The Leftovers: A Nicer Story

In “The Book of Nora,” a brilliant and continually surprising television show came to an end.


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: By the time of its series finale, The Leftovers had already proven itself as a powerful statement about humanity. Its very last episode added in a powerful statement about goats. In this extremely weird, extremely emotional closing chapter, Nora’s Shawshank Redemption-esque assumption of an ensnared beast’s beads may have been the most weirdly emotional moment of all—one last mysterious encounter between human intelligence and nature’s randomness. With doves, dogs, deer, lions, and goats, The Leftovers has shown that to look into an animal’s eyes is to realize something about yourself. It has also shown that a jammed door can be the source of an epiphany, and the human search for meaning can result in unthinkable betrayal and incredible forgiveness.

A one-of-a-kind, utterly committed work of art and philosophy, the finale was a microcosm of The Leftovers itself. It opened terrifying and closed heart-wrenchingly; it was, at no point, predictable. If it had a message, it was that grief creates madness but also can inspire love, that inner peace lies somewhere between faith and reason, and that Justin Theroux will remain dreamy a decade or more on. Below, I’ll try to recap and parse an episode that seems to want to resist recapping and parsing.

To start, Nora held a newspaper and looked into a video camera, stating her desire to leave this world. The Finnish physicists gave her one last test: skepticism about her sincerity. “I don’t lie,” Nora said through gritted teeth, a statement worth revisiting later in the episode. Her steeliness dissolved, though, when asked to say her children’s names. The camera closed in. “I’m ready to go now.” Were you crying already?

The mad-libs conversation between Nora and Matt touchingly honored the fact that this was their last moment together. It also, with the “bravest girl on Earth” anecdote, explained why Nora was going through with this. And this was a creepy-beautiful work of set design and direction: the “fossil” that was wheeled by, the doll in the fishbowl, the door of the truck pulled shut, Nora naked and alone walking down a sci-fi hallway, the egg-like pod, the fetal position, the whirring noises, the gunk filling up, and Nora’s final, truncated scream. Call it the best short film Ridley Scott never made.

Suddenly we were staring at doves in the sky, and déjà vu set in from the season premiere when we saw Nora-as-Sarah, pigeon-deliverer, aged somewhat, hanging out with a nun. From this point forward the episode became an exercise in profound disorientation: I screamed at my TV repeatedly. It wasn’t that we were shown anything impossible. It’s that what we were shown contradicted the world as we understood it—as it must have been for the people of Earth after October 14, 2011.

The most obvious interpretation, initially, was that Nora was in an another dimension thanks to the machine. But that became complicated when Kevin Garvey knocked on her door and Nora seemed flabbergasted. It wasn’t Kevin’s mere arrival that was so freaky. It was that he seemed to have forgotten their life together. If this was an alternate world, he might have been able to travel there to find Nora—but why would his memory be gone? If this was our realm, the same question remained—had he gone insane again? Kevin, aged, played his stranger routine completely straight, inviting her to a dance that night amid Nora angrily interrogating him about how he found her.

Nora then went—in another small but shocking turn—to call Laurie. The therapy (and confidentiality) agreement they made on the bluff in Australia remained intact, and unless this was the afterlife, Laurie didn’t end up killing herself while scuba diving. Rather, she appeared to be caring for a child at a playground, her curly mane less tamed than ever. Over satellite phone she, as always before, met her patient’s agitation with calmness. “You called me because you wanted me to say it’s okay to go to the dance,” she counseled. Nora shrieked her reply: “I do not want to go to the fucking dance!”

But Nora did go, in the end. First, though, we got some tour-de-force physical acting from Carrie Coon as Nora prepared to flee, then reconsidered, then got trapped in her cute little bathroom. What was Nora thinking as she was locked in? Was she realizing how upset she’d be if she let Kevin slip away again? The larger meta question of The Leftovers loomed: Is the universe playing tricks on people? Or, rather, are people continually suspecting the universe is playing tricks on them, spinning signs out of meaningless things?

The “dance” turned out to be a wedding—a boisterous, drunk, shotgun wedding involving goats and beads and Nora’s doves. The romantic circumstances were obviously a reminder of what Nora and Kevin had in another life, and the groom’s speech about mistakes being different from sins certainly seemed relevant for two people who chose to blow up their bliss. Kevin, still playing dumb, filled Nora in on the fates of Matt (killed by cancer, reconciled with Mary), Jill (married with kid), Tommy (divorced but okay), Kevin Sr. ( “still kickin” at 91). Nora joked that immortality runs in his family; Kevin replied that he’s not immortal and that he has a heart condition, the episode’s only cryptic reference to his resurrections and surreal visions. A laugh-out-loud moment from Kevin: “If you asked me to go to Miami with you, I definitely would have gone.” Pause a beat. “I love Miami.”

