Does ‘The Leftovers’ Finale Let The Mystery Be?

A review of The Leftovers series finale coming up just as soon as we get to the ooey gooey…

“I’m here.” -Nora

The whole point of Mad Libs — or, if they’re custom-written by the Reverend Jamison himself, Matt Libs — is that you don’t know in what context any of the nouns, adjectives, or proper names you volunteer will be used, which can result in Nora unwittingly describing her place of employment as “the Department of Sudden Diarrhea,” or her age as 417.

The Leftovers this season has often been so strange and seemingly random that, if it weren’t for the sheer artistry from all involved, it might be easy to assume that Damon Lindelof and company were generating story ideas via Mad Libs:
It’s easy to fill in blanks when you don’t even know what the question is, much harder when you do, especially when you’re dealing with a show as intentionally ambiguous as this one. I can tell you where “The Book of Nora” takes place (rural Australia), roughly when (a decade or two after Kevin and Nora split), and most of what happens in it (Kevin and Nora reconcile after all their time apart). But what am I to do with these two that bookend the series finale?

The answers would seem to be linked. If Nora did go through the machine, she’s telling Kevin, and us, the truth about what she saw, and what happened to the Departed. If she panicked at the last second and said no, then she invented the parallel world where the Departed went and she followed, as a lie to conceal her cowardice about pursuing her kids wherever they might be, and then about not reconnecting with Kevin and her other loved ones back on Earth.

At the episode’s beginning, Nora tells Dr. Bekker, with all the righteous indignation Carrie Coon can muster — which, like every other emotion Coon is asked to play in the finale, is a lot — that she doesn’t lie. But later we see the Australian nun lie with equal conviction about the man who just climbed down a ladder from her bedroom window, and Kevin initially seems quite committed to the lie he has chosen to tell in which he and Nora were just nodding acquaintances from Mapleton who never fell in love, never adopted a baby, never had to literally chain themselves together at night, never endured fire and brimstone and Purgatory and madness. It’s easier than it seems to tell a lie convincingly, and we know that Nora’s statement about lying is itself a lie. Nora Jamison Durst lies. All. The. Time. To herself. To others. About how she broke her arm. About how composed or destroyed she may be at any given moment. About her true feelings for her Departed, adulterous husband. About how much it hurt to give up custody of Lily. About her desire to go through the LADR machine. About how much she loves Kevin Garvey.

Would one more lie — one grand lie that will only be shared between two people: herself and her lying lover Kevin — really be beyond her?

You can look at Nora’s concluding monologue in one of two ways. In the first, she is telling the truth, and the sound she made right before the LADR machine prepared to fire upon her was just an involuntary gasp as the chamber filled with liquid. She went through, and discovered that, from the point of view of the Departed — who were living in an identical but much less populated world — it was everyone else who vanished, and not them. She spent years getting from Melbourne to Mapleton, got so close to Doug and the kids that she could practically touch them, before realizing that they had moved on emotionally in a way she never could, and were better off never again seeing Nora Cursed. She then traveled for many more years until she could track down Dr. Van Eeghen and convince him to rebuild his machine on that side to send her home, and at that point began a self-imposed exile Down Under because she felt people in her original universe wouldn’t believe her, and/or also would do well to think she was dead.

In the other way, Nora is lying like she just had a motorcycle man in her bedroom. Her gasp was the start of a last-ditch protest. Dr. Eden turned off the machine (while Dr. Bekker laughed smugly about her instincts being right again), Nora apologized profusely and begged her brother to tell everyone that she went through and was never coming back. And, drowning in shame over the cowardice that prevented her from risking death for the tiny chance of finding her family alive and well in the manner she will later describe to Kevin, she still chooses exile in Australia, just much earlier than she will claim.

