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 2 percent of the world’s population suddenly vanishing.
Spencer Kornhaber: In its second to last episode ever, “The Most Powerful Man In the World (And His Identical Twin Brother),” The Leftovers finally answered the burning question on viewers’ minds: Why’d Kevin grow a beard? His lumberjack look, it turns out, resulted from Nora requesting it during a bathtub canoodling session. Which would have made a most maudlin subject for an episode-opening flashback with were it not for the discussion topic in that tub: the disposal of these doomed lovers’ corpses. Nora wants to be incinerated—as per usual. Kevin wants to be stuffed, setting up one last airing of Nora’s demented sense of humor: “I’m the one that has to have sex with that abomination. I’m going to dress it up like I want.”
In Kevin’s beard we have an example of The Leftovers’ sneaky brilliance. What once seemed like a standard style changeup between seasons of a TV show actually had a payoff both emotionally (the bathtub scene) and the logistically (it allowed us to tell apart the two Kevins). Similar cleverness with detail was seen throughout tonight’s installment of alternate-reality TV, an hour of outright nonsense that impressively delivered a heap of suspense, pathos, and humor. The episode also resolved the question of whether the world would indeed end in biblical flooding—and settled the three-season battle within Kevin’s own psyche.
Viewers had to expect there’d be a nightmarish sequel to last season’s epically bizarre “International Assassin” episode, but, as always with this show, the particulars were a matter of surprise. The hotel was gone, but this netherworld still seemed connected to the one we’d seen before via the storyline of the Guilty Remnant running for the White House. Two Kevin Harveys, one an oft-nude international assassin and the other a white-suited/black-bearded president, existed in this land—and once Kevin Garvey inhabited them he was able to switch identities with a glimpse in the mirror. Also present were characters from his waking consciousness who had died, including poor mean Kevin the Australian police chief, now serving as the president’s voyeuristic bodyman. David Burton, voice of god, was even in Kevin’s ear—though at one point, he admitted his claim to divinity was just a pick-up line. Meg, Patti, and Evie, otherwise scarce this season, each got to give one last spitfire performance.
This peyote trip was watchable instead of just weird because of the stakes involved. Kevin Sr.’s franticness upon rousing from his dog nap injected story-level urgency: If his son didn’t succeed, he insisted, everyone would drown. Objectives from John Murphy and Grace gave Kevin’s quest more emotional grounding—whatever else happened, he needed to give these grieving parents some sort of comfort. Equally as important were the desires of Kevin Jr. himself. Other characters kept asking him what he wanted—why had he gone on a suicide mission when he didn’t seem that invested in his dad’s singing scheme? The answer was never quite spelled out, but Kevin’s long history of proclaiming his love of family and home while partaking in self-destructive actions, as well as his preoccupation with Nora throughout the episode, suggested what was going on. He had to Choose Life, once and for all. By, of course, shoving his hand into the bloody gash he’d made in the chest of his old self. Inner healing: It’s messy.
Last week, I wrote about binging Wikipedia entries on philosophers to make sense of Laurie’s suicide; this week, I’ll spare you all my findings on the history of doppelgangers in fiction. It doesn’t take too much Dostoevsky to see that the deployment of alter-egos, in this episode of The Leftovers, was about internal duality. President Kevin was part of a scheme to annihilate humanity. Assassin Kevin was part of a scheme to stop him. But there the yin/yang allegory wasn’t too neat: Both guys were responsible for a romance novel suggesting deep shame for how things had been left with Nora. And in the end, nuking the world read as nuking just the world in which the GR wins—a cleansing apocalypse of Kevin’s destructive depths so that he can “never come back here.”
Did it also have the effect of saving the real world? There’s no reason to think so, as far as I can tell. Kevin’s previous journeys to cuckooland had me stretching my brain to figure out whether what we were being shown were mere hallucinations or a legit metaphysical journey. This is, as it turns out, is the same question that surrounds real-life near-death experiences (hi, The OA). But throughout this season I’ve been less and less drawn to interpreting the world of The Leftovers as magical. Maybe that’s because shocking events in recent times have highlighted how insane the real world can feel, or maybe that’s because as we’ve neared the end of the show it still hasn’t spiraled definitively into supernaturalism.
