It’s ten years this year since Lost first aired on NBC, crashing millions of viewers onto an island for six seasons of mysteries, smoke monsters, Others, hatches, flashbacks, flash forwards and flash sideways, numbers, time travel, Jack’s tattoos, polar bears, Dharma beer, Frogurt, and frozen donkey wheels. It’s fair to say that it was a unique show that defied categorising, and it’s unlikely we’ll see anything quite like this again.
Regardless of how you may feel about the show – particularly how it finished – there were episodes within the 121 that aired which were simply great television. At its heart, Lost was a character show, using the mystery of the island as a mechanism to explore the conscious and unconscious lives of the characters who ended up there.
Lost took a scattering of individuals and allowed them to explore their own lives. Some successfully, others not so. Some changed and grew, others regressed. But in the end it was a show that infuriated and frustrated some of the characters because it refused to explain itself fully, constantly denied them answers to their questions. And yet it was a show that also captivated other characters, compelled them forwards in their stories and their destinies, based on nothing but their preparedness to find meaning in their own lives.
So, to commemorate the ten years while also preparing myself for whatever may come in the comments, here are the best episodes in Lost, in order of airing.
1. Pilot – season 1
Fairly difficult to not include this, as a hugely explosive, highly inventive opening to a TV series. In what has now become the norm with many pilots, Lost set the bar in establishing strong characters who had room to grow, in an environment ripe for exploration.
Rewatching the pilot now, it’s fascinating to see just how much of the finale season’s dynamic was established – from the surviving characters, to the Locke-Jack conflict, and that eternal question posed by Charlie in the final seconds of the episode: ‘Where are we?’
2. Deus Ex Machina – season 1
Many cite Locke’s first flashback episode as his best (Walkabout), due to the reveal that Locke was in a wheelchair prior to landing on the island. And while that’s great shock TV, we don’t get much more than that – and much of what made Season 1 instantly compelling yet not so rewarding on repeat viewings, is that it relied on shock twists.
The reason why this episode is so good is it does have the twists on top, but at its core is a highly emotional exploration of Locke’s past betrayal by his father, contrasted with his manic reliance on the island to deliver him from misery. Just watch the sequence that cuts from Locke’s confrontation with his kidney-stealing father to him beating down the still-shut hatch door. Great TV.
It’s also the beginning of Locke’s turn toward self-reliance rather than living together with the other survivors, as he sacrifices Boone for his desire to open the hatch. And then the light from the hatch comes on…
3. Exodus – season 1
In what set a trend for the series in having cracking season finales, Exodus set up so much of the direction Lost was to head for the duration of its run. Multi-character flashbacks, multiple on-island plots, all misdirecting the audience to thinking Claire’s baby was still in danger. And when Michael, Walt, Jin and Sawyer do the logical thing and build a raft to sail away from the island, nobody thought it was them the Others would come after. But it was, and they took the boy.
The reason why the Season 2 opening had record-viewers had a lot to do with how this finale concluded.
4. Man of Science, Man of Faith – season 2
And then we came to the first episode of Season 2, and we finally got to see what was in the hatch, and Lost continued to defy expectations and change the texture and tapestry of the show once again. Having spent the good part of Season 1 wanting to get in the hatch, Season 2 opened with a whole sequence devoted to the inside of the hatch without anyone realising.
And to cap it all off there’s Jack’s flashback, where he battles his science and his faith, and meets Desmond, who just happens to be the person in the hatch. And Desmond’s line ‘See you in another life’ suddenly opens up a whole new level of interpretation for the show, and where they were going to take it.
5. Two for the Road – season 2
Season 2 brought us a little bit closer to The Others, who had remained in the dark and behind fake bears and wigs until then, only emerging to steal a few children here and there. But we met Benjamin Linus, initially masquerading as a lost parachutist, until he graduated into one of the most manipulative, conflicted and compromising antagonists in TV.
Phenomenal performance by Michael Emerson, his scheming Linus gets himself out of imprisonment, ruins Michael entirely when he leverages returning Walt for his freedom, and Michael subsequently kills off Ana Lucia and Libby. Brutal, and shocking, and audiences never trusted Linus again.
