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April 18, 2014 at 12:00 PM EDT

The finale of a TV show can provoke all sorts of feelings — from devastation to elation, from closure to closed-fist anger — and Lost‘s last episode has drawn the full spectrum from different factions of its deeply passionate fan base. Four years after its airing, the epic and polarizing farewell installment of ABC’s obsessed-over mystery drama about a group of plane-crash survivors on a bizarro island still has people talking/debating/clogging message boards. (Should you need a refresher and/or guidance, may we suggest (re)reading Doc Jensen’s insightful recap.) As this is the time of year when veteran series often ascend into the afterlife  — How I Met Your Mother signed off with a fair share of controversy a few weeks ago —  we decided to explore the finale phenomenon with a story in EW‘s April 11 issue titled “The Art of Saying Goodbye.” The creators and showrunners of 10 iconic shows shared with us the challenges of trying to satisfyingly wrap up years of story in a single episode. In the bonus Q&A that follows, Lost exec producer Carlton Cuse — who wrote “The End” with co-creator/exec producer Damon Lindelof —  discusses how they plotted the final beats of the Lost saga, why they opted for a spiritual resolution instead of answering questions, and how the overwhelming pressure placed on a show’s last episode can “only lead to disappointment.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When and how did you and Damon start fleshing out the finale?

CARLTON CUSE: There was this grand plan that we had — the idea that the show would start with Jack’s eye opening and it would end with Jack’s eyes closing, which meant that Jack [Matthew Fox] had to die. That was a hugely significant choice because we couldn’t think of a finale of a show that we’d seen where the main character had died. I think that idea went all the way back to Damon writing the pilot. That was right in the DNA from the very beginning… And then pretty early on, we started talking about, “Someone has to end up in charge of the island,” and we’d debated back and forth who that might be before deciding that inevitably and perfectly it was Hurley (Jorge Garcia). The finale is like a hedge. You plant it, but then over time it grows bigger and thicker, and as we went down the stream with the show, we kept getting additional ideas. While some of the basic ideas remained from early on, it was made much richer just by going through the creative process of making the 119 episodes that preceded it.

Can you pinpoint when you locked in the story points for the finale?

It’s hard to say because there was a lot of debate and discussion. I don’t think anything was locked in on our show until we wrote it. (laughs) There were three phases of planning. There was the grand plan that we had, with things from the beginning like Jack’s eye going to close, and we’re going to get people off the island before the end of the show. There was larger operative principles. Then there were seasonal discussions that we’d have these writers mini-camps for where we would discuss the architecture of each upcoming season. But then as we wrote each episode, we left ourselves plenty of room for discovery, invention, to change our minds. So when we sat down to write the finale, it wasn’t like, “Oh, we’ve now come to an episode that we know exactly what it is going to be in every scene, in every shape, and in every form.” Damon and I and the other writers approached it like we did other episodes, where we gave ourselves room to make creative discoveries as we were writing it. We obviously had a lot of conversations about where we were going to land or what the ending was going to encapsulate, but it wasn’t written until it was written.

How heated were the discussions in the writers’ room about coming up with the story points and in trying to address the show’s big questions?

Obviously, the main conversation that we had was, “How are we going to deal with this issue of unanswered questions?” The more we understood the show, we really realized: “This show is about people that are lost on an island, but truly about people that are lost in their lives, so the best and most appropriate ending for the show is one that deals with: What sort of redemption do these characters get? Where do their lives lead them?” We felt like a spiritual resolution was the thing that would ultimately be the most emotionally satisfying. We felt like there was no possible way to answer questions. We actually attempted on a number of occasions to shoehorn in things like who’s in the outrigger, and we found ourselves doing all these sorts of narrative backflips. To put something into a story that really didn’t belong in the story that we were telling. We did “Across The Sea” third from the end and that was the closest thing to answers that we gave. It was the Jacob [Mark Pellegrino] and Man In Black [Titus Welliver] origin story. And that was an episode that was very polarizing and, for us, that was kind of confirmation that the answer version of a finale would never be satisfying. It would just beget more questions and that, in a way, it wasn’t really true to the spirit of the show as we intended it — that the show was a mystery. I feel like we did wrap up a lot of the biggest mysteries on the show. There was no way to sustain a mystery show for 121 episodes of television and tie up every loose end. It was just not possible. So, we really opted to find a way to take the characters to the end of their journey, and in so doing, we felt we were being fairly bold by tackling questions that were really as large as “What is the nature of existence?” and “What’s meaningful in life?” and “By what measure do we find value at the end of our journeys?” These are sort of large, ponderous questions that have no concrete answers but that was the territory we wanted to explore.

NEXT: Cuse talks about extreme measures to keep the finale secret

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