The Leftovers is back for its third and final season. I’ve already published my overall thoughts on the new episodes, and I have a review of the premiere coming up just as soon as I let you keep Gary Busey up there…
“It’s all true. It all happened. It’s still happening.” -Matt
The first two seasons of The Leftovers concluded on as happy and optimistic a note as a show about grief can. Season one ended with Kevin, Jill, Nora, the baby, and the now-tame dog coming together to form an improbable but perhaps contented family, while season two climaxed with Kevin cheating death again to return to a home where his entire extended, weird, unexpectedly healthy family was there to welcome him back into the warmth of their hearts and hearths. All better, right? Play triumphant strings and bells, tilt camera up to the heavens, maybe put up a “THE END” title card, and all is well.
Except… life, and grief, are never that simple. The pain doesn’t magically go away, even if you get a hell of a lot more, and better, help than the people on The Leftovers tend to. We saw throughout season two that the makeshift Garvey/Durst family was built on the most fragile of foundations, with Kevin literally having to chain himself to Nora to keep from running off in the middle of the night, and with Patti’s omnipresent voice in his head driving him to repeated suicide attempts. We saw that while Laurie had left the Guilty Remnant, and Tommy the employ of Holy Wayne, neither was particularly stable or secure. And the Murphys, who seemed to embody all that was peaceful and safe and good about Jarden, were instead revealed to be a family that had been falling apart for forever, if only its four members could be bothered to look at each other long enough to notice.
So when we catch up with the characters in their present circumstance — after a three-year time jump, after the shocking drone strike that kills off Evie and Meg and their GR comrades, and after another historical prologue — it is sad but certainly not surprising to see that the palpable joy in Kevin and Nora’s house at the end of “I Live Here Now” was a temporary state of being, rather than a sign that everyone’s problems had been cured forever. All of this has happened before, and it will keep on happening so long as these people keep looking outward, rather than inward, to try to cure the many things ailing them.
That emotional loop is illustrated in devastating fashion in the prologue, which only goes back to 1844 rather than cavewoman times, to dramatize the Great Disappointment of the Millerite movement (an event whose name serves as a fine bookend to the Sudden Departure), when Jesus’s return did not come on the pronounced date, or the one after, or the one after. In time, the Great Disappointment would be treated as more of an unfortunate misinterpretation, and many of the remaining Millerites would form the Seventh-day Adventist Church, but in that moment, the Messiah’s repeated failure to arrive as promised must have been devastating to the group, who not only had to endure the scorn of outsiders, but the loss of faith and splintering of families, which we see dramatized when the redheaded woman at the center of our story has to keep climbing that ladder after her husband and child have opted out. Despite all evidence to the contrary that the Second Coming is not, in fact, coming, she persists in thinking that all will be well if she believes hard enough, and every time she ends up not in Heaven, but stuck in her mundane, difficult life here on Earth.
Her story reflects not only those of the Garveys and Murphys and Jamisons as someone left behind when she expected to go elsewhere, but of the various families we’ve seen splinter due to incompatible belief systems, from Laurie and Evie both joining the Guilty Remnant to Mary Jamison getting fed up with Matt using her and little Noah as religious props who aren’t allowed out of Jarden for their own safety. And it reflects a simpler and more universal struggle to find meaning in a world that can often seem meaningless and random, to keep doing the same thing over and over in the hope that belief or simple repetition will be enough to ironically make everything very different. But, as Jill warned us early last season, wherever you go, there you are, and Kevin and the rest of the gang are the same messes they’ve always been, there trying to get through another day of life when so many people have left, whether through the Departure or more conventional means like the drone strike.
The rocket attack is both shocking and somehow par for the course for the show’s broken world. After all the build up at the end of last season about what Meg, Evie, and the rest of this Remnant offshoot were up to, I wasn’t expecting them to be wiped off the map so quickly. But Kevin’s encounters with federal agents in the first two seasons made clear that the government would like nothing better than to see the GR, and maybe all of the cults that sprung up after the Departure, go off and be with the missing two percent of the global population. After such a public stunt, on Departure Day, in what has improbably become the holiest place on the planet — a move meant to scare people into understanding that even safe places aren’t truly safe — is it any wonder that there would be swift retaliation, and in a manner that could later be blamed on a gas leak being ignited by a GR cigarette?
