(WARNING: Heavy spoilers and a large number of words to follow.)
I was a big fan of Lost.
I use the word “was” here not to suggest that, like seemingly everyone else in the world, my like for the show ended the moment I realized I hated the ending (which I didn’t, but more on that in a minute), but rather to suggest that, when Lost was on, during its initial run from 2004 to 2010, I was as big a fan of the ABC series as anyone I knew.
I don’t know if normal people do this—I always attributed it to the storyteller in me—but when a work of art works for me, it really, really works for me, and I throw myself head-first, eyes-closed into even the most shallow parts of it. When Lost was on, I spent countless hours on every Lost site I could find, even the bad, slow-loading, or incomprehensible ones. I devoted whole car rides to thinking up theories. I went to sleep thinking about the fates of the characters. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but when Lost was on, the only time I ever cleaned my TV was roughly 10 minutes before a new episode. I didn’t want anything getting in the way of the most perfect glimpse I could get into its soul. Plenty of people were into this show. I was nothing short of obsessed with it. I didn’t just think it was the best thing going on television. I thought it was going to be hard to beat for the single greatest work of any kind of all time.
When the final season of the show began in 2010, it was such a big deal that it bumped the State of the Union. When the final episode aired in May of that year, it was so big and so meaningful to so many people that watching it alone, at home, wasn’t enough for us. People had Lost parties and went through it together. It wasn’t a show; it was a shared cultural experience.
Unfortunately, the finale fell flat with a lot of people. Most people who hated it (and that seemed to be most people) seemed to hate it for one if not both of two reasons. One, because the “sideways world” flashbacks of the final season turned out to be an afterlife, not an alternate universe or timeline as had been theorized. And two, because people didn’t think the end of the series answered enough questions about the six seasons that came before it. My own take on the finale fell somewhere in the middle: I felt, as an episode, it was a strong episode, but as a finale, it was lacking. I agreed too many questions were left unanswered. Too many plot threads were twisting in the wind. People wondered if the writers needed more than six seasons. Other people were starting to think the show went six seasons too long.
Last year, when the brilliant Breaking Bad was coming to a finish, a lot of people started talking about Lost again. Not in a good way, either. They were using it as an example. Whereas Breaking Bad was being hailed (and rightly) as one of the most satisfying endings in recent television memory, Lost was being looked at as how not to end a series. This thought has been so pervasive over the years that Damon Lindelof once got into a Twitter battle with George R.R. Martin over it. Articles on binge-worthy Netflix series still list Lost as a show not to binge on… because you wouldn’t like the ending. And just last week, just before I sat down to write this, I heard a local radio station bring that ending up out of nowhere. The context? TV disappointments. This was a radio show (Preston & Steve out of Philly) that used to do Lost recaps every week and used to hold Lost viewing parties at local bars. It’s been nearly four years since the Lost finale aired, and if you ask people now, they not only claim to hate the ending but the larger show it was a part of. Yet for something they claim to hate, they sure can’t let go of it. Four years later, we’re all still talking.
All that buzz about Lost last year, negative as it was, got me thinking about my former obsession again. I started to wonder, where did it all go wrong? And just because the journey was better than the destination, did that really mean the journey wasn’t worth taking to begin with? To answer these questions, my wife and I embarked on an epic, six-season rewatch of the series (epic because we have a baby (who happens to be named after one of Lost’s characters), which limited our TV time to about one hour of serious viewing a day). Having finally reached the end of that endeavor, I am here to report my findings for all the former Lost fans out there, who’ve been asking these same questions since the show went off four years ago. My take: While the final season is, indeed, the weakest and most messily written (Sayid and Claire’s pointless dark turns; the fact that the whispers were dead people like Michael; the whole thing with Jacob trying to prove his brother wrong), it was also full of some really great moments, including the Desmond-centric “Happily Ever After,” the devastating half-the-cast-dies-on-a-sub episode “The Candidate,” and the chill-inducing titular scene of the Jack episode “Lighthouse.” And as much as you may look back and feel like the series built up to something that ultimately let you down, once you go back and experience some of its greatest moments—Crazy Bearded Jack’s “We have to go back!” speech; Desmond turning the fail safe and the sky turning purple; anything involving Sawyer working for DHARMA—you start to realize that not only is the six-season journey still worth it, but when you embark upon that journey with knowledge of where you’re going, the final destination isn’t such a bummer after all.
