"Flashes Before Your Eyes," the episode where we find out what happened to Desmond when he turned the failsafe key, is probably the most multi-layered episode within the first three seasons. I've spotted tons of clues, but I don't have the knowledge to see all their little hidden meanings. In this blog post I list the references I found in the episode and try to guess at what they mean. I would appreciate your help (and BalkOfFame and Mystimus, I'm talking to you) figuring out what this all means for the broader structure of super-meaning that is LOST. Here goes:
Charlie's saving grace
Throughout the episode, for some reason the writers don't let anyone use the word "save" except for Charlie when he's playing "Wonderwall" in London. Even when "save" is the obvious word choice, the writers avoid it. Examples:
After Desmond saves Claire from drowning, Claire is thanking him, and she says, "If you hadn't--" At that moment Charlie walks up and complains that Aaron's hungry. She was probably about to say "If you hadn't saved/rescued me." Charlie walks away, and Claire continues to Desmond, "Anyway, I just really wanted to say thank you--thank you so much for--for being there." You expected her to say, "for saving me," but she chose "being there" instead. Later, when Hurley and Charlie are about to try and get Desmond drunk, Charlie says, "This morning, I'm sorry I wasn't more grateful. Thank you for--helping Claire not drown." Does that seem like an odd word choice to anyone else? For some reason or another, the writers have reserved the word "save" for Charlie's baggage. He was always told he had to save the ones he loved ("Save us, Charlie!"--Mrs. Pace), but in the end it was Claire who saved him and helped him feel valuable ("Maybe, you're gonna be the one that saves me . . .") It seems that the writers even avoided the word "save" throughout he entire series. Ever notice how everyone says "fix" instead of "save" or "heal"? Jack, Sarah, Rose, Bernard, etc.
The color red
Desmond wakes up covered in red paint. The color red plays a big part in this episode--the paint, the odd flashing square on the microwave, the walls in Widmore's office, the shirt Desmond is wearing when he meets Eloise and later breaks up with Penny, the color of the shoes on the guy who gets crushed by the scaffolding--I wonder what it's supposed to represent.
Similarities to Flash Sideways
Desmond's whole experience in this flashback-re-live-whatever-it-is is eerily similar to his experience in the Flash Sideways universe. He wakes up confused, seemingly re-living a significant point in his life from several years ago, and even though he doesn't realize that he was just on the island, he retains a dazed, worried look in his eyes while he talks to Penny, as if he's just woken up from a strange dream--like the look Jack had when he woke up in the Flash Sideways universe at the beginning of season 6.
Little things give Desmond deja-vu and remind him of parts of his time on the island--when Desmond looks at the time--1:08--on the clock, when Penny says, "It's not the end of the world," when the microwave beeps like the computer in the hatch, when the delivery guy at Widmore Industries has the package for 815--all these incidents give Desmond deja-vu and eventually lead to small flashbacks of the island--exactly like in the Flash Sideways universe, when Desmond sees Charlie holding up his hand to the submerged car's window and has a flashback of him in the Looking Glass station, when he hears Penny's name, etc. Does this mean that the London which Desmond has mysteriously traveled to in "Flashes Before Your Eyes" is the same universe as the Flash Sideways? Or are the flashbacks simply a characteristic of all universe-travel?
When Desmond is getting dressed for his interview with Widmore, he is frustrated because he can't tie his tie. Penny helps him. I'm sure this is a reference to something--does someone have any idea what?
While she's tying Desmond's tie, Penny asks, "How's that concussion?" Desmond replies, "Well my severe head injury is a small price to pay for the pleasure of having you move into my humble--is 'rat trap' accurate?" Could this be a reference to John Locke, whose favorite game growing up was "Mouse Trap," as he told a kid in the toy store he was working in?
I've read on Lostpedia that the painting in Widmore's office is one of Thomas's (Claire's baby daddy). It has an upside-down Tibetan Buddha statue in it next to the polar bear, which I'm sure is loaded with meaning. Are the Buddhist themes of the show being turned on their head? Is this the odd intersection of Eastern thought and something else?
Eternal recurrence and changing things
When Desmond remembers Charlie on the street, he says frantically, "I remember this--this all happened before!" Of course the writers would choose Desmond to say this, because he is the symbol of miserable eternal recurrence. Eternal recurrence, as I understand it, is the Buddhist notion that you will keep making the same mistakes and being trapped in the same rut, going in vicious circles, until you do something different and break out--until you change things. And if you've reached the end of your life and still not become a good person, you have to go back and live life over again--you get reincarnated into a different being. And once you've realized what things truly are, you are enlightened, and you no longer live in this physical world of vicious cycles. This concept certainly plays a role in the meaning of Desmond's adventure in re-living the past. As noted elsewhere on Lostpedia, Desmond first represents eternal recurrence by acting like an obsessive, pressing the button every 108 minutes and being unable to escape from the loop. When he finally breaks free of the vicious cycle, he realizes he is caught in another inescapable rut--trying without success to escape the island--"a bloody snow globe." On the island, he still can't escape eternal recurrence; he goes back to his past and re-lives a terrible moment in his life. Not only that, but he makes the same mistake again--breaking up with Penny--despite having seen before what would follow. He doesn't want to leave Penny, he doesn't want to go to jail, he doesn't want to go on the race around the world and crash on the island, but he is stuck in the rut and is surrendering his freewill.
So Desmond says,
"This all happened before! Today -- th -- th -- this happened today. This -- I remember that he said I wasn't worthy -- and then I -- and then I -- and then I came down and I -- and I took off my tie and I -- and then I lost my tie and Penny said where was it and then it started to rain and..."
