Note: This post contains spoilers from Episode 7 of the show.

In the first episode of ABC’s new drama FlashFoward, the whole planet blacks out for two minutes and seventeen seconds, leading to car and plane crashes, global panic, and at least one escaped kangaroo roaming the streets of Los Angeles. Ostensibly, during the course of the show, we’ll find out what caused the blackout. However, what seems more urgent to the show’s creators at this point is unraveling the mystery of human behavior in response to fate (or at least apparent fate). During the blackout, most people had a vision of themselves at a particular moment in the future: April 29, 2010 (conveniently, some people had future visions that happened to include calendars). FlashForward’s main characters have referred to these visions as both blessing and curse, and what seems to be more important than the visions themselves are the differences in how people react to them.

FBI agent Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes, a.k.a. Voldemort’s little brother) saw himself, in his flashforward, investigating the cause of the blackout, and fortunately, he saw some clues that have thus far panned out. Unfortunately, he, a recovering alcoholic, sober for years, also saw himself drunk. His wife Olivia saw herself with another man. Obviously, neither of the Benfords wants their visions to come true. On the other hand, we have a doctor who, at the time of the blackout, was on the verge of committing suicide. In his flashforward, he was not only alive but happy. His vision gave him renewed hope. Similarly, Mark’s AA sponsor Aaron (played by nearly annual Tony nominee Brian O’Byrne) saw his daughter, reported dead in combat in Afghanistan, alive again.

This past week’s episode, the seventh in the season, focused on those who had no visions—presumably because they will be dead by April 29 (no one has suggested the possibility that one might have a flashforward of an afterlife, and that there might be some explanation other than death for those who lacked visions). Mark’s FBI colleague Demetri (John Cho) is one of this group, and he keeps his vision secret from his fiancé, while withdrawing into himself as a result of his belief that he has no future.

In this episode, while investigating a lead, Mark, Demetri, and their colleague Al (Lee Thompson Young) go undercover to infiltrate a club of flashforward-less nihilists. Convinced that their death is imminent, these people engage in whatever risky or perverse behaviors the fear of death would usually keep them from. Some even try to commit suicide, testing whether any particular day is the day appointed for their death. Demetri seems to be turned off by these people, and we breathe a sigh of relief. It’s only at the end of the episode that we learn that Demetri was never the one in danger: it was Al.

In Al’s flashforward, he saw himself on the phone with someone who told him that a woman named Celia died. In the vision, Al knew that he was responsible for this woman’s death, and he felt tremendous guilt and grief (one of the strongest impressions of each flashforward is the emotion that the person is feeling at that moment on April 29). At the end of episode seven, Al jumps off a building, killing himself to keep his vision of the future from coming true.

The episode is brilliantly structured: I love surprise twists in which you discover that what you thought was the main story or central conflict really was peripheral. On the level of writing, the episode was one of Flashforward’s best so far. Yet I’m also disturbed by a few things about the show’s portrayal of Al’s suicide: afterwards, we see a montage of people jolted into positive, less fatalistic action by Al’s death. He seems to have proved it’s possible to challenge the flashforwards, which causes Demetri, Mark, and Olivia to renew their commitment to keep their flashforwards from coming true. This in itself is not necessarily an endorsement of Al’s action: good results often spring from awful occurrences. What troubles me more is that the episode is titled “The Gift,” a reference to Al’s suicide note, in which he calls his suicide a “gift”—essentially, of life—to the unknown Celia. The note itself can be interpreted as a product of his twisted thinking, but when the episode is titled “The Gift,” it almost seems to endorse his label for his suicide. Some viewers posting in online forums about this show have taken this interpretation as well, viewing Al’s choice as noble and selfless.

Perhaps one of the reasons I find this so disturbing is that, though FlashForward is clearly fiction, some of the behaviors in response to the visions remind me of real-life situations. Take obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), for example: a common obsessive thought for OCD sufferers is the fear (more than a fear, almost a conviction) that they will kill or otherwise harm someone else. Some people with OCD are even plagued by intrusive mental images of themselves doing harm to others. Intense feelings of guilt—for an action not actually committed—often accompany these obsessive thoughts. I don’t know how many OCD sufferers with these types of obsession have committed suicide to “prevent” themselves from harming someone else, but my guess is that it’s happened. (In some ways, Al’s suicide on Flashforward is a more realistic portrayal of OCD—even though, in the world of the show, it’s not OCD—than are the cute, lovable hand-washers on Monk and Glee.) The difference is that, in real life, we would recognize Al’s suicide as mental illness and not as heroism.

Other characters, as a result of their guilt-inducing flashforwards, have sought other courses of action. One character, a young woman wearing a cross, seeks guidance from her pastor after her flashforward, asking him, “How do I atone for something I haven’t done yet?” His response is less than helpful. The only suggestion he gives her is to volunteer somewhere. One thing FlashForward brings into stark clarity is our society’s inability to deal with guilt, pathological or otherwise. Even a church that preaches a message of grace may be inept at helping people experience that grace on a real level.

At this point, not knowing what further directions the show will take, I’m viewing the portrayal of Al’s suicide as just one example, among many in the show, of how people can choose to respond to a vision of a dark future. I’m hoping that we’ll see others that attempt to challenge their visions, but in truly life-affirming ways. I’m hoping that the “gift” of the episode’s title refers to the gift of life in general.


4 Comments

  1. I haven’t seen the show, but it sounds intriguing.

    I’m kind of torn. I think the situation is more complex than your evaluation allows. The OCD analogy might hold up if everyone else saw the world differently from the guy who sacrificed himself. But it sounds like everyone, universally, agrees that a) the visions in this flash forward are fated to happen and b) those without visions are dead.

