Lost – “The Variable”

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“The Variable”

April 29th, 2009

I will admit right now that I feel sort of like a low rent Daniel Faraday right now, my attempts to put myself on a different sleep schedule in a way not that different from Daniel’s attempt to realign himself with another time. This means that while I had planned on writing this review about five hours ago when I woke up from a short nap designed to prepare me for an eight-hour night shift this evening, instead I’m writing it after six hours of sleep and will have to skip Thursday night television in order to try to find some nap time.

I share this story not just because of my recent tweet about potentially mixing more personal anecdotes with blog posts, but also because it’s an example of providing some greater context to events, which is essentially the point of “The Variable.” The episode really only has two functions: it serves as an escalation of the “plot” (remember that thing?) that has been mostly dormant since our cast ended up in the 1970s, giving us a sense of how the end of the season is going to develop, and it serves as an answer to the question of what Daniel Faraday has been up to since we last saw him trapped in 1974 with everyone else and nobody is really talking about him.

Perhaps it’s the weird sleep schedule, or that I wasn’t feeling great when I watched the episode, but I was kind of disappointed by this, the show’s 100th episode, at least on the latter point. At times feeling like another drop in the “parental neglect” bucket for the show, the tragic journey of Daniel Faraday was strong in isolation and yet when applied to the rest of the episode and the rest of the series felt too inorganic. Yes, I empathize with Daniel, primarily thanks to Jeremy Davies’ strong performance, but at the end of the day it felt as if Faraday’s storyline was tied so closely to the island that his individuality, and its connection to our other characters, was lost in the plot.

I understand that this is the entire “point” of the episode, but I found it a little bit clumsy in its execution even if I feel they’re ramping things up at the right pace as we march towards the finale.

These episodes are always tough, because it was all about piecing together scenes and events that we’ve seen before and putting them together into parts of the larger puzzle. I say tough because, even when you do manage to answer all sorts of questions, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to actually piece together those answers into some sort of cohesive image, if that’s even what you’re trying to achieve. In this case, you have Daniel in the Orchid station from the season premiere, Daniel’s reaction to the plane crash from last season’s “Confirmed Dead,” the purpose of the eponymous hydrogen bomb in “Jughead,” and even Desmond’s fate from the shooting in “Dead is Dead.”

On this level, I feel as if the show was actually quite successful, as the actual events of those episode in the “present” were quite strong. I think it’s safe to call it the present, by the way: Faraday seems to be more certain about time travel now, and indicates that this is without question the present for our characters: any of them can die, their scars being new scars that won’t be there when they meet. This isn’t a new revelation, but coming from Faraday everything sounds more definitive. But looking entirely at the on-island narrative, what we saw here was all about putting the pieces in place for the rest of the season.

First and foremost, we have the revelation of why Faraday, if not everyone, has returned to this particular period. Faraday has realized that everything that has happened to all of these characters all goes back to one single event, the initial release of the electro-magnetic energy at the Swan station that results in the creation of the button, the 108 minute countdown, Desmond being remiss in pushing the button and Oceanic Flight 815 falling out of the sky. Faraday’s plan, not entirely clear in the episode, is to use Jughead (the hydrogen bomb) to counteract the impact of the electro-magnetism, wiping it away and leaving behind an island that won’t eventually have them on it.

It’s a good plan, but it is predicated on his theory (which he seems to have missed before because it was too simple, not because it was too obscure) that all of his talk of not being able to change destiny, to change the future, was forgetting about the all-important variable of human agency. Here is where, for me, the episode kind of hits a brick wall, at least as it relates to Faraday as a character. For me, the on-island episode needed more of the way Sawyer reacted to Faraday, which is as if he were crazy: there needed to be a skeptic in the room during these conversations, someone to call Faraday out on the fact that humanity was a pretty silly variable to forget, and that for all of his genius he seems to have been a little slow on the uptake.

I say this not because I don’t understand why Faraday had not pieced this together, but rather because the episode spent so much time showing us as viewers how his mother had planned out his life knowing that she would eventually shoot a grown Faraday in the back in 1977 that the tragedy of that moment seemed as if it was seeping into how the other castaways were treating him. For us, as viewers who have clearly fallen for Faraday as a character, his tragedy was quite effective: seeing him struggling with a life of forced singular purpose, dealing with a mother who feels as if she is unable to display any affection considering what Faraday is going to discover in 1977 and seeing the effects of Faraday’s initial time experiments render him without memory and without any sense of time or place, was hard for us as viewers considering how attached we have become.

But I felt the episode needed to do more in terms of emphasizing that the castaways shouldn’t feel the same way, or at the very least the episode shouldn’t have had the people who knew Faraday more (Sawyer and the 1974 gang) trust him less, considering that he is obviously the one who best describes time travel. We’re getting to the point in the season where individually focused episodes like this are problematic, because there’s rarely one character’s story that can encapsulate or speak to why all individuals make certain decisions. Faraday’s story may work in isolation, but in the episode itself there wasn’t enough time spent on why everyone else would follow along. Other than the rather vague notion that Jack is quietly but desperately searching for a reason for his return to the island (which Faraday stokes with his claim that Eloise was dead wrong) and that Sawyer is content to stay on the island and therefore not open to Daniel’s crazy theories, we don’t get a real reaction to Faraday, and part of it felt too simple.

