All five seasons of Lost follow a parabola of sorts, with highest points of action at the beginning and end of each year’s collection of episodes. Season Five literally opened with a lot of flash, a razzle-dazzle series of time jumps backward, forward, and sideways. Eventually, the drama settled down into a smoothly-curved valley inside the happy yellow houses of the 1970s Dharma Initiative. Episode 5.13 Some Like it Hoth, which closed with Miles peering into the window of the Chang home, represented the last fleeting moment of domestic tranquility before the Island accelerated back into crisis mode. The Variable revamps the show’s conflict quotient, without using any Because-You-Left-style or Constant-style time travel. Instead, it relies on the old Lost tools of the trade: a tragic series of flashbacks, a handful of twists and reveals, and a desperation plan to get everyone back to where they are supposed to be. Along the way, Jeremy Davies provides the year’s best performance (by any cast member not named Terry O’Quinn), during both his first lead effort and his swan song. The Variable is one of those rare achievements that succeeds both as a character study and as a thrilling piece of plot development.
The early minutes of The Variable briefly send the audience back to the season opener, with a literal repetition of the meeting between Chang and Faraday. The limitless energy source beneath the Orchid station served as the catalyst for this season’s grand storyline. The oversized magnet under the Swan dragged Oceanic Flight 815 to its destiny, while the Orchid sent its characters back in time to create that destiny. These pockets of energy represent the epitome of the Island’s natural and supernatural powers. After Daniel arrives in the middle of the night, mankind wages a one-day battle to strike the Island directly in its heart. Faraday’s plan confronts these mighty natural forces using world’s strongest man-made power, the hydrogen bomb (or, perhaps something even stronger, the human will). Faraday, along with his lone disciple Dr. Shephard, briefly becomes Lost’s own version of Dr. Frankenstein, the man of science, driven by emotion to rebel against the natural order. The ultimate outcome remains unresolved, but this episode certainly foreshadows which side will win the battle. By the end of The Variable, Mother Nature reasserts her superiority quite emphatically, in the form of Mother Eloise.
LOCKE: And then a light went on. I thought it was a sign. But it wasn't a sign. Probably just you going to the bathroom.
Over the past few seasons, Lost writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz have produced (in my judgment) the most consistently excellent scripts on the show. The Variable adds another instant classic to their growing resume. Their writing almost always offers more depth beneath the surface than the average episode. Seemingly insignificant details often elevate the meaning to otherwise straightforward scenes. This particular episode uses the recurring image of characters being interrupted by a knock on their door. Daniel’s first stop on the Island is to awaken Jack from his sleep. Shephard had been lying dormant since he arrived in 1977, awaiting further instructions. After one look at the Doc in his Dharma jumpsuit, the audience already knew what Daniel soon told him: “You don’t belong here at all.” Jack is already out the door and ready for action, before he even gets dressed, and well before he hears Daniel’s plan. By contrast, James and Juliet remain inside their home for the entire episode. Three separate times, a character knocks on their door and disrupts the LaFleur household (first Jack, then Daniel, then Radzinsky). The final knocking comes from within the house, when Phil, the skeleton in their closet, finally makes his presence known. Like the Oceanic Six before them, living the Lie is only a temporary solution. Sooner or later, destiny will come knocking, whether from outside or from within.
At the end of He’s Our You (the most recent Kitsis/Horowitz episode), LaFleur was able to contain the initial fire sparked by Sayid. It was only a matter of time before Jack and Kate literally would blow up any chance of happiness in this Dharma community. Juliet had been hearing the alarm bells in her head since their arrival, but James needed to hear Radzinsky actually sound the alarm itself before he could understand the inevitable. I wish I also could argue that the 1970s shootout at the motor pool (in which Captain America Jack Shephard detonates a barrel of gasoline in front of his decidedly-Eastern-sounding-comrade Radzinsky) doubles as some sort of clever historical commentary on the Cold War, global warming, and the oil resources in the Middle East. Even I have to draw the line somewhere. Sometimes, an explosion is just an explosion. However, it still warms the heart to see Jack following in the footsteps of his mentor Locke, by improvising some pyrotechnics without any dynamite or C4 on hand.
