We have to go back!” It’s been 10 years since the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815 crashed on a mysterious island and became central players in a battle between good and evil — not to mention the stars of a pop-culture phenomenon. Lost‘s blend of brainy sci-fi ideas, twisty flashback narrative structure, fast-paced action, slow-burn mystery, and character-based drama proved irresistible to millions of viewers. Many of them scoured the show for clues about its countless secrets, taking to the Internet to analyze them in excruciating detail. And though its finale proved as divisive as any show this side of The Sopranos, it remains broadcast TV’s strongest argument that the network system can produce fiction as rich, strange, and strong as anything on cable. And whether you found it fascinating, frustrating, or a bit of both, the 26 characters and concepts listed below made Lost what it was. Consider this your re-orientation video. Namaste!
Debuting in the same 2004-2005 season that saw the premieres of similarly zeitgeisty smash hits Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy, Lost was part of a creative renaissance at the network that dragged it out of its fourth-place doldrums. The fact that the executive who fought skeptical Disney honchos to greenlight the pilot and secure its enormous budget, Lloyd Braun, was fired before he could see its success is the stuff of New Golden Age of TV legend.
B: Ben Linus
Imagine if J.R.R. Tolkien had started to write The Lord of the Rings without coming up with the Ring first, and you’ve pretty much got a handle on Lost‘s big bad. The character, first known as “Henry Gale,” was only supposed to be on for a few episodes, just a captive of the castaways who may or may not be one of the Others (see The Others). But the creators were so taken with actor Michael Emerson’s unique combination of wide-eyed neurosis and flat-affect madness that they transformed him into Lost‘s equivalent of Sauron or Magneto — the villain without whom the whole story is unthinkable.
C: “The Constant”
This Season Four standout is a prime candidate for Lost‘s best episode ever. Desmond Hume — the soulful-eyed Scotsman who’d been trapped on the Island after an attempt to woo the daughter of former Other/captain of industry Charles Widmore — has become unstuck in time. His sanity, even his very existence, are dependent on the intervention of terrific late-season addition Daniel Faraday, a twitchy physicist with his own links to the mystical, dimension-warping Island. Blessed with a great sci-fi concept and a great big sudsy romance, “The Constant” exemplifies Lost at its most far-out and its most directly emotional: the “constant” that saves time travelers from annihilation is a connection to another human being.
The Brangelina-style fan nickname for Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, Lost‘s showrunners and the series’ primary creative forces. Lindelof was a young writer tapped to work with Felicity and Alias creator J.J. Abrams on the pitch and the pilot; Abrams more or less departed the project soon after. Cuse, a Nash Bridges vet, was brought aboard toward the end of Season One to help his ex-employee Lindelof run the show — an increasingly massive undertaking as, by that point, it had become a genuine pop-culture phenomenon.
A tremendous fan-favorite played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Mr. Eko was a breakout character when he entered the second season as one of the “Tailies,” the separate group of castaways from the plane’s tail section. A drug-runner turned priest, he spoke softly, carried a big stick, and made a natural foil for Terry O’Quinn’s Island-worshipping John Locke. But Akinnuoye-Agbaje quickly got sick of living in Hawaii, so his character was killed off early in Season Three, showing how Lost‘s sprawling, improvisatory storytelling could occasionally lead to dead ends.
At first, episodes were split between present-day Island adventures and irony-rich, origin-revealing flashbacks to the castaways’ lives before the crash. Then came the “We have to go back!” moment, and suddenly, the Island material alternated with scenes of the characters who made it off, and how they tried (and failed) to shake its influence after their escape. Finally, and most controversially, the final season was split between the present day and a seemingly alternate timeline that wound up being a kind of purgatory after the characters’ deaths. Each temporal shift was audacious, and in the context of television, largely unprecedented — the time trips ended up being the key storytelling innovation of the show.
