Ten years ago this week, Lost premiered on ABC and became an instant sensation, piling mystery onto mystery (polar bears! Smoke monster!) and unfolding the backstory of each member in its huge ensemble with flashback after flashback. With every season, the supernatural properties of the island our heroes had crashed on and the history of its inhabitants became more dense and complicated. Grand unified theories abounded among fans, who were trying to puzzle out how the show would wrap everything together.
Four years ago, the series wrapped up with a finale that was not, let’s say, universally acclaimed. The answer to a lot of the island’s biggest secrets was “the island is magic!” and the resolution for its characters was at best emotionally satisfying and nothing else. But I’m not here to re-hash what went wrong with the finale (and the show’s sixth season in general). I’m here to remember the theories fans cooked up over the course of the show—some of them brilliant and detailed, some completely loony—that tried to explain everything that was happening. It’s especially incredible to look back now, after the writers have admitted they didn’t totally have a handle on the show’s entire arc, and see how this occasionally half-baked material was cobbled together into something beautiful and insane.
The Time Loop Theory
When Lost was on, this is the theory I really wanted to explain the show, and there was a moment there in the fourth season (when time-travel was introduced on the show) when it felt like maybe it would. Rooted heavily in hard sci-fi, there was an entire website devoted to the idea that all of the strange occurrences happening on the island were the result of its inhabitants travelling back in time, over and over again. This would help explain why some people (like Richard, played by Nestor Carbonell) never seemed to age, and why the crash-landed survivors had visions of the past or returned to prior states of health (like Locke recovering from his paralysis)—the island existed in a kind of time bubble as its inhabitants used its magnetic powers to move backwards again and again. The mythical Jacob was someone who had died in a past timeline but left an echo behind on the island; the smoke monster was the physical means by which the timeline “corrected itself” to avoid any terminal paradoxes. It was Doctor Who-level stuff, and it probably would have taken too much explaining to totally work, but it was beautiful in its totality.
The Island Was Created When Earth Collided With the Moon
Hosted on Lostpedia, the invaluable resource of easter eggs and minor characters that Lost fans would consult weekly to try and connect the show’s innumerable dots, this theory literally began before the dawn of man. Billions of years ago, scientists posit that Earth collided with a planetary body called Theia and the resulting impact created the Moon; this theory said that a magical, magnetic iron core from that lost planet was lodged on Earth, around which the magical Island grew. I have no idea how this could possibly have been explained to audiences in the TV show, but a flashback to the EARTH COLLIDING WITH THE MOON would have been pretty good.
Walt is a Magic Man Who Will Grow Up to Rule the Island/Possibly Be Lance Reddick
The best example of Lost's frazzled creative process comes with the character of Walt. When you cast a growing boy on a show where every episode represents, at most, one or two days, you're quickly going to run into a little problem called puberty. So at the end of the first season, Walt gets kidnapped and the showrunners assured us there were plans in the works for him. Those plans were never realized, although we did occasionally check in with a bigger, taller Walt off the Island; it was especially frustrating given all the hints that the kid had magic powers, summoning animals out of nowhere and at one point seemingly turning off the rain. There was plenty of speculation about what Walt's eventual purpose would be (some people thought the Smoke Monster, some thought he'd become the man in charge). My personal favorite was that he'd somehow become Matthew Abaddon, a minor character played by Lance Reddick in seasons four and five who inspired Locke to go on his walkabout. The grounding of this theory was basically that Walt and Abaddon were both black, and that plus time travel equaled a THEORY. But Abaddon sure seemed to know more than he was letting on; eventually, Reddick was hired on Fringe and the show dropped the character. Walt does get a cute coda on the season six DVD extras, but there's no effort to explain what exactly makes him so "special."
There Were Two Smoke Monsters
Remember the Smoke Monster? The crashing series of noises that rumbled around for a season and a half before we even got a look at its dark, smoky column form? It was the most overtly fantastic part of the entire Lost mythology, and as with so many parts of the overarching Island story it felt like it was resolved a little shoddily. The monster was Jacob's brother, who Jacob killed and threw into the center of the island. Then he turned into a smoke monster who could take the form of people's memories and was trying desperately to leave. But what if there were two smoke monsters?! One was Jacob's brother, a more-benevolent figure trying to leave the island, and the other was THE DEVIL, a malevolent force that killed a bunch of characters for no good reason. This theory was probably created in an effort to reconcile the somewhat inexplicable behavior of the Smoke Monster, who in the middle of the show's run especially was deployed as a deus ex machina to be scary/kill characters off.
The Island Used to Be Populated by Mythical "Sea People"
Ancient legend refers to a lost civilization called the Sea Peoples who invaded much of the Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age (around 1000 BC) and whose origins are hard to trace. Many archeological theories abound as to where they came from and where they ended up, but that's a whole other rabbit hole. How does it relate to Lost? Well, do you remember the severed four-toed foot statue, which was at one point part of a giant Egyptian monolith? Maybe the Sea People built it, and the Island is where they came from! They invaded Egypt a bunch of times, after all! Again, how the show was supposed to lay all this information out to the audience in a non-boring fashion is beyond me, but it was a cool connection to draw.
The Island is Purgatory/Heaven/Hell/A Shared Dream
As Lost became an instant hit in its first season, everyone had the friend who laid out this theory at a party: the Island is Purgatory, or Hell, or something; the crash survivors are in fact dead, or in limbo, and having their sins judged, hence the flashbacks, etc. Perhaps knowing that this ending would infuriate fans, showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse tried to get in front of it, repeating early on that the Island wasn't Purgatory. Then, in the sixth season the show presented a "flash sideways" universe that saw all the characters leading different off-Island lives, and eventually revealed this to be some kind of heavenly waiting station, where they all came together and moved on into the afterlife. Or something. It wasn't Purgatory, but it was certainly very spiritual, and fans expecting a harder sci-fi approach booed loudly and long enough that Lindelof and Cuse still get shit for the ending they chose. Leave the men alone! They made the show they wanted to make.