One of the unfair criticisms lobbied against Lost during and after its tenure was that its creators were “making it up as they went along.” For one, “making it up” is how TV is made and we’ve seen time and again that having a set-in-stone roadmap isn’t a guarantee of success (see: FlashForward, The Event, etc.). But for another, as co-creator and showrunner Damon Lindelof revealed during an extended Collider Connected interview in support of his tremendous HBO series Watchmen, the writers did know where they wanted to take the show — they just couldn’t get there until ABC gave them an end-date. Under the constraints of network storytelling, it took three years for Lindelof and co-showrunner Carlton Cuse to convince ABC to allow them to set an endpoint for the series, which meant they could finally start laying the track for the big finale.
But the idea for the Lost finale was hatched pretty early on in the show’s run, as Lindelof said they liked the notion of concluding the series with Jack’s (Matthew Fox) death:
“We knew a bunch of things [early on]. One of the things that we knew for a very long time was that the series was gonna end with Jack’s death. That would be the end of his arc… the symmetry of starting with his eye opening and ending with his eye closing felt really good to us. But then, because Lost was a show that really reveled in non-linear storytelling and liked to jump around in time, we started to become very enamored of the idea that although the final image of the final season would be Jack’s eye closing, we could show his entire experience post-death in some way Trojan horsed inside the show, and how could we hide it? How could we give the audience what we felt the audience had been demanding from the pilot, which is is this purgatory? Are they all dead? Because when someone asks you a question, I believe — because this is how it is with me — they’re really telling you what they want.”
Answering the question “Are they all dead?” was at the forefront of Lindelof and the writers’ minds, and as we know they were not all dead the entire time. What happened on the island happened. But they looked towards the final season and the finale of the show as a way to discuss the growth of the human spirit after death:
“I felt like there’s a grand tradition from Rod Serling and Owl Creek and The Sixth Sense on up that the true growth of the human spirit actually occurs post-death. That’s the scenario where, free of the mortal coil, you can actually take a long hard look at yourself and figure some stuff out before you ascend, descend, transcend — before you get sent somewhere.”
Lindelof says they drew specific inspiration for Lost Season 6 from an idea from the Tibetan Book of the Dead:
“So we all liked the idea in the Tibetan Book of the Dead of The Bardo, which was — and I’m overly simplifying a vastly complex construct — but the idea of The Bardo is it’s a place that you go when you die but you don’t know that you’re dead. It is like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense. He doesn’t know that he’s dead, and the entire purpose of being in this space is to come to the revelation that you have died, but no one’s allowed to tell you. It’s like The Truman Show in that way. You can get pushed along the way or get hints, but no one can tell you.”
The question became, how could they put Jack and the others in this place without the audience knowing? This is how the writers came up with the idea of using the “flash-sideways” taking place in what audiences thought was a parallel universe or time paradox for the final season:
“We were like, ‘Oh God, that’d be a really cool thing to do in the final season, but people will know what we’re up to unless we make them think it’s something else. Can we disguise it as like a time travel paradox?’ So that basically led to us backing into Season 5 so that ‘The Incident’ would end Season 5, so when you started to get presented with Oceanic 815 flying over a sunken island, your brain would tell you, ‘Oh this is a parallel timeline where the plane never crashes.’ And it didn’t feel like that was a finale reveal. It felt like once Desmond started waking up or gaining consciousness, or the Charlie of the parallel timeline remembered putting his hands up with the ‘Not Penny’s Boat’, that the audience would start to get wise of like, ‘How are these characters remembering events that didn’t happen to them? The only logical answer is that they’re in an afterlife.’ But I didn’t see it getting widespread theoretical attention.”
So if they knew they wanted audiences to think Season 5 took place in a parallel dimension or some time travel paradox, they needed to set up time travel earlier in the show. Hence Season 4:
“That’s why Season 4 needed to setup time travel into the Dharma times, etc.—all in service of that grander idea. How we were gonna do all those stories and the fact that Jack had a son or that John Locke was a substitute teacher, all of that stuff came in the organic storybreaking process of Season 6. But the big ideas were generated in these mini-camps that we would have with the writers in between seasons, primarily between Season 3 and 4 and then in the post-strike period between 4 and 5.”
Indeed, the basic idea for the final season and Lost finale was hatched way back in between Season 3 and 4, after ABC had agreed to end the series after six seasons. It’s fascinating to see how Lindelof and the writers worked backwards to set up everything that would happen in the final season — and indeed the entire construct of Season 6. Which flies in the face of those who feel the show lacked answers.
But also, clearly Lindelof and the Lost team were more interested in the idea of spiritual growth than delving into even more mysteries on and around the island, which is why the Lost finale works so well on a gut emotional level.
Look for much more from Lindelof, including a lot on Watchmen, on our full episode of Collider Connected this Sunday only on Collider.