Kevin discovers the key to his heart could destroy the world.
“This isn’t my first visit to the other side of the world. Each time I’m here, it gets harder and harder to leave.” — Pres. Kevin Garvey
The first sign was the opening-credits music. After five different songs (and a French prayer) introduced recent shows, the penultimate episode of The Leftovers turned back the clock. While the intro visuals remained the same (the silhouette character cutouts from season 2), the accompanying tune was composer Max Richter’s haunting main title theme from season 1. For me, it was the musical equivalent of the bell for round one of a title fight: “Let’s get it on!”
The second positive sign was the director: Craig Zobel, who made the unsettling 2012 psych thriller Compliance (starring Ann Dowd and Bill Camp) as well as last season’s masterful “International Assassin” episode. “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)” isn’t a bottle episode or a character study; it is about getting this show to the promised land, from this side to the other and back again, if possible. Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy, wet, and surprisingly hilarious night.
There are wisps of romance, too. That’s where the episode opens, with a flashback to happier days for Kevin and Nora. They’re back in Miracle, taking a candlelit bath together while baby Lily sleeps in another room, an occasional cry coming through the baby monitor. Their discussion in the bubble bath? How do they want to be disposed of after they die? “I want to be cremated,” Nora says, reminding viewers that she may already be incinerated by the neutron radiation treatment. “I’ll burn you up good,” responds Kevin, not knowing that he might soon be in position to do just that with the turn of a nuclear key. Somehow, it’s a very sexy exchange, and Nora ends up hinting that she’d like Kevin to grow a beard, a suggestion he clearly took to heart.
But just as they take things to the next level, bearded Kevin is plunged underwater on Grace’s sacrifice see-saw. It’s the morning after Laurie drugged Kevin’s disciples, and Kevin has taken matters into his own hands. Chief is the first to wake up inside, and he goes from angry (because he presumes Kevin bailed on the day of reckoning) to panicked (when he sees Kevin on the see-saw). He leads the others outside, and they save a surprised Kevin from drowning. “I thought we’d do it together,” Chief explains, eliciting the episode’s first ripple of laughter. Of course Chief interrupts Kevin’s suicide; he needs to be there, not just as a witness, but as a starring character. Kevin assures them all he knows what to do, that he hasn’t forgotten his to-do list: Evie, the Playford children, Christopher Sunday. And so they lower him back in the water and he drowns.
Kevin gets pulled out of the water again, but this time he’s clean-shaven and naked in the surf, and some thick-necked Russian goon in a green jumpsuit drags him back to the beach and dumps him on the sand. He grumbles bad news in Russian and calls Kevin by his “International Assassin” name, Kevin Harvey. But before the goon can kill the helpless Kevin, a masked sniper in a parachute takes out the Russian. Welcome back, Dean the Dog Killer, just in the nick of time.
Dean updates a startled Kevin on their current mission: Kevin is an assassin assigned to murder the president, a madman intent on starting an unsanctioned nuclear war in under two hours. At what might be Kevin’s beach bungalow, Dean smashes all the reflective surfaces, explaining, “That’s how they found you.” While Kevin tries to absorb his new reality, Dean pulls a paper from the typewriter, a page from some unfinished novel that he assumes Kevin is toying with: “He stood on the bow of The Merciful. The water endlessly stretching to the infinite horizon as he contemplated the impossible distance between them but he would not stop until he found her.”
While Kevin gets dressed in his assassin suit, he notices a scar on his left chest, right above the nipple. Confused, he plays along with Dean, but he’s steady enough to ask for something in return for his cooperation: meetings with Grace’s children, Evie, and Christopher Sunday. That’s a tall order for a Dog Killer, especially since Sunday is the prime minister of Australia. Better call in the boss from Mission Control. Dean hands Kevin an earpiece, and we know the voice on the end other end immediately: It’s God. Or David Burton. Or the man on the bridge. Or the guy at the hotel who made Kevin sing “Homeward Bound.” Or actor Bill Camp. And he gives us a secret, too. Remember he whispered something in Kevin’s ear on the bridge, before Kevin took Young Patti to the well? It’s wasn’t exactly Bill Murray to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation, but, yes, I’ve been dying to know what he told Kevin. “You said I was the most powerful man in the world,” Kevin shares. “Goddamn right, you are,” says Mission Control. “Pick up that mirror and look at yourself.” And so Kevin does, picking up a shard of the mirror Dean broke and traveling through a gateway into another consciousness.
