still love Season Four, and if I were making a list of all-time favorite Lost episodes, I might pull more from S4 than S5. But the more I reflect on what the writers have attempted with Season Five, the more impressed I am. The episode-to-episode flow this season has been Lost at its best, and when you take into account the complicated flashback/time-travel structure, it’s pretty amazing what we’ve seen and how we’ve seen it. I envy people who are going to watch this season for the first time on DVD, because I think they’re just going to tear through it, eager to get to the next episode as soon as the previous one’s credits roll. Last season ended fairly well, but there was a strong element of “moving the pieces into place”—a common Lost problem—and by the time the three-hour finale rolled around, everything seemed simultaneously sketchy and rushed. This season has been a lot more purposeful and action-packed as it’s reached the end, perhaps because the characters aren’t ranging so far or rushing around so much. They’re exactly where they need to be. And so are we.

Filed Under: TV, Lost

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