Lost is one of my all-time favorite shows. Every night it aired from 2004 to 2010 was appointment viewing. But during that time, the way people looked at the hit ABC series didn’t necessarily fit what the show was trying to do. Lost was two shows—a show about broken people growing and changing in extraordinary circumstances, and a show about mysteries that dated back decades and ultimately centuries. Caught between being a show about people and a show about mysteries, Lost could never really satisfy everyone, which especially became true in its final season as it introduced “flash-sideways” and attempted an endgame where an alternate reality could be affected by the choices made on the island. The final season had to “answer” questions and try to tie up every loose end while still servicing an ensemble cast of characters. Under these circumstances, perhaps it was inevitable that the series finale, which aired 10 years ago today, would be divisive.
For my part, at the time I felt that it was a half-successful finale. I never really bought into the conceit of the flash-sideways although I find the concept of alternate realities fascinating. The problem was the “awakening” device where someone in the flash sideways would remember everything on the island and instantly transform, which always felt like someone watching a recap of something and then saying they had watched the show. It was a memory of a lived experience rather than an actual lived experience (and what happened to the life they lived in the flash-sideways?). However, I felt almost everything on the island worked. Although I was never totally on board with The Man in Black assuming Locke’s identity (Locke’s death felt anti-climatic because it was shrouded in mystery and only really resolved when Jack acknowledged that John Locke was a great man), most of the island stuff worked because those were our characters making real choices. While the larger mystery stuff kind of flopped, the characters remained captivating, and that’s why I continue to love Lost.
Because the mystery stuff was the hook, mysteries became the show’s identity in the popular consciousness and for parts of the fanbase. “Where did the polar bear come from?” “What is the Dharma Initiative?” “What happens to pregnant women on the island?” “Why did The Others kidnap Walt?” “What were Walt’s powers?” “What was the smoke monster?” “What did the numbers mean?” These mysteries and more lit up message boards and had fans puzzling over possible solutions for years, but they weren’t why Lost was a good show. They were the tantalizing dessert that kept you intrigued, but the meat of the series was about people. Lost, at its core, is about who we are, the decisions that shape us, and if it’s possible to change. That’s a universal story and the way Lost made flashbacks an integral part of its identity gave the show its shape, shading, and definition.
Lost asked and answered many questions over the course of its six-year run, but there wasn’t really a single revelation that could match the dizzying highs of its character moments. When we learn in “Walkabout” the truth about John Locke, yes, it’s a revelation, but it’s not really about the island beyond some undefined power it might have. The revelation is about a man. It’s about who John Locke is as a person, what drives him, what frustrates him, and why him coming to the island is special. When Desmond and Penny reconnect in “The Constant,” what we remember isn’t the how of him becoming unstuck in time, but the emotional grounding of how true love transcends space and time to bond two people together.
Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who wrote for the show for the first two season, made an astute point in his personal essay “The Lost Will and Testament of Javier Grillo-Marxuach”, writing:
“While a lot of the accounts of Lost‘s creation hinge on the question of whether we knew what the island was – and a lot of the criticism of the show centers around whether or not we had worked out the mythology in advance and whether or not we accurately represented to the press the extent of our preparation once the show became a success – few people ever ask if we knew the characters or had their stories worked out in advance. I find that curious.
Arguably, the reason audience members fell in love with Lost was as much, if not more, that they bonded with our ensemble as they were tantalized by the mysteries of the island. Much of our work in those early days came in the form of figuring out who those characters were, how they would interact in series, and how their stories could play out in relationship to one another.”
Shows can survive on mysteries alone, and people check out quickly not because of an unsatisfying resolution but because a character’s identity was betrayed. If you follow a show for years on end, it’s not because you needed to know how some fictitious thing was related to another fictitious thing. It’s because you’re invested in a character because that character speaks to you in some way with their struggles and their emotions. It doesn’t really matter how the island restored Locke; what matters is watching a man of faith wrestle with a new identity and how he’s felt cheated his entire life. John Locke doesn’t speak to us as someone who underwent a magical transformation; he speaks to us as a man who wants to believe there’s a power in the world that can give him new purpose.
The best characters on the show — Desmond, Hurley, Sun, Sawyer, Sayid, Ben, and more — speak to us because we care about their individual journeys and how they relate to each other more than how some mystical or scientific explanation speaks to something else. And because showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse almost always managed to stay true to their characters, Lost endures. Obviously its impact on genre television was groundbreaking and there were a bunch of Lost clones in its wake, but Lost remains a great show because its foundation is the characters, not the island mysteries.
Not every resolution was perfectly handled, and some characters’ exits felt abrupt and a bit of a cheat. But the core of the show was about the choices we make shaping who we are, and if there’s the possibility for change and redemption. Yes, it’s laughably heavy-handed when a character named “Christian Shepherd” shows up at the Holy Church of All Religions Are Cool and explains that time on the island was important, but that’s just an unnecessary button in a single episode. When you look at the show across its six seasons, you see a story about rich, interesting characters who lured us in with their compelling narratives. That’s what Lost was about and why it remains a show worth watching regardless of its finale.