The Leftovers is back and I’m actually surprised to say I’m as excited about this final season as I am about GoT. The teaser trailers did a great job of compounding the mysteries and upping the ante before it even started, and this season premiere definitely lived up to the hype as far as I’m concerned: true to form, it raises the stakes from the moment it hits our screens, ends on a very weird note, with a whole lot of crazy self-referential details in the middle… so let’s get into this:

The cold open is nowhere near as bizarre as the prehistoric earthquake of season 2, but it’s pretty close, and it mirrors the events of the episode pretty much as powerfully as the Axis Mundi opening scenes did last year.

This time around, we see what I initially thought might be a modern day Amish family, but turned out to be some type of 19th century doomsday cult, anxiously waiting for the rapture. The zealot wife’s blind faith eventually causes a rift in the family, and we see both these running themes repeated throughout the show, but especially in this episode: blind faith on one hand, family discord on the other. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back in the here and now, we are transported back to Jarden/Miracle, Texas, and the town’s welcome center where the Guilty Remnant have taken up shop. Meg and Evie have a bizarre conversation about Zigfried & Roy and their magic tricks involving tigers, which I guess is as good a metaphor as any for what’s about to hit them (literally), because, as Meg points out, it’s only a matter of time before one of these fuckers bites your head off, which is what happened to the magician duo: one of them got mauled by their beloved tiger on stage.

I must say, I was actually sort of bummed that the show picked up where we left off last season, mainly because it wrapped everything up so well I didn’t even care about the GR, or the van-full-of-explosives-charade at the bridge. However, they pulled an interesting bait-and-switch here: we get a few seconds of Meg’s crazy talk, Evie hears commotion outside, runs out of the building, and next thing you know, a drone hits the welcome center and poof, there goes the Guilty Remnant. Is this the last we’ll see of those two? Probably not, because the show notoriously brings people back from the dead in various flashbacks, but for now, I’m perfectly content to see the GR wackjobs gone.

Jump to: 3 years later, and a LOT has changed in Jarden, Texas. For one thing, it’s no longer a national park. There’s a large crater where the welcome center used to be (which I found a bit confusing, as it look as though a meteor hit the GR rather than an actual government attack).

Quick side note: I was more surprised about the attack than I should have been, and I blame this mostly on my memory, but also what I consider a lack of re-watchability of the show. Sadly, I’m not as inclined to watch the previous season before the new one premieres as I tend to do with my other favorite shows, so some of the references probably go right over my head. In this case, I later realized this wasn’t the first time the government launched an attack on the insane cults we’ve seen on the show: Holy Wayne was basically assassinated two seasons ago; the agents Kevin was talking to at some point had no qualms about attacking the GR.

Whatever went on off screen to precipitate the drone attack, the official version of the events is vastly different: the explosion that vaporized the welcome center and everyone inside was caused by a gas leak and a cigarette. Sounds plausible enough, given the number of chainsmokers shacking up in that building.

Kevin is now the chief of Jarden police, rocking a beard and riding a horse, and he’s toeing the company line, which is not all that shocking. What’s actually surprising is that his step-son Tommy is now also a cop, and he has an issue with the inflatable Gary Busey some wackjobs have set up in the middle of town, which was kind of hilarious.

We learn right away that we’re 14 days away from the 7 year anniversary of the departure, which explains the hordes of weirdos flocking to Jarden. The significance of the number 7 is really driven home by reverend Matt’s sermon, and I liked the juxtaposition of the filled-to-capacity church, as opposed to his dwindling flock back when we first met him. Dude really seems like he got his groove back.

Also looking confident is Nora, who apparently got her old job back at the DSD and is helping coordinate the police department’s efforts to keep the crazy crowds under control.

