“None of this matters,” Charlie X said last night, voicing what we’ve all been thinking—that these flashsideways are a waste of everybody’s time. But last night’s “Happily Ever After” did what Lost should have accomplished weeks ago: it offered a hint of what this season’s flashes mean. The episode didn’t raise the stakes—it offered the first suggestion that there were any at all.
“Happily Ever After” featured our first artificially induced flashsideways, using some kind of room-sized MRI/electric stove to Dr. Manhattanize Desmond. Breakneck pacing and crazy mythology made the opening of last night’s episode the best Lost has done since, since…well, since I can remember. (Also, Angstrom? LOL!) And then it settled down into one long flashsideways. Quite a gambit, that! And one that, astonishingly, paid off. If you had told me weeks ago that I’d enjoy an episode that was just one long flashsideways I would have assumed you’d just been attacked with a colossal charge of electromagnetic energy yourself. And yet I came out of “Happily Ever After” not only satisfied but excited, something Lost hasn’t made me feel in months.
Most episodes this season have referred back to one from season one: “Recon” was a variation on “Confidence Man”; “What Kate Does,” “Tabula Rasa”; “The Substitute,” “Walkabout”; and so on. But you can’t go back to season one for a Desmond episode, and so last night’s “Happily Ever After” instead paralleled season three’s “Flashes Before Your Eyes” down to nearly every detail: the encounter with an impudent Charlie, a “no, no, no, no” meeting with Eloise; and a glass of MacCutcheon with Mr. Widmore.
Except, as we’ve come to expect, life seems to be better in the flashsideways, even if Desmond is Pennyless: Mr. Widmore is Desmond’s friend, and they drink expensive scotch together; Daniel got to pursue a career as a pianist—and the chance to wear a cool fedora! (Because nothing says “classical pianist” like an old-timey hat.) The biggest difference between the characters and their alternate reality doppelgangers? None of them has ever been in love! Even though they sense that they have: Desmond X can remember Penny, sort of; Charlie X has had visions of Claire; Daniel X falls in love at first sight with Charlotte X, as though he’s loved her all his life. At the end of Season Five, Lost seemed headed in an Eternal Sunshine direction: better never to have loved at all than ever to have loved and lost. But this season is shaping up to be one long repudiation of that: to have loved Charlotte but lost her to nosebleeds, to have sacrificed one’s life for Claire, each is now being pitched as the better life, the preferred choice to the easy satisfactions of Reality X.
That’s a bit of a corny sentiment on paper, but no one was better to sell it than Desmond, whose reunion with Penny at the end of season four was probably, hitherto, the show’s emotional apex. Nothing on Lost bores straight into the heart like the love between Desmond and Penny, and seeing them reunited last night, even thought it was in that odious Reality X, gave a sense of urgency to the show, to the characters' apparent mission of preventing Reality X from becoming plain ol’ reality. (It also bestowed a measure of poignancy onto the flashsidewayses: the characters have a sense that they're leading the "wrong" lives, a feeling a general audience can relate with, especially in the midst of a recession.)
Lost has been stalling for most of this season, but with only seven hours left it seems like it might be ready to get on with it already. (Though I wouldn’t be surprised if another episode or two, like next week’s Hurley-centric episode, drags a bit.) I suspected Lost’s writers might have a way out of the mess they’d created for themselves. I just wish they hadn’t gotten into said mess to begin with.