SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, gather some of your closest friends together in a special place, and watch the last episode ever of Lost.
The great puzzle of the last season of Lost has been: how can both the flash-sideways universe and the Island universe mean anything? If Sideways is the universe in which Oceanic 815 never crashed, who cares what happens on the Island? If the Island is where the characters’ fates are sealed, how can there be any meaning to what happens in the Sideways?
The moving, soulful finale that Damon Lindelof and Carleton Cuse gave us met that challenge. The Island world, we learned, absolutely mattered to the physical fate of the survivors. (And sci-fi purists ticked over the spiritual ending should at least give it up for this: what happened, did, indeed happen.) And the Sideways world mattered because it was the culmination of the spiritual, moral, human lives–the souls–of the characters.
It mattered, it moved, and it achieved. And before we get into any dissection of the plot logic of the ending (or, retroactively, the entire series), the answers or lack thereof, or the balance between science and faith in the resolution, this has to be said. “The End” was an epic, stirring two and a half hours of television, full of heart and commitment, that was true to Lost’s characters as we knew them from season one. And through elaborate use of symmetries, echoes and callbacks—as well as some go-for-broke acting and a visual grandeur by director Jack Bender that matches the show’s pilot—it brought them powerfully and cathartically full circle.
[Update: By the way, it's too soon for me to judge if I'd put this on my list of the top ten Lost episodes, but if you're interested, here's a gallery of my picks, updated through the rest of season 6.]
Did it work on a plot level? I’m not sure my head is wrapped around the mythology implications of this finale well enough to say right now. And it’s not going to get better wrapped around it by, say, 3 a.m., so I’m going to largely leave that aside for today. I have questions: first, if in fact the Sideways does not exist in the mortal world, then what did it mean when Juliet said the H-bomb detonation “worked”? All it evidently did was kicked the Losties from 1977 to 2007. With the Island safe and no Man in Black, why, how, did Hurley ever die? Why exactly did Locke become mortal? And–a question with a zillion subquestions–would it really have been so damn bad if the Island sank after Locke died?
&c., &c. I have questions that will never be answered. You do. And more will come to me. But at this moment, what’s more important to me is: the dog made me cry.
I guessed about halfway into the episode that Jack would not survive it. This is no work of genius on my part. In a way, the ending was almost so perfect that it’s amazing we didn’t all call it. Certainly people have guessed that the series that began with Jack’s eye opening would end with it closing. And it made perfect sense that Jack, who was meant to die at the end of the original version of the Lost pilot, instead die at the end of the series.
But though I saw that–and knew, as Jack staggered through the bamboo, that he was going out to die precisely where he first came to the Island–all my intellectualizing went out the window when Vincent reappeared as he had in the pilot’s first minutes. The show was returning to its simplest roots: life and death in the wild, and people trying to save other people. Even if you saw the closing eye coming, what that eye saw before it gave up its spark–a plane flying, safe in the sky, with Jack’s friends on board–counts among the loveliest images Lost has produced in six years of them.
[A side note: good advice to future producers trying to keep final scenes secret--make sure it contains only two actors, one of whom is a dog and cannot spill any secrets. In retrospect, Matthew Fox's comment in my interview with him that the finale dealt with "what happens after we die" was even more spoilery than it seemed to me at the time.]
Now, yeah: this whole afterlife thing. I suspect some fans are complaining that the Sideways reveal was a cheat, because Cuse and Lindelof said long ago that Lost wasn’t about Purgatory. In fact, the popular theory they refuted was that the Island was Purgatory, and indeed it wasn’t–by making the Island mortal life, and the Sideways, well, some sort of afterlife, they actually managed to find a way to use a “debunked” theory, while hiding it in plain sight. (A loophole, if you will.)
