Written by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz
Directed by Paul Edwards
The overriding question of Lost, almost from the beginning on, has been the argument of destiny versus free will. This was made clear in the initial argument between the Man of Science (Jack) and the Man of Faith (Locke) being constantly at each other throats throughout the first hundred days that they were on the island. Though they've been the most obvious example of it, almost every character has had a similar dichotomy. ---- Desmond, Charlie, Eko and Hurley were all people of faith, while Sayid, Kate and Sawyer all seem to be on the other end. It's been harder to figure out if the Others believe in destiny --- Ben's a profligate liar, Juliet remains inscrutable three seasons--- but considering all the religious imagery and their overriding believe in Jacob, we have to consider that they are more on the faith side of the argument.
But there's always been a certain amount of flux between the two camps. In season 3, Hurley came to believe that his curse was something that he could overcome and that he could make his own luck--- until he got rescued and the numbers started chasing him again. Sayid came back to the island certain that his destiny was to kill the young Ben, but now that he's failed, who knows what he'll believe now. Of course, Jack has now gone from one extreme to the other, but even though he thinks this is destiny, he hasn't done much on the island to prove otherwise.
And then there's Daniel Faraday, who's just come back after being absent the second half of the season. Considering that he is a Man of Science, you would have expected him to come down on the belief in free will, but all the time that they were skipping through time, he made it clear over and over, you can't change the future. Sawyer and Miles seem to have locked on to this, and when Dan shows up and tries to radically break from the pattern, they both think that he's gone crazy. (Not that he ever had that far to go in their eyes) But the first thing he says when he gets back to camp is tell Jack that everything his mother told them was wrong, and that the premise they've been operating under has been flawed from the beginning. Dan seems to have come down on the path that free will is what they've been striving for, and that changing the present is possible.
Daniel's flashbacks may be the most shocking and revelatory ones we've seen of any character. Learning that he was on a path to become a gifted musician before his mother seemed to take him off it deliberately. Eloise has always been cryptic whenever we've seen here, but with her son, her behavior is even more stunning--- she treats her son with detachment in every flashback, but at the same time, there's an expression in her face and her behavior as if her heart is breaking. She says that her son has great work to do, and that she has a path that he has to follow. She knows what its cost him--- his girlfriend in a coma, her son suffering tremendous side effects from the radiation from his experiments--- but she keeps pushing him, even when she should know better. This leads up to the episode's final revelation --- arguably the biggest twist we've had since we learned how Locke ended up in the coffin. Eloise put her son on a path that would lead him to walk right into the Other's camp where she would shoot him in the back. Jeremy Davies has been a remarkable actor, but his final moments as all the lies that have been his life suddenly reveal themselves are nothing short of remarkable --- if anything, he's even more appalled than the viewer is.
And there's a lot going on anyway. Dan has arrived, as we find out, just in time to play out the scene that we saw at the Orchid way back in the season premiere. He knows that the drilling in the Swan is progressing, and that in a matter of hours, it's going to erupt. When it does, the hatch will be built, for the next twenty years the Dharma Initiative will press that button until Desmond fails at his task, causing Oceanic 815 to crash, and setting everything into motion. Dan wants to stop it, not so much to change his destiny, but to try and save Charlotte. We see him visit the six year old girl halfway through, and it's nearly as heartbreaking as the finale. However, in order to do that, he has to detonate a hydrogen bomb. Now we know why we saw Jughead get buried.
James doesn't care about whatever craziness Dan's involved in--- he's got his own headaches to deal with. Phil is still in the closet, and now they have to figure out what to do next. Jin doesn't want to leave the island, because he still needs a chance to find Sun. Jack is more willing to go along with Daniel, though it seems he's about to be led. Juliet seems awfully quiet--- until James refers to Kate as "Freckles". Hearing the man she loved refer to Kate with affection is enough to make her realize that this is the death knell of the three years in Dharmaville, and she gives up the information to help Kate and Jack get past the sonic fence. You can tell with each succeeding episode how hard it is for to watch James and Kate together--- her facade keeps showing more and more subtle cracks. James may say that he loves her, but she can tell otherwise, and so an we.
As if these flashbacks haven't been stunning enough, we get one flash to the present. Eloise has come to the hospital where Desmond was taken after Ben shot him, and apologizes to Penny for being responsible (I love her expression when Penny asks if she's Ben's mother. Even she doesn't want to get that close to that particular breed of slime.) Desmond has become a casualty in the war that's been going on, and for the first time in a long time, she doesn't know what's going to happen next. She's known that her son's life has been heading down a certain path--- hell, she put him on it. And she's always seemed to be certain of how things are supposed to go. So when she says that she doesn't know what's going to happen next, perhaps it means she couldn't see anything past Dan's death. This is odd because Desmond is still alive. When this episode aired, I hoped--- really hoped--- that this meant Desmond's particular part of the journey was done. I would keep thinking that until the second half of the last season. Couldn't they allow just one happy ending?
And the revelations still aren't over, because it appears that not only were Widmore and Eloise Others together, but that Daniel is their child. (How he got the last name Faraday is anybody's guess.). This is a moments whose dramatic potential is diminished by the fact that Eloise all but disappears after this episode, and we never get a clear idea of when and why she left the island in the first place, or why she isn't trying to go back to it. For that matter, it doesn't explain why Widmore, having literally moved heaven and earth to find the island, didn't seem that interest in trying to find it on Ajira 316 or in talking with his own daughter. This is a major gap and it diminishes the enjoyment of what is otherwise a stunning piece of work.
'The Variable' can be viewed as a companion to both 'Flashes Before Your Eyes' and 'The Constant', as it deals with both the issue of time travel, and the fundamental struggle between destiny and free will. Daniel seemed determined to prove that free will was possible, when his destiny bushwhacked him. The question is, now that they know what his final path is, will Jack, the man of science turned man of faith follow through on it.