How to Watch Lost in 2024 Without Setting Yourself Up for Disappointment

11 minute read

The unpleasant noise you may or may not have heard at 11:30 p.m. on May 10, 2010 was the sound of millions of Lost fans groaning at the conclusion of the era-defining show’s six-season run. To be fair, not everyone groaned about the finale. Some viewers were moved to tears; others probably just shrugged, went to bed, and never thought about that freaky island and its unfeasibly attractive castaways ever again. But it was the groaners who became the loudest contingent, complaining about the time they’d wasted trying to untangle Lost’s mysteries and tormenting showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, for years, with their grievances. The episode, titled “The End,” is remembered as one of TV’s all-time most controversial finales.

Was it really that bad? I thought so at the time, and I can’t say I enjoyed it much more upon revisiting it for this piece, although now I’m more inclined to chalk up my frustrations to a matter of taste. But my subjective reaction is kind of beside the point—which is that, as of July 1, Lost is available to stream on Netflix, and a whole new generation (plus anyone who missed the phenomenon the first time around) has the opportunity to get hooked on its addictive blend of action, sci-fi, suspense, spirituality, and character-driven drama. That is an unequivocally good thing. This story of some 50 plane-crash survivors who find themselves stuck on an island that slowly, strangely reveals its potentially supernatural properties is one of the most influential TV series ever made, for reasons I’ll get into below. It’s also among the most entertaining.

But the fact remains that viewers who get too invested in how the show ends risk being sorely disappointed. With that in mind, I have a radical suggestion for anyone about to dive into Lost for the first time: Spoil yourself, at least a little bit, on the finale. Yes, really. Because it matters so much less to the 119 episodes that precede it than you’d think. Allow me to explain.

Why was the Lost finale so controversial?

ABC's "Lost" - Season Six
Matthew Fox in the Lost finale Mario Perez / Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

As rude as disgruntled fans have been to Lindelof and Cuse over the years, they’re right about one thing: Lost was propelled by its mysteries. From the Smoke Monster that had been periodically snatching characters by the ankles and dragging them off to who-knows-where to the eerie recurrence of the numbers that won Jorge Garcia’s Hugo “Hurley” Reyes a lottery jackpot to the presence of polar bears on a tropical island, cryptic occurrences—along with the more grounded sagas of survival, individual growth, and the vicissitudes of interpersonal relationships—kept us watching with the expectation that the truth would eventually be revealed. The show’s run, from 2004 through 2010, also coincided with the rise of social media, which intensified and, unfortunately, gamified a wildly invested audience’s collective search for answers.

All of which placed an impossible burden on the final season, but particularly on “The End.” And although they’d meted out plenty of explanations over the years (you’ll know more than you ever wanted to about that Smoke Monster by the midpoint of Season 6), Lindelof and Cuse chose to go a different way with the finale. Instead of checking off boxes for those who demanded a laundry list of solved mysteries, they concentrated on completing each character’s arc. This was apparently a practical decision as well as a creative one. As writer and executive producer Liz Sarnoff put it in Vulture’s oral history: “Our feelings about the finale were always, always, that it was going to have to be very emotional and character-based because we found when we gave answers to mysteries and stuff like that, the audience would normally reject them.”

The upshot was that a vocal contingent of fans felt as though they’d been led on a wild goose chase. A cottage industry sprung up of amateur experts enumerating all the questions Lost had left unanswered—or, more audaciously, trying to independently solve various mysteries. And the furor was exacerbated by viewers who—incorrectly, though in some ways understandably—insisted that the finale had confirmed a popular, long-running, and deeply simplistic fan theory that Lindelof and Cuse had promised audiences would not come to pass.

Was there anything actually wrong with the Lost finale?

ABC's "Lost" - Season Six
Evangeline Lilly and Josh Holloway in "The End"Mario Perez/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

At a distance of 14 years, I can see why the showrunners so vociferously defended “The End” against the above charges. The fan-theory people had certainly sensed something elemental about Lost’s scope, but they were ultimately wrong about the particulars of what had happened on the island and what it all meant. There’s also something to be said for a show that is, to a great extent, about the mysteries of science, religion, and human existence leaving some of its most tantalizing questions open for interpretation. And there’s nothing wrong with emphasizing characters over mythology. More cold, confusing, galaxy-brained sci-fi series should try it!

For me, what makes the finale a letdown is its abrupt shift in tone. Lost could be brutal, killing off beloved characters with a single gunshot or explosion, and it was always philosophical and cerebral. But “The End”—and especially the very end of “The End”—is sentimental to the point of saccharine. Most characters’ resolutions represent wish fulfillment in its least imaginative form. Without getting into specifics, there’s a lot of reuniting and kissing and marveling at how far everyone has come. Meanwhile, the show’s fundamental science-vs.-God conflict is resolved too explicitly, with a deus ex machina figure painstakingly explaining the show’s multiple realities as though viewers who’d followed this thread for six seasons were third graders just tuning in for the first time (the Vulture history suggests we can blame some of this on input from ABC suits). 

How to watch Lost for maximal enjoyment—and minimal frustration

ABC's "Lost" - Season Six
Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim in the episode "The Candidate" Mario Perez/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

I said it before, and I’ll say it again: Spoil yourself! Don’t do it right away. Watch the first season or two—enough to develop your own working theory of what is actually happening on the island and what it all means. And don’t get so granular as to find out what happens to each character. What you’re trying to do is to tamp down that inner Redditor for whom solving riddles, anticipating plot points, and obsessing over endgames is liable to crowd out any other kind of engagement with or enjoyment of the show. Also, if what you discover is so disappointing it ruins the rest of Lost for you, you’ll surely be happy to save yourself the trouble of finishing it. 