You could argue that the Flash Sideways was entirely unnecessary. You know what? You would be right. On a plot level, you did not need it at all. It had no direct bearing on what happened on the Island. It turned out that, unlike what some of us thought (including maybe Island Desmond), Sideways Desmond’s efforts to “awaken” his friends had no bearing on saving the Island or defeating Locke. You could have simply picked up season six in 2007, had everyone realize that Juliet’s smacking the bomb did not undo the Oceanic crash, and ended the series with Jack dying and a few of his friends escaping.
You could, but you would have given up an emotionally powerful ending whose spirituality–though it may rankle some as Battlestar Galactica’s ending did–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.
You could take that literally, as in: this is a picture of what happens when you die. Or you could take it metaphorically, as in: this is a story using spiritual imagery to depict the lasting legacy of human contact. (I personally see it that way, in the same way that I believe that religious scriptures are not literally true and yet are some of our most powerful and important stories regardless. Your mileage may vary, as they say on the Internet.)
It was, in other words, like the symbols on the church windows indicated, a Unitarian ending. It could be explained through any or all of the spiritual traditions depicted there, or none. It could be a literal event, or Jack’s last dying memory, or the workings of some Jungian universal consciousness. (In the same way, as I’ve said, the golden water, and now the Giant Bathtub Drain, work for me; they’re no more outlandish root explanations than “giant pocket of electromagnetic energy.” One is “science,” one is “faith,” but both are ways of describing phenomena beyond our ken.) 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.
What it was, regardless, was a *story*, which showed the characters realizing the struggles we had seen them work through on the Island. So the state they reached in the Sideways was, in fact–as we often suspected through season 6–too perfect. The characters had more completely overcome their demons than they did on the Island world. But this perfection itself was not enough. Without the pain, and struggle of the physical world, and without the actual memory of it, their happiness was meaningless.
They didn’t all get to complete those journeys in the actual, physical world. Because the actual, physical world is not perfect. The important thing, and what Lost over six years showed–along with a hell of a loopy, inventive sci-fi tale–was how each of them shouldered their burdens and tried, with varying degrees of success, to let go.
Before I get too college-dorm-room-talk with all this, though, back to the actual mechanics of the episode. First, the performances, and chief among them I have to give it up to Matthew Fox. I’ve had my issues with Jack as a character over the years–my feelings ranging from irritation to admiration that Cuselof would make such an irritating guy the center of the show–but he acted the hell out of this finale, both action and emotion. When he finally clasps his father–not Smokey-in-disguise but his father–and sobs, you can feel the weight lifting from him. And when he lays himself down in the bamboo and smiles, laughs at Vincent walking up–a gorgeous last display of childlike happiness–he sells Jack’s relief at giving up life, at his work being done, at having, finally, fixed things.
Yet he also sold Jack’s confidence and determination as he committed himself to face down Locke. And that–from the march through the jungle to the breathtaking fight scene on the rocks to his descent into “hell”–sold the episode’s suspenseful narrative drive, in a season that had sometimes lacked it. (And there were other strong performances around him, like Jorge Garcia showing Hurley’s horror at the enormity of running the Island.)
“The End” was an episode of ripping action (and, of course, a lush musical finish for Michael Giacchino), and an elegant narrative construction. Cuselof are lovers of symmetries (the entire arc of Lost is a kind of butterfly shape, expanding out both ways from the end of season three as a fulcrum). And “The End” was packed with mirrors and callbacks: the Apollo bar in the candy machine, the scene of Kate helping deliver Aaron, and, especially, Locke and Jack’s peering down into the Well of Light, a parallel to the glowing Hatch at the end of season one.
Which brings us back to science and faith. Just as “The End” found a way that both the Flash Sideways and the Island universe would matter, it finally found a way that Locke’s faith-based worldview and Jack’s science-based one would be vindicated. (And not simply because they ended up arguing opposite sides; as each told the other, they have also both been wrong.) In the end, it was right that they were brought to the Island for a purpose; but it was also true that what happened, happened. Empirical answers and physical reality–say, that of duct tape–did affect the physical outcome; and yet without the spiritual endgame, what would it mean?
