Shortly after LOST aired Desmond’s time traveling adventures in “The Constant” I couldn’t wait for the Season 4 DVD to be released so I could hear the producer’s commentary on the episode. My wait ended yesterday courtesy of Netflix, and it didn’t disappoint.
Below are some interesting excerpts, along with my own “commentary on the commentary” to go with it.
(Have I mentioned how much I love this episode?)
Carlton Cuse: This was one of the hardest story breaks on the show. It took us about 5 weeks, normally it takes 2 weeks to break an episode. It just was a really hard episode to figure out what was sort of above the water line. When we think about stories we use a metaphor of an iceberg. You have to construct the entire iceberg, but only 20% of the iceberg is ever actually seen. The same is true with a story. You have to make a lot more of the story up and you have to make it all make sense but then you just show the part on screen that you want to show. A lot of the challenge here was how much explanation goes on. We didn’t want to bog things down in a lot of esoteric conversation about time travel but we wanted to find an emotional through line. And that emotional through line became the essence of the show in “What is Desmond’s constant?” Yes he’s time traveling, yes he’s experiencing an existence in two different consciousnesses, but the emotional constant that was taking him through it was Penny.
I really like the iceberg analogy as well as the debate over how much information is too much. I had a similar challenge writing Timely Persuasion in that I wanted to explain enough of the time travel logic so it would make sense for people who cared, but as a whole the book is much more about the emotional journey of the narrator (who happens to travel in time) rather than being “a book about time travel.”
Damon Lindelof: When he just said “I was on a ferris wheel” I cannot wait to do a scene at some point in the next two seasons where in the background we just see Minkowski riding a ferris wheel and we realize “Oh, that’s where he leapt to.”
I love the subtle use of the word “leapt,” which feels like a tiny Quantum Leap reference.
Damon Lindelof: Here is a touchstone of the great traditional time travel story which is where you have the expert, played by Faraday the physicist – he’s our Doc Brown here who basically tells the protagonist to go find him in the past. Which, you know, it works every time.
He’s completely correct on the “expert” being necessary in every time travel tale. The old man serves this purpose in TP, though he never asks the narrator to seek him out in the past (for obvious reasons if you’ve read the book). And of course Doc Brown is the most cited example since BTTF is such a classic, perfect story.
Carlton Cuse: The one thing we insidiously avoid when it comes to time travel on Lost is what is known as paradox. This whole notion that you show up and see your same self in another period of time.
Damon Lindelof: We’re going to come to paradox in a moment, but essentially this is our flux capacitor scene. Desmond has just come to Faraday and here’s a key line here:
FARADAY: You can’t change the future.
Damon Lindelof: There it is. You can’t change the future. Those are the rules on Lost which are very had to adhere to. Because if you tell the audience that something that Desmond does in 96 can alter the present, you go back to the episode we did last year where Ms. Hawking comes to Desmond and says no matter what you do the course of time will find a way to course correct. So you can save somebody’s life who’s supposed to die but eventually the universe will find a way to kill them anyways.
Mark Goldman: So you can change the immediate future?
Damon Lindelof: Yeah, you can change the immediate future.
This is a clarification that answers one of my most burning questions: Can you change the future or not? The concept of “course correction” is a little fuzzy, but I like how they are doing something different. Most time travel “rules” say either you can’t change anything or you need to be very careful as everything can easily change even if you didn’t intend for it to. But on Lost the rule says you can change certain immediate things, but long term they’ll still work their way back to the “right” way. Thus they dodge both paradox and the butterfly effect in their take on the genre.
Carlton Cuse: What we’re trying to illustrate here is that this process was also not a constant process. People experience it differently. What’s happening to Minkowski is not the same as what’s happening to Desmond and what’s happening to Desmond is not the same as what’s happening to Eloise. The fundamental process is the same but the results vary. Sort of like how different people can take steroids and have different results. Different people can be exposed…
Damon Lindelof: As Carlton was basically mentioning Eloise’s consciousness was just sent an hour into the future where she already knows how to run the maze. Desmond’s past consciousness is traveling into the future as well whereas Minkowski’s present consciousness is traveling to the past because as we will soon learn he has no future to travel to since he’s about to die on the boat.
Different effects on different people is also a refreshing change from most stories. It’s just more realistic as the steroids analogy illustrates. It also helps to keep things new and surprising. The audience isn’t like “oh, another time travel episode.” Instead it’s “how does time travel work this time?” This parallels the three different levels of time travel I tried to infuse into TP for similar reasons.
Carlton Cuse: Now you know why it took us 5 weeks to break this story. And the thing was we had to work out all of these permutations and we’re trying not to violate the concept of paradox. That’s the part where we find that time travel is not engaging for the audience. You want to see the people move back and forth between the two different time zones but the kind of encounters with themselves and alterations of the future was something we really are opposed to. We want people to be invested in the future. We don’t want the audience to think they’ve seen Kate and Jack have this intense conversation in a flash forward at the end of Season 3 and then discover somehow that it means nothing; that basically a new parallel future could be constructed in which that is rendered as having not ever existed. No. That was real. It means something. That can be the only inevitable course of events.
