Let's be clear-eyed about this: No matter how much fans romanticize the way Lost used to be, it's always had some saggy stretches. Even the vaunted first season spun its wheels a little in the back half, before rallying for a corking finish. And the second season practically crept along, until the arrival of "Henry Gale" and the surprise assassination that kicked everything into gear.
Frankly, I think this much-maligned season has been maligned unfairly. The creators experimented with some standalone episodes–like the controversial Nikki and Paulo showcase "Exposé"–to test the limits of what the Lost format can do. And they learned some hard lessons about what the fans will stand. The announcement of the Lost exit strategy–three more seasons of sixteen episodes each, with no weeks off–combined with exciting, answers-filled episodes and actual meaningful flashbacks, all has convinced me that we're in pretty safe hands. (At least until the creators reveal that we've actually been on Atlantis the whole time, and the explanations of how that works prove impossibly goofy.)
Anyway, the above's just prelude for what I want to say about tonight's "game changer." Which is this: Holy balls.
SPOILERS ahead, because I don't see a way around them.
I'd been wondering how Lost could suddenly modify its flashback structure–since, let's face it, how much more backstory do we need?–and my guess was that this season finale would move ahead in time, and future flashbacks would fill in the gaps. And yet even though I'd made a fairly accurate guess, I was still blindsided by the way they started the flash-forwards this week. Until Kate got out of the car, I was oblivious. And then I was just chilled.
If the flash-forward structure is here to stay, I hope it remains a small percentage of each episode's running time. We don't need a repeat of The Nine, where the story we most wanted to follow–what happened in that bank robbery–got parceled out between dull modern-day stuff, and viewers quickly bailed. I'll also confess to some concern that the bleak place where this season ended, with imminent doom coming to the castaways and a melancholy flash-forward to confirm it, may make it hard to keep up the already fading viewer interest. The average TV watcher doesn't much want to watch a story with a pre-ordained unhappy ending.
But is it pre-ordained? What made this episode so terrific was that it had all of the show's major themes working in spades: faith versus reason, fate versus free will, and the bloody consequences of impossible choices. In terms of giving us answers about what the island is, who Jacob is, and why these people ended up on the same plane together, the season three finale stayed mute. But it wasn't devoid of clues. Here's two big ones:
1. In the flash-forward, Jack keeps making references to his father as though his father were alive. Lost theorists who buy into the idea that the castaways' parents are all pulling the strings in some way just got some possible confirmation. Maybe Jack's dad isn't dead after all, and maybe he's behind his son's island adventure and post-island misery.
2. Before Charlie's sacrifice–beautifully staged, by the way–the Other with the code told him that it was programmed "by a musician," and gave Charlie a knowing look. Lost theorists who believe that the castaways are in some kind of time loop, and that their older selves have all been on the island before well, they just got some ammo too. Maybe a future version of Charlie programmed that keypad during a trip into the past. (If that makes any sense.)
All of which is a way of saying that the version of Jack we saw throughout this episode–bearded, drug-addicted and aching to get back to paradise–may not be at the end of his story. Or his story may not even come to pass exactly as we saw it.
Either way, there's doin's a-transpirin'. What we know for sure us that as bad as The Others are, there's a bigger bad lying in wait, on a big boat somewhere nearby. And we also know that for all the hype about how Heroes has stolen Lost's thunder this year by handling serialized drama more straightforwardly, Lost just schooled Heroes on how you end a season. Heroes kind of shot its wad with its big future-episode, and everything afterward was a mere after-tremor. Lost, meanwhile, brought together many of the pieces that its been carefully moving around for three years, and then skillfully introduced some new ones.
I understand the grumbles of the impatient, many of whom have abandoned Lost. But their complaints seem petty when the show strings together a series of episodes like it has lately, that display all the ambition and invention that make Lost unlike anything on TV right now. When all is said and done, Lost may not prove to be the greatest TV show of all time, and it may eventually let all of us down. But for now, it's a singularly thrilling adventure serial, with spine-tingling twists and a real sense of life's inherent mystery. I'm so happy it exists; and I'll be back in 2008, likely with my nails chewed to the quick.