The Leftovers comes to a cathartic, compassionate close

At long last, this often oppressive show gave us the ending we so desired

The Leftovers finale.
(Image credit: HBO/Ben King)

The tagline for the The Leftovers' first season — "We're still here" — still captures the show's tone: a punkish sneer of defiance against the unseen forces that stole two percent of the Earth's population in a finger-snap of karmic force; a bitter cry of incurable grief; and a plaintive statement of fact. In the pilot, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) utters the words aloud while getting blitzed on cheap beer and trying to flirt with a young woman who lost her infant son in the Departure; everyone is trying to remind themselves that they are still alive — even if they aren't moving on, or even moving forward, but fumbling dumbly toward some semblance of real feeling.

But, when an aged Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), who has finally been to the other side, the Great Big Wherever that claimed her beloved children, comes back to our world and tells Kevin, the man she has loved and lost, that, "I'm here," her words thrum with life and love. She might've been going through the motions in Mapleton and Jarden, and upon her reverse LADR-ing back to Australia and her life as Sarah, the bird-keeper; now, though, she is vibrant, full of hope. And The Leftovers, a show that was initially mocked for its at-times oppressive dourness (at least in season one), concludes on a note of promise — even joyfulness — that shocks with its unexpectedness, and the kindness it shows to its long-suffering characters.

After its second season soft "reboot," The Leftovers fully embraced surreality as a driver of narrative and theme — and it did so with a pathos and a caustic wit that transcended any attempt to pigeon-hole it with the other prestige TV about Complicated White Men Broodily Pondering Existential Issues©. The show was always at its best when it plunged into the deep reservoir of its humanity; even head-scratchers like "International Assassin" and "The Most Powerful Man in the World (And His Identical Twin Brother)" are, at their core, about finding compassion even in the blaze of hatred, holding the pumping heart of your fear in your hands, and opening yourself up to love — things that those of us who don't have philosophy PhDs or comprehensive backgrounds in world religion can understand. Though the series finale, "The Book of Nora," winks at how convoluted the show could often be, it ultimately affirms The Leftovers' status as one of our most intensely compassionate hours of television.

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If anything, the goodbye scene between Nora and Matt (Christopher Eccelston), offers a kind of template for how to truly appreciate the show: They play "Matt Libs," one of the customized Mad Libs that Matt has been creating since he shepherded pint-sized Nora off to Bible Camp; this particular Matt Lib is wryly mordant, imagining Nora's eulogy, in which she loved her job at "the Division of Sudden Diarrhea" and is "barely survived by her terminally ill gecko, Matt Jamison." On the surface, it's a series of bizarre, discordant words and phrases strung together; but the sentiment beneath that surface matters far more — the real meaning comes from the history between siblings, the ways in which they've bonded and become estranged by time and loss, and how, in the end, they truly loved each other. Matt has been the stalwart older brother who consoled little Nora that she was "the bravest girl in the whole world," before she headed off to sleep-a-way camp. But, now, as she prepares to Depart, he becomes truly vulnerable with her and reveals the full fathoms of his terror — he's scared, of course, that he'll die and be forgotten; he's scared, too, that the chemo will work, and he'll have to live with an acute awareness that he's only treading on borrowed time (as we all are, really).

