What is the nature of the Flash Sideways?

It has become the sole question that matters at this point in the home stretch of "Lost," and how they stick the landing all depends on the reveal and the execution of the wrap-up.  There have been clues trickling in for weeks now, starting with episode 6.06, "Sundown," where Sayid's Flash Sideways had the distinct feeling of a deal with the devil gone subtly wrong.  There have been complaints from fans this year that the way characters keep crossing paths in the Flash Sideways/Timeline A stuff is "too convenient," but I think it all makes sense if you accept that we are seeing a construct, a Timeline in which people have been given a second chance at things that is supposed to keep them distracted by "solving" their imperfect lives.  The question remains... how could that be happening, and who did it to them?  And with only a few hours left in the season, at what point will we see the mechanism that kicked Timeline A into existence?

There's an amazing, ambitious video game called "Fallout 3" that is set in a post-apocalyptic American landscape dotted with underground bunkers known as Vaults.  Most of the game plays out in a fairly linear fashion, but there's one Vault in particular that you walk into, and when you hook up to the life-support machines you find there, you are suddenly launched into a radically different game, set in an idyllic black-and-white "Leave It To Beaver" version of the 1950s.  Why and how and what you have to do to make it back to the real game is one of the most deliciously weird and creepy left-turns I've ever encountered in a game, and I walked away impressed by the ambition of that choice.  The safe thing to do for the producers of "Lost" would have been to make this final season a single linear storyline that just answered questions set up by the first five seasons, running down them like a checklist.  That would have been safe and satisfying and completely predictable.  Which is why I'm glad and surprised that they chose instead to layer in a whole new element to the show's mythology, using one of the most outrageous storytelling choices in the entire six years of the show.

Tonight's episode, "Everybody Loves Hugo," is the second episode of the year to make a direct reference to an earlier episode in the title.  "What Kate Did" became "What Kate Does," and now "Everybody Hates Hugo" has become "Everybody Loves Hugo," and even the titles give a hint as to the way the Flash Sideways storylines work.  The script by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz focuses this week's character arc on Hurley, one of my favorite characters on the show.  I have no idea where Jorge Garcia stops and Hurley starts, but it's going to be very hard for me to see him play other parts in the future.  Even when he's given some heavy material, as he is this week, it never feels like he's "acting."  There's such a natural, easy style to his work that he grounds some of the most outrageous ideas in the show.

After all, Hurley talks to dead people now.  Often.

The episode starts in TIMELINE A, where a Hugo Reyes tribute is in progress.  The story of how he built his Mr. Cluck's empire is told, and the scope of his charity work is laid out.  It's the opening of the new Hugo Reyes Paleontology Wing of a museum, and Pierre Chung is the one giving the tribute.  Yet another way the reality of the Island has folded into what we're watching in TIMELINE A.  There's a standing ovation for Hurley, and then afterwards, he's outside talking to his mother, and she complains that everyone loves Hugo except for women.  She's the cold bucket of romantic reality pointing out his loneliness, and she tells him she's made a blind date for him the next day, and he's going, no matter what.

In TIMELINE B, Hurley's at Libby's grave, changing her flowers and talking to her.  He's frustrated because she's the one dead person who doesn't seem to be speaking to him on the Island.  Ilana comes to tell him that they're heading to The Black Rock to get some dynamite so they can go blow up the plane on the Hydra Island.  Hurley's unconvinced by the plan, though, although not exactly sure why.  Ilana asks him about Libby, and just the way he describes their brief time together is heartbreaking.  Garcia knows how to undersell a moment for maximum effect.  Once she walks away, Michael appears, ready to warn Hurley.  "I'm here to stop you from getting everyone killed."

Those two scenes, both before the opening LOST, set up the way the rest of the episode works.  It's understandable that Hurley wouldn't really want to listen to Michael at first, since he was, after all, the one who shot and killed Libby in the first place.  He doesn't really have a compelling argument to offer to the other people in his group, so he agrees to follow Jack, Richard, Ilana, Sun, and Miles to The Black Rock.  For fans of the show, it's good to be nervous anytime anybody starts handling the unstable dynamite onboard the ship, and sure enough, once they get it back to the beach and start packing for their trip across to Hydra Island, Ilana ends up pulling an Arzt, and it's a fantastic moment.  If this is how the producers plan to play for the next few weeks, buckle up, because I get the feeling it's going to get really ugly.  And soon.

Alterna-Locke's camp plays out a very simple story this week, with Sayid bringing Desmond back and handing him over to the Smoke Monster.  Alterna-Locke is NOT happy to see Desmond, and he takes our time-traveling Scotsman for a little walk so they can talk privately.  There's a great exchange when they first meet and Alterna-Locke asks Desmond, "Do you know who I am?" that features one of the single best facial expressions by Terry O'Quinn ever.  Alterna-Locke and Desmond stumble across the mysterious boy who we've seen a few times this year while they're on their walk, and AL dismisses him with an angry "Just ignore him" that suggests that whoever he is, he's going to be play a key role in the weeks ahead.

