FlashForward: “Black Swan”

Fighting the Future

“Black Swan”
ABC, Thursday, 8
Written by Lisa Zwerling & Scott M. Gimple
Directed by Michael Rymer

“We can use what we saw to stop what we saw.” —Mark Benford

There’s the opening salvo in what is shaping up as a holy war—a war of faith—between those who want their flashforwards to come true, and those who do not. The former include people like Aaron, who thinks he will see his dead daughter alive again, and Janis Hawk, who thinks she’ll be pregnant. The latter include Olivia Benford, who does not want to cheat on her husband. Smack in the middle will be the tiny minority like Demetri, who saw nothing and now believes he will be murdered by March 15. Talk about your crisis of faith.

This episode opened with a first-class slow-motion replay of the Flashforward, this time shown from the “outside”, rather than the POV of the victims. People topple off of bicycles, planes collide in mid-air, and a bus rolls slowly off the road into a pond. As it sinks to the bottom, carrying its unconscious passengers to their deaths, one young man comes back to consciousness just in time to rescue himself. Two weeks later Ned Ned (Keir O’Donnell, Sons of Anarchy), checks into Dr. Olivia Benford’s hospital complaining of abdominal pain; during the medical workup he confesses that during his flashforward, he saw himself swaggering through a disco, more self-confident, more cool, and a better dancer than he currently is—oh, and he had turned into a black man. Hip, jive, and a better sense of rhythm—if he’d thrown any more racial stereotypes into the mix he could have renamed himself Al Jolson. Or Stepin Fetchit.

While Olivia and Bryce argue about the relative merit of people’s precognitive visions as a diagnostic tool, Mark and Agent Gough (Lee Thompson Young, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) discuss the possibility of getting satellite images from the CIA to verify Mark’s hunch that a Flashforward occurred in Somalia in 1991. Wedeck does not find his hunch convincing, and as they walk away, Mark asks Gough if they could recruit a hacker to infiltrate the CIA and get the images he wants. Even Gough is taken aback: “Spying on your own country?” Neither of them mentions a warrant. Mark asks where Demetri is, and Gough says he is interrogating the blonde terrorist (unconvicted, but hey, who needs evidence when we’re so certain of guilt?) because “she’s hot”. Demetri’s interrogation yields a lead to a man in Indio, California; when Mark and Demetri track him down (after an admittedly thrilling foot chase), Demetri lets his temper get the better of him, and beats his handcuffed prisoner.

So we’re fourteen minutes into this episode, and so far we have racism, conspiracy to commit computer burglary and treason, sexism, and police brutality. These are the good guys? Hey, I don’t need my heroes untarnished, but I need there to be some silver under the tarnish. So far, I don’t see any heroes here. Mark is lying to his wife, Olivia is lying to her husband. Demetri is going off the rails, in fear for his life. If these are the good guys, I don’t want to meet the bad guys. Oh, wait, we have one—Demetri’s interogee, Alda Herzog (Rachel Roberts, Numb3rsS1m0ne). She, in distinct contrast to the FBI agents around her, is calm, cool, and polite.

Meanwhile, Olivia decides that Ned has a hematoma which must be operated on immediately. She’s trying to avoid Lloyd Simcoe, the man of her disturbing vision, but he keeps popping up, concerned dad that he is. In fact, she’s trying so hard not to believe in her own future that she’s discounting everyone else’s. Bryce insists that Ned’s vision of himself as a black man is relevant to his medical condition, and she dismisses it and proceeds with surgery. Only when her procedure goes disastrously wrong does she reluctantly listen to Bryce: Ned suffers from a condition in which his body secretes hormones incorrectly, jeopardizing his life during surgery and also explaining why he will, over time, secrete enough melatonin to turn his skin dark. Olivia, who has quite rightly questioned whether these visions should be used as “evidence” of any kind, is blindsided by her own stubbornness and fear. The question raised in this discussion is a valid one, however, and raises again the shadow of the basic question under this show: how fixed is the future?

