End of Series Report: The Leftovers

7 Jun

The Leftovers started with a central mystery, but unlike that of Lost, also co-written by Leftovers scribe Damon Lindelof (created along with The Leftovers book author Tom Perrotta), this one was never meant to be solved, which ultimately made all the different to what the show was and why the finale was so successful (relative particularly to why Lost’s wasn’t). Two percent of the world’s population immediately disappeared three years before the first episode in what has become known as the Departure. If this were Lost, theories would abound about what was behind the Departure, and fans would expect a payoff on that question before show’s end. Why the Departure happened, however, was never a subject of The Leftovers. Characters within the show puzzle at it some, though more specifically in the earlier seasons than the third. But us viewers had to accept that the Departure just happened, because, well it happened, accept it as true, and move on from there. The Leftovers, from its tone to its decision to start three years after the Departure, never baited us into thinking that we would ever know more than that and that let us focus from the start on its true concerns.

The Leftovers is about dealing with mysterious loss, loss without cloture, loss that no one understands, that no one knows how to reckon with. No one understands death either; but there’s are established rituals built in our society over thousands of years to deal with it. For the Departure, everyone had to reckon anew. The Leftovers is also about living in a world in which after the Departure, every belief, no matter how superficially unlikely has to be taken with at least a degree of seriousness, because we no longer have the grip we had before on what was true and what wasn’t. When John or Matt or Kevin have ideas about what they need to do prevent the oncoming second apocalypse, we can tell their ideas are probably as delusional as Laurie thinks they are, but after the mystery of the Departure, we can’t say they’re 100 percent wrong with the certainly we could have before. Mystery, and some gradient between belief and reality, is alive.

The critical scene in the finale brought us back to that important distinction in The Leftovers. Solving the mystery for a fact doesn’t matter. Making your own peace with it is what does. It didn’t matter if what was said in the scene was true or untrue as much as its literal truth was simply irrelevant, beside the point to the moment. In the brilliant final dramatic monologue that proceeded the end of the show, Nora shared the story of where she had been in the intervening years since she had last seen Kevin. She claimed that she really did go where the Departed went. After arriving, she went on a long trek back to New York and found her kids.  They, she realized, were the lucky ones there, who still had other members of their family around. She realized she didn’t belong there, tracked down the scientist who had constructed the machine which took her there, had him construct a reverse machine and went back.

Was her story true? Did she really do that? We’ll never know, and more importantly it doesn’t matter. What matters is what’s going on in the moment between Nora, and Kevin, her telling, and him listening. What matters is that when pressed, Kevin believes her without question and tells her so. Kevin shows Nora in this final moment he believes her, that he has faith in her, and cements what had become the central relationship between the series. The struggle both characters have gone through throughout three seasons leads to this one moment of overwhelming catharsis where Nora and Kevin, rather than being the two troubled souls clinging on to each other to prevent themselves from drowning (no pun intended, in Kevin’s case), are at once on the same page.

The Leftovers is an overtly earnest series. What little humor exists is present in absurdity from afar (see: Frazier the lion and his pride in “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” or or crazy Dean’s appearance in “The Book of Kevin”), rather from the characters themselves. These characters desperately want to be better; but they don’t know how. They’re suffering and even their occasional friendly banter is quickly frayed; they don’t have the type of flippant and humorous arguments that characters from, say, Transparent, might.

What made the show’s third season its best is the shedding of the broader scale that enveloped the first season and some, though less, of the second. The third season was in many ways The Leftovers’ most batshit season. It did feature a lion eating a human after getting off of an orgiastic ferry from Tasmania, after all. But it was also it’s slimmest, it’s barest, and it’s most focused its best assets, its core characters. When pared down to this smaller essential group, the show thrived. Some shows excel with a larger sense of scale, but The Leftover best succeeds in the exact opposite scenario, as its most narrow and most personal.

