Grief And The Search For Meaning In HBO’s THE LEFTOVERS

On embracing the mystery of this great show.

My Grandma was a devout Catholic. Her belief was the strongest of any person I’ve known closely in my life. Hers was a relatively simple, good life. She lived with her religion. She went to church at least twice a week. She did charity work in the name of her beliefs. She raised a large and loving family with her husband John, with whom she shared a love that to my eyes at least was almost unfathomably pure and faithful. When he passed it seemed, despite her most valiant efforts, that some of the light from her life had passed as well. And so it was no surprise that she died soon after him of causes that seemed almost like an afterthought in my memory. All her life, God was with her, and it seemed she knew Him. I never spoke to her about how my faith had begun to fade from an early point in my life, and I continued to attend church with her, said prayers with her, prayed to God for her as she was ailing. She died in a hospital on the North Shore of Auckland, New Zealand. She was surrounded by a family that loved her, dearly. As she passed, the sun broke through the typically heavy Auckland cloud cover, and the light that passed through the hospital window panes created in the shadow of the window barriers a very clear and pronounced cross that reflected off the walls of the room, and which disappeared soon after she died. It’s the kind of thing that could be interpreted as a symbol by the devout, explained away easily by the unbelieving, and become the source of sleepless nights for the agnostic, such as myself. 

This is a dilemma that reappeared to me all these years later while watching The Leftovers, perhaps the most agnostic of all television shows. Examine the logline for the wondrous final episode, which aired on Sunday – ‘Everything is answered. Nothing is answered. And then it ends.’ This frustrating, paradoxical, beautiful nonsense is The Leftovers’ bread and butter, a show about the people left behind after a mysterious event causes two percent of the world’s population to vanish without a trace. It is a show whose characters desperately, endlessly seek answers for what never will be answered, a predicament I can relate to. For every seemingly solid explanation we receive about the world these characters inhabit, something will happen to undercut that certainty, a little or a lot – a stray moment, perhaps a line of dialogue, will throw the certainty of the faith upon which these people build their existences into chaos. 

This can seem from a distance like the kind of thing that ultimately threw Lost for a lot of viewers (though that number does not include myself), but here creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta have played an insanely bold hand – unlike Lost, The Leftovers is definitely not here to answer your questions, and indeed in its final season the show has been entirely more interested in fleshing out the final arcs of its astonishingly well-wrought characters than delving into any sort of real resolution (indeed, a lot can be made of the show as a response to criticisms of Lost, and even Lindelof’s involvement in Prometheus). Even its intimate, stunning final sequence is laden with enough mystery and intentionally murky logic to leave you with a million questions and the comfort of knowing that you’re not meant to know the answer to them. This is life, the show tells us, and life isn’t here for your satisfaction – the mysteries created by a man calling himself God, or a visit to some sort of purgatory, or even a cross appearing in the window of a hospital room, are sometimes meant to remain that way.

What to make of this immense, high-pressure final season, whose full-throttle emotionality was enough to send you from peals of laughter to desperate sobs in the space of seconds? A season that featured such loony highlights as a boatful of lion-worshipping sex cultists, a visit to a possible afterlife in which Justin Theroux’s evidently enormous penis plays an extremely important role in national security, or a visit from Mark Linn-Baker (of Perfect Strangers fame) playing a slightly manic version of himself? In the space of eight jam-packed episodes (whose seams came dangerously close to bursting at times) the show has taken us to places other shows would never even dream of achieving, and with a grace, gentleness and humour that could only be derived from honest empathy and humanity. I think, undoubtedly, my response to the show grew from a struggle with the nature of what we are, and for anyone who has taken in their existence and wondered what it was that bore us here, The Leftovers builds our struggle into its very skeleton, helping us carry the pain of unknowing, the way the grief of great loss will stay within a person, somewhere, for the rest of their life.

Countless words are sure to be spilled on the show’s remarkable work with music, its endlessly evocative cinematography, its tight, poetic storytelling, its earth-shaking performances – actors like Justin Theroux, Christopher Eccleston, Amy Brenneman, Liv Tyler, Ann Dowd and so on, who have never been better. Most will rightly single out Carrie Coon, in a performance so evocative of unbearable pain and real trauma it claws at the mythic heights of Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano in the annals of television greatness, that I can only add to that chorus of praise. New viewers will doubtless join the quixotic struggle to understand Theroux’s Kevin Garvey’s journey to his ‘other-world’, a fluid, unknowable, purgatorial space in which what is real and what isn’t is constantly in question. I eagerly await my return to the episode that stole my heart entirely – a quiet, gentle episode about Amy Brenneman’s Laurie which subtly becomes one of the most heartfelt and revelatory pieces of art to explore the nature of suicide I’ve ever experienced.

By the end of this last episode we realise that, unlike almost anything you’re likely to watch anywhere else on television, this show doesn’t want to make you believe any one thing. Believe that Kevin Garvey is the second coming of Jesus, or don’t. Believe that a higher power is guiding us, or don’t. Believe that we’re here for a reason, or don’t. Just make sure, the show asks us, you try to believe something. In the sparse, stripped back final scenes of the show, that eschew enormous amounts of plot and side-characters to focus on an essential moment of love and understanding between two characters, we find that it is the flawed, messy, unknowable humanity of others that can be the only foundation we can stand upon in a world of unsteady waters. Whether you are a hardened cynic or a devout believer, in times of great hatred and division such as these, to reach out into a void and find the assurance of another in that darkness is perhaps the greatest comfort I can imagine. 

I truly don’t know what my Grandma would have made of this show, whose messy, emotional, insane, brilliant, gorgeous form held me in a rapture of my own throughout its tragically short run, but I think that, much like faith, it is that rare and special work of art that allows you to take what you need from it, whatever that may be. She may have found her faith strengthened on the other end of it. I found in this show, as I found in her life and death, the strength to embrace the inherent joy, salvation and hope of simply ‘letting the mystery be’, as the show’s theme song espouses. And for that I will be forever grateful for The Leftovers