You head to the Hawaii set of ABC's Lost rather smug that you will get the answers to all those questions that have been plaguing you (and millions of others) since last season's hatch-opening, raft-exploding, Walt-stealing finale. You will make a vow of secrecy, if you must, to be able to see and hear things that allow you to assemble certain pieces of the puzzle. You will interrogate the island gods a.k.a. producers Damon Lindelof, Carlton Cuse, Jack Bender, and Bryan Burk for hints to fill the vast emptiness that has lingered since last May.
In reality, however, you will come away feeling more mystified than ever. Desperate for signs, you will start reading meaning into everything. You will watch the cast shoot seemingly innocuous scenes in the cave (actually a set in a Honolulu warehouse), and you will fixate on anything that might offer a hint: Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) looks out into the distance and says, ''They're back.'' (Who's back?) Jack (Matthew Fox) mentions the mysterious hatch he and Locke (Terry O'Quinn) blew open and says, ''We're not all gonna fit in there.'' (Why? What's in that thing already?) Bender, who's directing this episode, delivers instructions to extras that sound like a fortune-cookie truism: ''You guys only know what you know. And what you don't know is a surprise.'' (So they do know something! What in God's name could it be???)
Yes, any request for information be it from the cast, the producers, even one of the producers' parents will be met, most times, with shrugs, silence, mocking laughter, maddening hints...and precious few direct answers. And then you'll realize that it doesn't matter no matter how little you know, you will still yearn to see the second-season premiere (Sept. 21, 9 p.m.) as much as a washed-up rock star/heroin addict yearns to get back to that drug stash he found in an abandoned plane on the crazy island where he's stranded. Which is to say, a lot.
Perhaps the biggest Lost question of all is whether its phenomenal hot streak can last. Last season, the freshman drama seemed to have all the markings of a small cult hit (a sprawling cast, mind-boggling mythology, copious love from critics), yet it managed to hook a big cult of viewers, 16 million per week. It earned 12 Emmy nominations including Outstanding Drama Series and Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for O'Quinn and Naveen Andrews and prompted other networks to launch a host of new sci-fi series this fall. ''We were aiming for that Alias-type audience,'' says Lindelof, who created Lost with J.J. Abrams, the mastermind behind the Jennifer Garner series. ''We knew it was a little bit weird. It has a huge cast, it's serialized, and it requires the audience's attention. It's everything procedural crime dramas aren't.''
But with success come thousands (nay, millions!) of skeptical fans with questions that have dogged Lost since its inception, most importantly: Do the writers even have a master plan, or are they just making this stuff up as they go along? Even devoted viewers were frustrated with the season 1 finale, which didn't provide as many answers as they had expected in large part because of the final shot of the hatch, not into it. As Monaghan puts it, ''People were like, 'Aw, that's it? That's all we get to see? A f---ing ladder?'''
Now Lost is returning with a lot of explaining to do. Producers say they were genuinely shocked by fans' disappointment in the finale. Says Cuse, ''We were surprised that people expected us to open the hatch and go in there.'' The vociferous demand for hatch answers did, however, prompt the Lost team to make that the first order of business in season 2's premiere but, they say, they wouldn't do it differently if they had the chance. ''I can remember for those three years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi being very frustrated,'' Lindelof says. ''But I could not wait for Return of the Jedi to come out.'' The hatch question has made the summer particularly trying for the actors, who have borne the brunt of fan angst. ''Everyone asks what's in the hatch,'' says Evangeline Lilly, who plays comely criminal Kate. ''It's like, Okay, dude, do you realize I've answered that question 600 times? I just have to say over and over, 'I don't knooooow.'''
This will come as a surprise to absolutely no one, but producers insist they do know where Lost's story is going. That said, they admit to leaving plenty of room for changes along the way. ''The show tells us a lot about what it wants to be,'' explains Cuse. For instance, when the writers came up with those bad luck lotto numbers (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42), they initially thought to put them on Rousseau's map just because they wanted to see a confrontation between Hurley and the crazy Frenchwoman not because they had some sort of grand numerological plan. ''We never expected the numbers to become this phenomenon,'' Cuse says. ''When one of the producers came to our office and gave us a coffee mug [he bought on eBay] with the numbers on it, we were like, 'This is insane.'''
