EW paid a visit to the Island to get exclusive scoop on what the final season is all about -- and how it may end

By Jeff Jensen and Dan Snierson
Updated February 19, 2010 at 05:00 AM EST

Halloween doesn’t technically begin for a few hours, but here on the set of Lost, the horror show is under way. ”Take cover!” yells a voice. ”He’s coming!” He is the Smoke Monster — a.k.a. the Man in Black, a.k.a. the Thing That Looks Like Locke — and right now, he is wreaking hellacious havoc. There is fire. There is blood. There is a man flying through the air, and not by choice. After the Smokey clears, some familiar faces dare to emerge. Sayid (Naveen Andrews) treks through the gruesome aftermath, not uttering a word. And there’s Claire (Emilie de Ravin), trailing behind in a trancelike state. Is she…singing?

During a break, de Ravin — absent from the show since season 4 — cryptically comments on her wild-woman-of-the-jungle makeover: ”It’s definitely not the clean Claire we know. I’m very filthy. Got my squirrel wig on.” As the crew prepares for the next shot, Evangeline Lilly, also smeared with dirt, wanders over to survey the scene. She sums it all up with a nod: ”There’s some weird s— going on.”

Doesn’t take a quantum physicist to figure that out. This is Lost, after all — ABC’s six-season saga about a group of plane-crash survivors on a remote tropical island, where cultish locals/secret hatches/teleporting polar bears are the norm, and easy answers are the exception. But as the intricate, intoxicating, and occasionally infuriating drama stands 13 episodes from the finish line, one thing is clear: Executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof aren’t playing it safe. Not even close.

While the producers have begun the process of resolving some of the show’s biggest mysteries (What is the monster? What do the Numbers mean?), they’ve also dropped a provocative parallel-universe paradigm in our laps. In the first reality, the time-tripping castaways find themselves on the Island in 2007, failed in their 1977 bid to rewrite history. As Sawyer (Josh Holloway) grieves the death of his beloved Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell), Jack (Matthew Fox) and friends are in protective custody at a mystical temple, where definitely-dead Sayid has been resurrected, possibly with a corrupted soul. (”He’s saying, ‘I’m not a zombie,”’ notes Andrews, ”yet something has happened.”) In the second timeline, dubbed the ”Sideways” world, the Island has sunk, and the castaways are living out curiously altered lives in 2004, as if Oceanic 815 had landed safely in L.A. As soon as Stephen Hawking returns our phone calls, we’ll try to explain more.

Lost fans — an alternately demanding and accepting lot — have greeted season 6’s first few episodes with ooohs, ahhhs, and a few harrumphs. Ratings have been healthy; the Feb. 2 premiere grabbed 12.1 million viewers, up 6 percent from last year’s debut. But as loyalists and armchair theorists whip each other into a frenzy, jonesing for a weekly succession of big! shocking! revelations, Cuse and Lindelof admit that they’re feeling megatons of pressure. It can be seen in their calls for expectation management, or even in a Twitter feed. On the night of this season’s so-so second episode, Lindelof tweeted his followers: ”For those of you complaining of ‘filler.’ Seriously. PLEASE WATCH NCIS: LOS ANGELES. I promise not to hold it against you.” (Asked about the tweet, Lindelof says, ”I have to be better about not being reactive that way.”) ”I certainly was not prepared for the level of scrutiny that the show is being held to this season,” says Cuse. ”It’s like if you actually had to have your Christmas televised as the Super Bowl halftime show, and America was going to watch what you bought for your family as presents and then pass judgment on them.”

All the tension boils down to this one overarching question: Can the Lost enterprise boldly go where few mystery dramas have gone before — Satisfactory Resolutionville? Obviously we won’t divine that answer until finale night on May 23. And as much as fans want to be gobsmacked every single week, Lindelof and Cuse say that, like it or not, they have chosen to make season 6 a deliberately mounting saga; each episode is an important chapter, but some are more monumental than others. What lies ahead? Coming off Feb. 16’s meaty mythological extravaganza and poignant Sideways-world story featuring John Locke (Terry O’Quinn), Lost will un-leash a succession of episodes that further illuminate Island mysteries, bring back more old favorites — including Michael (Harold Perrineau), Libby (Cynthia Watros), and, as EW has learned, Shannon (Maggie Grace) — and set the stage for the first major battle in the epic standoff between good and evil. At the center of it all is a metaphysical melee between two rival supernatural entities: the seemingly idealistic Jacob (Mark Pellegrino), and the seemingly sinister Man in Black (Titus Welliver). ”The stakes are rising,” warns Lilly. ”We’re building to a situation where we have two camps of people pitted against each other…. The season 6 finale is not just a big Brady Bunch party where we all have cupcakes and enjoy ourselves. Not gonna be like that.”

