In the first scene of The Leftovers, a busy mom’s baby disappears from its car seat. A young boy’s dad disappears while pushing a shopping cart. A speeding car (driverless?) crashes into another car. We hear a cacophony of voices on the 911 line. Then silence, and on the screen we read “THREE YEARS LATER”.
From the beginning, a few things were apparent, if not quite clear. As the title suggested, The Leftovers wasn’t going to be a series about the people who were taken in a rapture-like event (2% of the world’s population, it is later explained). Instead, it would be about the 98% of the people who were left behind. Also, while it wasn’t clear from what was on the screen, the series’ co-creator, Damon Lindelof (working with Tom Perrotta, who wrote the novel on which the show is based), made sure to tell anyone who would listen that this new series wasn’t going to be a guessing game about what happened that day three years ago. Lindelof was co-creator of Lost, a series that spent six seasons making us guess what the hell was going on and then in the end didn’t answer the question clearly enough for many viewers. At the end of three seasons of The Leftovers, it’s possible to claim that the Departure was just a MacGuffin.
Which leaves the question, what, if anything, was The Leftovers about? For all of the surprises the narrative showed us, the answer isn’t found in a list of “what happened next”. I was reminded of Battlestar Galactica, a genre show with a simple basic storyline (humans create robots to serve them, robots rebel). Sure, BSG was “about” the battle between humans and cylons. But its reach was so great, so ambitious, that a mere description of the storyline was inadequate. The series was about what it means to be human, it was about the role of the military in a time of crisis, it was about politics, it was about religion, and yes, it was also a space opera. Similarly, The Leftovers is about our place in the universe, our relationship to religion/god, and, over everything, about grief.
The plot was often so loopy you needed a notepad to keep up. Maureen Ryan, who had some of the best writing on the series (including one piece I’ll get to later), began a review of one episode as follows:
For my own amusement, I sometimes imagine describing individual episodes of “The Leftovers” to people who’ve never seen the show.
Let’s try it with this installment, shall we?
“A former sheriff from a small town in New York is in Australia, where his father has become convinced of the existence of a song that will stop the planet from being engulfed in a world-ending flood. The father drowns his son, and the son, Kevin, travels to an alternate realm that he has visited before, where he met God, did karaoke, and killed a woman who had been appearing to him in his ‘real’ life. When Kevin enters this realm again, he is both an assassin (as he was the first time he went there), and also the President of the United States, who was elected on a platform of wearing all-white clothes, ending marriage and engaging in the total destruction of basically everything.
“The woman he met and killed the first time through is there; she is the Secretary of Defense and she wants him to launch the nukes that will kill everyone. Another person he knew from his ‘real’ life is there — she’s the Vice President — and she tries to stop the launch from happening, and the VP also helps him find the room that will allow him to communicate with the Prime Minister of Australia. The Prime Minister, Christopher Sunday, may know the crucial song Kevin needs, and despite the fact that she helps him, Kevin kills the Vice President.
“By the way, the ‘real’ Kevin can occupy the body of either Kevin — the President or the assassin — and he switches back and forth between them by looking at reflective surfaces. Eventually there’s a showdown between the Kevins, with the Secretary of Defense urging Kevin to launch the nukes, and he does that after killing one of his selves. Oh, and God is giving Kevin instructions part of the time, and a romance novel one of the Kevins wrote — which was hidden behind a White House portrait of Millard Fillmore — ends up figuring pretty prominently in the whole thing.”
It was fun to watch stuff like this. But the crucial moment in the episode came from the simple act of Kevin nuking the world. For he had used his ... what, ability? ... ability to move back and forth between realms (by dying in the “real” world) to avoid dealing with the complications of life (in the “real” world). It is an enormous step for Kevin to finally cut off access to the “other world” to which he would escape.
You could get hung up on how all of this works ... Ryan gets a lot of humor out of a simple plot description. But you can also avoid the MacGuffin. It’s not about trips to alternate worlds, it’s about a troubled, depressed man trying to access his place in the world, trying to figure out if it is possible for him to be a part of that world, to live.
If this all sounds too depressing to watch, well, most people think the first season was too depressing, but that things changed after that. To be honest, I thought they were exaggerating how Season One came across, but then I looked at what I’d written at the time: “The Leftovers is one of the most relentlessly depressing shows ever made.”
All of which might help you understand how surprised I was in a good way that the series offered what could be perceived as a happy ending. Not a happy ending that explained the Departure, or made everything turn out great for everyone, but an ending with two survivors finally understanding each other, with a life they will now live together.
