“Lost” Ending Explained: What Really Happened to the Passengers of Oceanic 815?

From that church scene to the fate of the island, here’s everything to know about the finale of 'Lost,' which aired in 2010

<p>Bob D

Bob D'Amico/Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty

'LOST'.

Warning: Lost spoilers ahead!

It’s one of the most divisive series finales of all time — when Lost aired its last episode on May 23, 2010, fans either loved or hated the complicated ending.

The final episode of ABC's classic fantasy series series left many wondering, what really happened to the passengers on Oceanic Flight 815? Were they dead the whole time, through all of Lost’s 121 episodes?

In the Emmy-winning show, which premiered in September 2004, a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles crashes on a remote island, and the survivors attempt to stay alive while they search for a way home. They soon discover they’re not alone on the island, and “The Others” — the people who call it their home — are not exactly friendly or welcoming to outsiders. Viewers, and the Oceanic Six, later learn that the island has supernatural powers: it can heal people and give them immortality, and it acts as the barrier between evil and the earth.

Related: 'Lost' Cast: Where Are They Now?

The unfolding mysteries and complicated, always deepening mythology of the show — there was much murky business about a number sequence, 4 8 15 16 23 42 — made Lost one of the first true internet sensations, with fans dissecting every tiny detail. Because viewers were so invested in the complex storyline, some expected every clue dropped over the six seasons to be explained and every loose thread wrapped up neatly as the characters’ journey came to an end.

That didn’t happen; the finale focused more on the bonds between the characters and gave them a vague happy ending. The series' final episode created more questions, and left many feeling cheated of a firm resolution. PEOPLE reviewed the finale as “emotional and frustrating,” with critic Tom Gliatto writing, “I won’t spoil it for you, except to say that it was so mistily open-ended as to be pointless.”

In recent years — as the show’s creators have explained more about what really happened in the last episodes — many have come to reconsider the ending as better than their first reaction.

Jimmy Kimmel, a superfan of the show, told Vulture in 2021, “The idea that people would put so much weight on what happened at the end is missing the point. The point of that show was the fun and the mystery and trying to figure out what was going on. And maybe that’s still part of the fun, that we still haven’t exactly figured out what was going on.”

Here’s everything to know about Lost’s ending.

How did Lost end?

<p>Mario Perez / Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty</p> Matthew Fox, Jorge Garcia, and Evangeline Lilly on 'Lost'.

Mario Perez / Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty

Matthew Fox, Jorge Garcia, and Evangeline Lilly on 'Lost'.

By the final season, there were multiple timelines happening on the show. In season 5, Sawyer (played by Josh Holloway), Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell), Hurley (Jorge Garcia) and Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) were all in the 1970s, living with The Dharma Initiative, a group of scientists attempting to understand the island's elements.

Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Sayid (Naveen Andrews) and Sun (Yunjin Kim) were off the island in the present day, trying to get back to help their friends — with the self-interested encouragement of John Locke (Terry O’Quinn) and Ben (Michael Emerson), who wanted to get back to the island because of their desire to rule the place and tap its power.

In the sixth and final season, most of the characters are reunited on the island, including a reluctant Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick), and the lingering mysteries start to unfold. Viewers finally learn who Jacob (Mark Pellegrino) is — he’s the protector of the island — and more is revealed about his relationship with his nemesis, the Man in Black, who wants to destroy the island and unleash the evil it’s holding at bay. At various times, when he wasn’t in corporeal form, the Man in Black also appeared as the Smoke Monster.

All the while, there are still two timelines happening. In one, the remaining survivors are on the island: some are trying to escape, some are hoping to be chosen as the next protector and some want to destroy the island. In the other timeline — which showrunners described as a “flash sideways” — the plane never crashed, but the survivors' lives are still deeply intertwined.

“The fundamental mystery of season 6 is, why are we showing you these two stories and what is their relationship to each other?” executive producer Damon Lindelof told PEOPLE in 2010. “The audience is gonna have to be very patient.”

It turns out that Locke became the Smoke Monster embodied, who continued his quest to destroy the island, and removed a rock at the bottom of a sacred well, which was the stopper for the island’s power. The final battle came down to him fighting Jack, who had replaced Jacob as protector of the island.

Jack defeats him, but to save the island, he has to replace that rock, even though he knows going into the well will kill him. Before he descends, Jack taps Hurley to be the island’s protector. In one of the show’s biggest twists, Hurley enlists Ben, the survivors’ longtime foe and leader of The Others, to help him care for it.

Jack replaces the rock and saves the island, but is grievously wounded. As he’s taking his final steps towards death, he finds himself in his sideways timeline, in a room with the spirit of his dead father, who tells Jack he’s died. Jack opens the door to that room to find he’s in a church, with almost all of the show’s main characters there — even some who are still alive in the island timeline, and some who died in previous seasons, like Boone (Ian Somerhalder) and Charlie (Dominic Monaghan).

They’re all hugging and greeting each other. Locke walks up to Jack, shakes his hand and says, “We’ve been waiting for you.” On the island, Jack dies as a plane flies overhead. In the church, he’s sitting next to Kate, his longtime would-be partner, and smiling as the scene fades to white.

