6:00am PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: 'The Leftovers' Ends on Perfect Emotional Terms
[This contains spoilers for the Sunday, June 4 series finale of HBO's The Leftovers.]
Before the final season of The Leftovers began, HBO released episode titles for the first seven episodes, but not for the finale.
I tweeted, "Sweet! Ep8 of S3 of The Leftovers is titled 'A Full Explanation for The Departure That Is Both Physically and Religiously Satisfying'!"
It didn't go viral, because ratings show that ordinary people don't care that much about The Leftovers, even if it's completing a lovely three-season run. But it did get retweeted 50+ times and a number of listings-based websites got the impression it was serious (even though a follow-up tweet clarified that I was joking). For weeks, those sites listed episode titles for all eight Leftovers episodes including mine.
It wasn't a great tweet, but it obviously played to two competing mindsets among the show's fans. The first, from people watching through a filter of literalism, was the hope that The Leftovers couldn't possibly end without an explanation for the Sudden Departure (or various other weird things) and the series had just gone with a slightly cheeky way of making that promise. The second, from people watching the show with awareness of the series creator's pedigree, was that trolling the audience with a finale title like that would be vintage Damon Lindelof.
The title of Sunday's finale was actually the far more appropriate "The Book of Nora" and those checking recaps looking for a full explanation for The Departure that is both physically and religiously satisfying, should know that no such answer was given.
Of course it wasn't.
Have you been paying attention?
The Leftovers was never heading toward a conclusion that was "satisfying" on a straight-forward plot level. If that's your plan, you don't set your penultimate episode in an alternate dimension/reality in which your hero is an assassin tasked with killing the president of the United States, who oddly is also your hero. You arc in the direction of something resolvable. Instead, the finale continued one of the season's big plotlines, left out its biggest moment, jumped forward in time and concentrated on only two characters in the show's vast tapestry — really only nodding to one other character, whose very presence was a violation of the emotionally shattering end of the season's antepenultimate episode.
In case you didn't get it or remember, Lindelof returned to "Let the Mystery Be," the delightfully on-the-nose theme song for the second season, to accompany the finale's opening credits.
One last time, "Let the mystery be" and enjoy the journey. For heaven's sake, Lindelof and Lost gave viewers a ton of answers in its finale and the percentage of viewers who hated those answers or, to this day, willfully misinterpret them is way, way too high.
This way is better.
Instead of a finale that was all about explanations and settling story, The Leftovers had a series finale that was all about emotional resolution for its two main characters. In that sense, it was an expertly made and appropriate wrap-up for what was always a small, personal story set against the backdrop of a global cataclysm, with locations spanning the country and the planet.
And in a show that has leaned on the weird and unsettling to tremendous effect, it was a finale that was as close to straightforward as The Leftovers gets, at least depending on how you viewed what transpired.
We started the episode in mundane-meets-science-fiction fashion with Nora following through on her desire to go through the $20,000 experiment to be reunited with her children. It was a process we discovered involved a long trailer, a lot of pipes and wires and lasers, stripping naked and curling into a fetal ball and basically becoming a star child, leaving only a shell of yourself in whatever icky transport liquid you were immersed in. On the verge of holding her breath for 30 seconds and going off into the unknown, we cut forward an indeterminate number of years to where we met a freckled, lighter-haired older Nora delivering birds to a church.
That version of Nora was in the premiere and for at least a half-hour of the finale's 72-minute running time, we were supposed to be left guessing on the what/where/how of her existence. She talked to Laurie, who we'd been led to believe had killed herself. She was confronted by Kevin, who claimed to have found her during an unrelated visit to Australia and who reminded her only of a single conversation they'd had, as if they hadn't spent years as a couple. Was this, to use Lost parlance, Nora's Sideways? Was this a reset reality of some sort in which she and Kevin hadn't cohabited and Laurie hadn't died and who knows what other things were possible? Did Nora's children exist somewhere we hadn't seen just waiting to come out at a heartbreaking moment to say, "Hi mom, who is that?" only to have her look sad and say, "Oh, it was just somebody I used to know, in another life"?
For a while we didn't know how much Nora seemed to remember, so maybe this wasn't in any way the Nora we thought we knew.
This was our Nora, living in hiding. This was our Laurie, who apparently decided not to kill herself, which is good. And this was our Kevin, pretending not to remember as a way of avoiding dealing with where he left Nora, on the verge of being eye-catchingly drenched in fire alarm sprinkler showers in a Melbourne hotel after a painful comment about her children.