The concept that “flash forwards” on the show are inevitable feels like more of a creative decision rather than something related to their “rules” of time travel, especially when paired with the concept of course correction explained previously. They’ve made the decision not to change future events the audience is aware of so as not to have a get out of jail free card. On a show like Heroes we see one future and understand that the goal of the time traveler is to alter that future, on Lost we know that future will remain — and possibly even be caused — by some time traveling actions yet to come. This is important since Lost isn’t a show about time travel as much as it is a show that includes time travel in the underlying gears.
Damon Lindelof: Minkowski was absolutely essential to this story because this is another tenet of successful time travel stories and the function that essentially Q played in “All Good Things” which is there is someone who is undergoing and understands the same series of events as our protagonist. Faraday can speculate as to what’s happening to Desmond but Minkowski actually knows what is happening to Desmond emotionally.
The part that Faraday can only speculate what’s happening whereas Minkowski actually knows from experience is a great in that it hints at the fact that Faraday might be wrong. After all, his knowledge is only theoretical. As I’ve metioned before, I dislike it when a character in a book or movie or tv show has a theory and that theory always turns out to be 100% correct. Trial and error (especially error) helps to propel a story forward while grounding a sci-fi theme with an extra layer of reality.
TP takes a slightly different approach and combines the Faraday and Minkowski perspectives to a degree. The old man can sympathize with the experiences of the narrator having shared them, but he’s also just as confused on a lot of the hows and whys since he doesn’t really know. He can theorize, but his theories are just as likely (if not more likely) to be proven wrong as they are to be proven right.
Carlton Cuse: We wanted Desmond at some point in this story to see himself and see what he looks like. His consciousness you realize — this story is told from the point of view of the 1996 Desmond — so that’s is the first time he really gets to see himself looking like Eddie Vedder.
I hoped they would call out an intentional nod to Quantum Leap with the “Desmond sees himself in the mirror” scene, but unfortunately they didn’t. But that Eddie Vedder comparison is awesome.
I never thought about this until Carlton said it, but I think Henry Ian Cusick is a lock for the lead in any future Pearl Jam biopic.
Carlton Cuse: The hardest thing to crack on a story level is here you have a very complex time travel episode and we wanted it like everything else on the show not to be just hard core genre. So we had to figure out a way to really have the episode have some emotional resonance. We like to refer to both of our mothers. This is one of those episodes where they might not really understand everything that’s going on but they were clearly set up for the big emotional payoff that’s coming up. I think the show succeeds at its best when it does both things. It provides fodder for the mythology fans and we can take on some cool genre things and put our own spin on them but always first and foremost look at those emotional connections which we believe is why the larger part of the audience is watching.
Carlton reiterates something he said previously about how the show works best when it has something for everyone. If it was all mythology and mystery and time travel it might be a cult favorite, but it probably wouldn’t be as popular as it is and it probably would have been canceled early in season 3. But by keeping it about characters and relationships despite any bigger picture mythology that surrounds it, you end up with what is quite possibly the greatest television show of all time. Personally I love it on both levels equally, with time travel just being the surprise icing on the cake.
Damon Lindelof: And now we have Minkowski buy the farm which is the other thing a dramatic story requires which is a clock. And now the clock is going to be if Desmond can’t make this call in time he is going to go the way of Minkowski.
Even though they go out of their way to say they avoid paradox on the show at all costs, the fact that not finding your constant results in death feels like it flirts with paradox. I interpret it to be the doomsday scenario: If you put yourself in a paradoxical situation you will die. Lindelof seems to confirm this interpretation later when he says:
Damon Lindelof: What does he have to achieve in the past that’s going to help him in the present? The idea that we came up with is he has to get Penny’s number. This very stupid idea that when a guy first meets a girl he’s just trying to get her number now suddenly the entire future of this relationship — and in fact the season finale of season 4 hinges upon Desmond’s ability to convince a 1996 Penny to give him her phone number and not change it.
Sounds like the potential for paradox to me, with the producer’s pledge to not allow that situation to happen being what saves the day via the deus ex machina known as “course correction.”
Damon Lindelof: And this is a fairly intriguing little coda that we stuck on to the end of the episode that was always in the script: “If anything goes wrong Desmond Hume will be my constant.” Obviously this is all setup for Faraday’s own story. One would certainly ask why he didn’t remember having ever met Desmond if in fact this had occurred.
Carlton Cuse: And that is a good question.
Damon Lindelof: And that is an excellent question to be asking, and that is your first clue.
In typical Lost fashion, one of the biggest unanswered questions about the episode is mentioned but still unanswered. How and when did that note get into Faraday’s notebook? And what is our first clue? Such a tease…