He’s still Kevin. In fact, the beard is back. He’s dressed in white, giving a political speech in Melbourne, and he can hardly believe the words that are coming out of his mouth. He apparently hates marriage — “the single most destructive idea conceived by humankind” — and family, because he is Guilty Remnant 2.0. And he’s the President, speaking applause lines that Senator Patti Levin once espoused in their hotel donor meet-and-greet from “International Assassin.” Before the stage, he points the crowd’s attention to one of the winners of the worldwide essay contest, a young boy who penned “Why I Don’t Need a Mommy and a Daddy Anymore.” His name is Liam Playford, and his shoeless siblings sit quietly next to him. Remembering his promise to Grace, Kevin tries to get Liam to explain what happened to their shoes, but the boy is conditioned to respond with anti-family platitudes. Kevin’s follow-up is interrupted by Evie, wearing an “I Remember” T-shirt and singing Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” into a bullhorn. Her protest causes Secret Service to scatter, and President Garvey’s body man is no other than Australian Kevin, the rude police chief whom Grace mistakenly murdered. He urges the President to move, but Kevin insists he won’t leave until he speaks to Evie.
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On the way to the limo, the President is briefed on the phone by his chief of staff (also Bill Camp, minus the Aussie accent). Ukrainian separatists have armed a nuclear submarine and will launch within two hours. Kevin needs to get to a secret bunker that he can access with his unique biometrics. “The door can be opened only by you and you alone,” says the chief of staff. “Unless you have an identical twin brother, which would be ridiculous.” Ha, funny. Know who else had a twin brother, according to God/David Burton? Jesus.
Until then, the chief of staff says, let’s take nuclear readiness from DEFCON 3 to DEFCON 2 — but Kevin refuses to raise the stakes. He’s piecing together that he’s the madman Dean was talking about. At least he can cross off one of his to-dos on the ride over to the bunker, once Evie has been escorted to his limo. “Do you know that I’m not the president of the United States?” he asks her, once they’re alone inside. “I sure do,” she says, though it’s not clear just how much she understands. Kevin conveys John’s message, that Evie was loved, but her reaction is ultimately anger, since according to her, it was her father, mother, and brother who died in a drone strike ordered by the President. “You’re just a puppet,” she screams at him, doubting whether he even believed the words he read at the speech. “You just do what they tell you to do…. What do you want?”
Her words have dual meanings and are an important theme, one that’s been teased in previous episodes. Recall that Laurie predicted that Kevin would return from his horseback rideabout and fulfill his duty to his father and friends. He’s doing all of this for others — he always has, as a father, a son, a husband, and a police chief. He feels obligated. He is a puppet. Kevin’s rebuttal is interrupted by a flood — out of his mouth. He spits up a geyser of water and opens the window to hurl. A montage of images flash through his head, possibly including:
The plastic bag over his head, a Guilty Remnant protest with signs reading “Stop Wasting Your Breath!,” rampaging deer, Kevin shooting dog/deer, his affair with the soon-to-be Departed woman, plastic bag, pulling plastic bag from face of dead GR or mannequin, sex with Departed woman or Nora, punching the tree in Cairo, more sex with Departed woman or Nora, sobbing in woods over dead Patti, cradling bloody Patti in cabin, rescuing Jill from the GR fire, the cinder block at the reservoir, putting John in a headlock, getting slapped by Patti, waking up sweaty after his poison trip, jumping into the well after Patti, drowning Patti, getting shot by John, plastic bag, screaming into the hotel mirror, walking through chaotic Miracle, holding a billy club after the GR’s stunt, Tommy as a cop at the reservoir protest, in a cop car with Tommy after jumping into water, getting shot at by Dean, smiling Matt, the Aussie tough guy who headbutted Kevin in the alley, airport sex with Nora, throwing the burning Book of Kevin into the hotel sink on fire, plastic bag.
Got all that? If your life is supposed to flash before your eyes in your final moments, Kevin’s most accessible recollections are racked with guilt and fear.
But he’s not dying. Back at the ranch, Chief, John, and Michael drag Kevin out of the pond and into the house while torrential rains continue. “Why’d you pull me out of the pond?” asks a weary Kevin. “There is no pond,” answers Chief. “The whole f—ing ranch is flooded.”
Does that make any sense? Did Chief just panic?