Next, we get to our first big WTF moment of the episode, and here’s where the aforementioned lack of rewatchability comes in: it took me a LONG time to figure out who the crazy bald guy with the mini cooler actually was. Then I remembered that awful dog-shooting scene and had my ohhh moment, but the initial confusion took me out of the scene a little bit. Anyway, turns out that in the time that’s passed since Kevin left Mapleton, the guy has gone from animal cruelty to straight-up insane conspiracy theory mode, and, once again, I enjoyed the contrast between the crazy dog-DNA talk and Kevin’s completely grounded, sane approach: not only does he not get sucked into the madness, but he even tries to get the guy some help by reaching out to his ex wife, which brings me to WTF moment #2:

John is also rocking a beard this season (and, again, it took me a moment to recognize him) and has taken up Isaac’s old job, but he’s not doing the whole palm-print-reading thing on his own: his partner in crime is actually Laurie, who is apparently also his new squeeze (new wife?). Whoa. Why are they taking this poor guy’s money only to shred it after he’s gone? Is this scam they’ve been running simply a selfless act of kindness to the people of Jarden still looking for answers, or is there something more to it? What happened to Erika? How did those two get together, and how did Laurie and Kevin mend their fences? It wouldn’t be the Leftovers if the show didn’t give us a couple of answers without piling on a shitload of new questions, so hopefully some of it will make sense down the line.

Cut to: Tommy’s 25th birthday party, and what’s important here is what isn’t really said. Tommy confirms that his mom is indeed married to John now, and looks suggestively at Nora when he offers to give his wish away. This was actually puzzling to me because I apparently don’t remember anything that happened on this show aside from the phenomenal last two episodes of Season 2, but it does come together later, when Jill says goodbye to her dad after her surprise arrival to Texas and the two discuss Lily. It’s also heavily hinted at when Kevin looks in on Nora as she’s holding Matt and Mary’s little boy. So where is Lily? Was this a case of a secondary departure? I doubt it. Does that mean that the little girl’s mom showed up to claim her? Did Lily die? That would be really sad, and Nora seems to be doing well enough to suggest that nothing that horrible happened in the intervening three years since the amazing season 2 finale. Add this to the list of mysteries this new season is already posing.

Out on the porch, the guys seem to be celebrating by reminiscing about their own 25th birthdays, and Kevin narrates an anecdote that quickly becomes the ‘how I met your mother’ story of his relationship with Laurie, which is pretty cool. What’s more significant, however, is how Matt’s ears perk up when Kevin speaks of divine intervention. This doesn’t really register as too important, considering Matt is a man of the cloth, but it’s a nice little hint the show drops that actually gets paid off later in the episode.

The next day, Nora goes for a ride on her bicycle – yet another cool little hint that gets paid off in a HUGE way in the closing scenes, and we get a nice little nod to last year’s hotel scenes by way of Kevin’s closet. We also get another big WTF moment, this time courtesy of Kevin himself: he takes his uniform out of the dry cleaner’s bag, cuts a piece of duct tape, pulls the bag over his head and basically tries to suffocate himself – unsuccessfully.

I loved how this scene offers multiple callbacks to previous key details: the crazy dog-shooting dude’s plan to kill Patti in season one had employed the same method; Nora also had a death wish back when she was still grieving over the loss of her family; and, of course, the more obvious connection: Kevin cheated death numerous times, some of which when he was deprived of oxygen: he didn’t drown, he didn’t suffocate when he was buried. So what is Kevin trying to accomplish here? Is he trying to prove that he is, in fact, indestructible? After all, he didn’t die of poisoning or a gunshot to the chest, either. Is he trying to recreate the circumstances that took him to the bizarro-world of hotel-purgatory? Does he simply have a death wish?

He certainly doesn’t seem to think he might die by jumping into a lake of poisoned water, that’s for sure. Kevin is called to an emergency at the baptism site, which also happens to be the exact same location where our Texas story began back in season 2. Apparently a group of wackjobs poisoned the water, because there’s no shortage of crazy people in this town. Although I did find the entire scene a bit too on the nose – I mean, big orange barrels labeled as ‘toxic’ floating around? Really? – I did appreciate the callback to the first time Kevin dove in, feet first, only to emerge alive and kicking. Still, I can’t help but think this was a little unnecessary, but I guess the writers needed to create the circumstances for Kevin’s involuntary baptism somehow. And look at Matt’s expression throughout the whole scene! The not-so-subtle hints to what’s to come are right on the money.

As Tommy drives Kevin home, they get attacked by crazy dog-killer dude, whose name I refuse to look up unless he pops back up in a flashback/hotel scene later on. The guy has really escalated from shooting canines to shooting police officers; as much as I enjoyed the scene, I can’t help but wonder what the significance is. Why bring someone back only to kill him off (albeit in a pretty gross, spectacular fashion) in the very next scene he appears in? Does this mean that more familiar faces from Mapleton will start showing up again? Was this intended to showcase Kevin’s evolution since season 1 as opposed to this guy’s descent into full-blown madness? Was it merely supposed to let us know that they’re REALLY raising the stakes in this final season?

