In advance of Lost's fifth season premiere on Wednesday night, I have some advice for anyone who's fuzzy on the details of this sprawling, often confusing show. Instead of searching for recaps online or trying to pull an 82-episode marathon, just watch the first few minutes of each premiere—the introductory scene through the first commercial—and you'll learn everything you need to know. Lost's producers have long said that the show is a serialized epic. As Damon Lindelof, one of Lost's two executive producers, told the Onion's A.V. Club, "The superstructure of every season is a book … and every episode is a chapter in that book." To extend Lindelof's metaphor, the first page of every book lays the groundwork for what follows.
Take, for example, Season 1's pilot, which opens on Jack Shephard lying in the middle of a jungle with cuts on his face and chest. He doesn't seem to recognize his surroundings, nor how badly he is injured. After taking a nip of alcohol, he emerges from the jungle onto the scene of a horrific plane crash. He sees people dying left and right and begins barking orders to the other survivors. Another character, Boone Carlyle, tries to perform an emergency tracheotomy with a pen—hints of the Boy Scout qualities we'll discover later. Then, right before the commercial break, the survivors hear a noise, possibly mechanic, possibly organic, coming out of the jungle. And thus, succinctly, the audience has been introduced to the first season's main characters and chief concerns.
Season 1 is principally about survival, in the most primitive sense. As Jack's injuries and the bodies scattered on the beach make clear, people will die on this show. And although Boone never again attempts emergency surgery, the season never loses the frantic and improvisational "you may just need to stab a hole in someone's neck with a pen" quality. Wild herbs must be gathered to treat asthma, makeshift amputation guillotines must be built, and babies must be delivered naturally in the middle of the jungle.
That the audience first sees Jack is no accident, since he's the one who is in charge of ensuring the survivors continue to survive. Although Lost notoriously has a crowded cast of characters, Jack becomes the focus of Season 1. And the first action he performs—taking a swig of alcohol—is a placeholder for back stories to come. Jack, we learn, clashed with his alcoholic father and now may be turning into the man he once despised. His second action—barking orders—is a quick glimpse of the rather dictatorial leadership strategy he develops as the season unfolds. It's also telling that the first sequence closes with the mysterious moaning noise—for the next 23 episodes, the survivors will fend off danger both from the aftereffects of the crash and what turns out to be a monster in the jungle.
The fact that the series' opener contains a hint of everything to come is not, in itself, surprising. To get a show greenlighted for full production, it's best to telegraph as much of the plot as possible in the pilot. But the show's writers kept the foreshadowing technique going in subsequent seasons.
At the start of the Season 2 premiere, we hear a beeping sound and watch a man with long brown hair type something into a computer prompt that looks even older than MS-DOS. The camera lingers on a close-up of a button that says "EXECUTE". Once the man presses it, the beeping stops. Then the man goes about his routine in a seemingly '70s-era apartment. He listens to a Mama Cass song, injects himself with medicine from a vial labeled "DHARMA," and rides a stationary bike. After an earthquakelike rumble, the camera winds its way up a shaft to show Jack and John Locke staring down into a hatch—the bunker discovered a few episodes earlier. The long-haired man, it turns out, isn't from the '70s—he is the answer to the cliffhanger question from Season 1: What's in the hatch?
Season 2, accordingly, is about the hatch—its contents, the survivors' interactions with it, and its history. As Desmond tells the survivors, he must press the "EXECUTE" button inside the hatch every 108 minutes to both silence that incessant beeping noise and make sure the island (and the rest of the world along with it) doesn't explode. The button will eventually exacerbate the tension between Jack, a man of science who thinks one button can't possibly control the fate of the world, and Locke, a man of faith who (mostly) believes in the button. The '70s-era furniture and music provide our first hints about the so-called Dharma Initiative— the mysterious organization that, we come to learn, built the hatch and conducted experiments on the island more than 30 years ago.
Season 3, like Season 2, opens on a new character, Juliet. She's in a suburban-looking home, making muffins in advance of a book club meeting. One of the book clubbers mentions a man named Ben, which provokes a strong reaction from Juliet. Then, an earthquake-type rumble occurs (just like in Season 2), and the book clubbers rush outside to see what's going on. They're in what looks like a Technicolor version of Leave It to Beaver's hometown. Ben, whom we've heretofore known as Henry Gale, comes out of a house, and we see him giving orders. Juliet and Ben have a tense conversation, and then the camera zooms out to show us New Otherton (the nickname for the village coined by the producers) in the context of the island.
In interviews, the producers have said Season 3 is about the Others, but it's also about how there's more to the island than we were led to believe. The final shot before the commercial break expands the audience's understanding of the island's geography. It's actually quite large, not just a speck on the map. Similarly, seeing the Others in their suburban setting clashes with the impression, formed in the first two seasons, that the Others are primitive—previously we saw them walk barefoot and wear shabby, shredded clothes. Ben, it quickly becomes apparent, is the leader of the group and a central character this season. Juliet's reaction to Ben's name and her tense conversation with him are the key to her behavior later on, when the audience is meant to question whether her allegiance lies with Jack or Ben (and by extension with the survivors or the Others).
Season 4 is the only premiere to begin with a character we already know, although that's not initially apparent. It opens with a high-speed chase: Somebody driving a Camaro is trying to outrun the police in Los Angeles. Jack watches the chase on TV and mutters, "Damn it" as he pours himself a screwdriver. When the police eventually corner the Camaro, we discover that the driver is Hurley, looking older and more ragged than he did on the island. Before the cops arrest him, he screams, "Don't you know who I am? I'm one of the Oceanic Six!"
Hurley's grizzled appearance and run from the law, plus Jack's morning drink, clue us into the essential message of Season 4: The so-called Oceanic Six were better off on the island. The fact that Hurley drives a Camaro—a car we know has sentimental value for the character—indicates that the Oceanic Six are trying, unsuccessfully, to move on by reconnecting to the past.
Of course, upon first viewing, it's impossible to know that the introductory scenes reveal the central concerns of the season to come. In fact, it's difficult to know what's going on at all since the premieres begin in medias res and the camerawork almost always hides the identity of the characters in the first few minutes. The genius of Lost is that the first few minutes set up the rest of the season not through clearly worded hints but through a barrage of questions. How did the plane crash? How are they going to survive? What is in the hatch? What's with the button? Who is this blond woman making muffins? Who's driving that car?
I suspect that the initial three or five minutes of Season 5 will, true to form, reveal the main preoccupations of the season to come—the principal characters, themes, and mysteries. Check Slate on Thursday morning for a follow-up post analyzing the premiere, complete with predictions for Season 5.