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“The Leftovers” Departs with Heartbreaking Optimism

The Leftovers has always been a difficult journey. In the first season that largely stemmed from a creative unevenness. Sure, there was the scathing parable of “Two Boats and a Helicopter” or the aching intimacy of “Guest”, but for each of those hours there was one that couldn’t get the alchemy quite right. At times that season felt like co-creator Damon Lindelof grappling with the newfound freedoms of HBO, pushing at taboos a bit too recklessly (teens have crazy sex apps!). Then the second year began and all of that difficulty for viewers was funneled into a zeroed-in view of Jarden, Texas and the weight left by years of suffering and unknown in the wake of the Sudden Departure.

This series has had a fascinating trek, given that it only had one pristine season preceding this conclusive year. And so many of these episodes tugged with that sobbing eloquence of saying goodbye. Characters, like Matt Jamison or Laurie were given hours to settle their arcs, or leave them disquietingly unsettled. The overriding stories focused on Kevin and Nora, narrowing their roads towards a conclusion that has finally arrived. The finale, “The Book of Nora”, employs many television tricks and tools that Lindelof picked up from Lost or elsewhere on television. There’s a time jump, reminiscing on past events and, most shockingly, a seemingly definitive answer to the series’ central mystery. Yet so much of this is filtered through an approach that singles out one character, the one in the episode’s title, and rejects classic storytelling rules in favor of a finale that is both epic in meaning yet fascinatingly quiet in scope.

The chief principle that “Book of Nora” tosses away is the adage of “show don’t tell”. The Leftovers has, for much of its last season, favored elongated conversations in lieu of visual representation. Whether that was a fully creative or partially budgetary decision, it hasn’t taken away from the splendor of what was on camera. It helps that Mimi Leder, who shot three of the last eight entries, is one of television’s best close-up artists. It doesn’t hurt that in front of the lens sat one of the best casts in the history of the medium. And certainly this season wasn’t devoid of metaphorical images from the lion orgy boat to Kevin’s last journey into the great hereafter. But the finale is starkly in favor of the rhythm of conversation, and the climactic scene of the series spells out things that other series may have shown, at least in flashes. Of course here, especially, that serves a purpose. And it also allows Carrie Coon to solidify Nora as one of the great characters and performances in television.

Before we arrive at that conversation, we’re treated to an opening that eventually feels a bit like a prologue. As Nora readies to travel to wherever her children and husband went those seven years ago, she and Matt have a lovely and heartbreaking chat. We see an element only ever presented in brief bursts on the show, how their siblinghood has tied them irrevocably no matter how differently they turned up. A game of Mad Libs is both adorably childish and, due to it being an obituary, stunningly immediate. Matt is dying and Nora is leaving and neither actor allows themselves to dive into melodrama because both of these characters are keeping something at bay. That may be their most shared familial quality; denial, a mask propped up to present normalcy or continuity.

Then Nora leaves, or she doesn’t, we don’t learn for nearly an hour. At first my assumption was that Nora as Sarah the dove keeper was set in an alternate reality, one traveled to through the machine. This guess was egged on by the arrival of Kevin who doesn’t seem to recall their time spent together. Slowly, the pieces fall into place and now it seems that his memory loss might be a further element of his brain cracking over time. The Leftovers is so full of ambiguity and has offered so many paths over the years that all of these seem equally likely until they are proven untrue. Then Schrodinger’s Cat is let out of the box, and all of the horrifying secrets tumble out into reality. Before that, we get a lovely interlude at a stranger’s wedding. Justin Theroux is at his best in this sequence, his naiveté childlike and wounding. What if the bad things in this world, the tragedies and broken hearts and domino chains of emotional misdeeds, had never occurred?

Of course it turns out that Kevin was aiming for exactly this erased board of the past. What seemed like psychosis was actually a rom-com-esque do-over moment. He let it go on too long, and Nora broke away because “it isn’t true”. So then the truth must come spilling out, like a poisonous liquid that zaps you into another world.

