Few finales have received as much criticism as that of Lost, an event that as of today has seen ten years of medium-shaking history pass. Following six seasons of ambitious mysteries and drama, there was much expectation around the show’s ending, however its ending fell foul, and its perceived failure particularly rankled. It became the first example of a failed conclusion in the era of prestige television. But, despite such fervent distaste, it’s a finale that’s stuck in my mind for respecting the story’s themes – and the passage of time make its reasons for success more evident than ever.
In the eyes of many viewers, the show failed to satisfy the need to wrap up the many mysteries of the show. Endless, evolving questions had become an essential part of what the show was known for – surprises such as the island’s polar bears, the mysterious hatch, and The Others become synonymous in popular culture. It seemed inevitable, then, that people would want a sense of resolution to these questions, something to logically pull together all the various pieces of the puzzle. However, the answers given were much vaguer and more metaphysical than the years of waiting had implicitly promised.
Describing the ending can certainly make it sound ludicrous, at least when you’re cherry picking bits of the narrative. There’s a man made of shadow, a magical light at the island’s centre, and an unexplained quasi-afterlife where all the islanders would reunite once again; watching the show doesn’t tie all these elements together with logic. However, the ending wasn’t ever about plot machinations but the themes that underpinned the show at all its points: faith, hope, community. The move into a reflection on our purpose on the grandest – and least explicable – of scales was a natural progression.
Lost’s finale concluded a consistently bold journey, one that put people at the centre of both its adventures and the variety of philosophical questions posed by the show. There had consistently been the opportunity to see the characters in all their complexity, the narrative not only presenting their actions on the island but the troubled pasts which guided them. The distinct, flawed personalities of each character inevitably led to many clashes of perspectives; one of the most significant being the battle between the sceptical Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) and the faith-driven John Locke (Terry O’Quinn). These confrontations were gripping because we knew both the personal and philosophical stakes. So, from this angle, the ending was as satisfyingly neat as we could have hoped for, giving real purpose to the the characters’ struggles against themselves and each other.
Television’s partially changed nature contributed, unfortunately, to much less important parts of the show gaining prominence. Weekly airing and six years of watching gave plenty of time for short and long term thinking around what all the clues meant. The internet was key, though, to allowing the fan’s enthusiasm to reach fever pitch with chatter, podcasts, mini-sodes, and more gave room for speculation around the show to gain greater traction than ever. So it’s no surprise that this well of joyous passion was ultimately redirected into vehement distaste; a reaction strong enough to even sully the reputation of Lost as an entire series.
Narratively, Lost is better suited to the streaming era. It had episodic storytelling to a degree, each episode dealing with a vaguely self-contained idea, yet its deep, evolving characterisation and bread-crumbed ideas warrant watching at a faster-than-weekly rate to keep on top of them. Overarching mysteries certainly become more pronounced and more frustrating when they’re drawn out, and when you’re focusing on these vast concepts, it’s comes as a distraction from the centre of the story. My first watch was all on DVD, which allowed for pacey, self-directed viewing, and without being in the centre of live communities, my expectations were set purely by the content itself.
On the other hand, Lost may have not just suffered because of how it was viewed, but by what it was viewed against. Prestige television was coming into its own at this time, and Lost was airing at the same time as The Sopranos and The Wire but, during its latter seasons, Breaking Bad and Mad Men. All these shows dealt with dark subject matter, cynical protagonists, and little possibility of positive resolutions. So, in comparison, Lost could have been seen as a little passé: unwilling to judge its characters, bent towards the spirituality of the American public, and all moving with a non-naturalistic pace. It had the intelligence of the new but the attitudes and style of the old.
However, Lost stands out because of the ways in which it may have failed a decade ago; predominantly in that leaves us feeling hope. It recognises, above all, the value of everyone – even those who are deeply flawed. It tells us that our battles our worth fighting, that it’s normal to keep fighting them, and that it’s all for a reason. In life, where personal, political, and social upheaval are an inevitability, it’s good to be reminded that it’s a shared journey where we all, whether we know it or not, have a part to play. By the very end, the show has stuck to Jack’s early mantra of ‘Live together or die alone’ with an admirable, unapologetic lack of compromise.
Enough time has passed that this ending should be given a second look, one without the expectation that its first viewing carried with it. The era of its airing obscured the intelligent, honest heart behind it, and so deserves to be revisited – but specifically, however, as the final chapter of a literary, character-driven work. Lost‘s ending doesn’t go for crowd-pleasing or for cheap spectacle, but provides an end to a journey that, when savoured, might seem much more personal than simple plot points and reputation can hope to match.
Header image courtesy of ABC