THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

'Lost' has not lost its way, it's getting better

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / May 10, 2009
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Every time I finish watching an episode of "Lost" this season, I wind up with a headache. And I mean that in the best possible way.

How can Big Miles be present in the same place as Baby Miles? Did Charles Widmore remember meeting Jack and Kate all along? Would Richard have told Locke he had to die if Locke hadn't told him first? Did Faraday's mother spend her entire adult life preparing to kill her son?

I say this, I admit, as a mild sci-fi geek and a sucker for time travel stories; I always loved the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episodes that messed with the space-time continuum. In this, its next-to-last season, "Lost" has embraced its essential nature as a genre show.

Wednesday's finale caps a whirlwind of episodes that have taken our main characters from the recent past to the 1970s, as they struggle to understand the mysterious, powerful tropical island where their plane crashed in 2004. And a series that once pondered big metaphysical themes - science, faith, free will - has delved into more intricate questions of electromagnetic fields and theories of time travel. At the same time, a show that once luxuriated in character development has become more fixed on unraveling its complicated plot.

That's a good thing, true to "Lost" and true to the needs of its fans. The series has long been a highlight of network TV because it has dared to make viewers think - and better yet, think together. Yes, there's something to be said for sitting back passively and watching a soap opera play out, or watching a series like "C.S.I." connect scientific dots for you. "Lost" offers something different: the ability to watch for an hour and still have a head full of pressing questions.

Better still, "Lost" gives us community. With its piles of references, anagrams, clues, and meta-jokes, the show is far more satisfying as a collective experience than as an isolated hour on the sofa. It's well and good to notice a detail in the corner of a screen, which might refer back to some moment in season two. But it's better to know that an army of viewers is collecting screen shots, researching literary references, penning explanations about relativity. Watch "Lost," and you immediately want to go online and get the fruits of everyone else's observations.

That's why it's only right that the series is paying fans back with a narrative as puzzling as the puzzle-solvers would want. Intense fans have prompted the writers to create a more intense show, and the feedback loop has been mutually satisfying.

Lately, blogs have spent a lot of time picking apart the varied theories of time travel that have become the heart of the "Lost" narrative: the "closed-loop" theory, in which the past cannot be changed, versus the "branching streams" theory of an array of possible futures. (There was a great "Star Trek" episode about the latter. But I digress.)

On the other hand, there's still plenty of love for Sawyer's zingers, Desmond and Penny's undying love, and the questionable fate of Sun and Jin. The series successfully merges a fangirl geekfest and network drama in a way that few shows have done. Casual fans can still enjoy "Lost" as a study of relationships, lovelorn and otherwise. And this year's sci-fi leanings haven't come at the expense of the characters.

If anything, in fact, this new embrace of time travel and Dharma Initiative history has given the writers some refreshing ideas, and given the actors chances to play entirely new notes. We've seen Josh Holloway's Sawyer, who spent four seasons as the resident crank, test out a new role as a multitasking leader - though without shedding the wisecracks or nicknames. Two weeks ago, he greeted Daniel Faraday, a frenetic and emotional scientist, with an offhand "Good to see you, Twitchy."

We've seen Matthew Fox's Jack, once the bullheaded optimist, turn into a nihilist, and suddenly seem twice as relatable. We've seen slick Ben looking chastened and defeated, though I could have done without his cheesy judgment at the hands of the smoke monster.

Thankfully, Hurley is still Hurley, swiping cookies from the Dharma supply closet and saying things like, "All right, dude. We're from the future." Sayid is coming to terms with his own nature as a natural killer.

And best of all, we now have the man I've lately been thinking of as "Pet Sematary Locke." Back from the dead, Terry O'Quinn's character is now a different guy, his insecurities and fears replaced with a new sense of confidence and purpose. It's wonderful to see him treating Ben as an irritant rather than a formidable nemesis. And it's fun to figure out whether he's still leading his followers off a cliff; last Wednesday, as he led the Others on a march toward Jacob - the mystical, as-yet-unseen figure who seems to be giving orders to the island's creepiest denizens - the notion of lemmings came to mind.

At least they're going somewhere, unlike in some previous seasons. We have "Lost" to thank for what could become a growing trend in serialized TV: the self-imposed endpoint. For a while there in the middle, the series had gotten mired in sameness, and the characters felt static. Now, freed from the need to produce many seasons' worth of filler episodes - as well as the longstanding formula, in which every episode was a mix of flashbacks and present-day events - the "Lost" narrative spins out the way it needs to be told. Better yet, the stakes seem high. Finally, what's happening feels important.

Best of all, the producers are allowed to let momentum build - both toward Wednesday's season finale and the ultimate end to the series, a promised 19 hours of television away. In fact, things are accelerating so quickly that I'm starting to wonder if there will be time to answer every question that remains, from the whereabouts of Claire to the importance of Walt to the nature of Richard Alpert, who seems to be some cosmic consigliere. But perhaps this will be a way of sorting out what's important and what isn't.

In its newfound march to the future, "Lost" has thus far abandoned some of the characters and plotlines that may have been filler in the first place. We're surely going to learn the nature of Jacob before too long, but we might never know if Bernard and Rose are lost in time or whether Claire's son Aaron has a special destiny or whether Hurley's lottery numbers helped lead him to doom. We'll have to assume that an entire season spent on the tail section of the crashed plane was a pointless diversion, never to be spoken of again.

We could grumble about all of that, but really, what's past is past. Unless it isn't. On "Lost," there's always room to wonder.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.