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The difference between Lost’s first and second seasons is best understood through their respective finales.

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“Exodus” is a linear climax for various key storylines. The castaways built a raft, and in “Exodus” the raft is launched. The castaways found a hatch, and in “Exodus” the hatch is blown up. Although various other story elements—Rousseau as an agent of chaos, the Black Rock as a mythology puzzle piece—were part of the finale, it was primarily the resolution of two ongoing storylines wherein characters had clear goals and reached them. The cliffhanger wasn’t “What will happen to these characters?” so much as “How have their concrete decisions altered their fates?” What’s in the hatch? Who were those men on the boat? The answers to those questions motivated the second season’s storytelling, as Lost’s world became messier and more non-linear with each new insight into the Dharma Initiative and the men and women of the Others putting on a show for our castaways.

As a result, “Live Together, Die Alone” is messy and non-linear in a way “Exodus” was not. It functions as a compelling and dynamic two hours of television, and yet there is none of the simple narrative action that motivated the launching of the raft or the explosion of the hatch. This is the season where Lost feels the most scattered, caught between the clear propulsive action of the first season and the sprawling mythology the writers are progressively more interested in as the series goes on. While we can identify how the resolution offered in this finale pulls together threads from throughout the season, we can equally see how other threads are ignored as the events in the finale disrupt rather than resolve those particular storylines. It makes for a finale that simultaneously demonstrates the season’s strengths and clarifies why it fails to reach the first season’s heights, embodying the season’s struggles while emphasizing why they did limited damage to the series’ long term dramatic viability.

The second season is about expanding the world of the island. While Rousseau had confirmed the castaways were not alone, and her talk of these “Others” had seeded their development, the second season actively wanted to explore the conflict of surviving in a shared—rather than isolated—environment. Suddenly, there’s a man in the hatch, and then there’s the survivors from the tail section of the plane, and then there are multiple hatches, and then there’s the Others marking their territory. The season as a whole asks how the existing ecosystem the characters developed can survive this cohabitation, most clearly manifesting in Ana Lucia’s struggles to integrate following Shannon’s death and Michael’s betrayal when his love for his son supersedes his sense of community. We could also tie this to Sawyer’s con to gain access to the guns, or Charlie’s decision to be a part of that con to get back at the people who were so quick to turn their back on him. Although Jack returns to his community-building rhetoric when he gives the episode its title, the idiom rings less true if we think about the society as a whole: living alone was easy compared to living alongside these other groups, and the uncertainty that comes with sharing this already unstable environment.

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This tension is undoubtedly carried through into “Live Together, Die Alone,” although in ways that capture some of the season’s struggles. Michael’s actions in “Two For The Road” offer an example of a development that speaks to the season’s themes but disrupts the narrative continuity. On the one hand, his betrayal offers the single most powerful moment of struggle in terms of the individual versus the community. It’s a struggle that we’ve known about for weeks, now, but one that Michael and Jack are forced to pretend isn’t happening for a significant section of this finale. For Jack, it’s part of a strategy designed by Sayid to gain the upper hand on the Others, who are not aware that they’ve figured out Michael is lying. For Michael, meanwhile, it’s a defense mechanism. Michael should know that things are suspicious when Sayid agrees not to come on the trip. He should certainly know things are suspicious when he cravenly fires his gun at a swooping—and talkative?—bird in the jungle and discovers Jack has given him an unloaded gun. In both cases, though, he convinces himself they don’t know because he knows that coming clean will destroy him emotionally. He doesn’t like what he has to do, but he has to do it for his son, community be damned.

It’s incredibly effective, both when Hurley forces Michael to answer for Ana Lucia and Libby’s deaths and when Michael is eventually forced to watch as the Others capture and tie up his friends based on his own actions. He also has to drive away on a boat with Walt, having achieved his goal while dooming his friends to an uncertain and potentially life-threatening fate. Those scenes are hugely effective for the episode, but they are also one of the reasons that this finale feels messy by comparison to “Exodus.” Ana Lucia’s redemption was supposed to be the kind of arc that would pay off in a finale, and Libby and Hurley’s relationship was supposed to be like Charlie and Claire’s romantic reconnection, which is actually the final scene on the island we see in this episode. And yet those moments were cut short by Michael’s actions, which served as a disruption of the narrative and cut off arcs for the Tailies that looked as though they were intended to play out over the course of the entire season.