Jack Shephard has a secret, and he’s about to spill it. It’s a humid morning on the courtyard set of the Temple, a patch of dirt sandwiched between two soundstages on the Oahu Lost lot. Fox’s Jack sits with Andrews’ Sayid and discusses his Iraqi friend’s allegedly ”infected” soul and decides to reveal something to Sayid, something with grave consequences. Afterward, Fox kicks back in the shade and relishes the moment for his often-in-the-dark character. ”You’ve happened upon a scene where Jack actually knows something another character doesn’t,” says the actor, who’s sitting on the steps of his trailer, sporting a faux head wound. He adds: ”[The season] has so far surpassed whatever my imagination could have dreamed. I feel really fortunate to have been a part of this series. It’s going to go down as one of the all-time greats.”

When Cuse and Lindelof originally began planning the final season, they looked at two possible scenarios: telling a story about a profoundly tweaked Lost timeline off the Island, or one in which the characters’ attempt to rewrite history didn’t work. Epiphany: Why not do both? ”We thought just doing one would not inherently be satisfying,” says Cuse. ”We’ve designed each season to be its own thing. This season is about parallel timelines. The thing that was appealing to us as storytellers is that in hitting that reset button, we get to make the show really feel like season 1. We’re basically getting to tell origins for the characters all over again.”

The actors who’ve been embodying those characters for five seasons were intrigued by the opportunity to play déjà-new, though they were still trying to wrap their brains around the implications when EW visited the set last October. ”It completely shatters your concept of time and reality,” says Fox. ”[Jack] doesn’t have any recollection of any other version of reality. And yet there’s something inside of him that feels slightly off balance and confused by the whole thing.” Lilly, who suggests that the Sideways conceit hinges on reincarnation mysticism, believes that Kate ”has those [castaway] years under her belt somewhere deep within her soul memory. She just doesn’t consciously remember them.”

Leave it to Island bluff-master Ben to offer the most alluring analysis of this season’s trippy story. ”What if you saw what the show meant, but couldn’t recognize it?” says Michael Emerson, who nabbed a best-supporting-actor Emmy last September. At the same time, Emerson also gave voice to what many in the Lost audience were likely thinking after watching the premiere. ”Like the viewers who saw the finale of season 5, I thought, ‘As soon as we come back, there’s going to be some great revelation about what all has changed,”’ he says. ”It’s full of amazing events and crazy-good scenes. But I can’t put it all together from where I’m at right now.” For those who share Emerson’s view — but perhaps feel more anxiety about it — remember: We’re only four hours into this 18-hour season. And in case you hadn’t noticed, Lost seasons tend to end with a wow, not an ow. ”All we can say is, Be patient,” says Lindelof. ”You’ve come with us this far. Maybe we haven’t earned your trust, but whether you like it or not, you’re in the car and we’re driving. You have to basically trust us not to go off the road.” Adds Cuse: ”If you’re feeling sick, roll the window down and throw up. But don’t get out of the car.”

Fortunately, the next leg of the trip looks promising. The Feb. 23 episode, called ”Lighthouse,” offers a peek at another new Island setting essential to the mythology, and provides more information — and a different perspective — on last week’s revelations about the Numbers and why Jacob has been meddling in castaway lives. It also showcases Jack, who seems to be regaining his magnetic-hero mojo from season 1 after several years of edgy inner turmoil. ”It has not been an easy journey to play,” says Fox, who believes that Jack is on the road to redemption. ”I can’t imagine after the struggle that the man has been through all this time that there won’t be some real catharsis for him at the end of this story.” A chuckle. ”But, you know, I’m also working with guys that in the initial versions of the [pilot] script killed him in the second act, so…we’ll see.”

The next set of episodes will also reintroduce fans to Jack’s Aussie half sister, Claire. Gone is the peanut-butter-loving sweetie who disappeared into the jungle with the ghost of her father, Christian Shephard (John Terry). In her place is a slightly psycho survivalist, à la the dearly departed Rousseau. Lindelof offers this ominous tease: ”It’s going to be very interesting to see how Claire answers the question ‘What happened to you?”’ As for de Ravin, she spent her time away from Lost shooting movies (including Public Enemies) and, well, not watching Lost. But with good reason: ”Claire is so clueless about so much of the happenings on the Island that I feel like if I did really know everything, it would probably play a little differently.”

Lost will complete the first act of its three-act season with a Sayid-centric episode on March 2. If you have concerns about the Temple and sitting through another castaways-held-captive story line (call your angst Hydra-Station Heebie-jeebies), you should know that Lost will shift its focus away from the polarizing pyramid during the season’s second act, which will find the 815ers each trying to decide if they should trust Smokey/Locke and join him in his quest to leave the Island. But don’t just assume that white equals good and black (smoke) equals evil. ”Our focus is on that battle as it exists within each character,” says Cuse. ”That is one of the compelling things that will engage the audience over the middle of the season. Who is good? Who is evil? And how do our characters line up? And did they make the right choice? Do they change sides again?”

