Lost’s Lingering Questions
The finale of Lost, “The End,” has generated much online chatter, both pro and con, about its various layers of ambiguity. Many fans are griping because it neglected mythological answers in favor of showing us what happened to our characters and their relationships. And many are crying shenanigans over potential contradictions and confusion in the finale’s events, especially in the final scenes. And some are just haters, relishing the perverse pleasure found within their blackened souls.
I’m on record as a strong advocate for the finale and its strategy for forgoing many plot answers in favor of thematic resolutions, an emphasis on emotion and character, and a tolerance for ambiguity – read my review for more thoughts on the finale’s religiosity, sentimentality, and thrills, and definitely check out the best piece on the finale I’ve yet read, Todd VanDerWerff’s meditation for the LA Times.
But questions matter for any narrative, especially Lost, so I wanted to explore and answer many of the lingering questions out there, providing fact, opinion, and analysis to help resolve some people’s hesitations. Check out other sources too, like this post claiming to be one of the Lost writers (I’m skeptical, at least that they were a writer in the final season) or this witty take on many allegedly unanswered questions. My answers aren’t claiming to be based on insider knowledge – just the product of somebody who has spent way too much time studying the show and thinking about how we watch it.
Don’t proceed on to the questions and answers if you’re not caught up with the show (or if you’re a hater)…
First off, some questions about what happened in “The End”:
Is the island purgatory?
NO! This is the lingering question that seems to me was most clearly resolved. Christian tells Jack in the church that the island was real, and in fact it was the most important time in all of their lives. On the island, what happened, happened, and dead is dead.
But don’t the images of the crashed plane over the final credits mean that nobody actually survived, and the whole thing was the afterlife?
Why aren’t Michael, Walt, Ana-Lucia, Daniel, Charlotte, Miles, and Mr. Eko in the church at the end?
Michael is trapped on the island as a ghost, condemned to whisper and talk to Hurley because he can’t get past his on-island deeds. Walt is one of the mysteries that will allegedly be addressed in the DVD extras (pre-order now for August 24!), but Walt was never really that important to anyone but Michael and Locke, who let him go in “Life & Death of Jeremy Bentham.” Plus he’s really tall now. Ana-Lucia is “not ready yet.”
Daniel is left in the sideways realm as per Eloise’s request to Desmond, and presumably Charlotte has no deep connection to anyone but Daniel. Miles needs a close encounter with duct tape to awaken. Mr. Eko is a victim of casting politics, as the actor allegedly turned down the offer to appear in the finale. There are dozens of others who could have been there, but it’s clear that the church was reserved for the original Oceanic 815ers, plus Desmond, and their loved ones. I’m content with that.
Why is Sayid’s soulmate Shannon instead of Nadia?
The meta reason is that it was a good way to get Boone and Shannon into the finale. The story motivation is that Sayid’s ideal of Nadia was always more illusion than actual romance. The on-island connections were the most important ones in these people’s lives as part of paths toward redemption and self-actualization, and just as Charlie/Claire and Hugo/Libby were short-lived and unconsummated romances, Shannon was Sayid’s most meaningful connection despite its short duration.
Is David Shepherd real?
“It’s all real,” says Christian. But remember, it’s also all a TV show. I don’t mean “just a TV show” to belittle it, but as a reminder that we’re talking about different layers of fiction. I see the sideways reality as a world collectively created by the characters to have a do-over on the relationships and choices they made in the real world – not completely virtual, but not grounded in the relative realism of the island. Thus it is more fictional than the island, but it’s all degrees of embedded fiction – David is less real than Mr. Eko (who is seemingly not in the sideways world at all), but they are both less real than you and I. And Lost, more than most network dramas, is constantly reminding us that it is a fantastical story being told to us, not a ripped-from-the-headlines slice of realism. So don’t get worked up over what’s real or not, as none of it is. David was created by Jack and Juliet to process their experiences and share something together, which is the function of all stories.
Why did Jack / Smokey / Desmond all want to pull the plug on the island?
This is a bit of a storytelling shorthand, asking us to infer motives for why the three powers of the island all decide to do the same thing for different reasons. Smokey wants to destroy the island and rightly thinks that sending Desmond down to turn out the light will work. Jack thinks that Jacob brought Desmond back to the island, and thus his special talent must be a secret weapon against Smokey. He’s right in part, as pulling the plug makes Smokey (and Richard) mortal, but it comes with the side-effect of destabilizing the island and triggering really cool cliff-collapsing effects. It’s left ambiguous whether Jacob really did come to Widmore and tell him to bring Desmond back, or whether Widmore is still just playing for Team Widmore. However, it does make sense that if the plan was to use Desmond to turn out the light, that Widmore would be searching for the electromagnetic wells to find the cave, so I choose to believe that he was working for Jacob.