I could go on about this topic forever (and once you get to the end of this, it’ll feel like I did), but let me just narrow down the post-Lost criticisms to a couple of the most commonly cited objections. I’ll take them one-by-one, and try to lend some perspective.
Criticism No. 1: They were dead the whole time/The sideways world being an afterlife was dumb.
I group these objections together not because they’re related (although they are), but because the first one is ludicrous and I don’t want to spend a lot of time on it. The characters were definitively not dead through all six seasons of the series. If you believe this, you’ve ignored not only what the show’s creators have flatly denied over the last four years, but what Jack’s father Christian explicitly dealt with in the final scenes of the finale, when he told Jack, outright, everything was real. If you want to argue they were dead the whole time, stop reading now, because I’m not about to argue with a disproven perspective.
Now if you want to argue the sideways world being an afterlife was dumb, I don’t agree, but that one I’m willing to contend with.
It’s important to start by determining what, exactly, the sideways world was. I said before that it was an afterlife. That’s true in the sense that the characters were dead there, but the afterlife label isn’t quite accurate. The sideways world was in fact a shared dream state. Just as your own unconscious enters into dreams when you sleep, so did the collective unconscious of the characters enter the dream state of the sideways world when they died. (I’m going to keep calling it the sideways world for shorthand, even though we all know that term isn’t accurate, either.)
Like any dream state, it all felt familiar to them—so much so that they didn’t question its veracity, even though their lives were suddenly very different: Jack had a son; Sawyer was a cop; Desmond had the respect of Charles Widmore. It was like how you can dream you’re at work, and it feels like you’re at work, but when you wake up, you realize all the coworkers you talked to were fictional, and the building you worked in doesn’t even exist, and its doors somehow entered into brand new situations. The characters entered this dream state to find each other after they died. Although we never see it happen, we’re told they’re meeting up so they can move on together. For lack of a better word, they are basically soul mates, and one can’t move on until all of them do. Some have thus labeled the sideways world a purgatory; I prefer to think of it as a post-conscious waiting room.
There’s a telling exchange between Jack and Desmond earlier in the finale, where Desmond says none of what they’re doing matters, and Jack says all of it does. For all the ideological or philosophical debates throughout this show, this simple exchange may have been the most important. They’re both right. None of what happened through the six seasons would have mattered if Jack (or anyone) had gone through it alone. What matters is these people did it together. The plane crash, the button, the funerals, the freighter—all of their trials, all the death and destruction, mean absolutely nothing to people in a vacuum. But because they went through these things together, these things meant the world. It’s a statement that for all the mysteries and challenges in life, it’s not the mysteries and challenges that matter for their own sake. It’s the bonds that we form as we figure out how to face them. Relationships are the heart of the human experience. Mysteries mean something because we imbue them with meaning, but the value of human relationships is intrinsic.
I didn’t need to rewatch Lost for the meaning of its afterlife to make sense to me. I got what it meant when my mom died last year. The weekend I spent back home with friends and family was something I knew even as it was happening that only dementia someday could make me forget. I remember the faces, the take-out dinners, the crying together, even laughing together. Sharing memories of her, stories, anecdotes. The experience was a sad one, yet I’ll never let go of it. It simply isn’t something I want to forget. Life, like Lost, is full of amazing struggles. But sometimes, how we get through those struggles together feels like the reason we go through them to begin with. Sometimes, how we get through those struggles together can turn those down times into meaningful and even cherished memories.
(And yes, the thought of Lost occurred to me while in mourning. What’s the point of a beloved work of art if it can’t help you navigate life’s roughest waters?)
So to whatever extent you thought the ending of Lost didn’t “provide enough answers,” the ending was saying, “The answers didn’t matter.” What mattered was the people. The love. The friendships. This may or may not gel with storytelling standards, but by God, for a final message, it was bold.
Criticism No. 2: The end of the show didn’t answer enough questions.
Let me tackle this one by retelling the story from the beginning, in chronological order, with as broad a brush as my tiny palms can hold. In order to answer whether Lost answered questions, you need to step back and ask yourself: What was this story about?