Just as Nora started to show some tenderness on the dance floor, she flipped out, saying what was happening was “not true.” Fleeing by bike, she checked in on her birds—they weren’t in the cage as they should have been—and then knocked on the door of the nun we met earlier to interrogate her. “Those birds are trained to do one thing one thing, and that’s to come home,” Nora spat. The nun suggested, with an eyelash flutter, they were out bringing messages of love—“It’s just the nicer story.” And she denied knowing anything about the gentleman Nora saw climb down from her window. It’s The Leftovers: Some things don’t get an explanation.

Next came the moment with the goat—surely an epiphany, but of what? Resumption of human burden? Absolution from pain? Sisyphus happy?

Later with Nora and her new animal friend back at her ranch, Kevin pulled up in his car to end his amnesiac ruse. “I was so sure you were still alive even though everyone else in the world said that you were fucking dead,” he sputtered. “I had to do something about it.” Each year, he spent his paltry vacation time coming to Australia, showing Nora’s picture to strangers. When he finally found her, he didn’t know what to say: “I thought, fuck it, I’ll erase it all and maybe that will give us another chance.” Robin Trower’s “I’m Out to Get You,” played at the wedding, described the universal yearning at play here: “Turn around / and maybe then / your whole life can start again.”

Nora looked up at him sanguinely and invited him in for tea. They started talking. And then she told him her remarkable tale. The machine took her to the universe of the Departed, she said. There, 98% of the world’s population had disappeared on October 14; there, her kids and husband were blessed, having lost only one loved one rather than all of them, and having replaced Nora with a new woman. She realized she had no place there. So she found the physicist who went through the machine in the first place and made him send her back. Back on this Earth, she wanted to go find Kevin. But “it was too late,” she said. “And I knew that if I told you what happened that you would never believe me.”

“I believe you,” Kevin said. Their hands touched. They laughed and cried and nodded. The camera cut to outside the house. The series ended.

Whew. What’s it all mean? The biggest shock of this finale is Nora’s testimony about where the Departed went. The show, of course, does not give a definitive answer about whether she’s telling the truth. When she bellowed “I don’t lie” at the start of the episode, it made me think of her not being entirely honest earlier in this season—to Kevin, to the DSD, to anyone—about her pursuit of the physicists, and about her own happiness. When she described her voyage to the other side, I wondered why the show didn’t just depict it. And there are big question marks: If the scientist who first “went through” had the power to send people back, would he not use it to allow grieving people in the 2 percent’s dimension visit the 98 percent’s? Couldn’t he begin to merge the worlds back together?

But I also thought about the marks on Nora’s face and the realistic-looking fossil at the machine. I thought about the logistical—and even tougher, emotional—questions of what did happen to her if she didn’t go through. If the physicists just left her in the parking lot of this world, did she really then plan to spend the rest of her life hiding out, avoiding Kevin? How awful if so. One way or another, the thought of her visiting the other universe and seeing her family happy and returning, is, as the nun put it in a different context, “a nicer story.” And in The Leftovers, believing the nicer story—not the more realistic or exciting one but the one that leaves you more at peace—seems to have been the happy ending for once-anguished characters like Matt and John and Laurie.

The episode is also about the power of love and its relationship to the power of loss. Kevin’s struggle through The Leftovers has been with his desire to run away from happiness and family. In the underground bunker of the penultimate episode, he seemed to conquer that desire. By searching for Nora all these years, he finally committed to the relationship that he had once, senselessly, torched. He also gave himself over to the same faith in the face of loss—faith in seeing the departed again—that led Nora to enter the machine, and, in human history, has led religions to form. “That’s how I found you, Nora,” he said. “I refused to believe you were gone.”

So in the very end, the doomed lovers are back together, holding hands. But it’s still a bittersweet closing given what came before. Unbeatable grief made Nora abandon Kevin. Self-hatred pushed him to push her away. No one is whole again. But they do seem, for now, at peace.

Sophie, give me your read. How do you feel about this odd but moving finale? Do you think people will be okay with its ambiguity? Do you believe Nora?  Can we let the mystery of this show be, forever, now that it’s departed?

Sophie Gilbert: You know, this finale was absolutely nothing I would have expected, and yet it was also fairly close to perfect, I thought. For so long, The Leftovers has presented unexplained phenomena and outlandish “miracles” and let the audience decide what to make of them. Last week, you and I disagreed over whether Kevin’s strange trips were actual journeys to a purgatorial realm or dreamlike hallucinations, and I think we could have the same arguments about Nora’s story, if we wanted to. (I love your point about why the inventor of the machine wouldn’t simply have sent everyone back in the first place.) Nora seemed to anticipate herself that no one would believe her, which is why, she says, she never got in touch with Kevin in the first place.