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There is something incredibly symbolic about this, but it limits the scale of the episode’s storytelling. Michael’s betrayal is well handled by Harold Perrineau, but it’s a comparatively new development, lacking the same long-term development as the character arcs in the first season. The same could be said for Eko and Locke’s battle over the hatch, which is not the first time the characters have been placed together but was only directly connected to the hatch two episodes previous. That’s equally symbolically powerful, as we see the ways the island’s pull can suddenly shift characters like Eko in entirely new directions, but it isn’t a season-long conflict that is coming to a resolution. It’s characters being brought together in ways that serve a broader thematic or philosophical interest of the series, creating effective moments but lacking the catharsis associated with a finale that finally gives us what we’ve been building toward all season.

This is not to say that “Live Together, Die Alone” doesn’t deliver on that front in some areas. We get the conclusive answer to “What happens if you don’t press the button?”, which has been teased ever since the button was revealed at the beginning of the season, and comes alongside Locke’s latest leap of faith in his relationship with the island. We learn that the man we knew as “Henry Gale” was not just any normal prisoner, but one of the Others’ leaders, overseeing the prisoner transfer, giving Michael his freedom and informing him that they’re “the good guys.” In these moments, the at-times-scattered plot of the season gets reclaimed, with some storylines proving important foundations for this disruptive conclusion and others—Sawyer’s con, Charlie being blacklisted, etc.—revealed to be the show trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t in a more non-linear storytelling environment.

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And that’s okay. Lost’s second season isn’t perfect, and every show needs to go through course correction. Whereas the first season could largely own its slow-burn character development and gradual myth-building in its finale, the second season has more rough edges, and ends up bearing the marks of the writers’ uncertainty regarding the best way to tell the story they’re certain they want to tell. It means that if we take this finale as the conclusion of a linear season, it doesn’t completely hold together, particularly given that it hinges on a character that disappeared for the majority of the season. Instead, we have to consider “Live Together, Die Alone” as a finale that builds the preview for new season into its DNA to acknowledge that the series’ world is about to grow again.

Desmond’s storyline in “Live Together, Die Alone” is more crucial to the show than anything in “Exodus,” but I say this only in retrospect. In the moment, Desmond’s return is incredibly functional. It’s a chance to see a flashback from a character we liked but didn’t have much time to consider, a way for the finale to feel “new” and exciting after a season where the flashbacks became more repetitive as the season went along. He offers insights into the mysteries surrounding the Dharma Initiative and the hatch, revealing the origins of the Blast Door Map and extending the interconnectivity of these characters in his chance run-in with Libby and his time in the hatch with Clancy Brown’s Kelvin Inman (who we last saw with Sayid in Iraq). Desmond’s—or, rather, Libby’s dead husband’s—boat offers Sayid, Sun, and Jin a way to play a role in the climax of Michael’s betrayal, as well as giving them a glimpse of the four-toed statue. It turns Desmond into a bookend of the season, similar to how Rousseau functioned in season one: While his first appearance renders him as a subject of study for the castaways as they struggle to confront the island’s mysteries, he returns later as a more fully realized character.

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What he represents most of all, though, is the idea that everyone had a life before the island. Rousseau’s is obscured because it’s been 16 years of survival, stripping her of her ability to connect to the outside world or anything beyond her current situation. However, Desmond was only on the island for three years, and he was only alone for 40-odd days, but he was already feeling the weight the island has on a person. The characters who crashed on Oceanic Flight 815 are all trapped in the liminal space between the lives they led and the life they have on the island, but the life on the island is winning. After two seasons, the weight of the island and its conflict has made it more and more difficult for many characters to think about themselves in the past tense; even Desmond’s return comes with the news that leaving could well be futile, given that his attempts to sail away only brought him right back where he started. For Desmond, he very nearly reached the point of no return some weeks after Inman’s death at his own hands, until he opened his copy of Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend that he was saving for his final moments and discovered the letter Penelope Widmore had written to him before he was sent to military prison years earlier. And then he heard someone knocking at the Swan Station’s back door.

