05/19/2010 03:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lost Without Lost

There've been long waits between seasons before but we've always known that sooner or later Lost would return to tantalize us again with its unanswered questions. Not so now. On May 23rd the final episode will air and that will be that. Or will it? Will we understand the nature of the mysterious light that transformed Jacob's brother into a smoke monster? Will we be told who built the mysterious four-toed statue? Will we ever know what the island really is?

Probably we will remain dissatisfied. The mysteries of Lost are too dense and complex to be easily explained. But beneath the dissatisfaction will be a lingering sadness. My son, Nicholas, has gone through his teens with Lost, and through all the ups and downs of our father-son relationship we've had Lost to fall back on as an endless topic of discussion. I remember vividly how three years ago we spent hours gazing at freeze frames of Jacob's cabin trying to make sense of shadows in the gloom. Tuesdays are Lost days -- we've never missed an episode.

So how has a TV series managed to keep us so enthralled? The secret, I think, has been the strength of the characters. Each of them has had to struggle against inner demons and personal loss. Jack couldn't win his father's love and ended up losing his father's body. His efforts to lead have led him down a series of cul-de-sacs. Sawyer learned early to harden his heart in order to survive but his true humanity keeps breaking through in his relationships with Juliet and Kate. Hurley is cursed by the mysterious numbers that have brought him untold wealth, but on the island he refuses to give into his fate and saves his friends from the Others by running over Ryan Pryce in the Dharma bus -- perhaps the most satisfying moment in the whole of Lost. With the exception of the murderous Keamy, all the main characters are multifaceted, at war with themselves as well as each other.

The emphasis on character development is what distinguishes Lost from its imitators. Special effects have never been an end in themselves. Sometimes the plotting has been over-complex, particularly when time travel has been involved, but the characters have remained down to earth, and the story soon regains its footing with wonderful, unforgettable scenes. Who can forget the moment when Sayid turns on the electricity in The Pearl station and we suddenly see Mikhail's angry face flickering for a moment on the screen? Or when the boy, Ben, goes outside the Dharma fence and meets Richard in the jungle and we see for the first time that Richard has never aged?

At its best there have been moments of lyrical sadness -- Jack staring off at the airplanes at the end of Season Four hoping against hope that one day he will crash again and find the island that he tried so hard to leave; the deaths of Charlie and Charlotte; and the scene on the beach at the end of the last season with Jacob looking out to sea with the man who had once been his brother, as the Black Rock ship approaches and they ready themselves for yet another round in their centuries-old struggle.

Over the years Lost has peeled away its layers like a series of Russian nesting dolls. The struggle between the crash survivors and the Others was superseded by the fight to the death between the Others and the Dharma Initiative, and the war between Ben and Widmore has given way to the timeless struggle between Jacob and the Man in Black. For a long time Jacob and the Smoke Monster seemed half real sideshows in the story, but now in Season Six they have become its most important characters. And still we don't know what the island is.

In this last season we have also followed the characters through an alternate reality in Los Angeles in which their wishes appeared to have all come true. And yet recently we have watched this reality fragment as Charlie forced Desmond to look beneath its surface and Hurley began to remember who Libby was when he knew her in another life. Who knows where the writers are going with this brave new world, but perhaps the lesson behind its fragmentation is that the characters will never escape the island. They will always be struggling against their fate, doing their best even if they're doomed, trying to make sense of the incomprehensible. This is ultimately why we care about them like old friends, and why I for one will miss them so much when they are gone.