You can poke holes in either theory, quite easily. If, for instance, the Departed on Earth-2 (the reality where Balki, Shaquille O’Neal, and Nora’s husband and kids went) are physically okay, but even more overwhelmed with sadness at not knowing what happened to all those who stayed on Earth-1 (the reality where Cousin Larry, Kobe Bryant, and Nora all were at the start of the series), then why wouldn’t Dr. Van Eeghen have already built a second LADR machine so he could go back (or send other people back) to let Earth-1 know what was happening and try to figure out a way to transport a large group of people across the barrier at once? (Send J-Lo, Gary Busey, and Anthony Bourdain on a global “See? The Departed aren’t really dead, and we may have a way to get the others back!” tour, and see how much money they would raise.) For that matter, given Nora’s keen and stated awareness of how much emotional pain most of the people on Earth-2 were in, coupled with her own knowledge of what it was like for her to endure the same level of pain for seven years on Earth-1, would she really be so cold and selfish as to not go screaming from the rooftops about what she had seen(*), with Eden and Bekker along to support her claim? And conversely, if Nora walked out of that truck rather than vanishing from it, would whatever mortification she felt over not actually being, as Matt once dubbed her, The Bravest Girl On Earth, really overwhelm her desire to be there for her brother as he slowly died of cancer?

(*) Wouldn’t, for instance, the mom from the series’ opening scene still desperately want to find her missing son Sam, assuming the dad who vanished from the laundromat parking lot at the same time as Sam was able to care for him for all the years in between?

You can, like with organized religion itself, choose to believe or to be a skeptic about the tale Nora spins for Kevin — I started out believing her, then found myself interrogating the story — but it doesn’t really matter. In the end, you fill in the two most important blanks in this particular Matt Lib the same way: Nora declined a chance to reunite with her family (whether abstract and infinitesimal or right in front of her face), and she felt such self-loathing over that choice, and the mess she had made of things with Kevin, that she opted for a life sentence out in the middle of nowhere, caring for her birds, occasionally calling Laurie — who is very much not dead — for emotional support, and otherwise just trying to get through each day the same way she did for the seven years between when her family vanished and when she sat naked in the LADR chamber: grieving all she has lost, but unable or unwilling to fully articulate that loss to a world that can’t quite appreciate it. There are notable differences between the two, but the one that truly separates Nora’s version from the skeptic’s take is what the nun tells Nora when suggesting the missing birds really are going past their 50-mile ranges to deliver messages of love around the world: “It’s just a nicer story.”

When Kevin sits at Nora’s table and hears her talk about how afraid she was that he wouldn’t believe her, he replies, “Of course I believe you. You’re here.” Kevin has never really been a man of faith, not even when he appeared to be making repeat trips to the underworld, and even here he isn’t really expressing belief in a higher power, or some kind of intergalactic mitosis where the split wasn’t even. He has faith in Nora Durst, who is sitting across the table from him, giving him a look suggesting that, after all these years, she might be willing to take him back despite the horrible things they said to each other in that hotel in Melbourne. He needs her back, and she in turn needs him to believe her story, so he does.

Kevin admits that he pretended they barely knew each other as a way to erase all the terrible things he said and did to her, so he can understand the notion of making up a better version of the past in hopes of improving your present. He will never know with absolute certainty the truth about where Nora’s been, and he won’t much care because he’ll have her with him now. Those of us who have watched these three extraordinary seasons of television will never know for sure, because Lindelof, Perrotta, et al elected to cut straight from Nora’s gasp in the chamber to Nora’s new life as “Sarah.” They tell us an explanation for the Sudden Departure, but they never show it to us, leaving it as one more blank we’ll have to fill in about the story ourselves, along with why Laurie chose to come out of the water that morning rather than drowning herself — or, for that matter, related questions in the stories of our own lives, like what happens when we die, and how those left behind are meant to cope with our absence.

The story of Earth-2 evokes many blanks we still have to fill in about this life, if there’s a next one, and what it might be like. If the rest of the Dursts have moved on without Nora, does she really have a place with them now that she’s ascended the LADR to what she thought would be her final reward? If a man dies at 35, is he truly in Heaven if it’s without the wife he adored for a decade? And what happens if the wife soon remarries and is just as happy with another man for the next 40 years? With whom does she spend an eternity? My best friend Todd died of leukemia before we even got to elementary school; if there’s an afterlife, has he been aging all this time, or will we one day reunite with me hopefully an old man and Todd still a little boy? Or is death itself one big blank, never to be filled in with the grossest noun or most ridiculous name you can think of, or by anything at all?

The Leftovers was a show about those blanks, and about how impossible it truly is to know what to put in them, so of course it should end with ambiguity. Kevin is happy to accept how this blank has been filled, and we can fill it another way if we prefer. Sometime on Departure Day — whether during the phone call with Jill and Tommy, or while she was sinking to the bottom of Port Phillip Bay — Laurie decided she’d rather take the certainty of this life than the blank of what comes after. The show deliberately skips past that, too, choosing to instead show Laurie as a happy grandma, having found the same peace that Matt did in between when he spoke with David Burton and when the cancer took him.

