Wednesday, August 11, 2010

30 Day TV Challenge - Day 6: "Every equation needs stability, something known. It's called a constant."

6. Favorite episode of your favorite show.
"The Constant"
Season 4, Episode 5
(Are we going to do this without spoilers again? We're damn sure going to try!)

You'd think it would be harder to narrow down my favorite episode of Lost. It had an awful lot of fantastic episodes, after all. But two years ago, the moment "The Constant" ended, I knew it was the best episode yet. Watching through the series again, it still easily stands out. The narrative is spellbinding, the performances are riveting (Henry Ian Cusick was never better as Desmond Hume), and it packs a massive emotional punch. That's something about Lost that people usually forget -- sure, it had four-toed statues and smoke monsters and a crazy, psycho mythology to carry around, but its heart was always with its characters, which led to some astounding emotional resonance. (Also, a mass uprising at the show's endgame, which resonated deeply with its characters but didn't stop to explain every little middling detail of the psycho mythology. But we're not going to have that discussion now. No matter how badly I want to.)

Oddly, "The Constant" has, at its core, a love story, which is the one thing Lost never did very well. Oh, they certainly tried, bless their hearts: the whole Jack-Kate-Sawyer mess took up most of the series, and never felt very natural -- I never got hung up on the "Which one will she choose?" angle, because it felt ported in from another series, a stock soapy plot the writers offered up because we have to have something to draw in casual viewers, I guess. Instead, they found gold almost by accident: the painful, tragic tale of Desmond Hume and Penny Widmore, lovers driven apart by time, mistakes and -- literally, it seemed -- the universe itself. Desmond found himself in hell after hell, and each time, held himself together by focusing on his love, and the idea that was out there, somewhere, waiting for him.

(Okay, can't get much farther without any spoilers. So, a mild spoiler alert. If you want to stay clean, you can skip the rest.)

"The Constant" takes that idea and makes it starkly literal: Desmond doesn't just need to find Penny to hold onto his will to live -- he needs her to live at all. Trapped in a swirling mess of confusion and terror, the only thing he can find to stop it -- the only thing that can bring him back to sanity and to life at all -- is Penny, the only constant that's always been there for him. Even outside of its relationship to the show's arcs and mythology, it's a powerful metaphor for how real love feels -- watching "The Constant" before and after I found the love of my life certainly gave me different perspectives.

I also want to talk about the show's narrative technique, but I'm not sure I could do it justice in text. Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, the Lost's executive producers, wrote "The Constant," and called it the most difficult episode they'd ever had to write. Just explaining the concept to people made them sound like idiots...but the episode itself manages to make it crystal clear, almost entirely visually. Lindelof and Cuse set aside the show's typical flashback structure for something that is...well, a lot more visceral. It echoes Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, which is (oddly enough) one of my favorite novels. It also foreshadows some pretty major events in the fifth season, though not in a way that would be immediately obvious. (That's Lost for you -- always running the long con.)

It doesn't have a mind-blowing cliffhanger or a game-changing plot twist. It's just a beautiful love story, thrown into Lost's mythical blender. And that's why "The Constant" is my favorite episode -- because it shows you where its heart truly is.

(Runners-up, presented without commentary and no particular order: "Through the Looking Glass," "Walkabout," "Ab Aeterno," "Numbers," "?," "Flashes Before Your Eyes," "Jughead," "The Man Behind the Curtain," "The Economist," "Confirmed Dead," "316," "LaFleur," "The Substitute," "The Candidate," and "The End." Yes, "The End." I told you, I'm not having this discussion right now.)

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