The Lost series finale has come and gone, and reactions to the show's deeply spiritual conclusion have ranged from rapturous bliss to virulent rage. For my money, the finale was entertaining, but marred by the same shoddy dialogue and rushed storytelling we've sadly come to expect throughout this entire uneven sixth season. And the last fifteen minutes in particular (they're in purgatory!) was a bald-faced cop-out, and not a very interesting one at that. At least the "everything-took-place-in-the-imagination-of-an-autistic-child" ending of St. Elsewhere was original. Lost's final twist was a surprise, but only because we expected so much more from the writers.
But however you feel about "The End," at the end of the day, it's just one episode out of over a hundred variously funny, thrilling, enlightening, frustrating, and cathartic episodes of one of the most challenging and rewarding shows of all time. Here are fifteen of my favorites:
15. LaFleur (Season 5, Episode 8)
When Lost embraced time travel as its latest storytelling conceit, many viewers thought the show had "jumped the shark" (by the way, in the history of television, has there ever been a show accused of "jumping the shark" at more points in time than Lost?) Granted, time travel can be a slippery slope, especially when its used as a crutch for lazy narratives. But in the case of Lost, it allowed for the realization of one of the most tantalizing fan fantasies out there: what if the Oceanic 815 survivors joined the Dharma Initiative?
For the last half of season 5, some of our favorite castaways were bonafide members of the scientific commune's Class of '77. Taking place three years before the Oceanic 6 return to the island, "LaFleur" is a funny and poignant flight-of-fancy that remains one of the best mythology-light episodes of the series. After proving his mettle in some Hostile negotiations, Sawyer is appointed Dharma security chief. Miles and Jin become his right-hand men, and Juliet, in a left-field twist that somehow feels perfectly natural, falls in love with Sawyer and creates a happy home for him.
Of course, everything is roses and Apollo Bars until the Oceanic 6 inevitably return to the island three years later, teaching Sawyer a hard lesson we all learn eventually: you can't avoid responsibility by hiding out in the 70's and still expect to achieve contentment. As long as there are smoke monsters to slay and atomic bombs to detonate, happiness is little more than a pipe dream for the castaways.
14. Live Together, Die Alone (Season 2, Episode 23-24)
Lost has showcased some great love affairs over the years, from Sawyer and Juliet to Sayid and Nadia to pretty much any hook-up that doesn't involve Kate. But the romantic union that resonates loudest for most fans is the one between Desmond and Penny. "Live Together, Die Alone" recounts their star-crossed courtship and the boat-race Desmond foolishly enters when he's made to feel unworthy by Penny's father. The decision inevitably leads him to the island and a life of lonely, tedious button-pushing. It's the oldest theme in the Lost handbook: people are always letting their insecurities get in the way of being with the ones they love.
As the episode winds down, it feels like it's hurtling toward a huge downer of an ending: Michael escapes the island with his murderous deeds unpunished. Kate, Jack, and Sawyer are kidnapped by the Others. And the fates of Desmond, Locke, and Eko are left hanging in the balance after a cataclysmic electromagnetic reaction. But then the show cuts to a group of unfamiliar scientists stationed at an Antarctic base. They detect an "electromagnetic abnormality" on an island somewhere in the Pacific and, after some vague calculations, they manage to pinpoint its location. Finally, they frantically contact their employer who just so happens to be... you guessed it: Penny.
13. The Candidate (Season 6, Episode 14)
When "The Candidate" first aired a few weeks back, I thought, "Here we go: Lost is finally picking up the pace heading into its final episodes." Sadly, I was wrong, and "The Candidate" turned out to be the last truly great Lost episode. But what a thrilling piece of entertainment! With the kind of swashbuckling panache that the shows does so well, the A-Team consisting of Jack, Sawyer, et al overtakes Widmore's submarine only to discover that Evil Locke has rigged Jin's bag with a time-bomb. Jack plays the man of faith and tells Sawyer that they should let the timer run out because Evil Locke is barred from directly killing a candidate (the less said about the non-sensical "rules" invented for season 6 the better). Sawyer ignores him and, in his attempt to disarm the bomb, ends up accelerating the timer, dooming the castaways to a watery grave.
