No, The Island Wasn't Purgatory or Hell
The problem with offering up a show that traffics in subtleties is that often, people won't get them. As soon as the finale wrapped up there were posts online from various viewers along the lines of 'they cheated us... they were dead all along.. the island was purgatory." But that's not what they said at all. In fact, it was made clear that the events on the island were always what was real and everything that happened there happened. And those times mattered so much to those who went through them that when they died, they constructed an afterworld where they could find each other again. In a way it's much less of a cop-out than having things play out so that once a character dies, they just go flying back to their loved ones and all is well. Even in Flashsideways-afterlife world, the Losties had to work for their happy endings.
They warned us all season long!
Right from episode one there were big hints that Flashsideways world was not what it seemed. Sure, some of them were too subtle to count as true clues- like Rose telling Jack he could let go after the turbulence on the plane. Or Jack's confusion over the cut on his neck, which also started with episode one. But others did catch my eye. In Lighthouse, Jack asks his mom when he had his appendix removed as a kid. She tells him it was when he was six or seven years old, and asks doesn't he remember? His answer is a very confused, "Yeah... I guess so." But he doesn't remember, because it didn't happen. Other plotlines just felt too much like the characters living some kind of dreamed up better life-- like Ben at peace with his father and helping kids out, seeing Alex at school every day. And John Locke being a stronger version of himself with Helen at his side. I was always one of those convinced that the Flashsideways would somehow cease to exist when the show ended and I even felt that it was some kind of a device to help the Losties through the things they couldn't handle. But I didn't see what it would truly turn out to be until just a few minutes before the end, and I think that's really something. Even when Locke told Jack "you don't have a son..." I got chills, but it all still wasn't entirely clear. Only when Hurley told Ben he'd been a great Number Two to him on the island and Ben told Hurley he'd been a great number one did it hit me what we were seeing.
If you thought time travel and the Flashsideways were brain twisters...
I think the thing people will be wrestling with for some time is how they could all be in the Flashsideways when they all died at different times. The Ajira 316 crew goes flying off and who knows-- Kate, Sawyer, Miles, Richard, Lapidus and Claire could have all lived for six more years or sixty. Jack, as we know now, only lived a few more minutes. But once they did die, they constructed their Flashsideways world to find each other. That's the book on this, but it is, I think, the hardest concept to wrap one's head around. They try to help us with a couple of the lines of dialogue. Kate tells Jack he has no idea how much she's missed him- because now that she's aware of where she is, now that she's ready, she can remember all the years after Ajira 316 took off and she lived on without him. Christian Shephard's character tells Jack that time doesn't matter here. Eternity is eternity, and they're there together.
But what happened to.....
Richard, Ben, Hurley, Kate, Sawyer, etc, etc... afer they all survived? If anyone feels cheated by the ending, it may be because yes, they explained what happened to them all up to a point, but we don't get to see a whole lot of things. We don't get to see how Hurley and Ben protect the island together, how many years they do so, what challenges they faced or how they died in the end. We assume Kate helps Claire re-establish a normal life back in LA and reunites her with Aaron and her mom, but we'll never see it. And there's a tendency to feel like somehow we got cheated. Another way to look at it: They didn't cop out, they just didn't give some easy, pat, five minute answer to the rest of the survivors' lives. I will always wonder how Richard goes on with life, gets a job in L.A.,and all that with no resume and no past, but he's pretty good at adapting after all that time with the Others, he'll figure it out. :)
Where they did cop out
Walt. Let's face it, Walt was meant to be more to the end of LOST and then Malcolm David Kelly grew up, gained a foot in height and it was time for plan B. During the New York Times Talks Live event last week, Darlton joked to much laughter from the audience about Walt's growth spurt and how at the end of season one it was time to get him on that raft as fast as possible! They refuted out loud that Aaron was ever supposed to be 'special' as some fans had conjectured, but they never denied that Walt was built up to be more than what he turned out to be in the end. Years ago there were rumors that some scenes were shot with Malcolm David Kelly when he was still small so they could be worked into the finale, but that didn't happen. Who knows- maybe they were really shot, maybe it was all just fan speculation that meant nothing.
Jack gets his redemption, and so does John Locke
Much of season two focused on the 'man of science, man of faith' debate, and there were points where the characters suggested John Locke was simply crazy for his insistence the island was special. Watching season two years later, after more was revealed, it was shocking how hard-headed and nasty Jack came across. But Jack ends the series no longer a doubter, and as the guy who, while he wasn't in charge very long, managed to save the island from Smokey Flocke. He dies at peace with himself and what he was meant to do in the world- and he dies on the island. Sad happy or happy sad? I can never decide with this show. Meantime, Locke leaves this world on his own two feet, the more assured Locke who knew he was loved, and who could 'let go' and forgive-- even forgiving Ben for killing him, nevermind just his dad taking a kidney.
Where did Desmond go? Just one of the many answers we'll never get.
Last we see Desmond on the island Jack is telling him to get back to Penny and live his life. But we never actually see his escape from the island. I assume he did get back to her and his time in Flashsideways world comes much later, after they've lived a happy life together and raised little Charlie. But we'll never know, and I think that's what's frustrating to many who are disappointed. If I've learned anything about what I like about the show, it's that the mysteries are the point. So many times when they're answered, it's deflating. So I'm fine with the question marks- they key issues have a period at the end of them rather than a question mark now anyway.
I liked Damon Lindelof's final Tweet (for now) about the show. . I agree 100%.