A review of tonight’s The Leftovers coming up just as soon as I smash all reflective surfaces…
“This isn’t my first time visiting the other side of the world. Every time I come here, it gets harder and harder to leave.” –Kevin
Kevin is perhaps pushing his luck throughout “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother).” Yes, he has survived drinking poison (and being buried afterwards) and getting shot in the chest at point blank range, and both times he seemed to journey to the afterlife before returning to this one unharmed, but will that trick keep working — especially if Matt is right about Kevin’s immortality being connected to Miracle? Does he have an unlimited supply of one-ups, or could he exhaust them by letting himself be drowned again and again at Grace’s house?
The Leftovers, meanwhile, is definitely pushing its luck taking Kevin back to “International Assassin” Land for a third time. The original episode was an instant classic that should, depending on whether this show’s own afterlife is bigger and grander than its actual life, be remembered as one of the most audacious, delightful, and powerful hours of TV drama ever made. Kevin’s brief return to sing karaoke in the season two finale was another stunner, and, with Kevin’s profanely incredulous reaction to finding himself in that hotel again, even commented on what a terrible idea it might have been to send him back there so soon. To go there a third time — to, in fact, devote the penultimate chapter of the entire story to one more ludicrous adventure where Kevin Garvey the cop journeys to a Purgatory realm where he becomes Kevin Harvey the assassin — could easily smack of Lindelof and Nick Cuse taking Kevin to that place just because everyone enjoyed it so much the first two times. Great sequels are hard enough, but threequels almost always (with rare exceptions like Toy Story 3 or Return of the King) feel desperate and familiar.
Then again, the original “International Assassin” on paper was an awful way to resolve Kevin’s suicidal behavior and haunting by Patti, and in execution was pure magic. “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)” should come across as rote or mundane — you’ve seen one assassination in Heaven, you’ve seen ’em all — but it never does.
There’s no way the new episode can possibly be as surprising at its core as “International Assassin,” so it compensates with a flood of smaller, crazier, individual surprises. We’ve got a POTUS here, an evil twin there, practically every deceased major character brought back to life over thataway, and, by the way, did you get a good look at the penis scanner? If not, we’ll show it twice, and with a distinctly loud thud each time one of the Kevins places his endowment on the shelf to prove his identity, because, as Secret Service Agent Australian Kevin explains, no impostor can “go to that length.”(*)
(*) Justin Theroux comes across as understandably mortified whenever the alleged size of his member becomes fodder for public discourse, so good on him for playing along with one of the funniest and most unexpected jokes in this vein I’ve encountered.
None of it makes much sense, but it’s not supposed to, and Kevin is constantly noting the absurdity of it all. Whether he’s actually traveled beyond the veil of death or has retreated inside his own fragile mind while his body tries to heal the latest injury he’s inflicted upon it, the world he finds himself in is one shaped by his own thoughts and personality, down to the way all the other people he once knew in life now swear exactly like he does. Matt has tried to convince Kevin that he’s the Second Coming, or something in the ballpark, and we learn here that “God” (or David Burton, or someone who looks exactly like David Burton) told him in “International Assassin” that he was the most powerful man in the world. Is he really? Or would anyone’s fantasy world, or afterlife experience, similarly make them into the center of everything important that’s possibly happening?
The official mission Kevin is on is, of course, pointless. The Playford kids don’t answer Grace’s question about their shoes. Evie doesn’t believe Kevin when he tries to pass on John’s message. Christopher Sunday explains, as he tried to with Kevin Sr., that no song exists to stop the rain from coming — and when Kevin finally wakes from a nuclear apocalypse in the other world to return to his own, he sees that the storm has stopped, and that his father has, indeed, put all the wrong eggs in Tony the chicken’s basket. Maybe some other apocalypse will happen later on Departure Day, but it won’t be Noah 2.0. All of this — the death of Christopher Sunday, Kevin Sr’s many injuries, the murder of Australian Kevin, the assault on Officer Koala Fart, Laurie drugging everyone for a moment alone with her ex, Kevin being drowned multiple times — was for nothing. If the world needs saving, this motley crew was never really up to the job.
