"The Beginning of the End" was a solid season premiere, probably the best since the series began. Although it lacked a huge "WOW" moment comparable to the season 2 and 3 premieres, it was a fast-paced continuation of the events of last year's finale. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the decision to make this premiere a Hurley-centric episode, but it was a great gamble. Finally, anyone worried about the decision to introduce "flash-forwards" into the show's formula should be able to put their minds at ease, as that part of the show was at least as interesting, if not more so, than the on-Island action.
In true LOST fashion, the action picked up right where it left off in the Island part of the story. A noticeable difference, however, is in the rapid pace at which the narrative began to move. Even in this first episode, it is obvious that the writers are using the freedom of a set end date to the show's advantage. There is no more need to stall or drag sub-plots out longer than need be. In stark contrast to this premiere, I remember when it took a full three episodes before all of the characters were accounted for in season 2, and six of the first nine episodes of season 3 focused entirely on Jack, Kate and Sawyer. This time, all of the players and simultaneous events are addressed in one hour.
As Jack prepares to lead the survivors back to the beach camp to await rescue, Desmond returns to the people on the beach with news of Charlie's death and his final warning that the people on the "rescue" freighter aren't who they say they are. Both groups move to meet in the jungle, but a distraught Hurley becomes separated from the group and has a brief encounter with Jacob's cabin before meeting Locke. Both men, convinced that they need to stay away from the supposed "rescuers," make a plea to the other survivors, and ultimately two camps form-- Team Jack, which will go make contact with the Freighties in the hopes of being rescued, and Team Locke, which will go to the Barracks to hide from, and possibly defend themselves against this approaching party.
Several events in the Island storyline deserve some analysis. First, Hurley's encounter with Jacob was an unexpected turn for a typically lighthearted character. Galvanized by the death of his friend, Hurley is no longer a beachside B-Teamer but an important player in the story. Ben said last season that Jacob is a man who "summons you," and by putting his magical moving cabin in Hurley's path more than once, it's clear that Jacob wanted to contact Hurley for some reason. Inside the cabin, Hurley sees not one but TWO figures (interesting, since Locke couldn't see ANYONE). The first is Christian Shephard (as shown in this picture from Sledgeweb's LOST Stuff), whose presence should come as less of a surprise to those who have been watching the LOST: Missing Pieces mobisodes. The second is a familiar eye, which was shown only briefly. Some believe it to be Locke's, but I am not convinced.
Another question the encounter raises is this: if Jacob's cabin can move, how did Ben know exactly where to go to meet Jacob last season? Some speculation is that until just recently, Ben had confined Jacob with the circle of ash glimpsed briefly in "The Man Behind the Curtain," thus keeping the cabin in the same place. The theory is that between the time Locke saw a vision of Walt and his first appearance this season, he scattered the ash around the cabin, thus responding to Jacob's plea for help and "freeing" him to move again.
To the character side of things, the rivalry between Jack and Locke reached a new level this episode when the survivors met at the wreckage of the front section of the plane. Things have been building for some time, with Jack doing everything in his power to find some form of rescue for the survivors and Locke desperately trying to prevent them from leaving. What I wasn't ready for was that Jack actually attempted to murder Locke with a gun that turned out to be unloaded. With that act, I feel a line has been crossed between the two now that will make any reconciliation nearly impossible.
The climax of the episode was the split of the survivors into two camps. This split had been rumored since the middle of season 3 and speculation began on who would side with Jack or Locke. Charlie's death added another factor into this decision, and his warning about the Freighties was what ultimately led Hurley and Claire to side with Locke. Desmond probably had the most difficult choice to make, having been there when Charlie warned him about the Freighties but also knowing that he was somehow connected to them, since they had his picture; ultimately, he decided to stay with Jack.
It looks like the Island story will become a dual narrative for the next couple episodes, as Team Jack meets the Freighties and Team Locke returns to the barracks with Ben in tow. I believe that ultimately Locke will decide to have Ben lead them to the Temple, where the Others have gone. Thus, while Jack's storyline will give us some clues as to who these new people are, and what their real purpose on the Island is, Locke's storyline will hopefully cast some more light on the history of the Island and its mysteries.
Concurrent with all these Island happenings, we see a flash-forward in which Hurley returns to the Santa Rosa Mental Health Institute after visions of Charlie cause him to get in some trouble with the law. The final appearance of Dominic Monaghan as a vision of Charlie does a good job of wrapping up the character. In fact, I have to say that, on-Island and off, the death of Charlie was handled very well. Hurley and Claire are given time to express an appropriate amount of grief. I can't speak highly enough of Jorge Garcia's performance in this episode, showing grief, determination, fear and joviality with such range in an hour-long time span.
The flash-forwards appear to be just the breath of fresh air that LOST needed to rejuvenate itself halfway through the series. The flashbacks were always a crapshoot; after the first round that introduced each of the original characters in season 1, fans began to either anticipate or dread the flashbacks based on whose they were. The term "Jackback," for example, was coined to belittle the disproportionate number of Jack flashbacks that all but the most ardent of Matthew Fox groupies began to find tiresome. By the time we reached season 3, some of the flashbacks became as much of a chore to labor through as the commercials. Forget Cassidy and Kate's mom! Let's see the smoke monster again!
The flash-forwards, however, are brilliantly designed to reveal not just more about the characters, whom we all know pretty well by now, but an entirely new storyline to run concurrently with the Island action. The remainder of the season, and perhaps the series, now appears to be a puzzle in which pieces of the chronology will slowly go into place. By the end of the series we will be able to connect the dots and understand Hurley's fear of the man named Abbadon who asks him, "Are they still alive?" We'll know what Charlie meant when he said "They still need you."
Even bigger, we'll come to learn just what Jack, Hurley and the other flash-forward characters are so afraid of, and what they've been lying about. Jack made a special trip to see Hurley just to make sure he wouldn't tell anyone what he knows. That combined with his fierce rebuttal of Hurley's cryptic warning, "It wants us to come back," is a stark contrast to the shattered man in last year's finale who would come to acknowledge that "we have to go back." It seems that eventually, even the most stubborn "man of science" will have to admit that the Island is special and calls for their return, to finish whatever secretive business was started there.
As in previous season premieres, the seeds have now been sown for the narratives that will drive this chapter of LOST. On the Island, we will see a meeting and confrontation with the Freighties, and as Team Jack and Team Locke go their seperate ways they will each forge new paths into the larger mythology of the series. In the flash-forwards, we will likely learn who the Oceanic 6 are, and perhaps begin to uncover just what has got them so afraid. What are they lying about, and why do they eventually become convinced that they need to return to the Island? We probably won't know in just seven more episodes, but if the season proceeds at the pace of this premiere, they should still be a filling dose of LOST.