Damon and Carlton have been loudly and repeatedly insisting for the last few months that Lost has always been about the characters rather than the mysteries. Whether or not you buy into that (on the one hand it's a bit disingenuous after they've spent six years intentionally playing on the allure of the mysteries for all the buzz and ratings they could get; on the other, I'm exceedingly grateful they didn't choose to weigh down the last season with a lot of irrelevant exposition just so they could say that No Question Went Unanswered) you should have taken it as a warning of what the finale's focus was going to be. That's exactly what “The End” was about. It was a love letter to the characters, and to the fans who loved them. And because that's where they placed their focus they managed to deliver an emotionally and thematically satisfying conclusion to the series, if not always an entirely logical one.
People will complain that nothing was explained, that we still don't know what the Island actually was or why it was special, how exactly Smokey came into being or why our castaways (and those dang numbers) were so important. So what? That's life, isn't it? We often don't get to know the answers to the really big questions. Lost was the ultimate experiment in Show Don't Tell. They gave us glimpses of what the Island is and what it can do and the rest is up to our imaginations. Frankly it's better that way. I don't want it to be something that you can slap a simple, easily-definable name to. Would labeling it the Fountain of Youth or the Lost Isle of Atlantis or a crashed alien spacecraft make the show any better? Of course not. It'd make it trite, predictable, a rehashing of an old story (or an M. Night Shyamalan movie). Better by far that it should be something completely new, something that doesn't have a name because it can't be defined in a word or a phrase. The Island, as it turns out, is not just a MacGuffin.
Let's face it, we were never going to get all the answers. Even if you don't pay attention to Darlton, it grew increasingly obvious as the season wound down that there was no way they were going to have time fit in Walt's magical power over birds or what was killing pregnant women on the Island before the end. Sure, it was nice to find out who Adam and Eve were, but now that we know it's not all that interesting. They've revealed the name of the Man In Black since the finale aired and you know what? Knowing that one little piece of information doesn't change anything or make anything about the show better.
Besides, once they established firmly that we were dealing with a world in which magic exists, all bets were off. At that point you've got your answer for everything. Walt's mysterious powers? Magic. The numbers? Magic. Anyone who thought they were going to get a rational, scientific explanation for a show about a magical glowy cave and a monster made of smoke deserves to be disappointed.
For the last six seasons, most of the answers doled out in dribs and drabs have only served to raise more questions (they even had a character come right out and say that, giving voice to a common viewer complaint). But it wasn't all just a gimmick to keep us guessing (although they certainly used it to their advantage). There's a theme at work here, a theme that was there all along if you were paying attention: we don't ever really get to know all the answers. Explaining why they're on the island is like explaining why we're alive. We don't really know, we just are. Maybe it's God, maybe it's Fate, maybe it's just the happenstance of the Big Bang. It's a mystery, ya'll. Some things don't have knowable answers, and that's part of what the show has always been about. Where did the Cave of Yellow Glowy Light come from? God? Aliens? Ion-charged sub-atomic Adamantium particles? Does it really matter? Would it have been better if they'd made up some random techno-babble to explain it all away like on Star Trek or Doctor Who? Definitely not.
So was Jack right, did all of it matter, in the end? Well, yes and no. The choices made on the island, all the things that happened there, were real. The danger was real, and so were the emotional connections. The things people did had real consequences. There was no “it was all a dream” trick at play. And we can all take a moment to breathe a sigh of relief for that.
Unfortunately, in retrospect, about 90% of the things the characters ran around trying to accomplish turned out to be pretty damned pointless. The plot devices used to create narrative urgency and drive entire seasons of action were often just a bunch of hooey--false directives deriving from misinformation, erroneous assumptions, or just outright lies. And hoo boy, was there a lot of lying going on. So much that a lot of the precious answers we got are suspect, even now. And I worry that all that misinformation will end up diminishing the series in retrospect. When I finally get around to that epic full-series re-watch, will all those red herrings and blind alleys detract from the overall journey? Only time will tell.
Looking back now, though, it kind of seems as though no one really knew what they were talking about, or what anyone should actually be doing about anything. Not Jack, not Locke, not Ben or Richard or those hippy dippy guys at the Temple, and most especially not Jacob. Almost everything the characters did turned out to be an exercise in futility—kidnapping the Oceanic survivors, moving the island, setting off the bomb, saving and then trying to kill Sayid. What good did any of it do in retrospect? Not much. In fact, most of it made things worse. Maybe Bernard and Rose were on the right track with their detente policy, after all.
