The End Is Nigh for The Leftovers
In its third and final season, the HBO show proves it’s still the most surprising and moving show on television.
You can interpret The Leftovers however you please—as a black comedy, a punishingly bleak gauntlet of misery, or a zany riff on existence being an elaborate cosmic joke—but whichever way you read it, it’s hard to deny that it’s the most consistently surprising show on television. Throughout its two previous seasons, the HBO series has made unexpected choices (spoilers to come): It’s killed off its main character (twice), presented purgatory as an especially generic kind of Marriott, kicked off its second season with an abstract prehistoric fable, and suggested that karaoke is a path between the realms of the living and the dead. It’s been absurdly funny and extremely moving; not once has it been predictable.
Which means that to offer too much detail about the third and final season, returning aptly on Easter Sunday, would be to spoil the experience. Some of what’s safe to reveal has already been teased in trailers—a shift in location to Australia for some of the characters, a wide expectation that the seventh anniversary of the Final Departure will bring some kind of cataclysmic global event, the possibility that Kevin (Justin Theroux) might be mankind’s savior. All of which presents fodder for a lip-smackingly satisfying conclusion, and a wealth of Kevin puns (Knocking on Kevin’s Door, Show Me Kevin, Stairway to Kevin). But the show, as ever, has tricks up its sleeve.
The Leftovers premiered in 2014 as an adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name created by Damon Lindelof (Lost) with Perrotta. The premise, as in the book, was that two percent of mankind suddenly vanished into thin air one October 14, in a Rapture-like event that left the remaining survivors grief-stricken and completely destabilized. All the institutions that people had put their faith in were suddenly rendered impotent and meaningless. And the brilliance of the show’s first season was that it wasn’t interested in what had actually happened so much as how the world might react to such an event. Cults suddenly sprang up all over the country based around charismatic healers and arbitrary principles, the largest of which seemed to be the Guilty Remnant, whose members wore white, smoked religiously, and strived to remind the world of the essential pointlessness of existence.
It was a premise explored with ingenuity and real psychological insight, but it was also often extremely bleak, which is possibly why some viewers departed themselves in the first season and never looked back. But the second, which aired in 2015, changed course. There were the new opening credits, a series of family photos set to Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be,” rather than the grave and imposing title sequence of season one, with its Renaissance-style frescoes depicting humans being pulled up to heaven. And there was the gallows humor that suddenly pervaded the show, particularly when it came to exploring how broken all its characters were. (The third season keeps this going: “I joined a cult, you know,” Laurie (Amy Brenneman) explains matter-of-factly in one episode, when someone asks her why she left her happy marriage. “Just one of those things they make you do.”)
Kevin (Theroux) and Nora (Carrie Coon) have always been the show’s MVPs, with Coon’s particularly sharp and vibrant performance as a woman completely unmoored by loss providing some of The Leftovers’ most heart-rending moments. But with Brenneman’s Laurie, Christopher Eccleston’s Job-like Matt, and Ann Dowd’s obliquely sinister Patti Levin, the show has one of the richest (and most perplexingly awards-free) ensemble casts on television, bolstered in season two by Regina King’s Erika, Kevin Carroll’s John, and Jasmin Savoy Brown’s Evie. Season three adds another virtuoso actor in Lindsay Duncan (Birdman, Sherlock), while also focusing more intently on Kevin’s father (Scott Glenn).
Season 2, Lindelof has said, was structured like a novel, with a beginning, a middle, and an end (like season one, which was based on a novel). But there’s a satisfying order to having, now, a final installment: Although the end of the second season functioned as a series finale, with (some) mysteries revealed and (some) families reunited, it was almost too tidy a conclusion. A last season that explores the prospect of a follow-up to the Great Departure puts yet more pressure on the show’s characters and the remaining people of the world, amplifying the themes of structural breakdown that The Leftovers has explored since the beginning.
Between the prospect of a definitive ending, the looming fear of catastrophe, and the continually exceptional performances, it’s bravura television that somehow follows the model of earlier seasons while subverting expectations. You might think you know where something is going, only to be completely disoriented a minute later. There are nods back to earlier scenes, leaps back and forth in time, typically preposterous events, and a variety of new coping mechanisms for the bereft people of Earth. Once again, the point isn’t in what happened—which, according to Lindelof, is never ever ever ever going to be revealed—but in illuminating some of the ways we might use such an inexplicable event to draw conclusions about our own mortal existence. The Leftovers knows what that’s worth. (Ooh, Kevin is a place on Earth.)