Hey, since we’re asking questions, here’s a good one: Will Lost ultimately answer all of them? Lindelof and Cuse are wary of disclosing how many mythological mysteries they’ll resolve, though to be fair, they have cleared up several so far. While the producers are sympathetic to those who’ve entered the final season clutching a yellowing checklist of questions, they feel obligated only to resolve the ones that concern their characters or service the season 6 story. Mystery of ageless Richard Alpert? Ye shall be addressed. Mystery of Black Rock? Aye, aye, captain. Mystery of the Pearl Station notebooks? Ummm, enjoy eternal ambiguity. And that should be okay, argues Lindelof, who thinks some things are better left unexplained. ”I would much rather go through the rest of my life under the misapprehension that David Blaine can actually levitate,” he says. ”It’s just more fun, isn’t it?”

In addition to brain benders, there are matters of the heart to attend to, like that long-awaited reunion between Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) and Sun (Yunjin Kim), who returned to the Island to find her husband. ”I’m sure it’s going to happen this season, I just don’t know when,” says Yunjin Kim. ”Whether it’s going to be a happy one, or whether it’s going to be a little too late, we will see.” The Jack-Kate-Sawyer love triangle will remain relevant, but given the split-world story lines, it might not end with a conventional choice — which is cool with Lilly. ”At certain points in Kate’s arc it was so prominent that it felt like it defined her, and that frustrated me because I know that she is a woman of substance and there is a lot more going on in her head than just eeny meeny miney moe,” she says. ”So I am hoping she will start moving into her own mission and step away from trotting along behind Jack, either trying to help him or trying to hinder him from his goals.”

The goal for the actors, meanwhile, is to finish up strong. Shooting will wrap in mid-April, which means it’s time to start getting sentimental. Right? ”It’s still not something we’re talking about too much,” says O’Quinn. ”We’re just going to get a little giddier and a little sillier; then things are going to feel and seem a little different looking out the side of our eyes. But until the moment is nigh, we just won’t address it. I think it’s too big.” Offers Garcia: ”I don’t think it’s going to get sad until pretty much the very end. It’s just so much fun — we’ve been shooting in places and been like, ‘Wow, I haven’t been up here since season 2!’ We’re savoring it as much as we can.”

Back at HQ in Burbank, Cuse and Lindelof are just starting to whip up Lost‘s last supper. The team sat down on Feb. 10 to map out the epic finale. ”It was sort of a profound moment,” says Cuse. ”All the writers looked around the table at each other and we said, ‘And so it begins.”’ Adds Lindelof, ”We’re looking at each other and going, ‘Look, this might be one of the greatest disasters in the history of television, but we really like it.’ The plan has worked. We stand by the assertion that when Lost is over, we make no excuses. We’re really getting to do what we wanted to do.” Which is…? The producers will reveal only that they have long known the final five scenes of the series. And more than anything, they aspire to deliver a mother lode of emotion. Literally. ”If we can make our mothers cry,” says Lindelof, ”then it’s mission accomplished.”

Losts’ Mysteries (Sorta) Solved!

Hungry for Island answers? Here are four that Team Lost has already dished out…plus a few more questions.

What are the numbers?
They represent the castaways. According to Un-Locke, Jacob assigned each of his potential replacements a digit. Locke: 4; Hurley: 8; Sawyer: 15; Sayid: 16; Jack: 23; Kwon: 42. But is that last number Jin or Sun? And what about Kate? There’s more to the story; tune in Feb. 23.

Were the castaways brought to the island for a reason?
If you believe the Man in Black, then yes. The castaways were steered to the Island by Jacob, who has been meddling with their lives — and subverting their free will — for one purpose: to mold one of them into his replacement as the Island’s protector.

What’s inside the temple?
For starters, another group of Others (including flight attendant Cindy!), led by the enigmatic Dogen. The imposing ziggurat contains an enchanted spring that once healed young Ben and brought Sayid back from the dead…although it seemed to be ominously on the fritz during that miracle. Says Naveen Andrews (Sayid) of the Temple set, ”I thought it would be a good Disney ride. The torches, the pool, the fronds — the atmosphere of doom, if you like.”

What is the monster?
Turns out that giant smoke formation has an alter ego or two. He used to look like the Man in Black. He now wears the form of deceased Locke. He says he wishes to go ”home,” and he wants Richard and Sawyer, among others, as travel companions. Is he good or evil? ”It’s a guess I don’t want to make,” says Terry O’Quinn (Locke). ”I consciously don’t flip that coin, because then I start leaning in a direction that I don’t necessarily want to lean. I’m keeping that coin in my pocket.”