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.