‘Lost’ – ‘The End’: A re-review

Before the “Lost” finale aired in late May, I said that I felt uncomfortable with trying to wrap my feelings around the end of the series within the few hours I allowed myself that night between when the finale ended and when I posted my review. And I suggested that at some point in the future – possibly at several points – I might revisit my feelings about said finale.

Well, yesterday was a relatively slow day, and it occurred to me that a little over a month had passed, and I still had “The End” on my DVR. So I watched it, again. And I have a bunch of thoughts – some new, some not – about the finale coming up just as soon as I’m shot by a fat man…

“How are you here right now?” -Jack
“How are
you here?” -Christian

Back in May, I said that I thought “The End” was fantastic as an episode of “Lost,” but that I wasn’t sure how it worked as an ending to “Lost.” On the former point, I haven’t wavered. Every piece of “The End” that worked the first time still washed over me the second time around, whether it was the callbacks (Jack and Locke peering down a hole at Desmond), the action (Jack leaping down the cliff towards Locke is an incredible act-out, and Kate gets the great action movie kiss-off line “I saved you a bullet!” when she finally takes out Smokey), or the many, many tearjerking moments in both the real world (Hurley’s voice breaking as he tells Jack “I can’t“) or the sideways (Sawyer telling Juliet, “I got ya, baby”). Like most of the previous “Lost” finales (but particularly “Exodus” and “Through the Looking Glass”), it was a reminder of the confident storytelling of Cuse and Lindelof and the technical brilliance of Jack Bender and the crew(*). Whatever your thoughts are on the importance of the mysteries, how much of a master plan Darlton had, etc., when these people set their phasers to “Entertain,” few in the TV business have ever been better.

(*) I watched much of the finale without my laptop so I wouldn’t have any distractions, and occasionally I would scribble a word or two into a list of notes in my phone. The first line: “Giacchino.” Love the score he came up with for the finale.

In fact, there were some ways in which I enjoyed the episode-as-an-episode more this time than last. In retrospect, I had come to understand Jacob’s plan – that only Desmond could live long enough to unplug the cork, and that it had to be done so that Smokey would become mortal again – so I not only stopped questioning what the point of Desmond was, but came to appreciate that while neither Sawyer nor Ben ever managed to effectively con Smokey, Jacob did. And if you go into the episode knowing the true meaning of the sideways universe, then the moments where certain characters (in particular, Jin/Sun and Sawyer/Juliet) realize where they are take on even more power.

I imagine I will always have a bunch of metaphysical questions about the sideways universe: Why only this particular combination of Oceanic 815 and Oceanic-related people in the church? Why do Kate and Claire get to bring baby Aaron through to Heaven with them, but Desmond and Penny have to go without their Charlie?  Is everyone in the sideways real, or just the ones who were in some way tied to the island? And either way, should Juliet and Jack just ignore their imaginary son like he never mattered to them at all?(**) Etc., etc.

(**) Comic book geekery digression: One of the all-time great Superman stories is Alan Moore’s “For the Man Who Has Everything,” where a bad guy traps Superman’s mind in a fantasy where Krypton never blew up and he has a wife, kids and an ordinary life on his home planet. As the story goes on, Kal-El begins to realize this isn’t right, and he tells his son Van, tears in his eyes, “You”re my son. I was there at your birth and I”ll always love you, but … I don”t think you”re real.” There probably wasn’t time in “The End” for a similar kind of moment for a minor, apparently imaginary character, but given how much build-up David got in “Lighthouse” and then later episodes, it feels like a cheat that we didn’t. It’s swell that a bunch of these people get to go to Heaven, and also that others (Eloise, Ben) get to hang with their loved ones in limbo for a bit longer, but some other sideways residents got screwed.

But here’s what I wonder: if you take the sideways universe out of the finale – take it out of the final season altogether, in fact – how does “The End” work as a conclusion to the series? Not perfectly, because given how many different things “Lost” was to so many people, there’s no way any conclusion could be perfect. But sideways aside, “The End” is an ending that I think works more than it doesn’t.