But these trips have never really been about saving the world. They’ve been about saving Kevin Garvey. And this was in many ways his most desperate — and thus most powerful — assassination mission yet, because the problem is wholly internal this time: Kevin no longer knows what he wants to do, or be, and he has just destroyed things with the woman he has realized he both dearly loves and is terrified by. Having Patti’s voice in his head was either a paranormal problem over which he had no control, or (if Laurie was right about it being a psychotic break) something that still felt like a paranormal episode to him. And the karaoke trip was just the result of a misunderstanding with John over Kevin’s role in Evie’s disappearance, even if the song seemed to convince him — temporarily, it turned out — that he wanted to be alive and with his family and friends. Here, though, his suicidal depression is so profound and inescapable that he goes into the water, repeatedly, half out of the hope that he may not come up. (It’s another thing he and his ex-wife have in common.) Michael can see that this is what’s motivating him, even if he’s too shy and polite to say it aloud, and Prime Minister Christopher Sunday also seems to know that he didn’t come to this place for the song, the shoes, or any other reason.
And who is there to save Kevin from his own misery and confusion? Why, it’s the bane of his existence, Patti Levin, there to return the very difficult favor he did by drowning her in a well in “International Assassin.” Once again, Patti — even this afterlife caricature of her — seems initially monstrous, as she tries to manipulate President Kevin into launching a nuclear missile strike that will bring about the end of their world. And once again, Patti’s motivations prove to be more complex and less evil than that. Yes, she is destroying this world, but she’s doing it for Kevin, who needs to stop having it as his escape hatch for every time things are difficult for him back in his own. He confessed to Laurie in “Certified” that he felt more alive as an assassin — or, here, as Commander-in-Chief — than he has in a long time as a small-town police chief. His romantic relationships have never quite worked out, he’s never been entirely committed to parenthood (Nora giving up custody of Lily was a relief to him) as anything but a way to ignore his other problems, and the post-Departure world makes no sense to him. Wouldn’t it just be easier to disappear into Kevin Harvey’s tailored suits once and for all? It could be, but Patti — with some assists from God(*) — won’t let him do it. She not only nukes this world so Kevin can’t come back, but forces him to read aloud from a romance novel he’s written (at least one of the afterlife Kevins has written it, anyway) that forces him to confront his own cowardice and self-destructive behavior with Nora, and to realize that continually running away from his life has only made everything worse for him and the people he only truly realizes he cares about when they’re out of reach. They haven’t Departed — nor has he, since Assassin Land, if it exists outside Kevin’s head, is about more traditional concepts of life and death — but he can somehow only truly see them when they’ve faded out like one of those pictures in the opening credits.
(*) This episode is overflowing with great, surprising, deadpan jokes, and I particularly enjoyed God/Burton explaining to Kevin that he only told Meg he was God as a pick-up line. That feels more or less accurate to the version of Burton we met on the Tasmanian lion sex party boat in “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World.”
“The Most Powerful Man in the World” is, like its predecessors, at once surreal, hilarious, and devastating, able to spin quickly from the whimsy of Patti singing a song about identical Kevins to the tune of the theme to The Patty Duke Show, to the unexpectedly poignant reading from the romance novel, to one Kevin cutting out the other’s heart in order to destroy the world and save himself. Like those other times, it has no business working, except that all of it does, spectacularly, right down to the way the horns from Verdi’s “Va Pensiero” once again always blare at just the right dramatic moment.
It also, in many ways, feels like an end not just to Assassin Land, but to the story of The Leftovers — or, at least, to this phase of it. The episode opens with Max Richter’s theme music from season one playing over the title sequence from seasons two and three, followed by a flashback to Kevin and Nora’s relatively happy life right after they took in Lily, and when John and the others bring Kevin back to life while he’s drowning in the presidential limo, we see flashes of many dark and violent moments from throughout the series. And the seventh anniversary of Departure Day appears to come without a new calamity, though it’s of course hard to judge based on the handful of people who are still at Grace’s ranch. The series has never been about unraveling the mystery of the Departure or saving the world, anyway, but about unraveling the inner turmoil of these characters and trying to save them from themselves before their despair at this broken world does them in. Kevin has had epiphanies before that didn’t quite take, and maybe this one won’t either. But it doesn’t get more definite, symbolically, than nuking the hell out of the place you try to vanish to when your life becomes too much to bear. Kevin will never be permanently fixed, because that’s not how grief, or depression, or life itself works. But I felt hope for him as he sat on Grace’s roof with his father, and considered the question the old man asked him:
Now what for The Leftovers? If nothing else, the finale has to return to that older Nora who was living in Australia at the end of the season premiere. When asked if she knew anyone named Kevin, that Nora’s eyes darkened and she said no, which suggests Kevin won’t be able to undo the damage he caused in their argument at the end of “G’Day Melbourne.” When you tell the woman you allegedly love that she’s better off disappearing into wherever her husband and children went in a cosmic tragedy, there is no easy way to come back from that. And presumably, we have to find out if the LADR scientists allowed Nora to go through their machine — and, if so, where she went and how she ended up back on earth as an old, scarred woman.
