It’s not easy being a television show in 2008. Just ask Lost. After last year’s scattershot third season, critics and fans exhaled when its redemptive flash-forwarding finale seemed to be exactly the paradigm shift the show required. Suddenly, Lost was as exciting as ever. With an explicit narrative arc, the series felt invigorated and refocused.

And then, before you could say “Mittelos Industries,” in storms a writers’ strike and indefinite hiatus. We waited. Our nails bitten to the quick, we waited — through the network’s tedious pop-up style reruns, fans’ endless theorizing, and the announcement of a truncated season — we waited. When at last the clouds parted and the fourth season re-launched in April, our patience was indeed rewarded. Under the least desirable of circumstances, Lost has managed to pull off one of its very best seasons to date.

No one is as shocked as I am. Readers (and flamers) of my Lost chronicles will recall my waning satisfaction, increasing frustration, and sense of having been fucked with. While I still maintain that this season commenced with a lurch, I’m pleased to report that it closed out plain better than ever.

Much credit is due to the series’ new connect-the-dots structure, which not only complements Lost‘s circuitous mythology, but adds flourishes of dramatic irony to otherwise rote sequences. A perfect example of this was the season opener’s revealing of “The Oceanic Six,” the public moniker given to the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815. Though it took over half a season of flash-forwards to discern who these survivors were, the tension that “future” information created provided an unprecedented adrenalin rush when action unfolded in “present” time on the island. By replacing the question of what will happen, to how will it happen and to whom, each exchange became more compelling and worth the kind of scrutiny the series so infamously demands. This new storytelling device saved Lost from the hype machine doldrums, and from infinitely extending the litany of already exhausted-by-blogging possible outcomes.

Take Sayid’s (Naveen Andrews) transformation this season. In last year’s finale, we saw him, in his usual utilitarian garb, taking out various Others with his neck-snapping version of the helicopter — cool, for sure, but somehow expected from a highly skilled military man with little left to lose. Yet, in this season’s “The Economist,” we flash-forward to find a version of Sayid worthy of a spy novel. Hair straightened, he’s sipped coffees in Europe, seduced elegant women, and worked as an assassin for the Others’ head-honcho Ben (Michael Emerson). The pleasure of this turn was two-fold. Not only was it fun to see Sayid become a trigger-happy turncoat widower, but it was also grand to conjecture how he got there, as false leads were delivered regularly.

In a series notorious for all manner of ridiculous red herrings, each episode now includes a certain element of camp. Or, there would be, if the acting weren’t so darn good. Matthew Fox’s portrayal of Jack Shephard, ostensibly the super-flawed hero, has reached a level of consistency and nuance that rivals live theatre. Consider his performance when Jack learned from Carole (Susan Duerden) that fellow 815 survivor Claire (Emile de Ravin) is his half-sister. As we watched him absorb his revised family history (a fact that we’ve suspected/known for two years), in an admittedly typical long-lost sibling soap opera plot move, his hand reached for his crumbling face — silent and awash with pain, fear, and disbelief.

Or, consider his entirely unsympathetic, but wholly believable, reaction to Sun’s (Yunjun Kim) grief after watching her husband (Daniel Dae Kim) die on an exploding freighter. In the wake of her writhing frame and guttural screams — again, top-notch acting — the only bedside manner Jack could muster is a dismissive, if not annoyed, “He’s gone.”

Perhaps all this emoting (or not) reveals the benefit of Lost‘s first two years of character-building flashbacks, as it gave both the actors and the audience something to hold on to when the show was at its most far-fetched. Surely the time Ben spent captive in the hatch in Season Two, tied in a battle of wits with John Locke (Terry O’Quinn), punctuated his new role as Locke’s mentor. During this season’s finale, his straight-faced response to Locke’s probing as to the aim of Dharma Initiative’s research in The Orchid station, included, “If you mean time-traveling bunnies, then yes.”

This would have been otherwise preposterous if the two men hadn’t spent so long in mortal danger — or if the next scene hadn’t included Ben’s journey into a frozen basement to turn a giant donkey wheel that magically relocated the island. Silliness aside, Ben and Locke’s ongoing entanglement features gravity and complexity. The finale’s climax certainly suggested that Locke will now assume Ben’s role as leader of the Others, and perhaps their mutual patricidal transgressions will bond them in ways as yet unknown. But with Ben unable to return to the island, I have to say I’ll miss his bitchy exasperation with Locke.

No discussion of Season Four would be complete without mention of Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) and Penny (Sonya Walger). After Desmond showed that Lost can still eke out a stand-alone episode with “The Constant,” his and Penny’s cross-class romance seemed milked for all of its potential pathos. And then, in a feat that should rank with the appearance of the Hillbilly pirates in Season One’s finale, Penny’s boat, the Searcher, arrived in time to pick up the Oceanic Six (plus two), doomed and adrift in a flimsy rescue raft. A deus ex machina if ever there was one, it still made sense in the show’s exacting temporal framework. The Searcher’s rescue was about as far flung as everything else on Lost, but no less effective at jerking tears.

It’s surprising that Lost remains lauded for its density, literacy, and production values, when, increasingly, it is propelled by its characters’ emotional lives. When, early this season, the show finally answered the longstanding question — “What’s the smoke monster?” — Ben’s pithy “So?” was immensely satisfying, especially given all the turmoil he’s been through. Lost excels when it backs its characters into emotional corners. While Desmond and Penny’s unlikely reunion seemed saccharine to some, in a world where the dead roam freely and the worst lies are the ones we tell ourselves, at least they got a happy ending for now.

RATING 8 / 10