THE LEFTOVERS: A Series Retrospective

Plus a look a its series finale, which answered everything and nothing.

Don’t let anyone tell you The Leftovers was the bleakest show on TV. It’s actually a love story.

It’s incredibly difficult to make a show about religion, grief and how we make sense of our lives interesting, but that’s exactly what The Leftovers did over the course of its three-season run on HBO. The series never got a huge audience, which is a shame because it belongs in the pantheon of television shows. It might sound esoteric, but I’ve always felt that The Leftovers is the kind of show you don’t just watch; it’s something you experience. The material is dense, at times so much so that you sort of have to prep your body before inhabiting that heavy mental space. If that sounds like too much work to enjoy a TV show, I understand; but just know that you’re missing out on greatness. There’s something important about the weekly ritual of television not just as an escape, but as an outlet to process and experience difficult emotions as well. And in this respect, The Leftovers was cathartic in ways few other shows manage.

Grief was on author Tom Perrotta’s mind when writing his 2011 novel that was later adapted for TV. He was inspired by 9/11, specifically with how people move on from personal tragedy. He was also interested in Evangelical Christianity, so he created the Sudden Departure, a rapture-like event that made two percent of the world’s population suddenly vanish. With no scientific explanation behind those who disappeared, people all over the world become desperate. They deal with their respective tragedies from this collective event in different ways and find elaborate coping mechanisms to mask their pain. Compared to the HBO show, Perrotta’s novel is notably lighter; more of a sci-fi tragicomedy than a straightforward drama. When it was adapted for TV by Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, Perrotta stayed on as Executive Producer and developed the series for all three seasons. In transitioning mediums, The Leftovers journeyed far away from its source material, and for the better. The fictional suburb of Mapleton was a microcosm for how the rest of the world was coping—not well. But over three seasons, The Leftovers widened its scope, and became even more explicitly meditative about loss, faith, and the unknowable mysteries of the universe.

Season one had a handful of great episodes scattered throughout, but its tone was unrelentingly nihilistic. The audience, like the characters on the show weren’t allowed to feel safe or breathe; watching often felt like asphyxiating oneself with a dry cleaner bag. The show was admirably reaching for huge ideas, but wasn’t articulating them in the way that it would later learn how to do so masterfully. Suddenly in season two, The Leftovers was firing on all cylinders. A new setting, a stronger grasp on its themes, and a willingness to infuse humor into even the darkest of scenes made for a total creative redirection. Changing course worked on a thematic level, too. The change in geography tapped into the characters’ continual search for meaning and their need to take some control of their lives: They were nomads—and staying in one place wasn’t bringing them any further away from their problems. They had to move toward something. Once we got to Jarden, everything snapped into focus, and The Leftovers delivered a Hall of Fame season of television.

In season three, the show shifted again, this time to rural Australia, where it presented new obstacles for its characters that had brilliantly been hiding there all along. There were break-ups and scuba dives, wild boat rides, and conversations with “God.” The seven episodes held little back—like the best episodes of the series, each installment was a laser-focused short-story that gave one character the spotlight for an hour, while still furthering the season’s larger narrative. It was a bold choice to stick with the single POV structure for a final season, but the creative team clearly trusted in what had worked previously, because nearly every episode in season three was one of the series’ best.

Which brings us to the series finale, and the confirmation that The Leftovers has been telling us a love story this entire time. On an emotional level, the show ends the way it always should have: with Kevin and Nora reunited. It’s hopeful and melancholy, and if you’ve invested anything in these two beautiful, broken people, it will probably make you cry. We’ve seen these two characters come together and break apart, but ultimately, neither one was better off without the other. Their love will continue even as the camera zooms out and we watch Nora’s birds return to her; their messages of hope now delivered, they’ve finally come home. Kevin and Nora’s story is still being written, but the show’s “exit feeling,” the thing it wants to leave us with, is the certainty that they’re going to write it together.

When it comes to the show’s grander mysteries, we’re given no singular takeaway, no, “this is what it all means,” which is totally in keeping with The Leftovers. There are surely as many interpretations of the bizarre happenings in this show as there are reasons of science and systems of belief in our world.

