My decision to omit Desmond's flash to 1996 in "Flashes Before Your Eyes" until later in the timeline has brought up a few questions and some opinions that definitely differ from mine, but I suppose that's to be expected given the circumstances. Desmond's experiences on this show are very different from everything else we've seen, and that can definitely lead to some confusing situations. The ambiguity surrounding what it was that we saw in "Flashes" makes it so we really don't know for sure what happened, how it relates to the rest of the show, and importantly, where it falls chronologically.
Now, there's a couple different ways to look at this, and I honestly don't know what the right answer is. I think either way has things that lend it credibility, and things that hurt its credibility. One way to look at it is that this whole time flash is just like any other flashback, or time flash, or whatever, meaning what we saw actually happened in 1996, and that's where it belongs in the timeline. Commenter Henshaw compared the sequence to Locke's compass, implying that the events in "Flashes" led him to the island, and it was the island that caused his mind to flash to 1996, rinse and repeat. And there are some compelling arguments for this idea. For one, pretty much everything we've seen on this show regarding time travel, past events occurring, etc., has fallen under the theory "Whatever happened, happened". So, based on that idea, this whole series of events actually happened in 1996. There is also the fact that Desmond and Eloise recognized each other at the Lamp Post in 2007, and Desmond accused her of wasting four years of his life, so it would certainly seem like Desmond treated those events as really happening.
While I can't disagree with those points, there are other things that don't quite add up for me. This whole idea of Desmond finding himself in a paradox, for example. Desmond's mind flashes back to 1996, events play out, he flashes back to 2004, but those experiences in 1996 ultimately help lead him to the island. I have a hard time with this. In "Flashes", Desmond didn't recognize Eloise. Her conversation with him about his destiny, the island, pushing the button, it all took him by surprise. And yet, he has all his memories from the future. It's not like he ended up in 1996 and didn't remember what had happened to him over the past eight years. And yet he clearly had no memory of this conversation with Eloise happening.
Let's take a look at basic logistics, and make some small assumptions. When we saw Charlie save Nadia from someone trying to rob her, he was standing outside, playing his guitar, singing "Wonderwall", and then it started to rain, forcing him to stop playing. In "Flashes", we see Desmond leave Charles Widmore's office, and he sees Charlie, standing outside, playing his guitar, singing "Wonderwall". Only it started to rain, and so Charlie had to stop playing. Now, I don't think it's a huge stretch to say that we're meant to think that both of these scenes happen at the exact same time, only with different outcomes, because Desmond sees Charlie in one of those scenes, and recognizes him. If what happened in "Flashes" is what really happened, then why do we have duplicate scenes with Charlie singing, only there are two different outcomes?
And why did Desmond seem so perplexed by the island, and the button when Inman rescued him in 2001? If that conversation with Eloise really did happen to him in 1996, and she told him that pushing the button would be the only great thing he would ever do, I can't help but think that would come into play when he ended up on the island, pushing the button with Inman. It just doesn't add up for me.
So what do I think happened to Desmond there? Well, I thought I knew early on in Season 6, now I'm less sure, but I at least have a theory. I was convinced at the time that "Flashes" was a flash sideways, similar to what we had seen all during Season 6. Now that we know what the flash sideways world was, that idea doesn't work, but I still think it was something similar. I look at Desmond's experience with the flash sideways world in "The Package". We don't know exactly what he saw after the electromagnetic event, but he did at least see part of the flash sideways world, because we saw him tell Jack about it during the finale, although he clearly didn't understand what, exactly, it was. But the experience seemed a lot like what happened to Desmond when he turned the key. There was an electromagnetic event, and then Desmond woke up in a different place, a different time from where he was before. His stay in both of these places was temporary, before he was brought back to his own place, his own time. Now, in "The Package", we know that Desmond saw this purgatory-type place, even though he wasn't dead yet, and he was able to come back from it. So, I like to think that it was a similar situation in "Flashes". No, at the time the place that he saw was not the same place that we saw during all of Season 6. But maybe that's because whatever this construct was for Desmond in 2004 was not the same as it was for him in 2007. I like to think of what happened to Desmond as being almost a "near death" type experience. Gets a glimpse of this place that takes place after you die, but isn't dead and is ultimately pulled back in. Am I right? I have absolutely no idea. This is just one of those things that doesn't have a clear answer, so you have to theorize what it means.
But let's bring it full circle. I've stated my case of what I think "Flashes" is, so what does that mean for the timeline? Well, it's actually a little tough. I likened the sequence to what we saw in "The Package", and yet, I will be placing all of the sideways world at the end of the show, but I'm putting Desmond's experience in "Flashes" directly after he turns the key. However, I can't justify sticking "Flashes" at the end of the show, because that just doesn't work, and taking Desmond's flash sideways from "The Package" and putting it right after the elctromagnetic event, but leaving the rest of the flash sideways at the end of the show, that just doesn't seem right either. So yeah, basically I'm saying I don't have a great answer to this conundrum, but for me, I feel like this is the best way to handle it. I don't expect everyone to agree with me, because I don't think there's a truly right answer here. But I at least wanted to let everyone know where I'm coming from, and why I did this the way that I did.
I am certainly always open to other possibilities that I didn't think of, because I would love nothing more than there to be a concrete "this goes here because of this" explanation, so feel free to leave any comments you might have below.