Specifically, Tawaret, the hippo-faced Egyptian deity whose enormous statue — or the four-toed remains thereof — was a huge, creepy, context-free mystery for much of the series. How the Egyptians got there to build it was never exactly resolved, which is either awful or awesome depending on how filled-in you like your blanks.
Listed as a “redshirt” in initial casting descriptions, this lovable lotto winner/bad-luck magnet wound up being the audience-identification character who’d ask the same “hey, wait a minute” questions viewers had themselves. Credit actor Jorge Garcia, who impressed both the show’s creators and Weezer, who slapped his mug on an album named after the character. Hurley wound up inheriting the Island in the finale, perhaps a meta-commentary on how the show truly belonged to the fans asking Hurleyesque questions.
I: The Island
Well, duh. But there’s more to the Island than its mysteries, as cool as those were. Whatever the source of its supernatural power, no matter how many Dharma Initiative stations and ancient temples are scattered throughout it, it’s simply a tremendous place to set a TV show. The caves, the beaches, the jungles, the cliffs — these settings enabled Lost to tap directly into the grand tradition of adventure stories and pulp fiction dating back to Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Louis Stevenson, and were often beautifully shot to boot. Location, location, location.
J: Jack Shephard
He was the leading man, originally planned to be killed off in the pilot until the network explained audiences would never trust the show again, slowly transforming Matthew Fox’s character from capable alpha male to deeply unpleasant control freak in the show’s gutsiest character arc? Judges would have also accepted: Juliet Burke, the villainous Other with the cryptic suburban introduction at the beginning of Season Three (and who became the romantic interest of both Jack and Sawyer, as well as one of the biggest characters on the show); Jacob, the prime mover of the Island’s mysteries; Jin and Sun, the South Korean couple whose domestic drama culminated in the show’s most poetic and heartbreaking death scene; Jack Bender, the director behind the lens of more episodes than any other, as responsible for shaping the show’s look and feel as anyone this side of Lindelof and Cuse; and J.J. Abrams, whose clout essentially pushed the show past the network’s skepticism and budgetary constraints.
K: Kate Austen
Of the lead characters, she was the least essential in the end and the most tangential to the Island mythology megaplot. But her sparks with Jack and Sawyer in the early seasons were genuine. And along with cast members like Naveen Andrews (Sayid), Michelle Rodriguez (Ana Lucia), and Josh Holloway (Sawyer), actor Evangline Lilly’s sinewy physicality went beyond mere sex appeal. She looked the part of a survivor, and helped turn the show’s many action set pieces and fight scenes into compelling TV.
The quintessential fan favorite, Locke was a role-of-a-lifetime situation for actor Terry O’Quinn, the equivalent of Ian McShane’s Al Swearingen on Deadwood or Bryan Cranston’ss Walter White on Breaking Bad. The revelation of his paralysis — magically cured by the Island — in the standout fourth episode “Walkabout” hooked many viewers on the show permanently, and his twinkle-eyed charisma and ferocious drive to master the Island’s mysteries were perpetual series highlights. Though he helped cause the destruction of the Hatch in Season Two, Locke ultimately failed as the Island’s would-be guardian, murdered by Ben Linus in a seedy hotel and never returning in the flesh. He was the avatar of Lost‘s great secret theme: that some people get lost and never quite find themselves again.
Unseen for what felt like ages, the Monster was slowly revealed first to be an amorphous black cloud, then a shapeshifter that could take on the appearance of dead figures from the castaways’ past, then as a Locke impostor determined to destroy the castaways — and then as the immortal Man in Black, Jacob’s brother and opposite number. In this last, true form, the Monster became the show’s true Lucifer figure, as the Man in Black’s escape from the Island would supposedly mean the end of the world. But it was arguably better suited to the show as a protean, shadowy figure of menace, transforming itself according to the expectations of its viewers — just like Lost itself.
