This season has two major forces on opposite ends affecting it. The first is the writer's strike, which ended days after this aired. Originally the show had eight completed scripts, which have been filmed and presumably been in post-production since then. Now with the writers back at work, but the studios sticking to the September-May model, so "Lost" may only complete 13-14 episodes and have the season shortened from the intended sixteen. Of course that is problematic to the writers' vision of three sixteen-episode seasons. However, shortening the season (and perhaps it's end as well) has helped "Lost" tighten its focus. It's unlikely we're going to have any "Jack's wacky tattoo adventure" episodes in this bunch. In fact, this episode begins to introduce us to some of the freighter's crew (who will be referred to as "Freighties"), including some information we probably wouldn't have gotten for some time, or a centric episode devoted to one of them. In some cases, we learn something about them before they're formally introduced on island (or in Miles' case, have a line).
Daniel, who we saw in the last episode parachuting on the island in an unstable helicopter, seems to be a reference point for the audience to see their perspective. So far he's been sympathetic, but there are hints to mental problems. Naomi refers to him as a "head case". His sobbing over the news of the crash could've been sympathy, but not knowing why he was so upset is telling. Then there was the weird light scattering remark. I'm assuming that's not meant to be another part of the island mythology.
Some may pin Miles as the loose cannon that Ben and Locke fear will destroy the island. He feels about the castaways much like Team Locke feels about the freighties. He also doesn't have a great report with his crew, referring to Naomi's body as "meat". However, he could easily sway the other direction. Also, Ken Leung's performance keeps him from being annoying, which could've easily happened with this character.
There is something to him keeping the drug money, but despite that, he seems to be a genuine medium. Some may bemoan another supernatural element added to the show, but considering psychics and elements of dead characters appearing to others, it isn't that hard to believe.
Charlotte, whose character name references C.S. Lewis, was noteworthy last summer as the role Kristen Bell turned down to play Elle on "Heroes" (a decision, considering "Heroes" meandering second season, she's probably regretted). It adds a bit when looking at how Rebecca Mader plays her. Had Kristen Bell picked "Lost", we (or at least those who've seen "Veronica Mars") would probably sympathize with her more. Charlotte shows more duality than the other freighties. In her flashbacks she's rude, but cunning when it comes to getting the information she needs. Now she plays naïve and sweet towards the survivors. I could see Bell pulling this off, as Elle has similar drives.
Frank's motivation for being part of the mission is the only explainable one in this episode: he was originally the pilot for 815, but was bumped for the man the monster killed in the first episode. Some, citing the growing conspiracy angle in the crash, believe Frank was pulled because he was a better pilot, and could've avoided the crash altogether. Then we learn that Frank's memorized the manifest of all 324 names and his interest turns to obsession. Jeff Fahey is the only freighty not in the main cast, so one has to wonder if he'll be killed soon.
This episode hints at Abbadon's motivation for visiting Hurley in the institution; he recruited the freighties on their mission to retrieve Ben. Maybe his encounter with Hurley was to make sure he stayed quiet, or maybe he turned against his people in hopes of finding the truth. I doubt he's the monster as some theorized using slow motion video. Like many questions, this is for another episode.
Another question is Abbadon's choice of this strange group to recover Ben. Why send a bunch of non professionals to a dangerous island (the irony of course being the professional was the first killed)? The answer may point to their talents and how they relate to island phenomena. Frank may have been chosen because of his piloting skill and his knowledge of what really happened to 815 possibly jeopardizing the conspiracy.
Perhaps this was a plot hole, error in writing or the writers acknowledging the freighties' knowledge of 815 as it ties to the island, but why does Naomi ask Abbadon what to do if they encounter the survivors when there's no clear connection between the two to those unaware? Abbadon seems adamant about there being no survivors, yet when questioned, Miles sarcastically feigns surprise that 815 had survivors. Obviously there's more to this mystery.
Upon their arrival, the initial relief among Kate and Jack give way to feelings of mistrust. While Daniel's initially friendly, there's an uncomfortable amount of secrecy between them, which is made worse by seeing the gun he has on him, the private phone call and the gas masks. Knowing they were after Ben and presumably his action in the purge, their tactics makes sense. It also makes sense considering what happened to Naomi. It could've easily been Locke's killing of her is the turning point that makes the freighties do whatever bad things that haunt Jack and Hurley in the future, but as many first guesses go, there was more to it.
Jacob's cabin receives a nice follow up, with Locke and Ben learning of Hurley's discovery. Their reactions were very different. Locke sees it much like he would have in the first season, as a proud moment where someone else has a close connection to the island. Ben likely sees it as another threat.
One has to give credit to Michael Emerson. Not only is he one of Lost's consistently excellent players, but recently his character has been beaten up so badly I'm surprised his jaw isn't total mush (island healing must take more pity on that than his tumor). As Locke says, his biggest weapon now is his mouth, but even now we see what that can do, as he riles up Karl, Sawyer and Locke in this episode. Like I mentioned in the premiere review, Ben is constantly plotting to get the upper hand, even when that seems impossible.
The big twist at the end reveals just why Ben was so worried about these people coming: they're after him. It appears that some off the island outside of The Others are aware of who they are and their operation on the island. This could point to some post-Dharma group. It would make sense that Dharma off island would become aware of the purge. Maybe they regard Ben as a terrorist for his actions. Now whether they want him simply to know who his inside man is or for something more is yet to be tackled.
The first choice of the inside man is of course Michael. In season two Ben agreed to let Michael and Walt go off on their boat, but throughout season three they continually mentioned Ben not wanting anyone to leave the island. So why let Michael go, even with a kid with psychic abilities too powerful for The Others to contain? The producers have said that Michael's story isn't finished and with Harold Perrinau back in the cast, that would be a good way to reintroduce him.
This episode effectively sets up major conflict between Teams Jack and Locke. Team Locke has two things Jack wants. While they may not want to do Charlotte harm (besides Ben), she's in a way their hostage. With her, in addition to Ben, around, they have certain leverage should the freighties become hostile.
The excavation of the polar bear remains is a huge curveball. Since their first appearance, it's been explained that the polar bears were brought by Dharma to Hydra Island, where they eventually escaped (likely during the purge) and swam to the main island. Having one wind up in Africa is a completely different thing altogether. One interesting theory involves the hatch implosion scattering everything around it through wormholes. Maybe two bears were there, explaining how Eko was prisoner of one in "Further Instructions". It also could explain why that giant metal ball that used to be The Swan wasn't in the hole.
Although still in the introductory phase, the season's direction comes off as more confident and less stalling for time than before. In previous seasons, it's unlikely we would've learned much about the freighties until possibly six episodes in or more. With the shortened season and the writers' ability to figure what plot points to hit and when better, this episode maintains the confidence of the premiere as the season takes shape. As a result, this introduction is the best since the first season.