We can treat this like Lindelof’s previous series, or so many other great dramas of this century, and demand answers. Or we can recognize that The Leftovers never promised any — that, both within the narrative and throughout Lindelof’s publicity for the show over the years, it could not have been more clear that answers to metaphysical questions were besides the point — and we can just, like the Iris DeMent song that returned to serve as the theme music one final time, let the mystery be. Wherever you go, there you are. Wherever Nora went that morning in the Melbourne parking lot, here she is now. And Kevin is lucky to have her, just as we are lucky to get to enjoy their difficult but ultimately happy reconciliation.

This story has always been cosmic in scope, intimate at heart, and this proved true throughout the final season. Matt Jamison meets God (or a man claiming to be He) and their conversation quickly becomes all about Matt Jamison. Kevin Sr. is determined to prevent a flood that will drown the world, when really he’s just desperate for some purpose to his own life, as well as a connection to that trip he took when he and Kevin were in their deepest throes of grief after the death of his wife. Kevin blows up an entire reality (albeit one he may just be hallucinating) purely for the sake of his own emotional growth.

So the most powerful scene of “The Book of Nora” isn’t Nora climbing into the machine that will fling her atoms somewhere across time and space. Nor is it Nora offering an explanation for where she went and what happened to the Departed. No, this tale that crossed barriers between universes, between life and death itself, reaches its emotional climax with a scene of two lonely people huddled together on a dance floor at a stranger’s wedding, swaying to the music of Otis Redding, choking back tears at the thought of all the years they lost because they were each too afraid to admit they really loved each other.

It’s a stunning scene, shot in intimate close-ups by Mimi Leder as Coon and Justin Theroux hold nothing back, and the harsh beauty of it is only enhanced by the fact that it doesn’t take: Nora is still too irked by the lie Kevin has spun about not knowing her well(*), and at the same time still can’t forgive herself for running away from both Kevin and the kids.

(*) It’s a lie that, at least until Nora calls Laurie from the pay phone, briefly creates the illusion that Nora really did go to a parallel world, and stayed there. Which I’m sure was the intention.

Before the reconciliation can go from lie to truth, Nora has to endure the Sisyphean labor of rescuing the goat that has taken on the sins of everyone at the wedding — sins defined by Eddie the groom as different from mistakes, in phrasing that party-crashers Kevin and Nora both profoundly understand, because they’re bad things you do even though you know they’re wrong (like, say, telling your girlfriend that she’s better off with her missing children) — the sin beads yoking the poor creature to a fence atop a steep and muddy hill that Nora can barely scale after a bike accident sends her ass over teakettle. She takes on the beads, and the sins, herself, before finally seeming to let go of both by placing them on her paper towel dispenser — a nearly identical one to the version she had in the house in Mapleton, that she was busy using to dry off her cell phone at the moment her family Departed and her life changed forever. Nora has to forgive herself before she can tell Kevin the story of what happened to her, whether all the details are real or are embellished as a way to cope with the choices she made.

She has spent much of the finale on the verge of breaking through. The opening scene has her looking directly into the scientists’ camera, and Leder often films Coon riding or walking straight at us — the glow of her bicycle’s lights casting a halo around her, like Nora is a visitor from another reality — resembling those shots from “Don’t Be Ridiculous” where it seemed she could at any moment step right through the TV screen and begin haranguing us about our life choices. In a fit of panic at the thought of Kevin being around her and learning all that she’s truly done (and not done) since they split up, she begins locking every door and window of the house, and for good measure rehangs the bathroom door that had fallen off its hinges before climbing into the tub, only to find herself trapped inside when it wedges too tightly in the frame. In a moment that literalizes either her radiation-enhanced leap from one world to the next, or her last-second escape from the LADR chamber, she has to hurl her body at the door until she knocks it over and ends up on the other side, where someone she loves is waiting for her.

