“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?