The Leftovers: Seven-Year Itch

In the first episode of the final season, Jarden readies itself for a big anniversary.

Van Redin / HBO

Each week following episodes of the third and final season of The Leftovers, Sophie Gilbert and Spencer Kornhaber will discuss HBO’s drama about the aftermath of two percent of the world’s population suddenly vanishing.

Kornhaber: Anyone apocalyptically concerned about chemical weapons, mothers and fathers of all bombs, and North Korean tunnel nukes can take comfort from The Leftovers—not a show that serves comfort all that often. The non-sequitur history lesson that opened “The Book of Kevin” told the wrenching tale of a faithful Millerite to make at least one big idea clear: People have been sure about the imminence of the end many, many times before. In fact, people may generally be happier when they’re prepping for doomsday—at least happier than they are after it just turns out to be another Tuesday.

Perhaps this insight explains the cheerfulness of The Leftovers’ previously miserable characters ahead of another predicted armageddon. Three years after Guilty Remnant members cratered Jarden’s anointed status and then were turned into a crater themselves—farewell, tiger tamers Meg and Evie—the Garveys, Murphys, and Jamisons have mingled into one happy clan that collaborates on birthday parties and fortune-telling scams. Kevin’s dubious job performance back in Mapleton apparently didn’t bother the hiring authorities in Miracle, Nora’s such a DSD hotshot that she’s now patrolling America’s departure-related mecca, Matt’s flock has grown along with his miraculous son Noah, and the newlyweds John and Laurie have undergone a philosophical 180 into the nonprofit sale of belief for belief’s sake. Even Tommy and Jill have stopped their anti-social sneering and settled into roles as a cop and a college student, laughing off fears that the seven-year anniversary of the departure will mark everyone’s death.

Alas, peace can’t last in this freaky world filled with Gary Busey worshippers. In addition to reintroducing the show’s strange setting and strangely lovable characters with a striking amount of warmth, the premiere repeatedly highlighted Damon Lindelof’s knack for cinematic ambushes that are both horrifying and hilarious. From the poisonous prank at the natural springs to the return of Dean the cynophobe, danger lurked.

That Dean subplot was particularly jarring. The reappearance of Michael Gaston’s cud-chewing character at Jarden PD raised the spectre of Kevin still seeing ghosts after his extreme spiritual cleansing last season, but thankfully it was just Dean who’s haunted. When Kevin rejected him and his creepy peanut-butter sandwich with an excellent joke—“paw, that's how they get their paw on the button”—Dean naturally came to the conclusion that his old hunting buddy has become a secret dog and must be exterminated. This is a preposterous storyline, yes. And yet was the moment when Kevin cowered in front of Dean’s rifle not abjectly terrifying? Don’t we all now need trauma counseling just as Tommy does?

In any case, it’s clear that Kevin is not, in fact, wholly well. Not to judge, but healthy people don’t make a habit of non-erotic auto-asphyxiation. It was a sick twist for the show to cut from the excruciating sight of Kevin suffocating to a shot of him walking out of his house, looking completely fine and excellently bearded, raising the possibility that we were already back in the realm of purgatorial visions. Nope, just Jarden—though the fact he survived O2 deprivation hints that his burgeoning reputation as immortal is not undeserved.

Which perhaps explains Kevin’s completely ripshit reaction to learning Matt and Michael are whipping up a gospel about him. If Kevin were able to brush them off as entirely crazy, he might not have such a need to curse them out and grill their work. Instead, he recognizes that they may be about to pull him down another rabbit hole of irrational but compelling belief—and away from his often stated, if not necessarily fully committed, desire to have a happy stable family life.

Then again, this premiere in subtle ways hinted at how precarious such domestic bliss is anyways. Erika Murphy was nowhere to be seen—either she made good on her long-delayed plan to ditch John or she had an even darker reaction to Evie’s destruction by drone. Also frighteningly absent was baby Lily—and if anyone shouldn’t have to deal with a departed kid, it’s Nora. Maybe the grief of that loss eventually will help explain the truly WTF closing of the episode in which an aged Nora who’s going by Sarah professes not to know anyone named Kevin. Theories for what that’s all about?

I’m mostly glad the episode ended on a note of disorientation—it’s good to be put in the mindset of these bewildered characters. As John put it to Kevin when explaining why he’s open to the possibility that he’s talking to the messiah himself, “We can’t be going through all of this for nothing.” With that line, The Leftovers offered a handy synopsis for the reasoning behind religion and most of the crazy activities witnessed on screen. But there was an even more moving bit of meta dialogue this episode: Kevin, looking at Nora’s mysteriously broken arm, saying, “I’m going to miss this cast.” Surely that’s a double-entendre for fans coming to terms with how the end really, truly is near for this bizarre and gorgeous show.

