The Bible tells us that over the span of a three-year ministry, Jesus used parables to capture people’s imagination for God. Stories about good shepherd saviors and Good Samaritan rescuers, dutiful stewards who get rewarded and humble believers who get uplifted. They promised abundant living to those who lived by faith and severe judgment for those who didn’t. Some described “the kingdom of God,” although the Book of Matthew used the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” a bit of periphrasis to avoid being glib with God’s holy name. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man planted in his field,” Jesus says in Matthew 13:31. “Although it is the smallest of all seeds, yet it grows into the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and rest in its branches.” Then Jesus died, rose, ascended, and vanished from view, leaving us behind to make his stories work. The results have been — how to put this — mixed?
Over three seasons, HBO’s The Leftovers told parables, too — strange, shattering tales of buggy belief and heartbroken unbelief in a far-from-heaven world gone mad and sad. Inspired by Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel, a poignant absurd fable of post-9/11 catastrophe culture and social fragmentation, and finessed into an intimate and ironic spiritual epic by Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of Lost, the show chronicled the aftermath of an inexplicable global catastrophe, the vanishing of 2 percent of the population, focusing narrowly on a small set of unmoored lives suddenly robbed of meaning and joy by totally rando reaping. (Among the culled: the main cast of Perfect Strangers, minus Mark Linn-Baker, who was really irked by his exclusion. Apparently, the force behind the “Sudden Departure” didn’t know that rapture was in his rider.)
RELATED: The Leftovers series finale recap
Lindelof and his writers, which included Perrotta, used the scenario to create an existential condition marked by confusion, anger, guilt, and grief. Here, unlike Lost, the problem of life wasn’t a mystery to solve and escape; it was a mystery to suffer and survive. But how? The stories gave us people trying to move on (or not) and thrive anew (or not) by putting their trust in the darndest things — or refusing to believe in anything at all. The perspective on the characters took seriously the idea that we possess a God-shaped hole — we need to believe in something — but the perspective on epistemology was such that it distrusted anyone or anything that claimed to have certain truth. There was grace for people of faith, even silly faith, and deep anger on behalf of anyone burned by it. Concluding amid a pitched moment of worry and mournfulness (as I write these words, London is reeling from yet another terrorist attack), The Leftovers ends right when we need it most. Here was a series that aspired to be a cultural friend to us in our dismay and disorientation, offering outraged witness for our pain and invitation to reflect on our remedies for assuagement. Keep the show near you; it’s a keeper that will endure. The Leftovers was, and will remain, a show for a time of sitting in ashes.
RELATED: The Leftovers Star Amy Brenneman on Her Featured Episode and The Show’s Final Season
Each season was set in a different locale — a different kingdom of heaven. Season 1 was set in Mapleton, New York, a town bedeviled by a cult called The Guilty Remnant, comprised of chain-smoking mutes clad in death-sheet white who had codified despair into a belief system of brutal truth and resolute hopelessness; their perverse fellowship was marked by non-relationship. They trolled and terrorized those who dare try to move on, as they believed most “moving on” was just running away — and they weren’t wrong. Season 2 — a winning reboot of the show’s tone and structure, reorganizing the narrative around character-centric episodes — interrogated the whole notion of fresh starts by relocating to Jarden, Texas, a.k.a. “Miracle,” a place untouched by the Sudden Departure, but a place scared of progress and regress in equal measure. Season 3 moved further south, descending into an underworld — okay, Australia — and sent the characters on walkabouts to find individual truth, only to find themselves prodigals, divorced from their only consolation — each other — and unsure if they could go home or if they even deserved to.
The parables of The Leftovers were darkly comic, emotionally searing, and defiantly humanistic. They described a realm of anguished subjects made unbearably Other and alienated by the felt remove of a distant, silent, governing agency. The kingdom of God is like… Kevin (Justin Theroux), a lawman in perpetual identity crisis, who can’t trust his mind or his happiness, who tries to kill himself — repeatedly — just to know he’s real. The kingdom of God is like… Nora (Carrie Coon), a skeptic who yearns to believe, who gets into a mystery machine to be reunited with the love she lost, only to feel like a fool for ever wanting that. The kingdom of God is like… Kevin’s father (Scott Glenn), a madman seeing meaning where there is none, who wanders the desert searching for a song to save the world. The kingdom of God is like… Laurie (Amy Brenneman), a recovering Guilty Remnant who battles daily with self-destruction, a therapist who believes the only honest advice she can offer anyone is to follow their madness wherever it goes.
