E: Trekkies will see the reference immediately (and yes, I refuse to use that ridiculous other term for the fandom); Demetri and Al banter about their late nights playing video games, and Al calls Demetri out as a cheater. “What you call cheating, I call changing the game, my friend” Demetri responds. The Kobayashi Maru! (M: My thoughts exactly.) And that’s the idea of this deeply philosophical episode: do you accept the flash forwards as your inevitable future, even if they’re devastating, or do you deliberately defy them? Can you change the game?
The Kobayashi Maru, for the uninitiated, is a test run at Starfleet Academy to determine how officer candidates respond to catastrophic failure, a complete no win situation. When the chips are down, when you’re about to die, who are you? What are you really made of? But James Tiberius Kirk famously re-writes the computer simulation so he CAN win; the memory of this plays a pivotal role in The Wrath of Khan, and provides much of the early action in the recent prequel Star Trek. It’s a nice little gift that the reference comes out of John Cho’s mouth (Sulu in the new film) and the episode shifts between both Noh and Al Gough, both struggling with their flash forwards. We get a peppering of Mark/Olivia angst (they brush their teeth tensely, lie that they trust each other, and Lloyd visits Olivia while protesting – again – that he’s going to leave her alone), a sure to be relevant shot of Simon playing with a bracelet bearing the name Annabelle, Nicole helping Bryce realize that his mystery girl is Japanese, but really, these two are the center of the story.
Actually, I should mention, there’s a relevant subplot, one with obvious links to the title. Mike, the now drifting former soldier friend of Tracy’s shows up to give Aaron the swiss army knife Aaron had given her when she deployed. Gift one and two. My heart breaks. The two men cry; in a second meeting, Mike returns to make sure Aaron hasn’t been given false hope, since of course he has. I saw her die, Mike says, though what he really saw was her arm and leg getting blown off. (Ick) And then he ran away from what was clearly a dodgy situation, as they were in Afghanistan but were ambushed by mysterious, non-local forces. (Gift three, since it does give Aaron peace.) Later, Aaron offers Mike a job to get him back on his feet. Tears again. (Gift four.) And then at the very end of the episode – dun dun da – Aaron returns home to find a very self-assured looking Tracy sitting at his kitchen table. (Gift Five.) Which, WHAT?!!!!!!
M: Another good ending, and one that definitely came out of nowhere. I replayed it, and her right leg (the one we see laying on the ground in the flashback) is most definitely attached to her in Aaron’s kitchen. (E: Bionic Tracy!) And while we’re here, I couldn’t help but wonder, when we saw the flash back, what exactly is buried in Tracy’s grave that matches her DNA if Mike fled the ambush, leaving her lying there with their attackers. Anyway, again, strong finish.
E: So, back to the primary plot. Mark and Demetri (who started the day with minor fight about wedding planning) grumble about how much simpler life was before the flash forward, which leads obliquely to the Kobayashi comment. Gough’s vision is immediately pertinent, because a dead body in the Blue Hand house belongs to one Ian Rutherford, British national. Wedeck flies in Fiona Barnes, the MI-6 agent with whom Gough was discussing the case in their shared flash forward. The team discovers, through a website, that the Blue Hands consider themselves “Already Ghosts”, being that they are all people, like Noh, who had no flash forward. Rutherford and two others seemed to have killed themselves. “Why do a librarian, a copy machine salesman and a Scottish journalist get together and shoot themselves,” they wonder. “Because print is dead?” Barnes guessed; quite the entrance you made, Alex Kingston. I like it. They’re all still baffled by this possible suicide party; “It’s like a book club with bullets.”
Mark, Demetri and Al infiltrate a Blue Hand event, hilariously twitting each other about their clothes (“Is that a cardigan?” “That jacket is ridiculous” “Says the FBI agent wearing a Police t-shirt.”) The key to entering? No, it’s not the name of the ‘host’, Doctor Raynaud – or his identity, since that changes every time. Only the name – which, in Lostian fashion, refers to a scientist – remains the same. No, instead it’s an old, creepy grandpa type man and a game of Russian roulette, which Gough plays fearlessly. There’s some ease in knowing you’ll be alive in 6 months, apparently. His colleagues are horrified. There was no bullet, Mark insists incredulously. Grandpa empties the chamber; out falls a single bullet with the words Not Today inscribed on the side (M: which was the Easter egg in the title sequence this week! E: Damn, I have got to remember to watch for those.).
When Demetri returned home from work, he finds lawyer fiancee Zoey (Gabrielle Union) is not so pleased with him for missing their appointment at the printers. (Print. Again. This episode is sooo self-referential. So many smarty pants words games littered everywhere.) She accuses him of checking out of their relationship since the blackout. “I don’t want you to apologize. I want you to want to be here.” He starts fighting dirty because he doesn’t want to look at the question. “Maybe if you stopped nagging me, I’d want to be here!” He storms off to search for the Blue Hand Ghosts.
