For the first time this season, I feel completely stymied by Lost, and I sort of don't know what to say about it. It did a lot of the things I wanted it to (using the tale of the Oceanic 6 returning to the Island to delve more deeply into their characters), and it had a bunch of really terrific little scenes and moments, as well as the sort of deeply mournful tone so many of the best Lost episodes adopt, but it also managed to view a lot of the stuff going on through absolutely the wrong character prism. This seems like the sort of episode that will greatly improve when watched on DVD later, but at the moment, it seemed so bizarre to try to force the dramatic arc of returning to the Island to be viewed through the point-of-view of Jack (Matthew Fox), the one person who's as gung ho about returning as Ben (Michael Emerson). This left the episode strangely bereft of dramatic snap, even as it sort of worked as a character piece around the edges of the Jack story. I presume it will work better once we know just how the O6 miraculously gathered together again to hop aboard Ajira Airlines flight 316 to Guam, but making Jack our entryway to this story made it both frustrating and fascinating, though mostly unpredictable ways. So, yeah, I'm a bit unsure of what I think, but let's talk it out, shall we.
In fact, let's work backwards, since the episode, written by Damon Lindelof and Carleton Cuse, starts at the end (by confirming that Jack, Kate (Evangeline Lilly) and Hurley (Jorge Garcia), at least, make it back to the Island), circling back to that point over the course of the hour. The initial moments of Jack arriving back at the Island (shot to deliberately mimic the opening moments of the pilot by episode director Stephen Williams) are a satisfying jolt, proving that Lost can still ape its old style when it wants to. The whole sequence even opens with a close-up of an eyeball. More importantly, seeing these characters back in the Island setting retroactively made a lot of the O6 stuff work better, simply because the actors had rather successfully been backgrounding just how out of place their characters were on the mainland and the tension driven by that. Jack's relief, Hurley's whatever-will-be-will-be complacency and Kate's sad resignation all drove this sequence as well, and the closing shot of Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) driving up in a DHARMA van and pulling a gun on the three was the sort of grin-inducing cliffhanger the show has mostly not done as much of this season. "We're back on the Island, folks," it says. "All bets are off!"
The sequence building up to the Island return on the airplane was also very good. At first, the temptation was to write off the idea that the O6 had to return in as similar a fashion as they first arrived as sort of a lame one, but the episode played up the contrasts between that first flight (when the soon-to-be castaways were largely carefree, ready to travel) and this second flight (where everyone involved has a sort of grim determination to just get the job done and is confronting the idea that they really might never return to their old lives but there's work to be done). From the shadowy lighting to Jack's agitated glance back to coach class, worrying that he had somehow consigned those innocent people to their death, to the rise of Michael Giacchino's sad score, quoting the season one Oceanic 815 theme in a minor key, the whole sequence rose to the epic level the whole episode aspired to. When the first jolts of the Island calling the Oceanic 6 back home hit the plane, the editing of the sequence, cutting between the O6 and the others on the plane who had no idea what was going on, was dead-on, only gradually confirming our faith that, yes, this wasn't just normal turbulence. The sequence also did another thing Lost does very well: raise questions. Why were Sayid (Naveen Andrews) and Hurley there after they swore they wouldn't be? Why did Hurley seem so surprised to see Ben? Why were those recognizable character actors up there in first class with the others, and will we be seeing more of them? And, finally, the sequence brought the unexpected return of Frank Lapidus (Jeff Fahey), whom I assumed had been written out of the series entirely after an early moment in Season Five, but there he was, clean-shaven, piloting the plane and giving great credence to Locke's (Terry O'Quinn) belief that this is all happening for a reason (or, at least, the idea that the strings are being pulled by someone with a LOT of influence and a preternatural sense of how the puzzle pieces fit together). This, in and of itself, maybe wasn't all that important, but Lapidus is one of the show's better recurring guest characters, and it's nice to know his story isn't over.
The whole sequence reminded me of something else from the pop cultural sphere of the past decade or so: the Left Behind series. The Left Behind books were the very worst kind of pop cultural proselytizing, but they were so popular both because they revisited a particular eschatological interpretation that Americans, for better or worse, have always found very compelling and because the central hook of the first book was one of those truly awesome little images that sunk its claws into you, even though the quality of the writing was so poor. If you've never read the series (believe me, you're not missing much), the opening passages take place on board a plane in the moments before the Rapture sucks all of the born-again Christians off the planet and into Heaven. Right after the horn sounds and calls the believers into the sky, millions disappear from around the world, leaving behind only a small pile of clothes and jewelry (and maybe tooth fillings, if I'm remembering correctly). This, as you might expect, causes mass chaos, particularly on board the plane which the book's opening revolves around. It was such a great setpiece that it managed to hook a lot of people for at least the first novel and some for the whole series. I also think it's possibly a key to understanding what's going on in the airplane scenes of this episode. There's a lot of speculation (and skip to the next paragraph now if you don't want my speculation as to what's going on) that the plane crashed or that everyone on board was sucked down onto the Island or whatever, but we're shown the bright, white lights and chaotic editing that would indicate a time flash were this occurring on-Island, so it seems more likely to me that only our regulars, Lapidus and maybe those first class character actors were taken to the Island, with everyone else left behind. Obviously, I don't think that the Lost producers were purposefully ripping off the series, but the whole concept had so much in common with the novel series (even at the thematic level—the devout are taken from their regular lives by their object of worship, whether they're ready or not) that I thought I'd mention it.