Hang on. Penny said where was it? Not in this version. He hasn't gone home yet. It starts to rain first. Why is this time different?
When we first see Desmond's physicist friend Donovan, he is talking to a student and says, "Run the same test ten different times and get ten different outcomes." A reference to quantum unpredictability, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, or multiple outcomes existing side-by-side in parallel realities?
Donovan, by the way, might refer to the Scottish singer/songwriter Donovan (who usually went by his first name), whose song "Happiness Runs" includes these lines:
Happiness runs in a circular motion / Thought is like a little boat upon the sea. / Everybody is a part of everything anyway, / You can have everything if you let yourself be.
Everybody is a part of everything--anyone thinking of the Oceanic feeling that Mystimus pointed out gives its name to the airline? Thought is like a little boat upon the sea--like Desmond's sailboat. And don't forget that on the same album that gave us "Happiness Runs" is Donovan's famous "Atlantis," an anthem about the sunken island of lore.
Desmond tries to convince Donovan that he's not crazy; "These things are not in my head, brotha." The writers have him refuting the hypothesis that our whole world is an elaborate shared dream, sort of like the Flash Sideways world was a construct of the Losties' imaginations.
Eloise - "Never done this before, have you?"
When we first see Eloise, she says to Desmond, who is looking at the rings, "Never done this before, have you?" and then, "I can always tell the first-timers." This is ironic, because he is actually doing this for the second time. I wonder what the significance of these lines is. Also in this scene and the one following it, the rings and Eloise's Ouroboros pin represent the same thing: eternal recurrence, vicious cycles.
Eloise's conviction when trying to convince Desmond to follow his path and break Penny's heart seems to tell us that this is the real world, that Desmond has actually gone back in time. If it were some other-world like the Flash Sideways, nothing she said would be true: his going to the island wouldn't hinge on this moment of deciding whether or not to marry Penny. She's talking as if she actually has seen these events before, and as if they matter now so they can cause future events. So obviously she at least thinks that it's the real world.
When talking on the bench right before the scaffolding falls, Desmond says, "I love her, she loves me. I'm gonna spend the rest of my life with her." Eloise replies, "No, Desmond, you're not." Considering Eloise is supposedly the all-knowing timeless lady, it's weird that she's wrong about this. Because we know Desmond does spend the rest of his life with Penny.
The man's shoes sticking out from under the scaffolding are an obvious reference to The Wizard of Oz.
"That man was supposed to die. That was his path. Just as it's your path to go to the island." A reference to the Buddhist eight-fold path (eight is one of the numbers)?
"You don't do it because you choose to; you do it because you're supposed to." Touching on the issues in time travel of freewill which will appear later on in the series.
When Desmond is breaking up with Penny, he says, "It's all happening too soon--you moving in, you're painting rooms, you're changing things--I don't even like red!" Changing things--similar to how Daniel Farraday put it in the Flash Sideways--"For some reason, we changed things." And the fact that Desmond doesn't like red is worth considering in determining the color's symbology.
After Penny slaps Des, she says, "Don't pretend you don't care. And don't you dare rewrite history . . ." Exactly what Desmond wanted to do--rewrite history so he didn't break up with Penny. Also what the Losties later tried to do with the Jughead.
And I'm sure that the ring sinking into the Thames signifies something.
The mind net
As Desmond is in the bar saying he's pretty sure he's just made a mistake that he's made before, we see a street sign hung in the bar that says "Leyland." Does this refer to the mythical Ley Lines, paths which would lead you into another world?
When Desmond watches on TV as the soccer ball does enter the goal, it reminded me of an entry in Lostpedia about getting caught in the mind net. Then Desmond realizes he can change things, but the only thing he ends up doing is changing things so the bar tender doesn't get hit in the head with the cricket bat.
Then we see him waking up naked in the jungle, like Adam in Genesis. The first hatch-related item he sees is the busted bicycle, which others have pointed out represents the endless cycles finally breaking down.
"Please, let me go back. Let me go back one more time. I'll do it right this time. I'm sorry, Penny--I'll change it, I'll change it."
Then comes the real kicker. Some have already theorized that somehow the events on the island led to the Losties living in many split realities, reminiscent of Richard Alpert's quote recorded in "The End/Theories": "How different the space. That's because the television channels you're living on more than one of them simutaneously, you're starting to live on all of them, all at once." In an earlier version of that page (or maybe it's still there), someone wrote that the last few seconds of "The End" showed different Jacks dying on the island (apparently the blood arrangement on his face was different in each shot), and all the fractured realities finally coming together. So when we see a repeat of Charlie calling Desmond a coward in "Flashes Before Your Eyes," he doesn't say the same thing he did the first time around. When we see this scene the first time, Charlie calls Desmond a coward, Desmond starts running toward him angrily, and Charlie says "Yeah!" before being knocked down. The second time we see it at the end of the episode, Desmond starts running toward Charlie and Charlie says, "Yeah! A cow--" and then gets knocked down. Strange, huh? Maybe we don't hear all of it the first time because of the music, I'm not sure. But it's something to look into.
Then Desmond is moaning, "No matter what you do, you can't change it--you can't change it no matter what you try to do, you just can't change it." Hurley looks at Charlie and makes a circle with his finger around his ear, signifying that Desmond is crazy--or that he is a man stuck in an endless circle of eternal recurrence.
But what the heck was it?
The question is never answered whether Desmond's romp in flashback-London is all a construct of his imagination or whether he actually went back in time. Given his later experiences with time-and-world travel, it seems likely that he actually went back. But did he change the past? After Desmond got off the island and found Penny and had a baby and everything, say he asked Penny which version of events she had experienced--the one where everything was normal or the one where Desmond kept having deja-vu? What would she say?