AL leads Desmond to a very, very old well and tells him it was built by hand by people who came to the spot looking for answers as to why their compass needles just spun in circles when they stood there.  Alterna-Locke warns Desmond, "Charles Widmore is not interested in answers.  He's only interested in power."  No matter what Alterna-Locke says to him, Desmond seems unphased.  He just listens, interested.  Finally, Alterna-Locke has to ask, "Why aren't you afraid?"  You can see that it disturbs him because he's used to the exact opposite reaction.  Desmond tells him that life's too short to be afraid, and as if to prove him right, Alterna-Locke picks him up and hurls him into the well.

I know we haven't seen the end of Desmond, but damn.  Just... damn.

In TIMELINE A, Hurley goes for his blind date, and she doesn't show up.  Just as he's getting ready to give up, he's approached by a woman.  A very familiar woman.  Is anyone anywhere surprised to see that it's Libby?  Nope.  She's drawn across the restaurant to talk to him, and she knows his name without being introduced.  Just as she starts to freak Hurley out, Bruce Davison interrupts.  He apologizes and leads Libby back out to the bus that's waiting for her, a bus for a local mental hospital.

Hurley goes to one of his Mr. Clucks restaurants to eat his sorrow away with a full-sized family bucket, and as he does, he's approached by Desmond.  Des is on a mission in this timeline, remember, determined to deliver the same sort of wake-up calls to them that he was given by Charlie last week.  He has a good conversation with Hurley, drawing out the story of what happened with Libby.  Hurley talks about how he met the right woman, but she's crazy.  "All women are a little bit crazy, brother," Desmond tells him, prodding at his memory to see if meeting Libby did anything to him.  He encourages Hurley to go back and try to talk to her again.

Hurley tracks her down at the hospital and bribes his way into a second meeting with her.  She tells him how she was watching TV a few nights earlier and saw him on one of his commercials, and how as soon as she laid eyes on him, memories came flooding back to her, memories of another life.  She remembered the crash, the Island, and even Hurley in the mental hospital with her.  "I had to talk to you," she says, "because if you remember me..."  The profound need in what she leaves unsaid is just wrenching.  Hurley has to tell her honestly that he doesn't remember her, but he asks her if she ever gets out on a day pass, and when she says she does, he asks her on a date.

And, yeah, I thought their final big scene together was just devastating.  They finally got the date that they were denied by Michael, and if that was the whole punchline, that would be enough.  Instead, they really go for the emotional punch.  He's insecure about why she would want to spend any time with him, and she tells him that she's with him because she likes him.  "But you like me because you're delusional," he says, and there's so much pain built into it, and again... Garcia undersells it like a champion.  Libby leans in and kisses him, and that does it.  Suddenly, Hurley gets flashes of TIMELINE B, and that memory starts flooding back for him as well.  He realizes Libby's not crazy, and he offers up his very best Keanu "Whoa," which seems appropriate since The Matrix is starting to crumble.  From the nearby street, Desmond watches, and satisfied that Hurley's starting to remember, he drives away.

The end of the TIMELINE A segments was the night's big holy crap moment.  Desmond sits parked outside the school where Locke works, and sees him come out of the building in his wheelchair.  Ben knocks on Desmond's window, suspicious, and asks what he's up to.  Desmond spins a little BS about how he's trying to pick a school for his kid, and as soon as Ben walks away, Desmond starts his car and floors it.  He runs Locke down, sends him flying over his car, and then speeds away, leaving a broken, twitching, bleeding Locke on the asphalt.  Ben runs over to help, yelling for someone to call an ambulance, and the end of the episode is just him repeating, "Mr. Locke... can you hear me?"

Holy crap... is there a chance John Locke isn't dead?

Is there a chance he could still take back control of his body?

And did Desmond really have to hit him with a damn car just to wake him up?

These are important questions based on the rest of the TIMELINE B stuff we saw this week.  Not a lot happens, all things considered, after Ilana blows herself up.  Richard is still determined to take the fight over to Hydra Island and somehow destroy that plane, and he leaves with Miles and Ben in tow.  Hurley and Jack and Sun and Frank decide instead to go directly to Locke to finally speak with him.  Hurley lies at first, saying Jacob was the one who told him to go to talk to Locke, but he ends up telling Jack the truth.  Jack says he knew Hurley was lying, and that he's intentionally trying to follow instead of lead for a while, since leading only ever made him miserable and got people killed.

At one point, the Whispers that have been part of the series since season one come out of the jungle, and Hurley walks away to deal with them privately, offering up one of the first big concrete answers of the shows.  "You're stuck on the Island, aren't you?" Hurley asks Michael when he reappears, and that seems to be what the Whispers are... those who died on the Island and who can't move on for some reason.  Now it means I need to go back and listen to the Whispers in the early days of the show to see if that is consistent.  It's interesting, if nothing else, and gets them out of the way so larger mysteries can be addressed in the weeks ahead.

At the end of the hour, Hurley strolls into Locke's camp and negotiates a temporary truce so they can talk.  Alterna-Locke agrees, and the rest of Hurley's group emerges from the jungle, bringing Jack face to face with this walking dead man for the first time.

I'd be positively rabid for next week's episode even if they hadn't used that "Willy Wonka" music in the promo.  But they did, so now it's twice as bad.

It's pretty much all answers and all conclusion from this point forward.  Has to be.

And I've never been more confident that they're going to crush it at the finish line.  Ever.

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