My infatuation with The Leftovers wasn’t love at first sight. It’s not the kind of show that wins you over as soon as you let the first few scenes of the pilot episode wash over you. In fact, if I hadn’t binge-watched it before Season 2 started and had to wait week to week for new episodes, I probably would have given up. Man, am I glad I stuck with it.
I urged several friends to watch it, people who hadn’t even heard of the show. Most of them were reluctant when I summarized the plot for them, and I can’t really blame them. The one thing I kept telling them was that it gets so much better after the first season.
And it does. For me, there’s no comparison. It’s one of those rare instances where being based on a book is too restrictive for both the plot and the tone of the show, and The Leftovers greatly benefited by letting the showrunners run with it (ha). With the final episode now behind us, I still stand by that statement – kind of. Because the first season laid down the foundation for everything that came after. Yes, it was bleak and lacked the humor injected into the show in later seasons, but that contrast, present in most aspects of the show – from tone and location right down to the opening title sequence and music selection – was absolutely necessary to take us on that journey that ended in the Australian countryside.
Like I said in last week’s recap, the parallels between The Leftovers and Lost are fairly obvious. True, being limited to only 10 episodes per season keeps the story much tighter; it has fewer main characters to contend with, and their stories are much more linear than the confusing flashbacks/flash-forwards/flash-sideways. But what makes this show truly superior in my eyes is the fact that the overarching mystery and various supernatural and spiritual elements are not driving the plot, but rather helping it along. The main focus is where it should be: on the characters themselves, and their incredible story arcs, from the Departure in Mapleton all the way to their conclusion in Australia.
Although Lindelof has been known to disappoint fans before, I had high expectations for the finale. Not only because The Leftovers deserved a spectacular ending, but also because everything about this third and final season was so thoughtfully constructed, that, unlike Lost, it really did make me feel he had a clear path in mind for how he wanted to end this story.
The final season was no-nonsense. We got no filler, no unnecessary distractions. As we approached the end, we dealt with the side characters swiftly and gave every main character – Matt, Laurie, John – some closure, so we could deal with the really important ones: Kevin and Nora.
Given how dark the show can get at times, I almost expected the finale to be a bit of a bummer; we got to see Kevin’s journey reach a conclusion last week (“we fucked up with Nora“) in his dream-like trip to the afterlife, so a similar experience featuring Nora wouldn’t have been out of place. I also didn’t expect any real answers to the overarching mystery about the Departure. I would have been fine with both, as long as the story was handled respectfully.
What we got, however, was so much better. The finale answered everything – and nothing. It left things up for interpretation without being overly ambiguous and provided answers to plot points that we might have thought were a done deal. We got a partial explanation for the Departure that was as deceptively simple as it was surprising, and required just enough suspension of desbelief to be in tune with the rest of the show’s more bizarre elements. More importantly, we got a conclusion to the main romantic relationship that was was satsifying without feeling cheap. The show crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s without evoking any of the outrage or disappointment of the Lost finale, and still managed to venture into unexpected territory without featuring a twist just for twist’s sake.
One thing that didn’t come as a surprise was the use of the season 2 song in the opening titles: I expected ‘Let the mystery be’ to make its comeback as a way to bring things full circle, possibly as a last wink to the viewer. What I didn’t see coming, however, was that the mystery would be addressed so matter-of-factly. We didn’t see Nora’s story through flashbacks. It left zero margin for interpretation, as was the case with Kevin’s stint as International Assassin (and President): we got the full story from the horse’s mouth — well, not the full story, exactly: we still don’t know WHY these people disappeared, but we do find out what happened to them. We could choose to doubt it, or let the mystery be and instantly believe it, like Kevin did.
The entire scene with Nora and Matt saying their final goodbyes was brilliant. It gave Matt’s story closure – his monologue about being afraid was spot on – and provided further insight into their relationship that the show had lacked until this final season. We got the weirdest obituary ever, courtest of Matt’s madlibs, and Nora’s performance was absolutely phenomenal. The bravest girl on earth‘s face was a rollercoaster of emotions all by itself: part fear, part anticipation, part sadness, part determination.
