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Asking the Right Questions: The Leftovers Begins to Say Goodbye

“You don’t even know what it is you’re asking for.” 

(The third season premiere of The Leftovers is discussed here in detail)

You know everything is about to go to shit. More accurately, you know the shit is already there; it’s creeping around the edges of a picturesque day about town with Kevin Garvey, played with growing and occasionally absolute presence by Justin Theroux. There’s the onus layered on by the opening sequence, a seemingly detached fable pulled from the past. There’s the threat that lingers in the reflective eye of Evie, trapped in a moment that yanks us into the future. And then there’s the simple knowledge of what this show is, and the universe that creator Damon Lindelof, writer Tom Peretta, director Mimi Leder and others have smuggled us into.

When will hell break loose? Is everything as pristine as it initially seems? Why are figures from the past returning, which relationships have shifted, how long can a celebration last in this depressed, vanished world? Even the easy questions here have complex answers, if there’s any response at all. As The Leftovers’ final season begins, it seems that Lindelof and the rest have learned exactly when to lean into those queries, and when to let everything simmer long into the sunset. So, let’s look at the questions the show is asking and whether or not we need an answer.

What’s going on in 1844?

Though it was less apparent in season one, before we knew the central cast of characters, each premiere of The Leftovers has begun outside of the usual circle. This time around we’re summoned to the mid-1800’s, corralled into a small town with a familiar air of religious dependence. Beautifully and tragically set to “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”, the series presents a family learning of the impending apocalypse from their pastor. They prepare to be received by the lord and then…nothing happens. This pattern repeats, and eventually only the woman returns to the roof, looking for the departure that some future generation will eventually endure. When her prayers aren’t answered, she retires to the church in what appears to be an origin to the white-clad, morose and separated Guilty Remnant.

Of course, the lines of The Leftovers aren’t drawn so cleanly, and for the most part this serves as a beautifully concocted view of the series in miniature. As the pastor continues to erase and rewrite the day of arrival or departure or whatever it is they’re all waiting for, we relive the central pains and promises of those in Miracle, Texas and elsewhere. The Leftovers is such a profound view of religion because even in this opening, which could read as a nasty joke, the view is rooted in a tragic character that only wants escape or answers yet gets nothing in return for their faith.

Do We Think We’ll Get An Answer?: I’d be surprised if this is all we get from this story, especially as the final season appears to be expanding to both other countries and into whatever the hell that ending is (we’ll get there). Given that last season’s narrative departure at least tied into Jarden, I’m assuming there’ll be more.

Do We Need an Answer?: This would be a bit too obtuse if it stood on its own, though not in a way that would detract from an otherwise-powerful season. But it still serves as a perfect way to introduce this final leg of the story. It’s a short, tragic view of how dangerous it can be to turn faith into a literal, physical pursuit.

Which side is Siegfried & Roy? And which side is the tigers?

After we arrive back in (an approximation of) present day, we see a pair of familiar haunted faces. Evie, having returned from her faked departure through the Guilty Remnant, awakes in the Jarden Visitor’s Center. There she speaks to Liv Tyler’s Meg, who spins a brief yarn about the circus entertainers, and the constant threat of violence offered by the seemingly docile trained animals. How long can someone be subdued and used as a prop before they lash out? Or as Meg puts it, “It’s just a matter of time before one of those fuckers bites your face off.”

Immediately following this, the Remnant gets bit, and hard. Evie closes her eyes as a missile grows closer and closer. Three years later, we see the gaping hole where this temporary hideout used to be. Later, we learn that a different story is told to the public, one about a gas leak and a cigarette. The blame is shifted to the GR themselves. And though we know no living people who witnessed the attack firsthand, the camera convincingly portrays this event as the truth. The government killed Evie and Meg and the others. The protesters, dumping apparent nothingness into the magical spring water, are correct. Tom backs them up and Kevin only offers a limp rebuttal.

So as the season goes on, how long until somebody fires back? How long until the containers that read “toxic” tell the truth? The new society in Jarden is more accepting to outsiders than before; no wristbands are needed for entrance and bros are free to wander around and worship their beloved Gary Busey. Yet ridding the area of that class tension present throughout season two only does so much. There is still antagonism, and any place as storied as Jarden will readily invite animosity. The bubble will burst, no matter now many times Kevin tries to soothe things over.

Do We Think We’ll Get An Answer?: Yes; clearly The Leftovers is boiling the pot for a reason. And placing the horror of that first modern sequence into the eyes of someone we know, Evie, makes it feel more personal and visceral. Whether or not everything breaks out into yet another city-wide civil war is unclear. But one of the show’s central tenets is the idea that faith can foster division as often as it inspires union. We’re bound to the see the former spread like a plague here.

Do We Need an Answer?: On a plot level, it would be rather unsatisfying if nothing came of this main tension of the show.

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What happened to Lily?

Everyone looks to be relatively happy throughout the premiere’s first half. Kevin has settled into his job and gets to work alongside his son. Laurie and John are together; sure they’re lying to the customers but they refuse to keep the money and consider it for the greater good. Jill’s at school and seems happy enough. Matt has plenty of people to preach to, too many in fact. Michael appears content to work at the pastor’s side. And Nora may have a cast on her arm, but the rest of her seems relatively whole.