Lost is the story of a very powerful light. (I told you, I’m going chronological here.) This light is the source of perhaps the three most important things in existence: life, death, and rebirth. According to the show’s mythology, a piece of this light can be found in every person. The source of this light is what lies beneath an island. Because this source must be protected, the island is constantly moving—not just through the usual three human dimensions, but also the fourth dimension, time. But because people sometimes still manage to find it, the island appoints itself (or is appointed, we don’t know) a human protector. At the beginning of our story, that protector is a woman. That woman eventually winds up raising twin boys. One of those boys is known as Jacob. His brother wears black, and we don’t know his name. The boys grow up with different ideas on how to handle their lot in life. Jacob embraces the role of protector; his brother wants to leave and explore the world.
One day the twins have what we’ll call a disagreement. Jacob ends up killing his brother, and his brother’s soul gets separated from its body, creating a moving pillar of black smoke. (I suspected at one point that the Smoke Monster predated Jacob and the Man In Black, because Egyptian hieroglyphics seem to indicate a Smoke Monster was on the island before the brothers came over with what was probably the Romans. But the show seems pretty confident that this soul separation is what created said Monster, so for the sake of this article, I have to run with it.) The smoke is able to manifest itself as a dead body, and so it chooses (naturally) to appear as Jacob’s departed brother. And so the two—brother and separated soul brother—live on the island together for a very long time.
The smoke can’t kill Jacob, but it knows if Jacob dies, it can attack the light, turn it off, and leave the island. (Turning off the light will destroy the island entirely, but the Smoke Monster probably needs the island to be destroyed anyway, because the island has this strange propensity for drawing back people it isn’t done with.) So Jacob spends years recruiting his eventual successors to the island, while the black smoke spends years trying to manipulate those people into killing Jacob.
One day, the Smoke Monster manipulates one of its marks, Oceanic Flight 815 survivor John Locke, into moving the island. Locke does this under the impression that Jacob himself has given the instructions. One of Jacob’s own people, Benjamin Linus, steps in, turning the wheel that makes the island move through spacetime (a device engineered, at least in part, by the Man In Black). But when this happens, the island starts skipping erratically through history—a condition the show likens to a skipping record. The time loop created by the skipping island leads the Others to meet John Locke years before he comes to the island; they then spend decades believing he’ll someday become their leader. The Smoke Monster takes advantage of this time loop, too. He uses the loop to convince Locke to get himself killed, so the Monster can use his body to get Ben to kill Jacob, then turn off the light, destroy the island, and leave it. And he almost gets away with it, too, until Locke’s meddling fellow castaways—Jack Shephard, Kate Austen, James Ford, and Hugo Reyes—manage to kill the Monster and save the island before he sinks it.
This is the actual ending of the story. The sideways world/afterlife is simply an epilogue.
If you go back and rewatch Lost, the whole show must be viewed through this prism. This is the end game: Protecting the island (and the light that dwells on it) from the scorned black smoke that wants to put it in the sea. There are hints of this end game from the very beginning. We don’t see the Smoke Monster until the end of Season 1, but its presence is felt in the very first episode. A few episodes later, it also appears for the first time as Jack’s father, whose body was brought to the island on Flight 815. Jacob is mentioned as early as Season 3. The island is moved and the time loop created in Season 4. And all of Season 5—the time travel season—is a setup for Smoke Monster Locke telling injured-by-the-plane time-traveling Locke that in order to save the island, he’s going to have to die. I know a lot of people thought the ending was unfulfilling, because it seemed at the time they didn’t get enough answers, but when you go back and watch this show for what it was, instead of what you thought or theorized it was building up to, not only is the ending complete, but it also makes sense and it’s also pretty good.
Revisiting this topic all these years later, I think that’s one of the biggest problems Lost’s legacy faces. The show was a victim of its own success. There had never been a show that people spent so much time theorizing about or writing about before. We all spent so much time building up our own version of the story in our heads, that when the story we were actually watching finally came to an end, the story we envisioned never got its own ending. It’s like the phenomenon where new parents will “mourn” the baby they spent nine months imagining, even while celebrating the birth of an actual child. This is a real thing, that really happens—and I think, in a way, it happened with this show.
Rewatching this series, many of the things that seemed like a big deal the first time through, weren’t. Like Walt. So many people were frustrated when Walt didn’t play into the series’ end game. Go back and watch, though. The kid was a minor character. He rarely played into anyone’s storyline but Michael’s, and even the things that supposedly made him special seem really insignificant compared to other special people like Miles. We had this idea that Walt was important because the Others wanted him (and were willing to kill for him) when they took him off the raft at the end of Season 1. In reality, as much as we thought this had to do with Walt, we learned in Season 2 the Others got more than they bargained for when they took him, and the only reason they wanted the boy was because they needed kids.
