'The Leftovers' Solved Its 'Mystery' in the Perfect Way
Burning questions were left unanswered in the series finale of The Leftovers, HBO's apocalyptically-minded Sunday night drama. But the series, from Damon Lindelof (Lost) and Tom Perrotta (Little Children), always refused easy explanation and encouraged its characters, viewers, and critics to follow the instructions of the Iris Dement track that served as the theme song for Season 2, which returned again for an encore in the finale: let the mystery be. Still, the show's final hour provided closure.
Throughout its final eight episode third season, Lindelof and Perrotta put the major characters, already collectively scarred by the Rapture-like event that occurred before the series began, through life-altering experiences that often doubled as activities you might find on a weird vacation itinerary. Kevin's dad (Scott Glenn) wandered around the desert. Laurie (Amy Brenneman) went scuba-diving. Matt (Christopher Eccleston) met God on a sex boat.
But it was always going to come down Kevin (Justin Theroux) and Nora (Carrie Coon), the show's dysfunctional Jim and Pam. You could look to the finales of the previous seasons for clues: the polarizing first season ended with Nora deciding not to leave Kevin after finding a baby on his doorstep; the more universally acclaimed second season closed with Kevin returning home post-Resurrection to find Nora waiting for him with the baby in her arms.
Clearly, this is a love story.
The finale, "The Book of Nora," doesn't start like one: the episode begins with a sequence ripped from a science-fiction story, albeit one told with the show's distinct combination of emotional bleakness and wit. We see Nora preparing for a complex procedure that will, according to a pair of scientists she meets after receiving a message from Perfect Strangers star Mark Linn-Baker, blast her with enough radiation to send her to the place where her children disappeared to after the Sudden Departure. Like Kevin, who drowned himself multiple times in the penultimate episode in order to do battle with a mirror version of himself in the show's Limbo-like afterlife, she's ready to go.
Coon plays all of this with a focus that's both unnerving and hilarious. She jokes her way through one last game of Mad Libs with her brother Matt and quips about a "fossil" of another human who went through the same experiment. When she makes the long walk to the pod that will eventually become a watery grave, she's determined and defiant. Only as the liquid begins to surround her, do we see the terror flash in her eyes. She gasps.
Then we cut to the future, an image of birds flapping in a bright blue sky. In a very Lost-like move, Lindelof teased this exact image at the beginning of Season 3, showing us an older Nora living life as a dove delivery woman in Australia. Instead of coming back to it all season like I suspected they might, the writers left the flash-forward for the final episode, which once again finds Kevin and Nora reuniting. Like most reunions, it's bittersweet.
By getting the complex plot resolution out of the way in last week's episode, which concluded with a dud apocalypse, Lindelof, Perrotta and director Mimi Leder are free to zero in on the fractured relationship at the heart of the show. Kevin, who appears to have no memory of his tumultuous past with Nora, shows up at her door, claims to be on vacation, and invites her to a nearby dance. Nora is skeptical and scared, but eventually decides to go. It turns out to be a wedding and the two sway together to Otis Redding's "I've Got Dreams To Remember." The series could have ended there.
But The Leftovers always digs deeper. In the final stretch of the finale, Kevin reveals that he was lying about not remembering their relationship and that he's spent years searching for her. In turn, Nora invites Kevin into her home to tell him a story over tea. In one of the show's most dazzling scenes, Nora tells Kevin what happened post-radiation-machine: She traveled to a mirror version of our own world where the missing 2% now live in relative isolation, she saw her children and husband with a new wife, decided she didn't belong with them, found the inventor of the radiation machine, forced him to build another version of it, and returned to our world.
It's a wonky story. But the actual content of Nora's tale and the veracity of it aren't the most important part of the scene. Is Nora telling the truth? It doesn't really matter. What matters is her asking Kevin if he believes her. The ability to be seen, loved, and understood by another person trumps any larger theological question. "Why wouldn't I believe you?" Kevin says to Nora, gripping her hand from across the small wooden table. "You're here."
We're all just fucking here on this terrifying planet. It's a simple idea, but a profound one. Over the course of its three seasons, The Leftovers became one of the best shows on TV by toggling between Perrotta's literary affinity for ambiguity and Lindelof's deep yearning for answers. In a way, the show did provide an answer to one of its driving questions -- where did the victims of the Sudden Departure go? -- but it did so without sacrificing the sense of mystery at its center. If anything, the answer only creates more mystery. But now it's time to let it be.