The series didn’t necessarily start out as a universe-spanning romance, or even really as the story of Nora, who was a minor character for the first half of that first season. But she suffered more directly from the Sudden Departure than anyone else on the show, and she has become the beating, wounded heart of The Leftovers. Almost anything could happen in the finale — and after a season featuring Cousin Larry, evil twins, an orgy, a nuclear apocalypse, and God being eaten by a lion (not all in that order), I would be surprised by almost nothing that Lindelof, Perrotta, and company attempt.
But if I could throw a wish out into the universe, it’s that the final season of The Leftovers ends the same way the previous two did: with glimpses of Kevin and Nora smiling and crying tears of joy. And, because it would be the end of the story, we can all pretend that the third try was the most successful.
Some other thoughts:
* I also have an interview with the show’s tremendous music supervisor, Liza Richardson. Tonight’s closing song was one of my favorites from the entire series: a few minutes after Patti sings an altered version of the Patty Duke theme, we get Patty Duke herself singing a song that just happens to be called “The End of the World.” I’d like to believe that this song only came into existence after Lindelof traveled back in time and asked Duke to record it for the sake of the show, but it was actually editor David Eisenberg who found it after Lindelof played him the Patty Duke theme for the first time. (Eisenberg laid the song over the final scene on his own, played it for Lindelof, then told him who was singing. “And then we high-fived,” Lindelof explains.) Richardson and I, meanwhile, discuss the decision to use the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” — a great and apropos song, but also one that’s been featured on many soundtracks (and that evokes thoughts of Big Love to many HBO viewers) — for the scene where one Kevin murders the other as part of the Fisher Protocol.
* Kevin Sr. is perhaps the most narcissistic and insufferable character on the show — so much of this season’s violence is a direct result of his insistence that he, and only he, can be at the center of a plan to save the entire world — but he’s more humbled in this one even before the storm goes away without divine intervention, leaving him forlorn on a roof just like the Millerites. There’s a tenderness to the way he lowers Kevin into the tub — after first acknowledging that he can’t, in fact, do this most important part himself — in a way that evokes images of a father helping to baptize his son.
* The afterlife’s version of the Guilty Remnant isn’t exactly the same as the real world’s — where GR members get stoned and beaten in Mapleton, they’re popular enough in Assassin Land to get a member elected president, and to have their anti-family platform written into law — but it’s still funny to hear President Kevin tell the Melbourne crowd that the GR stopped being silent and chain-smoking because “we realized those traditions were stupid.”
* God is a troll: Burton convinces Assassin Kevin to leave his guns behind with a Machiavelli line about how all unarmed prophets have been victorious while all armed ones have been destroyed, when the actual Machiavelli quote says the exact opposite. One might even suggest he’s being Machiavellian to trick Kevin into doing what he wants.
* Where other shows this spring have gone out of their way to hide surprise cameos by saving the actor’s guest credit for after the episode, Ann Dowd and Liv Tyler are back in the main title sequence again. (Michael Gaston was a cast regular in season one, but is listed in the closing credits here with Lindsay Duncan, Bill Camp, and the other guest stars.)
* In his letter to critics in advance of HBO sending out screeners for the final season, Lindelof riffed about spoilers, writing, “For example, when Liv Tyler shoots lasers out of her eyes in Episode 4, we want that to be as shocking for them as it was for you. Liv Tyler does not shoot lasers out of her eyes in Episode 4. It’s Episode 6, actually.” When Tyler turned up here in the seventh episode, I kept wondering if that joke was really a spoiler hiding in plain sight, but alas, no laser eyes for Assassin Land Meg.
* The very long staircase into the bunker where so much of the episode’s action takes place is located in the Melbourne City campus of RMIT University.
Boy oh boy, that’s almost it, isn’t it, folks? I’ll be seeing the 75-minute series finale in advance, so a review should be here a week from tonight, along with an interview or three with various people involved with this special, special show. Also look for some pre-finale coverage over the next week, including members of the Uproxx TV team attempting to each pick out only one Leftovers moment as their favorite. Wish us luck!
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org