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Posted at 10:52 AM ET, 05/24/2010

Another 'Lost' theory: No, really, it was purgatory

By Jen Chaney

Updated at 4:56 p.m. ET with a fleshed out version of the Hank theory.

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The "Lost" finale ended less than 12 hours ago and already we're arguing incessantly about what it all meant. In our analysis, Liz and I concluded that only the flash-sideways constituted a purgatory of sorts But our esteemed TV critic Hank Stuever has another view:

Let's let him explain:


Even dogs, like fan favorite Vincent, can spend time in purgatory. (ABC)

It was purgatory, people
By Hank Stuever

In the fall of 2004, when "Lost" was amassing what turned out to be its incredibly dedicated audience, there were viewers (I was among them) who said: Maybe the island is just purgatory. Maybe everyone on Oceanic 815 is really dead (killed in a plane crash, obviously) and they are trapped somewhere between a dark place and a heavenly afterlife. This theory made the most sense, and it didn't lessen the show's best qualities one bit.

But the more-involved fans hated the purgatory theory. No, no, no, they said. It's a real place -- and look, see? It was a science experiment. There was a hatch and a series of numbers being entered into a computer! If it's purgatory, then how come people actually die? There are "Other" inhabitants. This story goes way back to Egypt, dude!

But can't that all be purga--

No! See? The flash-forwards? The six survivors who go back to the real world?

But what if that world is also purga--

No! Because look, they set off a bomb that split everything into two realities, one on the island and one in an alternate sideways world!

But maybe that's because it's purga--

No!

I don't know what the rest of you 13 million people were watching Sunday night, but in the last five minutes of "Lost's" insanely overlong finale, I realized that the purgatory camp had been right all along, that Occam's razor (the simplest solution is usually the correct one) had worked. "Lost" was a story about purgatory.

Much more after the jump...

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More "Lost":
Photo gallery: The end of "Lost" | Your finale predictions | Live chat: Discuss the finale | "Lost" Central

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Yes, the show's creators vehemently denied all along that the island was purgatory. Fans, being fans, took them at their word -- which, by the way, one should never do. Snap out of your Comic-Con-style "'Lost' community" daze and realize that this is showbiz and the customer base must be sustained and strung along. "Lost" frequently abused its viewers' time and patience and, masochistically, its core viewers stuck around and asked for more. What is purgatory, after all, but a series of torture devices?

Maybe the word "purgatory" is the problem. What about limbo? (It's been too long since Catholic school for me to fully recall how purgatory is different from limbo. We used to pray for the souls of dead babies in limbo, whom we felt sorry for, because they didn't have television.)

Maybe saying the word "purgatory," for "Lost" diehards, feels too much like finding Bobby Ewing in the shower ("Dallas") or listening to Dorothy babble about Oz after her barnyard concussion. One thing people despise is an "it was all an illusion" ending, but tell that to "The Twilight Zone" or Ambrose Bierce. This much I know: ABC is counting on us to argue about this forever, so they can somehow show us even more commercials than the ungodly number they showed Sunday night.

Now let's broaden the definition of limbo or purgatory, to allow that the all of the people who came and went from "Lost's" island were technically corporeal -- alive. They hungered, fell ill, needed shelter, had sex. You could die on this limbo island, which only makes it worse for your soul. This allows the island to be sorta-real. Some people in "our" world know it exists and seek to get there, to unlock or exploit its energy. Others just wash up there. Everyone who is there belongs there. Maybe for a while, maybe forever.

Jack Shephard and his fellow travelers were unwittingly brought there to resolve a number of problems between heaven and hell. They were fresh souls, there to address a few too many anomalies and broken-machinery issues in some sort of working universal order.

During their time in purgatory, the Oceanic people (helped by other lost souls, such as Juliet and Desmond and Faraday) brought parallels together and eventually they prevented the devil's meddling attempt to return to heaven and destroy creation. They blew up the Dharma Initiative in the 1970s, because it also threatened the island's energy. They killed the Smoke monster. They altered time/space without killing the rest of us. Big jobs.

This limbo followed them backwards and forwards and sideways into a tangle of past, present and alternate future. The characters finally fixed it. Their reward was the hereafter.

People in "Lost" died multiple times in a lot of ways. Jack's exit in the final minutes of "Lost" was the death that got him to heaven, but the 815 crash was the death that got him busy on what he was meant to do. That's why the finale takes Jack back to that same bamboo field -- where he snapped awake in 2004 (dead, but not technically) and where, now that he is fully cognizant of all that has happened (and un-happened), he lays down and experiences a final peace. His work is done.

