Live Together, Die Alone: My Thoughts on and Review of Lost

I watched the finale about a year behind everybody else in the world. I also started the series about six years behind everybody else.

This was intentional, at least partially. A lot of my friends, people whose taste I respected, watched Lost weekly for six years. They loved it and raved about it and had viewing parties.

Do you know how sometimes when everyone loves something, a belligerent part of you wants to not partake in it, just because? And then you end up getting pissed at yourself because you know it’s your own fault that you’re missing out on the fun? And then you have to convince yourself that there’s no way it’s actually fun. That’s kind of what I did with Lost.

I didn’t think it was that great of a show. It was on ABC for Christ’s sake. It was aimed at — and loved by — the general mass audience of TV watchers. Those people don’t know good television. Those people watch Two and A Half Men and Grey’s Anatomy.

But Lost isn’t like those shows. What became obvious to me, from reading articles and hearing my friends discuss it, was that Lost had mystery. A lot of intriguing mystery. And people weren’t tuning in to watch relationship drama or sex scenes or bad jokes written by Chuck Lorre. People were getting really, really wrapped up in the mystery. How many times have you heard the joke: “Yeah. Lost, that’s exactly how the audience feels. Har har.”

And so Lost started to become a cultural phenomenon. It became obvious, as a Certified Television Nerd, that I would have to watch it. Especially after it ended last year. Its ending was a big deal.

All of those people, who had spent six years of their life following the mystery, freaked out. Some people loved the ending. But most hated it. A lot.

One of my friends told me:

It was like a six year abusive relationship. You just keep telling yourself if you stick it out long enough, you’ll get what you’re looking for. But it never happens and you finally have to have that disappointing moment where you realize it and break up. Then, you just think about all the time you’ve wasted.

Wow. Depressing, huh?

I had other friends advise me trenchantly to stop after the third season or the fourth season or the fifth season or the second to last episode. “Just don’t watch the finale!” was the common counsel.

I have to admit, the fact that so many fans lost (no pun) their minds over the last episode actually made me want to watch the show more. The finale’s backlash only added to the intrigue.

And so I watched it, over the past few months, and finally saw the finale last Sunday. I have to thank all the people who warned me against the finale episode. You guys lowered my expectations so far that I was prepared for the absolute worst.

I genuinely believed the ending would subvert the entire run of the show in a truly ridiculous way. I was ready for Jesus to show up and shake Jack’s hand. Or for Hurley to wake up in a mental hospital and realize: “Dave was right, it was all in my head!” Or for Walt to navigate the alien mothership buried beneath the island back to its homeworld.

I’m not joking. Okay, I am, but only a little.

But because of my rock-bottom expectations, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the ending. I didn’t hate it. Actually, I kind of liked it.

So now there will be spoilers. And if you ever plan on watching the show, read no further. Seriously, this will ruin the mystery and a significant part of the enjoyment. Stop here. But if you have already watched it (like most people in the world) and care about what I think (not like most people in the world) keep reading.

As I said, I liked the ending. It wasn’t the terrible, disappointing train wreck everyone made it out to be. I thought it was fitting.

Now, let me point out, I’m not judging the show on its philosophical merits. It’s always nice when a good story also has good philosophy, but that’s not why I watch TV or read books. I’m sure you already know that Lost was chock full of mysticism and supernatural nonsense. And one of the underlying themes was Jack versus Locke, the “man of science” versus the “man of faith.” The show does not side with Jack and his skepticism. My complaints about how the show treated reason and rationality will have to be the subject of another post, but it’s nothing you wouldn’t expect from mainstream network television.

I am going to judge the ending from a story-telling perspective. These are the main things I expected from the ending:

  1. It should bring a resolution to the story and the characters
  2. It should answer the main question of the season
  3. It should answer the main questions of the series
  4. It should answer many of the minor questions that have come up during the previous six seasons

Let’s take the above list in reverse order.

There were tons of questions raised over the course of the show that the final episode (and final season) didn’t answer at all:

Why couldn’t women have children on the island? Why was Walt so special? What happened to Annie, Ben’s love interest? What was Sawyer’s Tampa job? Why was Desmond special? Why could Hurley see and speak to dead people? Were the numbers really cursed? Why did some of the Losties travel in time but others not? Why did the island set up that whole time loop in the first place? How exactly was Richard Alpert immortal? What’s with the statue of Tawaret and all of the other Egyptian symbolism? Who was shooting from the other outrigger?

