THE OCEANIC 6 are scattered all over the island, all over Membata, if viewers are to believe this is the name of the place where Oceanic Flight 815 crashed 101 days ago. The very island Locke (Terry O'Quinn) thinks he wants to move. Can move.
Every member of the elusive group of "Lost" castaways, who we already know will leave the island, is in peril. Jack, Kate, Hurley, Sun, Sayid and baby Aaron are all fighting separately to live, struggling to escape. They are nowhere near the helicopter that can fly them to the freighter in the ocean, the vessel that could save them, if there wasn't a bomb on it.
But how do they leave? When will they separate from the rest of the survivors? What price will they pay?
When the "Lost" two-hour season finale airs Thursday, it will end not just another chapter in ABC's island saga. It also will close a season of ground-breaking storytelling that has carried viewers from present and past narratives, the signature of the show, to the future -- to be colored further with flashbacks of the flash forwards -- that is, glimpses of the future that predate other future events the audience has already seen. This season, the writers filled in the blanks by showing us another snippet of the future that occurred before that moment to let viewers know that "he" is Claire's baby, Aaron.
Using the flashback technique to develop character has become so popular across the TV landscape since "Lost" premiered in 2004 that it seems likely that flashing forward in increments to drive plot will follow suit. "Lost" producers have used this device to push the story forward and to answer some of the many island mysteries that fans both love and hate.
"It's an interesting development in the story that suddenly we deal with the post-island world, but it's imperfect," said Michael Emerson, who plays Ben Linus, the master-manipulator leader of the Others, whom viewers have seen off the island as well. "It's as imperfect as the island world and the only way it can be inhabited by the Oceanic 6 is by way of the big lie. So it's a compromised world.
"And the island may be more important to the survivors when they leave it than when they stood upon it," he continued. "The island of the mind, if you will. But it's a place that has a hold over them. The island never loses its power."
EVIDENTLY, that's also the case for "Lost" viewers. The flash-forward device has energized many fans who had become disenchanted during last year, as more characters and mysteries were introduced and favorite castaways were sidelined. Averaging 14.6 million viewers, "Lost" ranks ninth among all TV series in the desirable 18- to 49-year-old demographic and has been the top-rated show in both of its time slots all season, despite being on a new night.
Viewers have responded favorably to the show's hastened narrative pace, but some have griped that, at times, piecing the timeline has been challenging. "By doing the flash-forwards, we made the audience deeply suspicious and they don't know what to believe when you want them to believe something," executive producer Carlton Cuse said, aware of the Internet chatter among Losties.
With only two hours left, the producers have much ground to cover. In the future, fans have seen Jack (Matthew Fox) and Kate (Evangeline Lilly) as a couple raising Aaron without mention of what happened to Claire (Emilie de Ravin). Hurley (Jorge Garcia) winds up in a mental hospital again; Sayid (Naveen Andrews) is working as an assassin for Ben around the globe; and Sun (Yunjin Kim) gives birth and mourns the loss of her husband, Jin (Daniel Dae Kim), even though viewers have not witnessed his death.
What fans have yet to see is what happened after last season's time-busting revelation that Jack and Kate leave the island in the future but something makes Jack want to return. On Thursday, "Lost" will take viewers to that very moment of Jack's pained "We have to go back!" and move beyond it. It also will disclose "one of the island's greatest secrets," according to Emerson.
"The finale is about the culmination of this idea that a group of people who desperately wanted to get off the island find themselves in the position of defending the island that they've been trying to leave," Cuse said.
But producers won't disclose what fans are dying to know. Many viewers, as evidenced on message boards, are convinced that next season post-island life becomes the present and the past is life on the island.
"All we can say is that it's going to be very hard to get back to the island for those guys," co-creator and executive producer Damon Lindelof said. "But life will continue for the people who are not with them. How are we going to tell that story? We're not going to tell that." In fact, Lindelof vowed during an interview that after the finale airs he and Cuse "are going into radio silence until next season."
