"Nice to meet you... or to see you again." -- Desmond, to Jack.

Exactly. Which is it? As Season Six starts, are we catching up with our old friends, or meeting new (and improved?) versions of them?

To the dismay of some fans, the first two hours of the final season didn't answer as many things as were hoped for, and didn't use Juliet's act of detonating the bomb to nicely and conveniently snap everything into one tidy storyline.

If anything, we went from following two storylines in two time periods (1977, 2007), to... following THREE storylines in two time periods (2004, 2007). Who would have known that the Carlos Castaneda title 12-year-old Ben once handed to Sayid, A Separate Reality, would be a perfect description of the start of this season? And how clever of the producers to have put a "split" between the letters in "LA X" in the episode's title (had been wondering what that was about). But stay with me, because I'll try to make the case that this is better, that our patience will be rewarded, that the show gave us plenty of answers, a few more good questions, and lots of clues.

Let's take a storyline-by-storyline look into what we saw...

SEPTEMBER 22, 2004

Oceanic 815 is flying over the Pacific, and Jack is looking out the window, just as before. And just as before, Cindy the flight attendant has a conversation with him about his drink.

It looks like the bomb trick really might have worked, because this scene appears just as you would expect to see it play out after so many episodes of listening to Faraday talk about constants and variables: most of the things are the same - the big things (815 in the air, mostly same passengers on board, Seth Norris is the pilot, they're going to land at LAX as scheduled) are all there, but several of the details - the variables - are just slightly different. Let's examine them as related to the characters:

Jack: He's still a spinal surgeon, still works at the same hospital, still flying his father's body home. But he's not had too much to drink, he actually appears rather lucid, and proves capable of helping in an emergency. As he looks out the window, does it look like he's either having deja vu, or memories of being at the Swan site for the explosion and now wondering how he's back here? He goes to the bathroom to check a spot of blood on the left side of his neck. Oceanic has lost his father - they don't know where he is, other than that he was never loaded onto the plane.

Something that struck me as odd in both our original story and in this new one is the timing of his father's funeral. Here, it's supposed to be two hours after the plane has landed. That's a bit rushed isn't it? Doesn't much allow for late arrival or anything. In the Oceanic Six timeline, the memorial service wasn't held until 10 months after Christian died (7 months after the O6 returned). Which always struck me as way too much time to have waited, considering how badly Jack berated the Sydney Oceanic rep that, "I just need this to be over." Which brings up another thing about new-timeline Jack - sure, he's frustrated that Oceanic lost his dad, but he's not the emotional wreck that he was in our original timeline.

This Jack is also receptive to conversations from strangers about his business, and comments about afterlife/faith, such as Locke's mention that Oceanic didn't lose his father - who knows where his father's eternal soul and persona are? - just his body. Original Jack might have rolled his eyes or offered a snappy comment about his bad ol' dad or this rude stranger. One other difference: he mentions that his father died in Sydney, and he flew down there to retrieve the body. In our original timeline, Jack went down there to retrieve his living father, only to find out he had died while there. This Jack also has a very interesting new phrase to use: "Nothing's irreversible." Somewhere, he became a believer in the power of change - something this show has always been about, even though it had to take detours to probe the question of just how much change is possible, both on personal and past-present-future levels. Jack wears this new motto well. Though it's comparable in some ways to his old cocky need to "fix," everything, it's a different permutation. Here, he knows his skill as a surgeon, but isn't obnoxious about it, and the things he can fix are not about him. Here, it's about Locke. If he'd like a consult, then Jack will be happy to see what he can do for him.