N: The Numbers
Hurley’s winning lottery ticket. The Hatch’s serial number. Rousseau’s broadcast. A bunch of soccer players’ jerseys in the airport. Wherever “4 8 15 16 23 42” appeared, which was pretty much everywhere, fans took notice. Their actual meaning? They were how Jacob labeled the “candidates” among the castaways for his position as the Island’s protector, and took on a sort of universal mystical significance because of that. But that was just a McGuffin. The sense that everything was somehow connected — that was the point.
O: The Others
The sinister figures whose appearances were terrifying (and seemingly supernatural) in the early seasons, the Others were slowly revealed to be quasi-suburbanites whose misguided fanaticism about the Island led them to commit any number of atrocities, including the slaughter of the utopian science hippies called the Dharma Initiative. The show’s writers were never more inventive than when they peeled back a new layer off the Others to reveal some strange new wrinkle to their strange cult. Bonus: the White Walkers in Game of Thrones are called “The Others” in the original A Song of Ice and Fire novels, but Lost‘s shadow was long enough for the name to be dropped for the small-screen adaptation.
Lost‘s first episode — half of the two-part series premiere, the most expensive pilot ever produced by a network at the time — is as close to a perfect hour of television as you’re likely to find. Its opening sequence masterfully adds one disorienting element to another: an opening eye, a lush bamboo forest, a wounded man in a tattered suit, a dog, a bottle of airplane liquor, an empty sneaker, unidentifiable mechanical and human noises. It all climaxes with Jack Shephard’s emergence on to a beautiful beach and straight into a chaotic crash site. In a country still raw with post-9/11 trauma, the pilot’s air-crash imagery and hints at terrorism (remember when Sawyer viewed Sayid as a suspect?) dealt directly with our collective fear, as genre art is often uniquely suited to do. “Guys…where are we?” asked Charlie in the pilot’s final line. Millions of viewers stuck around to find out.
What made Walt so special? Why was Libby in the insane asylum? Why do pregnancies conceived on the Island end in death? Why did Desmond’s ability to bounce around in time give him a similar ability to enter the afterlife and return with memories of it? If Richard was in contact with Jacob while advising the Others, why were the Other so damned evil? When it comes to unanswered questions, Lost has a “NOT PENNY’S BOAT”-load of them. Some of them were too minor to worry about and others were no doubt intentionally left blank, while others seem like ideas that simply got away from a writing staff struggling to keep too many balls in the air.
Everyone loves a mad Frenchwoman. Played with true castaway craziness by Mira Furlan, Rousseau’s story had some of the show’s creepiest stuff (the repeating numbers-station transmission, the flashback to how the research team she came to the Island with was slowly destroyed by the Smoke Monster and the Others) and the saddest (her short-lived reunion with her kidnapped daughter Alex). If her accent was a little wonky, so what?
Part Han Solo and part Wolverine, Sawyer was an archetypal rogue, charmingly played by the very handsome Josh Holloway. His trademark exclamation of “son of a bitch!” and his habit of endowing other characters with nicknames (Freckles, Doc, Blondie) is essential to the show’s charm, like Paulie Walnuts’ malapropisms or Jesse Pinkman’s own “bitch.” Like most such bad-boy characters, his obvious heart of gold shone through nearly from the start. But his romance with Juliet was still a huge surprise, and the emotional heart of the final seasons.
Imagine if True Detective‘s eight-episode frenzy of clue-finding, reference-hunting, and theory-spouting had lasted for six full seasons. That’s pretty much the story of Lost, as far as some fans were concerned. Coinciding with the rise of both TV recaps and social media, the show fueled intense speculation about the science of the Island, the connections between the characters, the backstory of the Dharma Initiative, and much more. From philosophy to physics, from “It’s Purgatory!” to “It’s nanotechnology!”, the show generated ever more arcane and elaborate theories. As a pastime, sure, why not? But as a primary means of engaging with fiction, it led to frustrating dead ends when, inevitably, the constantly evolving narrative rendered many of their points moot, week in and week out. A drama is a work of art to be experienced, not a code to be cracked; thankfully, Lost had strong cinematography, thrilling fight scenes, hot sexual chemistry, genuinely frightening moments of horror, and an compelling exploration of sacrifice and failure to balance out its abundance of red herrings and what-if chin-stroking.