The end of tonight’s episode, with everyone dry and alive, would seem to disproves both the mystical theories of Kevin Sr. (no song for you!) and Matt Jamison (no Miracle, no problem). Kevin Sr.’s deep sense of disappointment on the rooftop would appear warranted: Not only was he not the one to save the world, but his question of “now what” might be answered with “go to jail for assaulting a police officer.” Is his son, at least, blessed? Kevin Jr. did survive what seemed like a fatal incident yet again—but there is the escape hatch of unlikely-but-not-impossible beating of the odds. The writers made a point of showing Kevin was cold; hypothermia can actually prolong the time a person survives lack of oxygen. And we just don’t know how long Kevin Sr. kept him pinned in the bathtub.
Besides, Kevin’s adventures carried with them such a strong feeling of lucid-dream logic, did they not? Details from his own life were recycled: The romance novel, for example, was housed in the same binder that the Book of Kevin was. The people he’d had on his mind materialized in uncanny ways, like with Grace’s kids being in the front row of his speech. And there was the genital-baring security procedure—absolutely the kind of dream trope that Freud would have written a paper about.
I might be letting my boring old skeptic’s brain be doing too much work here, though. If you have a religious reading, Sophie, lay it on me. And if you just want to share some gifs of Patti slapping Kevin and Kevin looking confused throughout the episode, that’s fine too. God only knows what we’ll do without them.
Sophie Gilbert: Spencer, I do disagree with you on the nature of the purgatorial plane Kevin has now found himself in four times, which I think might be the show’s intention (just like Scripture, we all impose our own meaning on these strange stories). For one thing, Kevin seems to have definitively died at least three times and come back to life—we don’t have an exact sense of how long he was dead for in this episode, but it has to have been close to 24 hours if it’s the day after the anniversary when he finally wakes up. His repeated reincarnations, if nothing else, have been logic-defying enough to convince three separate people that he might be the second coming of Christ. And we, the viewers, have actually seen his strange trips into whatever this otherworldly place is. I just can’t buy that you could come back once from being poisoned/drowned/shot, let alone thrice.
There have been clues in the past, too, that this other plane is a reality for more people than just Kevin. Damon Lindelof has said that the woman speaking Spanish in “International Assassin” is one, and by all accounts she, like Kevin, has found herself tasked with a strange mission—one that has nothing whatsoever to do with his. And, as you mentioned, all the people Kevin meets when he dies are people who are also dead: Virgil, Patti, Gladys, Dean, Chief Kevin, David Burton, Christopher Sunday, Evie, Meg, the five Playford children.
Some (Patti, Christopher) seem to be more cognizant of where they are than others (Evie), perhaps because they heeded the advice to not drink the water. Some, like Kevin and David Burton (at least the first time around, three years ago), seem to be able to go “home.” (Remember when Mary showed up in the hotel in season two and then woke up from her coma?) Either way, I have a hard time buying that it’s all a part of Kevin’s subconscious. What of all the other people in the hotel dressed as priests and cops, seemingly going through their own assignments? And Kevin learning the history of Patti’s ex-husband’s sexual predilections, which presumably Laurie (as a good therapist) never revealed?
But I’m sure this lack of clarity is deliberate, and isn’t it appropriate that we disagree, given the doubling theme? Here are some other facts to blow your mind. The actor who plays the Australian Chief Kevin, seen as Real Kevin’s security chief in this episode, is named Damien Garvey. And did you notice that when Kevin went down the stairway into the security bunker the second time, as his beardless assassin self, there was a sign hanging that hadn’t been there before? The letters spell out “OCCUPIED,” which I can’t decipher at all, but the design seems to mimic the yin-yang current that runs through the whole episode. (It’s also appropriate that the code for the locked door inside the bunker was 6969.)