As for Desmond, knowing what we do about the sideways now, in “Happily Ever After,” he became awakened in sideways world that he was dead and needed to move on. But on the island, under the influence of intense electromagnetism, his consciousness bled across worlds, leading him to believe that they were all actually dead on the island and that the sideways world was real life. Hence his blissed-out laissez-faire attitude was because he thought there were no stakes anymore; all he needed to do was ride out the storm, blow-up the island, and get his friends back to the better world of the sideways. Clearly he was wrong, which he realized down in the cave, in a nice parallel to the hatch implosion in season 2.
Those are all of the questions I know of tied to what was happening directly in “The End.” But there are also some interesting meta-questions:
Were Damon & Carlton trying to fool us to anticipate another ending?
I think so. Weeks ago at a Paley Center event, Damon teased that the key word for the finale would be “water.” At the Times Talk Live event last Thursday, the producers referred to one of the last scenes being a “physically taxing and wet” group effort. And at that event, an audience member (whom I now suspect was a plant) asked if the first scene with Desmond and Jack in the season 2 premiere – where Desmond tells Jack “you need to lift her up” – would payoff in the finale; Carlton assured him that “he’d be satisfied.” (And Carlton alluded to that line right before the finale aired on Twitter.)
So with that extratextual information, I was anticipating that the island world would culminate in sinking the island, and that in the sideways world, Desmond would get everyone together in a last ditch effort to raise the island – perhaps even culminating with a Moebius strip loop, with each of the two realities triggering each other. Assuming that this seed was purposefully planted by the producers (and peppered in the show as well) to inspire such anticipatory theorizing, why? In retrospect, I think it was quite useful to make us anticipate a more apocalyptic and grandiose finish, as it made the choice to underplay the ending for emotion over spectacle even more powerful. At least for me, that’s how it worked – I was caught off guard that the end was so humane and grounded in a way that I’d never really expected on this often over-the-top show. And that surprise added to the power. Whether this was an intentional ploy or just a set of random misdirects, I don’t know – but I think it was clever.
Aren’t the finale’s low ratings evidence that Lost wasn’t really that important except to a vocal cult audience?
No. Claims that the ratings were bad are from people who don’t understand how TV works today. Comparisons to finales from the 1980s and 1990s are irrelevant, as the spread of cable channels, online viewing, DVDs, and other factors have eroded the audience to the point that some high-rated shows today would probably be cancelled with similar ratings in the 1980s. Here are some better comparisons: Lost was the highest-rated finale of any show in the last five years except ER (which was always much more broadly popular). And the night after Lost, two longer-running popular shows concluded – Lost got over 30% more viewers than either 24 or Law & Order, both of which came in 3rd in their respective timeslots. Plus, of course, there’s no way that anybody who didn’t watch Lost would be able to comprehend the finale, which is how most finale events get blockbuster ratings. In short, the ratings weren’t exceptional, but they were certainly better than most finales today. (Plus the finale set a record for illegal downloads!)
Why didn’t the finale answer everything?
Because the producers learned to let go, and are asking us to as well. Narrative enigmas are very good at driving the story forward, but their resolution are nearly always a let-down. So Damon & Carlton have left us to ponder many mysteries on our own, giving clues or partial answers, but not definitive solutions that would close down our imagination and dull our sense of puzzling play that we’ve developed over the last six years.
For many fans (including myself), Lost often seemed to be a show about the mythology – the goal of the characters seemed to be to solve the mysteries of the island in order to facilitate their personal goals. This game-inspired approach to storytelling was not what the show turned out to be. Instead, the show was about how flawed people could establish relationships and a community to discover themselves, explore their beliefs, and ultimately make choices that were noble and/or damaging. The mythology was the backdrop for this human drama, and it provided a lot of fun for fans to puzzle out; however, ultimately the mysteries of the island were not designed to be answered, but rather to facilitate the character arcs.
Isn’t that a cop-out or a bait-and-switch?
