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All of This Matters: Lost Questions, More on "The End"

Welcome to this week's second look at Lost, in what will be my final column on Lost for some time to come now that the series has wrapped, amid some controversy (those ABC-inserted final shots!) and viewer polarization over the reveal of just what the Sideways/Lost-X storyline was really about.

As I have throughout this season, I'll be taking a second look at this week's episode of Lost ("The End") by responding to reader questions and comments submitted via comments, Twitter, and email.

While I discussed "The End" in full over here (as well as a shorter piece over at The Daily Beast), it's time to dive deeper and get to some further theories, doubts, and questions. (You can also catch me on this week's Instant Dharma critics roundup as well.)

So, without further ado, let's pull the cork from the bottle, lay down in the bamboo grove, and discuss "The End."

As I stated in my 4500-word review of the Lost series finale (which I'd urge to you all read as I was far more eloquent there than I intend to be here), I wasn't all that pleased with the resolution of the Lost-X timeframe and the ultimate ending of the series (i.e., the final ten minutes or so set in the church), but I did love everything that took place on the island in the two-and-a-half hour series finale ("The End"), which saw the final battle between good and evil and the role of ultimate leader get passed from Jack Shephard to Hugo Reyes, the one person who really didn't want the responsibility but who seemed selected long ago for the role of island protector.

Which left me feeling extremely ambivalent about the series finale as a whole as so much during the sixth and final season of Lost was riding on how well Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse could integrate that Sideways timeline, which we learned wasn't a divergent reality at all but a sort of spiritual purgatory where the castaways could finally let go of their earthly troubles, come together one last time, and then move on to the afterlife, having finally achieved the peace they couldn't find in life.

It was a touchy-feely and pat ending that didn't sit well with me, given the stakes we've seen through six seasons and it ended the series on a bit too much of an uplifting note that felt a little too uplifting and buoyant. (Personally, I'd have preferred we ended on that gorgeous shot of Jack on his back in the bamboo forest as the Ajira flight soars away overhead and he finally closes his eyes, a direct inversion of the opening of the pilot episode.) While it didn't invalidate anything that had come before it, it didn't spark within me the emotional response that Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse sought to achieve. While I thought the scenes of connection and reunion between the pairs of lovers were beautiful, the final scene of the cast--or most of them, anyway--in the church didn't resonate with me in any meaningful way.

But it also didn't confuse me either, as it did many viewers (and a few critics, to boot), who mistakenly believed that the reveal that this world was in fact an elaborate purgatory constructed by the collective consciousness of the passengers meant that the island itself was also a fantasy.

Not so.

Purgatory. Whatever happened, happened. That's been said several times throughout the run of Lost and it applies full stop to the six seasons of plot that we saw unfold on that mysterious island that can skip through time and space. Putting aside all manner of smoke monsters, mythical corks in bottles, and four-toed statues, the island DID exist. It was real and the castaways who crashed on the island in the pilot episode lived there and died there before a handful of them managed to escape on the Ajira Airlines flight in the series finale.

There's no getting around that. The island was not, as some have clung desperately to, a purgatory. Nor did the castaways perish "on impact" in the pilot. They lived and loved on this island, explored its mysteries, and either died or escaped at the end. (Save Hurley and Ben, who remained behind to protect the island from further interlopers.)

In other words: they lived their lives until their deaths. Which, for some of them, came years or even decades later. While Jack died in the final moments of the episode, Kate and Sawyer and those who escaped returned to the mainland where they finished out their days. What happened to them and what they did after coming back from yet another plane crash (and how they explained the appearance of James Ford and Claire Littleton, both of whom were declared dead following the return of the Oceanic Six) remains tantalizingly unclear. It will be up to the viewers to imagine just what kind of lives they had post-island.

But everyone dies. That's true not just for those who were buried on the island during the 100-plus days they stayed there initially but those who left too... and even island protectors Jack and Hurley.

Bound together by the extraordinary and inexplicable times they shared together on the island, they jointly created a purgatory where they could meet and come together one last time before leaving for the afterlife together. Thus, the final church scene in the series finale where all of them--including, in the end, Jack Shephard--come together before they step into the light and are rewarded for their struggles, finally letting go of their mortal coil and moving on in peace.

It's fitting that original man of science Jack Shephard should be the last to be "awakened," the last to come to terms with his death. While on the island, he made a huge leap of faith, here Jack needs a sign, a divine intervention to prove to him what he's secretly and subconsciously aware of: he's dead and needs to let go. Thus, the exposition-laden scene with Christian Shephard at the empty coffin, where he spells out for Jack (and the viewers) the nature of this world.

