Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
What would you do if 2% of the world disappeared? It doesn’t sound like a lot, but when looking at the number 158 million on paper, the weight sinks in. That’s nearly twenty times the population of New York City, or eight Mexico Cities, or four Tokyos. It’s statistically likely that if you didn’t disappear, some of your friends or family did. The most important people in your life are gone in an instant, and no one can explain why. Would you pick up the pieces of your life and live it as normal, or would you hold onto those lost and remain shattered?
That’s the central question at the heart of Damon Lindelof and Tom Perotta’s HBO drama The Leftovers. It’s one without an easy answer, but by golly did Lindelof try. Based on Perotta’s novel of the same name, the show follows Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey, police chief of Mapleton, NY, and his family: Laurie (Amy Brenneman), his mute and cult following ex-wife; Jill (Margaret Qualley), his rebellious daughter; and Tommy (Chris Zylka), his estranged step-son who works for a self-proclaimed prophet in the desert. The ensemble is rounded out with Kevin’s friend-turned-love interest Nora Durst (portrayed beautifully by Carrie Coon) and her hyper-faithful brother Reverend Matt (Christopher Eccleston).
Let me say, that first season? It’s some good shit. It’s “peak TV” good, so good that it’s the first thing I recommend to people even if I haven’t talked with them in years. The tension is squarely focused on Mapleton and its residents, specifically on those within the town who want to move on from the Sudden Departure (which is what they call the disappearance) and the nearby cult of the Guilty Remnant, who feel it is their job to make sure no one ever forgets. Kevin tries to balance being a good father with being a community protector, even as his own mental state denigrates to the point that he blacks out, waking up with no memory of what occurred in the interim.
The show is unafraid to pull punches, forcing us to watch our ensemble constantly pull up their bootstraps and keep going against piles of adversity. In one episode, Matt goes on a wild, highly anxiety-inducing rush for money to save his Church which ends with him nearly murdering an unsuccessful robber, only to get knocked out by rock to the head and miss the deadline. At another point, we learn that Nora lost her entire family in the Departure. Even Laurie, who spends most of the season as a cultish stooge ignoring her still-whole family, is revealed to have lost the child she was carrying due to the Departure. These characters are tragic to the highest degree, so it makes seeing them persevere that much more rewarding.
All throughout the season Lindelof, who also created Lost, does what he does best: he keeps asking questions. Viewers are taken on a whirlwind journey, constantly placed in stressful and unsafe situations, and often forced to question what is real or what is not. It leans into the ambiguous and supernatural; Matt believes he is being tested by God while Kevin gains a haunted connection with the Guilty Remnant’s leader Patti (Ann Dowd) after accidentally killing her. The series thrives in this gray middle ground where viewers know as little as the characters, oftentimes even less. Questions like this make for juicy, provocative drama; their answers simply do not matter.
Until they apparently do.
Venturing away from Perotta’s novel, which was the basis for the first season, Season 2 of The Leftovers ditches the woodsy and perennially autumnal Mapleton in favor of the haven of Jarden, Texas. Nicknamed Miracle by those within it, the town acts as a holy site because not a single person departed. The Garveys are nowhere to be seen; instead we follow The Murphys: the volatile patriarch John (Kevin Carroll), his skeptical but determined wife Erika (Regina King), their devout and compassionate son Michael (Jovan Adepo), and his idyllic twin sister Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown). It’s just as we are feeling accustomed to the new family that the show pulls the rug out from under us—the Garveys (with Nora and Tommy’s sorta-child in tow) are here, too. They’re neighbors, as chance would have it, and Evie’s sudden departure ties the two families together as they race to figure out what happened.
This juxtaposition between a fractured family and family proudly kept whole is rife with potential. The idea of a second miniature departure, that the event that traumatized the entire world could happen again at any moment, keeps you at the edge of your seat. But as new mysteries unfold, this time there are answers, too—and they’re rather lackluster. For example, Evie didn’t disappear, but faked the event in a plan with the ever-expansive Guilty Remnant to shock Miracle out of their holier-than-thou stupor. The initially carefully crafted world starts to fray at its seams because of these answers, but nothing was unforgivably bad. That would wait until the third season.