While a lot of the other moments in the episode were worthwhile (particularly anything involving Ben and his constant stream of sly one-liners), I'm not sure choosing Jack as the point-of-view character for the last 36 hours before everyone left for the Island again was exactly the right choice. (Alan Sepinwall has talked about this fairly extensively already—curse you, East Coast viewers!—so I'll keep this brief and link you.) Every other one of the people returning to the Island had more interesting business to attend to and loose ends to tie up, even the oft-maligned Kate, who apparently did something with Aaron so he didn't come along and then sunk into an angry despair. At some point, we'll likely see who tipped Hurley off as to when the flight was going to take off, how Sayid hooked up with the mysterious woman who skirted him past airline security and just whom Ben went to visit (please don't say he killed Penny (Sonya Walger), even if that's the only realistic way to bring Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) back to the Island), since this is Lost and all, but this episode was pretty much just about Jack wandering the greater LA area and making peace with his old decision to leave the Island. But since Jack had already decided to go back long ago ("WE HAVE TO GO BACK!"), this lacked a dramatic resonance that following any of the other storylines might have offered.
The odd thing is that there was plenty of room to maneuver within this story and keep it an interesting episode, even with following Jack around. Jack, obviously, is a guy who sticks to a plan when he comes up with one, but how would YOU react if you were slowly making preparations to NEVER return to your old life? This is, in some ways, an overdone story, but Jack is the one character who's been given some assurances that he will likely never see the "real" world again (Ben told him to pack a suitcase with everything he'd ever want, strongly implying he wouldn't be back), and there was more drama to be mined there than actually was. In one scene, we see Jack pour himself a glass of fresh orange juice. Sure, DHARMA delivers food to the Island, but orange juice? That wouldn't keep. This, really, is a story about a man preparing to face his death (hence Ben's lovely little monologue about how the Apostle Thomas should be remembered for bravely accompanying Christ to his death, not the later doubts), and there was room to see some of this, even if it was something as simple as Jack really enjoying a glass of orange juice. There was an attempt to do a little of this in the scene where Jack went to visit his previously unseen grandfather (the great, consummate guest star, Raymond J. Barry, who's done everything from Upstairs Downstairs to The X-Files), making Jack yet another O6 member who's essentially abandoning someone dependent on their care to return to the Island, but this scene only delved into this a little bit before turning it into another of the episode's long list of clunky moments where Jack was hit over the head with the realization that he had to return to the Island (this time in the form of his father's shoes). Jack, obviously, is a pretty straightforward guy, but Lost has shown itself capable of being able to introduce a little poetry in the past, so it was odd to see it mostly set aside here.
That said, plenty of the rest of the storyline offered the great character moments I had been hoping the whole O6 arc would incorporate from day one, from Hurley buying up as many plane seats as he could to ensure that the innocent would not die to Kate's off-screen decisions (played entirely by Lilly's eyes, and now I feel sorta bad for maligning her performance a few weeks ago), and the moments between Jack and Locke (with Jack struggling to fit his father's shoes on Locke's corpse, that the return might more accurately reflect the initial arrival, then reading Locke's suicide note later on board the plane) felt both emotionally resonant and somehow earned. In fact, as soon as Jack gets to the airport, the episode takes on a grim momentum that the Oceanic 6 arc has struggled to achieve this season (really, only Hurley's guilt over the lie they all told resonated on this level). As the various players showed up at the airport for one reason or another, the whole episode took on a sense of both sadness and wonder, until even Lapidus was roped in ("We're not going to Guam, are we?"). Only Desmond, who rails against Jack and his caving in to Ben early in the episode by pointing out how all of the characters are just game pieces moved around by other, larger players in the saga, seems to have escaped this weird sense of destiny, but the others are all roped in by the hand of fate. You may not like what destiny has planned for you, but it has a way of making you comply.
Some other thoughts:
1. I didn't mention the long, expositional monologue from Mrs. Hawking (Fionnuala Flanagan) from the episode's beginning just because ... well, just because. It was interesting enough as backstory, and I'm sure it will all come up again and be important at some point, but I'm not sure there's anything absolutely necessary there for those of us who don't immediately run to Lostpedia after the episode and try to pinpoint the coordinates of the Island. (Although: Was the man who invented the pendulum a time-trippin' Faraday (Jeremy Davies)? Discuss.)
2. The only flashes to the Island came in the episode bookends, and we didn't see anyone who was left behind on the Island outside of Jin. Oddly enough, I didn't really miss them, even though they've been driving much of the drama this season, which maybe means I liked this one more than I think I do.
3. There's been quite a few stories about Lost's sinking ratings in the media these last couple of weeks, and, indeed, when faced with an Idol episode last week, the show dipped below 10 million viewers for the first time ever. Now, with Idol planning to move opposite Lost every week, it seems as though the series might be forced to hit series lows week after week. I'm not so concerned by this. The series sells well on DVD, and it gets a lot of viewing online and on DVR. In addition, ABC is already committed to a sixth season, and since serialized shows tend to go up in the ratings as their final episodes approach, Season Six should shrug off the ratings malaise.
4. I don't know what my favorite Ben moment was in the episode, but if forced to pick one, I'd have to go with him snidely dismissing Jack asking him how he could read while the plane was on the way to the Island with a "My mother taught me."
5. It took me forever to place the Arab guy who checks onto the plane behind Jack and then shows up in first class, but that was Saïd Taghmaoui, better known as the guy who holds Mark Wahlberg prisoner in Three Kings.
6. Lapidus better grow that beard back quickly. It's a big part of his appeal.
7. I know I said it above, but it pays to reiterate sometimes. Penny better not be dead. I realize that Desmond is a time-traveling machine and can change the past and stuff, but I don't think I could take it.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.