This essay, focused on the Lost episode “Through the Looking Glass,” is part of our series Episodes, a bi-weekly column in which senior contributor Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great.
If you’re a Lost fan, you already know the words that define the midpoint of the zeitgeist-exploding series like they’re second nature. Say it with me now: “We have to go back!”
It’s easy to go back to the hit series’ third season finale, “Through the Looking Glass,” thirteen years after it aired and feel the same sense of wonder, thrill, and raw emotion as the very first time you watched it. In the years that have followed Lost’s philosophical, deeply misunderstood series finale, the urge to let the show’s energy and impact dull in the public memory was strong. It had too many loose ends, erstwhile fans and casual fans would murmur, or it was too melodramatic.
But turn on a great episode like this one (or the series’ timeline-busting fourth-season finale) and you’ll find that the Lost you loved is right where you left it, and it’s as propulsive and entertaining as ever.
“Through the Looking Glass” is Lost’s narrative halfway point, a double-length episode that marked an end to the show’s flashback format and answered a hilariously prolonged central question — does anyone ever leave the Island? — with a last-minute shock that resonated through the remainder of the series.
On the island, the Oceanic 815 survivors face down The Others in a tense battle that includes hostages, explosions, and a particularly heroic moment involving a VW bus. At the underwater Dharma station known as the Looking Glass, Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) and Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) face fate and make contact with an offshore freighter that will eventually lead to the rescue of the Oceanic Six. And off the island, an addled, bearded Jack (Matthew Fox) downs prescription pills like shots of whiskey and contemplates suicide.
“Through the Looking Glass” is not only event television at its finest but also the beginning of a fresh start for a series whose creators were always aware of the dangers of outstaying their welcome. After three seasons of flashbacks, Lost needed a new direction. Episodes like the critically panned “Stranger in a Strange Land” (the story of Jack’s arm tattoo…seriously) made it clear that the backstory well was running dry.
The episode pokes fun at its own towering status in pop culture: “If you say ‘Live together, die alone” to me, Jack,” Rose (L. Scott Caldwell) says in “Through the Looking Glass,” quoting the protagonist’s famous phrase, “I’m gonna punch you in the face.” Rather than continue to retread the territory that made it popular, the always-bold series turned a narrative timeline on its face in a gambit that can only be described as a game-changer.
The episode’s big final reveal — that Jack and Kate (Evangeline Lilly) escaped the island and that the scenes we’ve thought to be flashbacks are actually taking place in the future — hits like a ton of bricks. Twists aren’t everything, but Lost is better than most shows at sneaking up on its viewers with un-guessable revelations that retroactively seem plain as day (see also: Locke’s disability and the flash-sideways).
The mystery doesn’t wear off on repeat viewings, either. The writers’ easter eggs and foreshadowing only seem more clever. Jack’s off-island storyline in “Through the Looking Glass” is filled with previously-referenced details that purposely disorient audience members who may be trying to track chronology, from a funeral home scene to a patient with a spinal injury to the appearance of his ex-wife, Sarah (Julie Bowen).
On top of its own self-contained mystery, the episode’s flash-forward scenes also lay the subtle groundwork for several other mysteries that won’t be solved for the majority of the following season. These are hints stacked on clues stacked on teases, packaged up in the type of irresistible puzzle box only Lost could present.
Since the show survives as a massive cultural phenomenon, the experience of watching Lost will always be tied to the communal fan experience that, for many, came with seeing it live and reacting to it as a group. This interlaid tangle of mysteries, which series writer-producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse answered deliberately but with varying degrees of complexity and specificity as the series unfolded, makes armchair detectives (and philosophers, and theoretical physicists) of us all. The frustration and elation are shared, as is the shock. Watching in 2020, these feelings that accompany major twists are perfectly preserved, as if in amber, to examine and — to borrow a phrase from that polarizing finale — to remember together.
More than that, as viewers of Lost, we were and still are active emotional participants in the lives of dozens of characters. “Through the Looking Glass” is a near-perfect payoff in that sense, as it includes several of what another 2000’s adventure series, Firefly, would call Big Damn Hero moments.
Hurley (Jorge Garcia) drives the aforementioned VW bus into The Others then treats his heroic moment with characteristic chill (“Yeah, dude, I told you. I saved ‘em all!”). Bernard (Sam Anderson), Jin (Daniel Dae Kim), and Sayid (Naveen Andrews) act as sharpshooters in an action-packed ambush on The Others. Hell, even trashed future Jack saves a woman from a car crash, albeit one he caused.
Then there’s Charlie. Fan-favorite rock star Charlie Pace had a target on his back ever since Desmond first envisioned his doom, and in “Through the Looking Glass,” his time inevitably comes to an end. Despite the lead-up, Charlie’s death is shattering. It comes immediately after the Oceanic survivors find out they’ll finally be rescued, a misty-eyed moment in itself.
After so much resistance to Desmond’s prophecy, Charlie finally realizes what he’s meant to do: plug in a world-saving passcode that happens to be to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” The image of the ill-fated musician, his Sharpie-scribbled hand pressed against the glass, his wide blue eyes accepting of his fate even as ours inevitably fill with tears, is one of the most indelible of the series.
There’s so much more to unpack here, but with Lost, there always is. Luckily, we can all go back to the Island, and to this unparalleled chapter of TV history, as often as we’d like.