“What just happened?”: An Exploration of my Initial Reaction to “The End”

LOST Finale Jack and Vincent My wife, Jennifer, recently presented a paper on LOST regarding online fan communities and their impact on the series. She is also the one who initially convinced me to watch LOST.  So it wouldn’t be fitting if she didn’t have her say about what secrets were both withheld and revealed in the series finale.

My first response when that screen went black Sunday night was “Huh.” I drew a blank. My mom, with whom I have watched the show from the beginning, and I couldn’t even talk about what we had just seen. It was so different from anything we had anticipated, that we didn’t even have anything on which to base a conversation.

What the finale did leave me with was a very distinct emotion, one that I’m not sure I had felt before and that had certainly never been evoked by a television show. Something akin to melancholy, bittersweetness, optimism, and uneasiness all rolled into one. It took a good night’s sleep before I was able to start dissecting what that last scene meant and why it left such a unique impression. I’m also able to begin (emphasis on the fact that this is definitely just the beginning) to work toward what my final analysis will be on whether the finale—and the show as a whole—was a success.

I’ll start with the main topic that was on everyone’s mind on Sunday 9/8 C.


Back in junior high and high school, The X-Files was my show. The more convoluted the government conspiracy got, the more excited I became, because it meant the payoff would be that much better when the answers were finally revealed. So imagine my disappointment when the mythology completely fell apart and I realized there would be no grand explanation that tied everything together.

I tossed around in my head the idea that maybe the act of not providing answers was the underlying statement of the show. Maybe the whole point was that Mulder and Scully had struggled and struggled, but just like in real life, that was no guarantee that they would finally find the Truth. I liked the idea, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it all came down to the fact that Chris Carter & Co. had been making it up as they went.

Enter Lost.

This is a show that has been much more successful at having a convoluted story with a definite shape and (to a degree) plan. After all, we heard the first Smoke Monster sounds in the Pilot, and what is the main narrative of the finale? Killing the Smoke Monster. Multiple other plotlines have also been explicated or resolved as the series progressed. But still, the fans aren’t wrong to complain that many major questions were either unanswered or answered so vaguely that the fans still had questions.

The biggest one, of course, is “What is the Island?” We found out in “Across the Sea” that it’s special because of the Light at its center, but I was definitely among the people who wanted a precise explanation of what the Light was, what it did, and how it tied in to the struggles of the characters.

LOST Across the Sea The Source Cave But as I’ve reflected on that last scene, which emphasized the role of pure spirituality in the series, it started to bother me less. If the answer is that the Light is some sort of life force, the ultimate source of good and evil, or a manifestation of God, then how could the writers explain how it works? Is there any way that it wouldn’t have come across as both tasteless and presumptuous? No matter how wacky the Island shenanigans became, Lost has always remained true to the basic struggles of living, loving, and dying. So if the answers come down to these most fundamental questions of why and how we are here, then the writers couldn’t give specific answers without abandoning the central theme that ambiguity and uncertainty are just part of being human. If any show gets the “That’s the point” pass, I think it’s Lost.

The bitter in the bittersweet

As Desmond told Jack that he had seen where they were going, and it didn’t matter who died, it seemed like the final confirmation that the Sideways world was an alternate reality, created by the H-bomb, where the castaways got the chance to have the lives they could have had if the plane had never crashed, except with the added benefit of carrying the lessons they had learned on the Island. My mom’s reaction was, “Well, they’re throwing ‘Whatever happened, happened’ and ‘Dead is dead’ right out the window.” I was confused, too; how could I even be invested now in what happened in the rest of the episode if none of it mattered?

But then, we learn the nature of the Sideways world. It’s not an alternate reality at all; instead, it is the first step of our beloved characters’ afterlife, which they have created in order to move into the next world together. It’s a comforting idea, the thought that we get to choose who to be with after we die. But as the full ramifications of the last scene settled, another message came to the surface.

When loved ones die, you really do have to live the rest of your life without them. This idea is epitomized in the moment when Kate, reunited with Jack in the Sideways world, says, “I missed you so much.” When she said the line, my reaction was, “What does she mean? She only remembered her Island life 3 minutes ago . . . how has she had time to miss him?”