And there’s the reason why I think throwing “The Variable” in with “The Constant,” as either a divergent path or as a brother episode, is more than a bit premature. It is not that it was unentertaining, but rather where the latter felt as if it was opening all sorts of doors, this one felt like it was actually just pointing the way. I tend to feel as if it was all almost too simple, that the question it left us with is the exact same question we’ve had all season as opposed to something fundamentally new. Daniel’s story didn’t really reveal anything, or introduce any new concepts, and while Davies was amazing as always there was something about his entire storyline that seemed as if it fit too nicely, that flashback and on-island life both happened to align for Faraday’s optimism to carry him to the point where it would all be wiped away by a single gunshot and an apparent death.

Yes, I too love the questions that this raises, but I guess I’m frustrated with the questions that it answers (if that makes any sense). I like where it puts us in terms of our “present” in 1974, as it leaves the castaways in a position where Jack and Kate know Daniel’s plan, where the Others (especially Ellie) are going to have to make a decision based on Daniel’s ravings and likely the input of the castaways, and where the Dharma Initiative views them as traitors but also have their own problems to deal with in terms of the construction of the Swan station. If the beginning of the season was about how time travel operates, the show has definitively shifted into a scenario where temporality is a constant and now we’re starting to see how it will effect these individuals.

And while the episode had some strong moments along the way, I guess that I wanted it all to be a bit less clean, for the rising action to feel a little less definitive and a bit more loose and unpredictable. It may have found its way to an exciting place, and it may have spoken to a lot of the season’s key questions, but in a sense the message it gave was that those questions were futile, and that the answers were always set in stone regardless. That’s a fine message for Faraday’s tragedy, which was decidedly effective, but I don’t know if I felt the same sense of effectiveness from its application to the rest of the season. I just needed to see more from the other castaways in this episode that wasn’t them lining up perfectly to fit into Daniel’s story.

Perhaps, though, this was inevitable: because Faraday was one of the Freighter characters, and the one most connected with the main narrative, this episode was likely fated to play out in a manner which felt manufactured in a sense. As he hasn’t been around as much as other characters, the connections this episode made were almost too broad. It felt like a checklist at the end of the day: there’s Faraday’s scene warning a young Charlotte, there’s Faraday bumping into Peter Chang, etc. Even the storyline with Eloise showing up at the hospital to visit with Penny as she waits for word on Desmond felt as if it was checking off “Show us that Desmond is okay” and “Confirm that Widmore is Faraday’s father.”

Any episode that takes this structure is taking a risk, because answers are not a surefire way to improve the quality of the show. Some of these elements were already presumed, so they have largely no effect, but when so many of them fall in a single episode like this it doesn’t feel organic, something about it just not feeling right. And while the effort to theme the episode in such a way as to make this fact become justified due to Daniel’s childhood narrative being entirely inorganic, his mother breeding him to die at her own hand in 1977, Faraday’s arc on the show is so isolated to the last few seasons that it didn’t work as well as I think they thought it did.

At the end of the day, I like what this episode accomplishes: any Lost fan in their right mind is excited about what is going to happen following Faraday’s apparent death, and about how these three groups of people are going to deal with the pending threat. And the questions that we’re left with are very interesting: was Faraday’s plan really going to fix anything, and is it even possible for the plan to go forward with him shot and with perhaps Jack and Kate in the lead position? Eloise admits to Penny that, for the first time, she doesn’t know what’s going to happen: is this to indicate that the Oceanic Six returning to the island was not something she had anticipated, her knowledge only going to the point of the Freighter? And why did she blame Faraday for Desmond being shot considering that Penny is quite right to blame Ben for, you know, shooting him?

I’m likely sleep deprived and delirious to expect otherwise, but I guess I just thought the episode cut too many corners and was too blatant in its plotting to feel as if these questions were created by the episode itself as opposed to simply dropped in by the writers. “The Variable” was actually quite a good episode, but for an episode that dealt with a favoured character and the concept of time travel something about it just didn’t add up for me.

Cultural Observations

  • It is possible that one of my points of frustration may be as simple as the fact that Daniel’s story was kind of more boring than I had hoped. I had this image of a time-traveling Faraday running around trying to solve this problem, and part of me was hoping we would get that story tonight. The mundane nature of this three-year absence (at Dharma headquarters in Ann Arbor) is strange considering that Faraday’s departure has been treated like some hushed secret amongst those who stayed behind in 1974, and you’d think at some point when asked someone would just say “Oh yeah, he left for headquarters, we don’t know why.” Part of me wanted to see those missing years, and instead we got the message that those missing years didn’t matter since he’d always end up here anyways.
  • From what I’ve read, the Desmond/Penny inclusion was made since they saw this episode as a counterpoint to “The Constant,” which I note above is not the best comparison for any episode, this one in particular. I kind of wish we had spent that time, while well-acted and emotionally effective and everything else Desmond/Penny sequences always are, on the island, as there is where my real interest lay.
  • I will presume that Miles and Hurley will be lumped in with Sawyer/Juliet pretty soon, which won’t be that big of a reunion after this week’s scene where almost the entire cast was together discussing their plan. It was the one scene that made the episode feel like the show’s 100th, and was effectively memorable.
  • I don’t read episode descriptions to avoid spoilers, but the big ol’ giant shot of Hurley’s guitar would seem to indicate to me that we’re going to be getting his story amidst “316” soon enough, which is exciting. Considering its location in the season, it seems possible also that on top of this week’s connection to “The Constant” we may be getting Hurley’s equivalent to “Greatest Hits” considering who the guitar seems to symbolize.
  • For a few perspectives a little bit more positive and that delve a bit further into some of the big questions, head to Sepinwall and Poniewozik.