Among the many ways The Leftovers has been an odd duck is that it applies a very science fiction premise to a show that otherwise has the trappings of an intense psychodrama. Two percent of the world’s population went poof at the same time, but instead of wandering through the corridors of power as scientists and politicians and action heroes respond to the catastrophe, we are instead with a depressed small-town cop, a grieving widow, a chain-smoking ex-shrink, an unhinged minister, an angry fireman, etc. A naked woman walking slowly through a truck filled with rows of batteries and laser arrays and climbing into a clear glass disintegration chamber is the most overtly sci-fi the series has ever been, or looked, in a sequence evoking The Fly, Alien, and others. But it’s still deeply personal and specific to this show because the woman is Nora Durst, whose face is as unprotected as her body, betraying how anxious she is about this — how badly she thinks she has to go through, and how afraid she is to try, no matter what happens.

In the end, though, The Leftovers does what it has always done, from that dark and divisive first season through these more daring and funny and surprising later years: it compacts the problems of this crazy world to the size of a hill of beans representing the problems of these precious, pained few whom we have followed from New York to Texas to Australia, and it makes us sob and then unexpectedly smile as they try to find their way past this blank, to the next one, and the next one, and the next one. And what Nora needs to make it through ultimately doesn’t require a leap to a parallel universe, or smashing the fourth wall separating our world from her fictional but achingly real one. It doesn’t even involve knocking over a bathroom door or scaling a vertiginous hill. She doesn’t have to look outward at all, because Kevin Garvey is sitting across from her — older and slightly frailer post-heart attack — apologetic and happy and desperate to give her all the love she will accept, and take back whatever she has left to offer. In a show about the ways we grieve, Kevin has somehow defied all the rules of loss, in the same way he repeatedly evaded death itself, explaining, “That’s how I found you, Nora: I refused to believe you were gone.”

As a result, the last blank of “The Book of Nora” to be filled in lingers right there inside its title character. The world didn’t end on October 14, 2011, nor did Nora Durst’s life, even if it must have felt to her like both did for a very long time. The world’s still around, all these years later — one of the finale’s more poignant lines is almost a throwaway, about how nobody calls Jarden “Miracle” anymore, because people eventually move on from even the grandest and most perplexing of tragedies — and so is Nora, who in those closing minutes finally accepts the fact that she can have a life no matter what happened to Doug and Jeremy and Erin and Lily, and that she wants to be with Kevin no matter how dysfunctional things were in the past. She has said the final line of each previous season — “Look what I found” after Kevin, Jill, and the dog arrive on the heels of her finding Lily on Kevin’s doorstep, “You’re home” after Kevin rises from the dead again and discovers a house filled with everyone he cares about — and she gets to do it one more time with a phrase that is more permanent, because it has to be, because the book is now closed:

“I’m here.”

They hold hands, they smile through tears, and the sentiment is enough to bring back Nora’s birds — not her Departed family, but something — bearing redundant messages of love for two damaged people who have finally, permanently found each other, at least until the next and final blank comes, hopefully very far away in their futures. Given how poorly things went between them so often in the past, maybe this moment is another lie, but it’s also a nicer story that I want to believe in.

In my review of the penultimate episode, I said that if I had one wish for the finale, it would be for Kevin and Nora to once again smile at each other, and for it to stick this time. That is exactly what I got, but that’s not the only reason I adored the finale. I loved it because it was an hour of watching the hardest working woman in show business display all the range and raw power that gradually made Nora the most important person in the series’ world (with or without an identical twin), from the comic fury with which she tries telling Laurie she won’t attend the dance to the childlike vulnerability in her voice when she realizes that Kevin believes her story (whether he should or not). I loved it because Justin Theroux matched Coon beat for vulnerable beat. I loved it because a show about the end of the world — which sprinkled its final season with God, a sensuous lion, an ’80s sitcom star playing himself like never before, a drone strike, a President and an assassin who were identical twins, a drowning, a mauling, and a nuclear apocalypse — had the audacity to make its final episode as small and personal and romantic as possible. This has improbably — even considering how deeply I fell into that bleak march of a first season — turned out to be one of the great shows of my lifetime, as a worldwide enigma is resolved through two people slow-dancing to Otis Redding and later sharing stories over tea. None of it should work. All of it does.

One final Matt Lib for you, though I had to cheat and read the sentence before picking out the proper word:

No lie.

Some other thoughts:

* I had a long conversation with Damon Lindelof on Thursday, in which he clarified certain aspects of the finale (the fates of Grace and Kevin Sr., or why Laurie never told Nora that Kevin was looking for her) and doggedly refused to explain others (Nora’s story, or Laurie’s choice), and also interviewed Mimi Leder and Carrie Coon.