All of it did matter in the end: their lives, their struggles, the traumas that they fought so hard to escape. It all brought them first to the island and then to this place between life and death, where they could say goodbye and be sent on to their heavenly reward. Hugs all around.

Lost-X Island. One question I keep getting asked is why, if this world was an afterlife constructed by the castaways post-death, was the island underwater? It's a valid question and I believe the shot from "LA X" of the island beneath the sea was a bait-and-switch employed by Team Darlton to make the viewer believe even more than this was a divergent reality and that Juliet's actions at the bottom of the Swan Station pit had been successful (echoed, of course, by her line "It worked," which wasn't referring to Jughead at all). By showing us the island at the bottom of the ocean, it was an intentional mislead on their part to make us thing one thing and then yank out the rug later one.

Narratively, there's also another possible explanation: in this world, they don't need the island. This isn't a place of good and evil but a fictional construct where they can achieve happiness and then be released to the afterlife, a waiting room that's not predicated on them recorking any mythical bottle or facing down the smoke monster. The plane doesn't crash because there is no island to crash onto... and the plane doesn't crash because it doesn't need to. Those experiences have already been lived, those sacrifices already made, and those hard truths already learned.

What brings them together is their dawning realization that they are dead after going through another cycle of acceptance. While the castaways were joined by fate in life, so too are they in death. Their interconnectedness comes full circle here as Desmond acts as a divine messenger, awakening them to the truth of their situation, not that there is another world out there where they knew each other but that there is and always has been one world, one life, one that they shared together.

The island's presence under the water is just that: a symbol of buried truth and self-awareness. Rose says it best when she tells Jack in "LA X" that he can "let go now." The plane has crashed once before; it doesn't need to again. Like them, it reaches its final destination in the end.

Jack's Limbo? Saeine wrote, "The only thing that I want to add because it helped me reconcile it a little more was that this particular limbo/purgatory phase was Jack's only. The people that were there were the ones that were important to Jack. Jack was instructed to enter through the back, it was his father that was there to explain it to him."

I'd disagree with this entirely. For one thing, Christian Shephard flat out tells Jack that this world was built by all of them... and the entire season has used the shifting perspectives of each of the characters to flesh out this story and this world, not just Jack.

Each of them had come to this shared purgatory to connect one last time. While Jack is our main character--it's his eyes opening and closing at the beginning and end of the series--the purgatory that's explored here belongs to all of them, not just Jack. He's the last to come to terms with what this place is and his own death, which is why Christian has to appear to him and walk him through it and prove to the skeptical doctor the miracles of life and death.

Missing Passengers. An anonymous commenter wrote, "The second issue was certain people not being present in limbo at the end to move forward. I also think this makes sense. The island brought all these people together and completed their life. I think Walt's "purpose" wasn't the island, so he has his own limbo somewhere else. I think Ben's purpose was the "family" he had and needed to move forward with them. Richard's purpose was always his wife, and a "limbo" outside of the island again makes sense."

But Ben was in the purgatory they established. The reason that he didn't enter the church was that he wasn't ready yet to move on, as indicated by his conversation with John Locke. He chose to remain within the purgatory for an as yet undetermined about of time before letting go.

Others weren't yet ready to make the journey either. Hurley said that Ana-Lucia wasn't ready when he sees her in "What They Died For." Charlotte and Daniel Widmore (ne Faraday) haven't yet been awakened and are still unaware that they're dead. (Not helping matters: Eloise Hawking, who is aware of the purgatory aspect of this world but isn't ready to let her son go.) The same holds true for Miles.

The absence of Michael could be explained away by the fact that his soul is still trapped on the island and part of the whisperers. He hasn't earned his ticket to the afterlife yet. As for Walt, he too might not be ready to leave, even if he might be somewhere within this world...

Desmond. So what did Desmond see when he was dosed with the massive quantities of electromagnetic energy by Charles Widmore? Answer: that purgatory where the others had gathered. Not a divergent reality, not another world, but a twilight waiting room where they were being brought together once more.

Even Desmond seems confused about this in the episode. He pulls out the stopper in the bottle so that they can cross over and be with their loved ones, but that's not what happens nor was it meant to. In those moments in the chair, Desmond was pulled out of his mortal coil and given a taste of true happiness, a place where lovers weren't torn asunder by murderous demi-gods or mistakenly fired bullets but where they could be together, forever.

His purpose wasn't to allow them to cross over but to help them on their way to the true afterlife, just as his actions here enable Jack to finally slay the smoke monster and tilt the scales in the other direction.