But her account of what happened after she, in her words, “went through” also offered more explanation of where the 2 percent had gone than I’d ever expected to get from this show, as well as an alternative, negative-space version of Kevin’s world that illuminated the Departure in really intriguing ways. When Nora lost her husband and two children, it made her one of the unluckiest people on the planet, suffering a loss of which the odds were a remarkable 128,000 to 1. But the flip side of that was that her husband and children, in the other reality, were remarkably lucky. They, after all, had survived almost intact as a unit, in a world “filled with orphans,” as Nora put it.

It made me wonder—were the people on the other side as suicidal as the 98 percent left behind? Or, exposed to a more cataclysmic shift in which virtually everyone in the world disappeared, were they conversely more intent on surviving? What’s harder to endure, a small-scale apocalypse or a vast one? These are the kinds of questions the show has made us think about for three years, while also giving us the tools to draw our own conclusions. Like with religion, whether you take Nora’s tale as truth or as metaphor (the Revelations warning about the seven-headed beast comes to mind) is up to you.

Spencer, I know one of your favorite moments in season two was when Nora, on the phone with an erudite-sounding British scientist who was talking to her about a possible “lens” effect, realized that the scientist was a kook when he suddenly mentioned the demon Azazel. Well, guess what the name was of the original scapegoat in the bible? You got it. That paper-crunching, bead-wearing, pitifully wailing goat that seemed to inspire some kind of resolution in Nora might also be the demon that chose her as his earthbound vessel, if crazy British scientists are to be believed. (That episode, “Lens,” also explained why Jardenite Jerry sacrificed a goat every day, out of the belief that repetition could keep Jarden safe. And it led to one of the funnier moments in “The Book of Nora,” when Nora, trying to trick Kevin out of his apparent delusion, asked him if he’d ever seen anyone sacrifice a goat. He laughed and said, “No. That’d be weird.”)

Is it possible that religion and faith is all just one big version of Matt Libs? That, over the years, people insert their own words into stories and the result is that we end up believing in terminally ill geckos and the great Antonio in the sky? Regardless, that scene between Matt and Nora was one of the most moving the show has offered, with Nora grateful for Matt’s company and lack of judgment, and Matt determined to just be there for her, and not hector or sermonize. Ironically, Matt’s crisis of faith—“How can I stand in a room full of people and convince them that I have the answers when I have no fucking idea what I’m talking about?”—might have made him a better, more empathetic person.

Spencer, like you, I loved the stark sci-fi of Nora’s trip inside the machine, and especially its contrast with her life in the flash-forward, which was determinedly analog. In the future, she didn’t appear to have so much as a phone, and there was something charmingly timeless about her bicycle and her fried-egg sandwich and her doves. Not the mention the three Billie Holiday songs that played over Nora’s various antics. If it hadn’t been for the really superb makeup that was used to age both Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux, it would have been hard to place the particular era we were in. And that felt deliberate: The focus of the scenes after Nora’s departure wasn’t on world building so much as the emotional range of the reunion between Kevin and Nora. Which, I’d argue, featured Theroux’s best work on the show to date.

And this is another reason why the finale functioned so well—it had a little of everything. There were the big climactic confrontations that The Leftovers has always done so well, with Nora’s final scene with Matt and her eventual reunion with Kevin. There were strange and inexplicable symbols (the nun’s liaison with a man on a motorbike, the love notes sent out to nowhere, the door that wouldn’t open, the mountain Nora had to climb in the rain). But there was also a gratifying amount of exposition. Matt died and was mourned by his wife and 400 other people. Michael continues to believe in God, and has taken over the church. Laurie chose life somewhere between the ocean and the sky. Tommy and Jill went on to have fairly ordinary adult lives. Judging by the wedding, the world seems to have recovered a reasonable amount from the Departure.

That message of resilience and optimism and moving forward after unimaginable loss was perhaps not quite what you might expect from a show that’s been as bonkers and as nihilist as The Leftovers has for three seasons. And yet there it was. Finally reunited with her family, Nora realized that it was all wrong, and that the best thing she could have done was to have moved on long ago. The final scene, which highlighted the absurdity of her hiding from Kevin while he literally scoured Australia to try and find her, reiterated the point. (On the other hand, you could argue that Kevin was just as committed to his grief in refusing to believe Nora was gone, and it ultimately led to a happy ending, so lolnothingmatters.)

I guess that’s the yin-yang effect again. Every action has its reaction and so on and so forth. But the idea that the Departure led to a parallel world where 98 percent of people disappeared—and the attendant argument that it might all be fiction invented by an unreliable narrator—was a surprisingly elegant and plausible way to conclude such remarkable work of television. It doesn’t fully explain what happened, of course, and how the world could have suddenly split into two parallel dimensions that can only be accessed by a radiation blast, but that’s a mystery I’m more than able to let be.