Beginning with the initial episodes of Season One, Lost has been preoccupied with the idea of revisiting the past. The prevailing episode structure, designed around flashbacks for a single character, explored the connections between a character’s history and the present. As the story expanded, the show began to revisit its own past in different ways, by crafting a web of literal and metaphorical connections between each of its characters. Lost adopts the position that no character can be understood in a fixed point in space and time, but only in relation to the character’s past and to other characters. Season Five’s The Lie and Jughead adopt a new structure, which contains only a single flashback in the opening scene. The on-island events of the episode still take the viewer into history, but through the storytelling device of time travel rather than flashback. The resulting structure has a contradictory effect on the narrative: the relationship between the island characters and the past become quite literal; the relationship between the island story and the off-island story becomes more figurative.
Desmond and Penelope remain fixed in the present day for the entire episode, but their star-crossed history pervades every conversation. Desmond has received a hidden message from his own past, a memory of his conversation with Daniel Faraday. The incident sends him away on a new odyssey, back to the place where his first journey began. The first present-day scene between Desmond and Penny highlights two opposite reactions to the trip down memory lane. Desmond looks out at the horizon with a sense of excitement and adventure, but Penny focuses her eyes solely within their present family. For Penny, this return to their past renews every old wound: the heartbreak, abandonment, years of loneliness, and fear of the wrath of Charles Widmore. Desmond admittedly tries to “leave a wee bit out” of his recollections of his past. (His repressed memory of his encounter with Faraday depends upon this ability to forget certain things.) In their final scene of this episode, Penny convinces him that forgetting is not a solution, so they need to confront it head-on. The ghosts of the past always will re-emerge no matter how deep under the surface you try to bury them.
This newest chapter in the epic romance of Desmond and Penelope once again explores the limits of free will and predestination. From the audience’s perspective on the big picture, the predetermined course back to the island appears plainly, as if it were laid out for Desmond and Penny all along. (The viewer literally knows that everything is planned and written in advance.) Somehow, fate never forces their hands. The two characters themselves must still arrive at the destination through their own free decisions. Desmond’s namesake, the philosopher David Hume, posited the theory of compatabilism, which contends that there is indeed a successful marriage between free will and determinism. Hume argued that the laws of physical causation must govern the entire universe, and the human brain and body must be no exception. For any ‘why’ question on Lost, two separate and equally correct answers exist. Jughead answers the question: “why did Desmond and Penny travel to Los Angeles?”. As Locke would phrase it, they went there, because they were supposed to go there. As Jack would phrase it, they went there, because they chose to go there. Both the man of science and the man of faith are correct, here. Lost embraces the paradoxical notion that every event in space-time is rigidly predetermined, and yet the human will is perfectly free.
Another essential Lost literary reference, A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (namesake of Lost character Eloise Hawking), is similarly preoccupied with the idea of determinism. His famous text chronicles mankind’s efforts to discover a Grand Unified Theory of the universe. Supposedly, if we perfected our understanding of all scientific laws (gravity, relativity, etc.), and if we knew the complete state of the universe at any given time, then we could predict everything that would ever happen. If scientific determinism holds true, then it applies to everything, including human behavior. At one point in the text, Hawking jokes about the potential implications of time travel in a deterministic universe: “While this would be fine for writers of science fiction, it would mean that no one’s life would ever be safe: someone might go into the past and kill your father or mother before you were conceived!”
The on-island story of Jughead adds a few more wrinkles in the show’s unified view of space-time laid out in the previous Desmond time-travel adventures, Flashes Before Your Eyes and The Constant. When Faraday and the rest of the team find themselves trapped in the past, they are not impossibly altering history, but inevitably fulfilling events that already occurred. The competing groups on the island alternate back-and-forth as prisoners to one another, but every character makes those individual decisions freely. Time travel stories disrupt the normal flow of cause-and-effect in a way that challenges human intuition. Almost every time travel story will encounter a few paradoxes along the way. (The word paradox does not derive from ancient Latin, but from the Greek for 'beyond belief.') With few exceptions, Lost has managed to avoid falling into the conventional time travel paradoxes. The most famous such example is known as the Grandfather Paradox, essentially the same issue that Hawking mentioned. Season Five of Lost has introduced the premise that it is possible to travel into the past, but it is not possible to kill anyone (or to destroy anything), if it did not occur during the original timeline.