Which means, of course, that we have no idea whether Jack's sacrifice really meant anything. I mean, what would really happen if Smokey got off the island? Armageddon? Or just more nothing? Given the track record of the previous management, I'm not sure I buy into the Armageddon theory 100% even at this point. Sure, it looked bad when that pretty golden light turned into angry-looking red light, but it looked pretty bad when the hatch blew, too, and that turned out okay in the end. But the point, of course, wasn't that we knew Jack's sacrifice was meaningful, it was that he chose to make that sacrifice because he believed it was meaningful.
Which leads us to one simple conclusion: Jacob really sucked at his job. He seems to have run things the way he did because it was the way Mother did it, but it didn't really work out so hot for either of them. Okay, maybe it is crucial that the special glowy light be protected (but is it really? Maybe that precious light is just another version of that blasted button in the hatch? We'll never know for sure), but violence and deception, as it turns out, is not necessarily the best way to accomplish that. And all those manipulations and tests that Jacob devised in his search for a replacement just ended up causing more problems than they solved.
But was that actually the point? Those Wizard of Oz references weren't just there for whimsy. Every time they pulled back the curtain on one of the Wizards (Ben, Richard, Jacob, Smokey), they were revealed for the hucksters they were. If there is one thing that Lost drove home again and again, it's that nothing is ever what it seems. Sure the Island's Wizards seemed like they had some kind of master plan and all the answers, but the reality is they were just men, every one of them (albeit with a few minor superpowers). They made mistakes, they got things wrong, their master plans went all to hell, and nothing worked out the way they wanted it to. They are, it turns out, just like you and me.
Even worse? They didn't have all the damn answers, either. Not one of them. It goes right back to that theme: we don't ever really get to know all the answers. None of us, not even the Wizards. The truth peeking through the vast cloud of lies, misinformation and deception, is, as EW's Doc Jensen pointed out in his recap, that no one can ever be completely correct about anything.
This should have been obvious, coming from a show that's spent the last six years playing around with point of view and the way it changes a person's interpretation of events. Everything is relative. Truth, time, our concepts of good and evil. You can never really have all the answers because there's always going to be something you don't know, some perspective you're missing, that just might change your view of everything. Jack's irritating smugness at the beginning of his journey, his constant insistence that he knew the Right Thing To Do, was pure folly. It was only when he let go of that hubris and accepted that could never have all the answers that he achieved a measure of peace.
Which is why it was so fitting that Jack should turn the mantle of guardianship over to Hurley. Hurley, who has always been the Everyman among the ensemble. The comic relief. The heart. But more than that, he's the one truly selfless being among the candidates. Like all the best endings, the Lost finale was also a beginning. Who better to usher in a brighter, more benevolent age on the Island than Hurley? And his first act of compassion was, movingly, to give Ben another chance. Not just to prove himself to be a good man, but to finally receive the recognition and respect he'd always been denied by Jacob. We even got to see him receive some of those accolades(!) when Hurley tells him he was “a real good #2” outside the church at the end (and could Ben's reaction in that moment have been anything other than pure bliss?).
But really this was Jack's story all along, which is why it was so fitting that it ended where it did. Lord knows I've never been the biggest Jack Shephard fan, but it's easier to look back over the series now and appreciate the character's journey (and all props to Foxy: the guy acted the shit out of the finale, along with everyone else in the cast). It all started with Jack's awakening--both literally and figuratively--on the island. Ending with his death, poetically framed as mirror image of the opening shots of the series, makes for a perfect narrative bookend. Everything that happens after that, every thread left hanging, is rightfully left that way because those things are beyond the scope of the story. Jack doesn't get to find out those answers, so neither do we. They're part of another story, someone else's story.
And the truth is, those loose threads are a gift. They're a way of leaving a space for the story to live on in our imaginations. The morning after the finale aired I actually felt like I'd lost something. I'm going to dearly miss this show and the characters that I've come to love over the years. But I can console myself by imagining the next chapters. Will Kate and Sawyer find happiness in life after the Island and will they find it together or apart? What will Richard do with his newfound mortality? How will Hurley and Ben change things on the Island? These questions will inspire not only fanfic, but endless speculation, lengthy discussions and wild flights of fancy.
