The Leftovers finale, reviewed.

In Its Finale, The Leftovers Unveiled Its Most Radical Twist Yet: Closure

In Its Finale, The Leftovers Unveiled Its Most Radical Twist Yet: Closure

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Slate's Culture Blog
June 4 2017 10:16 PM

In Its Finale, The Leftovers Unveiled Its Most Radical Twist Yet: Closure

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Christopher Eccleston and Carrie Coon in The Leftovers.

Ben King/HBO

Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) initially existed on The Leftovers’ fringes, but by the end of the HBO series’ run—culminating in Sunday night’s series finale “The Book of Nora”—she’d moved to its center. We first met her at the “Heroes Parade” of Mapleton, New York, a townwide event commemorating the three-year anniversary of the Sudden Departure. The suburban community remained scarred and uneasy, but the town leadership wanted to put on a good face—to offer a collective space for remembrance and the chance to move on. Mapleton’s mayor, Lucy Warburton, introduced Nora as the parade’s “honored speaker,” a woman “touched by the events of Oct. 14” more than anyone else in attendance. Nora had lost her whole family: her husband, her son, her 4-year-old daughter. For Mapleton, she was the ultimate symbol of loss—an object of fascination and pity, a myth to spread theories about. Townspeople secretly referred to her as “Nora Cursed.”

She took the stage and told the audience a story:

The best day of my life happened a few days before Oct. 14, but I didn’t know it. It just seemed like a nice day, you know? All four of us at the beach: my husband, my 6-year-old son, and my 4-year-old daughter. Their names were—are—Doug, Jeremy, and Erin. The kids built a sandcastle; Doug and I, we just sat on a blanket and watched them work, and it was just perfect.
It felt like I didn’t deserve anything that good.
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The story Nora told at the Heroes Parade remained the foundation of her character, and more significantly, the show itself. With her family among the millions who mysteriously disappeared, she couldn’t move on, because there was nothing to move on from. She could romance police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux)—a man seemingly unaffected by the Departure—or bluntly declare the departed dead, but the ghosts of her husband and two children at the kitchen table, bickering and chowing down, were inescapable. It’s why, in the final season, she had no choice but to consider an insane proposal: to enter an elaborate scientific contraption in hope of teleporting to the mystical place where her children and husband supposedly “went.” To most, it’d sound like an unconventional but certain way to die. To Nora, it sounded like her only chance to return to life.

Nora’s unshakable grief became The Leftovers’ standard; her normal was the show’s normal. The streets of Mapleton, and then Jarden, Texas, and then the Australian Outback set the stage for moments of collective catharsis—moments like Nora’s speech, a blend of self-loathing and profound longing. As Damon Lindelof’s weepy epic shifted locations and leaned into point-of-view–structured storytelling, the show became increasingly unwieldy, providing agonizing character portraits that could drift into the surreal or delusional, grounded only by a common thread of personal suffering. But it also turned increasingly humane, even majestic: The Leftovers became a series determined to unearth the beauty within tragedy, the meaning within the meaningless.

The Leftovers was also a work that resisted even the appearance of closure, deliberately mirroring its characters’ experiences. Kevin, the show’s ostensible lead, would ease into what seemed like paranoid delusions: He’d play the role of “International Assassin” in the afterlife only to come back to the living and be declared immortal by a choice few. As characters grew more desperate, willing themselves to believe even the most outrageous theories, so too did The Leftovers deny us the ability to distinguish real and fantasy. Kevin’s ex-wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) insisted for seasons that Kevin’s experiences were symptoms of mental illness; by “Certified,” the sixth episode of the final season, she’d run out of diagnoses, unable to shoulder the burden of listening and counseling, showing unqualified compassion, without knowing. In the episode’s final scene, she left to go scuba diving and—perhaps—attempt suicide. (“I think she intends to kill herself,” Lindelof said cryptically of the episode’s last seconds.) By the end of the series’ penultimate episode, meanwhile, set on the Departure’s seventh anniversary, Kevin had again returned to the afterlife, blown it up with nuclear weapons, and (maybe) prevented a flood from ending life on Earth. (Yeah, this show could be a lot.) The final line of the episode, spoken to Kevin by his father, all but encapsulated every viewer’s feeling going into the final episode: “What now?”

The first act of the finale provided a marked contrast to the Nora we met in the pilot: sitting with her brother Matt (Christopher Eccleston), laughing boisterously as he shared old stories and finding comfort in his presence as she prepared for “going through.” All signs pointed to another ambiguous end to a character’s journey: We’d been given no glimpse of Laurie after she jumped into the ocean, no sign of where Kevin could possibly be headed after his latest ordeal, and as Nora walked into a grand machine to reunite with her departed family, it seemed possible we’d never see her again, either. As Nora walked away, Matt looked at his sister as if she were about to die. But she was simply at peace.

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In its greatest twist yet, however, The Leftovers’ penchant for ambiguity was checked at the teleport machine’s door. Instead, a fast-forward allowed for the very thing The Leftovers had cruelly withheld for more than two dozen hours: closure.

Nora, her hair long and grayed, is alive, tending to birds and living alone in Australia. We learn she’s in occasional contact with Laurie—also alive. And she learns that a man named Kevin Garvey is out looking for her—again, alive and apparently well. He shows up at her door, similarly aged, standing quietly with a relaxed smile. As the two perform a delicate dance of catch-up, reacquainting themselves with each other after being absent from each other’s lives for decades, it becomes clear: It’s real.

Kevin, at first, pretends that their doomed past romance never existed: He barely knew Nora, he insists, but always had a crush on her in Mapleton. The Leftovers buys into his commitment to rewrite history, adopting a sheen of sugary old-fashioned rom-com as the two flirt at a friend’s wedding and share longing looks. It is—in the show’s spirit—an all-too-convincing fantasy. And Nora can’t allow it. She forces them back to reality instead, revealing that she didn’t get cold feet all those years ago. Rather, she decided to “go through.” She entered a parallel universe where 98 percent of the world’s population had departed—her world’s exact inverse—and where those left were familiar with her experience. Not her family, of course—they were the lucky ones. The unit left mostly intact. Her husband had remarried, and in their reconstructed unit of four, they appeared happy. She didn’t belong—she was “a ghost.” So she came back.

Whether Nora really entered a parallel universe, whether Kevin really operated as a high-level assassin (and the president, and the president’s twin brother) in the afterlife, whatever happened with Laurie after she jumped in the water—The Leftovers presented its characters with the chance to escape its normal and run toward stranger waters. It tested their resolve, offering illusions of control, destiny, and reunions with the dead and the departed. It willed them to believe that there was something, something beyond the unyielding, mundane despair to escape to. Maybe there was. But in its finale, The Leftovers guided them to the same destination that the series itself had reached: to face the inexplicable and to dig through tragedy for beauty and meaning.

The Leftovers ends with Nora telling another story—that of her journey back to reality. It is, once again, deeply sad and harrowingly bizarre. But she isn’t facing a gawking audience this time; she’s relaying it to Kevin, a man who, with tears in his eyes and streaming down his cheeks, feels and understands every word she speaks. Her monologue, and the series, concludes with a declared commitment to life, with a chance at love. “You’re here,” Kevin says to her. Nora smiles—finally. “I’m here.”