The two flirted and reconciled beautifully, a decade or a couple decades past their last interaction, at a wedding for an Australian couple who reaffirmed many of the series' themes about how finding the right person to love can be the thing that lets you wipe the ledger clean and start again — a new life in which you make mistakes, but never sin. We were treated to a pair of lovely animal-based metaphors aligned with more of the show's themes. There were the doves (pigeons?) that Nora provided the church, flying deliverers of inscribed hopes and dreams, symbols of irrational optimism and faith in the face of the empirical science that those birds couldn't fly more than 50 miles. And then there was the scapegoat, a goat that would be weighted down with beaded necklaces representing people's sins and then taken out into the wilderness theoretically never to be seen again. But the goat got tangled up in a fence trying to ascend a hill, unable to make its own way forward under the burden of assumed sins.
I mean, they didn't reconcile instantly. Before going to the wedding at all, Nora had to burst through one emotional barrier and then a literal barrier. And after leaving the wedding in a rush, she had to set that ghost free, untethering the animal from its sins. And then Kevin had to come back to her and, after confessing he remembered everything, he listened to Nora's story. That wasn't a story of leaving the scientific experiment prematurely, but rather one of finding herself in the world of The Departed, the world occupied only by the 2 percent, taken not by some divine force but by a natural occurrence resembling whatever bizarre thing the scientists devised, or something. In that world, Nora wandered and found her way to Mapleton and to her old house and she saw her kids; and rather than a loving reunion, she had a different reaction.
"They were happy and I understood that here in this place, they were the lucky ones. In a world full of orphans, they still had each other and I was a ghost. I was a ghost who had no place there," Nora reflected. So she found the first scientist to come to the other side and she got him to make her a machine to come back and she came back.
"Did I think about you? Did I want to call you? Did I want to be with you, Kevin? Of course I did," Nora said. "But so much time had passed. It was too late. And I knew that if I told you what happened, that you would never believe me."
Kevin believed her. Or he said he did.
It doesn't make a lick of difference. Let the mystery be.
Off the record, because I assume you won't tell anyone, do I believe her? Probably not. I mean, not that she wandered for years through what must've been an underpopulated dystopia and that she saw her kids but didn't say a word to them and then spent more years wandering through an underpopulated dystopia in order to find an exit. I believe she believes it, or she needs to believe it. But does she need to believe it literally or just as yet another metaphor? Is it the story she told herself to allow herself to move forward, the story that lets her live her life, even a different and changed life, in relative peace? Yes. I believe that Kevin knows Nora needs to believe it. And just as Nora needs that forgiveness from herself, to know that her kids and husband are OK and happy without her, Kevin needs forgiveness from Nora. I believe every word she spoke was her truth, even if it was a figurative truth, and believing somebody's truth is a righteous thing to do.
To believe Nora literally is to believe the crazy scientists and to grasp at the straw that even if you don't understand the explanation for The Departure that somebody in the show did, and figured out a way to get around it. To believe Nora is to believe that The Leftovers was set in a world of mystery and whimsy, but also one in which a dimensional portal could be invented and would actually do exactly what it was supposed to do. I know why Nora would want to believe in this and why countless others would need to believe, but I don't. I believe The Leftovers was the sort of show in which characters would want and need those answers and explanations, but not the kind of show in which they'd get them so concretely. Like I know that Kevin goes to an alt-world in which he's an assassin, but the way he gets there is semi-religious and semi-mystical and semi-medical. It's mumbo jumbo accepted by all. That's how things happen in The Leftovers.
Feel free to disagree. Just don't tell me I'm wrong. You're not wrong either.
One thing I hope we can agree on, for the last time in this particular show, is the majesty of Carrie Coon. Acting in all of that old age makeup isn't easy. Allow me to show you Mandy Moore on NBC's This Is Us and then let me remind you that of the actors who have to deal with that show's hideous old-age makeup, she's the one who's OK. Coon was, as ever, heartbreaking. As Nora, she was pretty much an emotional tractor beam of empathy, from her physical vulnerability nearing the transport chamber to her emotional vulnerability begging Kevin with her eyes to cosign this psychic loan she so badly needed in the end.
An Emmy nod for Carrie Coon is one of the two or three things I want most on nomination morning next month.
I wouldn't quibble with recognition for Justin Theroux either. His makeup wasn't quite as flawless as Coon's, but he owned it and acted through it perfectly. His willful persistence in his story about happening upon Nora was stubbornly perfect and so was his confession and exposure, complete with anger and confusion and frustration, but finally with acceptance and love.
And the show's final shots were perfect, so don't let me forget to salute director Mimi Leder one last time. Nora and Kevin agreeing "I'm here" and "You're here," followed by a cut outside of Nora's house to the scapegoat departing and the birds returning, each with a message of love, was true to everything The Leftovers was. It was a show about forgiveness, reconciliation and finding peace. That's where we left things.
Feel free to demand more, to feel rooked by a lack of answers you were never promised.
Me, I'm letting the mystery be, one last time.