    If this is the case, then wrong or right, society agrees that the seen destiny is incontrovertible. In this case, Al really is acting sacrificially in trying to save Celia’s life by standing up against what he (and everyone else) views as fate. Regardless of the fact that in the final analysis his sacrifice was unnecessary (in that his flash forward clearly wasn’t fated if he could prevent it from happening), psychologically it sounds like humanity needed somebody to test the boundaries of their shared mass hallucination.

    For that test to be adequate, somebody with a vision of the future would have to die, whether by sacrifice or by other means. I have a hard time believing that nobody with a vision of April 29th (L.A. Riots!!!) has since died, so my disbelief suspension is already on thin ice, but presuming that thus far only those with blank visions had died, Al’s act (whether inspired by guilt or by hope) really does pose the world with a gift (whether he sacrificed himself on their behalf or not).

    Well, a gift for those whose futures were bleak. Not so much a gift for those whose destinies inculcated hope.

  2. This is gonna be cliche, I know, but I actually saw Al’s suicide as a Christlike sacrifice.

    Christ surrendered and put himself in the hands of the authorities knowingly, when at least one of his disciples was urging him to fight.

    I believe Christ would have fought if he knew that would change anything but sometimes it’s only by death/sacrifice that anything changes – that people are convinced. A belief is not worth anything if you are not prepared to die for it.

    Imagine if Christ had said “Look, I have the power to raise myself to life again if I die, but I’m not gonna let myself get killed now am I?” How many disciples would believe in Christ’s power and be motivated to go out into the world, if they just had his word to go on and not the experience of it?

    Let’s just assume that Al’s guilt was real and that he was directly responsible for their deaths – possibly avoidable deaths – and that this event truly happens/happened on 29th April 2010.

    FlashForward begins to encounter the paradoxical problems which are inherent in time travel – and I’m looking forward to how they address it (I can see the relevance of Schrodingers Cat analogy in what is happening).

    When, in fiction, you are faced with a certain future, predicted or gained through experience of time travel, often it is confusing and there is no hint as to what actions led to the outcome.

    There is only 1 of 2 reactions you can have. The first is to try to discover what actions lead up to it, to pre-empt every decision you make in order to avoid the impending catastrophe. The other reaction is to simply carry on as you were, either accepting fate, or second guessing that to try to alter things would actually lead to them.

    In FlashForward, as in all fictional stories, we have seen both types of reaction and we are seeing that these reactions both lead to confirming or causing the future events.

    Therefore, our characters are stuck. On the one hand, attempting to prevent the future event seems to add to the cause, but also trying to sit it out also adds to the cause. And since they know not the timings of these future events, every day could be ‘the day’ that it happens (e.g. they die).

    So how can you ensure that an event will not occur? What other way is there than death? If you attempt to run from the problem – it may actually be the running that is the cause, if you attempt to tackle the problem head on, it may be that you should have ran from it.

    Death is the only way to ensure that there is action or reaction that leads to the cause. It ensures that however the script would have played out, there is no actor to act on it.

    I don’t think it can be compared to a sufferer of OCD, since the OCD sufferer hasn’t seen a future event in which they cause real harm. It is a psychotic disorder not a reaction to a real event.

    However you were spot on with your observations about societies inability to deal with guilt.

  3. Sorry I don’t have time to give a more detailed response here, but, in response to both The Dane and Lex Fear, I don’t really think the show has ruled that the flashforwards are certain future. The characters who accept them as certain have done so because a web site on which users share visions convinced them of their own visions’ truth.

    I think there’s a huge difference between submitting to death at another’s hands and committing suicide. Jesus submitted to the Father’s will, which I see as completely different from acting in defiance of “fate,” whether apparent or actual. There’s no guarantee that Al’s suicide has prevented Celia’s death. One TWOP forum poster had the rather hilarious (if slightly macabre) question, “What if Al had landed on Celia?” (Answer: Then we’d be in a Greek tragedy and not a sci-fi series.) But, my point is, Al’s action was more to escape his own sense of guilt than it was to give life to someone else. (Again, Jesus’ death is very different here, since he was without guilt.)

  4. @Carissa,

    At some point the thought springs to mind – It’s a TV show, based in a fictional universe in which the characters have seen the future!

    I’ve watched a lot of movies and tv where the main character has commited what appears to be an unnecessary sacrifice, and it’s usually to move the plot forward.

    What needs to be realised here is that if April 29th 2010 is a real event (in the show) that happened/happens then by committing suicide Al has altered the past and subsequently altered the future.

    Regardless of guilt (and we have at this point to assume he was responsible in some way for Celia’s death) he has proved that the future can be changed – because unless the show adds resurrection* to the laws of it’s universe, then on April 29th 2010 he will not be sitting in a meeting with the other agent when he gets a phone call.

    I think the show is trying to make a point and add a twist. No character was going to needlessly commit suicide without it feeling too contrived (for us as the audience), so they needed to add a motive.

    The only way a fictional story can show, with certainty that a predicted event cannot and will not happen is by death of a character. Because up until that point, any reaction or counter-action could be a positive action towards that event. Death is the only certainty barring a deus ex machina event.

    No-one here in the real world is dealing with a flashforward of a future event and therefore suffering from guilt of the pre-emptively preventable said event.

    And for what it’s worth, I did for a moment think myself what if he’d landed on Celia too ;)

    *of course I think we’re not seeing everything yet and I don’t think the sci-fi element starts and ends with a flashforward. I have a theory.

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