When we jump forward three years, life seems simultaneously back to normal and topsy-turvy: patterns being repeated, sometimes by the original participants, sometimes by someone new. Kevin has gone back to being a police chief, now riding herd on a Jarden without a secured border, where the tent city is at the center of town rather than outside it, and Tommy is fully back in the family fold as one of his deputies. Laurie and John have gotten married in the interim, and where John once was the boss of the local anti-magic goon squad, he’s stepped into Isaac’s shoes as the town psychic, using Laurie’s social media investigative skills to provide closure to the bereaved, then shredding their money so he doesn’t feel like a con man(*). Nora has resumed her job with the Department of Sudden Departures, while Matt and his miracle wife and son have become the town’s leading religious figures.
(*) Three additional thoughts on this: 1)John is also wearing a pair of glasses that look very much like his daughter’s, so he’s carrying on more than one legacy. 2)This also evokes Laurie using Tommy’s Holy Wayne connection to provide comfort to people who wouldn’t accept conventional therapy. 3)Damon Lindelof likes to leave ambiguity about whether something supernatural happened with anything beyond the Departure itself, but some of Isaac’s psychic work (particularly with Meg) last season seemed at the time to be too real to dismiss; here, we see through Laurie how easily a faker (well meaning or otherwise) could pull a detail like the walnuts in Meg’s mother’s salad out of what seemed to be thin air.
Some absences are explained by episode’s end (Jill is off in college, but comes back for Tommy’s birthday party), while with others we have enough information to fill in the gaps (Erika and John’s marriage, never stable to begin with, must have fallen apart after Evie died). But it doesn’t take long for things to seem just… off. It’s not apparent at first that baby Lily (who would be a little girl now) is gone, without explanation, at least until people cast one too many concerned looks at Nora while she’s playing with Noah. And for all that Kevin’s putting on a good (and now bearded) face to his cops and the people of Jarden, he’s still flashing back to the events of “International Assassin,” and even without Patti’s voice in his ear, he’s ritually taping a plastic bag over his head as the last piece of his morning routine — perhaps trying to get back to the hotel a third time, or perhaps just to feel fully alive again once he’s ripped the bag open and gotten on with his day, like how Nora used to pay sex workers to shoot her in the chest. This has never been a healthy man, and not even two apparent trips to the afterlife have fixed him up right.
Early in the episode, Kevin’s dog-killing buddy Dean turns up, his fantasies now elaborated with the idea of canines posing as humans, which inevitably get him killed when he tries to attack Kevin for not believing in him. Dean was left behind in Mapleton along with half the season one cast, and “The Book of Kevin” is at times grim enough to feel like a tonal throwback to the series’ earliest days. But it’s more clearly a step forward in the show’s evolution, not only because we’ve moved ahead in time, but because we exist in a world where “International Assassin” happened, and where its events — both the confirmable ones, like Kevin rising up from the dirt hours after Michael buried him there following the ingestion of poison, and the ones which took place either in the afterlife or inside Kevin’s troubled mind — aren’t being ignored. Other series have done “trip to the afterlife” episodes and then moved on, but a show with this subject matter, and these characters, can’t just treat it as a one-shot (really, two-shot) deal and forget about it, much as Kevin tries. A world where the Sudden Departure occurred, and where Michael and John witnessed the apparent resurrections of Kevin Garvey, would surely latch onto this as some kind of proof of a divine power and plan, though it would take someone as obsessive as Matt Jamison to pen a wholly new scripture about it. (Note also how Matt’s ears perk up when Kevin jokes about “divine intervention” bringing him and Laurie together in the first place.) Reminders of the incident exist not just in the eponymous Book, or Kevin’s flashbacks to shoving Patti down the well, but even to the way his wardrobe is arranged in the house in Jarden so that his uniform hangs next to a series of white shirts, recalling the closet in the hotel room. Kevin remains in denial to other people about what happened after the poison, and/or the gunshot, and is mortified to learn of what Matt and the others have written, but when he has to comfort Tommy in the aftermath of his son killing Dean to save his life, he tells the story of the assassination of the impostor Patti as if it were a real thing he did. Maybe he doesn’t believe in this new theory that he’s immortal so long as he’s within the Jarden city limits, and maybe he jumps into the river during the protest not because he thinks the alleged toxic chemicals won’t harm him, but because he still wants to be hurt. But coming back from apparent death twice in short order is going to do a number on any man, and this broken man in particular.
