“We can’t just be going through all of this for nothing, man,” John Murphy insists early in the final season of HBO’s incredible drama The Leftovers.
This demand for meaning isn’t unique to the situation of John (Kevin Carroll) and all the other people in The Leftovers’ fictional world, where two percent of the population vanished without warning or explanation in an event known as the Sudden Departure, leaving the other 98 percent to wrestle with questions of why, or how, or which group is better off. John’s request applies just as well to life in our own reality, where billions turn to organized religion in search of some grander purpose to explain, or elevate, their daily existence. And for some, it applies to the experience of watching a serialized drama, where the journey of each episode and season, no matter how thrilling, somehow ceases to matter if the finale’s destination doesn’t achieve some alchemical combination of fulfilling expectations while utterly surprising.
Few TV storytellers understand this dichotomy better than Leftovers co-creator Damon Lindelof, whose work on Lost inspired cheers and adulation for much of its run, only for the final season, and the final episode in particular, to so enrage a very loud subset of fandom that they would eventually chase Lindelof off of Twitter with their demands that he somehow give them back the six years of their lives they devoted to the show. It didn’t matter if they had gasped when they first saw John Locke in a wheelchair, or cheered when Hurley roared out of the jungle in the Dharma bus to save the day, or swooned when Desmond finally got Penny’s phone number and called her on Christmas. Every moment of pleasure Lost had ever given them mysteriously vanished like the two percent who went away in the Sudden Departure, all because they felt the ending wasn’t up to snuff, didn’t answer enough of their questions, and/or answered too many of them poorly. (A magical pool of light?)
Like Lost, The Leftovers overflows with mysteries and questions. Unlike Lost, it has never really positioned itself as a show interested in, or even capable of, providing answers. Characters wonder all the time about what really happened during the Sudden Departure, but the show takes an agnostic point of view on both that and any seemingly mystical moment that followed. Something obviously happened to take all those people away at once, but whether it was a higher power or some bizarre quirk of science remains unclear, and nearly every moment on the show that “proves” the existence of God or magic can also be taken as con artistry, coincidence, or madness. When the series’ troubled hero Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) drank poison last season and woke up in a luxury hotel as an international assassin, it could be read as a particularly weird version of Purgatory, or a hallucination brought on as part of the psychotic break Kevin’s psychiatrist ex-wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) insisted he was having. (A second visit to the hotel, where Kevin had to sing karaoke in order to survive being shot in the chest in the real world, provided no more definitive evidence — and was also far more touching and poetic than that description makes it sound, which is the way it is with a lot of things The Leftovers does.)
Kevin’s time in the afterlife (or whatever) was the creative high point of The Leftovers season two, which turned out to be one of the great seasons of any HBO drama — and thus one of the great seasons of TV drama, period. It was bold, it was powerful, and — appropriate for a year when the characters relocated to a Texas town known as Miracle — it was miraculous. I loved the first season, but its approach to questions of grief and faith and depression was so relentlessly sad that I couldn’t blame anyone who didn’t want to curl up into a ball every Sunday night at 9 and cry with it. Season two was just as emotionally cathartic, but it somehow expanded and contracted itself at once — escaping the first season’s suburban New York enclave for Miracle and a broader look at the Departure’s impact on the world, but also limiting each episode’s point of view to one or two characters — and found a more playful, darkly comic tone that wasn’t at odds with the subject matter. It was still a show about loss and despair and madness, but it was a weird, funny show about those things, so the viewers’ default fetal position might be interrupted by raucous laughter, or simply delight at the show’s latest unexpected move: Are we really back in caveman times now? No fooling?
The show got even better, but the meager ratings only got worse, and it’s never gotten any Emmy love. (I defy you to find a better dramatic TV performance of the last few years than Carrie Coon’s alternately steely and devastated work as Nora Durst, whose husband and two young children Departed from the breakfast table while her back was turned, and who has struggled to build some semblance of a life with Kevin. And co-stars like Brenneman, Theroux, Carroll, Regina King, and Christopher Eccleston haven’t been that far behind her.) So HBO gave Lindelof and co-creator Tom Perrotta (author of The Leftovers novel that provided the structure of the first season) one last, abbreviated year (eight episodes instead of ten) to say whatever else they could about these characters, this world, these themes, and what really happened on October 14, 2011, when people’s spouses, children, parents, and friends disappeared into thin air.
