Alright. I’ve (kind of) gathered my thoughts but no matter how much analysis we could delve into, I don’t think we’d do this episode justice. I don’t know what it is about these afterlife/purgatory themed episodes that appeals to me so much; with the exception of the first season, which I feel was the weakest of the bunch (or maybe I just needed time to acclimate myself to the bizarre world of The Leftovers), every installment has been equally well-constructed. Still, the International Assassin episodes are a step above for me. Maybe it’s the fact that, as surreal as they feel, they still manage to stay grounded, so to speak. The story is completely bonkers, and yet it makes perfect sense. It’s pretty heavy stuff, but injected with clever humor, enough to add some much needed levity. And the result is a fascinating hour of television unlike any other.

Warning: this is going to be a very lengthy post. The recap alone is long enough, given how dense this episode was, so without further ado, let’s get into this.

This episode feels different right from the start, with no cold open this week. Instead, we are greeted by the familiar original Leftovers theme title music. It’s a cool way to telegraph that this won’t be your average episode, if there is such a thing with this show.

We flash back to a time when Nora and Kevin were perfectly happy, or as happy as such a tortured couple can be: enjoying a bath together and discussing… funeral arrangements. She wants to be cremated, and it looks like she’s about to get her wish next week – or will she?

Kevin wants to be stuffed, which totally cracked me up. Is this supposed to have some deeper meaning that eludes me? Probably, but I just found it hilarious. Nora not-so-subtly suggests that he grow a beard.

Back in the here and now, a bearded Kevin has already taken his place on the see-saw suicide contraption and is in the process of drowning himself, while inside the house Kevin Sr wakes up and rouses the others, terrified that Laurie talked his son out of it. Michael notices that his horse is still there, and they run outside to pull Kevin out of the water. Clearly Sr wanted to make more of a ceremony out of the process.

Kevin recites what everyone wants him to do when he dies and is transported to that other place: tell Evie she is loved, find Grace’s children, learn Christopher Sunday’s song. This short scene is almost unnecessary, as I’m pretty sure we all remember what he’s agreed to, but his delivery is fantastic. It’s as though he’s memorized a shopping list and is annoyed that his dad and friends are keeping him from getting to the store.

He is lowered back into the water. To be honest, I was so excited about Kevin’s return to the hotel that I was almost sure this would be a bait and switch and nothing would happen, so I actually cheered when the familiar International Assassin music hits. (I’m sure there’s some deeper biblical significance to the Hebrew Slaves Chorus but my religious knowledge is a little rusty.)

But look, he’s not in the hotel: he’s on a beach. It’s as weird a scene as any to ease us back into the alternate reality universe, and a great callback to the first time Kevin died, all the way back in the beginning of Season 2.

Only this time it’s not an earthquake that keeps him from drowning, but a beast of a man who keeps shouting at him ominously in Russian. He delivers a kick to the face before pulling a knife on Kevin as he continues to yell at him. I don’t speak Russian, so I couldn’t tell you what he’s on about, but I can clearly make out the name: Kevin Harvey. Yep, we’re definitely in Hotel territory again.

Luckily for Kevin, a deus ex machina figure appears and shoots the huge man right between the eyes before he has a chance to use that knife. We pan out to see a guy in a ski mask, who seems to have just parachuted onto the beach. He radios in to his boss to let them know Kevin Harvey is secure, and of course military alphabet for K.H. is Kilo Hotel, which is a pretty nice touch.

Both men head towards a beach hut, which is apparently Kevin’s place. The man walks in to secure the location as Kevin stumbles behind him and covers himself up, and I’m slightly disappointed at the lack of full frontal this week. I’m sure we’d all much rather see Kevin in the buff than the wackjob who blew up the submarine a couple of weeks ago. Maybe they didn’t want us to focus on his ripped body, but on the scar he notices on his chest, which will be quite significant later.

The man smashes Kevin’s mirror and sunglasses, because Kevin shouldn’t be looking into reflective surfaces. “That’s how they found you“, he tells a bewildered Kevin, and at this point I started to fear this would take a weird paranormal turn like that godawful Kiefer Sutherland movie.

Thankfully, that’s not the case — probably just another quirky detail that gets a callback later on in the episode.

Kevin, the International Assassin, is now retired and writing a book, but the man tells him he needs to come out of retirement for a big job that only he is capable of executing: the target is the President, who’s about to start a nuclear war in 2 hours.

This seemed to be heading in a very werd direction right then (could it be Lindelof’s way of sneaking some political commentary into his show? Or maybe a nod to House of Cards, that just released its final season?), but all I could focus on is his pronunciation of nuclear. IT’S NOT NUCULAR, for fuck’s sake. My inner grammar nazi is getting riled up.