I love the simple elegance of Desmond’s flashback. It is built on the foundation of star-crossed lovers, with Desmond and Penny’s romance disrupted by his time in prison and erased by her father’s interception of his letters to her. First, it would appear that this is Desmond’s tragic backstory: Here is someone who the fates aligned to offer an opportunity to sail around the world to prove himself to Charles Widmore, but instead he sailed right into a mysterious island to become an unwitting pawn of the Dharma Initiative. As he sits on the beach drinking away his sorrows, we could read this as yet more definitive proof that you can’t hold onto who you were before, Penny representing the life he lost when fate brought him to this island. But when we see how that letter changed his fate, and how it kept him alive long enough to hear Locke’s pain at the hatch door, we realize that those parts of your past never leave you, and that the separation between the island and the outside world—like the Hatch and the island above—is not an absolute quarantine.

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Desmond is positioned at the heart of Lost in two key ways in “Live Together, Die Alone.” One is the very simple fact that he is the one who crashed Oceanic Flight 815 by leaving the button unattended and following Inman, resulting in a system failure on September 22. Related to this, Desmond knows how to activate the failsafe on the Swan Station, which results in a flash of light and a purple sky that temporarily connects the various characters spread across the island—the Others and their prisoners, Sayid, Jin, and Sun on the boat, Claire and Bernard at the beach—and ends with the hatch door flying through the air and landing on the beach. We leave the finale with no idea if he’s dead or alive, but his actions have clearly had a significant impact on the state of events on this island.

However, the second way is more important, which is that Desmond represents the first character whose connection to the real world has manifested in the present tense. The final scene of “Live Together, Die Alone” is the very first scene on Lost to show us a glimpse of the outside world in our present timeline. While the show has always had an escape route to the world before the island in its flashbacks, it has never had the right coordinates to take us off the island in any other context. But when the camera shifts from Charlie and Claire’s romantic moment in the wake of his near-death experience—or experiences if we count both Eko pre-blowing up the hatch and then the electromagnetic anomaly that Locke unleashed by destroying the computer—to what appears to be some type of Arctic tundra where two researchers are playing chess in a monitoring station, we discover that there is an alternate version of this show about Penelope Widmore trying to travel to the island our characters are trying to escape.

It’s a scene that’s only there for the audience. It has no value to the characters, who have no way of knowing the system failure would trigger whatever measuring equipment Penny has at her disposal. What it says, though, is that Lost is thinking bigger. In a season where the show dramatically expanded the ecosystem of the island, the end of “Live Together, Die Alone” makes a promise that the outside world is not asleep. This is not just a story about an island, but a story about people’s relationship with the island, a story that might well include people who are currently back in the “real world.” Penny’s ability to find the island is in part based on resources—as she says when she finds him about to run the Tour de Stade at the same time as Jack, “with enough money and determination, you can find anyone.” However, it’s primarily based on the idea that there are connections we have to other people that can transcend the mythology: As Penny says in her letter, “all we really need to survive is one person who always loves us.”

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We’ve talked at times about the dichotomy often constructed between Lost’s mythology and Lost’s characters, but “Live Together, Die Alone” is another reminder that they are inextricably linked. Desmond’s flashback is one of the most substantial pieces of mythology we’ve seen to date, filled with details about the Dharma Initiative, turns of fate that suggest some kind of higher power (he runs into Libby in a coffee shop, for Christ’s sake), and an end-of-episode suggestion that someone is out there actively searching for the island. However, it’s also a story about the capacity for love to conquer time and space, and hope for the other characters that whatever lives they left behind still exist for them to return to.

If “Exodus” built its way to a cliffhanger and forced audiences to wait months to fill in the gaps, “Live Together, Die Alone” mainly just leaves the story in progress: We don’t know where Kate, Jack, and Sawyer are being taken, but we know they’re being taken, and there’s not the same level of capital-M “Mystery” in what’s going to happen next. What Cuse and Lindelof do with this finale is clever, though, as they load it with new big-picture mysteries to feed speculation about the following season. Where once they used the absence of information to create speculation, here they use an abundance of information, with numerous developments that are there mainly to fuel frenzied online conversations until the show returns months later.

