For six weeks, I lived on the Island. I watched the crash of Oceanic 815, and followed the survivors as they struggled to understand their situation. I saw mysteries unfold before them. I experienced the tragedies in their pasts, and feared for the ones yet to come.
When you binge-watch a series, that series becomes your life. I got home from work and watched an episode. Maybe two. I wrote, finished a scene, watched another episode as a reward. I got up early on weekends to watch before my wife woke up. I stayed up late.
Last night, the night I finished the series finale, I dreamed about Lost.
For three seasons, Lost followed a fairly rigid format: episodes were split between a story on the Island and flashbacks focusing on one of the survivors’ past. By the third season, the format was getting stale, and the writers were running out of material. Then, something wonderful happened: they set an end date, and everything changed.
Through season 4 we flashed forward. Instead of learning about a character’s past, we jumped into the future and saw their lives after their escape from the island. In season 5, we jumped between the characters who’d escaped (and their struggle to return to the Island and rescue their friends) and those still on the Island, who were now trapped in the past. At the end of that season, in a desperate attempt to keep their plan from ever having crashed, the survivors set off a nuclear warhead beneath the Island.
That’s how the season ended, with the bomb going off, and the screen going to white. We didn’t know if it had worked, if they’d managed to change their futures and save themselves from being stranded on the Island.
So began season 6, Lost’s final season, and the most surprisingly moving trick the series pulled: the flash-sideways.
Season 6 opened on a plane, on Oceanic flight 815, on Jack as the flight hit turbulence. Exactly like it did in the pilot. It shook and trembled…and then it stopped.
No crash. No Island.
From there, Lost’s 6th season moved between the fight to protect the Island and the lives of our heroes in a world where the plane had never crashed.
Except that wasn’t all that had changed. These people’s lives, the ones we’d come to know so well through years of flashbacks, were subtly different. Yes, Jack’s father had died, and Kate was in handcuffs on her way to prison, and Locke’s paralysis had kept him from going on his Australian walkabout. But Jack had a son. Kate had failed to kill her father. Locke was married to the woman we’d watched him chase away.
Here’s the thing: I was spoiled. When Lost was running, I’d decided I wasn’t ever going to watch it and read reviews, wikipedia articles and whatever else I could find so I’d have an idea what people were talking about. I knew this wasn’t an alternate timeline, but instead some kind of afterlife.
And that afterlife thing sounded so silly. Way sillier than an alternate timeline.
What I wasn’t expecting was to fall in love with the sideways lives of the people I’d come to know. Locke as a substitute teacher, working beside Dr. Ben Linus, European History teacher? Hurley, Titan of Industry? Sawyer and Miles, buddy cop team? What the hell was the point of making me go gaga for all of this if it was just some glorified post-death dream?
I thought that right up until the finale. Right up to the point when Sawyer touched Juliet’s hand and, through the tears, I saw.
As the series wore on, the deaths piled up. The crash had brought the survivors together, but the struggles they faced there tore them back apart one by one. Sayid lost Shannon. Hurley lost Libby. Claire lost Charlie. Sun lost Jin, and Jin lost Sun. And Sawyer lost Juliet.
By the time Jack and the last surviving Oceanic passengers stopped the Man in Black from escaping the Island, the things that mattered — the relationships that formed in the years following the crash — were gone. They’d fought and won, yes, but the cost…
It was Sawyer and Juliet’s reunion that made me realize why the Sidewaysverse, this temporary afterlife where the people who’d fought to protect the Island had found themselves, mattered so much. Without it, the final season is little more than a chess game between a Big Bad and Ragtag Heroes over a piece of land with poorly explained Mystical Properties. The Island is just a MacGuffin. A thing. Why does the Island matter? Why did Jack need to protect it and keep it from falling into the sea, to the point of giving his own life? Why was I supposed to care?
Because, without the Island there is no Sideways. Without Sideways, Sawyer and Juliet never find each other again, and neither do anyone else.
The flash-sideways scenes weren’t the afterlife, but a place before the beyond. A place not everyone passes through. It was a world that those who’d fought and died on the Island created together, and that the Island created for them. A gift, perhaps, for the people ripped apart defending it.
The Sideways world gave then a life similar to the ones that led them to the Island, but one not poisoned by the pain and trauma it forced them confront. Not perfect lives, though. Lives that were still incomplete.
And so, as the series moved into its final beats, the people in the Sideways world came together and awoke. Each of them, one by one, were reunited with the people they’d lost, who’d mattered most, and in those moments they remembered. Hurley and Libby, Claire and Charley, Locke and Jack, Sawyer and Juliet.
Maybe whatever lay beyond, wherever it was the doors of the church in that final scene led them, was too far removed from life to have given them a true reunion. Maybe they’d have gone through that veil and never seen each other again, not as they were when they met.
When Jack saved the Island, though, the Island gave them something in return. It gave them back the reason they’d fought and died in the first place.
It gave them each other.