Jack: Thinking about growing a beard.
Hurley: You'd look weird with a beard, dude.
Awwww, the very first episode of the season, and it centers around Hurley, the survivor with the biggest heart and the biggest (and most improbable) gut! Since Hurley is one of the few actively good characters on the show — loves his grandma; generous to a fault; no known history of grifting, adultery, drug-dealing, torture, fomenting genocide, stealing kidneys, or slipping drugs to pregnant ladies — putting this fuzzy, greasy bad-luck-magnet at the episode's center sets up the season perfectly, not least because it momentarily disguises the freaky DARKNESS of the show's new structure.
Because it turns out that flash forwards are far more grim than flashbacks. Mainly because they suggest that searing regret lies just two feet ahead, narratively speaking, from any fantasies-of-escape island celebrations. Apparently, only six people have made it back to the mainland: the Oceanic Six. There's Jack, Kate, and Hurley — plus whoever is in that coffin and two others, and they're quasi-celebrities (The Surreal Life: Black Rock?) Oh, and they've apparently made some deal with the devil that is torturing them with regret and making them talk in mysterious abstractions. Shame about that.
The Future: Pre–Jack Beard
The episode starts out in the “future” (and we're going to need to develop some bold new terms here, because this FF takes place before the earlier FF, which makes it, what? A flashback from a flash-forward? There must be a German term for this). Jack, a chip off the old block, is beardless and pouring himself a refreshing morning screwdriver. He's notably not surrounded by maps, suicidal, or driving around all oxy'd up and listening to Nirvana.
Instead, Hurley is the crazy one: He's seen the ghost of Charlie in a convenience store. After subsequently hallucinating a wetsuited Charlie crashing through a window in a police station and lying to a cop about knowing Ana Lucia, Hurley is happily tossed into a mental hospital to doodle igloos in peace. No dice: He's promptly pursued first by that cadaverous guy from The Wire (who now works for Oceanic Airlines, apparently even more corrupt than the city of Baltimore), then nagged by Charlie's Ghost (looking surprisingly hot), and finally, challenged to a game of H.O.R.SE. by Cleanshaven Jack, who is apparently in on whatever freaky deal these guys made with whatever devil they dealt with before or after or during their escape from the island but will only reference in roundabout, crazy-making Dark Secret dialogue.
Like an endless procession of Ghosts of Islands Past, each visitor engages poor Hurley in oblique manipulation: Wire Guy scares him, Charlie guilts him out, and Jack seems to be trying to make sure Hurley isn't going to spill their Dark Secret. “I don't think we did the right thing, Jack. It wants us to go back,” says Hurley. WHO WHAT WHA?
The Present: Post-Charlie
Meanwhile, or rather, way earlier, Desmond has returned to deliver the bad news: Charlie's dead and that's not Penny's boat. After some grieving and hiking and bickering, everyone gathers to debate: the Jackians (who are excitedly anticipating rescue); the sharpshooters and rescuers from the beach (who believe it's all a trap); tied-up Ben (who says they're all gonna die); Crazy Rousseau, who smacks Ben in the nose; and Alex and Karl. (Naomi, meanwhile, dies after slinking off into the woods with a knife in her back.) Oh, and John Locke, who says it's all a trap and they're all gonna die and everyone should follow him.
As they do every ten episodes or so, the survivors split bitterly in half! And so do our sympathies.
Because let's look at the big picture here: On Jack's side, we've got Kate, Juliet, Sayid, Sun, Jin, Rose, and Bernard. In other words, one love triangle pivoting on a prissy surgical bossypants, plus two happily married couples — plus Sayid, who is fantastic and does sway us a bit. (Desmond should be with them, too, but we got kind of confused and couldn't figure out where he ended up.)
But on Locke's side, there's Hurley, Sawyer, Claire, Aaron, Rousseau, Ben, Alex, and Karl — all the insane and most of the single people! Plus a very cute baby. GO TEAM LOCKE! There's great mind-game potential there, since the most tender characters (Claire and Hurley and Alex) are combined with the most insane mind-game masters (Locke, Sawyer, Ben and Rousseau). Besides, Alex can babysit Aaron, and Rousseau can have Moonlighting chemistry with her stolen daughter's adopted father.
As ever, Ben gets all the funniest line-readings: “Jack, with your permission, I'd like to go with John.”
But the best scene occurs just before this whole showdown, when poor Hurley stumbles into a horror movie: Using mere glimpses of a rickety shack, ANOTHER rickety shack, a silhouetted figure in a rocking chair, and then a big scary eye in a window, we were freaked out and baffled, and fine with it. Or at least, baffled until we saw the work of freeze-framers online.
What We Know Now
Jack is willing to shoot Locke right in his big scarred moon face.
At least some of the Locke followers do leave the island, since Hurley is among the Oceanic Six.
Hug Kate once, shame on Kate; hug Kate twice, shame on you.
The Wha? Factor
What happened to the other survivors?
What’s the deal with the guy in the rocking chair?
Whose BIG FREAKY EYE WAS THAT?
And what is that guy from Spanking the Monkey doing on the island?
And Jack's Dad is — what? ALIVE? Undead? Has some sort of evil Bucket List relationship with Jacob? IS Jacob? —Emily Nussbaum