It’s been said that it’s all about the journey, not the destination — and that phrase is oftentimes used in conjunction with a lengthy discussion about the TV show Lost.
Lost was truly like nothing else on TV, but most of the conversation around the show centers solely on its final episode. Nowadays it’s generally accepted that the two-part final episode, unsubtly-titled “The End,” was divisive at best, but back when the finale aired on May 23, 2010, it earned mostly positive reviews, and was even nominated for an Emmy for both best directing and best writing.
On its 10th anniversary, we have to go back to the island and revisit all the reasons “The End” worked as an encapsulation of everything that made Lost a great series.
Though the grand mysteries involving magic corks and polar bears became the dominant narrative around Lost, what they say about the show being all about the characters remains true. Sure, we did get plenty of plot twists and surprises, but these revelations were always character-driven: from the show’s first flash-forward being revealed through a trauma-ridden and beard-having Jack, or Desmond’s time-traveling told as a love story between him and his constant, Penny. This continued all the way to the finale, which of course had the magical cork, and the flash-sideways being an allegory for the after-life, but both served to inform Jack’s journey of learning to let go. Letting go of his need to fix everything, letting go of his obsession to do everything himself and not accepting help, and letting go of his father.
This character-driven conclusion to the story was telegraphed to the audience for years. Showrunner Carton Cuse said in 2006, “You have to watch because you’re enjoying the journey, not because you are waiting for the endgame.” Lost always used its mystery as a way to dive into the characters’ psyche and advance their individual stories, not the other way around. There was never going to be a lengthy explanation about what everything meant, as showrunner and co-creator Damon Lindelof told The Verge in 2012, they were shooting for an ending that gave an explanation as to why the plane crash mattered to the characters and what they got out of it.
“The answer, as corny as it sounds, was the one that appealed to me the most: each other,” Lindelof said. “If they hadn’t spent all that time on the island, then they would never have been able to forgive themselves for their past sins and break through to some sort of level of self-awakening and forgiveness.”
For all the times that Jack and Locke fought about science versus faith, neither able to fully convince the other, the Lost finale ultimately sided with faith being the answer, whatever form that takes. The questions regarding the origin of the polar bears or the electromagnetic properties of the island gave way to mythological tales of immortal 2,000-year-old entities and more abstract questions regarding whether there’s a purpose behind suffering and what suffering we must go through to achieve grace.
Indeed, the philosophical nature of the show has been there since the beginning. There are several characters named after known philosophers, and from early in the first season the characters discuss whether the island is purgatory and they’re being punished by some higher power. This idea of punishment and sin carried on all the way to “The End,” with the characters learning from their past sins and move on having become better people. Though it dabbled in big battles between good and evil with the fate of the world on the line, Cuse said in 2014 at PaleyFest that “Lost was metaphorically about lost people looking for meaning in their lives, so the ending had to be a spiritual one that explained these characters’ journey and destiny.”
This is why the flash-sideways are so meaningful for the show at large and especially the finale. As Jack gives his life to save both the island and his friends and the battle between good and evil comes to an end, the sideways characters remember their lives and achieve some kind of grace or bliss. They all needed each other to find themselves and some catharsis before moving on, living up to the title of the show itself: Lost.
While Jack fought to stop the Man in Black (who had taken Locke’s body) on the island, Desmond was busy gathering everyone in the sideways afterlife. Though not incredibly important to the “plot” this was a fantastic way of letting the audience say goodbye to characters they hadn’t seen in years.
Whether it’s Shannon reuniting with Sayid, Boone and Libby showing up one last time, Rose and Bernard revealing they’ve been living a nice and quiet life on the island, or Vincent the dog returning and lying next to a dying Jack, the flash-sideways allowed Lost to shine a light on side characters we’ve lost over the years for one last goodbye.
The finale of Lost also makes it a point to revisit some of the show’s greatest hits to have the story come full circle and underscore the changes the characters have gone through. Sawyer calls Jack “doc” in the sideways universe, while leading Desmond down a cave to pull out the cork from the heart of the island, the evil version of Locke points out that it feels nostalgic to stare down a hole in the ground with Jack (a callback to the hatch from season 1). The Man in Black’s death is even shot to echo Jacob’s death from season 5.
Then there’s Jack’s death scene, which begins with him being stabbed in the opposite side of his abdomen as when he woke up after the crash in the pilot, before walking through the bamboo fields where Vincent the dog comes to greet him. The closing shot of the show, Jack watching the plane carrying his friends fly off as he closes his eye, the reverse of the opening shot of the show, is absolutely perfect.
Composer Michael Giacchino’s work on the show was one of Lost’s secret weapons. Each episode, Giacchino would write the show’s emotional, haunting, soaring music that accompanied the story for six seasons. In a move that was and remains rare on TV, Giacchino worked with a live orchestra instead of just with a synthesizer, which added to the gravitas and power of the show’s score. Cuse and Lindelof coined the term “The Giacchino” to signal the feelings they wanted to convey through music. As Cuse once told the LA Times, “We literally write Michael’s name into the script in various places where we want to convey a sense of emotion.”
Sawyer and Juliet’s reunion in the finale wouldn’t work half as well without Giacchino underscoring the emotion of the scene, nor would the scene where Jack’s father explains to him the nature of the sideways timeline, which becomes an instant tearjerker because of the score. If Lost is about the characters going on a journey, Giacchino’s music takes the audience on a similar emotional journey.