Suddenly we arrive at the final scene, a masterwork of dialogue and performance and intimate camerawork. So much of the narrative around The Leftovers, especially as it neared a conclusion, was in reference to Lindelof’s previous botched ending. Though I defend the finale of Lost on, at least, a viscerally emotional level, the final season as a whole veered too often to ever find a steady groove. One of its chief issues was making everything literal and physical, giving Jack a mission in a cave or something like that when all it truly cared about was these characters and their relationships with one another. The Leftovers fixes this issue by funneling its mythology through the characters rather than the other way around. We could have seen the world that Nora visited, either earlier or cut to in that moment of revelation at the end. But it is how she tells it, what details she fills in (repeating, for instance, “she was beautiful” about her husband’s new partner) and what she papers over (the mechanics of the journey back home) that is important. That this other world exists is important on a thematic level, to be sure. But what truly matters is how that reality affected Nora.

Honestly, I was rather shocked that we got an answer at all. Certainly it could be a fiction or a delusion, given that we never view it ourselves. But I’ll allow as much trust as Kevin does (and we’ll get to that moment of belief in a second). And there is still so much left unsaid, namely why this happened at all. By the time this article publishes, we may know from post-mortem interviews if this was the Departure explanation that existed in Tom Perrotta’s head all along when he was writing the original novel, or if he and Lindelof created it in time for the finale. Either way, this is the rare explanation that deepens the world, offering few comforts in favor of strengthening, and in time revealing, the show’s thesis. It is a gutting revelation, no matter how happy Nora’s family may be (and for her, now as a ghost to them, that is the most harrowing realization of all). Just the idea of the sorrow of this world exacerbated, wherein 98% of the population disappears instead of 2% is almost impossible to conceive of. Maybe a TV show about that world would’ve been closer to something like Lost, about figures bandying together in the face of having no one else around. 98% is dramatic, huge, a new world entirely. 2% is, somehow, almost more directly queasy. It unsettled this world, rather than creating a new universe. It was real life, at a distinctly tilted angle.

Of course, the supernatural implications of Nora’s journey back and forth across the universes only partially explained why it’s been decades since she and Kevin and seen each other. When she returned, she just felt like there had been too long of a gap in time. He felt unreachable, not tangibly (as she had kept occasional communication with Laurie) but meaningfully. That’s understandable no matter if you’ve gone to another world or just another city for work. Sometimes our bonds with others appear to sag and wither, even if they never fully break. The idea of reconnecting is somehow more heartbreaking than just leaving things as they were. What if they don’t remember you? What if they do, but not in the way you wish to be remembered? What if, worst of all, they simply don’t care?

All of this makes the final seconds between Nora and Kevin wrenching and pristine. It isn’t just that he searched for her, or that he listened to her story. It’s that he believes her. It’s that, after all these years, he is inclined to travel through any terrain, whether Australia or leaping through logic to trust her story, to be alongside her. Their connection was forged unhealthily, bourn of mutual depression and grief and loneliness. But they proved, in the end, that this foundation was entirely the point and the reason and why they needed each other in the first place. The Leftovers ended not with shallow positivity but hard-won optimism in the face of devastation. The world is indeed a cruel, unknowable place. Out there, beyond where we can see, are worlds even more detached and depraved. Because of this, finding authentic connection, truly seeing someone for who they are and being seen by them, is the best we can hope for.

The people that we love are the only things we really have. Obituaries end with who the deceased is “survived by”, who remains to remember them. Funerals are as much about the community around a person as they are about the person themselves. Death is a certainty, and The Leftovers at its best leaned into that inevitability. Even if we don’t depart, we die. We go slowly or quickly, in a flash as quickly as any rapture. And all that is left of us, all that survives is love. It is a cheesy concept, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The Leftovers spent years detailing the impossibility of that heartbreak, how difficult it is to see tomorrow when fog clouds today.

And then the doves come home. Of course this had to be about Nora all along. She was the one who had suffered most. Her world had been altered completely. And then she found someone. And it wasn’t the same, it couldn’t be. But it was love, and it lasted across decades, and portals to another world, and across a dinner table. I love that she doesn’t smoke that last cigarette there towards the end, when opening up to Kevin. She doesn’t need to. At least briefly, at least for now, she cares about not dying. That’s something and it’s more than she had the day before. She may never be whole again; maybe none of us were whole to begin with. Maybe we begin as fragments and those pieces are slowly chipped away at. And then, maybe, we find someone to fill in at least a few of those spaces. Maybe it doesn’t last forever. Maybe it doesn’t have to in order to matter. Maybe this moment is enough, at least for now.

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