But when I saw the castaways taking off in Lapidus’ airplane as Jack closes his eyes in the bamboo forest, I understood: Kate—and Claire, Sawyer, Miles, Richard, and Lapidus—went on to live their lives, however long they would be, carrying the full weight of what had happened to them on the Island and what they had lost. There is no hydrogen bomb or magic time-travel flash to make things easier. Kate never got to see Jack again. Sawyer didn’t have coffee with Juliet. And Ji Yeon grew up as an orphan. All of the theories I had come up with over the season, the ones that were going to give all the characters their happy endings, were nothing but wishful thinking. Dead is dead.

“We Have to Try”

The revelation that the Sideways world was an afterlife prevented the nullification of everything we had watched and agonized over during the last six years, but it also appeared at first glance to prove that many of the characters’ actions—actions that spanned entire seasons and caused major deaths—were in vain. After all, how much time was spent trying to set off that hydrogen bomb, only for us to learn in the finale that it didn’t do anything beyond sending them back into present time? How many people died in efforts to get the rest 118573_D_SUPPER_01aR1of the castaways back home, only to have just three of the original group of survivors actually make it back in the end?

This issue was a major source of the unease I felt after the finale. And then I remember one line:

“We have to try.”

This is what Hurley says to Sawyer when they are trying to lift the huge log off of Ben. Sawyer insists that it’s too heavy and that their efforts are pointless, but Hurley insists that “We have to try.”

We have found out over the last few episodes that even Jacob, the seemingly all-powerful deity controlling the Island, was just a guy doing his best. There is no huge overarching plan, no omniscient narrator making sure that everything ends up ok, with a nice tidy bow. There’s only people living their lives and dealing with the consequences of their decisions.

It’s a point hinted at in “What They Died For” when Sawyer realizes that his decision to try to deactivate the bomb had led to Jin, Sun, and Sayid’s deaths. The scene is one of my favorites of the season. The moment I saw Sawyer’s face, I knew what he was thinking and feeling. And I love the subtle understanding between Sawyer and Jack. When Jack tells him that the deaths weren’t his fault, I think it finally hits Sawyer that Juliet’s death wasn’t Jack’s fault, either. In the high-stakes existence they’ve been living on the Island, people have to make choices, and sometimes those choices have tragic results.

If the finale was all about revealing the importance of the journey, then this line of Hurley’s may be the series’ thesis statement. Regardless of whether their actions were successful, they had to try if they were going to learn their Island lessons and earn their redemptions. Jack had to keep trying to fix things until he learned to let go, Kate had to keep following when Sawyer and Jack told her to stay put, and they had to keep getting on that stinking submarine no matter how many times that plan failed. Shoot, Boone had to go find those two dozen pens. So what if Jack didn’t need them. “We have to try.”

Initial Conclusions and a “To Be Continued”

I hope that none of this comes across as me trying to rationalize why the show didn’t give us what we wanted.

Lost is a flawed work, absolutely. I think that’s the nature of making art out of television, though. A television series doesn’t have a single creator or even a set group of collaborators, and there are dozens of outside factors affecting it (studio interference, actor availability, etc.). Plus, television is created as it is consumed. If the writers change their minds about something (and let’s be honest: that is what happened with the “Claire has to raise Aaron or something terrible will happen” storyline), it’s too late. It’s already out there. It must be impossible to maintain a single cohesive vision throughout.

I don’t think you can use the same criteria as you would use to judge a novel or a film when judging a series as a piece of art, because if a TV show is going to really take risks, it’s going to fail sometimes. But every time a show like Lost comes along to make you rethink what the medium is capable of, it’s going to promote in the public consciousness that the television series is a form of art that is ripe for tweaking and improving and expanding.

LOST Jack Christian Church But if anything proves to me that Lost is indeed a piece of art, my initial emotional reaction to the finale closes the case. If you look at a great painting or read a masterful poem, it’s the feeling that you get from them that makes them art. You don’t look at Starry Night and think, “Those are some innovative brush strokes.” Instead, you sense that it shows the grandness and beauty of the night sky, even though no night sky you’ve ever seen resembles it.

That’s what Lost is to me. Because I watched it, I feel like I have a little bit of a better understanding of what it means to live and why we have to try. After six years of coming up with theories and pondering the philosophical underpinnings, when the last scene finished, the only thing I could do was feel. The time for analyzing followed, of course, but none of it will reveal as much as the simple fact that in the end, this show so steeped in mysteries and questions made me feel something new.

