So, that’s it. Lost is over, and its extremely unlikely there will be a more thought provoking, cinematic, fan-obsessed show on network television ever again (cable, maybe, but not on the risk-averse dinosaur networks). In the end, the show was sanctified by as many as it mystified, especially the bizarre sixth season. But to dwell on the show’s shortcomings – and, between the often groaning dialogue and plot-holes the size of an airplane or two, there certainly were shortcomings – is to miss the incredible overarching accomplishment that is Lost. The show aspired to, and deconstructed, myth-making in thrilling and emotionally fulfilling ways reached only by very few contemporary pieces of entertainment. And in leaving many of its mysteries unresolved, its all but guaranteed that fans and newcomers alike will obsess with the show’s details, big and small, for years to come.
As with most TV shows, Lost had its up and downs. If forced to decide on the best season, I’d go with either 5, which featured the tightest story telling of the show’s run, or season 2, which contained the show’s most fascinating psychological gamesmanship. But, funnily enough, the show’s weakest seasons, 3 and 6, contain the lion’s share of my favorite episodes.
And now, my Top Ten episodes of Lost (if you haven’t watched to the very last episode, SPOLIER ALERT!):
10. Jughead (Season 5: Episode 3)
To me, season 5 was the most consistent season of Lost, and the first few episodes where the time travel was most intense represented the tightest, most mind-cooking story-telling the show has ever attempted. Lost was a show that created its own intra- and extra-textual archana, and to witness our characters “unstuck” traveling through blips of Island narrative was the coup-de-gras of the series’ bold story scrambling. “Jughead” was the strongest of all these episodes, with Island characters eventually coming into contact with young Charles Widmore and Eloise Hawking (who are revealed to be Farraday’s parents in a twist worthy of Back to the Future), creating audacious yet logical connections between our contemporary characters and the Island history they’ve been slowly discovering throughout the first 5 seasons. This was the first time we felt that, wow, maybe our heroes are directly responsible, in the past, for their future problems on the Island.
9. Ab Aeterno (Season 6: Episode 8 )
The second best completely stand-alone episode of Lost (stay tuned for the first) was the epic, long overdue backstory of uber-Other Richard Alpert. Rather than coldly dissect the mystery of Alpert’s connection with the Others and our heroes, the show flashes back to the 1860s, where Richard is a Spanish-speaking, heartbroken slave brought to the Island aboard the Black Rock ship. In addition to wonderfully mysterious performances by Mark Pelligrino and Titus Welliver as the Island’s angry twin brothers/world-view metaphors, Jacob and Man in Black, Nestor Carbonell knocks it out of the park, playing Richard as an almost completely different character, full of faith, grief and eternal love. This is one of the few episodes that could be enjoyed almost fully by a complete Lost novice.
8. Man Behind the Curtain (Season 3: Episode 20)
The illuminating backstory of the Island’s most mysterious figure, Ben Linus, set up the strongest three-episode arc in the series run. “Man Behind the Curtain” at once humanized Ben Linus, with his sad past as an unwanted, motherless child with a monstrous, alcoholic father, and made him scarier than ever. As a child, Ben wanted freedom more than anything, and saw the Island’s Others as his ultimate escape from the hippie-pseudo-scientist DHARMA initiative. By purging the island of its science-explains-all interlopers, Ben becomes the leader of the Others and, less overtly, returns the Island to Jacob’s army of isolationist, mystical protectors. As always, Michael Emerson proved one of the shows MVPs, especially the brutally sad scene where he murders his own father.
7. Pilot (Season 1: Episode 1 & 2)
It’s amazing how much of the show’s iconography and theme are present from the very first moment of the show. “Pilot,” first and foremost, is as theatrical as television comes, with the cunning complexity and narrative abandon of an action film. Director J.J. Abrams orchestrates the opening crash with such visual aplomb (remember the guy getting sucked into the plane engine?) that it’s almost impossible not to sit up and take notice. But he also sets up the characters we come to know and love with such economy that it’s hard to believe this is the first we met them. Jack and Kate’s counting to five, Locke wiggling his toe, and many more moments became so iconic that they were reiterated all along the series’ run, right into the final episode.
6. Happily Ever After (Season 6: Episode 10)
The show’s most divisive season was knocked as some as being aimless, favoring an unclear flash “sideways” story structure to something more illuminating to the series’ unanswered sci-fi questions. It was a bold and not always successful move, but this Desmond centric episode, in which Island reality and sideways reality finally connected, recalled the show’s most impressive mind-twisting moments. “Happily Ever After” brought the show’s final march toward intra-textual mirroring, and its narrative reasons, to a head with storytelling acumen and emotional power. Watching Desmond and Charlie relive a parallel version of Charlie’s plunge in Season 3’s “Greatest Hits” brought Lost back to its peak, and Desmond and Penny meeting for the first (last, eternal?) time in the Sideways reality was a fitting ending to the show’s most enduring romance.
