Season finale review: ‘The Leftovers’ – ‘The Prodigal Son Returns’

“The Leftovers” wrapped up its first season earlier this evening. A review of the finale coming up just as soon as we have different physiques…

In the end, it was the goddamn dog that wrecked me.

Love it or hate it – and 50-odd savage minutes of “The Prodigal Son” absolutely affirmed my love for it – “The Leftovers” isn't really like anything else on television, past or present. Structurally, it has a passing resemblance to a few other series (including Damon Lindelof's previous one). But in terms of tone and substance, as well as its focus on the emotional and spiritual health of its characters far ahead of any questions of plot, it's an original. Even with the book to adapt(*), there was no real template for Lindelof and Tom Perrotta to follow in crafting a finale for this season.

(*) And, for what it's worth, the finale pretty much exhausts the plot of the book (even if much of the episode's own plot is new), meaning Lindelof and Perrotta will have no road map of any kind for season 2.

Still, they found exactly the right ending. It answered nothing about the cause of the Sudden Departure, the origins of the Remnant, the nature of the voices that Kevin Sr. hears – and whether Kevin's encounter with Patti's ghost at the mental hospital was just a nightmare,  another sign that the Kevin Garvey apple doesn't fall far from the Kevin Garvey tree, or a metaphysical interlude – who or what Dean is, what the National Geographic back issue has to say about the Departure, or any of the other mysteries that have been present in the foreground and background throughout these 10 episodes.

But those mysteries had never been the thing pulling me along this journey, and based on the comments here this summer, they weren't the main draw for most of you who liked the show. We were in it for these characters and their individual struggles. We were in it for the fully-realized parallel world the show had created in all of its broken despair. And we were in it for the chance to spend an hour a week being put through an emotional ringer in a way precious few shows – even in this Golden Age of TV Drama – are able to do this well, and this consistently(**).

(**) Peter Berg hasn't directed since episode 2 – Mimi Leder returned to do superb work on the finale – but his influence has been felt throughout the season. Earlier this week, I was watching the penultimate episode of “Friday Night Lights” season 2 (the one where Coach throws Saracen into the shower, and where Smash cries in the locker room) for an upcoming podcast. That episode was, in many ways, a reward for slogging through the many stupid things that happened elsewhere in “FNL” season 2, and it left me both shaken and thrilled – a state that felt eerily similar to how I felt when I finished this episode. Berg sure knows how to lay down an emotional template that makes you feel like you're a part of a fictional world, rather than just passively observing it.   

And for those watching for those reasons, “The Prodigal Son” – especially in its harrowing closing sequence depicting Kevin's return to Mapleton in the aftermath of the Guilty Remnant's stunt with the Loved Ones dolls – paid off everything that was genuinely important about this season.

It showed just how far the Remnant was willing to go to make its point – and, in Nora's eventual reaction to being faced with these Uncanny Valley replicas of her husband and children, suggested that the Remnant members were perhaps right to force people to remember what happened on October 14, rather than continuing to live in what Nora would call “the abandoned ruin of a dead civilization,” pretending that all was well.

(For that matter, it showed Nora's initial reaction to the doll tableau, yet another amazing moment from Carrie Coon and one where it was absolutely the right call to leave out audio of her screams, given how unnecessary her face made them.)

It showed Matt continuing his quest to save the members of the Remnant – a more worthy cause, ultimately, than his previous plan to discredit as many Departed souls as possible as revenge for his wife's injury – and finally finding a tearful one, amid the fiery wreckage of their compound, who seemed to want his help. And even before that, it showed just how focused  and unyielding Matt is on this holy mission, to the point where he insisted on Kevin reading from the Book of Job – another tale of a supreme power acting in a way that seems cruel and capricious to mortal man – as they buried Patti in the Cairo woods.

And it showed us Laurie ultimately, if belatedly, recognizing that the bonds of her pre-Departure life were more important to her than whatever Patti and the Remnant had to offer. Because the writers kept present-day Laurie completely silent, even when offered a chance to speak back in “Gladys,” her anguished cry of Jill's name was incredibly powerful. To this point in the season – even up to and including the events of “Cairo” – Meg has been portrayed as the one not entirely on-mission, while Laurie has been the true believer. Here, Meg seems content and Patti-level smug with the beating she took from the angry Mapleton mob, while it's Laurie who not only breaks her vow of silence, but walks off on her own to figure out what to do next.

Most importantly, it showed us Kevin's chance encounter – or not-so-chance, since everything on this show (including Tommy driving past Laurie as she visits the Heroes Day statue) seems to happen by design, even if it's one neither we nor the characters can grasp – with a dying Holy Wayne, and all that followed it.

Throughout this season, the show has played with the notion of whether Wayne is a con man or someone with genuine power. His death scene reveals that even he has no idea. But he seems to recognize what Kevin's silent wish is – even if he could simply be lying to himself to feel better before slipping into the unknown – and the events that follow in Mapleton suggest that wish is coming true, and not in the monkey's paw style that afflicted Matt back in “Two Boats and a Helicopter” and Nora in “Guest.” I imagine Kevin doesn't get his exact wish fulfilled, because Laurie doesn't come home with him, and because Tommy is long gone from the house by the time he and Jill return there. But he saves his daughter's life and reconnects with her in the process. The woman who has at times loved him – and perhaps been loved by him, in all his craziness – is on his doorstep, holding a would-be savior baby that has performed the genuine miracle of making Nora seem not just at peace, but happy. And the dog, which he took home in one of his nighttime fugue states to prove a point to Dean about how this world isn't irreparably broken, is there waiting for him, eager to see him and completely docile. This is not the exact family he had before the Departure, but it's a family, and one that could possibly work for him, and maybe even slow whatever seems to be driving him as mad as his old man. And it's the moment when the dog trots up, and all it means for Kevin's hopes for himself, his family, and his world, that the Sepinwall living room got as dusty as it's been at any point in this remarkable first season.