Were all the Lost passengers dead the whole time?

<p>Mario Perez/Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty</p> Dominic Monaghan on 'Lost'.

Mario Perez/Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty

Dominic Monaghan on 'Lost'.

Because of the church scene, which was strongly suggestive of all the characters going to the afterlife, many viewers assumed that all the passengers on Oceanic 815 had been dead the whole time. Further support for that theory was the final credits of the finale, which showed the plane fuselage on the beach as it appeared in the first-ever episode; many interpreted that as cementing the idea that they had all died in the crash.

The showrunners, though, were adamant that the survivors weren’t dead the whole time. They chose to use that footage as a way to ease viewers out of the show so the transition to a commercial wouldn’t be as abrupt.

“We put that footage at the end of the show and I think that the problem was that the audience was so accustomed on Lost to the idea that everything had meaning and purpose and intentionality,” executive producer Carlton Cuse told Vulture in 2021.

“So they read into that footage at the end that, you know, they were dead. That was not the intention,” he continued. “The intention was just to create a narrative pause. But it was too portentous. It took on another meaning. And that meaning I think, distorted our intentions and helped create that misperception.”

Why were fans so divided about the Lost finale?

<p>Mario Perez / Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty</p> Naveen Andrews, Maggie Grace, Yunjin Kim, Dominic Monaghan, and Emilie De Ravin on 'Lost'.

Mario Perez / Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty

Naveen Andrews, Maggie Grace, Yunjin Kim, Dominic Monaghan, and Emilie De Ravin on 'Lost'.

Because the ending focused so much on character resolution, leaving the show very far from its intriguing starting point with a lot of the island’s mysteries unsolved, like why no babies could be born on the island. There were also some questionable 11th-hour plot twists, like the sudden presence of another faction of The Others, who lived in a never-before-mentioned temple in the jungle, and the reappearance of Claire (Emilie de Ravin) who had unceremoniously disappeared in season 4.

“There was no way to answer all the open questions that existed across the prior 119 episodes of the show,” Cuse told Vulture. “We sort of tried a version of that with the episode that was a couple before the end, ‘Across the Sea,’ which was this very mythological episode about the origins of Jacob and the Man in Black. That was sort of what answers look like. And I don’t think it was great.”

There was also no clear explanation of what those “flash sideways” were, other than they added spiritual overtones at the end, which seemed out of character for the previous episodes of the show. Years later, executive producer and writer Liz Sarnoff explained it in Vulture’s oral history of the Lost finale.

“From a writerly standpoint, it’s impossible for me to convey to you in words what the rules of the sideways were, other than to say we called it a bardo in the writers’ room, which was largely based on a construct in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is this idea that when you die, you experience an afterlife where you do not know that you are dead, and the entire purpose of that afterlife is for you to come to the awareness that you have died," she said.

The flashes sideways did a lot of the work of the characters’ resolutions, too. The couples who were separated in the show — like Jack and Kate, Desmond and Penny and Sawyer and Juliet — all reunited in those flashes. In the final scene in the church, viewers also see Sun and Jin reunited (they had both died escaping the island) as well as Sayid and Shannon.

"We [preferred] to tell an emotional story about what happened to the characters," Cuse said during a PaleyFest panel in 2014, per Entertainment Weekly. "I cared more about the characters' journey and what happened to them."

When they were writing the ending, Sarnoff told Vulture, “It was hard not to be aware of how much the show meant to us but also how much it meant to other people. Because the Lost fans were like no other fans I’ve ever experienced, and they were pissed the show was ending, but at the same time, they were so emotional about it.”

What did the showrunners say about the Lost finale?

<p>Mario Perez/Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty</p> 'Lost'.

Mario Perez/Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty

'Lost'.

According to Sarnoff, the show’s producers always wanted the characters to find each other again and prioritized that over answering questions.

“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,” she told Vulture in 2021. “Mystery shows like that are so tricky because nobody wants the mystery to end, but they want answers.”

While showrunners Cuse and Lindelof stand by what they did in the finale, they admit that some choices were heavy-handed. “There’s stuff that makes me grimace a bit,” Lindelof told Vulture. “Like it’s not quite a regret, but I think that if we didn’t have that damn stained-glass window, we would’ve gotten a full letter grade higher on the finale. The literalness of the window — that’s a part that made me grit my teeth a little bit.”

“Damon and I accept that the show is what it is, warts and all,” Cuse said at a 2016 Lost reunion concert, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “Everything is a part of it. So ultimately, is there anything I would change? The answer is no.”

The theory that everyone was dead the whole time, though, doesn’t sit well with Lindelof. “Whether you like the finale or whether you don’t like the finale, that doesn’t really bug me too much,” he told Vulture. “But that idea — they were dead the whole time — it negates the whole show, it negates the whole point of the show.”

Jack Bender, director of the show’s final episode, added that he preferred a more subtle approach to the end. “The thing that I loved about the finale and we were crucified for and still occasionally are is that ultimately the show Lost was not some Marvel-esque, super-sci-fi ending,” he told Vulture. “What I’m most proud of, among the many things about the show, is it was ultimately about how we live our lives, who we live them with and how we die."

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