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We finally understand the ending of Lost

Since airing its two-part finale in May 2010 on ABC, the polarizing ending of the landmark television series Lost has been a point of fierce contention among fans. For years, those who tuned in every week to check in with the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 have wrestled with the implications of a feature-length final episode — aptly titled "The End" — which was jam-packed with mind-bending twists and ambiguous answers that only seemed to set up more questions. 

From its very first episode, Lost made no attempt to hide its fondness for perplexing mysteries. But while the series' first season was mostly focused on the Oceanic survivors simply trying to stay alive in their new tropical home, subsequent seasons became increasingly more convoluted as the show delved into the bizarre history of the island, its strange electromagnetic properties, and the mysteriously intertwined histories of the survivors themselves. By the final season, the show had thrown time travel, alternate realities, and immortal beings into the mix. Suffice it to say, wrapping it all up over the course of two hours was a tall order, and fans came away with all sorts of different interpretations of exactly what the finale meant. 

So make sure your carry-on luggage is stowed, your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position, and that your seat belt is properly fastened, because we're about to take a deep dive into the ending of Lost, and it may be a bumpy ride.

Was the island purgatory?

From very early on in Lost's run, fans worried the show would end with a "they were dead the whole time" twist. Sure, creator J.J. Abrams and showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse repeatedly denied speculation that the characters died in the crash, and that the island was a form of purgatory. Still, some thought the finale's church-set ending confirmed that Abrams, Lindelof, and Cuse had been lying the whole time, and that the entire show had taken place in the afterlife. Further evidence used to support this claim was footage of the original plane crash that aired over the closing credits, showing empty beaches, which some fans thought meant there'd been no survivors. 

But it turns out that the crash footage at the end was never meant to be considered as part of the finale. Instead, it was included so fans could "decompress," readjust, and collect themselves as the show transitioned to the 11 PM news. ABC network executives never imagined that viewers would consider this part of the show's narrative. Further, "The End" takes pains to explicitly clarify that all the events that took place on the island were, in fact, real. During the church scene, Christian Shephard (John Terry) explains to Jack (Matthew Fox) that everything on the island did indeed come to pass. In fact, it was "the most important period" in the Oceanic survivors' lives.

What was the flash-sideways?

After five seasons filled with flashbacks and, eventually, flash-forwards, the first episode of season six included something Lost fans were totally unprepared for: a flash-sideways, exploring an alternate reality in which Oceanic Flight 815 doesn't crash, and the plane lands safely at LAX. However, the plane crash isn't the only thing different about the two realities. Instead of being a con man, Sawyer (Josh Holloway) is a cop. Instead of the strained marriage they had in the pilot, Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) and Sun (Yunjin Kim) are secret lovers. And the childless Jack suddenly has a teenage son whose mother is none other than Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell), a woman he met on the island. 

But is this all a dream? Is it maybe a parallel dimension created by the wonky powers of the island? Or is this the true timeline, and maybe the island is just an elaborate "what if" scenario? Well, in "The End," the flash-sideways is revealed to be the afterlife, where all the Oceanic survivors are brought back together following their deaths. In a way, it is a sort of purgatory where they each have to make peace with the struggles of their lives before they can recognize one another and move on together.

Doesn't that mean they all died in the crash?

This is where the Lost finale tripped up many of its viewers, who reasonably assumed that in order for all of the characters on the show to have arrived in the afterlife at the same time, they had to have died at the same time. But as logical as this reasoning appears at first glance, it doesn't hold up under close scrutiny. Not only does it fail to explain the presence of characters like Juliet and Ben (Michael Emerson), who weren't on board Oceanic 815, but it doesn't account for all of the shared memories they recover once they recognize each other. After all, if they all died in the crash, how would Kate (Evangeline Lilly) remember delivering Claire's (Emilie de Ravin) baby, or how could Sayid (Naveen Andrews) recall falling in love with Shannon (Maggie Grace)?

The explanation given in "The End" is that they all died at different times, some way back in season one, and others many years after the end of season six. But time works differently in the afterlife. To the characters, it feels as though they all arrived around the same time, even if their actual deaths were many decades apart. The only thing they all had in common was that none of the characters in the flash-sideways died during the plane crash. 

So when did everyone die on Lost?