Starting at the beginning of Season Two, that’s exactly where Lost went. The largely subterranean stations constructed by the Dharma Initiative to study the Island’s many unique properties — not to mention the effect of those properties on the bodies and minds of its inhabitants — marked a huge shift from outdoor setting of Season One. Suddenly, a story that evoked Survivor or Lord of the Flies took a distinctly sci-fi turn, with the retro-futuristic Hatch environment creating a claustrophobia that physically mirrored the characters’ increasing paranoia.
Compared to wild boars, polar bears, Dharma sharks, Hurley birds, and ol’ Smokey, a Labrador retriever was a pretty unremarkable animal for the Island. But Vincent the dog was a living embodiment of Lost‘s sentimental side. He helped bridge the broken relationship between Michael and Walt, and later went to live in domesticated bliss with the adventure-averse castaways Rose and Bernard when they got stuck in the Seventies courtesy of the Island’s time-warping properties. But the canine’s main claim to fame is appearing in the first and last scenes of the show: He’s there when Jack wakes up on the Island, and he’s there when Jack dies on it.
The psychic son of core castaway Michael is, arguably, the series’ most frustrating dead end. Walt’s kidnapping by the Others closed the first season on an emotionally devastating note. But it’s almost like the show’s creators forgot that kids grow up before they made one a crucial component of a series that only covered two months of story time in its first three seasons. As young actor Malcolm David Kelley sprouted, he and his telepathy — along with his father Michael, who’d literally killed in cold blood to protect him — were written off the show unceremoniously. A final Walt scene was snuck into the last season’s DVD box set to offset his total lack of involvement in the series’ resolution, but that’s way less a payoff than the initial seasons promised.
The Season One finale — a three-parter, no less — came loaded for (polar) bear: It gave us our first real glimpse of the Monster. It used a bit character, Dr. Arzt, to voice a compelling metacommentary — If there are dozens of castaways, why are only a relative handful involved in all the skullduggery? — then immediately blew him up with a stick of dynamite from an 18th century ship stranded in the middle of the jungle. It featured Sawyer, Jin, and Michael finally sailing off the Island in a raft, seeing the light of a rescue boat, and then discovering its crew are Others sent to kidnap Michael’s son. It saw Locke finally open the Hatch. It was thrilling, frightening, and flat-out mesmerizing. But what it didn’t do shaped the show’s future just as much. The decision not to show what was inside the Hatch until Season Two walked a fine line between delayed gratification and stalling for time, a line the show frequently stumbled over in subsequent seasons.
Y: Yin and Yang
“Two players. Two sides. One is light. One is dark.” John Locke’s explanation of backgammon to young Walt way back in the first season was probably little more than spooky-sounding gibberish intended to imply that Locke himself may have been playing for the dark side. But the black/white, yin/yang imagery would recur — in the Dharma Initiative’s distinctive logos, in the man of science/man of faith conflict between Jack and Locke, in the ultimate revelation of white-clad Jacob and his sinister brother, the Man in Black.
As in the percentage of flash-sideways scenes in the series’ sixth and final season that actually happened in the lives of the characters. Instead of an alternate timeline created when the time-displaced castaways attempted to prevent their plane crash from ever happening — which the show went out of its way to establish as a distinct possibility — the flash-sideways were glimpses of a purgatory where everyone tries to make their peace before moving into the light. If this is the afterlife, then everyone (your high-school football team, the original KISS lineup, the cast of the Patrick Swayze classic Road House, literally everyone) winds up there, whether or not they spent years waging bloody battles for control of a superpowered land mass. Many viewers considered this the series’ single biggest fumble, right at the one-yard line — a move harder to forgive than never finding out who shot at the outrigger. But the pleasures of the run were real, and a flubbed ending doesn’t erase them from the timeline. “Whatever happened, happened.”