That’s All, Folks: ABC’s Biggest Series Finale Left Its Viewers Lost

TV Features Hulu
That’s All, Folks: ABC’s Biggest Series Finale Left Its Viewers Lost

Most scripted television shows end in cancellation, so there’s something special about the ones that get the chance to go out on their own terms. This year, Ken Lowe is revisiting some of the most influential TV shows that made it to an officially planned final episode. That’s All, Folks is a look back at television’s most unforgettable series finales.

Remember, as you read this, that I have said this regular feature is about important finales, not necessarily good ones.

If you were in it to the end on a long-running show in the long-ago time of 2010, you had likely invested more sheer hours into it than any other entertainment-related pursuit at the time, apart (maybe) from some of the very longest videogames (that year’s Fallout: New Vegas, by some estimates, clocks in at a maximum of 130 hours). At the end of all that, you reasonably could hope for something that ties everything up in a bow, resonates with what came before, and leaves you feeling like your time with the characters and their world was well spent. This doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending, or even a comedic one. It just means a feeling of completeness: For good or ill, the thing you just watched is now done, and you can regard it in its totality.

Lost, an hour-long drama that aired for six seasons, takes about five whole days of continuous couch time to get through, according to BingeWatch, and it is a show so hyper-dramatic—with so many twists and turns and reveals, so many jaw-dropping revelations and reversals—that it seems absolutely tailor-made for the home DVD era, when you could buy your shows by the season and rewatch them obsessively to catch Easter eggs and form elaborate fan theories. (You will note that the peak in DVD sales just so happens to have coincided with Lost’s early-to-middle seasons.) 

In this regard—and in light of the fact that it aired on ABC and was perhaps the last must-watch network show before “prestige TV” started migrating from broadcast and cable to streaming services—Lost is a cultural curio now in large part because of its finale’s reputation. It’s wrong to ever say that opprobrium toward a piece of art is universal, but Lost took it on the chin. People were not happy with its ending.

Yet, if you click through that BingeWatch link, you’ll find that it’s still rated among the top 50 most-binge-watched shows that the site tracks. It’s not a scientific metric by any means, but it must mean that a lot of someones, somewhere, still want to engage with it. So what does that mean?

What did the show mean?

The Show

Network TV’s most expensive pilot episode ever at the time (it cost $14 million) begins with the survivors of a catastrophic plane crash as they drag themselves screaming and crying from the wreckage of their jet. Everything is exploding, everyone is dying or barely avoiding death, nobody knows what the hell just happened. It quickly becomes clear that Jack (Matthew Fox) is the doer and go-getter of the group—as a doctor, he reacts quickly in the crisis and takes charge of patching up the survivors. The early episodes are about that of-the-moment practicality: let’s inventory the food, let’s sort the clothing, let’s search the luggage that wasn’t totally destroyed for any antibiotics. All the while, the beautiful island they’ve crashed on (it was filmed on location in Oahu) is more than it seems. The survivors are attacked by a polar bear that’s far south of where it should be, some horrible unseen monster stomps through the underbrush picking off the unwary, and a mysterious radio message is being broadcast on a loop that’s been running for 16 years.

It’s instantly compelling stuff, and the first season had an extremely effective formula to keep the mystery of the show going. Most episodes focus on an extended flashback of a single survivor, always revealing something new and intriguing that changes the context of what’s going on between the characters on the island. Where are they? Why are they there? What is the island, and the dread creature stalking the survivors?

It’s not a spoiler, 13 years later, to say that most of those questions are never satisfactorily answered. Even detailing the twists, fake-outs, and at-one-point-probably-were-the-actual-answers-before-rewrites would probably require writing an entire book with footnotes and oral histories. What kept people watching, besides all those twists, was the ensemble, and the show had a great one, filled with people who you’ve seen before and since; Harold Perrineau, Daniel Dae Kim, Dominic Monaghan, Terry O’Quinn, Nestor Carbonell, and Evangeline Lilly were just a few.

Over the course of the show, various plot lines are picked up and abandoned, or simply don’t seem to perfectly line up with the things that have come before. An entire overarching plot revolving around the mysterious DHARMA Initiative (which is why people obsessed with the show were always repeating a sequence of fateful numbers) simply fails to become anything important, and isn’t even mentioned once in the show’s finale.

The showrunners are on record as saying Stephen King’s The Stand was a major influence for the show, and its inspiration is easy to see. As the series heads into its final seasons, the island becomes a place where the seeming embodiments of good and evil are at war over the “heart” of the island, the source of some massive power that, if not protected carefully, could destroy the entire world. The show even goes so far as to call its primary villain “The Man in Black,” a moniker used by a major antagonist who appears throughout King’s works (including The Stand).