CHARLIE: My greatest hits. You know, memories. They're all I've got.
Although Lost has used its traditional flashback format only sparingly since the end of Season Three, The Variable provides probably the strongest sequence of flashbacks since Greatest Hits. Each of the four moments in this walk down memory lane contains plenty of emotional power, in its own way. The back story begins with the image of Daniel as a gifted young boy playing the piano, while a metronome swings back and forth (similar to his mother’s Foucault pendulum from 316). Each tick on the device reminds Eloise of her son’s impending death, the finite number of seconds that remain in his life. A person can respond to mortality in two ways: either dedicate your time in the tireless pursuit of some extrinsic purpose; or live in the moment, and pursue things like love or music, for their own sake. This idea carries over into the second flashback, in which Eloise continues to push Daniel to forego happiness in the pursuit of greatness. The scene concludes by revealing Eloise’s loving inscription inside Faraday’s journal, the ironic counterpart Desmond’s copy of Our Mutual Friend. The blank journal becomes an interesting image for Daniel’s life itself: a gift from his mother, an apparent tabula rasa waiting to be filled. Although Daniel is free to guide his life story by his own hand, the book has already been written. The contents of his journal, all of the thoughts and memories he recorded, already exist at another point in time. Ultimately, the journal outlives Daniel himself, and its collection of words and numbers becomes his only form of immortality.
The other two scenes focus on a story idea left unexplored since early in Season Four: Daniel’s memory loss. Daniel shares the same affliction as Leonard Shelby, the main character of the 2000 film Memento, which gets my vote for best movie of the decade. (The shot of Phil bound and gagged in LaFleur’s closet also provides a visual homage to a similar moment from that film.) Faraday’s condition not only renders all of his natural gifts useless, but it also forces him to live in a state of constant grief. Daniel can remember what he did to Theresa, but without any new memories, he remains trapped in that time period (the broken record playing the same song over again). Although the Island does heal his mind, just as Widmore promised, the intact memory merely allows his heart to be broken a second time. After being unable to remember anything, Daniel becomes incapable of forgetting the death of Charlotte. The scene offers no direct explanation for why Daniel breaks into tears at the sight of the sunken Oceanic airliner, but the dead bodies of Charlotte and Daniel exist somewhere on the Island, independent of his memories. When Eloise visits her son for the final time, once again at the piano bench, the condition reduces Daniel to a childlike state. He transforms into that same boy, seeking to earn his mother’s conditional love. It almost seems as if Eloise pushed her son to grow up too quickly, and fate found a way to compensate. The most basic human constants (things like memory, age, and love) simply do not work the way they are supposed to work in the life of Daniel Faraday.
DESMOND: Well, Moriah is the mountain where Abraham was asked to kill Isaac. It’s not exactly the most, festive locale is it.
CAMPBELL: And yet God spared Isaac.
DESMOND: Well one might argue then, God may not have asked Abraham to sacrifice his son in the first place.
CAMPBELL: Well then it wouldn't have been much of a test, would it brother? Perhaps you underestimate the value of sacrifice.