The humor in these scenes didn’t go unnoticed, either: it wasn’t just the hilarious obituary – the implications were too sad to make it actually funny – but the interaction with the two physicists. Did Nora really need the visual aids to understand what was about to happen? Probably not, but the doll in the bowl was ridiculous enough to give me a chuckle – and the image of the doll toppling over when they filled the bowl with liquid walked a fine line between funny and ominous; for all we knew, Nora was walking into a death machine, and the doll made that (deceptively) clear. So did the human mold the physicists’ assistants were carrying: there was nothing left of the person who’d gone through the machine before Nora, just an empty shell of liquid metal solidified around the figure. It’s a great callback to ghostly images in the opening titles, but also clever foreshadowing of the big reveal at the end of the episode: the clues were there from the beginning, but the show had done its best to convince us that this part of the story, ever since Mark Linn-Baker contacted Nora, wasn’t really up for debate: she was about to walk into a giant incinerator.
If that little fakeout wasn’t enough, we get a much more substantial one. The show doesn’t leave Nora’s final moments before she goes ‘through’ up for interpretation: she walks into the machine completely naked, follows her instructions and takes her position. We see flashbacks to her children’s final moments in this world as the vestibule starts filling with liquid, and right when she’s supposed to hold her breath and be entirely submerged, we get the most frustrating cut we’ve ever had on this show. Did she yell stop? Did she go through? We won’t know until much later, but at that moment we had every reason to believe that she either chickened out, or literally plunged to her death. We’d be wrong on both counts, of course.
Just like the flash forward in the beginning of the season, we see the doves flying above and a visibly older Nora talking to the nun, like a deja-vu: does she know Kevin? No. This time we got to see a bit more of their interaction, however: Kevin had been there looking for her; the nun could tell Nora/Sarah was lying.
And then we get to see Kevin, and I literally cheered — but then, more confusion set in: if this is Nora in the future, or at least a future in a universe where Kevin also exists, what happened on the dock? Did she chicken out at the last minute? Did she die, and this is a bizarre afterlife where dead people actually age (and if she died, why was she conspicuously absent last week)? Is this an alternate reality, where time stopped around the events of the first season and everything after Mapleton was all a dream? Kevin’s narrative sure seems to suggest that, and although I’m not convinced, I would have been perfectly content with the familiar “if was all a dream” trope we all have come to detest as a TV show twist. THAT’S how much I love this show.
Well, at least we can cross out this last possibility for now: Kevin might only remember a random conversation with Nora, but she remembers everything, and we get another surprise twist: Laurie didn’t kill herself scuba diving. Yet another fakeout, which would have been cheap on a lesser show; in the case of The Leftovers, it feels earned. In retrospect, we even got a big clue as to this turn of events: as the titles rolled when Laurie took the plunge in Certified, all we heard was the calm ocean. No bubbles rising to the top, no gurgling or drowning noises. It was easy to interpret in any of two ways, but we all chose to believe she was dead. Did the last minute phonecall from her children change her mind? Or was this her plan all along, just like Kevin repeatedly suffocating with the dry cleaning bag because he knew he wouldn’t die?
Whatever her thought process was, it doesn’t really matter: she’s alive and kicking, back in Texas; also much older, if the hair is any indication – seriously, I can’t get over how bad both women’s hair is. If Nora chose to live as a hermit, what’s Laurie’s excuse? And while I’m on the subject of hair & makeup: in certain shots, you can almost see where the liquid latex (or whatever SFX trick they used) ends and Nora’s real skin begins. They did a much better job with Kevin’s wrinkles. It’s not a big deal, but it just doesn’t look realistic enough.
Not only are the two women still in touch, but Nora is Laurie’s patient (glad to see that little scene from a few weeks ago get paid off, too: Same time next week). Nora is livid, Laurie seems more amused than anything. It’s a strange reaction, especially knowing what she knows: Kevin has spent decades looking for Nora in vain, and all along his ex wife could have steered him in the right direction – or at least convinced Nora to come out of hiding – and chose not to. Why? Surely she must want Kevin to be happy, to finally get some closure or, better yet, try to make up for lost time. It seems uncharacteristically cruel of her, but maybe Nora’s story was enough to convince her to keep her secret. She doesn’t know about Nora’s journey to the ‘other side’, as we later find out, so what does she believe happened? If I have any gripes with the finale, it’s Laurie’s involvement in all of this.