HBO sent critics the first seven of those episodes, perhaps to guard the finale’s secrets this far ahead of time, perhaps to prevent discussion of the other episodes from being overwhelmed by “Lindelof Has Done It Again!” (for good or for ill) thinkpieces. The new episodes (the first airs Sunday at 9) don’t represent another radical leap forward in style or quality the way season two was, but whatever’s lost from the shock of the new (nothing here is quite as weird or surprising as the cavewoman prologue or “International Assassin,” though a joke in the second episode and a party sequence in the fifth come close) is gained in how much more we know all the characters at this point, and how aware they are of their proximity to their story’s end.
After a time jump (during which Kevin went back to policework and all the men in the cast grew Old Testament beards), we’re closing in on the Departure’s seventh anniversary, and as everyone’s favorite obsessive preacher Matt Jamison (Eccleston) points out, the Bible is filled with examples of major events occurring exactly seven years after other major events. The world, Kevin’s circle of friends and family included, is bracing itself for something to happen again on October 14, whether it’s more Departures, the return of all the missing, or some new calamity altogether. Once again, the show walks a knife edge between confirming and disproving the notion of God, or magic, or super-science, in this broken world beyond the Departure itself. Kevin’s father Kevin Senior (Scott Glenn) becomes obsessed with the story of Noah, and there are, indeed, ominous storm clouds on the horizon. Matt keeps citing passages from the Book of Daniel, and eventually a real lion becomes a memorable piece of the story. And there’s a kind of “a priest, a minister, and a rabbi” quality to the way various belief systems on the show can be equally fervent but somehow incompatible; Matt gets indignant whenever someone questions his own faith, but when he hears of a crime committed by someone who cited a passage from the Book of Revelation as justification, he snorts and says Revelation’s not meant to be taken literally.
The POV approach Lindelof and Perrotta adopted in the second season continues to work wonders, making cosmic questions feel deeply personal, shedding light bit by bit on how each character feels about the idea that the world may be coming to an end, and which of them might actually welcome that. Much of the season takes place in Australia, from the glass and steel of Melbourne to the vast expanse of the Outback, but the drama is always human-scale, and everyone’s feelings about what might happen on Departure Day have more to do with how they’ve gotten along with their fellow leftovers than what they might believe about life, the universe, and everything. The sixth episode, for instance, is a time-fractured Laurie spotlight set on the eve of what her friends insist will be the apocalypse, and its stakes are simultaneously enormous and singular; it’s a work of art(*), and it’s not even the season’s most audacious episode!
(*) Speaking of art, while other dramas like Fargo and Big Little get lots of deserved attention for their eclectic soundtrack choices, the work Leftovers music supervisor Liza Richardson does in concert with the rest of the show’s creative team is so remarkable and spot-on, many of the songs feel like Lindelof traveled way back in time and told the composer, “You don’t know me, but in 2017, I’ll be making an obscure but critically-acclaimed TV show that’s going to need a song exactly like this.”
Perrotta’s novels usually don’t so much wrap up their stories as stop at a moment that nicely encapsulates the major themes. Would that approach be satisfying in a TV series, particularly a Lindelof-affiliated one that has raised so many questions about what exactly is happening, how, why, and what it might mean? The Leftovers has been pretty clear that its characters are in no position to decipher the source code of the universe, and anyone who claims to get close is eventually revealed as a nut. A last-minute explanation wouldn’t violate the spirit of the thing, but it seems besides the point of the story being told.
“I want fucking closure,” Nora Durst demands at one point. So do we all, Nora, from both life and from the stories we immerse ourselves in along the way. But closure in The Leftovers doesn’t have to mean Bronson Pinchot in a long white beard descending from the heavens to spell out what caused the Departure, where Nora’s kids went, and whether the hotel in the afterlife or the voices in the heads of both Kevins are real. It just has to mean an emotionally satisfying conclusion to our time spent with Kevin, Nora, John, and everyone else.
Based on the rest of this final season, I have faith the closing passages will bring us exactly that.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org