Considering that all three previous seasons have been focused on Jack, it's somewhat surprising that Season 4 isn't centered around him. But then again, we're doing flashforwards now, and we know what Jack's future holds, so maybe there's some logic to in. (And it's not like this episode gives us nothing. In the opening teaser, we see Jack watching the news before going out. He has orange juice and spikes it with vodka. When he learns a minute before us whose involved in the high speed car chase that he's hearing about, he says: "Damn." Somehow, it doesn't sound like the voice of a concerned friend.)
But even if the episode didn't focus on Jack, Hurley would not seem like the obvious choice for a follow up. But the writers again know exactly what they're doing. On the island, Hurley has taken on the role of everyman, but as the series has unfolded, his role seems to be more critical. The numbers that led him to Australia in the first place seemed meaningless--- until we saw that they were on the hatch door and were the numbers we entered prior to pushing the button. There was talk that everything that happened on this island might have been a hallucination until 'Dave' in Season 2, which would seem to have repudiated that idea. The VW van that he ended up repairing in Season 3's 'Tricia Tanaka is Dead' seemed to be something of a throwaway, but as we just saw, Hurley used the van to take care of the Others and emerge a hero. Add to this the fact that Hurley was closest to Charlie of everything else on the island, it makes a certain amount of sense that we focus on him.
It is therefore somewhat sad when we the teaser ends and we see the man that has led LAPD through a high speed chase is Hurley, and the first words out of his mouth are "I'm one of the Oceanic 6!" (It's also a little hard to believe that Hurley's behavior was, by itself, enough to merit all the attention. Maybe there are answers we don't see.) Hurley then goes from the police to the mental institution again, convinced that he has gone crazy because he has seen Charlie again.
But then maybe Hurley was always prepared for this. In the opening minutes, he feels free for the first time on this series. His money is gone, he's saved the day, Charlie's alive. So--- he does a cannonball right into the ocean. The expression on his face is one of pure joy, and it takes us a moment to place it because--- well, no one's ever really looked happy on this island. And the minute he emerges from the sea, everything goes straight to hell. Charlie is dead, the people on the freighter aren't there to save them, there's just more madness ahead. It's probably the most gut wrenching moment so far.
Then we get signs that there's more to Hurley than meets the eye again. The people on the beach go to meet up with Jack, and as they hike through the woods, Hurley gets separated, and while he's away from them, he sees the cabin. He walks right up to it, understandably puzzled and sees everything Locke saw. Only this time, there's someone visible in the rocking chair, and though he doesn't know it, it's Christian Shephard. He sees something in the cabin, and runs screaming--- but he can't get away from it for some reason. In the flashforward, he has a bizarre encounter with Charlie, who seems to be telling him that he needs to go back to the island. We're still not sure why Hurley is seeing him, but this is the first of many dead people he will see in the second half of the series. Is it possible Hurley has a far greater connection to this island than even he know? That's one of the questions the series has to answer as it closes in on the end.
As fascinating as this, there's more going on than just Hurley. When we left our friends at the radio tower, Jack had just made contact. Now Locke has disappeared into the underbrush, bad enough, but a few moments later Naomi, who we're pretty sure got killed, manages to stagger off into the jungle. Then it seems that Naomi has left behind a dummy trail, but Jack, continuing his path of denial, refuses to admit that this is a possibility. And once again demonstrating that she'll never be able to listen to him, Kate goes into the jungle after her, and takes the SAT phone with her. It's very telling that even though Jack has just led his people to what seems to be certain rescue, she still doesn't have faith that he's making the right choice. Eventually, the two groups end up meeting, and Locke reemerges.. Quite frankly, no one's happy to see him. But now Jack's rage again Locke goes to a whole new level. They've always been violent, but now Jack completely snaps, grabbing Locke's gun, and pulling the trigger---- only to find it's empty. Suddenly, it's a whole new ballgame. Locke may be a cold-blooded killer, but the only reason Jack isn't was is because there were no bullets left.
All through his leadership, Jack has refused to accept that the island is anything other than an island. When the hatch was discovered, he refused to see pushing the button as anything other than an exercise--- he was wrong. He spent a good part of the first two seasons trying to defend the survivors against the Others, then in Season 3, he made a Faustian deal with Ben to get off the island--- Locke may have thwarted this attempt to escape, but he was wrong to trust Ben. And right now, it seems absurd to believe that the people on the freighter are anything other than their salvation. But given what we saw Charlie do in his last moments, there's a very good chance that's he wrong again. And now he refuses to believe that in extremis Naomi would do anything other than leave a false trail---- wrong again. Jack refuses to accept anything he can't understand, so Locke's idea that the island is so much more than an island repulses him. The irony is, we've seen Jack's future, and he now seems to have completely come around to Locke's point of view. We just don't know why yet.
When the group reunites not far from the fuselage of the plane crash, Locke makes his case, and tells the people they have to find rescue, and that he's taking them back into the lion's den--- the barracks where the Others had holed up in Season 3. When he makes his pitch, Hurley then tells his reasons for going with Locke, and a real divide emerges. Claire and Aaron join them (she believes in Charlie) Rousseau, Alex and Karl follow (well, they have no reason to leave the island). Then Ben says he wants to with Locke (even though, theoretically he shouldn't have a choice, but then again, Jack wants to deal with him even less than Locke) The biggest shocker is Sawyer. Considering all the effort that eh put into this (and that he tried so hard to get off the island in Season 1), it's kind of astounding, but then again considering what we saw of him in the last couple of episodes, maybe Sawyer doesn't think there's anything out there worth it for him anymore.
Equally surprising is who goes with Jack and Kate. Rose, who said she'd never leave the island, elects to go with Jack because Locke is a murderer. Bernard goes with her, so do Jin, Sun, and Sayid. But the most telling person is Desmond. He got the message from Charlie that Penny was not on the freighter, and yet he elects to go with them. Why? Probably for the same reason, Juliet goes with them--- she's been on this island far longer than she wanted to be, and right now, any escape looks good to her.
We don't know yet what's going to happen, but it's pretty clear that it will be epic. And yet, in the final flash Hurley apologizes to Jack for electing to go with Locke. What happened in between? And what kind of story are the Oceanic 6 telling to the rest of the world? Hurley is interviewed by Mike, the cop we saw Ana Lucia partnered with in her flashbacks. He asks about Ana when he's interrogating her, and Hurley simply says he doesn't know her. What kind of facade are they putting up? And why is it serious enough for Jack to be worried? There are also a buttload more questions--- who is this Matthew Abaddon who comes to ask ever Hurley when he's institutionalized? Who are the other members of the Oceanic 6? And who is that mysterious man who jumps out of a helicopter onto the island asking for Jack?
'The Beginning of the End' is both literally and figuratively an accurate title for this episode. If nothing else, it will be the beginning of the real brilliance of Jorge Garcia as an actor, as Hurley will be taken to his limits as a man. But for some of the characters on the island, this isn't even the beginning of the end, but really the end of the beginning.
My score: 9