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February 5, 2010

The Road Map to Lost

An episode of Lost is best expressed through a series of “WTF?”s andWhat’s going on?”s and a lot of blank staring out from underneath a furrowed brow. An episode of Lost explodes your brain and then delights in stomping in the mess afterward with the next episode's promotional trailer. Explaining Lost to a non-fan is like rattling off a lot of arbitrary, unrelated things and telling this non-fan it’s all connected. Here, let’s play: Tropical island. Polar bears. Smoke monster. Statue of Taweret. Time travel. Backgammon. Jacob and Esau. Immortality. Slave ship. 4 8 15 16 23 42 are bad luck. Corporeal manifestations. Hydrogen bomb. Dharma Initiative. See where I’m going with this? So it bears saying that it took me over 24 hours to finish scooping my brains back into my head in order to process the season six premiere. And I've been watching this show since the very first airing of the pilot.

Eight months in the making, the season premiere on Tuesday finally revealed what happened after our screens turned to a white blaze last May when Juliet presumably detonated a hydrogen bomb on the island. In a time-warping attempt to reboot all the events of the past five seasons, some of our faithful castawaysJack, Kate, Sayid, Sawyer, and Juliethoped to destroy an underground pocket of electromagnetic energy that was “fated” to explode on its own in 1977. It was revealed in season two that Desmond failed to push the button one day and also caused the plane to crash in the pilot episode.

Therefore, jumping ahead to season five, during which some of our castaways time traveled back to 1977, quirky physicist Daniel Faraday devised a plot to destroy the pocket of energy in one fell swoop, ultimately preventing Oceanic 815 from ever crashing on the island.

Faraday’s plan directly contradicted his previous ravings about time as a straight line without diversions: whatever happened, happened. You can’t change the past. It is all destined to occur. Problematically, Faraday suddenly changed his mind toward the end of season 5, and we still really don’t know why. But something led him to believe humans, with the power of choice, could manipulate the time equation. And, for some of our castaways, erasing their pasts by creating a new future was too good an opportunity to pass up. So how’d it turn out?

Fans who had feared for the last eight months that rebooting the show would remove all the emotional resonance of the last five seasons were rewarded: Juliet hit that son of a bitch hydrogen bomb and it transported all of our castaways, Juliet included, to the in-show present of 2007, concurrent once again with characters Ben, John, Sun, Richard and Lapidus.

Every season of Lost can be defined by a different storytelling structure. Last season time travel was the chosen device. Before that, off-island flashbacks and off-island flashforwards were used. In the season six premiere, the new device appeared to besideway flashes" between parallel realities. Because the reboot also worked. This season will show us two realities: one in which our castaways’ lives continue on the island unchanged, and another in which Oceanic Flight 815 safely lands at LAX. Whether these two realities ever merge will be the mystery of the season. Well, who am I kidding? One of the mysteries of the season.

Admittedly, this was a two-hour episode that opened a whole can of worms to manage in the 16 hours of television Lost has left. From the end of the episode it looks like we could be dealing with the complete reincarnation of Jacob, an ambiguously good island entity, in the body of Sayid. This is unconfirmed, but it sure looks that way. This development is also in contrast to the corporeal manifestation of the Smoke Monster in John Locke’s form, but not his body, which was dead last time we checked. This development allows actor Terry O’Quinn to have a lot of fun as this “new character.”

I know I lost you back there. I know you stopped reading. I know you’re a non-fan who doesn’t care. But if you are still reading this, I bet you’re asking why we watch this show? What’s so special? Why do we keep tuning in? The serialized drama is a complex form of television because it really requires one thing and one thing only: trusting viewer participation. And we’re not talking drop-in viewership. We’re talking dedicated, week-by-week, scheduled viewership. One or two skipped episodes of Lost are enough to dislodge you for the rest of the season. As a television gambit, it’s a rewarding technique that pays dividends in suspense, but it’s a gamble. It’s a gamble that requires something from producers, showrunners, and writers: a promise to deliver the goods when necessary.

What happens next?” is why we tune in every week. Isn’t that why we continue reading a book? Or why we sit still for all 100 minutes of a movie? Our imaginations must be so perpetually famine-struck that nothing will ever quench our thirst or sate our hunger. There’s a saying that goes, “We always want what we don’t have.” Lost is like a drug and we’re always looking for our next fix.

So as Lost enters its sixth and final season, the unanswered questions and overarching plot take center stage. Characterization has been established, a mythology has been introduced, and the conflicts have stacked up. We’ve done our part as viewers, but now it’s time for Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof to fulfill their part of the audience-storyteller contract.