As a happy distraction from our long national nightmare - make that bad joke - that is Sanjaya Malakar, can I just say that Lost blew me away Wednesday night? What an absolute treat of an episode, a clear sign that the show, after a stalled fall, is back in full throttle, back on its creative game and still more than capable of spinning a great, entertaining yarn.

Weaving flashbacks that appeared to be posthumous but really weren't (more on that later) while providing clever new angles on classic Lost moments from previous seasons - including the immediate aftermath of the crash itself - this episode was also a welcome reminder that sometimes these producers really do seem to know what they're doing after all. We were silly, and unworthy, to have doubted them, don't you think? For all those times this season that we clucked and shook our heads whenever we spied the marginal beauties Nikki (Kiele Sanchez) and Paulo (Rodrigo Santoro), wondering (as Sawyer often said, to great comic effect) "Who the hell are they?" it turns out that they were living in their own little movie all along.

While we were occupied elsewhere, Nikki and Paulo were trapped in a vicious little noir melodrama of their own making, the murderous femme fatale (nice spider metaphor) and her equally devious but doomed mate locked in a dance of deceit and greed over an improbably fabulous $8 million cache of diamonds. Their quest for the missing bag of loot took them to places we'd discovered through others' (and sometimes even the Others') eyes, and it was thrilling and fascinating to realize that Our Heroes weren't always the first on the scene. The foreshadowing of their fate may have been obvious ("I'm just a guest star. We all know what happens to guest stars."), yet it was almost as much fun as the Charlie's Angels parody Nikki appeared in to kick off this playful hour. Struggling actress? Sure. Budding villainess? Why not.

When Nikki and Paulo's paths crossed, precrash, with a bickering Shannon and Boone in the airport, and Nikki cooed to Paulo, "Promise me we'll never end up like them," the drumroll response of "What? Dead?" was quite the kick. Piecing together the circumstances of their unhappy but well-deserved destiny was part of the joy of the episode, which played out at times like a classic murder mystery.

The real echoes here were the fatalistic noir of James M. Cain (think Double Indemnity) and the deliciously manipulative suspense of Alfred Hitchcock. And with its creepy buried-alive finish, once we realized the couple's spider bites were only paralyzing and not fatal, we got the morality-play thrill of ghoulish just desserts, like a classic Twilight Zone parable by way of Tales from the Crypt (or in this case, the hatch). Turned out the flashbacks weren't coming from the afterlife, because while we thought Nikki and Paulo were dead, their minds were racing about what got them into this fine mess. It won't be easy to shake this one.

Lost has been on a roll for a while now, but this episode helped restore the sense of pure adventurous storytelling excitement that drew so many of us to this island of buried secrets in the first place.