[Warning – contains spoilers]
Every pre-conceived notion I had of JJ Abrams' and Damon Lindelof's Lost -- that it was rambling, unfocused and so (forgive me) lost in its own mythology that it simply made up the rules as it went along -- was dispelled with the solid first season. While the dialogue was somewhat stilted and the writers relied too much on distracting flashbacks to give insight to the characters instead of mixing development with action like the best of them, it was a compelling paranormal mystery with great twists that worked.
The second season was a noticeable step down, as the sudden imbalance between narrative and character only exposed the weaknesses in writing. It expanded the scope of the series, but too often we were subjected to long stretches of inactivity with flashbacks that mostly served as filler. Nevertheless, when it hit the second half it started tying together all the new threads of the tail section survivors and really showed how big a threat the Others posed, and the result was gripping even if its foundation was built on sand.
But as soon as I got into the third season, all those initial reservations were at last proved correct: where the second season sacrificed narrative for the sake of character development (most of which was redundant anyway), this season cranked the madness up to 11. Character development now takes a backseat to an incessant barrage of new mysteries and answers to old mysteries that are often more bewildering than satisfying.
The Others have been a force on the island since the first season, but we got our first glimpse of them in S2: we didn't learn how they came to live on the island, but they looked like survivors of some other catastrophe who'd simply gone mad -- understandable, given the strange horror of the island. Apart from a rusty old boat that they ended up giving to Michael for betraying his friends, they seemed to have nothing but the clothes on their backs even though they knew practically everything about the Flight 815 survivors. Well, just go ahead and kick those notions to the curb, because the very first reveal of the season changes everything you think you know about this strange, psychotic group.
The revelations of the Others and their living conditions pose a slew of interesting questions, all of which are immediately buried under even more questions with each passing episode. The season ran for six episodes before going on hiatus, and these six episodes make the wheel-spinning of the middle of S2 look like visceral and masterful storytelling in comparison. For one thing, the flashbacks are at an all-time low: Sun and Jin's is utterly useless, Locke's simply shows that even people who aren't related to him betrayed him and Kate's, well, it's a flashback for Kate. They're all the damn same. Even worse, everyone who didn't already have father issues -- Hurley, Claire, even Ben -- now have them. God, is that the only thing they could think of to give these characters "depth"?
Lost has always raised a lot of questions, but many this season are of the sort the writers don't want people to ask: why would Linus do his best to antagonize the survivors if he was trying to get Jack, a noble doctor through and through, to operate on him? How many times are they going to give us the same flashback and expect us to care? Why are the scenes of Kate, Sawyer and Jack in captivity so boring instead of tense?
Hey look! They actually killed off a character people liked! (But only because he asked to be let go.)
Worst of all is the addition of two characters named Nikki and Paulo. A common complaint of the show is that we only see the actions of 15 or so survivors while the other 40 only show up when a few people need to die, but whatever the proper way to address this flaw was, Nikki and Paulo are pretty much the polar opposite. They act as though they've been a part of the action since the first episode, and their backgrounds as con-artists only stress the redundancy of character writing on Lost. The writers were at least cogent enough to understand how terrible these two were and killed them off, though even the episode that dumps them is incredibly weak because of their increased presence.
Things pick up with the post-hiatus episode "Not in Portland," as we see Juliet's flashbacks, which begin to answer questions about the Others and puts to rest the lingering questions over why they're so obsessed with taking children. Juliet's arc is one of the finest of the series so far, as it not only fleshes out her character and the Others' connection to the outside world but that there are factions of Others that don't necessarily like Ben's leadership.
There's also an interesting subplot involving Desmond, who survived the hatch explosion sans clothes and can now see visions of the future. "Flashes Before Your Eyes" sustains the momentum of "Not in Portland" as Desmond learns that Charlie will die and tries desperately to prolong the inevitable. Charlie fell victim to some truly shoddy writing in the second season, going from a noble addict who had no real reason to stay alive but was charming and interesting enough to stay to an annoying, stagnant brat whose attempts to use humor as a coping device made him seem callous and flippant. But with the knowledge of his impending death hanging over him for over half the season, we see his paranoid side as well as the kindness that won me over in the first season. His attempts to maintain a relationship with Claire just long enough to say goodbye are touching and, inverse to the previous season, some of the best character writing the show has ever offered.