Plane wreckage. Valdezign asked, "Could the plane wreckage in the credits be the Ajira plane?"

I got a number of comments from confused individuals who believed that the wreckage shown over the closing credits meant either (A) that the castaways had died in the pilot, or (B) that the wreckage was that of the Ajira flight.

Both are wrong.

I already tackled the first theory, that the castaways died on the island, above. I found it abundantly clear from the first viewing of the Lost series finale, but many people were confused about the outcome of the series and by those final images. I didn't think it indicated anything--after all, other relics of past crashes and civilizations have littered the island in the past (Black Rock, anyone?) and the photos also clearly showed signs that people had been there as well.

Additionally, ABC felt the need to clarify later the next day that they, rather than Lindelof and Cuse, had placed those images over the closing credits. (Long time viewers will recall the love/hate relationship between the showrunners and the ABC promo department, who oversee the promos and closing credit sequences.) Maria Elena Fernandez of The Los Angeles Times wrote a post about the plane crash imagery that confirmed this fact and indicated that ABC did not mean to mislead or confuse anyone with those images.

As for the theory that it was Ajira plane, no dice there. The final shot of the series from Jack's perspective is the Ajira plane soaring off into the skies and his expression of relief and happiness indicates that the plane made it off the island... and the shots of the wreckage were distinctively that of Oceanic Flight 815's fuselage, etc. No, Kate, Sawyer, and the others did escape the island and went on to lead lives that we'll never know about.

Answers. Rockauteur wrote, "Still very upset that no answers about Dharma/Hanso. Nothing about the supply drops on the island, or the outrigger shooting, or Libby's backstory, or how Christian (as Smokey potentially) was able to talk to Michael on the freighter or Jack in LA? Was that Smokey as Christian or Jack as Christian? Was Hurley's friend Dave Smokey? What about the Hurley Bird thing? I didn't care about that but that was something Team Darlton said we would get an answer to in the finale... What was Ilana's relationship to Jacob? Why did half the Oceanic 6 go to the 1970's and the other half the island in the main time stream? Why didn't The Others move through time? What happened to Cindy and the kids?"

Yes, there was still a lot of unresolved mysteries and dangling plot threads when Lost faded to white earlier this week. On the one hand, I fully expected this. There was never going to be a single unified theory that could be used as a rubric to solve all of Lost's diverse mysteries. And it was also inevitable that many questions would be left dangling in the wind when the series ended.

Some of the questions don't require answers as the viewers can piece together or theorize the solutions on their own without it being spelled out by Lindelof or Cuse. Others are just frustratingly ambiguous and should have been answered, if only to give some closure to these questions which loomed larger in the minds of the viewers than they did the writers (or the characters).

There are some questions which don't need solutions. I don't need to know what happened to Cindy and Zach and Emma because they were never the focus of the main story and we can interpolate why they were taken in the first place: the Others couldn't reproduce and therefore couldn't expand their population so they solved this by taking children and by testing women for fertility. Juliet Burke was brought in to attempt to solve the mystery of the pregnancy fatalities but never came close to reaching a solution. (I would assume the cause of this situation had to do with The Incident that Juliet herself caused, making it the height of irony that she was the one brought in to attempt to solve it... only causing it in the first place.)

Why didn't the Others move through time as the castaways did? Perhaps because they had been, over time, exposed to the electromagnetic energy of the island and had been locked in time as a result. (Though this doesn't quite explain why Juliet, having lived there for some time, did become unstuck and traveled through time.) But because we focused mainly on the castaways as they traveled through time in Season Five, it's possible that somewhere on the island, Cindy and the kids were themselves traveling through time. Or perhaps--if we really wanted to get nutty--the vaccine that the Others gave Claire and maybe the other inhabitants prevented them getting unstuck in time.

But, really, it's just not a major mystery that cries out for lengthy explanation. As for why Sun didn't travel back in time with the others, an argument could be made that Jacob had already invalidated her as a candidate when she gave birth to Ji Yeon. (Though Kate's name was crossed off because she too was a mother, yet she still traveled back in time, so scratch that.)

Regarding some of the other issues that Rockauteur raised, I too remember Darlton mentioning the Hurleybird would be resolved. The only thing I can think of is that Hurley eventually became the island's protector. Given that he was already attuned to the island's unique supernatural properties--he can see dead people--perhaps it was the island's way of reaching out to him and acknowledging that he would one day be its protector? Hmmm...