You see, everything in the first two seasons of the show generally revolved around a question framed from the beginning: how would you live life if 2% of the world departed? It never mattered why the Great Departure happened, it never mattered why Kevin was losing his mind; all that mattered was that these things were happening and our characters had to deal with them. The Leftovers was a carefully constructed thrill ride, with no choice but to grab on and enjoy. But once you turn the lights on, you can see the track is rickety, the turns lack their surprise, and you understand that the scary monsters surrounding you are nothing more than twisted pieces of metal. In other words, providing answers sucks the experience of its power. And, much like his mistake with Lost, Lindelof just couldn’t help himself.
While the third season of the show isn’t anything to write home about, the ending unequivocally ruins it all because everything was for nothing. Kevin’s whole quest throughout the season to Australia to stop an apocalyptic flood? There was no flood to begin with, so I guess it doesn’t really matter. Matt meets a man who claims he is God, but he refuses to believe him and the man ends up getting mauled by a lion. Oh well. Nora decides to trust some crack-scientists and leave Kevin, his family, and the entire life they had built together to attempt some completely unproven process to find her departed family. Who needs love anyway?
These answers feel like an exercise from Lindelof in excising all meaning from a series and telling viewers that they wasted the past three years of their lives. All the empathy built for the characters, all of their troubles and hardships that we watched them endure are for naught. But the actual ending turns this nihilism into sadism: Nora actually found her family.
In the last episode—the bulk of which takes place years in the future—Nora explains that some quantum quirk made it so that while it seemed like 2% of the world left here, a parallel world was created that had 98% of their population leave. That’s the grand answer that Lindelof found for this earth shattering trauma: it was a little quantum oopsie. Finding her family happy after years without her, Nora tracks down the scientist who originally created her portal thingamajig and demands he build a new one to send her back. And he does. Let me repeat that. Nora forces the creation of some scientific device that can send people freely between these parallel worlds seemingly without consequence and only ever tells Kevin.
Perhaps Nora, and in turn Lindelof, believes that this explanation and reaction are justified. They reckon that these worlds are too far gone now to reconcile, that both have actively mourned and grieved and moved on. Nora is representative of those in humanity who hold onto hope, clinging desperately to its last vestiges, and then suddenly, such a determined belief is dashed upon observation through her own eyes, and not years of self improvement and understanding. It doesn’t matter that she spent years faking growth and stability, now that she knows her family is safe and happy without her she can finally put the past away and be with Kevin. They can, as the episode’s Wikipedia entry puts it, “happily reunite.”
But it’s this final answer that ultimately strips the show of all of its meaning; with a device to travel between worlds and a true explanation of where everyone went, why does it matter what everyone felt? All trauma, the show seems to say, has a definite source and it’s only when finding that origin that you can fully move past it. The years of agonizing and theorizing and introspection don’t mean anything, because if you ask the right person everything can be explained away. Complexity and ambiguity, both tools utilized by Lindelof earlier in the show, get chucked out the window in favor of neat, convenient answers.
Ultimately, The Leftovers deeply misunderstands that what matters is often not the answer itself, but the journey toward it. People grow and change when faced with a problem that lacks a solution; it’s how we’ve survived as a species to this point. For all the biblical references and Job-like trials his characters face, Lindelof ignores the power within the mystical divine. The unknowable. We live in ambiguity daily, unsure of when we may ourselves depart this earth and whether or not an afterlife truly does exist. What I do know, though, is that if the answers are anything like what Lindelof and The Leftovers gave us, I want no part of them.
Mik Deitz is a freelance writer and Paste intern. They inhale stories in videogames, films, TV and books, and have never finished God of War (2018). Yell at or compliment them on Twitter @dietdeitz.
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