Note from Jennifer: I left out a rather large portion of this post. It was all going to lead up to the reason that the ending has become more powerful as I let it settle: it sheds a completely new light on the characters’ experiences in the Sideways world. But I promised Beej that I would have this ready for Tuesday, and this, of course, took longer than I expected. So coming soon: a character-by-character examination of why the castaways needed the situations in the Sideways world to move on, as well as thoughts on what happened to each one on the Island in the finale.

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. So much to think about with this show. Seriously, even the creators are probably surprised by everyone’s interpretations.

    It’s just rich.

    There’s quite a bit I’m hung up on, but I’m particularly curious what you have to say about Jack’s dad. I’m just not comfortable with the fact that he’s all “light and happiness” at the end. Doesn’t fit.

  2. You make an interesting point regarding Christian’s role in the last scene. Thematically, the reason he needed to be the one to explain things to Jack is clearly because of the huge role that Daddy issues have played in the series. Jack couldn’t let go until he faced the biggest contributing factor to his constant need to fix things and prove himself.

    I didn’t even notice that he was all “light and happiness,” probably because we’ve seen so many different images of Jack’s dad, most of them not being really him. But you’re right–that was definitely not the Christian that we saw in the flashbacks. My only explanation would be that we don’t know what he’s gone through in his own limbo-world to get to this point. I don’t get the feeling that this reunion was for Christian the same way it was for the other castaways. Notice that he kept saying, “You all created this place” and “Your time on the Island was the most important part of your lives.” No “we” in sight. I think he was there to get Jack to where he needed to be. Being able to be a real father to Jack may have been the last step in Christian’s journey toward moving on, but I’d be willing to bet that he had his own limbo/purgatory situation that led him to that point.

    Thanks for your question! I would have never noticed that little avenue for analysis without it.

    1. […] find both reapgnunt and unlistenable peppered against the gems of absolute genius. Before I started writing copy, before I started writing for myself, I wrote children’s stories in rhyme. There is no bigger […]

  3. TV is indeed an inherently different medium than film or literature. Perhaps working within that framework, flaws of schedule, budget, publisher pique and such are simply limitations to live with, much as a pencil doesn’t work the same way as watercolor paints. As such, does Lost work within its medium?

    I’m oddly reminded of Ebert’s whining about games not being art. Arguing about “what is art” is a pointless Quixotic quest, but his position and those of others in response underlines that we really are talking about different mediums. TV is yet another.

    I’ve not seen Lost, since it just doesn’t appeal to me. Still, academically, it seems to be a good example of how TV, especially serial TV, can be a rather interesting medium to work in. It’s not quite improv, but the fuzzier barrier between audience and creator and the ability to retool things (as in any “live” medium) make for a medium that you simply can’t approach the same way as film or literature.

    I think that’s healthy, and though I have little interest in Lost in particular, I hope that it pushes the potential of TV forward into better products.
    .-= Tesh´s last blog ..Fun Flash =-.

  4. I’ve never been someone who thinks that everyone has to love something just because I love it. I have a hard time understanding the “That’s weird . . . why can’t it just be a story instead of being all complicated?” reaction, but I’ve always been the first person to say that Lost isn’t something that everyone would like.

    As for whether Lost works within its medium, I think the answer is yes. There are plenty of great TV shows that are structurally tighter than Lost was, but I don’t know of any that have explored Big Ideas with the nuance and complexity that Lost has shown. And it always managed to be big and yet intimate and personal at the same time. I don’t think anyone can give a final answer to your question until having a chance to rewatch the series with the knowledge of where it’s going. But I’ve invested a lot of time and energy in this show over the last six years, and I don’t regret it a bit.

    One remarkable thing about Lost, which just hit me today, is that it has inspired normally casual television viewers to become amateur pop culture scholars. I don’t know of any other show for which such a large percentage of fans regularly read analyses, pieced together their own theories, etc. I just hope that all those folks keep thinking critically about their entertainment, because that’s the best thing that could happen to the medium of television.

  5. Actually, I like the complexity, ’tis merely some of the trappings that make the whole product unpalatable for my tastes. I really like that they went in unconventional directions with storytelling, and I do hope that it has a continuing positive effect on scholarship. 🙂
    .-= Tesh´s last blog ..Fun Flash =-.

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