And about that: the kid thing. When Lost ended, this was probably my biggest disappointment. Roundabout Season 3, when Juliet entered the picture and we learned she was on the island because she was a fertility doctor, it seemed like the Others’ fertility issues were actually the driving force behind the show’s larger story. When the show ended, I was disappointed those issues didn’t play into the end game. Yet, on the rewatch, the writers made it clear that they wouldn’t. In Season 3, Richard says Ben is wasting the Others’ time worrying about collecting more children—that the Others are there for a larger purpose than hoarding kids and growing their numbers. And as for the fertility issues on the island? You need to piece it together, but the answer is there. Sawyer alludes to it in Season 5: Women die when they get pregnant on the island because of the increased levels of electromagnetism caused by our infamous, button-necessitating Incident.
The writers of this show relished that people were asking questions, and to whatever extent some questions weren’t answered (What was the deal with the volcano mentioned once in Season 3?), perhaps they deserved some backlash. But go back and watch this show with knowledge of the ending, and you’ll start to wonder whether focusing on the questions—most of the big ones of which were answered—wasn’t tantamount to focusing on the wrong thing.
Criticism No. 3: The writers never had a plan.
I saved this one for last because, for some reason, I take this one personal. Even if I hated the ending—which I don’t—this barb would be the one I would take issue with, because—no offense to any nonwriters reading this—it’s the kind of thing only a nonwriter would say when they don’t understand the storytelling process.
The general public liked to imagine the writers of this show as having had a concrete, fully mapped out plan. The writers didn’t have that, and they shouldn’t have had it, because that’s not how you tell a story. Storytelling is a process of discovery—not just for the reader, but for the writer himself. As someone who has written his own fiction, I can tell you lots of times you start with just an image of the ending in your head, and no earthly clue of how the heck you’ll get there. This is actually the whole fun of writing. Your story is full of a-ha moments, and you’re the first one for each of them to sit up and say, “A-ha!”
I don’t know the exact process Damon Lindelof, Carlton Cuse, and their team used to write Lost, but I imagine this idea of filling in the blanks—of writing towards the ending—was part of it. It had to be. TV’s a rough game. Shows get cancelled. Actors quit or die or get themselves fired. You start with an ending, but it’s just a rough idea, and then you puzzle your way through whatever amount of time you’ve been allotted, connecting the dots as best as you can and discovering what your story was about in the process. Did Lost make some mistakes in the process of doing that? I’ll see your Nikki and raise you a Paulo to bet you that they did. But to suggest that they “didn’t have a plan” is literally ignorant of how to tell a story. We didn’t all enjoy the destination, but we enjoyed the journey because the writers enjoyed it first. If the process had been pedantic or paint-by-numbers for them, I bet there wouldn’t even be an ending to complain about. Shows with writers who aren’t having fun usually end when their networks pull their plugs.
Endings are a tricky thing. Sometimes bad ones happen. I think Stephen King’s The Stand is the best book I’ve read, but the climax still leaves something to be desired. Sometimes endings hit all the right buttons, like the last four episodes of Breaking Bad, and sometimes they leave people scratching their heads. If you enjoy a work—especially a longer one—it’s okay to think the work was great while thinking the ending missed the mark. You don’t have to hate the whole thing and regret you went through it, just because the ending wasn’t what you thought it would be.
I think that’s the problem Lost is up against now. I think it’s the reason so many people who loved it at the time now claim to hate it and wish they never watched it. Having loved the show during its initial run, and having loved it just as much, but differently, while rewatching it, I think this retroactive hate is unfortunate. I think it’s time for people to “let go,” to steal a perfectly Lostian term, of the show you thought you were watching while you watched it, and embrace it for what it actually was. The show wasn’t perfect. Few things are. But it gave us more great moments than most shows could ever hope to. We met wonderful characters, traveled to fascinating places, and experienced things that both gave us the chills and filled our hearts and minds with wonder.
I don’t expect all the former fans out there to “go back,” as Jack would put it, and rewatch the show from the beginning, just to see for themselves if they can learn to re-like it. But if you ever loved this show, if you ever got something out of it, if nothing else, at least consider what I’m saying. This show delivered us a ton of fond memories. Love or hate the ending, it deserves a better epitaph.
Jonathan David Morris is the author of “Versus Nurture,” available now on Amazon. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/readjdm.