'Lost' Series Finale Theories: Searching for Explanations and Answers
by Gary Susman, posted May 24th 2010 1:57PM
'Lost's' finale, like the rest of the series, was a Rorschach test. What you think it means says more about you than it does about what 'Lost' masterminds Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse actually put on the screen. Even after they'd given viewers some definitive answers, so many questions remained. Which isn't necessarily bad; the lack of resolution means we'll be able to continue to play the parlor game of deciphering 'Lost's' riddles, anagrams and puzzles for years to come as we watch the reruns.
Still, if the finale didn't explain all the show's mysteries, it resolved enough of them to provide audiences with a satisfying catharsis -- satisfying both for the explanations provided to us and for the emotional closure given to characters who'd sought it for years.
Here's what we finally know -- and what we know about what we don't know.
• What is the flash-sideways reality? As Christian Shephard explained at the end, the alternate timeline, in which Oceanic flight 815 lands safely in Los Angeles, is a purgatory, a collective dream, mutually created by the souls of the castaways (and a few close outsiders, like Penny), a way for them to rediscover each other before moving on to the next spiritual plane. It's also a place for the characters, all of whom have heavy baggage (and not the kind you pick up at the carousel), to let go. (Which is why those characters not ready to let go, like Ben or Michael or Ana Lucia, didn't end up in the church at the end.)
Does that mean they all died? (The shots of the empty plane wreckage over the closing credits has led some viewers to infer that no one survived the initial crash.) Well, they did all die, but not at the same time. Everything that occurred on the island, including the deaths of Boone, Shannon, Juliet, Sayid, Jin, Sun and Jack, really did happen. But so did the escape of Kate, Sawyer, Claire, Miles, Frank and Richard on the Ajira jetliner; they died sometime later (hopefully, after making it to safety and living out their lives). Hurley and Ben stayed behind to run the island and also, presumably, lived out their lives, as did Rose and Bernard. In the collective dream limbo, however, time doesn't matter, said Christian, so the souls didn't meet up there until everyone was dead. (What about Desmond? Did he make it off the island? The finale seems to have glossed over that question.)
The result looked something like a high school reunion -- everyone dolled up for a party, sharing hugs and memories -- but it made for a nice twist on Jack's motto: "Live together, die alone." Well, turns out we don't even have to die alone.
As for where the souls were going next, into the golden light behind the door Christian opened, was that heaven? Maybe, but 'Lost' wasn't interested in any particular religion's cosmology. That was evident from the ecumenical nature of the stained-glass window, which included emblems from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism. There's an afterlife waiting for everyone, as long as they have faith and are willing to let go.
• What is the well of light? Hmm. Is it the source of all the world's goodness, the wellspring of all spirituality, as Jacob and Smokey's adoptive mother suggested? Is it just a cork-stopper holding in a massive field of electromagnetic energy (as Widmore seemed to believe, which is why he brought electromagnetism-resistant Desmond back to the island)? Is it the mouth of hell? It seems to be all of these things.
It was also the main obstacle keeping Smokey on the island. Once Desmond shut it off, however, Smokey became mortal, ultimately enabling Jack and Kate to kill him. (Also, Smokey's mojo, once extinguished, stopped keeping Richard from aging, which is why he suddenly sprouted a gray hair.)
Desmond told Jack that it didn't matter whether or not he did Smokey's bidding and shut off the light, because he knew there was another place where the castaways' fondest wish, of being reunited with their loved ones, would be fulfilled. (That is, the limbo of the flash-sideways.) Later, however, Desmond realized he was wrong, that actions on the island do have real-world consequences, which is why it was important for Jack to turn the light back on by putting the stopper back in. (Question: If exposure to the radiation in the well turned the Man in Black into the smoke monster, why didn't it do the same to Jack?)
