“If John Doe’s head splits open and a UFO should fly out, I want you to have expected it.” —Det. William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), Seven
Damon Lindelof has spent more than a year tamping down expectations for the final episodes of The Leftovers. “No tricks, no twists,” he said in 2016, and in recent interviews, he’s made it clear that viewers shouldn’t expect absolute closure on all the tantalizing loose strings that he and his writing team have woven into the show’s fabric during three seasons. Heck, HBO’s official synopsis for the finale, “The Book of Nora,” is “Nothing is answered. Everything is answered. And then it ends.”
Noted. But I still tuned in prepared for UFOs to fly out of split-open heads, even after the return of Iris DeMent’s season 2 opening-credits song, which urges viewers to “just let the mystery be.” I simply have too many questions: What happened to Nora? What happened to Laurie? Is Kevin immortal? Will the world end? Are we done with the penis jokes?
As the title indicates, the final chapter is Nora’s story, and the episode begins with Nora giving her video testimonial, a final requirement before being blasted with neutron radiation so she can reconnect with her dearly Departed children in some other plane of existence. (Or be burnt to a crisp and dumped into the harbor.) Tracking down and confronting Drs. Eden and Bekker a second time was apparently all Nora needed to get the green light she wanted. Nevertheless, Bekker still has doubts that Nora is a suitable candidate, primarily because she doesn’t believe Nora’s testimonial. Eden challenges Nora by making her include Erin and Jeremy’s names in her second take, and just the mere mention of her children’s names rattles her.
Matt and Nora make the most of their last goodbye, playing Mad Libs Obituary Edition while Nora undergoes a saline drip to prep for her procedure. It’s a beautiful brother-sister scene with Nora thinking back to the small kindnesses Matt bestowed on her after their parents died when she still a young child. Back then, he called her “the bravest girl on Earth,” and he insists the title still applies. Matt isn’t feeling so brave himself. He’s afraid of cancer, afraid of dying, afraid of ever being a priest again after coming to the realization that he has no real answers to help others. But at least he’s going back home soon, back to Mary and Noah.
Prepped for her procedure, Nora disrobes and enters the truck alone, following the very specific instructions given by the doctors. As she makes her way to a clear orb, she flashes back to the morning of the Departure, when she snapped at her children at the breakfast table just moments before they vanished. Their voices echo through her mind, and I had to wonder if that prominent nightmare was a good or bad sign. If you’re risking your life to reunite with your long-lost children, is the last-second memory that flashes through your brain at the moment of truth the worst thing that ever happened to you? I worried for Nora just then, and wished that those final moments were reinforced by happy memories of her children, too — like birthday parties and baby steps and days at the beach. Inside the orb, the procedure begins. The metallic liquid begins to fill up, and at the last second, just as the fluid rises above her chin, Nora screams, and we cut to a blue sky. Did Nora yell for help? Did the scientists halt the procedure?
We know she survived. We’ve known that since the season premiere, when we met Sarah, a slightly older Nora doppelgänger who shuttled cooped birds to a rural church. That sequence replays, with the nun commenting about the healthy flock and saying, “Love is in the air.” Like before, Nora denies knowing a Kevin when the nun asks, but this time, the nun goes on to explain that a man by that name approached her yesterday with a photo of Nora/Sarah, and that she suspects Kevin didn’t believe her claims that she didn’t recognize the woman in his picture.
The penultimate episode certainly recalibrated the show’s final arc as a love story. While Kevin was literally fighting himself and contemplating nuking the alt-world, he confided to his twin the great regret he felt for how he’d left Nora, how he’d been a coward in their relationship. And as a shaken Nora (let’s drop Sarah and just call her Nora from now on) biked home after her conversation with the nun, Billie Holiday didn’t discourage the notion that love was truly in the air, singing, “Someday he’ll come along / The man I love / And he’ll be big and strong / The man I love / And when he comes my way / I’ll do my best to make him stay.”
Like Kevin in his novel, Nora is also tempted to escape. Not long after she gets home, she decides it’s time to flee before Kevin can find her. But it’s too late. He’s at the door, smiling at her. The beard is gone, and he’s older. Time has been good to him, though, and he’s thrilled to see her. No apology, no “Thank God you’re alive.” In fact, Kevin seems to be a different Kevin: one who claims not to have seen Nora since their flirty chance meeting in Mapleton at the Christmas dance. He’s in Australia on vacation, and he couldn’t believe it when he recognized her riding her bicycle. Which is crap since Nora knows that Kevin approached the nun about her — but Kevin isn’t caving. He’s committed to this ruse.