Part of the difficulty in watching a finale for a show you love is reconciling the actual end of the story with what you thought might happen. “The Book of Nora” isn’t quite what I expected, but that’s a good thing. Total resolution isn’t The Leftoversstyle.What I’d hoped was that the show would provide some happiness for these characters, and the finale delivered on that. So much of The Leftovers has been watching characters we love suffer that it just wouldn’t feel right to not see Nora and Kevin smiling through tears at the end of everything. After enduring years of struggle and near-apocalypses, the finale is about them remembering their shared history and love for one another. It doesn’t happen right away, though. At first, Kevin thinks the best way to win Nora back is to wipe their slate clean, even if it’s not what happened. On a first viewing, I was frustrated to think we might be spending time in some sort of alternate universe (Good to see you, Laurie!), which ultimately would have been too much to process in a series finale. My only real nitpick in the episode is they played the “Kevin pretending not to remember” card for too long. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case: everything that the audience has seen over the course of the show still happened. It felt like there were a few scenes in the middle of the episode that could have been shortened; that said, the first and last ten minutes are among the best in the series, and I adored the wedding scene set to Otis Redding’s “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” (but it plays a lot better on a second viewing once you understand that it’s really happening).

There are quite a few references to Lindelof’s other show, and he directly calls attention to it with Kevin’s line, “I like to get a little lost.” Kevin coming to Australia every year is very post-Island Jack Shepherd, Whatever your feelings may be regarding the end of Lost, Lindelof chose to take a different tact in ending The Leftovers. For the past three years, he’s been adamant in saying that we would never learn where the people who departed went. His logic boiled down to two arguments: 1) Lost was a mystery show, and he’d decided that The Leftovers wasn’t going to be. 2) Perrotta doesn’t provide an explanation in his book; so why should he? Needless to say, the “reveal” of where the people who departed were taken—that they experienced the same schism our characters did, only in reverse (with 98% of the population disappearing instead of 2%) was an answer I never expected to get. It’s perhaps the most spectacular moment of the series.

There’s a lot of ambiguity surrounding Nora’s journey in the LADR machine. Does she tell Kevin the truth—or is it a story? The finale cleverly includes a scene where a nun reminds Nora that believing in something, however far-fetched it might seem, makes for a nicer story. Which makes one wonder, did she invent that story to make Kevin believe her? In the end, it might not matter if Nora actually went through to the other world. I mean, it matters to me, because I want to believe that she had the opportunity to see her kids one last time, know that they were happy, and get the closure she deserves, but everyone will interpret this ending differently. Personally, I find the alternative choice—that she’s making it all up—almost too cynical; I want to believe that she had that experience. In terms of concluding her arc for the entire series, however, it doesn’t change where she ends up at the very end. What matters is that she believes it happens. As the show has reminded us time and time again, after a while, is there really a difference? In her stunning final monologue (just give all the awards to Carrie Coon immediately, please) Nora says her children were always going to be “bulletproof vests,” and “hugs from holy men,” two callbacks that remind us just how far she’s come. She’s not alone in this: every character on this show has had an elaborate coping mechanism at one point or another, because it’s what people do when they don’t have answers. Laurie left her family, tried to commit suicide, and joined a cult all because she had no answers and was so shattered from what she’d lost. Nora owns up to her own previous coping mechanisms in her speech but that doesn't mean her story can't also be real; just because the tale she tells Kevin is a “nicer” story than if she’d never gone through the machine at all, doesn't mean it also can't be true. To that end, if it didn't literally happen, it could still be true for her. And to go along with the interpretation where Nora tells the truth, this wouldn’t be so hard for Kevin to believe. He’s learned by now that there are some mysteries in the universe he’ll never comprehend; he’s certainly seen enough to believe the woman sitting across from him traveled to another place. The show’s always existed in this nebulous space, because the closest thing we have to the Departure in real life is death, and what happens after we die is all subjective. Hopefully, Nora did go through to get that closure (in the other world, she said her kids were “the lucky ones because they had each other"), but maybe in the end, knowing that Kevin believes her is all she needs.