There’s a final confrontation between good and evil. We understand the stakes of the island and the forces that brought our characters to it. Some characters die, others escape the island, a new guardian is appointed who plans a new way of running things, and things come full circle with Jack lying down in the same place we found him six years before, again accompanied by Vincent(***), and his eye closes.

(***) Seriously, how good was Matthew Fox in this episode? I spent an awful lot of time in the middle seasons bagging on the character of Jack, but both the writers and Fox did a remarkable job in this final season of bringing back the Jack I liked. This becomes another one of those “how much was planned and how much was done on the fly?” questions – Did Darlton intend for Jack to become insufferable so we’d appreciate it more when he stopped? Or did they just realize they’d pushed the character too far in that direction and course correct? – but whatever the behind-the-scenes movement, Fox is tremendous. The look on Jack’s face when Vincent trots up gets me every time. He knows he’s about to die, but that his life and death had meaning, and then Vincent comes to not only remind him of his whole journey on the island but to keep him from dying alone, and he looks… happy. His life isn’t what he hoped it would be, but it was enough. He fixed things in the end, and saw some of the people he cared about leave, and Vincent keeps him company as the light goes out.

Would I have liked that the sixth season spent more time filling in the gaps of island history? Absolutely. Instead of all the time in the Temple (which was both dramatically inert and pointless from an arc perspective), we could perhaps have gotten a second Richard flashback episode that showed the evolution of The Others over time and perhaps shed more light on why Jacob sat back and let some combination of Smokey and Ben cause so much havoc. And I’m sure when I go back and rewatch episodes that are heavier on the island mythology, I’ll be frustrated at the many, many dead ends they had to offer. But in terms of the narrative of the passengers of Oceanic 815, the island scenes of “Lost” gave us a beginning, a very long middle, and an end.

But the sideways was a big part of season six, and of “The End,” and so we have to consider it when discussing the finale, the season, and the series. I know there are fan edits out there that remove those scenes, but we can’t ignore them anymore than Lucas fans can ignore Jar-Jar Binks – and Jar-Jar never gave us anything a fraction as good as the re-birth of Aaron backstage at the Daniel/Driveshaft concert.

So a month-plus later, how do I feel about the sideways? Conflicted.

On the plus side of the ledger, it allowed the show to revisit earlier versions of these characters: to help reset Jack as a good guy with an occasional messiah-complex problem and not an obstinate ass, to give us a living version of John Locke instead of the monster wearing his face, etc. It allowed us to study these characters outside the context of the island: to wonder if Sayid would always be an engine of destruction, or if Ben was really bad or just wound up that way because his father took a job with Horace Goodspeed. It provided us with some great emotional moments even before the finale, and in “The End” it gave us an opportunity to get closure and happy endings for characters we’d lost, whether a long time ago (Shannon) or only a few weeks back (Jin and Sun). Certainly, I don’t want to complain too too much about a format that gave us Sawyer and Juliet at the vending machine, or John Locke getting career advice from Rose.

But ultimately, how necessary was it? I mean, I’m glad the characters I like (and a few I don’t really care about, like Boone) get to enjoy each other’s company for all eternity, regardless of some of the metaphysical issues I listed above. But if we assume the existence of an afterlife – and “Lost” is a show that clearly took place in a universe in which the afterlife exists – then we could picture characters from any beloved series ultimately reuniting in the hereafter.

At times in the final season, we saw the sideways used to finish jobs the island started. Jack broke the cycle of paternal alienation, Locke realized that he didn’t have to be special to be happy, and Ben recognized that love ultimately mattered to him more than power. Christian tells Jack that the sideways was constructed not only to bring everyone together, but to make them finally realize that they have to let go. And the idea of people needing to drop their baggage so they can move on has been a theme of the series from the start. But only some of the characters reach that point independently of the realization that they’re dead and this is Ray Kinsella’s cornfield. Sayid, for instance, is still filled with self-loathing, and then he meets Shannon, remembers who he is, and all is well.

