This episode is more aligned with "The Lie" in terms of structure and style, and that works to its advantage. The name of the game is still revelation and resolution, but the writers are obviously still trying to ensure that the characters are the main focus of the series.
Even so, it's a delicate balance. Not surprisingly, the two sides of the episode come together by the end, confirming the long-standing speculation (discussing in many fourth season reviews) that Charles Widmore was once an "Other" on the island. That confirmation alone was worth the time.
Of course, for those who subscribed to that theory from the beginning, the impact of this episode is slightly lessened. It's clearly meant to be the big reveal of the episode, and for good reason. It ties the entire fourth season into the history of the island and confirms that Desmond's plight on the island was part of a much larger scheme.
With Widmore's connection to the history of the island now confirmed, Locke's semi-mystical role as the true leader of the Others becomes more important. One could argue that Locke's appearance in 1954, and his subsequent conversation with Richard, becomes the trigger for his evaluation and selection by Jacob (as seen in the fourth season). Thus Locke himself, in a sense, could have brought about the conditions that fed into his own sense of destiny!
The action on the island provided other important clues as well. Richard and Locke clearly did not meet before 1954; Richard did not recognize Locke. The island was in a stable South Pacific location in 1954, since the US military was able to find it. Richard was the apparent leader of the Others in 1954, or at least knew about Jacob and what he wants, and the young Charles Widmore seems ready to challenge Richard's authority.
It could be more complicated than that: the young woman with the rifle could be someone already referenced. Could she actually be Daniel's mother (presumably Mrs. Hawking, the woman working with Ben to locate the island's next appearance in the previous episode)? Wouldn't it make sense that someone on the island, who discovers that time travel is possible, would end up influencing her son into that kind of research herself? And in turn, Widmore would know about all of that, and would want to use that resource to his own ends. (It's a tenuous theory at the moment, but it's something to consider.)
In the "present", Desmond is on the hunt for Daniel's mother, and this new vision quest is not going to end well. For one thing, it puts him back on Widmore's radar, even if Widmore seemed more concerned with keeping Penny safe. As Penny rightfully points out, in a portentous moment, there's no turning back or turning away. The island still has them in its thrall, and it's not letting go.
The fact that Desmond and Penny now have a son (Charlie!) makes that realization even more crushing. Had Desmond remained in hiding, Penny would likely have remained safe. They could have stayed out of the war over control of the island, and all would have been well. As worried as I am for Penny, I'm even more concerned that Charlie will end up taking the bullet in his mother's place.
I wouldn't put it past Widmore to have someone tail Desmond and keep that boat under surveillance. Widmore certainly has the money; he could probably keep track of them by satellite if necessary! Then again, he wants Penny safe and he really has no reason to pursue Desmond anymore; the game has shifted now that the Oceanic Six can be more readily used.