(Jughead indicates that the writers of Lost also discovered the Great Britain Paradox, the new scientific principle that states that, even in a country with 58 million people, every character with a British accent must at some point interact with every other character with a British accent. This notion does not qualify as a paradox in the ordinary sense of the word, but it certainly seems beyond belief.)
Sawyer makes one such attempt to change history (although he is unaware at the time), by pointing a gun and firing it in the direction of Charles Widmore as he escapes through the jungle. Seemingly, if someone killed Widmore back in 1954, then the entire freighter disaster would be averted. Doing so, however, would create an impossible contradiction. Sawyer is incapable of murdering Charles Widmore in 1954, because if he succeeds, then he could not have traveled back to 1954 in the first place. Even if James had tied Widmore to a tree, aimed his gun from point-blank range, and pulled the trigger, no bullet would harm Young Charles. (Michael and Locke illustrated similar examples of this phenomena during Season Four.) For the sake of consistency, Widmore effectively must be invincible at least until 2008 when he interacts with Desmond. The Island offers the ultimate life insurance plan for anyone who has work to do with the future, whether good or evil.
The thought of changing the past holds great personal importance for Sawyer. Two full years have passed since a Lost episode revolved around Sawyer. (Season Three’s The Brig was technically a Locke flashback episode.) Conventional wisdom says that the death of Anthony Cooper inside the bowels of the Black Rock put an end to Sawyer’s revenge plotline. After all, death is the most permanent resolution. Personally, I hope that Season Five will revive James’ most personal conflict. The premiere episode highlighted James’ resignation at his inability to change the past (“I know what I can’t change!”). Ostensibly, James only referred to the destruction of the freighter. If he did somehow gain the ability to change the past, then he would most certainly try to do what he was powerless to do as a young child, to prevent the death of his mother.
Now, imagine the story implications if James and John encountered a young Anthony Cooper on the island during another flash. Sawyer’s emotional reaction would be uncontrollable. James would try everything in his power to murder Cooper, to stop Cooper from one day causing the death of his parents. James would fail every time. You cannot kill the man who created you, before he created you. Your very existence refutes that possibility. Amazingly, James would need to come to terms with the reality that even the act of killing Cooper will never change his family’s tragedy. Whatever happened, happened. Perhaps Cooper even assumed the name Sawyer because of his historic interactions with James. In that case, even the name Sawyer might become its own paradox: a metaphor for a cycle of revenge as one continuous loop with no beginning, no middle, and no end.
Although it is clear that Lost will avoid violating any variation of the Grandfather Paradox at all costs, the show’s time travel mythology still includes a few circular enigmas that defy our intuitive notions of cause and effect. The Constant included two such apparent paradoxes, and Jughead references both of them. The lab rat Eloise remembered how to navigate a maze hours before she learned it. Did Daniel ever teach Eloise to run the maze (which would only be possible if she forgot it soon after)? Daniel also sends a message to himself across time: “Set the device at 2.342, and it must be oscillating at 11 Hz.” How exactly did Daniel discover that information? He told himself to write it in his journal, because he found it written in his journal. Apparently, that spontaneous piece of information also spelled doom for Daniel’s next lab rat, Theresa Spencer, imprisoned inside her own memories. In all likelihood, these paradoxes are not the products of mere oversight, but intentional mysteries. Time travel on the show seems to have spontaneously created itself.
Many people have concluded that Daniel Faraday’s mother is Eloise Hawking, the elderly British woman last seen in the Los Angeles church with Benjamin Linus. Fans have theorized that Eloise is also Ellie, the younger British woman shown on the island during the 1950s. Daniel recognizes Ellie, because she ‘looks very much like someone he used to know’. The two characters share an awkward flirtatious moment that may be an homage to the classic time-travel movie Back to the Future. In that film, protagonist Marty McFly travels back to year 1955, and unfortunately finds that his own mother has the hots for him. (Not to be outdone, Lost made sure to send its characters back exactly one year further into the past.) The fact that Daniel named his lab rat Eloise is either a sign of affection or disdain for his mother (or both, as is often the case). Throw in the family-style bickering between Daniel and Ellie, and the case becomes pretty strong. The most damning piece of evidence, though, is the fact that ABC somehow managed to find a young actress (Alexandra Krosney), who looks and sounds similar to her older counterpart (Fionnula Flanagan), but seems to give exactly the same quality of performance. Interpret that last statement however you wish.
