Time travel stories often make my head hurt, but either I've read/seen too many of them or Cuse and Lindelof did a masterful job of explaining it all, because I feel confident I picked up pretty much everything "Lost" was throwing down tonight.
Something about the combination of radiation (which Dan was exposed to in Oxford) and/or electro-magnetism (which Desmond was exposed to in the hatch) plus a trip on/off the island along the wrong bearing can trigger these Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time episodes. Remember, shortly before Desmond blew up the hatch and began having his time trips, he tried to escape the island in his sailboat and couldn't do it because he didn't have the right co-ordinates. So now he gets even further off the island, and the thunderhead forces Frank to not follow the exact right path, and so the episodes increase and get even worse: instead of 2004 Desmond's consciousness traveling back and forth through time with at least some sense of what the hell is going on, it's now 1996 Desmond in charge and he hasn't got a bloody clue, brother.
Conveniently, Desmond has sat phone access to a physicist with a specialty in time travel in our twitchy friend Faraday (and outstanding job by Jeremy Davies at playing the slightly saner, far more arrogant Oxford version of Dan). Dan '04 has already completed his time travel experiment and is able to use Desmond to help Dan '96 make it work. No doubt after Desmond left looking for Penny to be his "constant," Dan tried using the machine on himself, which is why he's been having all these memory problems of his own -- problems that should be going away now that he's remembered that, just as Penny is Desmond's constant, Desmond is Dan's own.
(God, I hope I explained that well. It made sense to me when I was watching and then writing. I expect this week's comments section to hit record levels.)
I honestly have no idea how much of this episode plays into the series' bigger picture -- I wonder whether the auction scene with Mr. Widmore buying the journal of The Black Rock's first mate is more important than any of the time travel stuff -- but I don't especially care. Remember my old mantra about wanting either a great story or big answers, but not always needing both at the same time? Even if this was just a narrative dead end to explain Desmond's previous time traveling and to put Dan in the proper frame of mind to do whatever terrible thing he's clearly on the island to do, I'm fine with it, because it was brilliantly executed, as both a brain-twister and as a love story.
You'd have to be made of stone to not feel the slightest bit moved by Desmond ('96 and '04 versions both) and Penny '04 declaring their love for each other over the dying satellite phone, played with hearts on sleeves by Henry Ian Cusick and Sonya Walger. (So what if Penny was practically quoting Daniel Day-Lewis' "No matter what occurs, I will find you!" lines from "The Last of the Mohicans"? If you're gonna steal, steal from the good stuff.)
I need to get to bed but want to open up the discussion ASAP, so some other points:
- Geez, so Fisher Stevens gets credited in a whole bunch of episodes and when he actually gets to provide more than a voice, he dies at the end of that show? At this rate, I have no idea when we're actually going to see Harold Perrineau again. And is there any way Michael isn't Ben's spy on the boat?
- While the boat may not be Penny's, I feel pretty confident that it's Mr. Widmore's. He's been looking for the island at least since '96 (the auction), he's the one who gets Desmond to sail on that race, and Minkowski has been ordered not to answer Penny's daily calls.
- Okay, so The Black Rock goes missing while on a voyage to Siam/Thailand, and somehow the first mate (or, at least, his journal) turns up seven years later in Madagascar? Why am I suddenly seeing visions of Tunisian polar bear skeletons? And how badly do you think Alvar and now Tovard Hanso got teased in elementary school?
- What does the freighter's calendar being roughly in sync with what the timeline on the island should be tell you about the results of Dan's rocket experiment with the out of sync watches?