Had the strike gone on longer than it did, this would've had to suffice for the season finale. Thank God it was resolved, because most of the fandom would probably contemplate going into a coma to alleviate the wait. It would've been bittersweet for a season that hit so many high marks to end prematurely. In addition, "Lost" didn't rework its season to give the viewers closure as "Heroes" did (although "Heroes" had a far less satisfying season), assuming they couldn't produce more episodes within the standard TV season. With six more episodes being produced, this unbelievably satisfying and entertaining season can get a proper resolution.
Lindelof & Cuse compared this episode's ending to when Ana-Lucia and Libby were shot, which is appropriate. The season is about to shift, rather than close. Had they rewritten this to accommodate a longer strike, they might've revealed more about the freighties and how the Oceanic Six got off the island, but it would've been premature. Instead, the episode delves into what happened to Michael after he sailed off the island in the second season finale while showing a glimpse of who the freighties are.
Of course, Michael being Ben's inside man was the worst kept secret in "Lost" history, a product of the producers knowing there was no way to keep it a secret ("24" and "Prison Break" did similar press with returning cast members). Considering his character, it makes sense for him to return. Michael's major fault he's trying to atone for, unlike his fellow castaways, happened after the crash. Yes he wasn't a part of Walt's life until after Walt's mother died, but taking two lives to get him back from the Others trumps anything else. With most of the cast trying to find redemption, Michael's story wasn't done yet. Also, the unanswered questions with Walt are too big to go unanswered.
So we see a brief glimpse of his life post-island (although no shot involving how he got back) and it isn't pretty. He's in a funk similar to Jack in his flash forwards. He's drowning in guilt and it's estranged him from Walt, now living with his grandmother in secret. He lost everything he cared about and attempts suicide several times, but ironically sees redemption in The Others when Tom recruits him to be Ben's inside man.
Tom's line that the island won't let Michael kill himself has generated some controversy, but it isn't as corny as it might've sounded. Consider Locke suddenly losing control of his legs in "Deus Ex Machina", which saved his life as well as Desmond's since Locke's frustration gave Desmond hope when he contemplated suicide. In that same category could be Jack's suicide attempt in "Through the Looking Glass", where a car crash literally pulled Jack from the ledge. Some have theorized the island orchestrated those things to keep key players around, so it's hardly a whipped up concept.
With the episode devoted to what happened to Michael during the third season, many must've expected some bigger reveals regarding the freighties, who Michael infiltrated as the eponymous Johnson, but really this episode is about setting up Michael's possible redemptive arc. While Michael is haunted by his past, he sees stopping sadists with no consciences as a way to redeem himself.
This connects to Ben's conversation about Michael sparing the "innocent" on the freighter. While anything Ben says should be examined with heavy skepticism, this claim isn't that off. Daniel, Frank and Minkowski (before he got sick) are all friendly, whereas several crew members kill time by shooting at plates with machine guns that could liquefy someone, blowing off questions about rescue. Assuming Ben is manipulating Michael and he doesn't care if there are "innocent" people on the freighter, why would he give them more time to get the message that would lead them to the island? It's also worth noting that of the dead on the freighter, none died because of anything Michael did as far as we know.
Tom's "evidence" that the plane crash was staged adds another layer to the differing stories to who was behind the Flight 815 cover up. Since Tom has receipts and photos, it's the most convincing so far. However, it's worth wondering how The Others found out about this expedition and in such a short time. Since the two sources of information are The Others and Widmore, neither should be considered a legitimate source yet, but some connection is there.
After teasing the reveal of the gay cast member and hinting at it well over a season ago, it turns out it was Tom. One of the things I like most about this reveal is that they don't make a big deal about it (although I'm sure homophobic groups will make it sound like they were in your face). Like many shows that excel in having a diverse cast, it is about the characters over their ethnicity, gender or sexual preference.
Since her sudden death late in season two, Libby has been a major mystery. She never had a proper flashback episode to illustrate her backstory. All we know is at one point she was a patient at Hurley's hospital when he was and gave Desmond the boat he shipwrecked on the island. While her return might've offered huge reveals, instead it teases and leaves plenty of room for interpretation. For some reason (likely them not getting Michelle Rodriguez to fly in for a cameo), her death weighs heavier on him than Ana-Lucia. When he's ready to blow up the freighter, Libby's ghost discourages him from doing so, accompanied by off-island whispers. Some theorized that Libby was an insider among the castaways, but for who varies by who is speculating. Whatever it is, it may be theorized she worked for Widmore or someone else opposing Ben.
One thing worth exploring was how Michael and Walt assimilated in Manhattan. Going in, it wouldn't be off to assume that they were picked up by the freighter people and he made up a bogus story per Ben's orders. The "cabin fever" that provoked Regina to kill herself could've been the result of Walt and his abilities, recalling "It's a Good Life". However, that blank is not filled. Michael must've lived somewhere where they don't ask questions, because the media, family and friends of the castaways and especially Widmore would want to learn what Michael knows and it's unlikely he'd be allowed to move back into his old apartment. Maybe that's nitpicking, but it's a major missing piece in the story that may lack a logical explanation.
Another controversial element in the episode is the timeline of Michael's flashbacks. Michael left the island around Day 67. So in roughly two weeks (considering when Tom was on island last season), he managed to return to the mainland, heal from his gunshot wound and later suicide attempt and get on the freighter. It seems like the writers have taken a page from "24" regarding time compression.
Sayid ratting Michael out makes total sense. Of the castaways, Sayid perhaps is the most skeptical of Ben's motives. In addition, it's coming from Michael, who nobody trusts because of his betrayal. It discredits the suspicion in Sayid's mind that the captain is a threat as well. With what we know of the Oceanic Six, it's safe to assume turning him in is a terrible mistake. Some viewers were expecting Gault to explain that he knew all along that Michael was a spy and that was part of the plan or he was one as well, but no such luck.
One interesting piece was that The Temple appears to be another Dharma Station (bringing the total to nine, not including The Orchid) and not something connected to the ruins we saw in "Live Together, Die Alone" and "The Brig". The Others' appropriation of Dharma technology and facilities was an interesting part of the third season and as more is revealed. How this place is a special sanctuary above the other stations and locations on the island is wide open for discussion.
Considering Ben's talent at manipulation, it wouldn't be a far off guess to believe that he knowingly sent Rousseau and Karl to be killed to prove a point to Alex. His possessiveness was evident when he sent Goodwin to die two episodes ago. However, how he could pull that off is a point of contention. The Others at The Temple do not have the muscle.
While Karl is likely dead, the same may not apply to Rousseau. Although we know many of the broad strokes of her story, a flashback episode detailing how she managed to survive on the island for 16 years before the crash could illuminate a lot. Some fans would likely find it hard to forgive the writers for promising a Rousseau episode and killing her off before that happened. This may be more wishful thinking since Rousseau's arc was essentially completed when she reunited with her daughter, and most of her backstory has been told through exposition rather than scenes.
This episode does a good job of transitioning us from the first half of the season, filling in some blanks regarding a long missing character. While major reveals weren't there as some may have expected, the season is moving beyond its introductory phase and things are about to get even more interesting as the war starts.