Season 3 was framed by an irreverent overture, one that foreshadowed its final destinations and summed up the show’s anti-theology. We watched a 19th-century protestant family — members of an apocalyptic church — faithfully climb onto their roof in the night to wait for beam-us-up deliverance promised by their pastor. It didn’t come. Prophecies were recalculated, they did it again, and once more, they were still there at sunrise. They kept doing this, but as they did, the flock began to dwindle — and the family broke apart, leaving behind a single believer, a woman, and we left her alone, on her roof at night, waiting. In a season of extraordinary music cues, this passage was set to a contemporary Christian classic, a cover of Larry Norman’s prepare-your-soul-for-heaven rapture warning, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” There’s no time to change your mind/The son has come/And you’ve been left behind. The song is a subversive turn-or-burn soft rocker; The Leftovers cunningly appropriates it to chide any belief system that says to live for an afterlife — or anything — that comes at the expense of the here and now and those to whom you are tied.
My favorite story was the season 3 episode “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World.” It began with a parable within a parable, a micro-portrait of wrongheaded zealousness run amok, a codex for the show’s self-sabotaging seekers. Set days before the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure and amid mounting hysteria that another calamity was imminent, the story opened on a man stripping down to his birthday suit. He was a sailor on a French submarine, but born again hard for some new cause, on fire for terrible purpose. We watched him, naked and most unashamed, make like a crusader, fighting his way into the control room, then contorting his body into a cross-like shape, balancing on one leg so he could use one arm and one leg to turn keys on either side of him, just to gain access to a detonator with tiny red button that could get him to heaven faster. The warheads exploded. A cloud bloomed like the largest of plants. Thy kingdom come. See what mustard seeds get you?
Naked Nuke-Me Guy wasn’t even the nuttiest part of this episode. The craziest part was the lion-worshiping sex cult inspired by a forgotten movie, Frasier, the Sensuous Lion. No, check that! It was the psychotic former Olympian wearing a Trump-red trucker’s cap who declared himself God — a really antisocial one who so didn’t want to be bothered, he communicated via “Yes, I Am God” cards! The story put them both on a ferry bound for Australia — a wink-wink Charon-ride into Hades. It winked at a Bible story that dealt with problems of epistemic distance. While Moses was away, the people made a golden calf for worship and play. It also functioned as a metaphor for secular-religious divide, with the poles represented by extremes, do-what-thou-wilt secularism and corrupt fundamentalism. Suffering this ship of fools was another one, Reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), a servant of the lord prone to making reckless, superstitious gambles that exposed his faithlessness and narcissism. His night crossing, in fact, was a nightmare extrapolation of his chaotic internal life.
Matt was traveling to Australia to find Kevin, whom he believed to be a messiah, and make him come back to Miracle and stave off the apocalypse. (Sending Matt on a mission to put a missing deity back in his place? That’s all of Preacher, in a single hour.) Matt’s story was also an ironic Jonah story: It put him in the belly of a figurative whale to punish him for his cowardliness. But the show’s symbol system also found a way to go after and punish “God,” too.
After witnessing “God” kill a man, Matt tried to bring this rogue deity to justice, though he first had to fight his way through an orgy of jerking, slurping, humping flesh belonging to the aforementioned sex cult. At one point, Matt said the wrong thing — or the right thing? — and they bound him to a chair, brought in a caged lion, and tried to sacrifice Matt by fitting him with a penis pump or a pneumatic suck-off machine or something. I don’t know. I clearly haven’t had enough sex to understand such things.
Matt escaped and found “God” and wrangled him into a wheelchair and tried to make him explain himself. Instead, “God” turned the tables, as the God of The Bible did to Job, and forced Matt to check himself and get real with himself. Matt had cancer; he was dying. He had a wife (recently recovered from several years’ paralysis and near catatonia) and a new child at home who needed him and wanted to be with him. What the blazes was he doing half a world away from them, searching for miraculous rescue in all the wrong places, in the most imperfect of strangers? Stripped naked spiritually, profoundly ashamed, the scales fell from Matt’s eyes and he recognized that his Australian crusade was pure self-sabotage. He was lost. He had been for some time.
The last scene of “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” was one for the ages. As the sun rose on Matt’s dark night of the soul and the ferry’s passengers disembarked, the lion escaped the cage of its kinky priests and ravaged “God” to bloody bits. It was the show passing judgment on a conception of the divine not worthy of our belief and/or any attempt to tame the wild mystery of existence by putting it in a box that degrades its meaning. Matt, now a reverend with no faith, an evangelist without a God to preach, turned to the camera (which was taking the perspective of his traveling companions), and offered an epitaph for all his dead-end notions:
“That’s the guy I was telling you about.”