So on the one hand, the show has to step outside its own boundaries in order to provide emotional/thematic closure to a number of characters, when that was always one of the roles the island was supposed to play. And on the other hand, the sideways only occasionally did that and the rest of the time was… what? There to give us amusing alternate versions of characters? (Sawyer’s a cop! Desmond and Widmore are BFFs!)

Early in the series, Jack famously tells the other survivors “Live together, die alone.” With the sideways universe, we learn that the equation is slightly different: that however you live or died, if you’re one of the cool kids (as opposed to Ana-Lucia or Frogurt), you get to live together forever. And that has the effect of making the events of the series irrelevant in a way.(****) Yes, their time together on the island is what allows these people to reconnect in the sideways, but the actual assignment of who Desmond does and doesn’t invite to join them in the church has little bearing on what these specific people did in life; these are just the people he (and the writers) decided were “ready” to move on. And that randomness is just as frustrating as finding out that the Oceanic Six just happened to be the six people who were near the helicopter when the bad stuff with the freighter was going down.

(****) And I recognize that a number of popular organized religions have this very attitude about life on Earth versus what is said to await us afterwards. But let’s try to keep the discussion focused more on the series than theology in general, okay?

So while the sideways stories did add certain emotionally-resonant things to this final season, I don’t know that what was added was worth what was taken away as a result.

But the truly problematic parts of the sideways story only occupy the final 10 minutes of “The End,” and even they’re intertwined with Jack’s moving walk back to his final resting place in the bamboo field. And while it’s impossible to completely separate the sideways from the rest of the series, I do believe that if I’m thinking back on “Lost” 10 or 15 years from now, the parallel timeline that turned out to be a kind of purgatory won’t be especially prominent in my thoughts. I’ll think back on the crash, and the raft launch, and “Not Penny’s boat,” and Desmond’s phone call, and the murder of Jeremy Bentham, and Kate and Sawyer jumping off the cliff in order to catch a flight. The parts of the show that didn’t come together for one reason or another won’t be as resonant, I don’t think. Like I said in my initial review, “Lost” didn’t always work as a cohesive whole, but was incredible when broken down into individual moments.

And if I look back at the series in that way, I’ll be following Christian’s advice to his son, learning to remember the good times and let go of the bad – even if I consider the scene where he offered said advice to be one of the less-good times.

A few other thoughts based on a second viewing:

• I had hoped to get a clearer sense of how Sawyer, Kate and Hurley got Ben out from under the fallen tree, but nope. One scene, he’s pinned under there with no hope of rescue, and the next he’s on the cliff with the others, worried about Jack’s stab wound.

• I found it interesting that, other than the Sawyer/Juliet flash at the vending machine, the bulk of the flashes characters had in the sideways were of events from the first few seasons. That obviously makes sense for characters like Shannon who didn’t make it very far into the series, but even Locke’s flashbacks were largely from that character’s early days.

• Getting back to the David Shepard issue, I still can’t decide if Ben is staying in the sideways because he feels he isn’t yet worthy of heaven, or if he just wants to spend more time with Danielle and Alex. Which, again, brings us back to both metaphysics and the question of why Desmond picked who he picked. Alex and Danielle were on the island, as were Charlotte, Daniel and Miles (and Eloise), but all are left behind for one reason or another. Maybe Eloise can take in David as a ward or something.

• I don’t believe I mentioned in my original review how pleased I was to finally learn the origin of the flash-sideways sound effect. It’s not the MRI machine Desmond goes into in “Happily Ever After,” but (I think) what Jack hears of Ajira 316 as it flies overhead.

Anyway, those are my ramblings. Perhaps my opinion will change more radically in a year’s time or more, but I doubt it. My reaction to “The Sopranos” ending is still what it was 3 years ago, and even this review didn’t so much change my opinions as clarify some of them given time and a full night’s sleep. But we’ll see.

In the meantime, I’m curious if anyone else has gone back to watch “The End” again since May 23, and, with a re-view or not, whether anyone feels differently about it now than they did that night.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com