* Back to Laurie for a moment. The end of “Certified” only showed her going into the water, not whether she came out. Do we need an explanation as to why? I think the ambiguity is in keeping with the way the apparent suicide was shown in the first place. Just as many real-life suicides leave us baffled as to why someone with so much to live for would do that — “It just doesn’t make sense!” is so often the sad sentiment expressed by the mourners — so at times should the stories of people who were able to stop themselves before it was too late. I’d like to believe that the sound of her children’s voices did the trick — that Today’s Special actually saved a life — but I don’t need to know for sure.

* Meanwhile, we get closure on most of the other characters: Matt died after apparently reconciling with Mary, Michael is now running the church in Jarden, Erika is doing well, John and Laurie are still happily married, Jill has a husband and a daughter, Tommy got divorced but landed on his feet, and Kevin Sr. is still alive and kicking at 91. (Scott Glenn is 76, so if we presume Senior is the same age, that would put the finale about 15 years after the other events of the season.) The finale tied off many more narrative bows than I might have expected.

* It’s easy to forget in the wake of all that comes after, but Nora and Matt’s farewell conversation in the lawn chairs wrecked me before the episode had barely even begun. These two siblings have never had an easy relationship — to paraphrase Lost, Nora is a woman of science, Matt a man of faith — but there’s so much warmth, and pain, and vulnerability in what they assume will be their final conversation that Max Richter’s waterworks-inducing score is almost unfair. (For that matter, the pain in Nora’s voice a few scenes earlier when Bekker makes her say Erin and Jeremy’s names is a gut punch.) Matt’s conversation with David Burton has taken away his faith, but it’s given him back his sister, and will, for the rest of his too-short life, give him back his wife and son.

* In addition to the return of Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be,” plus the Max Richter score, finale music included Otis Redding’s “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” (as Liza Richardson pointed out last week, Lindelof loves Otis, though the scene was initially shot with the original Dolly Parton version of “I Will Always Love You” before he decided it was too on the nose), Robin Trower’s “I’m Out To Get You,” The Ovations’ “Take It From Someone Who Knows,” Rokotto’s “Moonlight Dancing,” and a trio of Billie Holiday songs to convey just how weary Nora feels after her long journey: “The Man I Love,” “Back In Your Own Backyard,” and “Me, Myself and I.”

* One of Nora’s Matt Lib answers was Cairo, Egypt, which of course brings to mind the cabin in the woods in Cairo where Kevin went during his blackouts, and where Patti killed herself in the episode of the same name. For that matter, Nora quotes the Guilty Remnant (knowingly or not) when she responds to the nun’s offer of prayer with, “Don’t waste your breath.”

* In case you missed it, here’s me and the rest of the Uproxx TV team picking out our favorite Leftovers moments across three seasons. I had trouble picking just one, and eventually decided to shine a spotlight on a great scene from poor, unloved mutt of a first season.

Finally, let me say how much I will miss this show — as much for the writing about it as the watching of it. I’ve been lucky enough to cover some of the best shows this medium has ever seen, but only a precious few of those have ever inspired both the analytical parts of my brain and the poetic ones to the extent The Leftovers did. I can tell from reading some of the gorgeous and deeply personal essays about this final season that I’m not alone among my colleagues in feeling this way. Some of this is the universality of its chief subject matter: we’ve all experienced grief in our lives. But so much of the inspiration comes from the way that Lindelof, Perrotta, Leder, Theroux, Coon, and everyone else seemed so possessed themselves by the work. There is art, and then there is immersion, and something about the combination of this material and these people encouraged all involved, and so many watching, to feel more deeply about it than they might about some other project that on paper was of similar ambition and quality. In the middle of our interview, Lindelof explained many of this final year’s more absurd detours by saying the writers room “basically chased our laughter all season long.” It feels like laughter wasn’t the only thing they were chasing — that if there was a way to take an idea and make it stranger, more shocking, or just plain deeper, they were going to find that way and then push even beyond it. It was a special experience to get to follow the show as it chased greatness, and so often caught it, and the only series of recent vintage to make me feel quite so alive as I reviewed each episode was Mad Men. I thank the lucky few of you for watching this show with me, and I appreciate your reading what I had to say about it.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at