'The Leftovers' Series Finale: Where Do We Start?
Let me tell you a story.
Nora went through. The machine worked. She realized once there that the 2% of the world’s population that vanished during The Sudden Departure were in a world almost exactly like ours, but had seen 98% of the world disappear in an instant. Infrastructure still existed, but barely used. Most people lost their entire families in an instant, save hers, who were blessed because they had stayed almost entirely intact. Not only did they stay in their home in Mapleton, but had added someone to their household in the form of a new wife/mother. Realizing how happy they were, and understanding how her presence would upset them, Nora found the inventor of the device, had him build a new one, and came back. All of this took decades to achieve.
Let me tell you another story.
Nora never went through. Maybe the machine malfunctioned. Maybe it never worked to begin with. Maybe she decided to get out at the last minute. It doesn’t matter. She started to game out the best-case scenario of what she might find. It was a world in which the population was reduced to almost zero in an instant, a world in which the sorrows on this side seemed small and trivial, a world in which her family was no longer her own, because how could it be? She built a new identity for herself, hoping to escape the world that kept on keeping on even after the seven-year anniversary. Eventually she craved contact with her old life, and concocted a story to explain her multi-decade absence.
Let me now ask you a question: Which story do you believe?
Right until its very last moments, The Leftovers defies easy answers. Having Nora explain the past few decades in monologue rather than the show showing us what happened seems like a cost-cutting measure until you realize it’s the show’s operational model given one last run. The show worked at every possible moment to exploit the friction between narrative (in which things have an “answer”) and life (in which things are frustratingly unexplained and often unfair). You might reject the show’s insistence on dramatizing the latter versus indulging the former, but you can’t say that Nora’s final monologue should be taken as fact. That’s just not how this show rolls.
Asking if the story’s true is beside the point, and Kevin’s acceptance of it does not mean that he believes it. It means that he doesn’t care, because there’s one thing about which he, Nora, and The Leftovers are certain. Rather than trying to answer everything, Nora and Kevin decide to agree upon what they can answer, and build whatever is left of their interrupted lives from there. What do they know?
That they are both “here.” A show that defined itself through absence found solace in presence.
Think about that for a moment. Think about how simple that two-syllable sentence is, and how weighty that realization is. The Leftovers has depicted characters constantly interrogating their place in the universe, in existence itself. Contemplating these questions is fine, and indeed probably vital to living something akin to a moral life. But the act of asking questions should not be supplanted by a need to solve them in trying to find answers in the multiverse. Nora and Kevin decide to find answers across the table from one another in an Australian farm.
It’s important that Nora’s final monologue takes place the night after she catches a local nun lying to her face about a romantic tryst that she accidentally witnessed. She’s already upset that Kevin does not seem to remember key facts about their time together, and coupling that with the fact that Laurie is still around (whom I was 150% sure had died during her scuba diving trip), it’s easy to imagine at this point late in the finale that we’re seeing something akin to the “flash sideways” scenario from Lost, which everyone on the internet loved and still reveres to this day. (Oh wait, just about everyone hated that. Easy to mix those two reactions up.) The nun all but gaslights Nora, insisting the thing Nora had just witnessed could not be what she actually witnessed. She doesn’t say the tryst is fake news, but essentially does just that.
Earlier in the day, the nun attended the same wedding as Nora and Kevin, during which the married couple asked the attendees to write love notes on small pieces of paper. Those pieces of paper, they told everyone, would be affixed to birds (the same one Nora transported in the season opener) that would fly around the world and deliver messages of love. Nora knows the birds have a range of 50 miles, and couldn’t possibly perform the task the couple promised. She asks the nun what’s she’s trying to sell. The nun’s response?
“I’m not trying to sell you anything. It just makes a nicer story.”
So is Nora’s tale of going over the truth, or a nicer story?
Damon Lindelof rejects that binary question, instead favoring acceptance of what’s tangible in favor of forever chasing what’s ephemeral. It’s not a rejection of spiritual pursuits, but a proper prioritization of life before the (possible) afterlife. History is rife with people who either die well before their natural time (such as a cave woman protecting her child from a venomous snake) or live far longer than they wish (such as the Millerite who stays faithful after The Great Disappointment). Trying to land upon objective truth in reality is as difficult as finding objective truth within a piece of art: There is only subjectivity, which does not remove meaning but rather makes it a compact between individuals.
When Kevin accepts Nora’s story, you can see the relief wash over her face. In many ways, the finale is a study of the faces of Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux: Mimi Leder’s camerawork is fixated on the contours of their aged faces, the quiver in their lips, the ways their eyes are always on the verge of tears. Nora’s tears of relief stand in visual contrast to those seen at the “G’Day Melbourne”: Whereas those washed over her, cascading like a waterfall mixed with the sprinkler system in the hotel, these function almost like a baptism, centering her in the presence moment for perhaps the first time since the Sudden Departure. She doesn’t need to go anywhere, because for the first time, they are home.
They are here.
The primacy of presence derives meaning. Nora rejects Kevin for the majority of the episodes, not because she doesn’t want to be with him, but because he can’t admit what happened between them. He’s not truly there until the morning after the wedding, when he admits that he tried to create a clean slate to give them an opportunity to move past what happened. After all, “trying to move past what happened” is the central flaw of every single character on The Leftovers! It kept people frozen in the past, gave rise to The Guilty Remnant, and gave power to the seven-year anniversary of the Sudden Departure. Time moved on, because time is relentless and will do so despite the world’s population. What are we but the accumulation of our choices? Fast-forwarding the story decades in the future accentuated that relentlessness: We weep because these two finally are together, and also mourn the years lost because they didn’t know where they were in the universe.
But now? Now, they are here.
Some say things happen for a reason. In The Leftovers, things happened simply because they happened. You can ascribe meaning to those events, but they only have the meaning imbued into them by the observer. One person’s bad lack is another person’s cosmic retribution. Maybe it’s more comforting to think we’re alone in the universe, the product of evolution rather than divine creation. Maybe the notion of heaven makes life itself seem like a cruel pit stop. The Sudden Departure wasn’t the result of either of those scenarios. It just was. It both invites and defies analysis. The fact that there’s no one “right” answer doesn’t mean that people can’t come to satisfactory conclusions. It means that they can’t expect everyone to come to the same one.
And if you’re lucky enough to find someone with whom you can reach the same conclusion, you are there with him or her.
The Leftovers is a Rorschach test disguised as a television show. It doesn’t lead you down a particular path, doesn’t tell you what to think, and makes every scenario equally plausible. This is either the most wondrous or mundane reality ever presented on television. More accurately: It’s simultaneously both the most wondrous and the most mundane. The show asks you to gaze upon it and dare to describe what you see. In doing so, it’s asking you to describe what’s meaningful for you. What matters? What makes it worth getting up in the morning. What makes it worth being heartbroken. What makes it worth dealing with the entropy baked into existence. What makes any of it meaningful.
The show doesn’t offer up any answers save one. It asks us to start from a simple, but profound place. A place from which we can try to decide the rest. A place that needs another to verify, but from that small unit of acceptance, grace and love and possible.
Where do we start?
By saying “I’m here,” and for someone else to confirm it. From there, everything else can begin.
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