The Leftovers – Season 3

The Leftovers – Season 3

One of the Most Mystifying Shows Ever Made Ends the Way it Lived, Revealing Nothing While Saying Everything


What happens when we die? This is a rhetorical exercise, obviously, so please don’t send me any pamphlets, but, as far as unanswerable questions go, there aren’t really any higher than that of death. Even if you read those testimonials from people who have technically died for several moments and “come back”, you can’t really trust what they say, can you? Surely, whatever’s waiting for us in the great beyond is unfathomable to our waking minds anyway, right? But… what if the story someone told you was really good? What if it was so convincing that it didn’t matter how much it forsook logic or reason? What if, deep down, you just wanted to believe, that the question you’re left with in the face of such belief is, “Why wouldn’t I?”.

That’s the question The Leftovers third season – and, fuck, basically the entire show – has been building slowly towards. Except, in this scenario, the big mystery isn’t death but simply… disappearance. Here’s the story: on the 14th of October, 2011, two percent of Earth’s population (roughly 140 million people) vanished. Why? No one knows, but those who remain – the leftovers, as it were – now have this perplexing, senseless event (The Sudden Departure, as it comes to be known) to contend with as they continue to live out the rest of their lives.

Meanwhile, most mainstream religions decline as a smattering of nihilistic cults rise up in their stead. Among them is a sect called The Guilty Remnant, a makeshift community whose members dress in all white, constantly smoke and never utter a word. One of their recruits, Laurie (the superb Amy Brenneman), is the ex-wife of a disgruntled police chief, Kevin Garvey (the chiseled Justin Theroux, in his best ever role), who’s struggling to keep his family together in the wake of the Sudden Departure. Later, he hooks up with Nora Durst (a faultless Carrie Coon), who lost both her children and her husband on October 14th. Kevin and Nora eventually relocate to Jarden, Texas, a town that was renamed “Miracle” when it was discovered that not a single inhabitant departed on that fateful October day.

I mean, I’ve heard of a White Power march, but… (HBO)

These are, basically, the proceedings of the first two seasons of The Leftovers. But, really, I’m getting a little too detail-oriented with what is often a pretty formless show, one that doesn’t have a plot so much as a very specific set of circumstances in which things of interest happen. And strange fuckin’ things, at that. Everyone is affected in one way or another by the Sudden Departure, and the hook of the show is in seeing how far these people will go for answers. And, even though in the long-run we aren’t given concrete solutions, The Leftovers offers enough in the way of suggestion and empathy to allow for emotional closure.

Season 3 mimics the structure of its previous season, kicking off its first episode (“The Book of Kevin”) with something like a fable. In the 1840s, we see the inhabitants of a small agrarian town fall prey to a prophet who keeps insisting that the day of rapture is soon to be upon them. Time after time, the people of this town climb on their roofs in the star-lit evening, eagre to meet their maker, and time after time they sullenly climb back down in the morning, their faith shaken but (for some of them, at least) still very much intact. Subtle? Hardly, but it’s beautifully shot and establishes a recurring theme of belief in the face of nothingness with a graceful vigor.

From that point on, The Leftovers’ final season denotes any changes that have occurred in the interim between now and the last season, with the big point of interest being the upcoming seven-year anniversary of the Sudden Departure. Afterwards, every subsequent installment picks a specific character in the show and presents us with their point of view for an episode. All of them, inexplicably, wind up in Australia in the end, which I guess is meant to be some sort of tongue-in-cheek stand in for the end of the world in this case? Or maybe the antipodes just seem naturally more predisposed to allow for weird shit and the weirder people that engage in it. Either way, it’s the kind of batshit decision that’s totally in keeping with this show, so out of nowhere and yet perfectly suitable considering what everyone’s going through.