Although still visibly freaking out, Kevin has his eye on the price: in exchange for doing this job, he asks the man to find Evie, Grace’s kids and Christopher Sunday. Apparently Christopher won’t be too hard to locate: he’s actually the Prime Minister of Australia.

The man hands him an ear piece and a box and tells him to get dressed. He puts the suit and earpiece on and suddenly “God”/David Burton is talking in his ear, only now he goes by a different name.

We briefly flash back to the karaoke scene, and I just noticed that the only other song option visible on the wheel behind Kevin was Madonna’s Like A Prayer. A bit too on the nose, given the controversial Jesus figure in the video, but I love the clever little detail.

Kevin recognizes the Australian man and we finally learn what he whispered to him on that bridge: Kevin is the most powerful man in the world.

He’s not kidding: Kevin looks in the mirror and he’s in a white suit, about to deliver a speech in front of a white-clad crowd cheering for him. Still trying to get his bearings, he starts reading from the teleprompter and it takes him a couple of minutes to realize that yep, he’s the most powerful man indeed: he’s the US President, his party is the Guitly Remnant and they’re on a quest to outlaw marriage. To that end, they’ve set up an international essay contest, and he’s in Australia to honor one of the finalists, who is none other than Liam, one of Grace’s sons, who wrote an essay entitled “Why I don’t need a mommy and a daddy any more“.

Kevin notices that none of her kids, sitting in the front row, has shoes on. He asks Liam why he’s barefoot, but is interrupted by Evie, singing into a bullhorn. My first reaction to this was huh, looks like he’s having a much easier time locating the people he’s looking for this time around; my second thought was damn, this girl is as annoying in death as she was alive. Except the tables have turned in this reality: the Guilty Remnant has taken over, and Evie is the contrarian, whose “I remember” tee and a capella rendition of Captain & Tenille’s “Love will keeps us together” suggests that she isn’t exactly on board with the GR’s message.

The President’s head of security, none other than his namesake police chief whom Grace drowned a few weeks back, ushers him away from the crowd, because there’s a DEFCON situation that requires his attention: a submarine explosion. I love how real life events bleed into this alternate reality. It’s more of a dream-like state, in much the same way as our subconscious incorporates random short-term memories into our dreams.

Kevin is adamant that he speak to Evie. He may feel uncomfortable in this role as the POTUS, but has no trouble barking orders at his security detail. He and Evie get into his car as it starts raining outside. He asks if she knows who he is. Sure she does, but not in the way Kevin thought: he’s not the President, just a puppet of the GR. Nonetheless, Kevin must carry out his mission and relay John’s message that she was loved. This doesn’t go over so well: in this reality, it’s her entire family that was killed by the drone strike his administration had ordered.

Kevin doesn’t have time to discuss this further: he starts spitting out water as the rain comes pouring down outside, opens his window to get some air and his life flashes before his eyes in a super fast montage.

We cut to the here and now, with John and Michael carrying him inside Grace’s house as the storm intensifies. Kevin is angry to have been pulled out of the afterlife. He tells John and Grace about their children (John is significantly more relieved than Grace, whose question about the shoes went unanswered) and asks his dad to take him to the bathroom so he can drown again.

And then we get one of the best scenes of the episode: Kevin and Sr’s rare, short but honest conversation. Why is he doing this? asks Sr., and Kevin briefly flashes to Nora. It’s perfect. If I could do this instead of you, I would, says Sr, and Kevin repeats the head of security’s mumbo-jumbo about his ‘exact biometrics’. They exchange I love yous over the sound of hymns, and the religious references have never been more poignant: the Father loves his Son, and must sacrifice him to save the world.

And down into the water Kevin goes again.

He is now at the bunker, where his ‘exact biometrics’ are about to be scanned. Step one is to scan his face; step two is to scan his… penis (!). I legit burst into laughter at this one and at Kevin’s reaction, especially when Kevin the police chief / head of security explained that anyone could copy his face, but not the length of his penis. Priceless.

Step three is to answer three security questions: childhood pet (trick question: he didn’t have any), favorite movie (Godfather Part II)… and question #3: Who is his secretary of defense?

After a slight hesitation, Kevin takes a calculated guess. Of course his SoD would be none other than Patti Levin! And Patti won’t be the last dead character we’ll get to revisit this week.

(by now the “This Is Awesome” chants are playing in my head on a loop).