Our lives are stories, and so much of The Leftovers is about how those stories play out in mostly messy and unexpected ways. Over and over again, the show asked its characters How does the world see you? How do you see yourself? What’s the story you’re given versus the one people ascribe to you? And when those stories become entangled, how do you know which version is the truth? In Mapleton, Jill and the rest of the town initially see Nora as broken; even potentially crazy. How people perceive her clearly play a role in Nora’s evolution. She’s a victim, but in order to survive and go on living, she has to continue to play that role and before long, it completely subsumes her. When she moves to Jarden, she wants to change, but still hasn’t learned how to let go of her grief. Kevin on the other hand, is seen as brave and strong throughout the series, because his job is literally to protect people. But as he learned during his final trip to the “other place,” he’s really a coward for not being honest and vulnerable with the woman he loves. Every character on this show tries to reinvent new narratives for their lives only to get caught up in the same problems they always had and never dealt with. It’s fitting, then, that the titles for this season’s premiere and finale are literal bookends: “The Book of Kevin,” and “The Book of Nora.” They are both works in progress.

The idea of people’s lives intersecting, and not knowing whose belief system is “right” has been embedded in the show from the very beginning. The Departure created a vacuum for false prophets (Tommy joined up with Holy Wayne, because he claimed he could take people’s pains away) and non-believers alike because it was impossible to know whose story is the right one, or if there was even a right one. In season two, right as the Murphys are introduced, Patti Levin tells Kevin, “Hard to tell if they’re a part of your story or if you’re a part of theirs.” And in season three, Kevin Sr. has an almost identical conversation with Matt Jamison, insisting that he isn’t a part of his son’s story; it’s the other way around. Matt and Kevin Sr. are two of the greatest voices in favor of belief in the series. Despite the Departure not resembling the biblical rapture Matt prepared for, he still chooses to believe that everything has been a test for what comes next. That was the story he and Sr. told themselves—and even if that belief was wrong, they both held onto it as something that was true for them, rather than accept that their suffering had no greater purpose. It’s interesting that the resurgence of Matt’s cancer in these final episodes makes him realize he doesn’t have any more answers than the rest of the characters. That farewell scene he has with Nora nearly broke me.

I love that the ending for the show is a variation on the resolution we got at the end of the first two finales—and that Nora Durst gets the honor of saying the final words of every season on The Leftovers. Season one ends with her letter, right as she’s planning on leaving Mapleton and breaking up with Kevin because she feels too broken. Before she can deliver it, she sees a baby on the Garveys’ doorstep, and her last words are, “Look what I found.” Season two ends with Kevin dying and singing his way out of purgatory (not the craziest thing this show did in 28 episodes) and the final shot is him being surrounded by his entire extended family, where a tearful Nora tells him, “Welcome home.” And in the series finale, after telling Kevin her harrowing story, she says two words that finally unburden her, and bring home the show’s themes of moving forward one final time: “I’m here.”

The Leftovers explores how pain stays with us, and how we all inevitably become living reminders of our experiences, both good and bad. The Guilty Remnant—the show’s antagonistic cult that formed after the Departure—tried to be reminders of the worst thing to happen to the world. In season one, their silence is frustrating, their motives somewhat convoluted (they stood silently and chain-smoked while society crumbled). Their only goal was to incite chaos, and that meant never letting anyone have a moment’s peace. They were everyone’s deepest fears manifested. Their lowest moment came when they broke into the homes of anyone affected by the Departure and left life-size mannequins resembling their lost loved ones. But the show also used reminders to express love. When Jill Garvey thought she’d lost her mother to the G.R. for good, she gave her a lighter engraved with the words, “Don’t Forget Me.” That came back around this season when Laurie was contemplating suicide, but clearly changed her mind after hearing her daughter’s voice. As gritty and messed up as The Leftovers was throughout its run, it couldn’t remain the same bleak show that shot rabid dogs in the street forever.

Even as an avid TV watcher, The Leftovers has made an indelible mark on me. I will miss the feeling I got on Sundays when a new episode was on; where for an hour, I didn’t check my phone once, and sat there transfixed at whoever the show was following that week, watching as whatever impossible journey they were on unfolded. I will still tear up every time I hear Max Richter’s gorgeously haunting score. I will think of how fortunate we were to have this show’s incredible cast, and I will unquestionably watch Carrie Coon act in literally anything. I will laugh at all of the absurd musical moments and Gary Busey jokes. I will think about its ending and hold both possibilities in my mind, even though I gravitate toward one more than the other. And when I try to focus too much on solving the puzzle, I’ll remind myself that sometimes the best course of action is to simply “let the mystery be.”