S4E5 of Lost, “The Constant,” is one of the most memorable episodes of the entire series. And for good reason.
It features plenty of mystery, it introduces a few key elements that will play larger roles later in the show, and it has one of the best displays of love ever to be seen in television or film. And, of course, it focuses on Desmond—that’s always a good thing.
Desmond doesn’t get as much screen time as other characters in Lost, throughout the series. But I’d argue he is the heart and soul of the show. And “The Constant” is the inflection point that gives us hope that maybe everything will be OK for this cast of characters (at least some of them) who are drawn to a mysterious island.
“The Constant” also features a unique storytelling device. Lost Season 4 brought the use of the “flash-forward,” as opposed to the flashbacks used in the first three seasons (not including the Season 3 finale, “Through the Looking Glass”). But “The Constant” uses a different technique, in which Desmond experiences flashes to 1996.
Kicked off when the helicopter transporting Frank, Desmond and Sayid flies into an electrical storm, Desmond begins to consciously travel back and forth between the present day 2004 and 1996. But these aren’t exactly “flashbacks.” While in 1996, training with the British Army’s Royal Scots Regiment, he remembers (although he thinks it was just a dream) being in a helicopter traveling toward a freighter. The flashes occur at random moments, sometimes in the middle of a sentence. This effect always leaves the audience on their toes, unsure of what will happen next.
Back in the 2004 timeline, Desmond can’t remember a thing. He doesn’t recognize Sayid or Frank. He doesn’t know where they’re going. Normally, I tend to be very anti-amnesia-plot-lines in TV shows (24, I’m looking at you), but in “The Constant,” it really works—probably because it isn’t overdone.
Also, it isn’t quite full-on amnesia. Desmond does remember one thing, the only link between the two timelines: Penny. In the helicopter, Desmond holds the photo of him and Penny standing in front of the fake marina, with a look of vague recollection. This was the reason for him to demand a ride on the helicopter to begin with. This photo was in Naomi’s possession in Season 3; she had lied by saying she was hired by Penny to find Desmond. Once he found out in the Season 3 finale that Penny was not on the freighter, he wanted answers.
But after the electrical storm in “The Constant,” Desmond doesn’t remember any of that. However, something about that photograph sparks something, and as he again flashes back to 1996, Desmond finds a payphone and rings Penny. This is taking place after the events of S3E8, “Flashes Before Your Eyes,” in which Desmond breaks things off with Penny, rather than asking her to marry him.
Penny is having none of Desmond’s pleas for help. Still, Desmond knows he can’t give up. Back on the freighter, now in the sick bay with George Minkowski (who is also experiencing similar flashes), Sayid and Frank have Faraday on the phone. What Desmond is experiencing isn’t simply amnesia, but a side effect of exposure to electromagnetism and The Island. Faraday explains that the next time he flashes back, Desmond should go find him in Oxford.
It is here, in the 1996 timeline, in which Faraday explains the concept of needing a “constant.” Faraday’s rat’s brain short-circuits after traveling into the future because it had no “anchor.” It could not tell the difference between the past and present. “Every equation needs stability, something known. It’s called a constant. Desmond, you have no constant.” Desmond needs to find something he really cares about from 2004 that also exists in 1996, Faraday tells him. If he doesn’t, he may suffer the same fate as Eloise the rat. Desmond’s constant, obviously, is Penny.
From this point forward, the two timelines begin to converge more and more. Desmond visits Penny’s new apartment and promises he will call her on Christmas Eve in 2004. He asks for her phone number and then, after flashing back to the freighter, uses that number to contact Penny. And this sets up one of the finest displays of emotion ever made in television history.
After a seemingly endless number of rings, Penny picks up the phone. Finally, the two have made contact. When I first watched this episode, back when it aired in February 2008, I was sure the reunion would be prevented once again. However, even though they aren’t physically reunited at this point in time, they are able to share a true, beautiful moment of connection.