After Season Two, I wrote, “What makes it so good? The way it looks so closely at how events affect the various characters ... this is part of why it is an uncomfortable series, pain and guilt and depression aren’t comfortable. It has just enough magical elements to keep us on our toes. And there are so many actors doing such great jobs.” This pretty much describes Season Three as well, but where before, I singled out Justin Theroux, now it’s time to give Carrie Coon her due.
Before The Leftovers, I had never heard of Carrie Coon. Now, she’s everywhere (currently starring in Fargo). And she is so amazing, it’s almost impossible to believe we didn’t already know her. Coon, and her character Nora Durst, goes on arguably the greatest journey of everyone. Nora sneaks up on us ... you wouldn’t know in the first episodes that she was a particularly important character (she is the anti-MacGuffin). She is noteworthy mainly because while everyone seems to have lost someone, she has lost her entire family. She would seem to have more reason to grieve than others. But she is stoic. Then, in an episode in the middle of Season One, she hires a prostitute to shoot her while Nora wears a bulletproof vest. She is alive only when she feels pain.
Over the course of the series, Nora as a character takes on more importance, and much of this is thanks to Coon. You can imagine the people behind the show thinking, “This woman is incredible, we have to give her more to do.” She never fails. For this reason among many, it is only appropriate that she gives the long monologue that closes the series. The close-ups are so powerful (props to Mimi Leder, who directed the finale and many other episodes).
The crucial lines are “I believe you” and “I’m here”. It’s not a case of what is true, of whether Nora is “explaining” the Departure. It’s a case of finding someone willing to believe that your world as you experience it is real. And for all of the metaphysical aspects of The Leftovers, it ends with something concrete: “I’m here.”
Finally, I would be remiss without mentioning one of the great pieces of criticism I have ever read. Check that ... great pieces of writing. Mo Ryan, one of our most reliably excellent TV critics, wrote a long and very personal essay.
Whatever our damage, we all just want to be known, to be seen unflinchingly — and maybe even compassionately — no matter how many worlds we inhabit or places we hide. Human beings can find those bonds — those momentary, subatomic collisions — in the most unlikely places: At the bottom of a well, at a dinner table, on a bridge in Texas, on a Tasmanian sex boat.
If we’re lucky, our shaggy, spectacular, evolving, terrible selves are recognized in this life, once in a while. Maybe even all at once — the dream is for all of our quantum locations to be spotted. What if, for the briefest span of time, an observer could pause the hurtling energy of the universe and pin down every single place and time in which we exist? Everything seen, mapped, understood.
I have had some moments like that. More than a few courtesy of an HBO drama featuring an orgy. (I know.)
Those flashes of recognition are not just enough. They are everything.
I wish I didn’t identify with Nora Durst so much, some days. Because Carrie Coon is such a great actress, and because this show is working on such an enormously accomplished level, Nora’s heroic effort to seem normal slays me. It’s perfect, it’s wrenchingly real, it’s a meteor screaming across the sky, one that I can see from every plane of existence.
In flashes, in small moments, Carrie shows you just how monumentally difficult it has always been for Nora to go through the motions, to get through the day, to tell herself that everything is more or less OK. She’s got this.
No one sees the strain, the gears working at capacity, the levers and pistons giving off steam, the boiler close to exploding. But it’s in her eyes; even when she’s silent, she crackles with ropey, alert energy. It’s so much damn work to live, much less to care. Nora can’t stop, she won’t stop, she’s afraid to stop. She can’t afford to know what happens if she does.
For years after the Departure, she kept going, because she didn’t have a choice. Did she?
Actually, for a long time, she chose a lie. I get it.
What monster would deny Nora her lies? That she loves (loved?) Kevin, that she could survive losing her family, that she could find a new career and reasons to keep living, and that it would be OK. Sometimes you fake it ’til you make it, and who’s to say she wouldn’t have made it, if she believed hard enough, if she tried hard enough, if she just endured?
I’ve had people tell me they like when I assign grades to shows. I’m not sure why I often resist this ... I have no problem attaching number rankings to movies. In the case of The Leftovers, the question of ranking is surprising, beyond the fact that rankings are silly. Well, I gave Season One of The Leftovers an A. I gave Season Two of The Leftovers an A, and gave the season finale an A+. And now I’m repeating myself: grade for Season Three, A, grade for series finale, A+. Grade for series? If every season is an A, and the season finales are A+, then it’s safe to say, we’re talking about a really good series. I’m not prepared to say anything beyond that. But I am as surprised as anyone that over the course of three seasons, The Leftovers became a legitimate candidate for what Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz call “The Inner Circle”.