I know some hardcore fans don't want to believe it was purgatory all along, perhaps because they worked so hard to decipher "Lost's" layers of pointless mythology and whatnot. This is not an "it was all a dream" ending. It was about another realm that is like a dream, which explains why everything had to be so frustrating, complicated -- like a dream where you can't solve a problem.

But not a dream. An actual place -- a purgatory. Or for people who hate that word, an in-between. You don't go there simply because your soul is stuck. You go there because you're needed.

E-mail Hank at stueverh@washpost.com

By Jen Chaney  | May 24, 2010; 10:52 AM ET
Categories:  Lost, TV  | Tags:  Lost  
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Comments

I think you're mistaken. It's very clear from the third season on that the island is a real place that you can go to and leave.

However, the Sideways Timeline from the final season turned out to be a kind of purgatory, where the castaways assembled and grouped in that Church before ... moving on? We could argue about that facet, but the island is not purgatory, and when the castaways crashed, they weren't dead.

Posted by: alazro | May 24, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

I disagree with this analysis too. It seems like the writer really wants it to be so (since he "got" it from the beginning) and he's trying desperately for it to be that way. It just doesn't add up.

Posted by: smynola06 | May 24, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Can someone get this guy an imagination?

Maybe no one is buying the "it was always purgatory" theory, notwithstanding the insistent foot-stomping, because it makes no sense, and because what makes total sense is what everyone (except for those who work for the Post apparently) has been saying since the moment the show ended last night.

Posted by: ooyah32 | May 24, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

It sounds like Liz and jen are embarrased that they got it wrong so they are dragging in other bloggers who got it equally wrong.

Posted by: buffysummers | May 24, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

I like this explanation best - good work Washington Post! But in addition, I think the ultimate bad guy was trying to close off the gateway to all that is beautiful when one crosses over so that no one could land in purgatory or heaven - his desire was that everyone would go directly to the place of fire & brimstone upon their death. Sounds downright devilish, doesn't it?

Posted by: sgregory57 | May 24, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Even the "Lost" critic at The New York Times has acknowledged the Stuever's explanation is flat out wrong, and is directly contradicted by what the show explicitly told viewers at the end: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/24/lost-watch-embracing-the-white-light/

"On rewatching the scene last night it was immediately clear, as many of you have pointed out, that the characters hadn’t been dead all along and that the narrative was meant to have stretched for some undefined period of time after Jack’s death. Mea culpa. That new understanding will be reflected in my longer take on the finale, to be posted later today."

Posted by: laskomayo | May 24, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

I just think it's lazy storytelling. I think that while maybe visually, they knew they were going to close on the close of Jack's eye, they didn't really know logistically how they were going to get there.

The story lost its' way over the years. There was no over-arching quest anymore - it was too fractured to pull back together gracefully.

Maybe it was purgatory the whole time, maybe it wasn't. It's been an interesting 6 seasons of television and I don't regret owning the DVD's, but I see writers who - despite having the luxury of KNOWING when their show was going to end - didn't know how to end their story and took a deus ex machina way out.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | May 24, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Well, I can certainly appreciate the idea that if it was Purgatory the entire time then it was stupid. Especially since that would mean the "flash-sideways" were really a limbo in Purgatory, which, of course, would be part of the whole "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an engima" thing to be sure, but that really is the long way around.

The "flash-sideways" is certainly Purgatory-like in that it is a place visited before your final destination. But since since everybody seems to be heading in the same ultimate direction, there seem to be some significant differences, which meakes sense given the all the religious symbols in the stained glass window.

I thought the "flash-sideways" was a device for allowing the show to have a happy ending along with the attendant tragedy of life and death on the island, and that is what it turned out to be.

Posted by: DRBERNABO | May 24, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

when christian sheperd explain to his son ,that they are all dead, he said (i hope i remember the exact words) :"everyone dies sometime...some of then before you,some of them long after you..." so, you see, they wasn`t in the purgatory all the time,but just in the church.

Posted by: rodut666 | May 24, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Occam's razor would dictate that the island is NOT a purgatory. Otherwise, why have the whole flash-sideways universe? A purgatory within an purgatory? This introduces unecessary complexity into the theory. You can CHOOSE to believe that they were living in some "in-between" place all along, but it adds nothing to the story, and it is by no means NECESAARY in order to explain the events that took place suring the course of the series. If anything, the theory trivializes the events that took place on the island if all that it was was some proving ground for the Losties to get their tickets to heaven stamped.