But not so fast! Zombie Sayid stops being a zombie (Lost's zombie rules make about as much sense as its island demi-god rules), grabs the bomb, and runs to the opposite end of the submarine, sacrificing himself to save many of his friends. Unfortunately, Sun is not one of the lucky ones. Immobilized by a metal cabinet, she is unable to escape the sinking sub. And Jin, whose entire on-island arc has been defined by his relationship to Sun, chooses to die alongside her instead of escaping with the others. It's a beautifully staged scene that leaves you emotionally drained and in awe of the kind of poignancy Lost is able to conjure at its best.
12. The Man Behind the Curtain (Season 3, Episode 20)
The Lost writers are masters of the cold opening: "The Man Behind the Curtain" begins with an unfamiliar man helping his wife give labor in the woods. A baby boy is born, but the woman is in great pain and losing a lot of blood. Her last request before expiring? "Call him Benjamin." And with that chilling invocation begins the backstory of Lost's uber-manipulator, villain extrordinaire Benjamin Linus.
Growing up, Ben had a cold alcoholic father who blamed his son for his wife's death, so we can cut the kid some slack for being a tad maladjusted. The thing is, not every maladjusted child of an alcoholic parent GASSES A VILLAGE AND MURDERS HIS FATHER. This reveal adds a chilling dimension to Ben's character; we always knew he was a manipulative prick who would do just about anything to get what he wanted. But what we didn't know was that "anything" included mass murder.
11. The Incident (Season 5, Episode 16)
Meanwhile, the on-island subplot is just as scintillating as the flashback. Ben leads Locke to Jacob's supposed abode, a creepy-looking cabin surrounded by a rim of ash to keep intruders out (or deadly spirits in?) Inside the cabin, the scene is like something out of The Exorcist: levitating objects, shaking picture frames, and spontaneous combustion, until it all culminates in a split-second vision of a man who pleads, "Help me." Is it Jacob? the Man in Black? Some other spirit trapped on the island? Just one of many unanswered questions we're left with at the end of the series. Still, the cabin clusterfuck stands as one of the show's scariest and most stylish sequences.
In some ways, "The Incident" represents Lost at its worst: characters suffer wild mood swings, they commit deeds spawned by unclear motivations, and the whole conceit that detonating an atomic bomb magically re-boots the universe made little sense then and even less sense now that we've seen how the series ends. And yet, the episode does so much right that I find myself easily forgiving these flaws. The cold opening where we meet Jacob and the Man in Black was as irresistibly cryptic as the best Lost mysteries. The compelling role reversal that takes place when Locke starts manipulating Ben puts a new spin on the characters' wonderful sense of chemistry. And the chaotic climax that occurs when the Dharma team drills into a pocket of electromagnetic energy is as thriling and eye-popping as any action sequence you're likely to see on network TV.
10. Confidence Man (Season 1, Episode 8)
Sawyer's series-long transformation from cantankerous, racist prick to courageous, selfless hero is one of Lost's greatest achievements, and you can credit Josh Holloway's phenomenal acting for keeping his character's arc believable through all its twists and turns. It all started here with "Confidence Man," a classic 1st season origin story where we learn the shocking parental tragedy behind Sawyer's con-man persona. We also learned that murder-suicide subplots were totally game for Lost, upping the ante for how far a primetime show about beautiful people on a tropical island was willing to go to a tell a good story.
On the island, Sawyer is as intractable as ever: beating Boone to a pulp, hoarding supplies, and endangering Shannon's life by leading people to believe he stole her inhaler when in fact he had nothing to do with the missing medication. Even when Sayid tortures him, Sawyer feigns guilt without actually providing any helpful information. This self-destructive, anti-social behavior is proof that Sawyer is more deeply fucked-up than we could possibly imagine. And yet, it's impossible not to feel sympathy for the guy after learning his horrific back-story. On this island, even the worst individuals are eligible for redemption, even if it takes five or six seasons to get there.
Oh and Charlie feeds Claire imaginary peanut butter.
9. Orientation (Season 2, Episode 2)
"We're gonna have to watch that again." No kidding, Locke. The amount of island mythology disseminated by the unforgettable Orientation tape in just over a couple minutes is staggering: we learn of the existence of the DHARMA Initiative, a private foundation that uses the island to conduct research on meteorology, psychology, and zoology (polar bear mystery solved!) We learn that the island possesses unique electromagnetic properties and that a vaguely ominous "incident" occurred. And finally, we learn that Hurley's numbers possess far more significance than we ever thought before, and might just hold the key to saving the world.