While we'd be here all day if we tried to list every death that ever occurred on Lost, here's what we know about the deaths of the people in the church. Boone (Ian Somerhalder) dies in season one, succumbing to his injuries after a fall. Shannon dies early in season two after being accidentally shot by Ana Lucia (Michelle Rodriguez), and Libby (Cynthia Watros) dies toward the end of the second season after being shot by Michael (Harold Perrineau). 

Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) dies in season three, drowning after warning Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) that the boat outside is "not Penny's boat." Locke (Terry O'Quinn) is strangled by Ben in season five. Juliet dies at the beginning of season six after falling down a shaft and detonating a bomb. Sayid dies midway through season six saving his friends from a bomb, and Sun and Jin die later in the same episode, drowning together in a sinking submarine. And Jack dies at the end of the series finale, after being stabbed by the Man in Black. 

There are also a good number of deaths that are left up to our imaginations. Kate, Rose (L. Scott Caldwell), Bernard (Sam Anderson), Sawyer, Desmond, Penny (Sonya Walger), and Claire all survive the finale, and presumably die at some point in the years afterward. And as the new protectors of the island, Hurley (Jorge Garcia) and Ben likely outlive the other survivors by quite a wide margin, but at some point, they must eventually die as well. 

What is the Heart of the Island?

A good portion of the finale focuses on the question of who will fill Jacob's (Mark Pellegrino) role as the protector of the Heart of the Island, which turns out to be a magical, glowing pool at the island's center. This pool is supposedly the source of all life, death, and rebirth, and according to Jacob, it's the cork holding back a malevolent force that could destroy the world. In the finale, this is revealed to be a literal cork, which Desmond pulls to drain the pool, nearly getting everyone killed. 

The Heart of the Island also emits a strong electromagnetic field and can manipulate space and time, as evidenced by the relocation of the island and the time travel in earlier episodes. It's also implied to have a form of consciousness, or at least self-preservation, granting immortality to the humans who are willing to take on the responsibility of keeping it safe. 

While some of the earlier mysteries of Lost were revealed to have at least moderately plausible sci-fi explanations, the Heart of the Island requires viewers to accept some elements of the supernatural as well. No details are ever given about the origins of the Heart of the Island, but it's said that a piece of its light is inside every living thing, and if it goes out, so do we. 

How were the survivors of Oceanic 815 connected?

Throughout the series, we see that many of the characters on the show have some sort of connection before ever boarding the plane, implying that they were always predestined to board the same doomed flight and end up on the island together. However, in Lost's final season, we learn more about the way that Jacob has been pulling strings for years, traveling around the world in order to bring a group of potential "candidates" to the island, in the hopes of finding someone capable of taking over for him as the island's protector. He knew his brother, the Man in Black (Titus Welliver), was searching for a way to kill him and would eventually succeed. Jacob's intent was to find a successor before that happened. 

Jacob chose people who reminded him of himself — individuals who were alone and flawed, and who'd come to depend on the island as much as it would rely on them to keep it safe. All of the survivors of Oceanic 815 fit this criteria, and as the series progressed and he was able to observe their interactions on the island, Jacob began slowly whittling down his list of candidates. None of the connections we saw between the characters in flashbacks were fated or accidental. All of them were engineered by Jacob.  

What was the deal with the smoke monster?

Throughout the series, one of Lost's most enduring mysteries is the nature of the smoke monster, a seemingly sentient column of black smoke that occasionally attacks and even kills people on the island. And it turns out that the smoke monster is another form of the Man in Black, Jacob's immortal twin brother. So how did that come about? Well, after killing their mother, the Man in Black is transformed when Jacob throws him into the Heart of the Island.

For the next 2000 years, Jacob and the Man in Black oppose one another, as the Man in Black searches for a way around the supernatural law that keeps him from killing Jacob. As the smoke monster, he can't be killed, but he also can't leave. Over the years, he assumes his smoke monster form in order to kill the candidates Jacob brings to the island, hoping that if Jacob dies and leaves no successor, the Man in Black can finally leave. Ultimately, though, the Man in Black's immortality is linked to the Heart of the Island, so when Desmond temporarily shuts it down in the finale, he's made mortal and killed by Kate and Jack, ending the smoke monster forever. 

What happens to Hurley at the end of Lost?

After Jack is appointed as Jacob's successor as protector of the island, he promptly gets into a knife fight with the Man in Black, where he's mortally wounded. Realizing he's dying, Jack volunteers to go replace the cork at the center of the island, and tells Hurley that he needs to take over as protector. Hurley agrees, and drinks from the water that's come from the Heart of the Island, making his new role official. 