Tragedy is omnipresent in the world of The Leftovers, so it’s of little surprise when everything begins to come apart at the seams. Theroux sells Kevin’s attitude as loving and happy with just a twinge of sadness, enough to begin to explain why he’s wrapping plastic around his head. Presumably he’s trying to get back to the hotel, but the why and the whether it’s true is completely up in the air. Even if it’s a guaranteed trip, the visual remains disturbing. And his ability to visit the other side has other downsides, as he finds out when he learns that Matt is writing a new gospel with himself as the subject. He’s disturbed and perturbed and likely at least a bit afraid that he could indeed be special and have a grand purpose.

The most tragic missing story is, of course, saved for Nora. She looks perfectly put together, but we discover she’s denying a fresh loss: adopted daughter, Lily. We have no idea what form this departure took. She could have passed on, been kidnapped (as threatened in the season two finale) or been part of some larger mystery. Perhaps it all ties back to Lily’s cult leader biological father. Plenty has remained static, but the three-year gap that we’ve missed has enough intrigue to fill out new gutting story beats in these characters’ lives. Imagining Nora going through yet another loss is nearly too much to bear. And wondering what new “miracles” Kevin has experienced is fascinating. These are the most literal of the mysteries on display at the moment and therefore more likely to have relatively concrete revelations. Yet those answers might just lead down new avenues, opening old wounds and new question in tandem.

Do We Think We’ll Get An Answer?: Maybe not a definitive flashback, but I’m guessing that by the end of the finale we’ll know far more than we do now about those three years.

Do We Need an Answer?: Kind of, yeah. We’d be missing too much emotional context if that stuff is left completely in the dark.

Are the dogs turning into humans?

One of the most impressive things about The Leftovers’ immense improvement between seasons one and two is that it refused to disregard the past in favor of the future. Nearly every story carried over to some degree, but the series was able to dial into them deeper, as it left the source book’s material for Jarden, Texas. Yet even with those incorporations of the events in Mapleton, it never seemed like the dog-shooting Dean might reemerge. He represented a dark and hollow part of Kevin’s brain, to the point where some thought of him as a mental illusion at first. Now he’s gone from killing rabid animals to wild conspiracy theories, and it tests just how broken Kevin must have been to ever listen to him in the first place.

While the first scene with Dean balances the sadness of the character with a bit of comedy (the music cutting out on the punchline), it becomes terrifying when he prowls after Kevin for tossing him aside so easily. It’s difficult not to tie this into present scenarios, when an absurd rumor online can lead to an unhinged individual holding up a pizza shop. This shows how The Leftovers’ examination of faith is about more just religion. Late in the episode, John pleads to Kevin: “we can’t just be going through all of this for nothing”. That’s all anybody is looking for, from Dean’s raving about dog-people to Matt’s preaching about the possibility of apocalypse. There’s this ever-present, constantly collapsing hope that all of this means something. That’s true of the mass horror of October 14th, but just as authentic for individual losses and separations. If none of the pain amounts to anything, why did it happen? How does one grapple with this fact of life: difficulty can exist for its own sake. Some things mean nothing. The hardest truth that The Leftovers deals with is that cruel random nature of death, and the madness that can fester in the brains of those who remain alive.

Do We Think We’ll Get An Answer?: No. Because nobody’s got one.

Do We Need an Answer?: We’d love one. But the fact that one doesn’t exist is the entire point. 

Is Sarah Nora? How? What? WHAT?

So some mysteries are intangible and weighty and will keep you up at night. Then there are others. They might, and probably will, lead to that some emotional complexity. But befuddling, thrilling narrative twists is a key feature of Lindelof’s work and he pulls out a great one to sweep us into the final season.

The premiere ends with an older woman, played by Carrie Coon but going by “Sarah”. Most likely, this is Nora. But Lindelof plays fast and loose with Occam’s Razor, and there’s no telling who this dove collector really is, what time they exist in or why this nun knows the name “Kevin”. Most of the real questions that prop up The Leftovers are heavy when actually contemplated. So it’s nice to leaven them these occasional thrills. I’m sure that when we find out who Sarah is and how she happened, the heart will drop even further in the chest. But for now it’s a moment to throw your headphones down, smile loudly and text your friend “what the hell is going on?” From all accounts, this is going to be an immense season of television. So we’ll take the sheer thrills where we can. Sudden twists make easier water cooler fodder than the meanings of existence.

Do We Think We’ll Get An Answer?: Yes.

Do We Need an Answer?: Yes.

What will happen on the seventh anniversary of October 14th? Is the apocalypse nigh?

*Beautiful, lilting piano plays as Kevin looks to the sky*

Do We Think We’ll Get An Answer?: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Do We Need an Answer?:
You, wrong and naïve and stuck in the past: What about Lost?
Me, wise and correct: Trust the Lindelof.



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Josh Oakley is a writer for Cut Print Film and runs the pop culture blog Wine and Pop.

  • Jen

    O wow great job josh. such good.