Whatever its purpose, the show hardly dwells on the aftermath, other than to show us once again that Kevin seems to have it pretty much together. He returns home to find Mary and Noah ready to leave for Mapleton. The reason? Matt’s blind faith in the miracle of Miracle, TX is basically keeping her captive inside the city limits, and she’s had enough. This is obviously a direct callback to the cold open, but it’s also yet another hint of what’s down the line for Kevin and Matt. Also: Noah? Could these religious analogies be any more poignant? But more on this in a bit.

The big news isn’t really that Mary’s leaving – and I doubt we’re supposed to care all that much about a character who was catatonic for the vast majority of the previous two seasons – but that Matt is writing the titular Book of Kevin, and Kevin is having none of it. He heads straight to Matt’s church and angrily demands to see this book (and I’m oddly happy to see some of the old rage flare up, because this new zen side of Kevin was getting a bit too strange for comfort). And then, surprise, surprise, we learn that not only is Michael in on this, but also John. His reasoning is quite sound: he shot Kevin in the chest and the guy just walked it off and didn’t even go to the hospital until the next day. Therefore, Matt, John and Michael are basically Kevin’s three apostles, determined that he is this messianic figure who will… what exactly is the end game here?

Is Matt simply trying to establish his own church of Kevin here? He’s no Jesus, but hey, the beard does look good on him (what a fantastic line that was!). We’ve already seen Matt go to great lengths to regain his faith when it was wavering. We saw him grasp at everything Kevin said or did throughout the episode and assign meaning to it, as he did when he tried to pull a piece of glass out of Kevin’s hair.

We also know that Michael was a man of faith since he was introduced. But what is John’s involvement in this? Why con people with his psychic-palm-print shtick if he has already hit the spiritual jackpot in his resurrected neighbor?

Whatever his… disciples may think, Kevin is definitely not willing to go along with it. He fully intends to barbecue the only copy of the book, when he looks up and sees the ‘13 days to go‘ message. Not only do the flying doves serve as a fantastic transition to the next (and truly baffling) scene, but the countdown itself is also a great way to bring the episode full circle: a reminder that time is ticking until the 7 year anniversary of the departure, a callback to the ticking time bomb that never went off last season, and a literal countdown to the show’s finale exactly 7 episodes from now. So kudos, writers, you managed to get me hooked once again, and I didn’t even need the final scene’s mystery to get there.

So what exactly are we supposed to make of this prolonged final sequence? Do messenger pigeons imply that this is a post-apocalyptic world where contemporary forms of communication have become obsolete? Is this just a great view of the vast Australian countryside, or are green pastures, sheep, doves and bicycles all that’s left of modern civilization? More importantly, is Sara an alternate-reality-version of Nora, or is this really a flash-forward to the show’s finale? (and if so, pretty bold move there, writers!).

I’m sure there are plenty of theories floating around out there already, but for the moment I’ll sign off with my one point of concern about what was an otherwise stellar season premiere: as impressive and as promising as The Leftovers has been so far, this final season has a couple of strikes against it already: for one thing, the previous season was possibly the best season of television I’ve ever seen, which makes is pretty hard to live up to as far as I’m concerned. For another, this is a Damon Lindeloff show we’re talking about, and a lot of Lost fans still haven’t gotten over how lame the ending to that (very promising, in its early seasons) show had been, myself included. Last year’s “I Live Here Now” was the perfect season finale, but could have worked just as well as a series finale, which means surpassing it will be a tough proposition.

If the Nora/Sara scene was indeed intended as a clue to the show’s conclusion, I’m a little bit on the fence about it as of right now: on the one hand, it’s good to know they have decided to commit to an ending right from the show’s premiere; on the other, Lost had notoriously promised us that everything would come together in the end, only to disappoint a lot of viewers. So here’s hoping that Lindeloff’s audacious tease of a conclusion will pay off, and this isn’t a case of Lost: Revisited. The whole Man of Science/Man of Faith themes running through the episode could either work as easter eggs, or they could be the manifestation of a creator’s own ego. Time will tell.

What I know for sure is that, if this season is anything like the previous one, we should expect a fantastic 7 more hours of television ahead!