Let’s start right at the end: Jack’s in the back room of the church. On the stained glass window over his shoulder, we can see six religious symbols—one for Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Jack takes a deep breath, and he finally musters the courage to look inside his father’s casket.
There’s nothing there.
Christian is behind him—more peaceful and far more empathetic than he ever was in life. “Hey kiddo,” he says softly, as though he knows that Jack has finally, finally worked through all his anger and pain at his father and reached a peace that they can now share.
This is their final conversation, and it’s the most essential moment in all of Lost.
It’s not important because Jack’s questions are answered, and it’s not important because it’s the final episode of the show. Christian says, “The most important part of your life was the time you spent with these people. That’s why all of you are here. Nobody does it alone, Jack.” That’s why this scene is so important. After six seasons of convoluted plots, flashbacks, and philosophical allusions, we finally get to the show’s thesis statement—the one thing about Lost that cannot be ignored. And it’s the same as it’s been from the start: learn to live together or die alone.
The difference is that we, and Jack, are finally ready to truly enact that sentiment.
A finale is an opportunity for the writers to let you know how they want you to remember the show, and Lost chooses to say one final time that what matters most are the bonds formed between the Islanders, between the viewers and the show itself, and what that’s meant over the years.
For all its science-fiction trappings, Lost was always a show about lonely people finding purpose and solace in their most desperate moments. We look to Lost now as the show that kick-started the trend of ambitious, cinematic television—shows that enjoy bigger budgets and more cultural relevance than ever before. All that is true, but it’s also missing something so important about what made Lost truly special.
Lost was a show that gloried in its sentimentality. For character deaths, Michael Giacchino’s score would swell with strings, the dialogue would drop out, and the camera would linger on the shock and grief on the faces of the characters. The most important feature of these scenes isn’t what is said but rather what is felt.
Deaths such as Charlie’s only matter because we understand the depth of love shared for him from his fellow Islanders. At the end of the day, we are watching a television show. Our empathy towards fictional characters can, and should, extend only so far. But we understand how grief feels; we understand what it is to lose a beloved friend.
There’s something unseemly about appreciating a show for its ability to evoke emotion rather than, for example, its “production values” (whatever that means), or its references to philosophy, or how satisfactorily it explains its mysteries to the audience. It’s as though by admitting we love the show for something as subjective as emotion, we’re saying that we love the show “incorrectly.”
I’d contend that there’s no more reliable sign of good writing than if a show can make me forget that it’s fictional and make me cry over people who’ve never actually existed. Lost’s greatest moments of joy, sadness, and love are all wrapped in how much it loves its characters and the messy, complicated, inconvenient, all-consuming feelings that drive them.
This show is about people who are metaphorically lost in their lives, who get on an airplane, and crash on an island, and become physically lost on the planet Earth. And once they are able to metaphorically find themselves in their lives again, they will be able to physically find themselves in the world again.
– “How Will Lost End?“, interview with Damon Lindelof, by Eric Goldman (2007).
Damon Lindelof, one of the co-creators of Lost alongside Carlton Cuse, was always clear about the show’s existentialist, allegorical leanings.
Every single character on The Island is metaphorically, spiritually, emotionally lost. It’s not so much that they need to seek redemption (some do, some don’t), but rather that they are tetherless. They’ve all forgotten something important about life, and their time on The Island is there to help them remember it. It’s not a punishment: it’s a cosmic therapy session.
The most prevalent theory throughout the show’s run was that The Island was purgatory. It was a hallucination for the characters and a chance to prove that they deserve an afterlife. Really, though, the show concluded the exact opposite. Lost isn’t about proving you have the right to ascend to a religious afterlife; it’s about finding yourself again so that you can fully appreciate life. Just life.
Lost is about a group of lonely, desperate people trying to learn how to be humans who give and receive love freely and openly, and who are capable of understanding their inherent value as thinking, feeling people. They all need The Island to prove to themselves that they are more than their suffering, and that’s why they are incapable of leaving (and staying away from) The Island until they understand that lesson in their hearts.
No episode makes that clearer than the show’s crowning achievement, and its greatest legacy, “The Constant.” It is an episode that is entirely about the one thing that can tether another human being to life: love.
Do you remember what it felt like to hear that phone ring? To wonder whether Penny, on December 24, 2004, would pick up as Desmond, mad with need, unstuck in time, had begged her to back in 1996? Can you still hear that first crackly “Hello?,” still see Desmond’s brow wrinkle, pulling in on itself as he finds his anchor, fully comprehending at last what one person can be for another?
– “The 100 Best TV Episodes of the Century,” Mallory Rubin on the top pick, “The Constant” (2018).
For those 40-something minutes, the love between Desmond and Penny is all that matters. Not The Island, not the time-travel. This is Lost down to its purest essence: the search for human connection. It’s about a man trying to understand how he can deserve to be loved despite his mistakes, and a woman making the choice to honour his truest self, to keep her promise and pick up the phone and give him the literal lifeline he desperately needs.
“The Constant” is Lost’s best and most important episode because it is utterly unashamed of its melodrama. It uses the science-fiction plot to tell a literally emotion-driven story—that of Desmond trying to find his constant, and coming to accept that of course his constant is a human being, and of course it’s Penny. How could it be anything else?
We learn to live together, or we die alone. We learn to trust, and love, and care for each other in the way that we deserve—wholeheartedly, unashamedly, sentimentally.
To say that Lost was the antecedent to “Peak TV” misses something important. It misses the fact that part of what made the show so special was how little Lindelof and Cuse cared about the mysteries and how much they cared about the emotions. Lindelof’s show The Leftovers understood this idea of sentiment as the source of the show’s claim to true artistry better than any other television show. It’s even more uncaring than Lost towards its mysteries because they don’t matter. What matters is that Kevin believed Nora’s story. What matters is that Matt stopped looking for a saviour. What matters is that Laurie was able to care for her family.
I’d like to think that, a decade on from Lost’s transcendent final episode, we’re able to put aside all our questions and theories. I’d hope that, with so much time between its original airing and now, we can appreciate it for what it was: one final lesson on loving and being loved.