I can go on, but you get the point. A few of these were later addressed in an epilogue and various interviews or podcasts. I appreciate that. But I did expect more answers from the show itself. By the end these mysteries all seemed minor and not important, but there were times when these were the questions that left you hanging from episode to episode.

Okay, so the finale didn’t do a good enough job of answering those questions, but what about the main questions of the series? There were two:

Why were the survivors brought to the island?

What is the island?

The first one was answered. The survivors were brought to the island because one of them needed to take over the role as its protector. They were chosen because their lives were miserable. They had no real connections to anyone or anything.

The second was answered, but only vaguely. The island contains something called the Source. It is the source of all light and goodness and life in the world. And if it goes out, so does life itself.

So yeah, “magic.” But at least it was vague. Vague mystical answers are usually better than specific ones. The more specific your mysticism, the more stupid it is. And as I said before, I don’t have anything explicitly against mystical elements in fiction. There is, as we all know, no such thing as The One Ring.

On to point #2, the main question of the season.

The sixth season introduced an alternate timeline (commonly referred to as the Sideways world) and would flash back and forth between the events on the island and the events in Los Angeles.

When the show “flashed sideways” we saw the survivors living their lives as if the island had been destroyed in the 70’s. Their plane never crashed. Most were happier and put together and living out more fulfilling lives. Jack had a son that was he connecting with and avoiding the mistakes his father made. Locke was coming to terms with his inability to walk. Meanwhile, they all kept running into each other under circumstances that were more than mere coincidence.

The main mystery of the season was about the nature of the Sideways world. How could they possibly tie the timelines together? Some of the characters had vastly different lives. How could they be the same people? How do the events going on in the Sideways world affect what’s going on with the island? Is the island timelime meaningless? Is the Sideways timeline meaningless? How can they both be true?

During the final episodes, while the characters in the island timeline are fighting and dying to save the world, the characters in the sideways timeline begin to remember the events of the island. They have revelations — triggered by people they loved or events similar to the ones they experienced on the island — that jar their memories.

In the final moments of the episode, it is revealed that the Sideways world is not part of the real world. It is a place the characters “created” to meet up after their deaths and remember the most important moments of their lives. It is a place for them to remember the people and the connections they made.

This is what people hated about the ending. But I did not. Not at all.

Firstly, I really liked the subversion of the common theory that the island didn’t really exist. While watching the show there is always a part of you that believes the island is somehow a dream or hallucination or purgatory or hell or just something that isn’t part of the real world. The finale subverted it beautifully. The island was real. It did matter. It did have profound effects on the rest of the world. In fact, it was the “real world” events going on in Los Angeles that was the surreal non-physical world.

It also completely tricked us into thinking there was some connection between the two. (We all thought what Desmond thought: somehow the people on the island would be transported into the world where their lives were happy.) But it wasn’t true. Nothing going on in the Sideways world affected the island. It had no meaning or bearing at all on real world events. But it did have meaning for the characters.

That brings us to the greatest subversion that Lost pulls off. It tricks us into believing the show is about mystery and magical islands and fate. But it isn’t. It was a character drama masquerading as a supernatural mystery the whole time. And in the final moments we realize that while the events on the island actually mattered greatly for the world, it was the events of the Sideways timeline that revealed what mattered to the characters.

The Sideways timeline was about memory and connections and community. The people the characters loved and suffered with and grew with, that was what gave their lives meaning. That is what they had to remember. Real, deep connections is what they all lacked before coming to the island, and it was those connections that needed to take with them.

To quote the TIME Magazine review:

…An emotionally powerful ending whose spirituality bothered this big fat secular agnostic not one bit. To me, the closing of Lost was not telling me that I do or do not have an immortal soul; it was telling me what these characters lives meant. And that meaning, like all our lives’ meaning, derived from the interactions they had with, and the memories they shared with, other people.

It could be a literal event, or Jack’s last dying memory, or the workings of some Jungian universal consciousness… It was, to me, not about literal Heaven so much as memory: something you make together with the people you love, so you can find them when they’re gone.

In this way, the finale satisfied both #2 and #1 of my points. It was a great resolution for the characters and their stories. Some survived the events of the island, and some did not. The bad guy — although the Man in Black wasn’t a great villain — was defeated. Jack sacrificed himself, like we always thought he would, and Hurley ended up being the long-term protector of the island, like we knew he should.

Whatever else happens on the island or off, whatever questions were or weren’t answered, the ending showed us that the meaning of their lives was each other. It was what the show was about all along. And as Jack said we either “live together or we die alone.”