Which brings me to the Sideways World. The show itself wasn't a gimmick, but one aspect of the story was. But oh, what a lovely gimmick it turned out to be. Lost's greatest strength (far greater than its ability to entice and amaze) has always been its characters and their emotional journeys. The Sideways World was a tribute to those characters and to us. It was a way of giving everyone the happily ever after they deserved without robbing the story of dramatic impact. It made good on Sawyer's promise to the dying Juliet that he was going to get her out of there so they could all go home together.
And now we can go back and re-watch the Sideways interludes, looking for the clues that were planted there all along. Interestingly, if you look back to “LAX”, it seems as though Bernard and Rose may have been the very first characters to experience spiritual awakening and remember their former lives. When Bernard came back from the bathroom after the turbulence he said he “almost died in there.” Could he have had the same near-death experience jolt as Charlie and later Desmond had? And when Bernard sits down, he and Rose greet each other tenderly, as though they'd been separated for a long time rather than just a few minutes. At the time it just seemed like a poignant way to highlight the divergence from the original timeline in which they were separated for months. But in retrospect there is a distinct similarity between their greeting in that moment and the way Kate greets Jack after the concert, when she says she's missed him so much, as though it's been a long, long time (which makes me think she went on to live for years after Jack's death, a sign that the Ajira escapees made it safely home). I think it's a good bet that Rose had her awakening as a result of her terror over the turbulence, which makes her words to Jack on the plane even more telling. “You can let go now,” she says to him just after the turbulence. And later, as the plane is landing, she tells him, “You're almost home.” Her way of hinting at what was really going on, perhaps?
So do I buy into the conceit that the things they did on the island the people they did them with were the most important of their entire lives? Not necessarily. But it sure makes for a nice ending. It allows the writers to give us the gift of seeing everyone reunited and happy in a finale that culminates in a death. Two deaths, really, since Locke was always the yin to Jack's yang. (And this seems as good a place as any to mention how much I love the fact that, despite the sometimes-annoying emphasis on the Jack/Kate/Sawyer/Juliet love quadrangle, in the end, Jack's journey was really about Locke, and Kate's was about Claire. It's nice to see a show that made so much bank on the love stories—which were often exceptional, it has to be said—remind us that there are things in life that complete us as human beings besides True Love.)
Of course, once again, it's all about the cool kids. No one invited Arzt or Frogurt or poor Cindy the flight attendant to the Heaven Afterparty, not because they didn't earn it (like Ben or Michael), but because they weren't part of the “in” crowd. But it actually makes sense in a way. As zandras_court so aptly put it:
I think that the point was that these were the people who chose to connect themselves, to wait for The Others. The people you didn't see, they had other souls to connect with and move on with.
Boone and Shannon were there, not because they were important, but because they both identified so strongly with the others and wanted to be there with them. Walt was absent because he grew up away from the Oceanic survivors, into a man with his own life and loved ones and connections, as he should have. Penny was there because that's where Desmond needed to be, and she chose not to ever be separated from him. The only person I really missed in the church was Miles, not just because he was awesome, but because he spent so long living and struggling on the Island with the others, and was important enough to play a starring role in Sawyer's version of Purgatory. But I like to imagine there's another gathering going on somewhere else, where the Freighter Folk are meeting up and finding their own peace, that there's a place and a community waiting for everyone, for all of us.
And none of that is in any way dimmed by the fact that I'm an atheist. (Well, if not an out and out atheist, an extremely rational, science-loving agnostic.) My personal beliefs do not preclude me from appreciating the idea of an afterlife. Just because I don't believe there is one doesn't mean I can't imagine that it might be nice. That's what art is for, after all, to show us the infinite beauty of possibilities.
Which brings me to what I think is the greatest trick that Lost played on us all. This television show that seemed to be about a plane crash, and then seemed to be about a monster, and a group of homicidal hillbillies, and a bunch of wacky scientists, and time travel, was actually selling hard-core fantasy all along. It wasn't just science fiction, like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly and Doctor Who. And it wasn't fantasy-lite like Buffy and Angel and pretty much every vampire series ever. This was a full-on Middle-earth and Narnia-style fantasyland, dropped right smack into the real world. Which is a hard thing for a lot of people to swallow and difficult to pull off under the best of circumstances. But they managed to make it work for the most part. Sure, some people balked and some have been left feeling cheated. But an awful lot of people who'd normally turn their noses up at something like The Lord of the Rings found themselves well-and-truly sucked into a story about magic and mysticism and the power of fate. And I sort of love them for that.