“The End,” and thus season six, and thus Lost, was not perfect, because nothing is. I still believe that Jacob and the Man in Black were never characterized as richly as other characters, like Ben, which rendered Locke in the end too much of a generic baddie. And the final images–with the heavenly light shining though the doorway of the chapel, as Christian walked into it a la Close Encounters–were a bit overly touched by an angel.
But the finale, as good TV finales do, captured what the show’s essence. Lost is a story about community, connections and interdependence. You live together, it told us, or you die alone. And when you live together–when you share of yourself and make meaning with others–you never die alone, even when you die bleeding out on the floor of a bamboo forest.
We didn’t see Walt. We didn’t learn about the Egyptian imagery. And now, yes, we also have to wonder who carved out that perfectly round bathtub plug at the core of the Island. For tonight, I have the answers that mattered. And I got them in a way that was moving and real and right enough that, as for the rest–I can let go.
And now, to paraphrase Kate, I saved a hail of bullets:
* So, yeah, I think we’ve established that this was a finale with a good bit of religious imagery. But there’s more–Jack, for instance, bleeding from a wound in his side? Anyone with greater religious training than I care to point out some more?
* Why are only the major characters in the chapel at the end? Maybe they’re the only ones ready to let go. Or maybe it’s just that they’re together because they mattered to each other. I’d like to think that, somewhere, there’s another chapel, where Frogurt and Arzt, Nikki and Paulo are letting go together.
* Loved Miles’ curtain-call one liner: “I don’t believe in a lot of things. But I believe in duct tape.”
* I’ve said before that to know Lost is to know Star Wars and “The End” did not disappoint with the callouts: first, Hurley likening Jacob to Yoda, then giving that classic Star Wars refrain, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
* Also, as usual, Lost did an excellent job of commenting on itself as the action unfolded. On the episode’s religious allusions, Kate: “Christian Shephard? Really?” And Locke on Jacob’s choice of Jack: “I expected to be more surprised. You’re kind of the obvious choice, don’t you think?”
* While I thought the finale was tremendously satisfying on a character level, it inevitably did service every character as well as others. I wished, for instance, that Ben had a more active role–that he made some more active moral choice–in the endgame. I wanted more for my favorite Daniel than to rock out some classical piano in Justin Timberlake’s hat. And you may or may not be more invested in the Sayid/Shannon love affair than I am.
* On the other hand, too many waterworks moments here for me to count, especially Sawyer and Juliet’s candy-machine reunion.
* Non-story-related complaint: I think that when the finale was expanded to 2.5 hours, ABC gave Cuselof five more minutes for story and kept 25 extra minutes for commercials. Good lord, that was ad overload.
* “Looks like you got your first gray hair.” Are we to infer that Richard became mortal? If so, was it from the same cause that made Locke mortal? (And does that explain our discovering that Hurley eventually died?)
* All of which raises the question: if I am, as I say above, a big fat agnostic, why am I ultimately OK with a story involving an Island protected by unnaturally long-lived God-men? Because I’m watching a show with a giant monster made of smoke, that’s why.
* So the spoilery scene I witnessed shooting on location when I visited the set? The scene on the rocks where Ben radios Lapides and a wounded Jack says goodbye to Kate and Sawyer. (When Kate announced that Locke was dead, the horrified publicist with me said, “You cannot write that!”) Also, I learned in interviews that the key scene in the end of the episode was between Jack and Christian, but decided it was too spoilery to write up beforehand.
* I’m running out of steam, so I’m going to wrap up here. I’ll probably come back tomorrow to add updates, or amend anything particularly idiotic I find I wrote. But mainly, it’s all yours now. Because that’s what Lost has been about above all to me: collaboratively making sense of it with friends, and Mrs. Tuned In, and you, the smartest TV blog-commenters on the Internet here at Tuned In. Please stick around for whatever comes along after Lost. And thank you for helping make this place together.