The scene alone encompasses everything that has made The Leftovers so essential: As Nora stands in front of the LADR device, naked under a thin white robe, trembling before the irrevocable enormity of what she's about to do, Matt calls out that she's still the bravest girl in the world. This straightforward sentiment is so effective because it exists in tandem with the knottily bizarre sequence where Nora steps into the mechanical womb of the LADR device, and holds her breath as a silvery goo floods the chamber. All of the hullaballoo about the delightfully mysterious weirdness of the show has primed us to view everything that happens afterward as some allegory for the afterlife, or shift in astral dimensions — surely, Nora living as "Sarah" must be either dead, or living a new life in an alternate universe as she goes about her routine of bringing messenger pigeons to the nuns; riding her bicycle to the lone payphone in the middle out of the outback to call her therapist, a woman we last saw plunging into the dark water to (presumably) commit suicide by "scuba accident;" and trying to avoid that guy named Kevin who shows up on her doorstep, inviting her to a dance — but, in the end, this episode is as straightforward, and as profoundly moving, as Matt's callback to the bravest girl in the world. Sometimes, things get to be simple, even if they aren't easy — sometimes, we're truly in the real world; sometimes, a desperate woman will still choose to take a breath, to lift her head above the waves; and sometimes, love can help heal us, even if, in the end, we'll never be entirely whole.

Writers Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta have crafted a remarkably optimistic, cathartic close to a series that, at times, nearly buckled under its own sorrow, filled with images of murdered dogs; middle-aged women being pummeled with stones; and men who ingest poison and take gut-shots, only to come gasping back to life, again and again. Everyone gets their own version of a happy (or happyish) ending — Matt may pass on, eventually, but, despite his fears of being forgotten, he is cherished by over four hundred mourners and by Mary, who gives his eulogy; Michael takes over the church, and Erika comes to help him; Laurie is alive, still with John, and a doting grandma to Jill's baby; even Tommy, despite his failed marriage, "lands on his feet;" and Kevin manages to cheat death yet again, surviving a heart attack. And yet, none of it seems sugar-spun, or like fan service — each of these people has been unmoored by agony, and each of them has fought hard for their redemption.

It's fitting, then, that Lindelof and Perrotta should center the series finale around the character who most (and often quite literally) embodied its ethos — Nora "Cursed" Durst, who struggled not only with the question of whether she could come back from the ultimate loss, but whether she even wanted to; who, at times, allowed herself to be defined by her suffering and, at times, tried to lean into the life she had in the here-and-now. She has been living a mute, solitary life for years — after, we later learn, she returned from the land of the Departed (more on that in a minute) — until Kevin shows up, feigning, at first, the role of a tourist who saw a gal he always wanted to ask out just riding her bike through town (this episode's singular flaw is that he plays dumb more to tweak audience expectations than out of any organic expression of character).

Again, the show takes a relatively direct approach to metaphor: After she's turned Kevin down for a date at a local dance (that turns out to be a townie wedding), Nora takes a hot bath, prepares to wind down for the night. Only the bathroom door is swollen shut; she can't escape her tiny, sweltering room until she breaks the door down. This is emblematic of what she must do to be with Kevin, the man who always "held a candle," who used the two weeks of his vacation to scour the land Down Under for her, year after year. But it also reflects the ways she's had to knock her grief off its hinges. When Nora and Kevin finally sit down in her cozy, antiquated little house, she tells him that the LADR did, in fact, transport her to the place of the Departed, and that it was, like our world, filled with hurt, bewildered people who were forced to press on against catastrophic loss.

"We lost them," Nora tells Kevin, "but they lost all of us." Finally, Nora finds her children — a curly-haired teenage boy and a smiling girl — living happily with their father, and a "pretty" new stepmother. This long-anticipated moment of reckoning and relief, when Nora gets what every single one of us wants, the chance to see the loved ones who are no longer with us, to speak with them, to touch them, isn't dramatized — and it doesn't need to be. Not when Carrie Coon takes us to those worlds with a look, a gesture, a subtle shift in her voice. She has so fully inhabited this role that, when Nora tells Kevin that she felt like a ghost in the Departed world, so she tracked down the LADR's inventor and asked him to reverse-engineer his device, it feels more than just believable — it actually makes sense. She truly is the bravest girl in the world. The woman who could take solace in the fact that her kids are okay, even if she'll never get to be their mother. The woman who volleys between two worlds, seeking closure, seeking peace, and finally finding home in the eyes of a man who never gave up hope that she was alive, that she was always "here."

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