After Jack leaves to restore the Heart, Ben also suggests to Hurley that he doesn't have to "protect" the island in the same way that Jacob did, and that maybe Hurley will find a better way. Hurley considers this, then asks Ben if he'll consider staying on as his second-in-command, to which Ben responds that he'd be honored. While Jacob lived for 2000 years, Hurley doesn't have the dark counterpart in the Man in Black that made it so hard for Jacob to find a replacement protector. So although Hurley likely lives for many years following the finale, it's very possible that retirement will prove much easier for him than it did for Jacob.

How did the DHARMA Initiative fit into everything?

The DHARMA (Department of Heuristics and Research on Material Applications) Initiative first came to the island in the 1970s, with the objective of studying the unique properties of the island and harnessing them in the name of scientific advancement. While DHARMA conducted research across all fields (including studies involving polar bears), attempting to uncover the island's secrets, they never fully understood what they were dealing with when it came to the supernatural Heart of the Island. However, that didn't stop them from trying, and they constructed stations all over the island in an attempt to make sense of the bizarre phenomena they were witnessing. 

DHARMA was eventually wiped out by a group of people living on the island who were devoted to Jacob, known to the Lost characters as the Others. By the time Oceanic 815 crashed, DHARMA was long gone, leading the plane survivors to wonder whether DHARMA might've been responsible for some of the strange happenings on the island. But the DHARMA Initiative didn't create any of the island's "powers." Those already existed long before DHARMA showed up, and were in fact the reason why they came in the first place.

What's the deal with the church?

At the end of "The End," after regaining their memories of their time together on the island, the main characters make their way to a church, where they see the symbols of a number of different faiths. Christian Shephard then explains to Jack that the flash-sideways was constructed by and for the Oceanic 815 survivors, to help them find one another, let go of the baggage of their lives, and move on together. And according to Christian, once they were all ready to do so, they each showed up at the church, one by one.

When Jack first arrives at the church, he sees his father's coffin, and seems to think he's there for Christian's funeral. But the coffin is empty, and the funeral that he'd expected is replaced by a reunion with his loved ones and hope for a new future together. The church seems to symbolize that all of the Lost characters have said their goodbyes to their past lives, and they're finally ready to be at peace with one another. When Christian opens the doors at the end of the episode and light floods the church, it's safe to assume that signifies "moving on," whatever that means.

Why didn't Ben go into the church at the end of Lost?

Even though Ben's presence in the flash-sideways seems to indicate that the Oceanic survivors were indeed the most significant people in his life, he elects not to enter the church with them. Before Hurley returns to the church, he tells Ben that he was a "real good number two," and Ben replies that Hurley was a "great number one," which seems to indicate that Ben and Hurley worked together on the island for a long time after the end of the series, never turning against each other like Jacob and the Man in Black. That Ben was drawn to the church with the rest of them may be an indication that, cosmically at least, his service to the island was enough to redeem him for the horrible things he'd done in life, and that he could move on with the others.

However, Ben opting not to enter the church could mean that he isn't ready to move on yet. Perhaps Ben still has more people to find in the afterlife before he can let go, or maybe, despite having been forgiven by some of the people he wronged, he still has to come to terms with what he did. Another possibility is that he just can't bring himself to move on and leave his adopted daughter, Alex (Tania Raymonde), behind. It's never clarified what happens to Ben after he decides to stay outside, but we can only hope that, eventually, he finds peace.

Why was Christian Shephard in the church?

While Christian Shephard explains to Jack that the church exists to help all of the Oceanic 815 survivors "move on" with the people who'd been most significant to them in their lives, that doesn't explain what Christian himself is doing there, along with infants Aaron and Ji Yeon. None of them lived on the island (or at least, not for long), so it couldn't possibly have been the most important time in any of their lives. Surely Christian's "most significant" period would've occurred well before his death, while Aaron's and Ji Yeon's would've likely been once they were adults. 

The simplest explanation for their presence is that, like all of the other people in the flash-sideways who weren't survivors of the crash, those weren't the real Christian, Aaron, and Ji Yeon. They were merely manifestations of something the Oceanic survivors needed in order to move on. While the flash-sideways was created exclusively for the survivors of Oceanic 815, perhaps Christian, along with the adult versions of Aaron and Ji Yeon, are out there in their own versions of the afterlife, searching for their own most significant people before they can move on for themselves. And sure, their presence raises some interesting questions, but it doesn't take away from Lost's powerful ending.