Jack, the man of science, is unfazed by this information and tells Locke that entering the numbers and pushing the button every 108 minutes is little more than an elaborate social experiment. This sets up an unbearably tense climax when Locke puts Jack's cynicism to the test by refusing to allow the button to be pushed unless Jack does it himself. In the end, the man of science relents, and we see Jack's resentment toward Locke deepen as Locke's increasingly dangerous obsession over island mysticism intensifies.
8. Exodus (Season 1, Episode 23-24)
Eight words that shook Lost viewers to their core: "We're going to have to take the boy." Mr. Friendly's casual delivery of these lines to Michael makes it all the more chilling and bewildering. Just when you think that the castaways have made contact with the outside world, tragedy hits and the best-laid plans are put to waste (another common theme of Lost: never have a plan).
And yet, more than anything, we remember the humor of this episode. We see Hurley bombarded by bad omens, including an entire youth soccer team sporting the numbers "42, 23, 16...," as he rushes to catch his flight. There's the episode's self-aware recognition of redshirts. And of course, there's Hurley dictating our response to the shockingly explosive death of the hapless Leslie Arzt by telling Jack, "You've got some Arzt on you."
7. Greatest Hits (Season 3, Episode 21)
The concept of this episode had corniness written all over it. But thanks to brilliant writing and Dominic Monaghan's nuanced, naturalistic performance, the show pulled it off without a hitch. Charlie, having resigned himself to the deadly fate portended by Desmond's visions, creates a list of the five best moments of his life, including the first time he heard his band on the radio, and the day his dad taught him to swim.
The number one moment? What else but the day of the plane crash when he first met Claire. Sure the reveal is predictable, but it doesn't matter. "Greatest Hits" is a genuinely heartbreaking journey through the psyche of one of the show's most beloved characters. Charlie would only live to see one more week, but this episode endures as a testament to bravery and acceptance in the face of certain death.
6. Flashes Before Your Eyes (Season 3, Episode 8)
Up until this point in the series, the show's science fiction elements were largely muted, taking a backseat to the human drama stories that played out on and off the island. But with "Flashes Before Your Eyes," the show began to realize its loftiest ambitions, combining the dynamics of great TV drama with mind-melting sci-fi that's one part Vonnegut and one part Alan Moore. After the electromagnetic event of the Season 2 finale, Desmond became literally "unstuck in time," quantum leaping from moment to another. And although he's conscious of the time warp, he is unable to deviate from the path he's already travelled through life. Paradox-free time travel or, to quote the good doctor Jack, "Whatever happened, happened."
Along his temporal journey, he runs into the villainous Charles Widmore, the steely Eloise Hawking, and other key figures in Lost's labyrinthine mythology. But most importantly, he sees Penny again, and it reminds him that a reunion with her is still possible. There's more than one way to leave the island, even if it means untethering yourself from the space-time continuum.
5. All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues (Season 1, Episode 11)
Remember Ethan the Creepy Bad-Ass? Smoke monsters and polar bears be damned, Ethan was the scariest force of evil in the first season. In "All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues," the unhinged Other kidnaps Claire, hangs Charlie, and beats the shit out of Jack in a gripping thunderstorm fistfight. Jack's dramatic on-island resuscitation of the legally dead Charlie mirrors his flashback attempts to save a woman who dies due to his father's drunken negligence. Jack testifies at a hearing that his father, also a hot shot doctor prone to taking risks, was not impaired. But when Jack discovers that the dead woman was pregnant, he can't keep silent about his father's alcoholism any longer. After revising his testimony, his father is stripped of his medical license and his relationship with his son is permanently severed.
On the island, as Jack is about to give up hope on Charlie, leaving the young man motionless in the pouring rain, it dawns on us how much we care about these individuals who exist only in our collective imaginations. And when Charlie does wake up and start gasping for air, it's a cause for euphoric celebration. It's kind of silly, I know, but it's also what defines great television.
