Last year, writing up the terrific Season Four episode “The Shape Of Things To Come,” I wrote:

Here's the acid test for whether you can get in the groove with tonight's episode: Can you handle Locke saying, with a straight face, "You lied to me. You told me you didn't know what the smoke monster was?" Are you willing to follow Lost to that more literal sci-fi/fantasy/action place, or do you like it better when it's all about hints and shadows? Because as the episode title implies, I think this is where the show is heading for the near future. It's going to be superheroes and supervillains and ghostly cabins and super-powerful creatures made of black smoke. The biggest fear of Lost fans all along has been that when the answers start coming, they're going to seem goofy and mundane compared to what we've all imagined on our own. Well, we're at that precipice, it seems. Either this vision of the Lost universe as a place of where good and evil slug it out–in whatever ambiguous terms–will play, or it won't.

Myself, I go back-and-forth about Lost’s fantasy elements. After grading last week’s episode lower than some of you would’ve preferred, I feel I should be clear about something: I’m a huge fan of this show. I have faith that the writers ultimately know what they’re doing, and that they’re leading us in interesting, unexpected directions. That said, part of what makes Lost so special is that it’s not “tight,” per se. As Carlton Cuse said to me last year:

We're always going to try to push the envelope with the show, and when you try to push the envelope and fly close to the sound barrier, that plane is going to shatter, and sometimes it's going to break apart. And sometimes it's going to blow on through, and it's going to be exciting when it goes supersonic. We're always going to keep trying that, and sometimes, we're going to miss. But I think if we didn't do that, then people would really get upset.


And that's why I’m never all that bothered when Lost serves up a dud episode. Groaning about the occasional “Stranger In A Strange Land”—or disagreeing about the quality of a “Ji-Yeon” or “Meet Kevin Johnson”—is part of the fun of being a Lost fan. And having re-watched “This Place Is Death” over the weekend, and I can go on record as saying it’s really not a dud. Once my disappointment over the (apparent) end of the time-skipping-island conceit faded, I began to appreciate the multiple cool moments in the episode a lot more. I still think Charlotte’s death/backstory is clumsily handled, and that—Smokey aside—the Rousseau material is redundant. (I actually think Darlton would agree with the latter point; in last week’s podcast, they admitted that they had nothing much to add to the Rousseau backstory, but that fans kept clamoring for it.) And, y’know, I confess sometimes Lost's fantasy elements do throw me. Whenever a character says “monster” with a straight face, it takes me a minute or two to recover my credulity. Then I remind myself what kind of show this is.

I don’t think you could get a stronger example of what kind of show this is than tonight’s “316.” The episode begins in a way we haven’t begun on Lost in a while: with a close-up of Jack’s eye. And just as in Lost’s very first episode, we soon see that Jack is flat on his back, on the island. He hears a call for help, and he rises, but what was once familiar quickly becomes unfamiliar, as Jack realizes he’s not exactly where he thought he was. He’s near a waterfall, and Kate and Hurley are in trouble in the water below. They’re all back on the island, but circumstances have changed.

Jump back to 46 hours earlier, at a Los Angeles-based Dharma station called The Lamppost (which looks a lot like The Swan, at least in terms of its hallways and computers), Miss Hawking stands beneath a giant pendulum which is mapping the probabilities of where (and when?) the island will be next, and what vehicles might be scheduled to be near those points in space-time. Specifically, she suggests Ajira flight 316 to Guam, and tells Jack that he’s going to have to come as close as possible to recreating the conditions of Oceanic 815, to improve the probability of another fortuitous crash.


There were a lot of reasons why I liked—darn near loved—“316,” and a major one was Miss Hawking, who delivered her little history lesson about Dharma and her instructions to Jack about getting back on the island with a kind schoolmarm charm that made all the hardcore fantasy stuff go down easy. (I only flinched when she said that John had to stand in for Christian, as the flight’s designated corpse, but then I took a big gulp, whispered “That’s what kind of show this is” to myself, and moved on.)

I also found “316” unusually tense. Yes, we see at the beginning that Jack, Hurley and Kate are going to make it back, but we don’t know exactly how, or who’s coming with them. It’s like a miniature version of the kind of flashback-heavy mystery story that Lost has told all along; and I found it more satisfying than last week's episode because I neither knew nor had guessed in advance any of the details leading from Point A to… um, Point A.

“316” demonstrated a fair amount of sly wit and fan-friendly callbacks too, especially in the airport scene, where Jack sees Sayid led on-board in handcuffs (shades of Kate), and Hurley reads a DC-published comic in Spanish (the Vertigo series Y: The Last Man, written by Lost contributor Brian K. Vaughan), and the whole O5 (no Aaron) reacts to the announcement of their pilot. one Frank Lapidus. It was all so clever and cool, yet still mysterious.


Mostly though, I liked that this episode felt so unhurried, even with Hawking’s “the window is closing” time crunch. There wasn’t a lot of running around trying to bring everyone back together. They just ended up back together—and some for reasons that I think we’re going to have to wait a few weeks to see. Instead, we were treated to some really wonderful character moments: like Hurley buying up as many tickets as he could so that no one would be unnecessarily hurt in the crash; and a deeply sad, Aaron-less Kate accepting Jack and his mission back into her life with weary resignation; and Jack getting his father’s shoes from his restless grandfather Ray; and a bloody, bruised Ben (more on that down below) reading Ulysses while Jack worries about what’s about to happen next.