4 Comments

Filed under Lost

4 responses to “Lost – “The Variable”

  1. Yeah I kind of completely disagree with your spin on the episode, for a few reasons:

    1. You seem to really dwell on the idea that the castaways “trusted” Faraday too much and went along too willingly with his plan. But the only two characters he actually EXPLAINED anything to were Jack and Kate – the two most in search of purpose for their return – and he only did so mere minutes before being shot and killed. In contrast, Miles clearly thought Faraday was being nuts and Sawyer wanted nothing to do with any of his ramblings.

    2. Yes, the episode is revisiting key themes – parental issues, questions of time management, etc. – but complaining about that with Lost at this point is like ranting about Law and Order showing two sides to the criminal justice system. It’s the foundation of the show, and picking on it in an episode that so successfully starts to pay off the capital invested in the characters over the past several weeks seems a bit foolhardy.

    3. Your review is also written under the presumption that the episode was completing the Daniel story and that said story was a bit underwhelming. A fair point…but given that we’ve yet to explore at least one more piece in the Daniel puzzle (I draw your attention to ComicCon ’08), I don’t think it’s fair to close the casket quite yet. In fact, I think there may well be revelations within those three missing years that are hugely relevant. Why such a change in his character from “you can’t change anything” to “let’s try something bold”?

    4. The Desmond scenes are ONLY superfluous to the main plot of this episode if we neglect that Desmond is Faraday’s constant, and thanks to his accident has a more complicated role with time than any other character on the show. Including him this evening is clearly meant to get the ball rolling on his reintroduction into our series of events, which I believe may be critical to whatever may (or may not) happen in the finale.

    5. On the one hand, the episode seemed to enforce the “whatever happened, happened” thesis that this season’s events have all dwelled on. Which does threaten to be a bit demoralizing. But stay tuned…somehow, I doubt that Lindelof/Cuse would lead us towards their nuclear finale and NOT throw the show in a different direction than we expect.

    • 1. You are quite right in this regard, but I think that it’s one of those situations wherein I wanted to see more communication so that Dan’s theory and his plan would have a greater impact – yes, this will happen in the weeks ahead, but if it’s that important it felt like it could have fit here.

      2. Maybe it’s just me, but I kind of wanted Faraday to stand on his own: I had always hoped this character would be unique, that his journey wouldn’t just boil down to Widmore and Hawking being his parents, but that didn’t happen. And I’m not complaining about the use of time travel, it’s an incredibly important point, but the connection to Faraday’s life wasn’t made until episode’s end and, to be honest, I’ll need to revisit the episode again to see if that revelation is enough to elevate Faraday’s story further.

      3. You’re quite right, but I guess my frustration comes from wanting the episode you describe more than this one, in a way.

      4. I’m not suggesting that they were superfluous, but you’re quite right that I may be proven wrong by the rest of the season which follows.

      5. There’s no doubt about this: I think that after last season’s finale was us having all of the answers and watching how the characters got to that point, it will be really intriguing to see a scenario where the castaways know what is supposed to happen and are doing everything they can to stop it from happening, especially one where we don’t really have any of the answers. That enough is reason enough for this episode to be a success, but I guess I would have preferred a different path to get there.

  2. Chris

    I think the importance of this episode is that it closes out the question of “what,” as in “what is happening with all the time-travel,” and simultaneously opens up the quesiton “why,” as in “why would Eloise Hawking doom her son to death for the island?”
    Eloise’s demeanor throughout the episode suggests that she does not believe that “whatever happened, happened,” but that she, or the Island, needs to ensure that what happened actually does happen. the question then is why. Why is it so important to her that Daniel return to the past to be killed? There must be something important, either 1) his notebook is important to Eloise and the hostiles, or 2) Jack and Kate in 1977 are important to Eloise and the hostiles, or, 3) all of this was prelude to having John Locke die off the island and return on the island in 2007 to be resurrected….

    • Tim

      My hunch is that somehow Jack and Kate are going to use Faraday’s plan to save the island from destruction by the anomaly. The use of Daniel’s plan with the bomb will actually result in the button-pressing thing as a means of avoiding the island’s total destruction. And THAT is why I think Ms. Hawking was willing to sacrifice Daniel. If he never went back and told Jack and Kate the plan and was killed, then the island would have been destroyed (which since Widmore and Hawking are on the island, means he wouldn’t have been born anyway).

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