Posted by: dcdude1 | May 24, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

The Purgatory theory, in my mind, is disproved by the fact that in their real-lives, pre island, the Losties were visited by various people from the island. Take Jacob visiting any number of candidates, or Alpert visiting baby Locke. Even Widmore was on the island with his bride, and returned to spawn Penny. How could that happen in Purgatory? QED.

Posted by: izzydds | May 24, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

So, basically, it means that Kate was a great actor and Jen and Liz shouldn't have hated her.

And that we'll be seeing a spin-off with Ben et al who weren't in the Church.

Posted by: WillSeattle | May 24, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

I think "alazro" hit the nail on the head. If you remember, Christian Shepard pointed out to Jack that everything that happened on the island was real. The flash sideways was the purgatory world created by the castaways as place to wait until each died in fullness of time. Here they would work out whatever issues they had until they were ready to cross together. Ben decided to stay because he said he still had some issues to resolve and Hurley told him he was a great #2 which tells you they did stay on the island as protectors after Jack died. Unfortunately, its still a disappointment since they never really told us what the island was....

Posted by: tyree230 | May 24, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Said so from episode 1, season 1. Purgatory. Obvious. And I live my life by Occam's razor.

PS: I lost Lost after season 1. And the ending could have been worse: Jack waking up, it's all a dream.

Posted by: the_real_smoke_monster | May 24, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

JeLi and Hank are all wrong. Sideways was purgatory (although i've started thinking of it as a waiting room) the island and everything that happened on it was real.

Posted by: talleyl | May 24, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Wait... so in the Fall of 2004 you were predicting that they would introduce a purgatory like state in a flash sideways format beginning with the 6th and final season?

Posted by: jadeemm | May 24, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

I agree tyree230. Sideways world is a place that exists outside of time, where the castaways all gathered after they each died. It allowed castaways who died in the past (Charlie, Locke, etc.), the present (Jack) and the future (Desmond, Hurley, Ben, etc.) to gather at the same moment and cross together. Based on Hurley's comment to Ben about being a great #2 and Christian's comments to Jack that everything that happened was real, I agree that the events on the island were "real".

As far as the question of what the island really is, I'm okay with not knowing the answer. I have my theories, but I'm not sure. It'll be fun to rewatch all six seasons and see if my theory makes sense.

Posted by: lcaviness9 | May 24, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

no
purgatory is listening to lost people discuss lost...

or is that hell

Posted by: quintiliusvarus | May 24, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Hank did you want the last ten minutes of the finale. The island and everything that happened there was real. The sideways Lost universe was created by the people who died on the island as a place for them all to meet when they all died before they moved on. And like some religions do, this sideways lost "purgatory" was where the castaways had a change to live a better life than before the plane crash and/or after the plane crashed on the island. The island was real, the sidways Lost universe was a purgatory invented by the castaways.

Posted by: TVDIVA | May 24, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

quintiliusvarus,

In the future, I suggest that you stop clicking on articles that have the word 'Lost' in the title.

Posted by: dcdude1 | May 24, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

Something can be real without being physical, such as in the emotional and spiritual realms. Just because something lacks substance, does not mean that it did not happen or was not real - such as I can have a thought - which really happened. No one can verify my thought - but it makes it no less real.

Also, I thought that Christian Sheppard said that they created this world - when he said that I understood Christian to mean both timelines were created by those on the island.

Posted by: hims | May 24, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

So funny to pull out Occam's Razor to justify a far out, in-conflict-with-everything-we-saw explanation.

Each of us is entitled to alternative interpetations of what happened. And, no doubt, the writers could have written all those telling lines of dialogue to mislead us.

But Occam?!

If I sound harsh, it's in part because I really didn't get your piece the other day, either. And because Liz and Jen have toiled in the trenches with us all this time, whereas I really don't know who you are or why you think you have front-page worthy insight into this extraordinary show.


Posted by: MeriJ | May 24, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

Sorry to be rude, but I'm trying to understand how three people employed by the esteemed Washington Post could've have gotten this so wrong. Christian Shepard explained it all. "All of what happened to you is real." "Some died before you, some died long after you." Why would Kate tell Jack that she missed him so much? Because she went on to lead a life off-island after they killed Smokey. Not to mention that some people who showed up at the end and in the Sideways world were not on the plane crash - Desmond, Penny, Ben. Heck, Penny was never even on the island.
Honestly, I think some people just like to feel superior and snarky and say things like, "Ha! I knew it was purgatory all along!"

