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Finding the way back to ‘Lost’

The wait is almost over. After eight long months, ABC's “Lost” returns for a fourth, albeit abbreviated, season. The intended 16-episode run is down by half due to the ongoing writers' strike, so Thursday night kicks off the first of eight episodes that may include both mysteries and flashback-and-forth reveals.

“It will feel a little like reading half a ‘Harry Potter’ novel, then having to put it down,” executive producer Carlton Cruse told TV Guide. Luckily for Cruse, many “Lost” fans, not unlike the “Potter” crowd, will eagerly take whatever they can get of their favorite drama.

There is one extra challenge for viewers this time around, though. After the longer than usual break between seasons, those waiting for the latest glimpse of puzzling island life must make sure they have a firm handle of what's happened so far. The final days of the third season packed plenty of major twists and turns, and producers warn that the new episodes jump straight into filler-free action.

The lay of the “Lost” landThe first bit of requisite season three knowledge is that Ben's invisible pal Jacob, of “Him” and “list” fame, isn't imaginary. Locke paid a visit to Jacob's ash encircled shack and learned Ben isn't the only one who can hear the words of the island's mystery man. In a still unexplained message to Locke, Jacob begged, “Help me.” It could be that Ben is pulling Jacob's strings instead of the other way around.

Not surprisingly, it turns out Ben is the jealous type. After he learned Jacob shared his gift for gab with someone else, he shot Locke and left him in a mass grave full of decomposed Dharma types. Side note: those uniformed cadavers were an example of some of Ben's deadly handy work from years back. For a man who claims he's not a killer, he leaves a lot of bodies behind.

In “where are they now” news, a rapidly aging Walt, or some incarnation of him, made an appearance just in time to convince Locke to choose life and get the heck out of the ditch. That's when Locke decided to search out the Oceanic gang.

An island newbie named Naomi, who claimed she was on a Desmond-quest on behalf of his ladylove Penny, only lacked a clear signal to radio phone her offshore freighter and offer the castaways a shot at rescue. Despite the suspiciously too-good-to-be-true deal, the Jack pack set out for the radio tower, leaving Charlie and Desmond to tend to an underwater hatch that jammed the signal.

The only hitch? Charlie's often-predicted demise was a sure bet this time. The Driveshaft bassist went out like a hero, sacrificing himself to shut down the device and deliver one last message of his own. With signals free to come and go as they please, Charlie received a communiqué from Penny. Moments before drowning Charlie scrawled the words “Not Penny's boat” across his palm and showed Desmond. Sniff.

Naomi and the gang were ready to call for help. Following in the nothing-goes-smoothly tradition, she died shortly after she dialed out. Credit that one to Locke's expert throwing arm. The man seriously does not want to leave the island. But despite handily disposing of Naomi, when Jack pushed the point, Locke wasn't willing to kill him.

All of which leads to this vital info: the freighter folks are on their way.

Back to the futureEven with all of that action, the biggest turn-everything-on-its-ear twist didn't even occur on the island.

Flashes of Jack's life back home showed him as a drunk and drug-addicted doc on the verge of suicide and desperately trying to contact a friend. But when the friend turned out to be none other than Kate, it was clear the rules had changed. The future is now, and in it at least some of the survivors make it home.

Of course a reveal of that magnitude doesn't come without the addition of more questions than ever before. Like, who was in the mystery coffin that Jack and Kate both knew but neither considered to be a friend? Or why did references to Jack's father lack the usual past tense treatment reserved for the deceased? And the biggest head-scratcher of all, why is Future Jack so hell bent on going back to the island?

Where do we go from here?
After last season's shocking finale, what can fans expect when the story returns? Safe speculation would have the drama pick up right where it left off, with rescue-ready faces on their way, hopefuls planning their escape and the Others basically freaking out. But the real fun should start when Desmond delivers Charlie's last words.

The days of Others vs. castaways could soon be traded in for castaways vs. castaways, as those heeding Charlie's warning are likely to fall in line with Locke. Why not? He made his freighter opinion clear when he knifed Naomi in the back. For those willing to face any risk for a shot at going home, “I'm going to make sure they all get home”-promiser Jack is their man.

The details can't come soon enough. Unfortunately for fans, with only eight weeks of new shows ahead of them, it'll all be over way too soon.

Ree Hines is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.