Sophie, do you accept Kevin as your one true savior?

Gilbert: Happy Easter, He is risen! And verily, at the beginning of October, Kevin went down to the lake where his disciples were waiting, and did jump into the water, wherein the toxic chemicals were transformed, and everyone was saved. And Michael did baptize Kevin in the name of the father, upon which Kevin sayeth unto him … “That didn’t count.”

Seriously, though, where to start? With the Book of Kevin? With Evie’s untimely end? With the introductory flashback to 1844, where a devout pilgrim readied herself again and again for the end of the world, set to an impossibly jazzy interpretation of Larry Norman’s apocalypse primer, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”? I loved that sequence—the woman’s blissful hope on the roof, the calculations and recalculations, the way the camera moved seamlessly from the white robes of the people lying on the floor of the church to Evie’s white clothing as she lay on the floor of the Jarden visitors center. Was this Meg’s grand plan, to get everyone killed? I’m truly sad to see the end of Evie, one of the most intriguing characters on the show, with her wicked nihilist knock-knock jokes and her inscrutable motives.

Before the song started at the beginning of the episode, a voice read a verse from Matthew 24:37-39: “The world will be at ease—banquets and parties and weddings—just as it was in Noah’s time before the sudden coming of the Flood.” And indeed, Jarden does seem to be relatively peaceful, at least in the earlier scenes, with everyone allowed in sans wristbands, and the Gary Busey worshippers deputized, and Tommy’s joyful birthday party. But the scene where Kevin prepared the local cops for the events to come echoed the scene in the first season where Mapleton prepared for the first anniversary of the Departure. Which, you may remember, didn’t go so well. And seven, as Matt emphasized, is a number that tends to come up in the Bible. (But then so is 12, so maybe we’ve still got some time left before Judgment Day.)

Spencer, I was reading back over our old roundtables from season two, and a couple of times you mentioned hints about government crackdowns on cults that were never fully explored. This seems to have been what happened to Evie and Meg—a drone strike—with everyone in authority ordered to deliver the official version of what happened. But how can Kevin face his neighbor (and his onetime murderer, and now I guess his children’s stepfather), John, and not admit the truth? Even John, for his part, is skeptical, with his doubts about Evie really being dead revealing a man still very much in denial.

Throughout the episode, there were hints that trouble lurks beneath the one-big-happy-dysfunctional family surface. When Mary told Kevin she was going to leave Matt, Noah was listening to a children’s song that went, “I’m H-A-P-P-Y, I’m H-A-P-P-Y, I think I am, I’m sure I am, I’m H-A-P-P-Y.” Can there be any more apt description of what seems to be happening here? Kevin is great, sure, but he’s also suffocating himself for kicks and jumping in to possibly poisoned lakes. Matt is metaphorically suffocating his wife. Nora won’t talk about Lily, who’s mysteriously missing. And John is mimicking the same conman act from season two that prompted him to burn a man’s house down, not to mention shredding good money.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Dean, who seems to disappear and reappear out of nowhere all the time like a shotgun-toting Cheshire Cat. But the scene where he revealed his discovery to Kevin was impeccably timed. “I gotta inform you that our prey, previously unsophisticated and easily killable, has adapted,” Dean said. The music in the background swelled ominously, with creeping tones of doom. Dean continued with his tale about a Wyoming senator and a fancy gala, and then ... explained that he wanted Kevin to test the sandwich for dog DNA. Upon which the music abruptly stopped. It was a perfect echo of the phone call Nora got in season-two, which seemed like it was going to portend a significant reveal until the British scientist started talking about the demon Azazel.

But Dean is far from the only person losing his grip on reality. Even Kevin can’t tell the difference between the real world and the purgatorial hotel he spent some time in on another plane. When he told Tommy about killing a woman and her security team, it was Patti the show flashed back to. And when Kevin assured Dean that his delusion was all in his head, we briefly saw Kevin push little Patti (Big Little Lies’ Darby Camp, for trivia nuts) into the well. There were multiple references to therapy throughout the episode, and it seems like Kevin at least could have used a couple more sessions.

But then again, what use is therapy in a post-Departure world? Laurie certainly didn’t seem to think it was worth much, given that she quit her job and joined a cult. So I guess whatever works ... works, whether it’s making a giant Busey blimp, helping strangers make handprints and snooping on their social-media accounts, or writing a new New Testament because the old version is over. Everyone’s just trying to get by. But here are the things I want to know:

  1. What was Future Nora doing with the doves? Why is she called Sarah now? What are the messages attached to the birds’ feet? Where is she? The nun had an Australian accent and there is a church of Saint Mary MacKillop in the archdiocese of Melbourne but the landscape looked like … paradise.
  2. How did Nora break her arm?
  3. Was Dean right about the dogs? One did go for the sandwich in the end. Just kidding! Or am I?