‘The Leftovers’ should let the mystery be in its final season
The show should commit to exploration of human reaction to a world robbed of meaning
“The Leftovers” may currently be in the middle of its third and final season, yet I find it no easier to describe the show now than I did when it first started. In fact, I’ve rewritten this particular review more than any other because it’s nigh impossible to explain the hypnotic power of this show.
Sadly, very few people have actually seen “The Leftovers.” It is the greatest show on TV that nobody watches. However, it is highly unlikely that I, or anyone really, can do much to change that: words can’t capture how strange, beautiful and strangely beautiful this show is. Nonetheless, I’ll do my best.
In the show, two percent of the world’s population suddenly disappears in an event on Oct. 14, 2011 that becomes known as the “Sudden Departure.” Reactions are varied. Some insist that it was the Biblical Rapture. Others search for a more scientific explanation. Some declare themselves modern day healers, saviors and prophets. And still others join the “Guilty Remnant” — a silent cult with mysterious motives.
But most people just want to move on with their lives, only to discover that they can’t. The show picks up three years after the Sudden Departure and ostensibly follows the Garvey family. Kevin (Justin Theroux), the chief of police in the fictional town of Mapleton, New York, is trying to keep the peace while battling his own demons. His wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), has joined the Guilty Remnant, and his daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), has descended into depression and ennui. Meanwhile, Laurie’s son, Tommy (Chris Zylka), has become a follower of Holy Wayne, a post-Departure saint.
This description may sound straightforward, but it’s deceiving. The show doesn’t actually have much of a centralized plot, nor is it really about the Garveys.
The family gets the most screen time, yet we regularly glimpse into the lives of other fascinating characters including Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), a disillusioned reverend, and his sister, Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), who lost her entire family in the Departure. And in season two we meet the Murphys, a family whose dysfunctionality mirrors the Garveys.
By focusing on such a broad spectrum of characters and subplots, the show becomes less narrative driven, instead turning into a tapestry that explores life after the Sudden Departure. To be clear, the world of “The Leftovers” is strange. Very strange. And yet how could it not be? The world is falling apart at the seams, and each season’s trajectory heads toward apocalypse. This may sound like a depressing tale, but it’s not. Instead, it’s baffling. Both the characters and the audience cry out into the void looking for answers — none ever come.
The experience can admittedly be maddening, but it works because we care about these phenomenal characters, thanks in no small part to spot-on casting. Theroux and Coon are particularly good and have real chemistry as Kevin and Nora, respectively, forming a gradually touching relationship which becomes the heart and soul of show.
That being said, just as the world of “The Leftovers” is strange, so are the people who populate it. Characters we care about regularly make decisions that are puzzling at best and unfathomable at worst. We only want to see them happy, yet the writers continually deny that desire. This may be aggravating, but it also forces us to wonder: if we were in their position, would we behave any differently? Probably not.
A perceptive reader will notice a contradiction running rampant through this review. On the one hand, I have insisted that “The Leftovers” is a bewildering ordeal, yet I have also declared it is one of the greatest shows on television. This may sound like a paradox, but it is also the only way I can properly express my feelings. It’s the sort of show where even when you want to wince and look away, you know you can’t — it’s just too compelling. It’s frustrating, hopeful, depressing, profound, upsetting and finally deeply cathartic.
For example, at one point a character must sing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” for a karaoke contest to escape limbo. This scene, for me, encapsulates the entire show: on paper the premise sounds ridiculous, but in execution it creates one of the most heartbreaking moments I’ve ever seen depicted on screen.
The last episode will air in a few weeks, and fans are understandably concerned about how the show will end. After all, co-creator Damon Lindelof was responsible for “Lost,” which is renowned for its underwhelming conclusion.
I suppose it’s possible that Lindelof could disappoint again if and when he decides to solve the mystery of the Sudden Departure. Regardless, it probably won’t affect the overall quality of the show. I think the creators were trying to tell the audience something when they chose Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be” for the season two opening theme. The show isn’t supposed to be about the mystery of the Sudden Departure. Rather, it’s about how those left behind react.
Indeed, this notion is continually reinforced. I’m not the only person to notice that the Garveys make for unique protagonists because none of them were taken during the Departure. They should be the least affected by the event, but clearly it still has an impact on them. Likewise, season two takes place in Jarden, Texas, the only place on Earth were no one disappeared. Nonetheless, we quickly learn that its inhabitants are no less damaged and fragile than the rest of the world.
Above all else, the show is deliberately called “The Leftovers” and not “The Sudden Departure.” Frankly, I don’t think the creators are interested in solving some cosmic mystery. Instead, I think they aim to pose one simple question: when life stops making sense and the world is stripped of meaning, how do we as humans react? Even if the final season does answer the mystery of the Sudden Departure in a less than satisfactory way, I don’t think the show will ever fully answer that deeply existential question. For that reason alone, “The Leftovers” will always be relevant.