“It’s A Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” was everything I loved about season 3 of The Leftovers. It was a creatively audacious hour that let rip with wild ideas, but corralled into a character-driven, character-revealing story filled with layered scenes that was on theme and emotionally resonant. It was really funny — a stunning reversal of season 1’s grueling bleakness. It was an episode made possible by a hard-fought struggle to acquire command of the show’s premise, characters, and voice. Season 3, in fact, delighted in that mastery, producing an eclectic collection of stories that expressed a wide range of tones. It was a big statement album loaded with killer singles and zero filler that represented an ode to its own invention and reinvention — the Achtung Baby follow-up to season 2’s The Joshua Tree — a quality underscored the inspired choice to overture each episode with a different theme song, from a cheeky Richard Cheese cover of “Personal Jesus” to “1-800 Suicide” by Gravediggaz. By the end, it seemed like The Leftovers could do any bananas thing it wanted — from Nora’s hotel room encounter with Mark Linn-Baker to a trip back into Kevin’s surreal spy-flick subconscious to assassinate and liberate himself — and make it sing, make it resonate, make it distinctly Leftoversian.
It was impossible to not take The Leftovers personally. The themes were universal, the storytelling demanded that you lean, engage, and interpret; it was very much a Bring Your Own Meaning party. Following the characters on their journeys into the mystery of themselves prodded you to do the same; I often found myself in my innermost cave, wrestling with what was there. “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” specifically interrogated my flawed Christian faith, my penchant for escapism, my tendency to look away and drift away from the people in my life to find meaning in my worldly idols — work, achievement, pop culture.
To engage The Leftovers risked feeling anew the defining traumas of your life. A number of critics have written quite powerfully about this, and if you’d allow me, I’d like to briefly share my own testimony. The Leftovers premiered on June 29, 2014, just 10 days after the death of my wife. At the time, I was three years into working with Damon on a movie, Tomorrowland (a collaboration which, full disclosure, made me privy to the workings of The Leftovers during its first season and half of its second). I remember asking Damon at Amy’s funeral how he was feeling about the show’s imminent debut. He told me, then said: “Please don’t watch this show right now. I worry it might hurt you too much.”
He was right. I started watching The Leftovers a couple months later. It was painful — and yet I didn’t mind. The suffering of the characters spoke to and for my chaotic, all-over-the-place grief. I might be one of the few people who actually liked the complex mess that was The Guilty Remnant in season 1. I could relate to their “never forget” mandate, I could relate to their “stop wasting your breath” critique of everyday occupations and preoccupations, I could relate to the spiritual dryness they represented. When they bought Matt’s church, gutted it, and whited out the windows, I saw a symbol of my anger with God and dimming of faith. But I also saw in their hurtful antics a reckless, damaging acting out, and unfortunately, I could relate to that, too. By the end of season 1, The Guilty Remnant embodied a valuable cautionary tale — a warning against making an idol out of your despair.
In sleepwalking Kevin, I saw my bewildered daze. In Nora’s lost weekend, I saw my identity crisis. In Laurie’s retreat and self-negation and Kevin’s fury and pining, I saw Amy’s demise and destruction and my resentment and sorrow. What I wanted more than anything from season 1 was to see the restoration of the Garvey family, with Kevin, Laurie, and their two kids, Tom (Chris Zylka) and Jill (Margaret Qualley), reunited and resolved to recover and rebuild. You can imagine why that had some allure. It didn’t happen, but the subverted expectation felt like a valuable correction. Boy, you’re going to carry this weight a long time, though perhaps rejuvenation can be with new people.
But how does one move into the future with a right hold on the past? Season 2’s exploration of that very question spoke to me, too. In this way, the story of The Leftovers did two valuable things for me. It kept checking on my grief, asking how I was dealing with it, or more importantly, if I was dealing with it at all. It also recognized my grief, as if to say: I see you, and you’re not alone. When I think of the show, I think of this verse from “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve:
Well, I never pray
But tonight I’m on my knees, yeah
I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me, yeah
I let the melody shine, let it cleanse my mind, I feel free now
But the airwaves are clean, and there’s nobody singing to me now
“The Book of Nora,” the bittersweet series finale, opted to finish as the show flourished, with an intensely intimate single-character showcase, a first-person psalm, not a multi-character symphony. Lindelof and his team made some gutsy choices. Did the mystery machine send Nora to the alt-earth where the departed were sent, or did she bail out of it before it could activate? We were denied evidence to settle the matter conclusively. A major chunk of the hour made us wonder if Nora — now living alone, in Australia, as a woman named Sarah, many years after the business with the machine — had become a resident of a parallel earth or new timeline. This possibility was nurtured by the arrival of her former lover, Kevin; he said he hadn’t seen her since meeting her back in Mapleton. In truth, we were still very much in the same world and same timeline we had always been. Kevin was lying; he had been searching for Nora for years.