Inside the warehouse we find what amounts to a torture club; Ghosts with, presumably, latent S&M fetishes have decided to flaunt death by engaging in risky behavior since they’re going to die anyway. No limits, the slinky bartender breathes at them, no fear. That seems an odd response to me (and most of the team) – why not, I don’t know, give your life saving to the poor or bungee jump or steal cars or love your family or bonk lots of people or spend all your money on a fabulous vacation in the Alps? Thrill seeking I get; getting whipped I don’t, at least not as a large scale response. It’s a tortured vision, for sure. Leoben from Battlestar Galactica shows up as Doctor Raynaud , but before he can initiate another round of Russian roulette, Mark tackles him and the Feds come marching in. Leoben – who turns out to be a high school history teacher named Jeff – uses the Mosaic website to identify Blue Hands and help them surrender to the inevitable: “If you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” There’s a lot of Nieztsche flying around, y’all. It’s fascinating, but why would these people try to kill Janice and the rest of the Mosaic team? For that matter, I still want to know why all the gunmen in that attack were Asian. There isn’t a preponderance of Asians at the Blue Hand club.
M: I have to say, I was very pleased with the development of the Blue Hand last week, but this week it fizzled a bit. Didn’t stop me from enjoying the episode, but I was hoping for more from it, maybe a tie in with Simon and Mrs Norris, something more sinister. Maybe they’ll bring Leoben back and there will be more. I hope so.
E: We definitely still have more questions than answers. After the raid and the interrogation, Demetri crawls back home bearing cinnamon rolls. (Gift!) He finally, finally, tells Zoey the truth about his flash forward. Tonight I saw people like me, people who have no hope, and I don’t want to be that. I wanted a life with you, a baby. But when she tries to argue him into belief, he can’t do it. We have two conflicting visions, she says. We can believe one or the other. I choose hope. He claims to do the same, but we know it’s a lie.
Meanwhile, Al and Fiona have been discussing their shared flash forward. He perfectly recalls the details of the report. She didn’t see the report, and her main emotional response is to the bird who crashed into the window as they spoke. When Al left the room to take a call from his lawyer, Fiona stared helplessly at the bird writhing on her window ledge, powerless to save it or even help it die. We eventually learn that the lawyer’s call told Al that someone named Celia has died – and indeed, at the beginning of the episode, we’d seen a woman name Celia leave a playground with her twin sons only to find a Blue Hand flyer on her car and heard a voice over telling her not to be afraid. Though the lawyer claims it was an accident, a weeping, devastated Al is convinced that her death is somehow his fault. He doesn’t share this part of the vision with Fiona, but he does ask her (in a slightly odd, self-conscious way which at first appears to be embarrassment) to join him in a home-cooked meal of dirty rice, comfort food his mom used to make for him. Fiona crisply refuses the gift, but we see Al making the food anyway, luxuriating in the taste and memories.
The next morning Al drops a package on Noh’s desk and tells Fiona that if she tapes her window, it might save the bird. I’m not sure why that would work, exactly (M: Because the bird crashes in not realizing the glass is there. The tape gives the bird depth perception, and would preventing it from trying to fly there. Hooray science! E: Hooray for scientifically inclined brothers!), but it makes her feel less powerless. (Gift!) Demetri opens the package during their morning meeting to find what must be a suicide note, and he, Wedeck and Mark frantically tear up onto the roof where Al stands perched on a ledge. But we know you live, they beg. Please come down.
We don’t have to surrender to the inevitable, Gough counters. If I live, I will accidentally do something devastating. So I’m going to change the game. I’m not going to accept it as inevitable. I will do the only thing I can to ensure my flash forward doesn’t come true. I want to give Celia life – I hope I will – by taking myself out of the equation. And with that, he turns, spreads his arms, and gently, gracefully, lets himself fall. Gift.
Wedeck weeps uncontrollably in his office. Mark runs home and clings to Olivia. The episode ends with Demetri reading Al’s letter to Celia aloud; a small part of this framed the episode’s opening, with Al’s voice playing over it. The future, Al writes, is still unwritten. Back in London, Fiona crisscrosses tape on her window. Kobayashi Maru, but kind of in reverse; to bring hope to Demetri and the other ghosts, to preserve Celia, the captain takes his own life to save his ship.
M: For the first time in the show we have events that clearly contradict a flash forward. Everything so far has happened to put in place the events that people saw, or didn’t see. Now we have proof that, as Al put it, the game can be changed. Mark doesn’t have to believe that he will drink again, that Olivia will leave him. Noh does not have to believe he’ll be murdered on the Ides of March. It opens up the possibilities. Fiona won’t be discussing the Rutherford case with Al. And yet, Al is dead. Through the episode we saw him torturing himself whenever he was alone, knowing that some time in the next six months he would do something to accidentally kill a young mother and orphan two boys. He destroys himself over it, to the point of being willing to die to prevent it.
E: And there it is. More than any time since the first episode I’m pulled in by the moral dilemmas of the situation, but this time there’s no clinical detachment. How DO you respond in the face of death? Does it matter when the death you face is not your own? The Blue Hand members look into the abyss and feel that life has lost its meaning. Al Gough stared back, and decided that life’s meaning was larger than his own life. I find it incredibly moving – not any less so because this was exactly the way Buffy Summers sacrificed herself in the BTVS 5th season finale, also entitled “The Gift”. After all, neither instance was the first time someone young and full of life opened up their arms and sacrificed themselves to bring the world hope. Lee Thompson Young did stunning, nuanced work here. We’re going to miss you, Al!