“The Prodigal Son Returns” has a structure that started to frustrate me a few times in the middle, but that ultimately worked very well. Almost a half-hour passes in between when Nora screams in response to what the Remnant have placed in her kitchen and when Kevin and Matt pull back into town and witness the anti-Remnant violence in the wake of the Loved Ones stunt, and we're only with Kevin and Matt (and, briefly, Kevin Sr. and Patti) for that entire middle section. The show has done – with enormous creative success – episodes focusing on only one or two characters. But this was the finale, designed as the climax to everyone's story, and after all the character beats and potential Mapleton mayhem that were teased in the first 15 minutes, I started to worry that the show had gone off track by deciding that now was the time to insert a single-POV episode in miniature – and to reveal that a large chunk of it only happened inside Kevin's head (probably).

What made it work wasn't just that the series is often at its best when it puts you inside one character's head. It was that Kevin's time with Matt in Cairo, and then his dream/hallucination/vision of being in the mental hospital with Patti's ghost and his father was as much of a conclusion to the season as the rioting in Mapleton. Kevin has wondered all this time why he and his family were left behind in the Departure, and why they've drifted away from each other in the three years since, and that question, as much as the genes he shares with Kevin Sr., seems to be what's been driving him mad. When he screams, “I'm not supposed to be here!,” he's referring both to his apparent confinement in the mental hospital, and to his presence on this mortal plane of existence. Kevin, and Nora, and Laurie, and everyone else on this show are tormented by what they've lost, but also by the question of why they weren't lost along with Nora's husband and kids, the young man with Down syndrome, Kevin's hook-up, etc.

Kevin's theory – espoused in part to Matt in reality, in part by his father in the dream (or whatever it is) – is that the good people got taken away, and the bad ones were left behind. But we know this to be false, not only because of Matt's earlier mission to document the sins of the Departed, not only because we've seen genuine goodness come from many of the show's remaining characters, but because the odds of only 2% of the planet's population qualifying as good by the standards of whatever being caused the Departure are so small as to not be worth discussing. Again, Matt has Kevin read from the Book of Job, which tells of a good man who suffers not for his own sins, but because God is trying to prove a larger point to Satan. Whatever being did this, its motives can't be broken down into something as binary as good=taken, bad=not.

And Kevin waking up safe and sound in Matt's car didn't render the previous scenes meaningless the way the “It was all a dream!” device so often does. So much of the storytelling on this show is ambiguous that this could have simply been a nightmare, or it could be yet another sign of mental illness in our hero, or it could have been a visit from the beings whom Kevin Sr. claims to be in constant contact with. The reality of it isn't the point, because it felt real to Kevin, and it allowed him and the show to tackle many of the big spiritual and emotional questions that have run through this entire season.

It also meant that we could return to Mapleton in full chaos, which was probably a more effective way to deal with that, rather than showing us everyone's reaction minute by minute. Nora's response in the kitchen told us all we needed to know about how it all started, and the violence Kevin and Matt returned to told us the rest. Simple, economical and, like so much of the finale and this season, devastating.

This has been a great year of television drama, even if at times we've had the high-class problem of too much of it. “The Leftovers” has been one of the absolute highlights of this year, and I imagine that this season, and the events of “The Prodigal Son Returns,” will sit with me much longer than so much of what I've been privileged to watch in 2014.

Some other thoughts:

* We haven't talked a lot about how well this show uses music, but there were several dynamite soundtrack choices here, all incorporated to great effect, whether Nina Simone's drawling “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (French for “Do Not Leave Me”) playing as we watch Kevin smoke one of Patti's cigarettes as he looks at her corpse, or an orchestral version of Metallica's “Nothing Else Matters” playing as Laurie decides to carry through with Patti's plan, even with Jill along for the ride.

* I'll admit it: before Kevin woke up in Matt's car, I was briefly pondering a second season that becomes a very dark version of “Quantum Leap,” with Kevin traveling around trying to ruin people's happiness, while a Patti that only he can see and hear gives him instructions and background info on his targets. And I would have watched the hell out of that show. Though given the ambiguity of what was happening in that whole scene, maybe I shouldn't rule it out?

* That's Geoffrey Owens (Elvin from “The Cosby Show”) as the man from the church bus who offered to help Tommy. Though Elvin is not in this particular “Cosby” scene, it might do to help cheer you up after what you just saw.

* Speaking of “The Leftovers” and '80s TV, Kevin Sr. is of course watching more “Perfect Strangers,” but somehow he and his son do not perform The Dance of Joy upon reuniting. I suppose Lindelof and Perotta have to save something for next year's finale. As Chekhov wrote, if you introduce Cousin Larry and Balki in the first act…

* Did I mention that Carrie Coon is amazing and should win all the awards ever for her work on this show? If Ghost Patti were to turn out to be an actual character, I imagine Nora would find a way to turn a metaphysical hose on her.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at