5. Live Together, Die Alone (Season 2: Episode 23)
An undeniably bold move – focusing the season finale on a character we hardly knew at the time, Desmond – turned out to be a story-telling miracle. The episode featured a huge download of Island history – Desmond’s time in the hatch, etc – but also setting up Desmond’s crucial off-Island backstory that turned out to be a major key to the entire series. “Live Together, Die Alone” also capped Lost’s most cogent and thought provoking psychological mystery to date, by directly confronting the question of fate versus free will through John Locke’s ultimate moment of decision regarding the symbolically loaded button in the DHARMA hatch. Along with a gaggle of other mysteries that would haunt the show until the very end – i.e. The Others, the four-toed statue – “Live Together, Die Alone” showed Lost’s true colors, and answered every question with another, more fascinating, question.
4. Greatest Hits (Season 3: Episode 21)
Quite possibly the most purely emotional episode of the series. With Charlie’s inevitable death march and subsequent enlightenment still one episode away, “Greatest Hits” was like one final day with a mortally ill, beloved relative. Season 3 foundered for a while, but once Desmond announced Charlie’s watery fate, the show’s story telling gained a sickeningly suspenseful momentum. With a gorgeous performance by Dominic Monaghan, culminating with Charlie’s final goodbye scene with Hurley (Jorge Garcia, who really began showing range here), “Greatest Hits” married suspense, story-telling delicacy and emotion in bold and surprising ways that Lost rarely achieved afterward.
3. The End (Season 6: Episode 16)
The series finale didn’t work for everyone as a way to wrap up Lost, but it’s almost impossible to criticize it on a purely stylistic level. The direction, music, cinematography, editing and acting hit an absolute peak in “The End,” and for that alone it deserves a place on this list. On one hand, “The End” was one hell of an action film, achieving edge-of-your-seat momentum the show only captured in its very best moments for nearly its entire epic two-and-a-half-hour running time. On another hand, it was a joyful reiteration of visual and narrative beats from the show’s first 5 seasons that, instead of seeming cloying, felt more like a reinforcement of season 6’s motif of meta-narrative – this drama has been playing out forever, and will continue, even after the end of time. On a third hand, there was the surprising, poignant resolution of the divisive flash-sideways plot, which elevated the story to a mythic, spiritual level, and allowed great swaths of Island story, both seen and unseen, to blossom in the imagination for years to come. I, for one, am glad that the show didn’t end with a dry explanation of why every little thing happened, but rather with emotional clarity and lingering mystery. Jack’s final scene, seeing his friends finally escape on a plane with Vincent lying at his side, was as perfect and emotionally satisfying as I could have ever expected.
2. Through the Looking Glass (Season 3: Episode 22)
The show’s most shocking narrative twist capped Lost’s creative peak. The end of Season 3 was an incredible emotional journey, capped by Charlie’s heroic, devastating death, but also an instantaneous explosion of narrative possibility. By radically switching from flash-backs to flash-forwards, the show simultaneously answered a slew of lingering questions (most notably, will the castaways ever leave the island?) with a dizzying set of new ones (“We have to go BACK?” WHY?). As with most season finales, “Through the Looking Glass” moved with the verve of an action film on the Island, and off-Island, cultivated an increasingly bizarre set of mysteries that the show would spend the remainder of its run exploring. It also exploded the show’s most enduring narrative technique, allowing for the flash-forwarding, time-traveling, paralleling, and sideways-flashing narrative blitzkrieg that endured to the show’s conclusion.
1. The Constant (Season 4: Episode 6)
Quite possibly the best single episode of any television show I’ve ever seen. A bold claim, I know, but not without merit. Centering around Desmond Hume’s temporal crisis set off by the Island’s mysterious energy, “The Constant” was at once Lost’s emotional, science fiction and structural/technical high-point. As masterfully directed by Jack Bender and shaped by the show’s expert craftsmen (especially the editors), “The Constant’s” narrative shifts are on par with many similar feature films, giving Desmond’s predicament a visual language that’s extremely complex but instantly understandable. The story itself is a master-class in science fiction television, using the brilliant Daniel Farraday (Jeremy Davies, another highlight in the cast) to weave a brain-tickling web of scientific theory worthy of Hawking or, more appropriately, Vonnegut. But none of this works without Henry Ian Cusick as the story’s emotional core, bringing the poignant tale of Desmond’s reunion through space and time with his beloved penny to a dizzying climax. When Desmond finally reaches Penny via telephone, what follows is the most satisfying dramatic scene the show ever produced. When Desmond marvels that Penny answered his call, all these years later, and she lets him know that she will do everything she can to find him, I dare you, even if you’ve never seen another episode of Lost, not to tear up. “The Constant” epitomizes everything that Lost did successfully in its six years in one 44 minute episode, and for that it will go down as a masterpiece that will be watched, studied, and just plain enjoyed for years to come.