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Lost Season 3 Episodes 17–22 Is the Greatest Arc in Television History

There is absolutely no better television experience than watching Lost with someone who has never seen the show before and finds themselves absolutely hooked. I recently was reminded of this because my family is making our way through the show, this being the first time my children (ages 14 and 11) have experienced it.

Several days ago, we finished the iconic Season 3 finale of Lost, “Through the Looking Glass.” There were emotions. And thoughts. And questions. But what has there not been in the half-week or so since we finished that episode? More episodes. Did we purposefully make that choice to give the show a break? No, it happened organically. Why have none of the four of us gone to others and said, “hey, let’s make this a Lost night?” I really can’t tell you.

The best theory I can think of comes wrapped in a metaphor. After a long, exhausting family vacation, the four of us all tend to spend the hours after we get home in different ways. My wife will immediately unpack and get resettled, our daughter might go FaceTime friends she has missed, our son probably will go play a game, and I likely will crash on the couch. We each approach those first moments after an exhausting and exhilarating journey differently. We’ve experienced something impactful and memorable together, and we all just need to recharge in our different ways.

And that’s exactly how our house feels right now after watching the closing stretch of Lost’s third season. We’ve been on a journey that had us visit heightened states of mystery, emotion, fear, anxiety, and adventure all in the span of six television hours. So forgive us if it takes a moment to get back to reality. We’ve just returned from the greatest television journey ever.

Jack tells Kate they have to go back in a flashforward
Photo courtesy of Ranker.com

Browse any one of the dozens of lists that exist online ranking the best Lost episodes ever, and I can confidently state that there will not be one without “Through the Looking Glass” in the top five. And while I think it’s an indisputable number one, there can be no debate it is an essential and revolutionary episode of television.

The best episodes of television are typically regarded that way because they deliver on multiple levels. Much like with this season-ending episode of Lost, other classics like “Ozymandias” from Breaking Bad, “Battle of the Bastards” from Game of Thrones, or “Dinner Party” from The Office, all tell fascinating and nuanced stories. There is often a culmination of events and shocking turns that were unexpected.

And then there are others like “Laying Pipe” from Sons of Anarchy or “Honor” from The Walking Dead that hit us so, so hard emotionally. What the end of Lost’s third season did is introduce a way to combine both of those levels that made us feel hopeful, healed, and heartbroken all at once.

But for all that the Season 3 finale introduced, all the questions it raised, and all it set in motion, that specific episode was also a culmination of a series of events that started five episodes earlier. A six-episode stretch I believe is the greatest arc in television history.

When the 17th episode of Season 3 begins (“Catch-22”), all of the chess pieces of the Island’s mysteries, the Others, and the Oceanic 815 survivors are on the board. Some of the pawns have been deployed and the knights and bishops are slowly positioning, but the game is largely in front of us. By the end of the episode, a new piece has been introduced to the game (Naomi Dorritt) that is so controversial and pivotal, but we don’t actually know to what team she belongs.

Naomi’s arrival on the Island sets off a series of events that ultimately culminates in her death just seven days later. But not before triggering many tragic and overshadowing consequences.

By the time we reach Episode 18 (“D.O.C.”), multiple mysteries begin to unwind that both answer long-standing questions (Who does Sun’s baby belong to? Why is no one looking for the flight 815 survivors?) and introduce new ones (Will Sun’s baby survive when others do not? Where did the footage and evidence of a recovered Oceanic 815 come from?). The motivations of each character on the Island were always a central tenet of the plot development, and the tension of unknown motivations from Juliet, Naomi, Mikhail, and Ben force home the point that we should never believe things are as they seem.

Episodes 19 (“The Brig”) and 20 (“The Man Behind the Curtain”) are so forceful and important that they deserve (and have received) bucketsful of digital ink to be spilled on their meaning. But to hit the high points, watching our characters confront their past lives (John Locke and Sawyer on the Black Rock with Anthony Cooper) and frame their motivations (Ben’s involvement with the Dharma Initiative and The Purge) set us up for what will be the series’ second act. These two episodes show the low points of several primary characters only to begin the transition of how they can begin their journeys of redemption; some of which will take the entire rest of the series.

And then we have Charlie in Episode 21 (“Greatest Hits”). What struck me most in rewatching Lost this time is the sheer number of times his death is indirectly and directly referenced throughout the third season. The writers were giving us the playbook, but perhaps we just didn’t want to believe it with such a beloved character. Much like when a loved one is sick for a prolonged period of time, our understanding that the end is coming doesn’t make the finality of their death any less emotional. Charlie’s life was littered with peaks and valleys, but his understanding that he was meant for something great allows him to end on a (Good Vibrations) high note.

One of the things that Lost consistently does best is to create and unveil these types of hero journeys in a variety of ways. The best case of this occurs over the final two episodes of Season 3. If we juxtapose Charlie’s ascension as a sacrificial hero with Hurley’s hero story, the two could not be more jarring. As Charlie hears on a number of occasions that his sacrifice will mean salvation for the people of the Island, Hurley hears on multiple occasions that he is too fat, he is too slow, he will slow the team down, and others are better for the job.

Most would hear those words and bond them to their psyche and their behavior, eventually forfeiting the role of hero to others who are more capable. But not Hurley. Reflecting many themes of the show such as overcoming obstacles, redemption, and charting our own path, Hurley finds the right way, HIS way, to evolve into the savior many of our survivors needed.

You can imagine, then, the conflicted feelings and emotions of an 11-year-old such as my son, whose two favorite characters are Charlie and Hurley. Watching their hero journeys through his eyes made those moments that much more powerful all over again. And then to hear the hope and the anguish in his voice when the episode is over and he asks only one question: “Is Charlie really dead?”

Charlie communicates to Desmond before the control room floods
The end of Charlie’s hero journey

I don’t blame him for having some hope that we will see Charlie again. Just in this six-episode run, we see Locke, Naomi, Mikhail, Jin, Sayid, and Bernard all escape what we thought was their death. But Charlie’s end was final, his hero journey complete.

Perhaps what these six episodes do most potently is complete one journey and start a new one at the same time. We largely move away from flashbacks after Season 3, and instead of focusing on who these people were, we look at whom they can, and do, become. That transition is a mirror into our own selves anytime we face a crossroads. Whatever happened, happened. But am I able to grow, accept, and move on?

In those seven days on the Island that span Episodes 17 thru 22, all the aspects that made Lost such an everlasting piece of television are on full display. The major, overarching themes of determinism versus free will, the good of the many or the good of the few, and science versus faith are all addressed.

I consider those themes and watch the show now through a completely different lens. As a now older man with a family, the stories of Locke, Rose and Bernard, Claire, Michael and Walt, and Rousseau all take on a rich new texture. I may know the answers to many of the outstanding show questions that my children do not, but that just allows me to focus on the numerous character paths even more. And in the end, that’s perhaps what makes these the best episodes of television ever. No matter who you are or where you are, you can find yourself somewhere in the story of Episodes 17–22.

I often watch my children’s reactions as they watch the show instead of the show itself, especially as we finished Season 3. And I find myself jealous of the experience they are having, being exposed to all of this for the first time. But just as Alice said in her own version of Through the Looking Glass:

“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

Every time I watch this arc of television I am a different person, but The Constant for those six episodes remains the fact that they will forever be the best I’ve ever seen.

Written by Ryan Kirksey

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