Daniel’s historical interactions with his mother raise another bit of intrigue resembling the near-paradoxes from The Constant. During the episode, Ellie learns that Daniel and his people were visitors from the future, and then she apparently watches them vanish. If her scenes in Flashes Before Your Eyes and The Lie are any indication, then Eloise Hawking studied space-time for a significant portion of her life after that event. Then, she probably passed on much of her knowledge and interest in the subject to her son Daniel, who spent much of his life researching the possibilities of time travel. At what point in his life would Eloise come to conclusion that the funny little man from the future was her own son? Daniel’s obsession pointed him on a path back to the island, so that one day he will travel back into the past to fulfill the incident that sparked his mother’s interest all along. The lives of both mother and son were determined by the son’s actions in the distant future.
Jughead also continues the ongoing saga of Richard Alpert’s compass, which presents its own potentially unsolvable paradox. The apparent timeline works as follows. In 1954, Locke hands the compass to Alpert. At Locke’s suggestion, Richard then visits Locke on his date of birth in 1956. Five years later, Richard returns with the compass that Locke gave him, and asks him to identify it. Some time after 2005, Richard hands the compass over to Locke. John carries it with him back in time to 1954 to start the whole process over again. The obvious problem here becomes: at no point during this chain did any person sit down and build a compass. If the compass Richard gave to Locke is the same one Locke gave to Richard, then it was never created, but it merely existed outside of time. (The easy solution to this paradox is to assume that Richard must have lost or destroyed the original compass, acquired a new device some time over the years, and then he gave Locke that different one many years later.)
Personally, I hope that the mysterious origins of the compass remain unexplained. The compass itself already serves as a multifaceted image for predestination. The object is circular, but it is designed to point its characters only in one inevitable direction. The compass leads Richard to find Locke, and then it leads Locke back to Richard, to help the people of the island find their way. Another key problem with the compass paradox is that it the object itself must never change over the years. All objects ‘age’ over time, even if our senses cannot perceive the microscopic differences. Over fifty years, the compass would lose little bits and pieces of itself, and pick up dirt and other things along the way. Perhaps the compass serves as the key image for Richard Alpert himself, who apparently exists outside of time in his own way, as the island’s unchanging constant.
Throughout the entire Lost narrative, John Locke had always been a paradox of his own. Locke exhibits many inexplicably contradictory aspects: potent yet crippled, zealous yet skeptical, an individualist desperately seeking acceptance, and a man of great potential with a track record of failure. The events of Jughead now confirm what was hinted at in the season premiere. The entire course of Locke’s life is the result of his own circular, self-fulfilling prophecy. His destiny is the product of his own design. As I wrote about the season premiere: “In a unique way, Locke may become his own creator, his own metaphorical father. When the elder Locke interacted with the island’s past, he set off a chain of events that somehow resulted in the nurturing of the younger Locke, which Cooper never provided. That unbreakable steel blade we know as Locke was forged in the fire of his own will.” Much like his circular compass, Locke seems to have created himself from nothingness. His free will and his destiny are one and the same.
Not to be overlooked, one of the most important developments of the episode, was the introduction of Jughead itself, the American-made hydrogen bomb resting somewhere on the island. To quote Daniel: “You want to take care of this bomb? You bury it!” Timeline consistency requires that the island will be safe from nuclear annihilation until 2005. After that point, though, anything is possible. The buried bomb might serve any number of purposes in the story for the remaining two seasons. The power of the hydrogen bomb overshadows the destructive power of the Tempest station introduced last season. Our Lost characters will need a lot more than just gas masks to survive the wrath of Jughead. As Locke once reminded us, “nothing stays buried on this island for long.” If island paradoxes continue to pile up, then Jughead might become the ultimate Occam’s Razor to resolve them once and for all. Regardless, the Humes and the Hawkings and the Lockes and Lost writers would all agree that the island's fate has been determined already, whatever it might be.