Chief is disappointed that Kevin didn’t return with Christopher Sunday’s song, but Kevin tells John and Grace that he saw their children. John beams — he gains some closure — but Grace seems troubled, even though Kevin doesn’t explain the strange circumstances of his encounter, which would surely upset her further.
Kevin argues that he needs to go back and suggests they drown him in the bathtub if the pond is no longer viable. Michael, however, has doubts. His sister doubted President Kevin’s commitment in the alt-reality; now he casts more doubt on Kevin’s motives. (Remember it was Michael who called Laurie and begged her to come and stop Chief’s plan.) “Why else would I be doing this?” Kevin wonders. “I don’t know, why would you?” Michael responds, just as Kevin thinks back to his sweet bathtub scene with Nora.
Think back to Kevin’s last conversation with Laurie. She didn’t betray her promise to Nora about not telling Kevin or the others about her intentions, but she admitted to him that she helped Nora find what she was looking for. I suspect Kevin concluded that Nora had either died from the radiation procedure or actually made it through to the other side, wherever that is. Maybe she is the real reason he’s doing this: the desperate hope to find her and be with her. Think about the page of his romance novel that Dean read: “…he contemplated the impossible distance between them but he would not stop until he found her.”
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Chief takes control and locks the others out of the bathroom. He seizes the honors of holding Kevin under the bathtub water while he drowns again. In an instant, President Garvey is spitting up water outside the Melbourne bunker. The facial recognition scanner approves his unique biometrics, but that’s only the first part of the test. Drop trou, Mr. President, and let’s make sure it’s really, really you, says Secret Service Kevin. That procedure entails placing Mr. Li’l President on a separate waist-high scanner. Green light.
Finally, the President has to answer three final security questions, interesting to me mostly because he claimed The Godfather Part II was his favorite movie even though his murder plot of Patti Levin in “International Assassin” was cribbed from the first Godfather film (the gun hidden in the toilet). Are we to expect a Godfather Part III mention in the season finale, and if so, should Jill say her goodbyes now?
The third question didn’t seem like a legitimate test. I feel like any impostor could name the Secretary of Defense, but that’s how we reunite Kevin with Patti. “The s— has hit the fan, sir,” she says, parroting the line she said the night Kevin woke up in the empty Miracle reservoir. Patti is in no mood for games, and she wants Kevin to launch a preemptive strike against the Ukrainian separatists and the Russians and the rest of the world. Kevin insists on speaking with Christopher Sunday first, but Patti is relentless. Enter the VP, another GR from the past: Meg. Alt-Meg isn’t as ruthless as the woman we knew before, and she thinks Patti is feeding the President bogus information. Patti is too far along to play innocent. “We are going to vaporize every man, woman, child on the planet,” she says. “We give the people what they’re too chicken-s— to do themselves, what they elected us for. We give them what they want. And they want to die.”
The only thing preventing Armageddon is the Fisher Protocol, an ethical deterrent where the nuclear launch key was surgically embedded into the heart of a volunteer, so the President has to murder that volunteer himself in order to wipe out humanity. (Would you be shocked to know that Fisher was a real dude, a high-level British Naval officer who recommended an all-out preemptive strike against the Germans in the years before World War I?)
Meg knows she’s lost the argument when she learns that Kevin’s identical twin, the chest-scarred man with the launch key in his heart, is just 15 minutes away. Trapped inside the bunker with Patti after reluctantly taking the government to DEFCON 1, Kevin grabs her glasses and uses them to escape into Kevin Harvey, who’s in sniper position nearby. God is still whispering in his ear, but Mission Control isn’t exactly reliable. “All unarmed prophets have been victorious, and all armed prophets have been destroyed,” Control says, after advising Kevin to enter the compound without a weapon. “That’s from Machiavelli. Put your faith in me, Mr. Harvey.”
The thing is, Machiavelli famously said the opposite — or at least the Machiavelli from our world said the opposite. (“Hence it comes about that all armed Prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed Prophets have been destroyed.”)
But Kevin trusts Control, and after he passes the bunker scans, he’s confronted by Secret Service Kevin and another armed agent. Just as Dean the Dog Killer rescued Kevin on the beach, Meg pops up out of nowhere and shoots the agents. She hands him her pistol and urges him to hurry and kill President Kevin and Patti, which all comes as a surprise to Kevin, who was inclined to mistrust, if not loathe, Meg. But she’s a changed woman: She’s in love! “I’m in love with the most wonderful man I have ever known,” she says. “His name is God.”