If it is a ruse. I mean, he’s so committed to it that it calls into question everything. (UFOs flying out of split-open heads!) Is this a different Kevin because this is a different Nora (Sarah) and this is a parallel reality, due to the radiation procedure? Has Lindelof lost his mind and we’re 40 minutes from finding out three seasons of The Leftovers took place inside the snow globe of an autistic boy?
Kevin invites Nora to a local dance that night; she can’t believe the act he’s pulling and orders him to leave. Once he’s gone, she bikes to the nearest phone booth and calls her therapist: Laurie. She lived! Laurie didn’t kill herself in the Melbourne harbor after all. (Or… she didn’t live, she did kill herself, and she now lives in this parallel universe with Nora and Long-Term Memory Loss Kevin. It’s complicated.) Better yet, she juggles a newborn (her granddaughter, we later learn) on her lap when she answers Nora’s urgent call. No, Laurie didn’t spill Nora’s secret and tell Kevin where Nora is hiding, but sure, Laurie seems to say, if you want to go to the dance with him, you should. Nora hangs up after Laurie says, half-amused, “Same time next week.”
Back at home, Nora locks every door and window and settles in for a hot bath. She even pulls the busted bathroom door shut (a process that echoes the machinations of locking herself inside the transition orb), but Billie Holiday is at it again, confirming that Nora is going to the dance: “Oh you can go to the East, go to the West / But someday you’ll come weary at heart back where you started from / You’ll find your happiness lies, right under your eyes / Back in your own backyard.” If there’s any doubt about her desire to go to the dance, it’s erased by the frustration Nora exhibits when the warped bathroom door is jammed and she hurls her body through it.
The dance in town isn’t just some hoedown. It’s a wedding, and when Nora arrives, it’s already well under way. A man offers her Mardi Gras-like beads, her favorite nun is there to send out Nora’s birds with messages of love, and the crowd rocks out to Robin Trower’s “I’m Out to Get You”: “Create a disturbance in your mind / I’ve been sent to select you from another place in time.”
Are we in some parallel alter-world? I don’t think so, but I can’t dismiss it at this point because, quite honestly, Kevin’s gaslighting of Nora seems cruel. I don’t want him to be lying to her like this. He’s thrilled to see her at the wedding and picks up right where he left off: Their relationship never happened, but he still holds a candle for her based on that one chance encounter at the Mapleton dance. She can’t believe his strange amnesia, and calls him out on specific events from their courtship. He never blinks, saying at one point: “You must have me confused with someone else, because if you asked me to Miami, I definitely would’ve gone.”
Nora keeps prodding Kevin with questions that might trip him up, but he parries her time and again. In the course of their game, Kevin gives her updates on the other characters (convenient for us): Matt died of cancer after making up with Mary, Jill married and has a 1-year-old baby, Tommy married and got divorced, Chief is still alive and kicking at the age of 91. (Chief’s age is useful to estimate how much time has passed. When he was arrested for trespassing on aboriginal lands, the Australian cops listed him as 75 years old on his “Beware of This Man” poster. So if we’ve traveled a linear timeline, 16 years have passed.)
After the white lovebirds are released, the slightly drunk groom gives a speech about the difference between sin and a mistake, practically winking at the nun when he says that life is all about temptation and failure. Then, a literal scapegoat is presented: The guests place their beads around the goat’s neck, symbolizing the unburdening of their sins. “Start over, untainted by our past misdeeds,” says the groom.
Nora tries, accepting Kevin’s offer to slow-dance to Otis Redding (“Bad dreams to remember / Dreams, one day I wanted to be with you but you are so far away an airplane couldn’t reach you”). Cheek to cheek, she questions him again: “How did you find me, Kevin?” And he responds with his pat answer about seeing her cycling during his Outback vacation, though it seems to pain him to say it again. Nora has had enough — “I can’t do this… because it’s not true” — and she leaves him standing there.
Nora’s night is not done. She has to collect her birds, who are trained to return to their nearby coop despite the bride’s hopes that they’d take their messages to the far corners of the globe. But there’s no sign of the flock at home, and Nora hurries over to the convent to confront the nun she thinks messed with the birds.
Though it’s late, the nun is still awake. In fact, she’s had company (and it wasn’t Father Brian). Nora arrives to see a strange man climb down a ladder from the sister’s bedroom window, bless himself, and drive away on his motorcycle. Boy, that groom really knew what he was talking about. At the front door, the surprised nun tells Nora that she did everything to the birds that she normally does, and that she’s confident they’ll be back soon after delivering their messages of love. Nora warns her not to sell that sunny crap to her. “I’m not trying to sell you anything,” responds the nun. “It’s just a nicer story.”
Fired up, Nora calls the nun on her midnight guest, but she calmly denies any impropriety. The nun sidesteps Nora’s accusations and offers to pray for the safe return of the birds. “Don’t waste your breath!” yells Nora, practically stealing a slogan from the Guilty Remnant.
