After three seasons, Damon Lindelof brings The Leftovers to a close with a lyrical hour of television that won’t soon be forgotten.
It’s no surprise that when The Leftovers ends, it does so with an intense focus on Carrie Coon’s Nora Durst. Since the moment at the end of the season 3 premiere, Nora has been on a different trajectory than the other characters in the series. During last week’s penultimate episode, it was said that, “People don’t want closure, because it makes it real.” Nora wants closure. Nora has a distinct want that externalizes her character’s conflict and has put her in charge of the direction of the season. It was Nora’s decision that brings everyone to Australia (with the exception of Kevin Senior, of course), and considering the tantalizing final shot of the season premiere, Nora’s story is the one that continues – in some form or another – for many years after the seven year anniversary of the Sudden Departure.
What Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta did with the final episode of The Leftovers is continue telling the sort of story they’ve told all season long, which is to the telling up to the characters. And the story that Nora tells offers is one that’s as immense in its implications as any that’s been told or witnessed in the series over the course of the last three seasons. Is it the truth? Did it really happen? It doesn’t really matter. Instead what matters is that it’s another good story for what has become one of the most powerful, gripping, and emotionally satisfying dramas on television in years.
When you consider just how the series has dealt with the central question of the Sudden Departure over the past three seasons, it makes sense that The Leftovers would end with ambiguity. But also that the ambiguity doesn’t even really matter because the characters have finally found their way back to their present, to the here and now, and they know how important that is. The past is the past and it’s made them who they are, but try as they might, they can’t change it. Kevin tries, when he lies about only barely knowing Nora. It’s a clever narrative trick he’s trying as part of his own story: a way to edit out all the bad things they did and said to one another, especially in that hotel room he walked out of all those years ago.
That’s essentially what Nora does when she recounts her incredible story to Kevin, about how she went through with the procedure and didn’t scream “Stop!” like it looked she did, and she wound up on another Earth where the two percent of the population this Earth lost were the only survivors of the Sudden Departure. Nora’s story is astonishing, especially when she describes how she finally found a way back to Mapleton, and how she saw her kids and her husband and how happy they were, and realized she was just one of presumably 98 percent of the population that vanished in an instant and that she “was a ghost that had no place there.” And that’s where she changed her mind. It’s a harrowing decision to make, but her story doesn’t end there. Nora says she found the physicist who built the machine in the first place, asked him to build another and send her back. It took years, but she did it. That’s Nora’s story and Kevin believes her. He believes her because it’s what brought her back to him and nothing else matters. It’s the ultimate wish fulfillment for those who’ve lived through the pain and the uncertainty of an event like the Sudden Departure. It’s completely understandable; because what story wouldn’t you be willing to believe if someone you loved and lost was suddenly returned to you?
There’s a wonderful simplicity to the moment that Kevin responds to Nora’s doubts that he or anyone else would believe her story, and not question that perhaps she chickened out and was instead hiding in shame and exile for decades, electing not to attend Matt’s funeral because it wouldn’t fit in the narrative of her longstanding ruse. So when Nora informs Kevin of her worries, he responds: “Of course I believe you. You’re here.” Because it doesn’t matter if he knows the absolute truth about what her experience was. It doesn’t matter because on some level he knows he never will know the whole story, and who cares anyway? She’s sitting across the table from him now.
The Leftovers has been asking its characters to tell stories all series long; they’ve been telling stories to make themselves and others feel better and to cope with the ambiguity of their lives post-Departure. The level of personal storytelling by the series’ characters is just a lot more concentrated in season 3. The final eight episodes have been less a continuous story arc about people riding out the end of the world than it has been a loose collection of short stories about personal narratives and how they define the people who tell them – the end of the world stuff is just the connective tissue between them. Nora’s chosen her story and she’s told it. She’s told to Laurie, who didn’t drown herself, and she’s told it to Kevin, who never stopped believing he’d find her again. Now, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta ask the audience whether they want to believe Nora went on a grand, reality-spanning adventure – a la International Assassin and The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother) – or that she’s full of it. It doesn’t really matter which one you or anyone else lands on because the end result isn’t an answer to why the Sudden Departure happened. Instead, as the viewers are reminded with the finale’s opening credits, they could just “let the mystery be.”
And ultimately, what’s so satisfying about the ‘The Book of Nora’ is that Lindelof, Perrotta, and director Mimi Leder find a way to cast off the burden of absolute truth, of answers, or of proof, and instead offer two beautifully intimate moments between two people who so desperately needed a second chance. The first comes in a profoundly moving moment when the two hold each other and fight back tears while dancing at the wedding of two complete strangers. And after Nora leaves in a huff over the story Kevin is (perhaps foolishly) sticking to, and later rescues a goat caught on a fence and burdened with the sins of an entire wedding party, Kevin returns; ready to tell a different story.
The result of that story is an invitation to tea and to finally hear the tale Nora has to tell. You get the feeling she could have told Kevin anything; so long as she smiled at him and took his hand his response would have been the same. “Of course I believe you. You’re here.” It’s a beautiful way to end a tricky series about the end of the world that was still somehow filled with a tremendous amount of life and humor and heart. So in the end, The Leftovers is brought to a close with a lyrical, satisfying hour of television that won’t soon be forgotten.
The Leftovers seasons 1-3 are available to stream on HBO Go and HBO Now.
Photos: Ben King/HBO