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.