So a 'Lord of the Rings'-like descent into a fiery pit just to move a big rock turned out to be the crux of all the action of the whole series? Yup. At least Jack found peace knowing he'd accomplished his purpose and got to see the plane safely evacuating his friends from the island. After all, that was what the whole show was about: rebooting. There was the reboot that came with the destruction of the hatch at the end of season 2, the narrative reboot that came with the introduction of the flash-forwards at the midpoint of the series (at the end of season 3), the reboot that came from Ben moving the island via the donkey wheel at the end of season 4, and the reboot via nuclear bomb that split the show into two timelines at the end of season 5. (There was even a nice reboot, in the finale, at the vending machine, when Juliet told Sawyer to unplug and replug the machine in order to free his trapped candy bar.) The entire flash-sideways turned out to be a reboot: a collective abandoning of memory, a clean slate, a fresh start.
•Who is Jacob's replacement as guardian of the island? It looked like it was going to be Jack, but even Smokey thought that choice was too obvious. (I mean, dude's last name is Shephard.) Turns out Jack's stewardship lasted about a day, before he turned over the keys to the pure-hearted Hurley, the audience favorite and the stand-in for 'Lost's' cult of fanboys.
In the kind of 'Star Wars' terms that Hurley would appreciate, he got to be Luke Skywalker instead of just Chewbacca. He'd actually been well-prepared for the job by Jacob (to whom Hurley referred to in this episode as Yoda). And he even managed to help convert nemesis Ben (who was once 'Lost's' Darth Vader) to the light side of the Force and, with his help, defeat the evil emperor (Smokey). Ben's redemption (another reboot) was satisfying to see; his history as surrogate father to Alex and his good deeds in the flash-sideways world suggested a potential for good that had gone unrealized because of his perpetual jealousy and need for control. Having shed those and acquired a willingness to submit to someone else's authority, he became (we learned later) a faithful and worthy No. 2 to Hurley. (Question: With Smokey dead, what did Hurley and Ben need to protect the island from? Would there always be off-island threats, like Widmore, who'd try to control the island out of their own pursuit of worldly power? The finale didn't answer that question.)
•Who was ultimately right -- Jack, the man of science, or Locke, the Man of Faith? On the surface, faith seemed to have the upper hand. Jack repudiated the ultra-rational Smokey and insisted that Locke had been right about everything (despite Jack's long-ago refusal to accept Locke's point of view). Certainly, the show, in answering questions over the last few episodes, seemed to side with faith, whether explaining things like the flash-sideways or avoiding coming up with a scientific explanation for Jacob's powers or all the pagan artifacts. We never did find out who built the temple or what made its life-saving pool work, or how Jacob's lighthouse could see people all over the world, or how he and various Others seemed able to travel from the island to anywhere else in the world at will, or who built the structures in the well of light, or why the island could move through time and space, or how many centuries Jacob and Smokey had been playing their game of cosmic backgammon. Maybe there was a scientific explanation for all this; as sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke famously noted, any technology sufficiently advanced beyond our understanding seems indistinguishable from magic. But with the little info we were given, we (like the characters) had to take pretty much everything on faith.
Still, what happened on the island was real and measurable and took place in a world recognizably our own where the laws of physics were as important as the laws of metaphysics. As Miles put it in the finale, "I don't believe in a lot of things, but I believe in duct tape." (This from a guy who can hear the thoughts of the dead.)
Without the life and death experiences of physical reality on the island, the flash-sideways world would be meaningless. In the end, then, science and faith both have a role to play. 'Lost's' refusal to decide between them is part of the ambiguity that made the show so rich and rewarding to watch.
Ultimately, 'Lost' was a show for the anxious, uncertain, post-Sept. 11 nation we have become. We've had to accept ambiguity as a fact of life, and we seek answers and closure, though none may be forthcoming. We're leery and skeptical about science but riddled with doubt about faith. To the extent that 'Lost' was about the journey and not the destination, about the drive to solve riddles rather than the solutions themselves, it was the show that best explained us to ourselves.
•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.