The bunker is underground indeed. We get an impressive shot of Kevin as he goes down the stairs and then he is greeted by Patti, in her usual white garb but looking much more dignified this time around. She guides him into the situation room with a wink, and this is perfect.

She explains that Ukranian separatists have taken hold of a nuclear submarine and Kevin looks just as bewildered as he did throughout his International Assassin adventures. Patti doesn’t have time for this shit: she asks for privacy and promptly slaps Kevin. What the hell is wrong with him? We’ve been planning this for years.

Before we get to hear the actual plan (although by now we all have a pretty good idea), Kevin and Patti are interrupted: The VP wants to speak with him. Patti wants none of it but Kevin wants to see her, probably because he just wants to know who, exactly, he has appointed as his right hand woman.

And it’s none other than Meg, who informs them that Kremlin denies the attack and Patti has been fed bogus information. Obviously Meg has no clue as to what’s been going on: Patti is the one orchestrating the whole thing, and spells things out for both of them.

The plan is perfectly simple and consistent with the GR’s methods, except now it’s escalated to a whole ‘nother level: they need Kevin to declare the situation DEFCON 1, nuke the Russians (is it me or are they playing it fast and loose with Russia/Ukraine? They are two separate countries, Lindelof!), wait for them to retaliate and basically vaporize everyone on the planet. It’s the 7th anniversary of the Departure, after all; people expect something big. Why disappoint them and not give them what they’re “too chickenshit to do themselves”?

Well, there’s at least two people we know of who did exactly that, in view of the fateful anniversary: Laurie took Nora’s scuba diving suicide idea and ran with it, and Nora herself is about to go into that big microwave machine and vaporize herself. But then again, that’s in our reality; in the parallel universe Kevin is not only the POTUS, but instrumental in putting the plan into motion, Meg explains. They can’t launch the key without the Fisher protocol, which exists as an ‘ethical deterrant’.

And this is where things get even crazier: to obtain the launch key, which has been surgically implanted in the heart of a volunteer, Kevin will have to murder the man himself. And the volunteer will have no problem getting into the secure facility, because he’s Kevin’s identical twin.

I’m a bit bummed that the episode title (and the scenes at the beach house) gave this little tidbit away, rather than keep us guessing as to who the volunteer might be. Nora or even Matt would have seemed like excellent candidates at this point, before the episode gives us the answer to why Kevin is basically willing to drown himself in order to indulge his father’s delusions.

Kevin won’t proceed before he makes his phone call to Christopher Sunday, but Patti insists that he takes them to DEFCON 1 first. He obeys, and picks up the phone only to find out the line is dead, and they’re both locked inside the situation room.

Why the hell doesn’t he throw Patti out of the room and make his phonecall? He’s the fucking PRESIDENT. Are we supposed to surmise that this version of Kevin is, indeed, Patti’s pawn, as Evie suggested? Is his guilt about throwing little Patti down the well compelling him to do her bidding now, in her “second coming”?

Meanwhile, Kevin the twin (henceforth I.A. Kevin) has taken his sniper position on a rooftop overlooking the entrance to the bunker, but there are no guards outside. He realizes it’s a trap, but the guy in his ear wants him to go in unarmed. He quotes Machiavelli  and tells him he’s got someone on the inside.

I.A. Kevin goes through the scanner and is detained by the security detail almost immediately, but it’s Meg to the rescue. She shoots the guards and exclaims “Jesus, you look like fucking like him!“, which totally cracked me up. He gives him the weapon and tells him to make sure he shoots Patti too. I.A.Kevin highly doubts that his ‘twin’ the President would straight up murder him, but Meg assures him that he is ‘cold and merciless‘, and ‘won’t hesitate to cut him open to end the world‘. Hm.

Then she goes off on a tirade about how the GR are all liars, saying they don’t believe in love or feel pain. Meg feels pain, and she’s in love with the most wonderful man in the world.

Who might that be? Why, God, of course. Kevin’s reaction is priceless, and once again we have yet another dead person who’s completely different from her former (living) self.

Kevin asks for directions to the coms room. Who does he need to communicate with? asks Meg. ‘Maybe I’m in love too‘, he says, and as soon as she tells him where to find it, he shoots her dead. Whoa.

Once inside the room, he gets rid of the communications guy and asks Sunday for the song his dad wants to know. Sunday quickly dashes his hopes: there’s no song to stop the rain. I.A. Kevin says his father needs this; he needs to bring him something. Does he believe there’s such a song? No. Then why is he here?

(Maybe he’s in love too.)

I.A. Kevin doesn’t have time to respond; The security men come in and there’s a scuffle, but he’s obviously outnumbered and outgunned.