By its sixth and final season, everything had become hopelessly convoluted. This Man in Black is now essentially wearing the face of Locke (O’Quinn), and Jack has become a kind of immortal protector of the island, taking over for a guy who was doing it for the past 2,000 years (really!). The show had been running episodes that people had come to call a “flash-sideways” as opposed to a flashback, with events that appeared to happen as if the crashed flight that incites the show simply never happened, and the characters were going about their lives as if they never ended up on the island. The finale had to somehow pull all of this stuff together in a way that was satisfactory and made sense in context with the five seasons that came before.

And, well…

The Finale: “The End” Parts 1 and 2

Everything has come to a head. Locke (really the Man in Black, even though nobody refers to him as that anymore) is embarking upon a final plan to upset the heart of the island and thus bring about its destruction. He’ll escape via a plane that’s stashed somewhere and then presumably wreak havoc upon humanity. The key to this is getting another character that Locke has captured, Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick), to the heart of the island first. Desmond has been on the island since before any of the original cast showed up, caused their plane crash during an escape attempt of his own, and is there in part because his fiancee’s father values him below one single gulp of whiskey.

Jack and the other core cast members make a bid to stop him, with some separating off to try to get to the escape plane so they can also commandeer it first. Meanwhile, the “flash-sideways” continues, with versions of the characters who never seem to have ended up on the island in the first place going about their lives as Hurley (Jorge Garcia) attempts to reawaken their memories of the island and lead them to a fateful meeting at a church, where the funeral of Jack’s father is about to be held. Explaining all of this takes an entire wiki.

When Jack and Locke come face to face, they enter an uneasy detente; both want to do the same thing, but have different interpretations of how it will play out. Jack believes letting Desmond down into the heart of the island may be the key to saving them. (It isn’t. Desmond gets fried nearly to death by the power source he finds there, and the island starts shaking itself apart. The evil guy was apparently right.)

Locke is on the verge of winning and escaping when Jack confronts him at the edge of a cliff. The two clash as the island quakes and crumbles around them, but whatever mystical invincibility Locke enjoyed earlier has, for some reason, been revoked, and Kate (Lilly) puts a hole in him before Jack kicks him into the sea. It’s not over, though, someone has to repair the damage to the heart of the island, and Jack is the natural choice to make that sacrifice. When Hurley pulls him out, it’s Desmond at the other end of the safety rope.

Meanwhile, in the “flash-sideways,” which I am not going to say again, the various survivors have all been reawakened due to the efforts of Hurley and those he’s recruited. Jack is the last one, and as he enters the church, he sees his dead father, apparently not dead. Except, well, he is dead. So is everybody, his father explains. Maybe not now, but some time. This is a place, I think he’s saying, where they can all be together one last time. (It’s unclear, but implied that Hurley, who stands to inherit Jack’s role as the island’s guardian, remembers his time there with another character as his “number two.”) They gather in the nave and have a little cast party.

This is interspersed with cuts of Jack in his last moments on the island. The island is saved, and most of the remaining survivors are all aboard a functional airplane. Jack gets one last look at his escaping comrades before the cut to black.

It’s not enough to say that this is confusing or unclear. A lot of things I really like are not necessarily cleanly linear. Phil Tippett probably couldn’t tell you with 100% certainty what is happening in any particular clip of Mad God, but the guy knows what is going on throughout—he knows what he’s trying to say. I’m not convinced Lost’s creators knew that.

J.J. Abrams, one of the show’s co-creators, was only really involved in the show’s first season, after which much of the credit (or blame) for the show (and its work environment) goes to showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. In that clip of Lindelof above, and that clip of Abrams trying to defend himself to Howard Stern, neither man knows what the heck he is talking about. There is a great lot of TV and cinema right now that works extremely well at the scene level, and Lost was a stellar example of this, as, for instance, was Abrams’ 2009 film reboot of Star Trek. The trouble is that Lost, and a lot of other stuff right now, works terribly when you go beyond some of its individual scenes.

Much ink has been spilled over Abrams’ veneration of “the mystery box” approach to storytelling: the idea that keeping some key detail concealed draws viewers in. Lost is a show composed almost entirely of mystery boxes, and for a while, it was so compelling that it was easily one of the most watched and talked about shows in television history. The trouble is that mystery boxes must at some point be opened, and what’s inside had better be worth the wait.

Tune in next month as we bring a lifelong search for love to an end with How I Met Your Mother.

Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor Paste TV. You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses, on Bluesky, and read more at his blog.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

Share Tweet Submit Pin