Eloise Hawking urged her son to give up many aspects of his own life, in service of a larger destiny. The concept of sacrifice is a familiar one in the Lost mythos. The superb second half of Season Three drew comparisons to one of the world’s most famous sacrifice stories, the Binding of Isaac from the book of Genesis. The looking-glass Lost universe inverted the details of this story in a number of different ways. Desmond disobeyed the universe’s command to sacrifice Charlie, and he was eventually rewarded with a son Charlie; Locke struggled to slaughter his father in biblical fashion in the Others’ initiation ritual, so he outsourced the job; and Ben’s burdensome sacrifice was not the killing itself, but the decades of waiting before he could gas Roger. Season Five’s Dead is Dead revealed another permutation, as Widmore ordered Linus to sacrifice his adopted daughter in the name of the Island. Eventually, the angel of death named Keamy offered Ben a chance to sacrifice himself in Alex’s place. Unlike the Hebrew God, Widmore was not bluffing. The Variable provides its own variation on the human sacrifice story, with another unhappy ending. Ultimately, Eloise and Charles agreed to bind their son to the Island’s altar, knowing full well that his life would not be spared. Despite its fatalistic motivation, the slaughter required three separate acts of free will, once from Widmore and twice from Hawking. The two British Hostiles somehow managed to distinguish themselves within Lost’s rich tradition of parenting.
What possible justification could Hawking and Widmore have for sending their own son to be killed? Did they receive the Island’s divine command as a test of loyalty, or did they seek to avoid some scientific doomsday prophecy, or both? Hawking’s words from Flashes Before Your Eyes reveal some insight into the meaning of her job of keeping people on the right path: “If you don't do those things, […] every single one of us is dead.” Rightly or wrongly, Eloise seems to believe that the fate of the world rests in the balance. (Unless it is possible to erase one timeline and create a new one, perhaps changing history would result in the destruction of the universe.) Season Five's central biblical reference comes not the Book of Genesis, but from Christian scriptures. In the words of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The Variable offers a twisted, subversive, science-fiction re-telling of the gospels, with Daniel Faraday as its Jesus, Eloise Hawking as its Virgin Mary, and Charles Widmore as its God. If the fate of the universe depended upon sacrificing your child, which choice would be the right one?
Before The Variable, Eloise Hawking would have ranked near the absolute bottom of my list of favorite Lost characters. Not only is Fionnula Flanagan one of the weakest recurring actors on the show, but the writers have not done her any favors with her material. In the past, she was barely a character at all, but more of a transparent storytelling device. She served as nothing more than a Lindelof/Cuse spokeswoman to dispense information, and a lamp-post to point others on their way. The Variable accomplished something nearly impossible: it transformed Ms. Hawking into a genuine Lost character. Even her previous conversations with Jack and Desmond now become revelations of character rather than plot. Her monologue about course correction in Flashes Before Your Eyes now doubles as an attempt to convince herself that she did the right thing with Daniel. A woman who has believes so strongly in her cause that she would sacrifice her son’s life, certainly should have no qualms about sending another young man to lose his freedom. (One can imagine the thoughts that might be running through her head: “You want your damn three years back, Desmond? I want my son back!”) The younger actress, Alice Evans, also made a key contribution, by showing some recognizable human emotions during her early flashback scene: glimpses of fear, doubt, and even self-loathing. Season Five Eloise occupies one end of the Lost parenting spectrum opposite from Season Two Michael, who was willing to sacrifice everything and everyone else to save his own special son. Each parent believed (falsely, of course) that no other options existed, that his hand was forced when he pulled the trigger. Eloise’s motivations might never make perfect sense, but the character finally has developed some substance. After a season filled with the theme of motherhood, Mama Eloise might be the ultimate metaphor for the Island’s true nature: it gives life, nurtures a person’s gifts, pushes and pushes person to fulfill some role, and then it takes that life away.
LOCKE: That's not work. That's a joke - rats in a maze with no cheese. [...] I was never meant to do anything. Every single second of my pathetic little life is as useless as that button! You think it's important? You think it's necessary? It's nothing. It's nothing. It's meaningless. And who are you to tell me that it's not?
