Dangers! Strangers! Game changers! The Island inhabitants are in for a rough ride. Here's everything you need to know about season 4's final five episodes. Plus: Video of Doc Jensen in Ben's house and with Josh Holloway and Michael Emerson
Life on the Oahu set of Lost isn't always a day at the beach. On this sweltering March afternoon, for example, ABC's cult hit about castaways on a time-warped tropical isle has chosen to shoot in...a rock quarry. Amount of fun currently being had: Zero. The horses are jumpy from machine-gun fire. Executive producer Jack Bender is directing with an ice pack to his face after walking into a crane. And Michael Emerson — a.k.a. Benjamin Linus, the show's villainous über-Other — is broiled, thanks to his curious wardrobe requirement: a woolly winter parka.
''Definitely a no-glamour zone,'' says Emerson during a brief respite from shooting Lost's first episode since the writers' strike interrupted production last November. ''I thought we would ease into things. Instead, I get this all-Ben extravaganza: combat, riding horses, foreign languages. And piano playing! All waaaay outside my comfort zone. How can you work two weeks and feel like you need a vacation already?''
Some sympathy for Lost's biggest devil? Not a polar bear's chance in Tunisia. Besides, there's crucial work to be done. You'll start seeing it on April 24, when Lost returns with the first of five fresh episodes that will wrap up its buzzy, strike-abbreviated fourth season. EW spent three days on the set of the drama, and judging from the looks of things — like the corpse that washes up on the sandy shores of Camp Jack and the raging gunfight that will decimate Camp Locke — the first episode back, ominously titled ''The Shape of Things to Come,'' will launch the endgame with downright apocalyptic thunder. The ensuing four installments will answer some of the season's biggest questions: How did the much-vaunted Oceanic 6 leave the Island? What happened to those left behind? Why is Sayid (Naveen Andrews) killing people for Ben in the future? And who's rotting inside that darn coffin? ''It's big and epic,'' promises Matthew Fox (Jack). ''Our first eight episodes, by design, were all set up for these episodes to come. That we're doing just five instead of eight means they're even more packed with plot. It's payoff time.'' More momentously, the finale — whose Big Twist is code-named ''Frozen Donkey Wheel'' — will set the stage for another series reinvention. Citing the seventh Harry Potter book, in which J.K. Rowling broke her usual year-at-Hogwarts template, executive producer Damon Lindelof says, ''We're taking the same approach. You think the show is, 'Okay, they're on the Island, and then — whoosh — you're in the past or the future.' By the end of season 4, I think the audience is going to go, 'How can the show continue to be that?' And they are absolutely right.''
NEXT PAGE: ''I think everybody here feels that we are now a more mature show, that we are now a show for grown-ups, because we're going to see that like in life, there may not be happy endings for many of us on this Island.''
Camp Locke is actually Camp Erdman in real life, a YMCA facility on Oahu's North Shore. On this rain-splashed afternoon, a couple dozen day campers sit on the grass, waiting to watch Lost blow up one of their cabins. As the explosives get rigged, the man who plays con-artist bad boy Sawyer, Josh Holloway, gamely takes questions. One boy shares how his mother, a big Lost fan, talks about the show so incessantly that he has to cover his ears and beg her to stop. The kids laugh, and so does Holloway, but the camp counselor is embarrassed. ''Now, remember,'' she scolds. ''Respectful questions.''
The stars of Lost have heard worse, especially last year when they were put in the awkward position of answering harsh criticism about how Lost had lost its way. ''When you came out here last season, I remember I didn't talk to you,'' Andrews tells an EW writer, ''because if all you have to say is something negative, why talk at all?'' Asked where he thought season 3 went wrong, Andrews smiles. ''Well, I wasn't in it much, so that's flaw number one, without sounding ridiculously arrogant,'' laughs the actor, whose Sayid was truly underutilized. ''A lot of us didn't know which way the show was going, and I'm not sure the writers did, either. They seemed to be meandering in the dark. But it's good now. We're on track.''
So how did they find the light? By negotiating the death of Lost itself. Last May, the show's guiding hands, Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, reached a deal with ABC to end the series in 2010 after three 16-episode seasons; as a result, Lost's storytellers have been able to bring structure and focus to their saga. It began with last year's bravura finale, which brought the promise of rescue and introduced ''flash-forward'' storytelling into the mix. Fox — who was the only actor besides Evangeline Lilly (Kate) privy to the episode's it's-not-a-flashback twist — recalls barely being able to keep the secret from the rest of the cast. ''I knew it would take Lost to the next level,'' he says.
Season 4 has gone even further with new twists, new characters, and a new forward-moving, future-revealing mythology. Front and center are the Oceanic 6, a privileged clutch of castaways — Jack, Kate, Sayid, Sun (Yunjin Kim), Hurley (Jorge Garcia), and baby Aaron — who have somehow, someway escaped the Island. ''I think this flash-forward business is a stroke of genius,'' says Emerson. ''I think everybody here feels that we are now a more mature show, that we are now a show for grown-ups, because we're going to see that like in life, there may not be happy endings for many of us on this Island.''
