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.