Lindelof and Cuse are masters at saying nothing. And they have good reason to keep their mouths shut: For one thing, their publicized assertions last season that a major character would meet his or her demise (it turned out to be Ian Somerhalder's Boone) left the cast's faith in their job security shaken. ''We were told over and over and over, 'One of you is going to die,''' Lilly recalls. ''So we were all kind of shaking in our boots, going, 'Am I gonna die? S---.'''
Still, the actors see the value in raising the life-and-death stakes or at least they're pretending to, perhaps to ingratiate themselves with the folks who decide their fates. ''We're doing a show about survival, and I don't think any of the main characters are untouchable,'' Fox says. ''[The audience] needs to be left in that terrifying but sublime mode of going 'Who's going to go next?'''
Speaking of which...who is going to go next? While Internet spoiler hounds say a female cast member will perish this fall, producers aren't talking. ''There will be more death,'' Lindelof says. ''But,'' Cuse adds, ''we've gotten to a place where we don't want to go on record like, 'Three actors are going to die.' It makes everyone really uncomfortable.''
Here's what the producers will say about upcoming episodes: The survivors will accept that they're not leaving the island anytime soon. That means deeper relationships and some serious romantic entanglements. Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) and Claire (Emilie de Ravin) will get close, as will Sayid (Naveen Andrews) and Shannon (Maggie Grace). Andrews, for one, hopes it's a lot closer: ''We've got a later time slot this year,'' he says, ''so that relationship should be followed to its logical conclusion. It's been too long.''
Lilly, on the other hand, is over the whole Jack-or-Sawyer quandary. ''I expect to see Kate existing outside the life of the men of the island,'' Lilly says. ''I'm tired of living in Jack's shadow.'' Yunjin Kim would also like her character, Sun, to stop moping around over estranged hubby Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) and get a little more action: ''She needs to go climb a tree, get a little dirty.'' Jin will try to reunite with Sun and, yes, learn some English while his wife eschews their conservative Korean roots and embraces her newfound freedom. Michael (Harold Perrineau) who apparently makes it back to land even though the raft exploded will focus on rescuing kidnapped son Walt (Malcolm David Kelley) from The Others. ''I had a lot of fans coming up [during the summer] like, shaking, saying 'He's coming back, right?''' says Perrineau. ''It's such a visceral thing, a kid being taken.'' Though Shannon will spot Walt in the woods with his captors early in the season, she'll have a hard time convincing her fellow castaways she's not hallucinating.
We'll also meet at least one survivor from the back of the plane: Ana-Lucia (Michelle Rodriguez), who was introduced at the end of last season, as well as some other island dwellers whose origins are unclear (played by Titus' Cynthia Watros and Oz's Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Backstories will further illuminate Jack's marriage, Sawyer's life as a con man, and Kate's criminal history. The tension simmering between Jack and Locke, meanwhile, will explode into an epic faith-versus-reason battle. ''Jack and Locke are representative of the two kinds of fans the show has,'' Cuse says. ''Locke is the guy who says, 'I want the island to be weird.' Jack is the guy who says, 'I don't want the island to be weird.' That is a road map for what we're doing this year.''
Oh, right, and then there's that hatch. The producers and the cast really, truly, totally swear the audience will finally see what's in the damn thing during the premiere. ''There will be an enormous download of information about the hatch,'' Cuse says, ''but it will also suggest a whole set of new questions to ponder.'' (Oh, great.) Hurley, for one, will be forced to face the one thing he's been trying to avoid: ''The hatch is making him confront those tormenting numbers,'' says Jorge Garcia. ''But as far as what they mean? I still don't know.''
For now, we'll have to settle for some crumbs tossed by the few people on the planet who know the contents of the hatch: ''My initial reaction was 'That's not huge enough,''' O'Quinn says. ''But my second reaction was 'How could it be, with all the buildup?''' Fox is a bit more reassuring. ''It's gonna blow your mind,'' he promises. Then there's Monaghan's explanation: ''The thing about this show is it could be a bright yellow banana walking around with strawberries, and you'd be like, 'Okay.' It could've been Henry Kissinger playing tennis with Marilyn Monroe, and you'd be like, 'Sure.' Anything makes sense on this show.''
(This is an online-only excerpt from Entertainment Weekly's Sept. 9, 2005, issue.)