Some mysteries fell by the wayside, that's for sure. A television show is an organic things: it lives and breathes and changes as the writers are forced to adapt, change paths midstream, and shuffle things around. What was important back in Season Two when Team Darlton didn't have an end date for the series became less important when they did. Mysteries that were intended to help fill in the gaps and allow them to tread water for a bit quickly lost steam (and importance) as they began the marathon to the finish line.

However, some mysteries do beg answers: why the Dharma supply drops continued decades after The Purge? What was Libby's backstory and how did she get from the mental hospital to Oceanic Flight 815? Who fired at the time-tossed castaways in the outrigger?

And I'm not entirely convinced by Darlton's explanation that the Man in Black was masquerading as Jack's father Christian Shephard. Given the smoke monster's efforts to terrorize the castaways (starting with the poor, doomed pilot in the, uh, pilot), I don't believe for a second that he would lead them to water, thus saving all of their lives in the process.

Likewise, I'm not sure what to make of Christian's appearance in Jacob's so-called cabin, which was surrounded by ash, the sort that keeps the smoke monster out (or in), given that he was flying around the island at that point wreaking all sorts of havoc. I also have a hard time reconciling this reveal with the fact that Christian appeared to Michael aboard the freighter to say that the island was done with him... and to Jack in Los Angeles. While Jack was addled with drugs at the time, it still doesn't quite make sense to me.

His presence at the frozen donkey wheel? Sure, I can buy that that was the smoke monster in Christian's form as it set into motion Locke's death, his return to the island, and the Nameless One assuming his form. Christian with Claire in the cabin, after the dead Horace sent Locke there? Sure. But the others? I dare say that Team Darlton changed their mind along the way about the ghostly Christian.

And likely, quite a few other things as well. But that's the beauty--and often the pitfall--of doing a long-running serialized drama that is based around numerous and deeply layered mysteries. Things can, and often have to, change.

Even with Lost.


Bravo, Jace. Well put, as always.

Thanks for giving me such wonderful things to read about Lost.

Heatherette said…
It would be fascinating to know what some of Darlton's original intentions were with the series (i.e. Christian) and how those intentions changed over the many seasons.

Thanks for all of your brilliant thoughts on Lost! You certainly have helped me make sense of the series!
Unknown said…
Great post Jace.

Hopefully it will help some people understand the finale. Others, well, they seem very happy to be angry about the whole thing. Personally, how anyone can not see what was laid out for us is beyond me.

Yes, there are things that are unexplained but how people can run with the "whole thing was purgatory" point of view escapes me. So many things just don't fit with that theory.

I agree with most everything you've said with one main exception. I believe Christian was talking about the church as the place that they all created, not the whole "flash sideways" world.

I think all dead people exist in that world until they are ready to pass over. That's why you saw all of the other people, connected to our characters or not, walking around. I suspect part of being there is working through issues and letting go of what plagued you in life.

Many of our characters seemed to be working things out. Jack worked through some daddy issues with a junior version of himself. Locke worked out his own daddy issues/guilt, probably stemming from causing the death of his own father on the island.

Charley was back to his pre-island addict self perhaps because his life was cut short on the island. Who knows.

I don't think Darlton will be adverse to talking about the finale forever (unlike David Chase & Sopranos) so I'm sure we'll get info at some point.
HipHopAnonymous said…
In retrospect I think the finale was extremely apropos. In a sense you could say that the story of LOST was really the story of a son trying to say goodbye to his father.

It was about a great many other things as well. But fundamentally it all seems to reflect this central notion of Jack trying to come to terms with his father's death, being haunted by his father's ghost, and making peace with their difficult past.

"Let go. Move on."

Admittedly the sideways were a bit of a cheat. While I suspected from the start that it was an epilogue of sorts, like so many other viewers I spent the entire season trying to discern some rational connection between the island's mythology and the existence of the sideways timeline, only to finally discover that there wasn't one. Deus ex machina in the most literal sense.

Still, it makes for a fitting epitaph to the series... Live Together, Die Together.
Unknown said…
Excellent point that the writers realized some of the mysteries in season 2 weren't relevant in season 6, as the series had gone in a different direction. We can create our own answers to a lot of it. I have.

I agree with one of the posters above that the whole sideways world wasn't necessarily "purgatory." As I see it, the alternate reality WAS created when Juliet triggered the bomb. It just began to break apart when the original, stronger reality of the island began to "intervene."
Tempest said…
Thanks for all the great Lost posts. I know I'm not the only one who appreciates your thoughtful commentary.
UPennBen said…
I was a big fan of the finale, and I think it was very meta. Letting go was as much a message to the fans as to the characters. One of the major themes of the show was that some things are simply inexplicable. Our effort to understand them, whether through faith or science, is what is important. But life must be lived; one must not become hung up on the little details.