4. Deus Ex Machina (Season 1, Episode 18)
Sometimes I feel like the Lost writers are downright sadistic when it comes to its tragic hero, John Locke. Throughout the five seasons in which he was properly alive, the man is shot, thrown out of an eight-story window, and hanged, not to mention the countless humiliations, betrayals and failures he suffered in between. "Deus Ex Machina" recounts the first in a long line of gross indignities. In the episode's flashback, the slightly loserish Locke finally meets his long-lost father, only to discover that their short-lived relationship was nothing more than a long con intended to get hold of one of Locke's kidneys. As soon as the operation is over, the father disappears, leaving Locke a broken shell of a man once again.
But hey that's all in the past right? Now Locke's a boar-killing bad-ass who's taken Boone under his wing in hopes of giving the young man the father-figure that Locke never had. But sadly, he fails even at that. On a trek through the jungle, Locke and Boone come upon a small plane suspended high in the trees. Stricken by a mysterious paralyzation relapse, Locke asks Boone to climb up to the plane to check if the radio still works. Boone reaches the radio, but after hearing a chilling transmission, the plane falls to the ground and Boone suffers fatal injuries.
Devastated, Locke hunches over the Hatch door and pleads to God or the island or to whoever's listening for some direction. Nothing happens at first, but then, in a spine-tingling scene, a bright light shines out of the hatch window. Of course we would later discover that Desmond merely switched on the light because someone was banging on his door. But at that moment, hope in the eternal is restored for the doomed pilgrim Locke.
3. Pilot (Season 1, Episode 1)
When Jack wakes up on a pile of bamboo following the crash of Oceanic 815, what ensues is one of the most brilliantly staged scenes of chaos and terror ever portrayed on screen, television or elsewhere. People are running in fear, or else standing in a daze, too shocked to process what just happened. And in what is still the most unforgettable scene of the entire series, a man is fiercely plucked from the ground and sucked into an exploding plane engine.
But just as everything finally settles down, that's when things start to get weird: polar bears, a monster, 16-year old radio signals in French... and then there are the characters: a heroin-addicted rock star, a dangerous femme fatale, a boy with magical powers... oops, scratch that last one. Like the mutant spawn of Survivor, the X-Files, and Jurassic Park, it's no wonder people were hooked.
2. Through the Looking Glass (Season 3, Episodes 22-23)
Best. Twist. Ever.
Not that this episode didn't already have it all: the absurdly hot Other mercenaries in the Looking Glass station, Sayid snapping necks with his legs, and of course the valiant death of Charlie Pace who left an indelible image in our mind with three simple words: NOT PENNY'S BOAT.
And yet something felt off about that flashback. It was difficult to fit this bearded, pill-popping, In Utero-listening junkie into the timeline of Jack Shepherd. Could he have suffered a nervous breakdown at some point before going into exile in the Far East? And if so, where are the usual parallels between his flashback and his on-island exploits? But then we saw Kate get out of that car at the end of the episode and after a brief "wtf" moment it all became clear. This is a flash-forward. Not only did Jack, Kate, and who knows who else get off the island, but Jack's life is so unbelievably messed-up that he wishes he could go back. It was a game-changer for the ages. And after a season that often found itself hamstrung by its own storytelling constructs (putting the main characters in cages for 6 episodes?), Lost had suddenly blown open the doors of narrative possibility.
1. The Constant (Season 4, Episode 5)
"The Constant" is the perfect combination of mystery, science fiction, and romance. It's also the ultimate Desmond episode which pretty much qualifies it as the ultimate Lost episode. Once again unstuck in time, Desmond begins to suffer the side-effects of being disconnected from the linear flow of time (apparently nose-bleeds, headaches, and eventually death are par for the course). The arc of the episode is a frantic race against the clock to find a "constant" for the travelling Scotsman to realign himself in the here and now.
In the final flashback, Desmond is at Penny's flat shortly after a painful break-up. She is upset with him, the wounds from their split still fresh, but he begs her to give him her telephone number and to keep that same number for eight years. Bewildered, but trusting of her old flame, she gives him the digits, leading to an emotionally-charged phone call that lifts Desmond from the brink of death. To be honest, I can't really do justice to the intensity of the episode's conclusion by merely describing it. You just have to see it for yourself.