Perhaps. It’s up to each viewer to decide: whether you want to hold onto a sci-fi & puzzle-driven vision of the show that you thought you were getting, or accept the vision of the show that the producers delivered where puzzles are left open for more theorizing and contemplation. The producers made an argument in the end that you should follow their vision and accept these terms of the series. It worked for me, but I recognize that it’s a bargain not everyone is willing to take. Lost is about choices – and here’s one for us viewers to make.
Or more cynically, you can choose to believe that the writers had no idea what any of the answers were, and when forced to come up with a conclusion they distracted us with sentimental melodrama and hoped that we – arguably the most participatory and obsessive fanbase yet seen for an ongoing series – wouldn’t notice. Believe what you want.
But can we still try to answer some of the lingering mysteries?
You bet. Below are my theories on a bunch of them. I don’t claim that these are definitive, but they’re my best guesses today. Most are underwhelming, which is the point – the crazy possibilities are far more interesting than the most likely answers that fit the larger narrative. For the mythological questions, the answers are sketchy – I can imagine longer stories to be told, but not directly involving the characters that we care about. But here’s my question for you: would you like the series any better had a character said any of these answers on the show, like Michael’s explanation of the whispers, rather than a critic on a blog? Or if there was an “Across the Sea” type backstory episode? If so, why?
What’s the deal with Walt?
Maybe the DVD addenda will address this, but Walt has psychic powers (as do Hurley and Miles) that overwhelm The Others and allow him to tap into the computer system to IM Michael. They send Walt and Michael home, where Walt disowns Michael because of what he did to get him back. Is there really much more to be known?
Why is Aaron special?
Aaron is special because he is the first baby to be born on the island since Miles Ethan in 1977. The psychic who told Claire that he must not be raised by another was a conman. He might have actually foretold something in this instance (echoes of Professor Trelawney from Harry Potter?), which makes sense if Jacob was pulling strings to get Claire and Aaron on the island. But Aaron is not relevant to the larger island mythology beyond that – in fact, the island and Jacob are seemingly not so interested in kids (although The Others were).
What’s the deal with the numbers?
This was answered in large part in The Lost Experience, concerning the DHARMA Initiative and the Valenzetti Equation. The fact that these mythological bits never appeared in the show should have been a clear indication that the producers were serious about what they frequently said: if the characters don’t care about a mystery, it won’t be dealt with on the show.
In short, the numbers are constants in an equation that predicts the end of the world. DHARMA came to the island to do research on various areas (electromagnetism, time travel, polar bears), hoping to change the numbers and delay the apocalypse. How does this fit with Hurley’s luck? Why does this correlate with Jacob’s numbers for the candidates? I don’t know – but I’ll chalk it up to a broadly permeating and inexplicable power tied to the numbers. I do think that any actual answers for this mythology would be disappointing, so I can live with it as simply inexplicable.
What’s up with all of the Egyptian stuff?
Prior to the Roman-era events of “Across the Sea,” there were Egyptians on the island who built statues and temples, established hieroglyphic iconography, and probably brought the Mother character to the island to become Protector. I don’t need to know this story, just like when watching The West Wing, I don’t need to know anything about administrations before Bartlett except as their legacies impact the characters I care about. Stories have to start somewhere, and there’s always backstory left untold.
What’s the deal with the glowy cave?
It’s magical and electromagnetic. There’s a plug in a hole that makes it work. If you take out the plug, bad things happen to the island. Who built the plug? How does it work? Unless you want to build your own, why do you care?
What happened when Jughead went off?
We were led to believe throughout season 6 that Jughead created the alternate sideways dimension, an explanation explicitly offered by Daniel Widmore in “Happily Ever After.” But that version of Daniel is a musician, not a physicist, so it turns out to be one of many narrative misdirections. Instead, Jughead was The Incident that created the electromagnetic anomaly requiring the Swan Station and the countdown clock, as Miles had forewarned. (Did Miles ever get anything wrong, even though nobody listened to his opinion?) It also seemed to have rebooted the timeline by moving all of the time-traveling characters back to their rightful timeline in 2007. Again, I’m less interested in the mechanics of such matters than coming up with a timeline that is more or less coherent.
So why did Juliet say “It worked” in “LA X” if Jughead didn’t trigger the sideways universe?
In her dying days – and having just been exposed to the heart of the island’s electromagnetism in the Jughead blast like Desmond was in season 2’s Swan fail-safe – she was bleeding between the dual realities. “It worked” was in reference to her vending machine hack, not the bomb. Another misdirect, but one that paid off in the finale in one of the most emotionally satisfying reunions and awakenings.
