Of the loose ends from the season two cliffhanger, two haven't been addressed: Michael and Walt on the boat and the discovery of the island by the Portuguese men. Many speculated how much time would be devoted to this storyline this season, and whether we'd be taken off the island for a long period for Penelope's quest. Since they decided to keep the real-time story island based and that it would take some time to get the available crew to the area, it makes sense that we wouldn't hear a follow up until now. So with that we turn to another Desmond story. It is the least satisfying of the three we've seen so far, but considering the two prior, it's still a solid episode laying the foundation for the conclusion of the season. His flashbacks in this episode served more to deepen our understanding of Desmond and his cowardice than provide major revelations, unless how he came to call everyone "brother" counts.
Desmond, like Locke, is driven by faith and destiny. After a drunken night before his wedding, he met a monk and decided that a life devoted to the church was where he was supposed to be. That decision reflected a deep cowardice towards his relationship with Ruth, who clearly took it hard. Instead of facing the fact that he wasn't in love or ready for marriage, he used fate as a justification for it.
Unlike Locke, Desmond hasn't had the sense of a higher purpose. Desmond feels his life is leading somewhere, but he doesn't know what that is. Anytime he made a mistake in his life, he considered it merely a step towards his destiny. In the flashbacks, his ill advised time in the monastery lead him to the love of his life. While Locke has gone for big signs (finding his missing father, crashing on the island), Desmond is picking up anything that comes by and reading it as a sign of his higher calling.
Ruth's comments about Desmond placing so much importance upon who found him after his stupor offer an ironic foreshadowing. Eventually in the hatch, Desmond was discovered by a Shepard (Jack, albeit a different spelling than the profession). When Desmond contemplated suicide, it was Locke's anguish that pulled him back from the brink. It's never been clear, but it would be interesting to know what Desmond thought about the castaways breaking in to the hatch.
When he was first introduced, there were hints of Desmond's cowardice, as he bolted towards the then unknown "Elizabeth" when the computer malfunctioned. After several more instances, it has become a defining aspect of his character. Now we're given a scenario where Desmond's behavior is in a different light. Desmond believes he has two possible outcomes: reunite with Penny or save Charlie. With the story of Abraham and Isaac on his mind, he's wondering if saving Charlie is ultimately going against the fate he believes in. However, his active way of sparing Charlie could be the first step to his redemption. He's willing to give up something he wanted for the safety of another and not ready to accept things outside of his control.
Desmond's last flashback (so to speak) explained that the weird premonitions he had were flashes of future events, primarily involving Charlie's death. This episode shows what he meant by flashes. It's understandable that these are taking a toll on Desmond, as the random scattered images of events to come would be traumatizing to see played out repeatedly and to have no power over them. Whether he can learn to control this will likely be a major piece of his story.
It also set up the notion of "course correction". While Desmond has the ability to change what will happen in his flashes, this will change the "image". Preventing something bad in one instance could set up for another bad thing later. In this case, it is Charlie's death, which recurs in different ways every time after Desmond saves him. This explains Desmond's mindset, as he is unsure whether saving Charlie will prevent him from his reunion.
Unlike prior confirmed flashes, Desmond had an active role in making the trek in the jungle happen (besides Charlie dying), including bringing people along for the sole reason of them appearing in the flash. Would they have gone had Desmond not gotten the vision? Would they have gone out into the jungle had they stayed on the beach? Could they even hear the helicopter crash into the ocean from their camp? Such circular thinking makes this episode's title especially appropriate.
This brings up many questions about the function of the flashes. It's possible that they are a self-conscious entity and wanted Desmond to go into the jungle to find the parachutist, so they sent him a vision of the future where it happened. Perhaps Ms. Hawking was the manifestation of that, much like The Architect of "The Matrix" films.
Ms. Hawking, whom Desmond encountered in "Flashes" appears briefly in a horribly doctored photo (it's like they just cut them out of other pictures and pasted them together). Is there a difference between that woman and the person Desmond encountered in his first flash or did the entity assume her form? It would be far more compelling them be the same and to have her working with Brother Campbell to guide Desmond to the island, which gives more weight to the popular "recruiter theory".
Much like "Tricia Tanaka Is Dead", we get a bunch of great comic scenes between Hurley, Charlie & Jin. Storytime with Jin was a highlight (I actually saw this episode with a native Korean speaker, who gave the rest of us the gist as to what the story was) and Charlie and Hurley's debate over who would win in a foot race feels like the type of conversation they should be having more often.
The introduction of the parachutist, later named Naomi, is the effective starting point for the conclusion of the season. As Ben prepares for his major attack on the castaways, having a new person thrown in the mix could turn out to be a major problem for him, since he won't be able to gather as much intel as possible about her (it hasn't been mentioned how much The Others know about Desmond).
With the Portugese copy of "Catch-22" and a copy of Desmond's photo, it's a safe assumption that she is among those we saw in the listening station from "Live Together, Die Alone", who were Portugese as well. It obviously took a few weeks for them to assemble and get there as well, so the timeline fits.
Producers had teased of a new, non-flashback, non-castaway, non-Other, character, and she is presumably it. While some, with Nikki and Paolo still fresh in their minds, may roll their eyes at this new arrival, it seems like the logical next step, which has been hinted at in "One of Us". For the first time, we're going to see how the outside world has reacted to Flight 815.
The least compelling of the storylines this week involved Kate's jealousy over Juliet and Jack's bonding. Too much emphasis is placed on which man Kate will choose, and ultimately her character suffers because of it. What would be compelling is to explore this from an alliance point of view. Although she helped Claire, Juliet still isn't on solid ground with everyone and Jack's prolonged absence could seriously affect his leadership status. Or they could've mentioned the consequences of the late night trysts between Kate and Sawyer. As mentioned several times, it's not likely there are a lot of reliable birth control methods on the island (unless they don't want to offend some people by showing Dharma condoms or birth control pills).
Ultimately, this episode does a good job setting up the stage for the final episodes, with certain elements brought back to the front that will become pivotal. More time is given to develop Desmond's flashes, which will likely be a major force in Desmond's story.