It’s tempting to reflect on this scene and make drastic conclusions about how The Leftovers really feels about religion. Lindelof has his own customized appreciation for God, and author Tom Perrotta, though raised a Catholic, is agnostic about such things. Though the show has soaked in Biblical themes and religious imagery for three seasons, this particular scene, in the series finale, feels like a rebuke: The faithful are blatant hypocrites who are drawn to nice stories because they make reality more palatable.
But screaming at a nun and accusing her of having sex with a biker is probably bad karma. On her bike ride home, Nora wipes out when her bicycle gets tangled in the scapegoat’s beads. Sprawled out in the middle of the road, Nora hears the frightened bleats of the entangled goat, whose other beads have become snagged on a barbed-wire fence. Nora rescues the goat, throws the beads around her own neck, and leads the goat to her house in time for the sun to rise.
The new day has improved Nora’s outlook, and she’s feeding the goat and reading old dove messages (“I know you’re out there”) when Kevin arrives. This time, it’s the real Kevin, and we know that because he starts sprinkling his sentences with f-bombs as he testily explains how he really tracked down Nora. He remembers everything that happened between the two of them, but he refused to believe Matt’s story that Nora was gone. So he spent two weeks every year in Australia, flashing her photo to every stranger he met Down Under in the hopes that one person might recognize her. He simply refused to give up on her, and after he finishes his confession, she calmly invites him in for tea. Clearly, these two characters have earned this ending together, but I also would understand if Nora’s newfound hospitality has something to do with the reassurance that she’s not going insane.
Once inside, it’s Nora’s turn to confess, and she explains her own adventure to find her children in a different world. Yes, she went through, she says, landing in a universe that suffered the reverse-negative of the Departure. Nora and Kevin’s world lost 2 percent of the world’s population, approximately 120 million people. But on the other side, their losses were staggering: 98 percent or about 6 billion people.
It wasn’t easy, but she reached Mapleton and found her family. “They were all smiling,” she says, when she describes spying on her children from afar. “They were… happy. And I understood that here in this place, they were the lucky ones. In a world full of orphans, they still had each other. And I was a ghost. I was a ghost who had no place there. And that, Kevin, is when I changed my mind.”
She found the scientist who invented the radiation machine and had him send her back. She lived alone, kept in touch with Laurie, and doubted that Kevin would ever believe her story. “Why wouldn’t I believe you?” Kevin responds. “You’re here.” He puts out his hand, and she takes it. Outside, the lost doves return.
What do you believe?
There’s a lot to dissect. First things first, do you think Nora really went through and saw her children, as she told Kevin? Or, should we keep in mind what the nun said: “I’m not trying to sell you anything… it’s just a nicer story.” What had Nora screamed right before the radiation procedure was to begin? Did she dodge its effects and never make the leap (or whatever fate awaited her), and has she been hiding out in Australia ever since? Occam’s razor might poke some holes in Nora’s story…
Nevertheless, I choose to believe she went through. I’ve invested in a show where 120 million people vanished, where Kevin Garvey came back to life at least three times, and where Mary and Noah Jamison live and breathe. Why would I doubt the feasibility of her tale? But if Nora did make it through, that raises another question: After everything Nora endured, after witnessing her driven to the brink week after week by her obsession with reconnecting with her Departed children, is it conceivable that she settled for a quickie drive-by of her kids and then opted never to see them again? Is that the closure she needed? Because everything we’ve seen of Nora contradicts that decision.
I described Nora’s scenario to two mothers I know (who don’t watch The Leftovers) and after 10 to 12 minutes of inevitable WTF follow-up questions, they both said there’s no way they’d (a) not make contact with their kids, and (b) ever leave them again. Even Laurie’s decision seems at odds with Nora’s. In hindsight, I think it’s fair to say that Laurie’s phone call with Jill and Tommy changed her mind about committing suicide that morning; as difficult as her life had become, it was impossible to fathom being separated from her children. The power and pain of a mother’s love drove Nora for three seasons. As a result, part of me believes more in her love story with her children than her love story with Kevin.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love the ending. It’s an ending, well earned and well told. We may never know if Kevin was a prophet or a savior, whether his “gifts” went away when his president self tore out his twin’s heart, or it the Sudden Departure had any real meaning besides some scientific quirk in the time-space continuum. In the end, the final verdict seems to be the 19th-century Millerite woman from the season premiere, the redhead who expected the end of the world and was spiritually crushed when it didn’t arrive as planned. Life (usually) goes on, and if you’re lucky, there’s someone there with you to love. Nothing is answered. Everything is answered. And then it ends.