Why can’t women have babies on the island?
The last baby we know to be (presumably) conceived and born on the island was Miles Ethan in 1977. I assume that one of the side effects of the nuclear/electromagnetic incident was that women cannot carry a baby to term on the island anymore. The mechanics and cause are far less important than the how it affects the actions of The Others.
What’s going on with Eloise and Widmore?
This one interests me a lot, and I would have loved to see a Widmore/Eloise flashback episode, as there are so many steps along the way in their stories. Without it, here’s my best guess at gap-filling speculation: they rose to the top of the island hierarchy in the 1970s, when a twist of fate led to Eloise shooting her grown time-traveling son. She helped Jack get Jughead as a potential loophole to form a universe where her son didn’t die, and left the island to try to escape her fate. Eventually she molded Daniel into a physicist to allow him to plot the loophole back in the 1970s, and then became an island expert at the Lamppost station. Why was she the “temporal policeman” for Desmond in his flashes? I think she’s enlightened to the nature of the sideways, and wants to avoid letting go. I’ll need to rewatch it, but “Flashes Before Your Eyes” might be our first glimpse of a sideways world, constructed by Desmond to process what’s going on after triggering the fail-safe, echoing Juliet’s reality skipping moments.
As for Widmore, after his pregnant partner left the island, he became more corrupted, leaving frequently and having an affair to father Penny, and generally misusing the island’s power and enabling Ben to usurp him. He did use powers from the island to build a fortune and plot his return and seek vengeance on Ben. I don’t know how much he knew about Desmond prior to the sailing race, but he certainly seemed intent on keeping Desmond away from Penny to protect her potentially from island-related issues. In the end, I accept that Jacob did summon him to bring Desmond to the island and make Smokey mortal, and perhaps Jacob even delivered him to Ben as a consolation prize for never considering him a viable candidate, allowing Ben to fulfill his vengeance over Alex’s murder.
What was the Man in Black’s master plan?
This one is interesting to parse out, and should occupy forensic fans rewatching the series for years. I think Ben had been manipulated by Smokey most of his life, helping to betray Jacob and enable the endgame to embody Locke and murder his brother. Presumably it was Smokey incarnating as Ben’s mother to take him to Richard in the first place, and inhabiting the cabin to give guidance to various people over the years. Does it really matter how much each of the steps were part of an advance master plan, or is the way it plays out in the end more important? It’s a key question for both the storyworld and the storytelling – and I feel like how it comes together is more important than how it was planned for both.
What was the Man in Black’s name?
Samuel. (At least according to some insiders, it was indicated as such on a script.) Does that answer help you enjoy the show? For me, no – and I don’t intend on using it.
What are the rules?
Each protector establishes a number of parameters for the island (don’t ask how until you drink from the magic cup) – Mother ensured that Jacob and his brother cannot directly hurt each other. When Jacob took over, he seemed to provide a number of rules: Smokey cannot kill candidates. Smokey must keep his word. (Has anybody discovered an outright lie told by Smokey?) The candidates must always have a choice. I’m sure there are others, but I’m not interested in generating a comprehensive list, as the more important element is that the island is a rule-governed world with constrained free will. The Others follow a number of rules as well, seemingly dictating the code of conduct between Widmore and Ben that the former breaks with the murder of Alex, but I don’t think that these rules were handed down by Jacob, who seems invested in letting people create their own choices within basic parameters.
What lies in the shadow of the statue?
Another story I’d love to see told is how Ilana, Bram and their crew became soldiers of Jacob. We don’t really have much to speculate on here, but I fully accept that there are aspects of the mythology that really don’t matter enough to the core story to warrant their own episodes.
Perhaps there will be a licensed comic book series telling the miscellaneous tales of the island that we never got time to dive into, a kind of Lost Silmarillion. But the lack of such explication of every myth and reference does nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the series – and I believe that the more we learned about many of these questions, the less we’d actually care about the storyworld. It’s more fun – and in keeping with what Lost was for six years – to be left puzzling the ambiguities and loose ends than having the show lay it all out for us.
And finally, an extra credit question that I’ll leave unanswered:
Is the show’s entire narrative about the need for faith in larger meaning instead of obsessing over the rational explanations of little things like the cabin or the food drops, and the ability in the end to choose what’s important to you over what you’re told by somebody else, a meta-commentary on how fans engage with the show and its producers?
Filed under: Narrative, Television, TV Shows | 34 Comments