There’s always been a touch of Last Temptation Of Christ to this show—most notably in the classic Desmond episode “Flashes Before Your Eyes”—but tonight that vibe was especially powerful, as all the characters contemplated the sacrifice they were about to make, and wondered to themselves whether they needed to make it. And all without at lot of unnecessary chatter either. All Kate has to say to Jack (about his dad’s shoes) is, “Why hold onto something that makes you feel sad?” and we can extrapolate from that what Jack is thinking about his father, Kate, the island… all of it. Of course it doesn’t hurt that we still have Ben’s recounting of the apostle Thomas ringing in our ears: How he’s remembered for doubting (like Jack) when he should be remembered for bravely accompanying Christ to his certain death.

This episode ends, naturally, with Jack bravely facing death. The airplane crashes—or does it?—as a familiar flash of light appears that implies our heroes may have been wrested out of their plane to a different point in time, perhaps separate from the actual plane going down. I was still appreciating their reactions to being back on the island—at once scared, awed and amazed—when “316” brought it’s stinger. A Dharma bus drives by. A man steps out with a gun. The man is Jin.


And I giggled with glee. Because that’s the kind of show this is.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

-In case you haven’t heard, “306” was originally Lost 5.7, and next week’s “The Life And Death Of Jeremy Bentham was 5.6. According to Lindelof and Cuse, the two episodes can really run in either order, but they decided they’d rather hold Locke’s off-island story back a week.


-I don’t think it’s a coincidence that “Jughead” and “316” are my favorite episodes so far this season. Both were focused on a smaller group of characters, living through one contained story. They weren’t scattered, in other words. And I think that’s what's  going to be the norm in the weeks to come. I could be wrong, but based on statements by the creators and cast, I’m betting that most of the rest of the season will be more conventionally Lost-y, with single-character-driven episodes, perhaps explaining exactly how everyone got to where/when they are now.

-It was good to see Action Jack back tonight. He’d been passive and helpless for a very long time, but when he jumped in the water to save Hurley, I felt a little surge of affection for the persnickety galoot.

-I also enjoyed Jack’s reactions at the Ajira ticket counter, as he deals with yet another hassle about transporting dead bodies. He seems so unconcerned with anything the counter man says, because he knows that this is all a formality. (Also, he’s marveling at how all his people are coming back together.)


-I like that Ben has made such a lifestyle out of lying that he lies about meaningless stuff, like whether he’d ever been to The Lamppost before. I also noticed in the “previously” montage something that I hadn’t before: that Locke says to Jack, “I’m going to tell you that the island won’t let you come alone.” Not that the island actually won’t, but that he’ll tell Jack it won’t. (Also: “How can you be reading?” “My mother taught me.”)

-Good music cues this week. Very mournful.

-There’s been a lot of talk about Lost’s falling ratings and Fox moving American Idol up against it in a few weeks. But forget that stuff. Lost does well on-line, on DVRs, on DVDs and overseas. This season is just about in the can, and ABC is committed to another. The full story will be told. And based on what I saw this week and what I imagine is to come, it’ll survive long after the final episode airs.


Clues, coincidences and crazy-ass theories:

-This has been noted elsewhere, but “The Lamppost” is most likely a reference to The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, and one of Narnia’s most memorable features.

-“Whatever she tells you to do, ignore it,” says Desmond about Miss Hawking. That’s very similar to the advice that Sayid gave to Hurley about Ben. Knowing who to trust on this show is well-nigh impossible.


-I’m going to assume that when Ben says, “I made a promise to an old friend of mine,” he’s talking about killing Penny. And I’m going to assume that we’re not going to find out if he succeeded for a couple of weeks. But we know “the island isn’t done” with Desmond yet, so we’ll have to find out eventually.

-Nice symmetry with Jack looking at a scrap of John’s suicide note—reading “I wish”—at the beginning and end of the episode. Of course the journey back to the island is all about wishes coming true. But there’s another part to the note too: “I wish… you had believed me.” I get the feeling that next week we’re going to understand the depth of John’s sorrow. And Jack's doubt.

-Speaking of John, we all know John 3:16, right? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son,” etc.


-I know that wasn’t Charlie’s guitar case in Hurley’s hands, but was Hurley trying to “recreate the conditions” in his own way? And if so, who told him he needed to?

-Ray’s nursing home has magic shows. Where animals stand in for other animals. Contemplate it.

-I’ve got all kinds of crazy thoughts in my head about the other people in the plane—including Sayid and Sun and Ben and Frank, who didn’t arrive with Hurley, Jack and Kate. I wonder if the other folks scattered to different points in the timeline? I also wonder if all those people in the back of the plane—and the one or two extras in the front—were on-board for their own special purposes. Like to re-start the Dharma Initiative. Or—if we’re talking time travel here, and different points on the timeline—to start it the first time. Who are all these new characters going to become?


-Listening to Christian take a potshot at Ben last week made me wonder: Should Ben and his crew have been coming and going from the island as freely as they have over the years? Given how pissy the island gets whenever anyone leaves, I have to wonder if all Ben’s travels are an abuse of Jacob’s trust.


One final thought on “This Place Is Death.” If nothing else, it reinforces something we’ve long known about Locke: He will do whatever anyone vaguely authoritative tells him to do. Let that be your preview for next week.