Sadly, the show dips south again, with a particularly bright exception being "The Man From Tennessee," in which Locke -- having bought Ben's rhetoric since he himself has tried to stay on the island since the start -- slowly ingratiates himself with the Others and must prove himself to them. It's an instant classic that demonstrates Ben's ability to manipulate others on multiple levels so he's still pulling the strings even when they think they've figured him out, as well as Locke's growing alienation from the survivors as the prospect of rescue becomes less a pipe dream and more a solid possibility. Finally, it shows just how powerful the Others are, on or off the island, as they deliver a special surprise to Locke as a last test of loyalty.
The season does not kick into a consistently high gear, sadly, until the survivors brace for open conflict with the Others. Last season, Jack secretly asked Ana Lucia what it would take to mobilize the survivors into an army to to fight the Others, and he starts laying out plans for a war the second he returns from the Barracks. While he cannot outsmart Ben, he realized what a monster Ben really was, something that Locke hasn't yet. Indeed, as redundant as several of his flashbacks are this season, they are effective in establishing Locke as someone so desperate for love after being denied it all his life that he's one of the most gullible men on the planet. The island offers him the only spiritual connection he's ever felt in his life that's actually reciprocated, so he's more than willing to believe Ben's rants about protecting the island even as his actions solidify his own power over allying the Others and the survivors against those who might do them harm.
Jack's preparations play out in the (literally) explosive finale, "Through the Looking Glass," the best episode of the series since its pilot, if it is not the pinnacle of the first three seasons period. After a season of big questions, bigger plot holes, possible time travel and a lack of big character moments outside the flashbacks of Ben and Juliet, nothing less than a masterpiece would offer a satisfying conclusion, and that's exactly what this is. The booby-trapped beach offers some thrilling action scenes, while Charlie's dive to meet his doom is one of the most tragic moments of any show I can think, and when his efforts to break the jamming signals reveals the horrible truth of the newly arrived boat that promises rescue, Charlie must spend his final moments essentially telling Desmond that he died in vain.
This season showed the Others on the verge of splintering under Ben's leadership, and what Charlie and Desmond uncover in the Looking Glass sets up a schism between the survivors. Everything about the episode, from Charlie's death to the mini-war with the Others to the revelation that casts the imminent rescue in uncertain light to the introduction of mysteries that are genuinely intriguing, shows a level of sophistication in the writing that was all too rare this season. But the greatest aspect of the episode was the abandonment of the flashbacks in favor of flash-forwards, which show that some people indeed made it off the island, and that Jack now wants desperately to return.
Regardless of the patchy writing of the rest of the season, the acting is still top-notch from the people you'd expect: Matthew Fox maintains his ability to match Jack's firm leadership with his insecurity and his need to fix things, while O'Quinn continues to make Locke fascinating no matter how many times the writers back him into a corner. But it is Michael Emerson who completely walks away with the third season and will keep you watching even when you're tempted to stop giving the writers chances: a bug-eyed, unassuming sort of chap, his psychological warfare makes the Joker's seem like child's play. What initially seems like the odd moment of honesty and empathy is soon revealed to be yet another facet of his mind games with the survivors. Emerson makes Linus one of the most terrifying villains in TV history, and he rarely lays a hand on anyone.
All in all, the third season of Lost took all the flaws of the first two seasons and magnified them to the point that they now drowned out the positive aspects of the show. The usual unwillingness to kill major characters while Others drop by the handfuls has gotten ridiculous, and at this point there's hardly a survival element to the series at all. And the writers seem to know about these flaws, because characters will often make light of them. But Nikki and Paulo, the never-dwindling survivor count, the inanity of the love triangle, these are major issues that should be addressed instead of just accepted like nothing can be done about them.
The writers set a definite end-date for the series before the season finale, which might explain why it so effectively propelled the story forward for the first time in ages. The final few episodes -- among them "One of Us," which showed that Juliet could be as fearsome as her boss, the moving "Greatest Hits" and the Ben-centric "The Man Behind the Curtain" -- surpassed just about anything in S2 short of "Man of Science, Man of Faith" and "The 23rd Psalm." After nearly tuning out, I suddenly found myself more eager to keep going than ever. Let's hope the fourth season delivers.