In the final scene, Nora told Kevin a story that probably wasn’t entirely true. She said she had gone to the alt-world and saw that her husband had started a new life with another woman and that he and their kids were okay. She said she convinced the inventor of the machine to build a new one so she could return to this earth, because she felt she didn’t belong over there. This journey, she said, took several years. Did she think of Kevin? Did she want to call him or be with him? Yes, she said. “But much time had passed, it was too late, and besides, if I told you what happened, you’d never believe me.” Kevin said, “I believe you,” and when she responded with amazement (“You do?”), he replied: “Why wouldn’t I believe you? You’re here.” Kevin took her hand, and Nora began to cry, and for the first time in the episode, she smiled. “I’m here,” she said, as if it was an epiphany.
I have quibbles, but only quibbles. I’m still trying to decide if I buy Kevin’s deception. There were other deliberately fuzzy bits that confounded more than intrigued. (I suspect there’ll be great debate about whether or not Nora was gasping or trying to say “Stop!” just as the heavy metal liquid reached her neck inside the bubble mover.) The what’s-really-going-on-here? mystery risked upstaging the characters and ideas during my first viewing, but not on the second, and not in my memory.
The whole episode — masterfully directed by Mimi Leder and driven by a give-her-all-the-Emmys-now performance by Coon — felt emotionally credible from beginning to end and gave me moments that I’ll carry with me for years to come. What moved me most was a depiction of a person who had never successfully grieved the defining loss of her life and all the regrets and guilt that come with it, who had made dubious choices in that grief, and who felt such shame about those choices, including the suicidal folly of the mystery machine, that she felt disqualified from life, love, and happiness of any kind; she had become a guilty remnant. I know this misery. I think about the time I squandered with Amy, and I think of all the ways I failed her as a caretaker during her illness, and I think: I deserve to be alone, and no one should suffer my weakness again. In Nora’s want to see her family again, I see and feel my yearning to see Amy again, even just once, to know she’s okay in the somewhere-else where she resides.
And yet, how Kevin moved me, too! His quest to find Nora tapped into that Amy longing, but more so, he represents the friends, family, and even new love (hi, Katherine!) who have never quit on me, who search me out when I retreat or drift, who find me in my ashes and hold my hand and remind me I’m not alone, I’m real, I’m here. I will also say Kevin speaks to my current attitudes about God, in whom I still believe despite my anger, and in whom I’m trying to trust again. Is he distant from me — or am I distant from him? In the short story of the nun and her rebel biker lover, I see my renegotiation with faith, my ongoing, never-ending effort to take ownership of my faith and decide what I believe — what feels true, what doesn’t, what to keep, what to discard.
In the images of Nora biking back and forth between her lonely old house with its imprisoning rooms in the boonies and a town where people dwell — where they dance, love, marry, confess, forgive, let go, move forward — I see my own spiritual to-and-fro between isolation and relationship. And so the show gave the gift of a metaphor that helps me make sense of that yo-yoing when I’m lost in that commute. In that image of Nora climbing the hill to help the scapegoat, taking on those symbolic sin necklaces in the work of freeing the poor beast from the fence, I see the need to take responsibility for my s—, but also a reminder that we’re all pretty f—ed if we’re expected to save ourselves on our own.
Cutting away from Nora’s radiant, born-again face, The Leftovers gave us its goodbye image, one to bookend the prologue about the 19th-century flashback family ripped asunder by misplaced faith and wayward belief and a transcendent rapture that didn’t come. From outside the house, we spied Nora and Kevin through the window continuing to talk, laugh, and reconcile as the sun came up and the doves came home. In this, I saw the hope I have for myself, and I saw the show doing its version of that story about the mustard seed, where a leap of faith can bring blooming change that can bring abundant living, right here, right now, with each other. The final bittersweet parable of The Leftovers is actually so many swiped parables, told from its people-first, present-tense, Be Here Now perspective, from the one about the good shepherd to the one about the prodigal to the one that says we should all be Good Samaritans to each other, and no one should be left behind. This is The Leftovers. This is the wild, beautiful, hurt-so-good thing we’ve been telling you about. It is over now, but it should never be forgotten. Carry it with you, always.