But in case you think she’s found Jesus in a spiritual sense, Control chimes in, “Tell her I love her, too.” But Kevin opts to go to the Communications Room first in order to contact Christopher Sunday, and once he gets directional instructions from Meg, he shoots her.
“What was that noise?” Control asks, after Meg hits the ground.
“You tell me, you’re God.”
“That was just a pickup line.”
(If you’re asking why I’m simply quoting this exchange, it’s because it made me laugh really hard.)
Kevin has had enough of that voice in his head. He goes rogue and throws out the earpiece. When he connects with the prime minister, Sunday explains that he tried to make Chief understand that his song would be of little use because his verses called for the rain. Kevin pleads with Sunday to give him something, because otherwise the flood will consume the Earth. “Do you believe that?” Sunday asks. “Do you believe your father can sing the song and stop the flood?”
“No,” is Kevin’s answer
“Then why are you here?” Sunday says, underlining the existential point of the episode again.
Before Kevin can respond, he’s attacked by security, but since he’s an assassin, he fights them off and then retreats back into the President’s body via the reflection of the computer screen.
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President Kevin expresses more agitation at Patti’s insistence that he launch the nukes, and when he insists that he wants to go home, she tries a different tact. “Do you?” she asks. “Because you keep coming back here.” Patti’s analysis echoes Kevin’s recent conversations with Laurie, beginning with their transcontinental phone call where Laurie accused him running away and of projecting Evie on another woman because he envied her situation of escape. Then, in their final conversation, Kevin couldn’t hold back how excited he was to return to the bizarro-reality because it made him feel so alive. And from his own lips: “This isn’t my first visit to the other side of the world. Each time I’m here, it gets harder and harder to leave.”
Patti suggests the President face some of these internal contradictions — some other time perhaps. Because lo and behold, Kevin comes face to face with his twin brother, and it’s time to extract the launch key. When both Kevins resist, Patti brings out her secret weapon: the untitled romance novel President Kevin was hiding behind Millard Fillmore’s portrait in the Oval Office. Both Kevins deny writing it, though Patti suggests that they both wrote it. She asks the President to read it aloud, and like Kevin’s typewriter page, the final page of the novel also mentions a ship called The Merciful. But whereas Kevin’s version was romantic and hopeful, the President’s novel is brutally honest but sad, full of fear and self-doubt. The final words, read through tears: “She was alone and all was well.”
Assassin Kevin has had enough. “Take the thing out of me… so we can’t ever come back here ever again.”
And that’s how the world ended. Or, that’s how one world ended. The key to Kevin’s heart destroyed the planet. “We f—ed up with Nora,” the Assassin says before dying.
The President turns the launch key, and then goes outside with Patti to watch the nukes detonate — like Evie in the season premiere but x 1000.
Kevin wakes up under a sheet in Grace’s dilapidated church. The rains have ceased. How did Kevin get to the church from the ranch’s bathtub, and why? Had he died and not risen as before? Did his father and friends lose hope and think he’d finally perished forever, bringing him to the church to be buried underneath, next to Australian Kevin?
Perhaps. “I thought you were gone,” says Chief, sitting alone on Grace’s roof. “It was raining so hard and I got scared, so I came up here… I don’t think I’m ready to come down.”
Had the waters really risen high enough to send Chief scampering up the ladder to safety? Had they receded due to something Kevin did in the other world? And how does his latest resurrection impact the meaning of Chief’s last words: “Now what?” Chief’s world didn’t end. Is Chief disappointed that it didn’t, and is he struggling to come to grips with being so wrong about everything? Or did Kevin really save the world, and is “Now what?” a plea for new instructions for their next chapter?
Kevin teases a sliver of a smile, and it’s hopeful. Because we know that Nora is out there somewhere, delivering birds to a nun and answering to the name of Sarah. But which world is she in? Did she follow Mark Linn-Baker through to another world, perhaps the one Kevin just destroyed? Or is she just off the grid a few clicks away from the Playford ranch? It feels foolish to hope for a happy ending — especially since we spent this season watching Nora and Kevin fall out of love. But “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)” seemed determined to point Kevin towards a horizon that promised the possibility of a reunion on the good ship Merciful. And as the good books says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”