In the situation room, Pres. Kevin is getting fed up with Patti. He snatches her glasses and smashes them on the table. He doesn’t want to do this any more. Patti begs to differ: he summoned her out of retirement to be his S.o.D., after all, and we briefly flash back to the scene at the well. It’s a great callback to I.A. Kevin coming out of retirement for this last job, that only HE is capable of doing.

Patti says she is there to help him, just like he helped her; but what he wants is to go home. Does he, though? Patti’s reply is fantastic: “You’ve been known to say that before and yet you keep leaving home and coming here”. Touché, Ms. Levin.

She senses a lot of “internal contradictions”, and suggests that’s something he needs to work out with himself. Right on cue, I.A. Kevin is ushered in by security, with a hood over his head. (Wasn’t a man questioned by the GR also wearing a hood over his head in International Assassin?)

The two Kevins sit across from each other at the table as Patti, all business, recites the Fisher protocol. I.A. Kevin, ‘the volunteer’, will get a congressional honor once everything is over… if Congress exists, which it will not. I almost expected Patti to do her best evil ‘mwahaha’ but the S.o.D isn’t playing around. She extracts a scalpel from the briefcase and hands it to President Kevin. She’s all business and eager to hurry things along. The two Kevins tell her to fuck herself in unison, and, again, it’s just perfect.

I.A. Kevin doesn’t want to do this; why did he come here then?

She shares Pres. Kevin’ secret: he has written a book; a romance novel, no less. The two Kevins have a brief argument over who wrote it, but Patti clears things up: President Kevin was hiding a journal behind a painting. She retrieves it and look, it’s Matt’s leather bound manuscript! Neither Kevin is willing to read it out loud, so she fiddles with her smashed glasses for a bit so she can read it herself. President Kevin grabs the book, irritated. Patti tells him to read the last page.

It’s a story about a man leaving his lover, sailing away on a ship called the Merciful.

He was a coward – cut to Kevin suffocating in the dry cleaning bag – dressed in a uniform of a brave man – cut to Kevin in his police uniform.
Brave enough to cross two oceans and a continent to find her; fighting countless enemies, and yet, in the end, he was terrified.
He was terrified of her – cut to Kevin and Nora kissing – to lie beside her, to be comforted by her as he wept.
To show her he was small, for her to know that and touch his cheek, and whisper words softly into his ear.
All of that was a nightmare –

... wait, what? You know that overused sound effect of a record player needle skipping and screeching to a halt? That’s how this felt like as Kevin read that last phrase.

All he knew to do was run – cut to Kevin leaving the hotel room in Melbourne.

He took a deep breath, tasted the salt on his tongue and closed his eyes, leaning against the waves as the merciful picked up speed and sailed into the horizon. (I’m paraphrasing).

He was alone. And all was well.

This except probably won’t win any literary awards any time soon, but to say the story touched a chord would be an understatement. The two Kevins are pretty emotional by now – one on the verge of tears, the other openly crying.

I.A. Kevin wants the launch key taken out of him. Why? asks President Kevin. “So we can never come back here again“.

The two Kevins are getting ready: President Kevin removes his suit jacket, I.A. Kevin kneels onto the floor and lays down. Both are crying over the sound of the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows, and I don’t even care about how graphic this scene is, with President Kevin slicing I.A. Kevin open and sliding his hand inside his chest to look around for the launch key, because it’s utterly devastating.

Neither of them make a sound. As President Kevin retrieves the key, a dying I.A. Kevin says ‘We fucked up with Nora‘ and draws his last breath. Cut to: Nora smiling at him. And the Leftovers theme music starts playing as he inserts the key to launch the nuclear attack.

Patti, mercifully quiet up until now, is quite the happy camper. Kevin takes her hand as they go outside to watch the end of the world. I never knew a nuclear last would look so pretty – but it only lasts a few seconds and then everything goes white.

In the here and now, Kevin wakes up. He’s at the church construction; it’s sunny, the clouds are beginning to clear and Michael and John are asleep in the corner. Was it just me, or was it hilarious when he used the door to leave the construction, even though there were no walls around him?

Kevin Sr is on the roof of Grace’s house, watching the world in silence. Kevin climbs up and joins him. Sr explains he thought his son was gone; it was raining so hard and he got scared so he came up here, and he’s not ready to come down.

Kevin’s fine with that. Now what, Senior asks. And Patty Duke’s “The End of the World” plays as the titles roll.

Sure, the novelty of the alternate universe/afterlife/purgatory/whatever you want to call it has worn off since International Assassin, but I feel that this time around, the episode was much more balanced and well-constructed. The only thing missing is the suspense over what will happen to Kevin when the dream-like sequence is over: by now we know to expect him to come back to life.