6. The Man from Tallahassee – season 3
Another Locke episode, and one where we find out why he was in a wheelchair. That in itself is horrible to witness, further entrenching Locke as a man abandoned by good fortune, but it’s his road to recovery that renders the episode its emotional pull.
This is contrasted with his continual ‘communion’ with the island, as he sabotages yet another plan to escape to freedom by blowing the submarine up (hello foreshadowing). The episode also introduces Richard Alpert, jettisons Locke further from the other survivors, and in full pay-off ends with Locke facing his father on the island – his conscious and his unconscious coming together in one moment.
7. Through the Looking Glass – season 3
Season 3 was the worst in the series, due to ongoing negotiations with the network as to how long they would spin the narrative out. Once it was resolved, Lost hurtled towards its conclusion with frightening rapidity, none more so than in the finale, continually rated in the top episodes for the series’ run.
Epic, action-packed, as the survivors push for yet another opportunity to get off the island and find rescue, it all came to a crashing halt with Charlie’s exiting swan dive into an underwater station to stop a signal jam to the island, only to realise that the boat coming to save them is not friendly, in a parting message to Desmond before Charlie drowns.
And in the biggest change-up, Jack’s flashback was revealed to be a flashforward, and audiences suddenly readjusted their sets, knowing that at some point Jack gets off the island but now wants to go back.
8. The Constant – season 4
A shortened season due to the writer’s strike led to some awfully face-paced storytelling. But they still had time for this episode, arguably the best of the series.
Latecomer Desmond quickly became an audience favourite, and this journey through time to connect with his one true love, Penny, is a masterpiece in time-bending story. In theory, Desmond’s mind is literally flashing back and forward through time, and he needs to find one thing in the present to connect to the past – his constant – in order to maintain sanity. And that comes in the form of a phone call to Penny to let her know he’s still alive and that she’s still looking for him. If you watch Lost for one episode, make it this one.
9. The Shape of Things To Come – season 4
A Benjamin Linus episode, one that reveals to us that he leaves the island as well, and is hell-bent on a course-correcting plan to destroy Charles Widmore – who covered up the survivors’ disappearance, banished Desmond to the island and happens to also be Penny’s father, and a former leader of The Others.
On island, Widmore’s mercenaries attack the survivors, and all of a sudden our sympathies are challenged as we see the devotion Linus has not just to the island, but to his daughter as well.
10. The Incident – season 5
We had been hearing about the ‘incident’ since Season 2, and had speculated what on earth had happened on the island to wipe out the Dharma Initiative, and confine any survivors to hazmat suits underground.
Now, we found out. After a complex season of time travel, where we discovered who made it off the island and who stayed, and who was transported back to 1977, the Lost universe expanded once again to cover and even larger timeframe than it had before. The journey of the survivors to reunite once again was enormous, culminating in the decision to detonate a nuclear warhead in order to reset the times and put everything back together again.
Oh, and we got to meet Jacob. And the smoke monster guy.
11. Ab Aeterno – season 6
Ranks alongside The Constant for genre-defying TV, this is essentially an origin story for Richard Alpert – the ageless consiglieri to Benjamin Linus and to Jacob.
Told mostly in Spanish, and building to a moment where Alpert is finally able to reunite with his wife, whom he left over a hundred years before. It’s wonderful, deft storytelling, and a late entry in a series that had really made its name telling perfectly realised character stories.
The episode also ends with possibly the closest thing you’ll get to an explanation about the whole series. Just so you know.
12. What They Died For – season 6
I could put The End on this list, just to annoy some people, but I won’t. Instead, this episode really says a lot about what made the series great when it was great.
While we do get further developments in what became known as the flash-sideways story lines, with Desmond on his mission to reunite the survivors, the episode is better for the on-island plot, where the final few survivors get to spend time with Jacob. Coming shortly after the death of Sayid, Jin and Sun, in the brutal The Candidate, we finally get to hear Jacob explain why they’re all there, and why he wanted them all there. And in a moment that shows how much the series was about finding meaning in everyday life, Jacob makes Jack drink from a cup of water and announces that Jack is now like him, a protector of the island. Simple as that.
Almost. Until The End.
Honourable mentions and ones I dearly wanted to include are: White Rabbit, House of the Rising Sun, 23rd Psalm, Live Together Die Alone, He’s Our You, Jughead, LaFleur, The Substitute, The Candidate, The End.