The Leftovers went big in its final season. Really big. Like “a whole episode on a Tasmanian ferry filled with lion-worshipping cult members who are having a highly organized orgy on the high seas” big. “Kevin drowns on purpose to send himself to an alternate reality where he is both the president and an assassin tasked with killing the president, and by the end of the episode President Kevin kills Assassin Kevin by removing a nuclear launch key from his abdomen and then blows up the world” big. “Nora Durst got a Wu-Tang tattoo” big. There was a lot going on. That’s what I’m saying here.
Which made the quiet, almost simple finale so cool. It wasn’t about explosions, or visions, or big exciting swings. It was, at its heart, the final chapter in a love story between two broken people. It was a strange love story, I’ll give you that. There was a Sisyphean Australian goat rescue involved. That’s The Leftovers, though. You have to expect a goat rescue or two. But the point of it all, as it’s been all along, even during the lion boat orgy, is that it was about the people on the show, not the mystery in the background. It was sweet. I cried a little.
The most interesting moment of the finale came right near the end, when Nora told Kevin what happened with the LADR machine and in the years since they last saw each other. Her story left us two possibilities.
NUMBER ONE: Nora was telling the truth, and she really did pass through, travel for years to find her family, see they were okay, travel for years to find a scientist, make him build her a machine, pass back through, then live in Australia doing pigeon things until Kevin found her.
NUMBER TWO: Nora’a story was entirely made up, and she chickened out in that last moment before the machine filled up, and now she’s telling a different version to Kevin because it sounds better or because it’s what she wants to believe or for whatever reason.
I’ve talked to a few people about this scene and opinions are all over the place. Some thought it was the truth and didn’t even consider the alternative until someone else brought it up. Others thought it sounded suspicious from word one. And if you were hoping for clarification from the person who wrote it or the person who acted it, well, tough cookies.
From Alan Sepinwall’s post-finale interview with Damon Lindelof:
I guess what I’m at least learning conversationally as people are starting to watch the finale, or I’m getting interviewed about it, is that there’s a larger proportion of people who haven’t even considered the possibility that she’s not telling the truth than I anticipated. If I ask if they believed her, they go, “What?” That’s surprising to me. At the very least, I thought her story would smell fishy and then people would decide whether or not to believe it. The fact that they just take it completely and totally at face value that it’s the truth has been surprising to me.
From Alan Sepinwall’s post-finale interview with Carrie Coon:
We took a straw poll in the crew, and they were split about 50-50 as to who believed it and who didn’t. And the only thing I knew is that I would never tell anyone what I believed. Because it would rob the viewers of the experience for themselves. We do want answers. We are built that way, and I am not supplying an answer to that question. The whole point is, it reveals more about the viewer than me. But I certainly weighed both.
So, yeah. Bupkis. And to some degree, it doesn’t even matter. Both scenarios get us to the same basic point. In one, Nora’s journey to reunite with her family ends prematurely because she sees them and doesn’t want to intrude. In the other, Nora’s journey to reunite with her family ends more prematurely because it never gets started. Either way, she’s still living alone in the outback tending to pigeons and working with a nun who may or may not be fornicating with a cool motorcycle guy. Life goes on. You adopt a goat. Etc. etc. etc.
But on the other hand, it matters so much, because accepting it as the truth requires accepting a bunch of other things, in a way the show hasn’t always asked us to accept them. Suddenly there’s a science fiction explanation to everything, with operational machines on either side of existence that can send people back and forth. We would know where everyone is and how to get to them and there’s no way that information doesn’t become, like, a thing. Someone would become a billionaire off of the technology, many times over. Throw enough time and money at it and they could effectively undo the whole Departure. It’s awfully close to an answer for a show that hasn’t made a habit of providing them.
(I do realize I’m making an odd distinction here. I suppose if Kevin can zip off to a whimsical assassin world every time he almost dies, then there’s no reason Nora can’t, too. It just felt… different this time. I’ll leap with this show almost anywhere, totally blind, but for some reason this one felt like one step too far. Maybe I would feel different if we saw it, or parts of it. I don’t know. I blame Carrie Coon’s prodigious acting ability.)
That’s why I think Nora was lying. To me, it fits in better with what the show is and has always been. The Leftovers is a show about people trying to figure out how to deal, often in weird and unhealthy ways. Especially Nora. Especially Nora. Please see “hiring a prostitute to shoot you in the chest while you wear a bulletproof vest, just to feel something” if you need an example. It’s a very short drive from there to inventing an elaborate story about skipping across planes of existence and traveling years on a boat to find mad scientists. (Skepticism aside, I would 100 percent watch a Leftovers movie about this story.) And it would make a nice bookend with her “I don’t lie” claim earlier in the episode, which we know from three seasons of experience was itself a lie. I don’t think she did it to be malicious, and she might even believe it’s true in her mind (which wouldn’t technically make it “a lie” then, but still), I just don’t think the actions happened as she described them. It would be too much.
So that’s the cynical view of that scene, which, as Carrie Coon says, probably says as much about me as it does about the show. But there’s also a romantic view, too. One where Nora’s lie about this, and why she disappeared from Kevin’s life and never contacted him, is the flip side to his lie when he showed up at her door pretending that nothing after the dance happened between them. And in that view, especially if he thinks her story is a fabrication, Kevin’s “I believe you” changes from a literal one where he believes the facts of her story to one where he’s willing to accept it, and her, in full, because he recognizes the world has broken both of them a little bit and this is what she needs. Believing her isn’t so much about “believing her” as it is about saying he gets her and understands her and, if that version of the story helps her, believing her children are safe and happy somewhere else, then he’s on board. Sometimes he sees dead people, after all. Everyone on this show is a little messy. This would be the two of them finally accepting each other, as is, substantial messes and all. I might cry a little again.
The thing of it is, reasonable people can disagree on this. And they will, hopefully for a while. The Leftovers was such a terrific show. I hope “Was Nora’s story true?” lives on in pop culture like the cut to black moment on The Sopranos, even if it does so on a smaller level. But mostly, I hope we never really find out. The second season theme song, which was brought back for the finale and probably should have tipped us off a bit, said it best and kind of makes most of this argument moot, in the grand scheme of things.
Sometimes it’s best to just let the mystery be.