Desmond, who realized he needed another opportunity to make things right with Penny in “Flashes Before Your Eyes,” is getting that chance. And Penny has forgiven him for leaving her.
The scene that follows is pure brilliance. Henry Ian Cusick and Sonya Walger do such an incredible job; you can absolutely feel the years of regret and sorrow and longing in their voices. It’s impossible to not feel something during this exchange.
The shining moment comes at the end of the conversation, when the two seem to talk as one person. It’s simply perfect:
Desmond: I don’t know where I am, but…
Penny: I’ll find you, Des.
Desmond: I promise
Penny: …no matter what…
Desmond: I’ll come back to you.
Penny: I won’t give up.
Both together: I promise. I love you.
Desmond has found his constant—his anchor—and now the flashes have stopped. For now, everything is OK. Desmond obviously goes on to play many key roles in the events of later seasons of Lost; I’m just glad he is given this moment. He and Penny deserve it.
- “The Constant,” in conjunction with the Season 3 episode “Flashes Before Your Eyes,” really set Lost down the path of time travel. In “Flashes,” Desmond—trapped in a flashback in which he thinks he has traveled into the past—visits Eloise Hawking, who explains the deterministic qualities of the universe. Things have a way of course correcting, she tells him. “The Constant” also features an Eloise reference; this time it’s the name of Faraday’s rat, whose consciousness is sent into the future, short-circuiting its brain.
- The time travel in this episode has always led me to this question: If Desmond went back in time to visit Daniel Faraday in 1996 in Oxford, why doesn’t Des remember Faraday when he arrives on The Island? Penny remembers about Desmond’s promise to call her on Christmas Eve. So that moment seemed to actually “happen.” But what about Faraday? Unfortunately, I think it’s likely chalked up to “Desmond is special” and that certain “rules” don’t always apply to him. This partly seems like a cop-out to me sometimes, but also I think it’s why Desmond’s character is so interesting.
- This episode provides a few tidbits about the mystery that is the Black Rock. In one of Desmond’s flashes, Charles Widmore attends an auction in which the journal of the ship’s first mate is being sold. The Hanso family owned the journal, and it has been put up for sale by Tovard Hanso. The auctioneer also mentions that the Black Rock set out from Portsmouth, England on March 22, 1845 on a trading mission to the Kingdom of Siam and was then lost at sea. The journal was discovered off the coast of Madagascar seven years later. In S6E9, “Ab Aeterno,” we learn that the Black Rock picked up Richard Alpert in Tenerife in 1867 before crashing into The Island. The Black Rock subplot has always been a favorite part of Lost for me, so the fact that this random sidebar is included in this episode is just icing on the cake.
- The Hanso family pops up in other places throughout Lost. Magnus Hanso captains the Black Rock (and is likely buried somewhere near the wreckage). It’s also revealed in S2E3, “Orientation,” that the Hanso Foundation funded the DHARMA Initiative.
- In the auction scene, the lot for the journal is #2342 (which is made up of the last two candidate Numbers—23 and 42). In addition, Faraday tells Desmond that his device’s settings need to be set at 2.342.
- “The Constant” is the first episode featuring the awful Martin Keamy (Kevin Durand). It’s also the first time we get to see George Minkowski (Fisher Stevens), who was featured in previous episodes but never shown. Unfortunately, after suffering from effects of time-transported consciousness, Minkowski dies in Desmond’s arms while stating “I can’t get back.” This was a bummer.
- I love the conclusion of the episode, where Faraday is fishing through his journal and finds the note to himself that says “If anything goes wrong, Desmond Hume will be my constant.” After coming off such an emotional moment between Desmond and Penny, this mind-twisting, mysterious scene with Faraday is epic Lost.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw “The Constant.” It’s the perfect mix of entertainment, mystery, and emotion. It’s one of the best Lost episodes, period. And it still definitely holds up. Even watched on its own without intimate knowledge of what is going on, it’s still incredibly enjoyable.