If you’re gonna sit on a roof in Australia, at least have the decency to be drunk. (HBO)

So, first Nora spends a few days chasing what she thinks are con artists in the form of people offering transportation to wherever the departed were whisked away to all those years ago. Ultimately, she’s intrigued by the notion of becoming one of the departed and pursues these people, leading her and Kevin to Melbourne. Good thing, too, seeing as Kevin’s father Kevin Sr. (a wild-eyed Scott Glenn) is already there, trying to (brace yourself) learn all the elements of a traditional Aboriginal dance to stop the doomsday flood he believes is coming. When Nora’s religious brother, Matt (Christopher Eccleston, brilliant), hears that she and Kevin have absconded to Australia, he follows, winds up in Tasmania(!) and so has to take a ferry across to Melbourne. His journey, however, is somewhat marred by the fact that the ferry has been booked out by (ok, now fuckin’ brace yourself) a troupe of orgiastic Tasmanians who worship the offspring of a horny lion named Frasier by fucking all night long. Also, there’s a dude amongst them who actually claims to be God.

Yeah, so I get it, that all sounds pretty beyond the pale as far as reasonable plotting goes, but the tragedy these characters have been subjected to is so arbitrary and bizarre that it only seems reasonable their lives would continue in such a manner. The absurdity isn’t a smokescreen or there for lazy shock value, it’s the entire point. To paraphrase Community‘s Jeff Winger, if life is just a series of ridiculous attempts to be alive, then no one is living larger than these people. They thrash about in the emptiness surrounding them and try to make sense of the senseless by leaning into it, the only way they know how. Sometimes that means climbing into a big machine filled with liquified metal that may incinerate you; sometimes that means travelling to purgatory by drowning yourself… twice. In context, it’s the only sane thing left to do.

This is Theroux in one of his more clothed moments this season. Seriously, you see it all, and I’m not complaining. (HBO)

In the show’s final episode, “The Book of Nora”, many years have passed since Kevin and Nora became estranged. She remained in Australia and he returned to Jarden, believing she had died while trying to cross over to her husband and children. Through some confluence of events, Nora and Kevin are reunited and she tells him a story that throws everything we know about the show out into a different light. She says that, in fact, she did cross over to the realm of the departed, that where those people now are is basically the world as it is now, except the leftovers to those people are the ones who departed. And, in her absence, her family has moved on without her; to them, she has become a ghost, much as they have become to her. It’s a neat twist, and Coon’s restrained way of telling it without any flashback visuals is a novel choice… but I’m not sure that’s all that is happening here.

Nora’s story really is just that: it’s something she tells Kevin, and he chooses to believe her. It’s the very crux of their final encounter, and the show as a whole. We live by the stories we subscribe to, regardless of how little evidence we have to support them. The Guilty Remnant believe in nothing, and they deprive themselves of life as a gesture towards that. Matt holds onto his faith in God by insisting that this is all a part of the plan, turning Kevin’s life into some bastardised version of the bible. The people of Jarden needed a miracle, and so they became it.

And Nora and Kevin… well, if there’s going to be happy ending here for either of them, there needs to be a reason they spent so long apart. Kevin needs to have a way of believing that Nora has moved on from her children, something that was constantly a point of contention between them, a trauma she could not untangle herself from. So, she supplies him with a version of their lives in which she has. It doesn’t diminish the beauty of it; on the contrary, buying into a shared delusion is basically the essence of love, and doing so in a world as merciless as that of The Leftovers might be the only reasonable choice one can make. So Kevin goes along with Nora’s story, maybe without even knowing that’s what he’s doing. “Why wouldn’t I?”, he asks her. “You’re here.” That’s what’s important.

Really, what else is there? (HBO)

It has to be said that there’s a small yet crucial decision that the showrunners make for the last episode of The Leftovers: they finally bring back the second season’s theme song for the opening credits, Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be“, in place of the random selections they’ve been throwing at us for the last seven weeks to keep us on our toes. This opening, which feature snapshots of families and friends all slowly disappearing into nothingness, are perhaps the most perfect credits ever made for a show, and are served wonderfully by DeMent’s little country ditty. She insists, over a sunny guitar and fiddle, that we embrace the randomness and unknowable expanse of life, while everywhere around us people fade from view, their outlines replaced by the skyline, by a crystal clear blue or bulging nebula. It’s all we are, in the end: stardust and lightning, air and colour and nothingness, all forced into a collision to create the briefest of flashes in the darkness. Asking why is besides the point, argues The Leftovers. Try asking, “Why not?” instead.

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