In fact, this episode was so satisfying, that it almost felt like fan service; almost, because to call it that would be unfair. We got the afterlife-Kevin we wanted ever since I.A. (we even got two Kevins!); several of the characters we’d written off came back for one last hurrah; the story tied in perfectly with the anticipation of the 7th anniversary of the departure, and gave us what basically amounts to an alternate ending (an ending even more bleak than the original disappearance of 2% of the world’s population: this time everyone is gone) that was, oddly, almost uplifting, before grounding us back to reality. Even without any real payoff to the several plotlines introduced this season, this episode was the ultimate lead-in to the closure we’re all anticipating in the finale.

Last time Kevin was in the Hotel universe, he was fighting his own demons and was looking for a way ‘home’. Although the circumstances are different this time around, the overall tone of the story was pretty much the same. Just like his previous experience in the afterlife brought him to the realization that what he needed the most was to be with his loved ones, this time he went in with a purpose only to face the real source of his anguish: his personal loss of Nora.

And let’s not discount Theroux’s incredible performance, either: as emotional as that close-up of Kevin singing karaoke in International Assassin was, his portrayal of the two Kevins playing off of eachother this week was absolutely heartbreaking.

Was this entire journey one big love story? Take out the supernatural elements and religious undertones, and it may very well be one. I’m fine with that, but I don’t expect the end to be that straight forward. If ‘Sarah’ is not a figment of Nora’s imagination or a freaky lookalike, then we might be naive to expect a reunion and happy ending.

Aside from the central relationship, however, several questions remain. By now I’m pretty sure we won’t get an answer to the big question about the departure, and most of us are okay with that. For us, it’s not the central mystery of the show any more – hasn’t been for a while now – but a plot device that drives these characters. For Nora, however, it’s the end-all, be-all of her existence. It’s heartbreaking to see that, while Kevin seems to genuinely care about her and wants a future together, Nora’s grief won’t allow her to move on.

So did she go into the giant microwave? If she did, did she actually get transported to whatever place the departed exist now? Had she actually been incinerated in the device, wouldn’t she have showed up in Kevin’s story somehow? Or has she not gone through with it just yet, meaning that Kevin still has time to find her before she does?

Also, is it 10/15 yet in Australia? In Kevin’s afterlife, we’re meant to assume that the nuclear blast occurred on the day of the anniversary; when he comes back to life, the storm has passed and nothing has happened. So are we done with that subplot? Will the finale simply follow our protagonists and wrap up their stories to give us closure, rather than deal with the aftermath of yet another unexplained event? If so, I’m totally behind that, too.

And what about all the religious elements that were so heavily featured this season? Kevin talked to God/David Burton in the afterlife, so does this mean he’s as dead as we all assumed he was, after being mauled by the lion, or is he somehow coming back to life too? Is Kevin unique in his ability to die and be resurrected over and over again, and if so, are we just supposed to accept it just as we accept the departure, no questions asked?

Is Matt going to have some role in the finale? Is Laurie, for that matter? Last week we were all pretty sure she had killed herself, but she was conspicuously absent from Kevin’s afterlife adventure. It almost felt like a missed opportunity, so I’m holding out hope for a reappearance.

I’m going to really miss this show when it’s over, not just because it’s so damn well written, acted and directed, but also because the conversations it sparks are so much more than watercooler fodder. I’ll miss the humor injected into the most devastating scenes, without ever feeling out of place.

Drawing parallels between The Leftovers and Lost is inevitable, not only because Lindelof is behind both shows, but also because, while dealing with very different stories, the overall themes that were central to Lost are heavily featured in The Leftovers: from faith and loss to personal growth, we follow these characters along their journeys just like we did Jack, John Locke et al. What makes this show much better for me, however, is the fact that, despite taking similarly outrageous twists and turns, The Leftovers manages to guide our focus to the characters themselves, leaving the unexplained mysteries by the wayside: we don’t care as much about the secret to the Departure as we did about the black smoke or the hatch (let alone the incredibly confusing flash-sideways or the horrible Jacob/Man In Black story arc). The Leftovers is kind of like Lost on steroids, except much, much better; more mature, maybe. Certainly more confident. It’s as though they took everything novel and unique about Lost and ran with it, trimming the fat and letting the story speak for itself and the characters shine on their own merit.

And that fact has raised my expectations for the finale considerably. If Lindelof has learned his ‘lesson’ from the Lost finale debacle, then we have pretty valid reasons to look forward to an absolutely epic finale this coming Sunday.