Lost by Mario Perez/ABCLost
Lost's Elizabeth Mitchell and Naveen Andrews are both trying to fit comfortably inside a phone booth when their TV Guide photo shoot suddenly takes a playful turn. The actress — the show's Other-worldly Juliet — wraps one leg around her costar, exposing a long stretch of skin through the slit in her show-stopping black gown. "I'd like to have a gun strapped to my leg," she says with a giggle. "Or a nice, shiny Hitchcock knife."

Mitchell could be channeling a heightened version of her character. In the March 6 episode, Juliet is armed when she's instructed to kill for Others ringleader Ben — a job we also saw Andrews' Sayid tasked with in a flash-forward. Such twists are all part of Lost's creatively recharged Season 4. Not since Year 1 has ABC's Emmy-winning drama been this consistently thrilling. The flash-forward odyssey of the Oceanic Six — the survivors who made it off the island and back to the future — has infused the series with renewed urgency and richer emotional resonance. "It's heartbreaking to see these characters we love so hopeful [about] getting rescued," Mitchell says, "because we've seen that things after the fact haven't turned out so well."

That's an understatement. Besides sleek-suited assassin Sayid, Hurley's back in the loony bin, Jack's a suicidal pill-popper, and Kate's playing mommy to Claire's kid, Aaron. (That can't mean good things for Claire.)

According to executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, Lost rediscovered its focus when they secured a 2010 series-end date. "Working that out," Cuse says, "was immensely liberating." With that target in sight, the duo finally felt they could make like a Camaro-driving Hurley in this season's premiere and put the proverbial pedal to the metal. These days, when it comes to mapping out plot twists, Lindelof says bluntly, "We're no longer stalling."

Especially since returning to work in February after the writers' strike. The producers' first order of business was to condense what were supposed to be the season's final eight episodes into what Lindelof calls a "lean, mean" five. Those installments begin airing April 24 (in a new post-Grey's Anatomy time slot at 10 pm) and will reveal, among other tasty morsels, why in the future, Sayid is working for Ben and Jack is oh-so-tormented. "It's no shock to say this season ends with the Oceanic Six getting off the island," Lindelof says. "The real mystery is how, and what they have to sacrifice and what happens to the people who didn't leave. You get all that this year." We'll take it.