On my mission to persuade you that this place really is a higher plane, I even went back to see if the Russian-sounding man who drags Kevin out of the water was the same Russian-sounding man who self-immolated in the desert with Kevin Sr., but as far as I can tell, he wasn’t. Dang. But let’s consider the twin theme. Remember the lion orgy episode, when David Burton told Matt that Jesus wasn’t really immortal, and that he simply had an identical twin brother? Also, remember the identical twins of season one who helped Jill bury the dead dog she found in her father’s car? I don’t know what any of this means, other than that there are persistent themes in this show that keep coming up, but it’s fun to think about.
All this said though, as much as I enjoy picking at the clues that seem to be threaded through these purgatorial trips, I haven’t been fully convinced by Kevin’s mental state this season. Compared with Laurie, whose growing despair was spelled out so heartbreakingly in “Certified,” and with Nora, whose slump has realistically been sparked by losing yet another child, I just don’t fully buy why Kevin seems to be so intent on trying to kill himself. Yes, he told Laurie that the place he goes to feels “real,” and yes, like everyone else, he’s deeply traumatized by the Sudden Departure. But he never seems to think about the two children he might be leaving behind (perhaps a consequence of Tommy and Jill being sidelined this season). Considering that he’s the main character in the show, Kevin’s self-destructive instincts often feel more like a plot device than a fully mapped out psychological breakdown.
Like the end of last season, Kevin came to terms in this episode with his regret about leaving Nora, and decided he did want to go home, ultimately nuking whatever place he was in so he couldn’t come back to it. (I loved how the falling bombs mimicked the drone that fell on Evie in the first episode of the season, with a graceful arc toward earth and then a sudden, blinding flash.) But first, Kevin had to wrestle with himself, literally, and rip the heart out of the part of his psyche that keeps wanting to die. Maybe? I don’t know. “I’m sensing a lot of internal contradictions with you, Kevin,” Patti said. “This sounds like something you need to work out with yourself.” Which he did, in a gruesomely bloody and definitively final way.
Kevin Jr. aside, it was fascinating to see Kevin Sr.’s delusions come to nothing, with him left sitting morosely on the roof like the Millerite from the very first scene, disappointed that the world hadn’t ended. More than anything, Kevin Sr. has embodied the kind of grandiosity this season that we’ve seen in the past from Holy Wayne and other charlatans—a determination that he is special, and is the only person who can save the rest of the world. He even went so far as to drag Kevin out of the water after he drowned himself the first time.“I’m doin’ what you asked me to do!” Kevin Jr. exclaimed, irate. “I thought we’d do it together,” his father replied, a little sheepishly. In other words, saving the world is secondary to Kevin Sr. feeling like he’s fully involved in the process.
Kevin Sr.’s emotional state was explored a little in the bunker by Patti, when she explained why she and alt-President Kevin had decided to end human existence via nuclear war. “We are going to vaporize every man, woman, and child on the planet,” she said. “It’s the seventh anniversary of the Departure, and there’s a reasonable expectation that the world is gonna end.” If they start the apocalypse, “no one wakes up tomorrow disappointed that nothing happened. We give the people what they’re too chickenshit to do themselves. We give them what they want, and they want to die.”
This seems to have been the theme that’s run through the whole final season: Whatever the Departure was has prompted a lot of people to want to go, in the worlds of the Finnish scientists’ subjects, “wherever they went.” As Nora said in her description of a scuba-diving death, “clean, quiet certainty.” For people who’ve lost loved ones, like Nora, they want to believe that dying (or going through a crazy radiation machine) will give them the opportunity to see those loved ones again. But for a lot of others, like Laurie, the Departure has upended their belief systems so drastically that they simply can’t function anymore.
Pretty grim stuff. Thank God there were penis scanners and Patty Duke Show theme songs and another Justin Theroux utterance of “This is stoopid” to lighten the mood. I have no idea what’s going to happen in the finale, but the fact that it’s titled “The Book of Nora” makes me hope that we’ll at least have some update as to her trip into the machine, and maybe an explanation of that flash-forward in which she was old and receiving messages via pigeon.