Nora’s reaction to the news that Kevin is looking for her does shed some light into this plot line: the normally cool and collected Nora is suddenly in panic mode, throwing stuff into a suitcase and trying to make an escape before Kevin finds her. Why was she so terrified? As far as we knew at this point, their last interaction was the ugly fight in the hotel, where they literally burned the last bridges of communication. So why was she so afraid to confront him? We get an answer in their final scene together, but did it really explain her reaction?
I’d say it does. Everything about their relationship up until this point seemed to suggest that Kevin was much more in love with her than she was. She was the one he kept trying to come back to – subconsciously at first, but in a very focused way later, with the two Kevins’ realization in last week’s final scenes driving the point home in a powerful way. He was the one trying to talk about things while she shied away from any meaningful conversation; even the way she immediately dismissed Matt’s book and its contents was indicative of her attitude: it’s much easier to scoff and be sarcastic than actually deal with what Kevin had been through in any meaningful way. Although both damaged in very real ways, she had experienced a much deeper loss than he had, and that made her always keep Kevin at a distance. While he was happy with her, his family, she still missed her own. It wasn’t until she finally got some closure regarding her kids that she gave her true feelings about Kevin a chance to come to the surface, and she had every reason to believe that telling him the truth would drive him away. After all, that’s how she dealt with his own confession of the crazy Patti story: she packed up and left. If that’s her thought process, then her choice to flee makes perfect sense. Reuniting with Kevin only to lose him again would be too much to bear.
I didn’t really feel that this episode needed much levity to lighten the mood, but we got it nonetheless, by way of a gigantic door with a door knob hilariously positioned at eye level. I love how the actual bathroom door was permanently propped open and basically off its hinges. It’s possibly one of the things anyone living alone would do, and makes her desperate effort to close the door behind her (and then open it back up) all the more intense.
If her sudden bout of hopeless insecurity points towards her fear of seeing Kevin again at the “dance”, her decision to meet him there shows that she just can’t help herself. The wedding itself works as much more than a set piece where Nora and Kevin can talk on neutral ground. It marks the return of the goat, whose symbolism I can’t quite put my finger on. The meaning of strangely out-of-place mardi gras beads, however, is very clearly spelled out for us. The groom’s speech is silly yet poignant at the same time, and acts as yet another great callback to last week’s episode: the distinction between committing a sin and making a mistake — or fucking up. We fucked up with Nora. Sinning denotes intent, or at least disregard of how wrong the act is. The goat is released upon the desert, carrying the sins of every guest around her neck. Later, when Nora takes a tumble (man, that looked rough) and finds the poor goat tangled up next to a fence, the sins of the community literally weighing her down, she takes them off her and brings her home.
I was a bit perplexed by the scene at the church, with the man climbing down the ladder and riding off on his motorcycle. Nora doesn’t get fooled by the nun’s denial: he just climbed out her bedroom window, after all. Obviously they were having sex (the tousled hair is also a good indication). This is the finale, so it can’t have been a throwaway scene. There’s no room for filler in this episode. So what does this piece of dialogue mean for Nora? She went there angry, demanding answers for her missing doves, but by the time she left, she was almost amused.
Are we supposed to deduce that this was a result of the realization that even a woman of God will indulge in earthly pleasures once in a while? Does this somehow reflect on Nora? By closing herself off and distancing herself from anyone she cares about (save Laurie), was she becoming some sort of martyr? Did spending time with Kevin prove to her that there was another way, much like devoting oneself to God doesn’t necessarily preclude… a bit of fun? (Well, strictly speaking, it does, but the nun obviously plays fast and loose with the rules here). And how does that sin play into the very allegorical scene we just saw with the goat? To someone like Nora, who’s the polar opposite of her brother when it comes to faith, it could be seen as just another good deed that doesn’t carry any deeper meaning. Except there’s also the scene where Nora climbs the ladder, much like the Millerite woman in the cold open of the season’s opener; much like Kevin Sr, not ready to come down.