In that regard, most of the questions are really not very important, especially to the characters. If you're stuck on a weird island, are you really worried about who's dropping pallets, or are you thankful for them? Do you really want to know why there are hieroglyphics everywhere, or do you want to go home? Regardless, it's not that important. We saw lots of outrigger scenes this season; suffice it to say that someone shot at the time travelers. As for the Dharma drops, I'd put money on Eloise Hawking, who had been there before and who monitored the island from the lamp post.

Sure, there were several unexplained storylines that were important, but 90% of the ones on the video are either irrelevant or can be answered through extrapolation and reasonable assumptions.
Perry K said…
I guess I'm a little lost on the logic of the nuclear bomb not exploding. If it doesn't go off, then how did Jack and the others get bumped back to the nearly present time line, which is where they meet back up with Ben, Sun and Frank. If I remember right, Jack, Sawyer, Kate, and Hurley, were all in the 1970s Dharma. How did they time travel back to the present, without something very large from happening?
Unknown said…
I watched the finale Sunday night and I was quite disappointed to learn that the flash-sideways reality was nothing like what I was expecting, and seemed therefore pretty irrelevant to the rest of the story. Viewers were definitely manipulated this season into believing that the flash-sideways reality was in fact an alternate time line that was extremely important because it had a direct impact on the main time line reality. It was a ruse.

Last night I watched the finale for a second time, knowing this time what the flash-sideways reality really was. With that knowledge, I was surprisingly very much able to appreciate it. In fact, I think if I knew what it really was all season long, I wouldn't have appreciated it at all. It was fitting that this end-of-life "reality" was revealed at the end of the show.

Lost is an amazing story - even though it isn't perfect (it made a few minor missteps along the way, and had a few minor flaws). Another person commented on a similarity they saw between Lost and The Lord of the Rings, another favorite of mine. Lost is also an epic story, built on exceptionally strong character development.

I'm wondering if personal belief in an afterlife affects one opinion on the end of Lost. As a Christian, while I don't agree with the concept of afterlife that was portrayed, I can still appreciate the hope that one day you can be with those you love and there is no more pain and suffering. I imagine that if you don't believe in an afterlife at all, the whole thing might seem rather sappy and silly.

Anyway, I had a much different experience watching the finale a second time. If you haven't done so yet, you might want to give it a try.

Regardless of your final judgment of the ending (pun intended :o) ), you have to admit that Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse are two of the greatest story tellers of our time. They told a great story the way they wanted to tell it, we were all glued to the edges of our seats, and it was one hec of a ride!

I, too, want to thank you, Jace, for your Lost recaps and commentaries. For me you made a very enjoyable Lost experience even richer.
Sunny said…
I definitely thought it was "Jack's own limbo." The biggest reason for this was that Sayid was with Shannon at the end. SHANNON? WTF? Sayid, who loved Nadia for years, was in the afterlife with Shannon, the chick he had like a three-day fling with? No way, Jose.
Unknown said…
"But Ben was in the purgatory they established. The reason that he didn't enter the church was that he wasn't ready yet to move on, as indicated by his conversation with John Locke. He chose to remain within the purgatory for an as yet undetermined about of time before letting go. "

The first thing that came to mind after Hurley asked Ben if he was coming and he said not yet. He was outside waiting. When Locke told Ben he had forgiven him and he smiled. I think from that point I realized he was not ready to come in was because he was trying to repent for the things he had done. Waiting for those who he needed to ask forgiveness from. In some religions purgatory is that place where you may be able to fix the wrongs in the past life. I hope Ben was able to do that. Maybe that is also why Eloise didn't want Desmond to wake up Faraday. Eloise felt so guilty about taking away her son's love for music and then later taking his life. She wanted him to have the life he truly wanted and be happy before she was ready to let go. That is just my theory.
Anonymous said…
@Sunny. Agreed! And sure why would everyone be exactly the same age as they were at the moment Jack last knew them. None of the characters were any younger or older than when they crashed on/escaped the island The Christian-Jack-Shephard predominantly Christian ending was befitting i thought (whilst also pointing out there was Korean Yin/Yang symbolism also evident on the stained glass.) All obviously from Jack's perspectiveand deep-rooted beliefs. Who knows what the others were seeing or if in fact this was just a small purgatory connected to an over-arching larger purgatory. eitherways it doesn't really matter and left up to ourselves to deduce.

And thanks again Jace. Will miss reading your insightful posts to LOST each week.

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