This might be a little rambling, but I haven't been able to stop thinking about this all night. As I reread it, some of it kind of interpolates a lot of what you guys have been saying.
I think Dodd's line in the jail cell when he tells Freddie that he's the only one who likes him is really interesting, especially in Freddie's addled denial of it. Dodd is right, in a way, because Freddie is a character who is incapable of fitting into anything. He fucks up every job he gets, and even in the Navy the only way he was really able to relate to the other men was in wanting to get drunk and laid, very base, animal instincts. But Freddie doesn't buy that, thinking fuck this guy and his made up shit, as Freddie has it in his delusional, dysfunctional head that Doris is home waiting for him. His girl. The one he talks about marrying. They're the only two people he feels a real connection to throughout the film. That's important.
But I think the scene in the movie theater is the MOST important part of the film. It definitely lends itself to the dream logic of the film, implying a connection to Dodd. There are several surreal (drunken?) touches throughout the film, like the naked musical number and Amy Adams' eyes turning black. Maybe the idea of him dreaming the phone call put off some viewers (?) but I don't see how people could think it wasn't a dream. It even cuts to him still asleep in the chair afterwards, and it's arguably the film's most meaningful and profoundly sad moment. Think about it: the last The Cause sees of Freddie is him speeding away on a motorcycle ditching them in the middle of the desert. He's proven to be consistently unreliable and unpredictable and, to everyone else but Dodd, detrimental to the group. As far as the members of The Cause are concerned, it's good riddance. No one likes him but Dodd. So who's the first person Freddie tries to see? Doris, the other person who likes him! Loves him, even! Who's been waiting for him to come back to her! Of course, only to realize that it's been seven years since he told her he'd come back, and she's understandably moved on. And now he has no one.
Except Dodd. And we find Freddie alone, asleep in a movie theater, watching a Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoon. How serendipitous is it that he magically gets a call from his Master, inviting him to come back, as he knows how to cure Freddie now, and he remembers where they met, and to bring a pack of the cigarettes they bonded over following the initial, intense processing. He needs him to bring him some Kools. Even without the cutting to him still asleep afterwards, it's clear that this isn't actually happening. Freddie himself is surprised that he "found" him. These are all the things Freddie wants to hear Dodd say to him. He so badly wants a reason to go back to his Master. And the last thing heard in that scene is the cartoon, as a character says something very close to, if not exactly, "Remember, Casper, a captain never leaves his ship!" Cut to the haunting image of the blue water once again as Freddie heads overseas. I missed the impact of it at the time, but the more I thought about it, it was devastating.
The time skip here works differently than it does in TWBB, even though in a way they are very similar. Look at Freddie's trip to England from the point of view of The Cause: here's this incredibly mixed up, volatile figure from what seems to their distant past, as enough time has past for Peggy to have her baby and for The Cause to have become rather successful, this unstable alcoholic whose relationship with them didn't really end all that peacefully. He shows up out of the blue (literally) looking sick and unhealthy and awful. Who knows what his motives are? Who knows what he's going to do? They have to welcome him, lest his intentions be of a more violent nature. Val welcomes him with open arms. Lancaster accepts what to him is simply a nice gesture in the cigarettes, whereas Freddie believes he's fulfilled a specific request. Peggy is cold to him, of course, because she sees no use for him. To her, he made up his mind by leaving. Like she says, it isn't fashion. He clearly doesn't want to get better. Fuck him. She leaves. Then it's just them two.
It really is a movie about a Man and his Dog. Back in the desert, PSH tells him to pick a point and go as fast as he can towards it, like an owner taking off the leash and telling his troubled mutt to get. There's no pleasure in Freddie's face as he rides away, unlike Dodd who was having a blast. As he speeds up, Dodd acknowledges it and follows it by saying "Good boy." Note, he never tells him to come back. I think he was hoping Freddie would leave for good, which goes back to, what I think is, the definitive line in the film at the end when he asks Freddie to let them know of "the day you can live without serving a Master." Freddie just wants reconciliation, and Lancaster recognizes how unhealthy and utterly futile it is. But at the same time, Dodd's "Or... you could stay...?" shows that his need is almost as desperate, if not as desperate, as Freddie's. The push and pull dynamic of this relationship is complex and hard to fully comprehend, but the emotion behind it is raw and you can most certainly feel it, which is an astonishing feat on PTA's part. What is it all ultimately saying? I'm still not sure. It's a very dichotomous film, and I think it's much more coherent than people are giving it credit for. You just have to submit to it on its terms and not your own. It definitely seems to be making a point about everyone being in servitude towards something, whether it's a partner or a vice. But it doesn't really condemn it. The last shot is mystifying in itself. I don't know, exactly. I definitely want to see it again, as the subtext of the scenes proves to be crucial, and its disjointed narrative can make it hard to recall the exact progression of events. And this is just all from a storytelling standpoint. The filmmaking and acting is immaculate. The film as a whole is just mind blowing and deeply affecting, even if you aren't totally sure of why it's affecting you. There's no way any other film will top it this year.
edit: some grammatical/clarity errors.