The post contains spoilers for The Leftovers.
Please don’t skip The Leftovers, a drama that’s probably rotting away on your queue. In this ongoing landscape of prestige TV and nonstop streaming content, no other show offered work this strange, daring, and moving.
It aired its finale Sunday night, and closed its arc as not just the best show on TV—but its most important.
Although the final season was met with rapturous praise from critics, The Leftovers never did much in the way of ratings. Season 3 was up in viewership, but compared to fellow HBO shows like Game of Thrones, was but a radar blip.
The Leftovers premiered in 2014, introducing us to a group of damaged people in the small New York town of Mapleton, all trying to put their lives back together following an event known as “the sudden departure,” wherein 2 percent of the world’s population disappeared. The show’s first season didn’t quite know what it was, and its brutally dark tone was instantly polarizing. It became too much for some. But those who stuck with it found the series to be as rewarding as it was punishing, and by season 2 the viewers it still had began praising it as one of the best shows on television.
As the Daily Dot’s Nico Lang wrote in his season 3 review, “I hated The Leftovers at first, but as the show winds to a close, I’m pleased to say that there are few seasons of television I’ve connected to as wholly as this one.”
Following a year off, The Leftovers transported much of the action to Australia for its final episodes (after moving from New York to Texas in season 2). Once more the setting was a factor in playing with the show’s key themes: loss and faith.
There are plenty of dark shows on television, too many actually. The anti-hero, usually an uncompromising white man, standing alone amid a sea of danger, corruption, and evil, is what you usually get. The Leftovers was not just dark in the sense of being violent, intense, or gritty—it was depressing. Damon Lindelof (who co-created the show with Tom Perrotta, from his book by the same title) has spoken openly about dealing with his father’s death and the ensuing depression it brought him while writing the first season. The effects of this echo everywhere.
Although The Leftovers’ specific bleakness happened to be about a world where everyone was affected by an abrupt, simultaneous loss, its ideas resonate for anyone who’s ever been in mourning. We mourn people, but we also mourn the loss of what we thought our lives were going to be. In the last year, this kind of loss has swept over much of the country. On a national scale, there has been a tangible sense of mourning because of the invasive nature of bad news beamed across our screens. The Leftovers validated our confusion and anger.
When tortured protagonist Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) asks, “Is Nora gone?” in reference to his girlfriend Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), in this season’s sixth episode, his ex-wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) replies, “We’re all gone.” It’s a devastating moment, in no small part because of its plausibility.
While The Leftovers always had a pseudo-spiritual bent, this angle was played up in season 3. You feel the influence of Iranian-American author Reza Aslan, whose whole career is practically based on the idea that no religion is too ridiculous to be taken seriously, as a consulting producer.
Somehow The Leftovers managed to give credence to everything from aboriginal ceremonies, to doomsday cults, to a guy named David Burton who walked around with little business cards informing everyone that he was God. None of it was given short shrift. The Leftovers functioned on the principle that if you accept the possibility of spirituality in one thing, you have to accept that possibility in all things. It did not endorse all faiths, so much as leave the door open to the possibility that there are things greater than ourselves out there, things we cannot understand.
The flip side to this is that when characters lost faith, they lost it hard. In episode 5, after the heretofore pious Matt (Christopher Eccleston) watches the aforementioned God-man David get mauled by a lion, he blithely looks into the camera and says, “That’s the guy I was telling you about.” After two-plus seasons of preaching his heart out and crusading for the Lord, Matt is finally brought to his knees by the ludicrous, absurd fervor of his own belief.
This is the problem with righteousness, the show cautioned. Righteousness in the name of God usually translates to righteousness in the name of oneself. As the characters scrambled to discover whose faith was the purest, holiest, and most divine, they wound up more uncertain than ever.
The Leftovers did not mock their belief. It illustrated the point that faith is often just as glorious as it is dangerous. In these uncertain times, we all want something to believe in. Who are any of us to mock those who would cling to whatever church they can find?
In a world that seems like it’s gone mad, the chaos of a show like The Leftovers was cathartic. It expressed the way many of us feel every time we open a newsfeed: adrift and hopeless.
While its final episode did not provide many answers, it did give us a modicum of hope. Like Lost, Lindelof’s show before this, fans looking for a neat little package were disappointed. But those invested in seeing emotional catharsis between characters were rewarded handsomely.
The last few episodes bring the love story between Kevin and Nora to the forefront. Theroux, who at first appeared to be nothing more than your generic, hunky leading man, turned Kevin into one of the most complex characters on TV. Coon proved that she’s among the best actors of her generation. In the final scene of the series, they sit across the table from one another, reuniting after Nora’s disappearance years earlier. It’s the best work either actor has ever done, and absolutely mesmerizing to watch.
“So much time had passed,” says Nora, explaining her absence. “It was too late. And I knew that if I told you what happened, that you would never believe me.”
“I believe you,” replies Kevin.
“Why wouldn’t I believe you? You’re here.”
With its final breath, The Leftovers suggested that this is the kind of belief that matters most. In a warped society, we must put our faith in those we love. By the time Kevin reunites with Nora, he doesn’t care about the story she just told him. In the end, it’s enough that they’re together.