The people who saw a bright or desirable future seem universally to believe in it and believe it will come true. Those who saw a future they didn’t want are skeptical and are working actively to change it. Both sides are basing their present understanding of life on their flashforwards, which means both sides are betting the present, one way or another, on the future. These wildly divergent worldviews will, I predict, prove to be as irreconcilable and divisive as any religion or political affiliation. The two points of view are about as irreconcilable as you can get; the result will be war.

I found Ned’s case to be one of the more interesting stories presented so far. His steadfast faith in his vision of the future allowed him to react with calm and fortitude before and after his surgery, serene in the foreknowledge that he would be alive at least in April of 2010. Bryce reads this calmness as a symptom of Addison’s disease—he happens to be right, but it’s still a misreading of the real cause of Ned’s calm demeanor. Ned is not calm because he has Addison’s but because he has faith. It is one of the strongest examples yet of how the Flashforward has fundamentally changed lives.

Or has it? What if you don’t believe your flashforward, or don’t want it to happen? The answer is the same as for those who do believe it—it doesn’t matter. Either the future will happen the way you think it will, or it won’t. That was true before the blackout, too. The future may or may not be any more mutable than it was before; the only thing that has changed is the universal perception of it. Which is where I begin to wonder if the Observer Effect is going to come into play. On such a global scale, quantum effects may in fact show up. This is the fascinating part of the show, for me.

However, if we really are headed for a theology debate, I hope Aaron and his dime-store it-was-meant-to-be fatalism get left off the menu. I’m already tired of this morose man and his unlikely dream of resurrecting his dead daughter. His is an excellent example of the “truth” having to be not just true, but believable. Prior to September 11, it would have been hard to sell even Jerry Bruckheimer on the idea of collapsing the World Trade Center towers. The fact that it was all too believable on September 12 does not change the fact that nobody would have believed that scenario even in a flashforward. Most of us are intelligent enough to mistrust the extraordinary, no matter how plausible it may seem. Until Aaron is actually reunited with his daughter (and that’s going to take some mighty tall convincing), I’m going to continue to believe his flashforward caught him in the middle of a pleasant dream.

So far, the characters I like best in this series are the doubting Demetri and Ned Ned the optimist. The other main characters are dealing with whether they want their “futures” to come true or not—Demetri has the far more compelling need to actually have a future. The stakes are higher for him than anyone else, and John Cho is doing an outstanding job of showing it. Bryce, the wannabe suicide who now is a True Believer, is honest and straightforward, and manfully refrained from voicing a well-earned “I told you so” to Olivia. I like Lloyd the concerned father so much that I am disappointed at the hints that he may be partly responsible for the blackout. On the other hand, I have seen so much misdirection on FlashForward that I am convinced he will turn out to be a better man than is being hinted.

Ms. Herzog tells Benford that he should be asking why the Flashforward happened, not how. Uh, no, completely wrong. “How” is definitely the vital question. Was it man-made, as Lloyd’s call suggests? Was it a natural phenomenon? Was this the first one? Answer the question of how, and all the other answers will fall into line. Benford ought to be smart enough to figure that out. My problem with Benford is that he does not seem terribly smart (opening a suitcase marked “yellowcake” with no precautions? Really?), sympathetic (he lies to his wife), or moral (at the end of the show, he tells Gough to find the hacker so he can use him). I’m glad he is at least persisting in asking how (and possibly when) these flashforwards happen; with any luck, next week we’ll get more science and less soap.

Having beaten the juggernaut Survivor in the ratings last week (for which I blow kisses at the entire production), FlashForward has earned a full pickup from the network. ABC recently announced that it has ordered nine more episodes for a total of 25, which will give the producers enough time to wrap up the story—or fashion a cliffhanger—next April. Ratings have averaged 10 million viewers per episode, with a solid 3.6 rating/11 share in the 18-49 demographic. In the long run, the real key to the success of this show will rest on two things: characters we can like, and a puzzle that gets solved.