The third season featured no more Guilty Remnant, or Holy Wayne; no broader conspiracies or groups, no tertiary characters who had impure motives. The Leftovers’ shorter third season and relative lack of funds left it focusing on its main characters only, especially Kevin and Nora, but also Matt, Laurie, Kevin Sr., and John. Each has grand opportunities to embark on a search for their own personal truth that needs to be fulfilled (a quite literal search; it takes them all to Australia). Whether it was always by design or not, the final episode in particular showed that The Leftovers is one of the rare shows to learn from its own strengths and weaknesses, concentrated almost wholly on the two best characters of the entire series, Kevin and Nora.

Everybody desperately wants to believe that their lives matter; that there’s something bigger than themselves as a way to make sense of their own suffering. Matt is convinced he is needed to stop the second apocalypse, using Kevin, and convinces John to come along for the ride (and to some extent Michael, the only character who appears in any significant screen time this season without really feeling quite like Lindelof and co. know what they’re doing with him). Kevin’s dad is convinced he’s the true prophet, and Kevin, while he tears up the Book of Kevin, clearly has all that prophet talk deeply embedded within his head. They’re all deeply damaged people who are living their own fantasies; still ravaged by events stemming originally from the Departure they’re having trouble getting over. Nora, of course, lost her kids, and she acts like the most skeptical of all our protagonists, but when she is offered the chance to possibly see her children again, no matter how unlikely, how slim, how speculative the odds, she drops her act and jumps at it.

Matt is dealing with the abandonment of his wife and son, John lost Evie, and can’t quite get over her death, or what she traded her life into beforehand with the Guilty Remnant. Kevin still has his kidnapping and almost-killing of Patti Boyd on his conscience, in additional to his incipient mental illness. Kevin Sr. has the voices inside his head, and if they’re not right, if they’re not meaningful, he’s just plain crazy. Laurie is the only one of the major characters still around for this season who is centered and seems relatively well-adjusted (Kevin and Laurie’s kids both have moved past their battles to some semblance of normal lives, as has John’s ex-wife Erika – they’re a step ahead of our remaining characters), but she’s only that way because she went through her own trial and period of questioning as a member of the Guilty Remnant. Laurie serves a straight woman, so to speak, for the remaining characters this season. She knows their struggles, having had them herself, but through her background as a psychiatrist she’s additionally qualified to work them through it. She can’t solve their problems; they need to do that themselves, but she can serve as a listening board as she does for Kevin and Nora, she can talk Matt down from the edge, and she works with John giving fake psychic readings, which helps ground him after his loss.

And in the last couple of episodes, everyone begins to face those ultimate personal changes; to confront their doubts, their beliefs, their on-going and open battles with the world and themselves. Kevin’s submergence and the following lack of flood, seem to satisfy John and Kevin Sr. and push them to move on. When Kevin wasn’t able to come up with the missing song and the world carried on, Kevin Sr. finally submitted, as when Kevin told John that he passed the message along to Evie. It didn’t really matter whether John truly thought that Kevin spoke with Evie; he needed to convince himself to reach his own closure. Kevin Jr.’s episode-long hallucination, dream sequence, or submergence into the mysterious underworld if you will, offers him a final chance to put his mistakes behind him, his trauma with Patti, and his regrets with Nora. Matt’s goodbyes to Nora makes him realize what he needs to do. He finally agrees to go back to his wife and son, and attempt to face his illness even against long odds; to put aside his fears about saving the world and admit his real personal fears.

And then, finally, Nora. The Leftovers offers a fantastically heartwarming finale which never feels overly sentimental, or saccharine. It feels well-earned through the struggles of the characters, and, even the gimmick, the unspecified time jump, which would probably have drawn my ire in Lost, feels perfect here. There’s an air of mystery; of importance that doesn’t feel cheap, because we know what these characters have been through. Whatever happened to Nora, whether she went to where the Departed were, or she didn’t; whatever happened to her in those intervening years, which we’ll never know, she seems to have finally made a kind of peace with the loss of her children that couldn’t be achieved any other way. To find that peace is no small achievement and is what The Leftovers is ultimately all about.

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