And now it all starts to pay off.
Before this fourth season is over, Lost is bound to disappoint we fans again; and if it gets to the end of the planned 16 episodes, it'll probably win us back. Since shows like Lost usually start shooting each season with only a handful of scripts finished, constant tweaks and adjustments are made on the fly, so inevitably the seasons contain some dead ends and padding. With a show that has a mythology as complex as Lost's, viewers are bound to feel those bumps more intensely. If we weren't all so invested in where this story's going, we likely wouldn't care so much when the writers test our patience with a detour.
Tonight's episode though–like last season's stunning finale–was nearly all forward motion. We picked up where we left off last May, with the survivors of the crash of Oceanic flight 815 divided into two camps, each awaiting the details of their imminent rescue. Up by the radio tower, reluctant leader Jack has just signaled a nearby ship, to the dismay of The Others' messianic leader Ben, and to the relief of mysterious visitor Naomi, who's bleeding from a knife-wound delivered by the ever-mercurial castaway Locke. Meanwhile, down on the beach, Hurley has rescued Sayid and Bernard–killing a few Others in the process–and has received word from Jack that their transportation off the island is on its way. Which would be all well and good, except that within minutes of Hurley's victory celebration, the cynical seer Desmond rows his boat ashore, carrying the news that doomed, impish alt-rocker Charlie is dead and that the coming rescuers may not be who they seem.
The rest of the island action this episode was more about moving the players into position on the board rather than resolving anything. There were really only two major moments: In the middle, Hurley stumbled upon the cabin where Locke once met Jacob, the soul of the island, and Hurley glimpsed a shadowy figure inside who resembled whom? (Last season I could've sworn "Jacob" was a future version of Locke; but tonight he looked more like Jack's dad, Christian.) And at the end, a helicopter descended, and creepy Jeremy Davies (playing a character as-yet-unnamed), looked at our hero and said, "You're Jack, right?"
There was far more bustle this week off the island and in the future (or is it our present?). Hurley, haunted by visions of Charlie, crashed his Camaro and got himself re-committed to a mental institution, where he was visited by a shadowy man in black (played by The Wire's Lance Reddick) who claimed, probably falsely, to be a representative of Oceanic Airways. Later, Hurley also got a visit from our man Jack, who flashed a phony grin and tried to figure out if Hurley had spilled any of the secrets about how they got off the island, and what happened back there.
What did happen back there? Who are the rest of "The Oceanic Six" that Hurley claimed to be a part of? (We know Jack's one; and probably Kate, because we saw her in the present day back at the end of Season Three. What about the unnamed man in the coffin from that S3 finale?) And how long will we have to wait to find out the answers to these new, undeniably provocative questions?
I'm not especially concerned with the last point at the moment, though it's worth noting that this show has a bad history of introducing new mysteries to distract us from the old ones it hasn't solved. Still, Lost's steps have been so sure-footed of late–both at the end of last season and the start of this new one–that I'm willing to indulge the addition of new characters and new unknowns.
Besides, the core of what this show is about hasn't changed. Much of this season opener was concerned with the key characters making choices despite not having enough information at their disposal, while everyone else lined up behind them, creating the kind of factions that have existed on this damnable island since before Oceanic 815 crash-landed. And keep in mind that nothing to date indicates that the "heroes" we've been following for three years actually are heroes. Hurley seems like a decent dude, and Bernard and Rose don't appear to have hurt anyone, but nearly everyone else has some scallywaggery in their past, and aside from the mass murderer Ben, the 815 castaways have done a lot more killing than the onerous Others so far.
There'll be a lot to be said as the season goes along about fate and free will and whether any of us can elude our destiny--like, can you leave the island before you complete your purpose there, or will things left undone catch up to you?--but let's wrap up this week not by talking philosophy, but by admiring story construction. My cheeriest moment watching "The Beginning Of The End" came not with the return of old characters (like poor dead Ana-Lucia's partner on the LAPD), but when Locke announced his plan to return to the barracks to prepare for the invasion of Jeremy Davies and his boat people. Last season I felt like the Lost creators overcompensated for two seasons of hatches and beaches by taking us on a whirlwind tour of the island, never stopping anywhere long enough for us to get to know it intimately. But all that sketchy mapping was worth it, because now we have a sense of the island's size and scope, and where people can hole up. (That would include the "other" island, which I don't believe has been mentioned since Jack and company escaped it.)
In an ideal storytelling world, it wouldn't have taken us over 60 episodes to get to this point, with only 45 or so to go. But in the context of the television medium–with its frustrating compromises–the scope of what Lost is attempting is staggering.
And it's all starting to pay off.
-How great was it to see Hurley at the start of the episode, in a flash-forward? Hurley's always been the grounding force on this show, so not only was it nice to know that he made it off the island, but nice to know that he'd be helping to shepherd us into the future. (Or the present. Or whatever.)
-"You'd look weird with a beard, dude."
-Apologies for posting this so late. I wrote and scrapped two versions of this before settling on what's above. (Be thankful you were spared the version where I spent two paragraphs at the top talking about my college statistics class.) Frankly it's hard to write about a show when all you want to do is watch it. But I also know that Lost fans are keyed up after a new episode airs, and are ready to talk it out. I'll try not to dither so much next week.