But Emerson, talking from the Hawaii set by telephone, has a theory. "Every season, in the telling of 'Lost,' the lens pulls back another notch so that the picture gets bigger, includes more stuff, more people, more places," he said. "So I'll be curious to see what is now included when the lens jumps back another step. I think it will be more fragmented. The geography of the show as we've known it will be upset. Everybody will be in a new place."
Kim, who said there "will be casualties," took it one step further: "The finale will change the way you watch the show. It will introduce new variables that would never even be considered previously."
When viewers last saw the Oceanic 6, Jack and Sawyer (Josh Holloway) dodged the helicopter that could have rescued them to try to protect Hurley.
Hurley was hiding from the freighter folks who want to kill Ben. The Others came down the mountain and captured Kate and Sayid. Sun, Jin and Aaron were onboard the bomb-carrying freighter.
"Aw, man, the finale is crazy," Garcia said. "You will definitely see how we all end up together and back on civilization. But it's as if there is one obstacle after another in front of us and the fact that we make it off is definitely a miracle."
JUST HOW did these half a dozen plane crash survivors -- and not their counterparts -- come to be the Oceanic 6?
The producers began to make their selections in the second season but did not pick all six until after they had negotiated 2010 as an end date for the series and could plan out the rest of the stories. The first requirement was that they had to be passengers on flight Oceanic 815, which crashed on the island on Sept. 22, 2004, and not any of the other island inhabitants.
"Jack has been saying from the word go, 'I'm gonna get everybody off the island.' So we thought, 'What happens if the hero accomplishes his goal but realizes he's made a horrible mistake?' " Lindelof said. "And he would only qualify it a success if Kate were off the island as well. We also knew the baby had to be a part of it. Then we asked ourselves, 'Who are the other people who have something to go back to and what might their lives be like off the island?' "
The answer was Sayid, Sun and Hurley, but Lindelof and Cuse won't say exactly why, noting that some of their reasons are based on events in upcoming seasons that even the cast ignores at this point.
"Those choices are representations of the dramatic poles of the characters," Cuse said. "Jack is the ultimate empiricist. He's never believed in the mystery and the mythology of the island. He just wants to get the hell off this place whereas Locke has embraced the mysteries of the island. His goal is to understand what the island is about."
Nobody was more surprised to learn he was in the exclusive club than Garcia. Often, the emotional center of the show, Hurley, isn't in the middle of the action.
"I knew some people were getting off and some weren't and I assumed at the time that it was all going to be people close to the [satellite] phone," Garcia said. "But it turned out to be a bunch of us from all over the place and I thought it was cool because it became a puzzle to unravel as to how we all end up together off the island."
The only exception to the only-passengers rule is Aaron, who wasn't on the manifest because he was born on the island. That Kate is his mother off-island is one of the components of the intricate lie the Oceanic 6 weave when they reach civilization. From the beginning, viewers have wondered if Aaron is somehow at the center of the show's mythology. The producers have repeatedly said the island is not purgatory, but whether Aaron (or Locke or Ben or who knows?) is pivotal to a healing island with smoke monsters and electro-magnetic properties remains to be seen.
"It could go either way," said De Ravin, who plays Claire, who in the present could be dead or undead, depending on how you look at it. "Seeing as they've already revealed him to be with Kate, there's got to be some other twist there. He's just a little baby, so it's hard to tell if he has some crazy powers. Maybe he can see the future too."
The future doesn't look so promising for Jin, whose wife grieved by his grave in Korea. But many fans, taking a cue from his tombstone, which listed the day of the crash as the day he died, don't believe Jin is dead.
"I do like the fact that his fate is unresolved and that his life is in jeopardy," Kim said. "Now, believing that he might be dead, I'm getting a lot of people saying, 'Wow, please, don't be dead.' It's a nice sign of appreciation for a character that I haven't necessarily felt in the past."
The finale, Cuse said, will have "some spectacular romantic moments along with spectacular action moments."
"The story of the Oceanic 6 is the ultimate break-up story," Lindelof added. "That's what the finale is about -- everybody breaking up. And the show is going to have to proceed from here as to whether or not we're going to get everybody together. Who is still around to get together?"