Posted by: candle96 | May 24, 2010 7:03 PM | Report abuse

Wow, people sure didn't get the conversation between Jack and Christian, did they?

I don't care for the term 'purgatory' - I prefer to think of Sideways World as a Rainbow Bridge for Humans.

Posted by: Arachnae | May 24, 2010 7:31 PM | Report abuse

Liz and Jen hate Kate because Kate is better looking.

Posted by: sasquatchbigfoot | May 24, 2010 10:40 PM | Report abuse

And anyone who references Ambrose Bierce is okay in my book.

Posted by: sasquatchbigfoot | May 24, 2010 10:45 PM | Report abuse

Bravo Hank. Couldn't have said it any better. Jack laying back down where it all begin was the biggest revelation to your theory.

And people, the purgatory answer is not a cop-out. If you all didn't enjoy the entire 6 years of the twists and turns these immensely enjoyable characters took to find peace and move on, then you missed the entire point.

Posted by: genelee9 | May 25, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

OK, love this analysis. Don't want to agree with it, but it's truly the only answer that makes sense. People keep clinging to the "but Christian Shepherd said everything was real" line, but what's to say that purgatory or some in-between place isn't real? This instantly resonated with me. Good job, Hank!

Posted by: kristenj1 | May 25, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

The thing is, this theory is as plausible as any other, since the only authoritative source for answers that we have -- the writers of the show -- have no idea what the Island was or what the show was all about.

Posted by: charodon | May 25, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

dude get off your high horse. the island was not purgatory. and for that matter neither was the sideways world because if you look at the definition of purgatory it's a place where one is judged to determine their afterlife. And we clearly saw all season that the sideways world was not a place where anyone was being judges. and whoever on here said just cause Christian Shepard said the island was real doesn't make it real well yes it does the writers wouldn't have practically hit us over the head with that truth if they were playing around with us. I am so sick and tired of reading about how everyone thinks they were just dead the whole time. You want another example of their island lives being real? Listen to when Hurley tells Ben he WAS a good number 2 to which Ben replies you WERE a good number 1. I think a lot of people who hated the finale didn't get it. This show was always about more than its surface mysteries it was about philosphy and religion and so much more and it seems that religion was the ultimate undertone but please get over yourself if you think they were dead the whole time!

Posted by: dpizzi | May 25, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

dude get off your high horse. the island was not purgatory. and for that matter neither was the sideways world because if you look at the definition of purgatory it's a place where one is judged to determine their afterlife. And we clearly saw all season that the sideways world was not a place where anyone was being judges. and whoever on here said just cause Christian Shepard said the island was real doesn't make it real well yes it does the writers wouldn't have practically hit us over the head with that truth if they were playing around with us. I am so sick and tired of reading about how everyone thinks they were just dead the whole time. You want another example of their island lives being real? Listen to when Hurley tells Ben he WAS a good number 2 to which Ben replies you WERE a good number 1. I think a lot of people who hated the finale didn't get it. This show was always about more than its surface mysteries it was about philosphy and religion and so much more and it seems that religion was the ultimate undertone but please get over yourself if you think they were dead the whole time! And also, you actually get PAID to write these garbage reviews?

Posted by: dpizzi | May 25, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Hank, love your work, but I'm afraid you're wrong on this one. Check out the bulletin board linked below, where an apparently bona fide "Lost" writer explains all (and it makes perfect sense):

http://forums.twobillsdrive.com/index.php?s=aad6c1f4515441a9aa674caf2eed4e92&showtopic=102576&st=1020&p=1867089&#entry1867089

Posted by: yolatrendoid | May 25, 2010 7:14 PM | Report abuse

I completely agree with your assessment. I have been telling people something similar to your theory since seeing the show. Many people want to interpret it literally. It makes perfect sense to me that they all died in the plane crash and were in purgatory. A few other things : Look closely at the very last beach scene. The plane crash wreckage was rusted and there were things spread out on the beach like the plane crashed (no clean up by survivors). Jack's father appeared numerous times throughout the series and Jack was not ready to go (including the first episode). The dialogue with Jack's father at the end was very well written but vague. He all but said that Jack needed the others from the island and they needed him to "remember and let go." The show was like a dream. The writers did an amazing job and the complexity of the story is under appreciated by most people. It is perfectly clear to me that they were all dead.

Posted by: bruggs1 | May 25, 2010 8:56 PM | Report abuse

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