Reminder: Lost's Twist Ending Wasn't Trash
A dozen years on, we should all feel a little less strongly about how Lost ended. Those people frustrated about unanswered questions should realize that the show ended up answering almost everything. Others who passionately loved the ending should admit that the show lost a bit of its magic as the final seasons became more planned and plot-focused. And as for those who argued over the show's final twist ... well, the twist ending went underappreciated on many levels.
Let's recap it quickly. Lost is about people surviving a plane crash on an island. Toward the end of the series, they come up with a plan involving time travel that should prevent their plane from ever having crashed. Sure enough, at the start of the next season, we see everyone back on the plane, which lands successfully. But then we also see them still on the island, convinced their plan failed. Previously, the show had alternated between island scenes and flashbacks or flash forwards; now, these mysterious off-island Los Angeles scenes are dubbed "flash sideways."
Apparently, we are watching two timelines, or parallel universes. But right at the end of the finale, the show reveals the truth. The plan did fail, and the plane did crash. The flash sideways actually show a sort of limbo or bardo that characters go to after they die. We saw most of these characters die during the series, and these deaths turned out to be irreversible despite their friends' efforts, but they do all get to meet up briefly in the afterlife.
Some people who watched the finale thought this meant that the entire show took place in the afterlife, and that all the characters died in the original plane crash. That makes no sense based on the reveal, but it's understandable because many people who watched the finale hadn't watched the last few episodes—or hadn't watched Lost in years, or hadn't previously watched the show at all. it's understandable because "they were dead ALL along" is such a stock twist. It's understandable because the network aired footage of a deserted beach camp over the credits, confusingly and without consulting the writers.
Most of all, it's understandable because people had theorized for years that the island was purgatory. From the very beginning, the show had been about the characters having symbolically died in the crash, and the island was full of supernatural happenings and reflections of their past lives, which seemingly would make sense were this really the afterlife. Even after later dismissing the theory, fans speculated that the writers had originally planned to make the island purgatory but changed their minds when everyone guessed the twist too soon.
Fans were wrong about that last part, by the way. During one the early conversations about having miraculously survived the crash, the original script had one character directly suggest they'd died and were now in the afterlife, and then another character mocked this idea. If the writers planned from the start to finally reveal everyone had died in the crash, they would not have planned this prior conversation.
After it became clear that the island was part of the real and living world, the show still kept giving nods to the earlier purgatory theory. The characters hear their plane was found at the bottom of the ocean, with their own remains aboard (a villain actually staged this). One character, kidnapped then waking on the island, believes they died and are in hell. A different character concludes the island is hell, even though he has traveled off-island many times. Ghosts are trapped on the island, meaning it is purgatory for some.
Despite all that, when the final twist revealed characters to be in the afterlife—though not in the way audiences originally predicted—it took dedicated viewers by surprise. That's amazing. The Lost fandom was crazy about theories, theories about every single character, object, and storyline. Certainly, everyone had theories about the flash sideways, documented at length in forums and wikis. And yet the fans didn't manage to guess what the flash sideways really were, even though the answer played on the show's most popular theory, a theory so popular that even people who only heard of Lost secondhand knew about it.
Any show pulling off a twist ending is a major accomplishment. Maybe even an unprecedented accomplishment. I struggle to name a single other multi-season show that threw in a twist ending with its final scene. Memorable endings, sure, and even surprise endings (I'd put How I Met Your Mother in this category, mostly because it was so bad that I can't bring myself to call it a successful twist). But I'm having trouble thinking of any others with a twist ending, the sort of ending where you have to immediately rewatch to see what you missed, what you misinterpreted up till the end. Maybe Arrested Development counts—that fifth season wasn't strong, but they came up with one hell of an ending.
Twist endings in general aren't easy to write, and they're especially hard to slip into a show's final season. Shows must wrap up ongoing storylines and also provide closure on all the relationships, leaving little time to set up and then execute a season-spanning twist. Lost managed a twist while also accomplishing both those other goals.
Instead of a twist, we normally want a show's ending to satisfy us in exactly the way we predict. Lost, weirdly enough, did that too—with its island storyline, separate from the flash sideways. In the final episode, the hero who was introduced in the first shot of the series fights the Big Bad who was introduced as a threat in the first episode of the series, and he saves the world. It's the sort of clean ending other genre shows strive for but never manage. In the closing minutes (intercut with the flash sideways), we see that hero die, in a sequence that fits so neatly that one fan predicted it years earlier just by playing the show's opening moments in reverse. Sadly, that fan video is now lost to history, but this edit gives you an idea of how it looked:
Lost did all that adventure wrap-up stuff, but it also included its twist ending, and a twist is a risky way to end a show. The audience may feel cheated. You might even say that since Lost declared the supernatural island real but mundane alternate L.A. imaginary, the writers are magnificent trolls. But I wouldn't characterize the ending like that, because of how sincere it is.
In fact, if you haven't watched Lost, or if it's been a long time since you've watched it, you might cringe at how unbearably happy the ending below looks. The music is so sappy (you maybe don't realize that it's a composition that blends eight different motifs from the history of the show), everyone pairs off boy-girl boy-girl, and if they can all live happily ever after in the afterlife, who cares about everything they had to do while alive?
Well, in terms of plot, everything they did in the show still mattered (they were on a quest to save that light, so if they failed, no happy afterlife awaited anyone), but more importantly, this was far from a fully happy ending pandering to viewers. The devoted audience immediate reacted with bitter sadness, as the writers wanted them to, and only gradually during the scene accepted the ending as bittersweet.
Right until eight minutes before the end of the series, viewers were under the impression that all the beloved characters they'd seen die over the last six years—including many who had suddenly died in just the last few episodes—were still living out full lives in an alternate universe. The two versions of each character then merged somehow, and now, they'd get to live out their lives together happily.
Instead, right at the end, we learn that no, they died when we saw them die, and there's no undoing that. These supposed alternate lives were just a couple days in a constructed world plus a bunch of false memories. Once the characters do remember their actual lives and reunite, they have just a few minutes together.
They get to "move on" afterward, but I could say you too will "move on" after you die; no one knows what that really means. The characters aren't smiling because now they get to all live together. They're smiling because they remember the time they actually had together, and it's done now, but it was good.
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Top image: ABC