Most of “The Book of Kevin” involves throwing us into the deep part of the water along with Kevin so we can get used to all the changes in the present, and the many things that are sadly still the same. But after Kevin is distracted from burning the book by a skywriter’s message warning that there are only 13 days to go until the seventh anniversary of Departure Day — an anniversary that, as Matt points out earlier in the episode, has much greater weight based on past Bible stories of things that happened every seven years — the camera transitions to another beautiful blue sky altogether…
…and now we are somewhere in Australia, near a church named after sainted Australian nun Mary MacKillop, with a woman gathering up white messenger birds that have carried messages of love from all over — messages the woman dumps, unceremoniously and unread, into a bucket — and bringing the birds to a local nun, who wonders if perhaps “Sarah” is familiar with the name Kevin.
And Sarah is revealed to be an old, weather-beaten Nora Durst, who — like Kevin when discussing his international assassin career — denies the name has any meaning to her, even as her face tells us otherwise.
It’s perhaps not as jarring as opening season two deep in prehistoric times, but it’s also in many ways the most Lost-like move this show has done in a long time, by presenting a mystery — Exactly when and where is this, what’s happened to Nora in the interim, and why is she going by another name? — that the show will now be obligated to solve before the conclusion. This isn’t like presenting theories about the Sudden Departure, since the show’s worldview is so focused on this handful of characters that it’s clear answers are unlikely. This is something being laid out with the implication that it will be returned to later.
And you know what? I can’t wait to see what brought Nora here — even if, based on her new identity and her expression when she hears Kevin’s name, she’s surely lived a hard life between then and now. That’s how much faith The Leftovers has generated within me over these two-plus seasons.
Some other thoughts:
* Of the many rabbits that Leftovers music supervisor Liza Richardson has pulled out of her hat over the years, none may be more impressive than “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” by obscure ’70s Christian folk band Good News Circle — with lyrics about the Rapture and those left behind like Kevin and Nora — to accompany the Great Disappointment sequence. Damon Lindelof says he had originally hoped to commission an original folk song for that sequence summing up the story of the poor saps who kept climbing on rooftops to no avail, “But before we could get too far down the road, Liza sent ‘I Wish We’d All Been Ready,’ and our editor David (Eisenberg) cut the sequence to it. And I was like, ‘Well. That fucking works.'”
* Other songs from this week include “Sign of the Judgment” by The McIntosh County Shouters, “Old Devil Memory” by Tommy Raye Tucker, “I Had a Talk” by The Friendly Seven (feat. Philip Brown), “What Does It Take To Win Your Love” by Tony Joe White, “Warning Signs” by Dick Flood, “The 59th Street Bridge Song” (aka “Feeling Groovy”) by Simon & Garfunkel, and “I’m H-A-P-P-Y” by Countdown Kids.
* Speaking of music, over the last couple of weeks, people kept asking me if the show changed its opening title sequence and/or theme song again. “The Book of Kevin” goes without a title sequence altogether, playing all the credits at the end, so you’ll just have to let the mystery be for another week.
* For a lot of the first season, Meg seemed like one of the more extraneous Leftovers characters, useful mainly as someone who could speak a bit and help us to better understand what’s happening in the Guilty Remnant scenes. By the time of her death, she’d become one of the show’s most indelible figures, and it’s a credit to Lindelof, Perrotta and company for recognizing that Liv Tyler could play the extreme darkness and maniacal belief lurking underneath that sweet and dazed exterior. RIP, Meg. We’ll always have that terrifying smile.
* The blood squib when Dean dies is one of the biggest I’ve seen, at least flying at the camera at that angle. Also, one of Dean’s final appearances was in the episode where Patti killed herself in the cabin, and there was a brief exchange between the two of them that suggested he knew much more about what was going on than he presented to Kevin; that and Kevin’s difficulty finding biographical data on the man led some fans to theorize that Dean wasn’t a man at all, but a visitor from whatever place the Departed went to. Instead, no, he’s just a sick person who has invested all of his post-Departure grief into his paranoia about dogs.
* Does anyone have a favorite of the beards grown by the show’s three adult male actors? Kevin Carroll’s is probably the most impressively full, but I appreciate that Justin Theroux left a few stray gray hairs in his rather than coloring them.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com