NEXT PAGE: ''The question of 'Do you guys know where you're going?' kind of evaporated. People are no longer fearful that they're going to be led like lemmings to a cliff edge and plunge off.''
At the very least, Lost has become a show no longer dogged by skepticism that its producers lack a master plan. ''The question of 'Do you guys know where you're going?' kind of evaporated,'' says Cuse. ''People are no longer fearful that they're going to be led like lemmings to a cliff edge and plunge off.'' Nobody is more thrilled than the cast; across the board, their enthusiasm — and, in some cases, relief — is palpable. ''Now, the story carries everything and we're just players in it, which I like,'' says Holloway. ''The writers can be concise. I like that, too.'' Adds Fox: ''Our writers have always said we needed an end in order to start ripping. Now, we're ripping.''
This isn't to say that season 4 has been perfect. After hitting a high-water mark with ''The Constant,'' a deftly plotted, unabashedly romantic time-travel yarn that ended with Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) finally making contact with soul mate Penelope Widmore (Sonya Walger), Lost slowed the pace and muffed some plays. A trick ending — She's in the future! He's in the past! — to an otherwise powerful episode featuring Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) and Sun alienated some perplexed fans. And the hyped-up return of castaway traitor Michael (Harold Perrineau) defied continuity logic and generally failed to meet expectations. Still, these are minor concerns compared with past infractions such as a guest turn by Bai Ling and last year's awkward introductions of — we hesitate to even bring up their names — Nikki and Paulo.
Ironically, season 4's overall strength and sophistication may have renewed Lost's creative mojo, but it has also sealed the show's rep as an intimidating weekly TV commitment. Viewership has steadily declined throughout the season, from 17.8 million for the season 4 premiere to 13.4 for episode 8. When the show returns April 24, it will air after Grey's Anatomy, at 10 p.m., and while it may get some draft from the hospital hit, it's a less-than-McDreamy hour for a series that demands maximum alertness. But ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson says that even though he'd ''love to see the show grow...the reality is that the numbers are pretty good.'' And he's as excited as anyone about the new direction. ''Lost has established itself as one of the great shows of all time. I'm proud that by agreeing to end the show, we have freed them up to do what they want to do.''
NEXT PAGE: ''We're starting to close the loop on the end of last season. Jack in the future is a man marked by weakness, but the Jack of the present is strong. You're going to understand how he made that transition.''
And what they'll be doing is kicking things off with a meaty sweep of story. In addition to being a flash-forward adventure for globe-trotting Ben, in which his war with British billionaire Charles Widmore (Alan Dale) over control of the Island will intensify, episode 9 revisits a long-simmering subplot: Sayid's romance with Iraqi love Nadia (Andrea Gabriel). According to Lindelof, a new dimension of Smokey the monster's mercurial nature will also be revealed, per the Lost rule that ''you learn something new about the monster whenever it appears.'' And Cuse says a major story line will begin for Claire (Emilie de Ravin), Aaron's Aussie mommy, who lost boyfriend Charlie in last year's finale: ''Mysterious things are happening to Claire that set up the next few episodes — and the next few years, too.''
''The Shape of Things to Come'' will be followed by a flash-forward installment for Jack. ''We're starting to close the loop on the end of last season,'' says Fox. ''Jack in the future is a man marked by weakness, but the Jack of the present is strong. You're going to understand how he made that transition.'' The last three episodes include only one flashback, which the producers say will be a mythically significant outing for...someone. The rumor: Locke (Terry O'Quinn). Fans will also see a new Dharma station called the Orchid — all three levels of it — that might shed more light on the Island's time-warping properties. Peripheral faves like Penelope, ageless Other Richard Alpert (Nestor Carbonell), and off-Island mystery man Matthew Abaddon (Lance Reddick) will pop up. But due to the strike, two breakout freighter newbies — frazzled physicist Daniel Faraday (Jeremy Davies) and ghost-whispering hustler Miles Straume (Ken Leung) — won't be getting their spotlights until next year. The May 22 finale will complicate the Jack-Kate-Sawyer love triangle by featuring ''a spectacular kiss'' and elaborate on Jack's flash-forward ambition to journey back to the Island. ''This year's finale will sum up exactly how difficult it may be to accomplish that,'' says Lindelof, who adds this cryptic response to speculation that flash-forwards will vanish once Island present meets off-Island future: ''There could easily be a time when the word flash becomes irrelevant.''
While fans wait to see what form Lost's future takes, the cast waits to see whether they'll be part of it: Peril abounds for the castaways in the next five episodes. During EW's stay on the set, Garcia prepared for an encounter with Smokey, and Holloway was spritzed with fake sweat and a touch of blood in advance of a raging gunfight. After fishing that mystery corpse from the surf, Daniel Dae Kim addressed a reporter's question about Jin's uncertain flash-forward fate (he seemingly died in the March 13 episode) with a mock-frantic cry: ''I don't know!'' As it was at the start, Lost is once more the show where anything can happen. Drying out in the sun after scurrying away from a big wave that washed out the scene, Yunjin Kim sits in the tall grass of the beach and sums it up: ''It feels like season 1. And I love it.''