“I want to believe that I’m not surrounded by the abandoned ruin of a dead civilization,” Nora Durst writes as she prepares to leave everyone she’s ever known. “I want to believe that it’s still possible to get close to someone.” But even if it’s possible, she’s chosen not to try. The pain is too much to bear, as actor Carrie Coon’s almost unwatchable silent scream upon being confronted with grotesque simulations of her vanished family made clear. Here in the real world, with uncanny echoes of The Leftovers‘ breathtakingly paced season finale — “The Prodigal Son” — all around us, it’s easy to agree with her.
Look back, if you can stomach it, at the long horrendous summer we just suffered through. A berserk and benighted subset of the video game community targeted prominent women critics and creators with a campaign of trolling, harassment, and threats so severe that one victim had to flee her home. An apparent ring of hackers specializing in stealing female celebrities’ nude selfies began releasing them to the public en masse. Police in Ferguson, Missouri responded to citizen protests over the killing of unarmed teenager Mike Brown – his body exposed in the street for four hours – by essentially staging a days-long blue riot, aiming loaded weapons at civilians, arresting journalists, and firing teargas and rubber bullets seemingly indiscriminately.
Now look at The Leftovers. Trolling-as-religion is one of its central plot points, with two separate denominations – the Guilty Remnant, with their callous performance art, and Rev. Matt, with his muckraking flyers – deliberately being assholes to make a point. Stealing photographs in order to turn private moments into a public spectacle was a core component of the cult’s master plan involving replicas of Departure victims. And law-enforcement complicity, even participation, in violence against the civilian population has been a constant: the Heroes Day, the brutal assault on Holy Wayne’s compound, the Feds’ black-ops methodology in destroying cults and incinerating members’ bodies, Kevin’s assault and kidnapping of Patti, and, tonight, the Mapleton P.D.’s half-assed efforts to stop the townsfolk from retaliating against the G.R. The show’s sociopolitical prescience is almost freakish.
But there’s something even more impressive at work here, something that drills down deep into the stuff that fuels all of these fires. It emerges gradually, the result of layering one scene on top of another like notes in a chord. Note one goes back to the Bible: Rev. Matt has Kevin read from the Book of Job, expressing terror of an unreachable God who demands obedience even as he torments the obedient.
Note two: Kevin is institutionalized alongside his father, and discovers he too can hear the same voices from beyond — in this case an amorous Patti. It could be a shared hallucination, or it could be they’ve both been let in on the secret of the universe. Ultimately, it’s just a nightmare Kevin wakes up from.
Note three: Pressed by Rev. Matt to reveal what he thinks Patti wanted him to understand, Kevin recalls how on the day of the Departure, he’d wanted nothing more than to leave his family behind. But his joyous reunion with his kids that morning, in which their happiness that he hadn’t vanished was written all of their faces, made him want nothing more than to keep his family together. He couldn’t, he blames himself, and he’s devastated, which Justin Theroux’s performance conveys with remarkable power.
Note four: Kevin gets up from the table and stumbles across Holy Wayne, gutshot and dying in the restroom. Wayne knows the end is near, and is terrified. “I think I may be a fraud,” he confides. “But if I’m not, I can give you anything you want. That will mean I was real.” Kevin quietly makes a wish, and given his preceding monologue it’s easy enough to guess it’s about a family reunion.
Note five: Kevin and Matt return to a town in chaos, as furious residents chase Guilty Remnant members through the streets. He comes across Meg, bound and beaten but smiling with the confidence of a zealot. She wanted this to happen.
Note four: Pushed past the breaking point by the Remnant’s mannequins, which shatter whatever fragile peace she gained from her encounter with Wayne several weeks ago, Nora plans to leave town for good. “There’s no going back, no fixing it,” she writes in her Dear-John note to Kevin. “I’m beyond repair. Maybe we’re all beyond repair.”
Note five: Nora’s stopped in her tracks by Holy Wayne’s infant son, deposited in the Garveys’ doorstep by the prodigal son himself, Tommy. She picks him up, smiles, turns to a bewildered but delighted Kevin and Jill as they arrive at the house themselves and says, “Look what I found.” She’s not going anywhere.
This, then, is the message of The Leftovers, revealed in the final minute of the final episode of the season. Pain, loss, grief, failure, shame: these things are real, and the damage they do is lasting and debilitating. There is no God capable of communicating to us, giving us a reason to endure. There’s no particularly compelling reason to do so at all, for many of us. But some of us get lucky — first to stumble across someone or something worth caring about, and second to have the strength left to do the caring. Those lucky few can turn that connection into a reason to go on. The choice is up to them.
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The guts of an ending like that! Unlike True Detective, which feinted in the direction of nihilism for a season before washing it off in the cleansing water of spiritual-not-religious bromides, The Leftovers stays true to co-creator Damon Lindelof’s promise that there will be no Answers. You have Nora Durst’s silent shout when she’s forced to relive the worst trauma of her life, and you have her smile when she encounters a brand new life yet untouched by that kind of suffering. Which one matters most in terms of determining what is real, what is true, what is the point? The universe is as mute on this question as the Guilty Remnant. It’s up to us to answer.
Previously: The Shape of Things to Come