Or is she ready? With Kevin’s arrival at her house, we find out that she is. We’ve had plenty of very raw, emotional, powerful moments on this show, but nothing holds a candle to this last one. I dare you to find one person who wasn’t hanging on Nora’s every word during her account of events since she got into the machine. Who didn’t get teary eyed and didn’t feel the same emotions as Kevin did. Both actors deserve major kudos for knocking this out of the park. Kevin’s face said it all even before this confession, ever since the moment he knocked on Nora’s door and saw her for the first time in so many years.
I don’t know what kind of explanation I was expecting in this final scene, but it wasn’t the story Nora told. In all the theories floating around in my head about how The Leftovers would wrap up, I never considered the possibility that Nora had not only gone through to the ‘other side’ and come back, but that we’d also get a detailed narrative of her journey. We knew not to expect an answer to our original main questions (Why did 2% of the population suddenly disappear? What caused the Departure?) but I didn’t hold out much hope that our curiosity would be partly satisfied: we now know, somewhat, what happened to those who departed. We have a semi-clear idea where they went to.
I don’t know if this was Lindelof’s plan all along, but I have to applaud him for coming up with the most simple yet brilliant solution to the whole Nora/Kevin conundrum. It’s the best version of Occam’s razor we could have asked for, offering answers to all our major questions without over-complicating the plot. It effectively deals with the more risqué propositions the show has offered up along the way – the supernatural element was minimal, the religious implications were swiftly addressed and put to rest last week, and more importantly, it finally gave Nora the closure we never thought she’d achieve.
Of all the ways this could have ended, this solution was optimal. Had Nora gone through to be reunited with her kids, we’d still be left with a major dangling thread (what about Kevin?). Had she just been incinerated in the machine, same result, except much more bleak in its finality. Had she changed her mind and gone back to Kevin, we’d have gotten a happy ending that didn’t feel earned, and the flash forward of “Sarah” would have been left unexplained. Had she just left everything behind to ride her bike and take care of her birds, our emotional investment in the central relationship would have felt incomplete.
The way it was done was masterful: as with everything on the show, it wasn’t so much about the bizarre occurrences themselves, but on the way they affected the main characters. We were spared any unnecessary flashbacks, and that was a brave and smart decision on the show’s part: any depiction of the other side would have lacked whatever mystique has been surrounding it all this time. The impact of Nora’s story had so much more weight just as it was told, focusing on her face, stealing glances at Kevin to see how he was digesting all of this, and then focusing on Kevin, immediately believing the crazy story he just heard.
With Nora’s quest to see her kids again complete, she finally got the closure she seeked and was able to move on, but she wasn’t happy. Having dealt with her issues, she could finally allow herself to feel something other than grief, but she felt it was too late to give her relationship a second chance. Kevin’s journey was no different: having finally left the alternate reality ‘afterlife’ (and the dead ones who haunted him) behind, literally blasting it all to hell, he knew he had to make amends with Nora. Both arrived to the same conclusion about what they meant to each other, but dealt with it in their own different ways: hers was to shut it down and leave; his was to keep going until he got what he was looking for.
And when they finally reunited, it was completely earned. Not because they had “wasted” all this time apart, but because it was what they both needed in order to arrive at this moment, their first real, 100% honest conversation. Until they finally sat down to talk, they still couldn’t really face each other: Nora’s first instinct had been to run; Kevin’s first instinct had been to lie. And then the realization set in: Kevin had spent his life looking for her, not giving up until he’d found her. Nora had spent hers terrified that Kevin would react to her outrageous story the same way she’d treated his. The relief when they both unloaded was palpable, and made for an incredibly powerful moment.
And then the birds returned home. Such an obvious display of symbolism, yet utterly poignant in these closing scenes. What can I say, it was just perfect.
I know I’m repeating myself again, but fuck I’m gonna miss this show.