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It’s a messier process, reflecting a messier season, and it’s hard to embrace it on the same level as “Exodus” when it more clearly bears the marks of the season’s rough spots. However, there is so much in those hints to the future that reveals Lost’s true ambition, and which sets us up for a season that more confidently explores the expanding non-linear world the second season worked to establish, that it’s hard not to get caught in the island’s electromagnetic pull.

Stray observations:

  • I still find it weird when Netflix releases don’t combine these “two-part” finales into a single episode. I understand it’s a contractual thing for syndication rights and talent, but there’s something very weird about seeing a second title card in a place you know it wasn’t when you saw the episode for the first time.
  • I honestly have no recollection over whether or not I expected it to be Desmond in the boat—while I had forgotten exactly how the boat arrived and therefore felt their “shock” at its arrival in “Three Minutes,” I can’t forget who’s on board.
  • The show wasn’t exactly subtle about feeding the mystery frenzy—see: the fans who surely went nuts at the mention of Widmore having committed the brand of the pregnancy test to memory—but something about Widmore’s dialogue about having “two boxes” for Desmond felt particularly purposeful.
  • Daddy issues alert: Do prospective father-in-laws count? I’ve decided they do as long as they’re played by Alan Dale, who even with the accent is activating some intense The O.C. intertextuality.
  • “PENNY PENNY PENNY PENNY PENNY”—my notes when Sonya Walger first appears onscreen.
  • Weird that they use flashbacks to the scenes in the Pearl Station when Locke is explaining them to Desmond—was the “Previously On” sequence insufficient?
  • While Inman was a nice substitute, we’ve definitely heard enough about Radzinsky—the Blast Door Map, the brain matter stain—that we’re probably going to have to meet him eventually, right?
  • This is a significant episode for sound design, given the “Incident” at the hatch, but Michael Giacchino’s score also steps it up a notch with some less melodic musical cues. The dissonance was a big part of his musical signature on the show, and while those aren’t the cues I listen to while writing—particularly in an episode that introduces Desmond and Penny’s theme—it stood out when a number of other scenes in the episode used similar dissonance in the sound design of scenes like the flash and the purple sky.
  • Sayid, Jin, and Sun are mainly out there as another angle on the events in the episode—and to show us the four-toed statue—but I appreciate Sun’s insistence on going herself, and on Jin’s shrug to Sayid as if to say “Hey man, I’m not telling her what to do.” It was nice.
  • I of course remembered that we would eventually receive confirmation that Pearl Station was itself a test when we saw the enormous pile of tubes uncollected in a field, but I forgot that immediately after Locke is explaining about the tubes to Desmond as proof that the button is the real experiment. The dramatic irony is more potent than I recalled.
  • You all don’t know how much it bugs me when I can’t call characters by names in these reviews because we don’t know their name yet in continuity, and I want these to be accessible to new viewers. And so I can finally say that Tom is the fake-bearded Other, but I’m still not able to call “Henry Gale” by his actual name, and so I’m still kind of angry.

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Spoiler Station (only read if you’ve seen the entire series):

  • I don’t even know where to start here, honestly, but let’s just say I definitely don’t think I was so emotional when I saw these Penny and Desmond scenes the first time through. In the post-“The Constant” world, this whole thing just takes on so much more meaning, to the point where I know I wouldn’t have written a lot of the above without it. Consider this your reminder to, if you have not already, read Noel Murray’s original review of that episode, and Ryan McGee’s essay on it for our TV Club Advent Calendar series.
  • We could talk about connections to the rest of the series all day, but Hurley’s role in the episode felt most transformed for me. In the moment, his being included on the list just to serve as the messenger seems like an embarrassment, or the show wanting him there for Michael’s reckoning but not wanting to actually have him follow through on the rest of the story. But in light of his importance to the island later, was he being protected? Or given a more crucial role as an ambassador and connection between the two sides? Maybe not intentional, but it struck me nonetheless.

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Next season: Unless something changes unexpectedly, we’ll be back sometime early in the New Year to complete our episodic coverage of Lost’s six seasons with season three. While I can’t promise a date at this point, I can promise that we won’t take a break after the first six episodes. In the meantime, I want to extend my thanks to all of you for reading, commenting, and making this journey back to the island so enriching. See you in another few months, brother.