"There's always a choice, brother." -DesmondIt's not an epilogue-in-advance.
The whole epilogue theory, which I began noodling with as much so that I could pretend that the flash-sideways meant something as because I believed in the idea, was pretty concretely disproven by "Happily Ever After."
(Apologies if the next few paragraphs read like complete gibberish, but between my recent sleep deprivation and the usual mechanics of a "Lost" story arc, it's inevitable.)
Instead, it appears that some event - perhaps the detonation of Jughead, perhaps something we've yet to see - has rewritten the timeline, in a way that has given nearly every character what someone, somewhere, thought would be a happy ending for them, whether it worked out exactly or not. Locke has the love of Helen, Ben has a relationship with a living Alex, Jack overcomes his daddy issues, etc., etc., etc. The dead rise up and have more palatable existences (Daniel Faraday, pushed by his mother to become the world's greatest doomed physicist becomes Daniel Widmore, pampered by his mother into becoming a musician who wants to combine classical music with the works of Driveshaft). Not all of it quite works out - Sayid is still a soulless killing machine who can't be with Nadia, Kate's still a fugitive (albeit hanging with the mother of her son from the real timeline), Sun's gutshot - but enough of it does to suggest this wasn't designed as a kind of monkey's paw existence.
In fact, everyone is supposed to be so happy in these alternate lives that they'll never notice how much the universe has changed, or the cost that was paid to attain these lives, or what evil - Smokey, presumably - is busy running amok while Jack's busy having a catch with his son and Sawyer and Miles are acting out unproduced "Nash Bridges" scripts.
And while some people are capable of recognizing the artificiality of this other universe (if that's what it is; for all I know, this could be The Matrix, and Jack and the others are all hanging in suspended animation inside a global cloud of black smoke), the only one capable of sharing knowledge between his two lives is Desmond.
Desmond is "special." Desmond knew the universe wanted Charlie dead well before the universe finally won that battle. Desmond can travel back and forth through his own lifetime, "Quantum Leap"-style. Desmond can survive the time travel sickness because he has Penny as his constant, and can alter the timeline when no one else can. He is, in fact, cool enough that for the first time in forever my "Lost" gag reflex didn't rise up when a character was offered an explanation and declined(*).
(*) That's part Desmond coolness, part that Cuse and Lindelof's "Happily Ever After" script pretty strongly implied what was up, particularly in the scene where Desmond comes face to face with Eloise, who in a universe where she didn't kill her own son wound up marrying Widmore and giving his name to their son. In every timeline, she knows more than everybody else, and here she doesn't even have her son's time-looped notebook to explain it all.
So now there are stakes to the sideways stories. Desmond exists in both realities, and is working a plan in both. Now we know that the sideways world is tied to the one we know, and that it needs to be stopped - that, like the Oceanic Six had to go back to the island, all of the important Oceanic 815 passengers have to accept that this is not their beautiful house, their beautiful wife, etc. That knowledge doesn't retroactively improve dull sideways stories like "What Kate Does" or last week's "The Package" in the way that we might have hoped, but it does make the sideways world matter moving forward into this last rush of episodes.
And with Desmond back in action, and working towards a reunion with his beloved Penny in at least one timeline (if not trying to woo her in the other), I'm pumped to see what comes next.
In the interests of my REM cycle, a few other thoughts and then you guys fire away:
• We see Widmore's scientists have a rabbit on hand (named Angstrom, as a tip of the hat to John Updike), just like Dr. Chang did in the infamous Comic-Con video where the island duplicates the rabbit. At first I assumed the idea was that Desmond was the only man who didn't exist in both timelines as separate entities, but perhaps not. Perhaps Darlton just like rabbits, given how many contexts they've place them in.
• I liked how much of Alt-Desmond's life mirrored what we know of him from the real world: still protecting Charlie Pace, still dancing to Charles Widmore's tune (albeit willingly here), and now it's Penny who's running the steps at the stadium. Eloise says "whatever happened, happened" (but says it to the one man on the show who proves that axiom's not always true). And I literally got goosebumps when we flashed from alt-Charlie's hand to the "Not Penny's boat" scene."
• Like Daniel Faraday (and Keamy, and Bakhunin and many others), George Minkowski comes back to life in sideways-ville, here a talkative limo driver instead of a talkative radio operator.
• So is the sound effect used to transition into the sideways world supposed to sound like an MRI machine?
Lots more of the episode to unpack, but I'm losing steam. We'll see what state I'm in next week - and also whether next week's episode inspires me to power through the fatigue the way this one did - but for now, vis a vis "Happily Ever After," what did everybody else think?