The self-referential title of Episode 5.14 makes for a rather bold fashion choice worth noting. Supporting scribes Kitsis and Horowitz present The Variable as the spiritual inverse of Season Four’s revered classic The Constant from Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. Both episodes portray the four-dimensional Lost universe as a fixed equation, in which the past is just as much a function of the future as vice versa. For Desmond Hume, this perspective on the universe offered great comfort. If your destiny is to spend the rest of your life with someone you love, then even oceans of space and time can be overcome. As Benjamin Linus reminded the audience back in Cabin Fever, fickle destiny can have a major downside as well. Faraday’s fate was sealed with a gunshot before he was even born: a lifetime of solitude and misery, in which any woman he loved would be hurt terribly. In The Constant, complete strangers (Jarrah, Minkowski, Faraday, even Widmore) all joined forces to help Desmond find his love again. In The Variable, Daniel is so alone in his quest that even his own family conspires against him. On Desmond’s path, love can somehow make a person bulletproof. For someone like Daniel, love guides that bullet directly into his heart. Desmond and Penny are the outliers in this system, the unique and miraculous exceptions that prove the rule. The Hume family’s brief appearance here emphasizes the contrast between their story and the rest of the Lost narrative. The sheer bliss of another Desmond-Penny reunion becomes a cruel cosmic joke, to amplify the magnitude of Daniel’s tragedy even further.
Among other ideas, The Constant also focused on the relationship between emotions and reason (so much so that my review of the episode last year was entitled “The Heart and the Head”). Desmond overcame a crisis of the brain, through his unbreakable attachment to Penelope. In its own way, The Variable re-affirms this same principle of the supremacy of the heart over the head. The same force that healed Desmond’s mind also conquered Daniel’s brain. More than any other character, Faraday is defined by his intellectual gifts. Even the strongest mind can fall powerless to a grieving heart. Ultimately, his plan to destroy the energy underneath the Swan does not make any rational sense. Three different characters in the episode (Miles, James, and Kate) refer to Daniel as insane, and for good reason. For one thing, basic thermodynamics holds that energy cannot be destroyed. Logistically, his plan should also be impossible: if Daniel does not arrive on the Island in 2004, then he can never exist in 1977 to detonate the bomb (or, for that matter, when he first told Eloise to bury it in 1954). His eventual ‘we’re the variables’ explanation to Jack and Kate does not support the conclusion that the past can be changed. Human decisions may be unknown, but each action only occurs once. To extend the equation analogy, the value of one variable may depend on the value of another variable. One person’s decision to change the past causes another person to cancel its effects (e.g. Sayid’s choice to kill Ben caused Kate’s decision to save him). The outcome of one side of the equation remains constant, even as the values on the other side vary. His speech did not express the thoughts of a scientist, but only the hopes of a desperate soul.
The artistry of Lost thrives on its own unique blend of smoke and mirrors. The smoke conceals its secrets until the most opportune moment. The mirrors reveal deeper truths by reflecting back opposites. The previous episode Some Like it Hoth drew a nearly explicit comparison between Season Five of Lost and The Empire Strikes Back, Episode V of the Star Wars saga. Hurley’s favorite Star Wars sequel climaxed with the daddy of all pop culture plot twists, those four words ‘I am your father,’ which turned a fictional universe upside down. The Variable includes a smaller moment of parent-child revelation, in which Charles Widmore, the ruthless leader of his own empire, reveals himself to be the father of the gentle Daniel Faraday. The more consequential surprise occurs in the episode's final moments, when Eloise shoots him in the back, just before hearing the words, "I'm your son." Lost’s Daniel Faraday already knew that he was the son of a bitch, but he never understood the full extent, until his dying breath. Perhaps the more meaningful line, however, came from Eloise, with the three words: "Who are you?" We all need mirrors to remind ourselves of who we are, and Daniel is no different. Any number of reflections might answer that question, either by comparison (Leonard Shelby, Dr. Frankenstein, Orpheus, Jesus) or by contrast (Isaac, Luke Skywalker, Walt, Desmond). Daniel's own answer to the question might be the most complete. Like all of us, Daniel Faraday amounts to exactly what his parents made him.