You’d think that knowing how such a suspenseful show ends would ruin it, too, but in rewatching some of my favorite episodes, I was consistently entertained by Lindelof and Cuse’s near-perfect mix of action, intrigue, character beats, and big ideas. I found that I got more out of it because I wasn’t laser-focused on the final payoff. There is plenty of suspense within and among seasons—and even within individual episodes—that is tangentially, if at all, related to the revelations of the finale. In the series premiere, crash survivors discover that the plane was transporting a handcuffed prisoner; by the end of the episode, we know who that criminal is, but it takes a full season and a half to learn what they did and why. Every character is their own mystery box, pried open gradually through flashbacks (and flash-forwards, and another, polarizing, form of departure from the island that came to be known as flash-sideways). And the cast just kept expanding, until the sixth season boasted more than two dozen main characters.

Lost’s mysteries are, in my experience, more interesting when you think about them as philosophical debates to engage with—science vs. religion, free will vs. fatalism, whether human nature is fundamentally good or evil—rather than puzzles to be definitively solved. It’s much easier to participate in what I’ve come to think of as conversations the show is starting, not statements it’s ultimately making, when you’re prepared to accept the questions as open-ended.

When you know how it ends, you’re also free to savor the show’s less metaphysical delights, from comedy to romance. A complex villain is a rare and precious kind of character, and Lost has one, beginning in Season 2, in Michael Emerson’s crafty Ben Linus. While the love triangle between self-styled hero Jack (Matthew Fox), alpha female Kate (Evangeline Lilly), and snarling bad boy Sawyer (Josh Holloway) never did much for me, I did get invested in the ever-evolving marriage of Sun (Yunjin Kim) and Jin (Daniel Dae Kim), the steadiness of soulmates Rose (L. Scott Caldwell) and Bernard (Sam Anderson), and the slow-burning, continent-spanning tale of Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) and Penny (Sonya Walger). (Season 4’s “The Constant,” which intertwines the latter love story with Lost’s weirdest science, is even better than I remembered.) Spoiling yourself will heighten the pleasure you take in relatively minor episodes, like Season 3’s “Tricia Tanaka Is Dead,” which takes some of the show’s most entertaining characters into the jungle, to fix a wrecked VW Bus full of decades-old—but perfectly drinkable—beer. Lost is a serious show, sometimes a bit too serious for its own good, but it can also be a whole lot of fun.

Why Lost is still worth watching, 20 years after its premiere

ABC's "Lost" - Season Six
Michael Emerson in "The End," the series finale of Lost Mario Perez/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

It’s hard to name a more influential show that aired on network television in the 21st century—in part because (flimsy copycats like FlashForward, The Event, and Lost co-creator J.J. Abrams’ own Revolution aside) it was cable and streaming that inherited its legacy. Lost fused the mind-bending mythology of genre-TV classics—The Twilight Zone, Twin Peaks, The Prisoner—with attention to character development that almost rivaled then-recent HBO hits: The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Deadwood. If you like the puzzle-box confusion of True Detective, Westworld, and Dark, know that Lost got there first. If you’re a fan of Orange Is the New Black, know that Lost was using flashbacks in a very similar way a decade earlier. If you admire Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon’s willingness to kill off main characters, know that Lost was building and hacking away at an enormous cast while George R.R. Martin was still writing A Feast for Crows. Yellowjackets couldn’t exist without Lost. Neither could Lindelof’s further inquiries into the nature of reality, science, and faith, The Leftovers and Mrs. Davis.

In retrospect, Lost didn’t just pioneer a format or expand the range of storylines or genre conventions or intellectual ambition permissible on TV. It was also daring, if imperfect, in its representational choices. Sun and Jin Kwon, who are Korean, spoke their native language at a time when subtitles were vanishingly rare in American primetime. As the Iraq War raged, Naveen Andrews’ Iraqi Gulf War veteran Sayid Jarrah was a multifaceted character and in some situations a hero; the post-9/11 assumption, upheld by too many aughts-era thrillers, that flying while Middle Eastern automatically made someone a terrorist got demolished within the premiere. On the heels of Friends’ mean-spirited “Fat Monica” gag, Hurley was a big guy whose weight was never the primary focus of his storyline. Even Jack Shephard, the white, male nominal protagonist, existed to complicate received wisdom about what makes a hero. (In light of the show’s relative progressivism and self-awareness, I did find it somewhat baffling, on this rewatch, that its many female characters remain so peripheral to its larger, allegorical storyline.) 

Of course, people who aren’t TV critics or cultural studies PhDs have no obligation to watch a show just because of historical significance. Lost is hardly homework. A masterfully made serial designed to keep viewers in front of their TVs at the same time week after week, it’s one of the most thrilling dramas you’ll ever see; its 43-ish-minute episodes feel especially taut and bracing amid the streaming-era epidemic of episode bloat. Yet it’s also the antidote to your average, morally simplistic, intellectually bankrupt Disney+ superhero show. Sure, the lack of subtlety when it comes to Lindelof and Cuse’s philosophical, theological, and scientific influences is apparent in character names that include John Locke, Rousseau, Faraday, Hawking, Hume, and, egregiously, Christian Shephard. The way Lost finally synthesizes all of these ideas-as-people won’t please everyone—how could it in a world still at odds over its own origins?—but the journey through faith and physics it takes you on will expand your thinking.

All that to say: I can imagine no better heady and tropical summer binge than watching Lost for the first time. I just think you might come out of the experience happier if, before you get too invested in all the big whys and wherefores, you simply spoil the ending for yourself.

Stream Lost on Hulu.

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