By Jeff Jensen
December 17, 2010 at 11:57 PM EST

Image Credit: Mario Perez/ABCBack in May, Entertainment Weekly marked the end of Lost with a special issue devoted to ABC’s magical, maddening mystery machine, which included a story that took readers to the Hawaii set for a crucial scene that was being shot for the finale. There wasn’t much we could say about the sequence itself, other than the work marked the last time the whole cast shot together, and that at one point during a long, emotional, teary evening, Terry O’Quinn led his actor friends in a sing-along of Prince’s “Purple Rain.”

Well, now I can elaborate a little more. I was in the church when Christian Shephard (John Terry) threw open the doors and the entire castaway soul cluster — Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Sawyer (Josh Holloway), Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell), Sun (Yunjin Kim), Jin (Daniel Dae Kim ), Hurley (Jorge Garcia), Libby (Cynthia Watros), Sayid (Naveen Andrews), Shannon (Maggie Grace), Boone (Ian Somerhalder, on loan for the weekend from The Vampire Diaries), Charlie (Dominic Monaghan), Claire (Emilie de Ravin), Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick), Penelope (Sonya Walger), Rose (L. Scott Caldwell), Bernard (Sam Anderson) and Locke (O’Quinn) — vanished into the afterlife in a flood of white light. In EW’s Best of 2010 issue, on sale now, I share a little more about the visit, including the misdirection that was employed to fool the spoiler stalkers lurking outside the church and how Fox and Terry were the only actors that knew the big secret of the Sideways world during the filming of the sequence.

Did being there at the end spoil “The End” for me? Not as much as you might expect. One of the rules of being there: No context. I was sitting in the pews and watching as Christian led Jack into the sanctuary to be greeted by John Locke and friends — but I had not been told anything about the scene that preceded this moment, the bit of business in the room with the stained glass windows, in which Jack’s father explained to his son that he and his friends were dead, and that the Sideways world was a kind of limbo, created by the castaways themselves. (Also? I didn’t know anything about The Island storyline or Jack’s death march, either.) Obviously, it became pretty clear to me that the castaways weren’t exactly alive in the traditional sense of the term after Terry opened the doors and director Jack Bender cued the light. “I’m dying to know what you’re thinking right now,” exec producer Damon Lindelof told me as all of this unfolded right in front of me from my vantage point behind the church altar. My mind raced with questions. From my notes: “Does this mean that the Sideways world isn’t an alternate reality? If the Sideways characters are now dead in this separate reality, were they ever alive? The seating arrangement in the church — kinda resembled an airplane configuration. Significant? Why the pairing of loved ones? Where’s Peg Bundy?” (Peggy = Locke’s lady love, Helen.) Another mystery that riveted me that night: The conspicuous beat when Christian exchanged a look and a nod with Sawyer as he walked down the aisle. (Did you catch that? Go back and look.)

Did knowing about the castaways’ afterlife ascension affect my theorizing during the last month of Lost episodes? Only in this regard: By the last couple seasons of Lost, the joy of watching the show for me had become the week-to-week fun of spending time with the characters and the experience of discovery, mental activation, and play, not waiting for “answers;” by knowing a chunk of the end, that enjoyment was somewhat diminished right when it should have peaked. I’m confident I didn’t do anything to spoil the finale for readers. I’m not sure how I could have, since I didn’t really understand what I had seen. If anything, I think knowing the ultimate destination influenced me to some conclusions that I’m no longer confident about. For example, it became pretty evident to me by the May episodes “The Candidate” and “What They Died For” that the Sideways world was certifiably unreal. As I tried to make sense of that and square it with where I knew the story was headed, I found myself thinking: “Purgatory.” I became rather fixated on the idea; there was an irresistible irony to it, given the popularity of Island-as-Purgatory theorizing of the first couple seasons. (Which remains untrue, even though the plane wreckage footage that played over the credits — a moody, irrelevant coda, not meant as an additional twist ending — confused the matter for some viewers and critics.) And so, with so much time to think about the idea and fall in love with it, I declared that the Sideways world was a legit spiritual purgatory in my first responses to the finale. With the passage of time, I now see other possibilities, and more, I wonder if I missed some of the points Lost was trying to make about religion, spirituality, and the afterlife by becoming so locked into purgatory theory. More to come in the next week or so; my long-promised, long-delayed last Lost column will post before the end of the year. What about you, Lost fans? How have your thoughts, feelings, and theories about “The End” changed over time? The message boards are yours.

Read more: ‘Lost’ finale recap, part 1 and ‘Lost’ finale recap, part 2

For the full best and worst lists in movies, TV, music, books, and more — and to see who we named 2010′s breakout stars — pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now.