The Leftovers Season 1 Finale Recap: Nothing Else Matters

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Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO
The Leftovers
Episode Title
The Prodigal Son Returns
Season
1
Episode
10
Editor’s Rating
5/5

For me, the central question of any story is the one I asked here a few weeks ago: Why now? At the time, it was a question that was frustrating me in The Leftovers, but no longer. This show has always been about the gray space between good and evil. That conflict is clearer in the season finale than ever before: All of these people that we’ve been watching and wondering about and caring about for all these weeks, this story that has been sometimes stagnant and sometimes an emotional gut-punch, they all crystallized this week. And, damn, was it satisfying.

I really think they hit a nice balance here between wrapping up plotlines from this season while leaving doors open for the next. The Guilty Remnant is in tatters, the White Sweatshirt of Leadership having passed first from Patti to Laurie and now — I’d be willing to bet — to Meg, whose steely-eyed hatred of pretty much everything promises a wealth of future horrors. Jill and the Chief have finally managed to find each other, quite literally in the flames, but there is some distinctly spooky shit happening with Ghost Patti and the Old Chief that intrigues me. For the first time, the Garveys are all in the same town; it’s an anarchic hellscape but this show has also always been about the way that the world goes on, even through the seemingly unthinkable, and so I have no doubt that they’ll go on, too. 

Looking back on this first season of The Leftovers, so much time has been spent world-building, and in showing us that unthinkable event — the Departure — from as many sides and perspectives as possible in ten episodes. Now the world is built, and I still want to know what happens there, to these people. For all of the season’s lulls and frustrations, this show has accomplished what it came here to do. It’s dark and ugly, but it is beautifully conceived, written and executed. Well done.

The Chief

When we last saw the Chief (not counting the flashback episode last week), he was kneeling next to Patti’s corpse with a bloody shard of glass in his hand, apparently in a bit of a bind. Not to worry; with one phone call, Matt Jamison comes to his rescue, with a highlighted Bible, a trunk full of shovels and an unshakeable calm that, let’s face it, borders on the creepy. I like Matt; episode three remains one of my favorites, and it left me with a well of enduring sympathy for him. But I’d be lying if I said the guy didn’t scare me a little. He has all the implacable conviction of Holy Wayne, but none of his anger or self-doubt. It’s good to have a friend who’ll help you bury the bodies, I guess, but it’s also good to keep a sharp eye on that friend, because who knows what else they’re burying?

But let’s worry about that later. For now, Matt seems to be what the Chief needs. The Bible verse he reads (Job 23, although the writers seem to have played a little fast and loose with translations to get in the word “departed” so that the Chief can stumble meaningfully over it) is revealing: the Chief as Job, endlessly tormented, but persevering. There is some serious religious stuff going on here, so obvious that I’m reluctant even to call it symbolism: the Chief reads the verse, buries the body and washes himself clean of his sins. In the restaurant, he makes his confession, and is rewarded by Holy Wayne in the bathroom: Make a wish, Wayne begs, desperate to be sure of his own power before he dies.

But before that, there are more adventures in dreamland for the Chief — at least, I think we’re in dreamland. Honestly, I’m no longer sure what’s real and what’s not. One of the things I’ve always liked about the show is the attention to detail, and the song on the Muzak in the restaurant — after the Chief ostensibly wakes up — is Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk.” A gorgeous song, and a telling one. Somehow, I suspect both worlds are real, or at least that the scene in the hospital was not entirely illusion; that interests me, and I’m looking forward to seeing it played out.

We do have to talk about that “dream” sequence, though, where Patti comes back from the grave to talk and sit on the Chief’s lap and do, um, other things, down out of frame where we can’t see them. The Old Chief tells Kevin with no uncertainty that if Kevin “goes with” Patti, he’s on his own. But Kevin doesn’t go with Patti so much as he’s dragged along by her, begging all the while for his father to help him. He could have pushed her off; once again, it’s a significant ambiguity. You could argue that the Chief “chose” her, but you could also argue that the choice was made under a great deal of pressure. Either way, we haven’t seen the last of her. (I’m glad that Ghost Patti talks, though. That makes her infinitely more interesting.)

Back in Mapleton, Matt and the Chief return to a world that’s Norman Rockwell via Rod Serling. Never has there been a cuter Main Street than the one filled with bunting-draped crashed cars, quaint lampposts and rioting citizens. As with the riot in the premiere, the Chief can’t do much to quell this one; it’s bigger than he is. But he can, and does, save his daughter from the burning GR headquarters, and finally, finally, they’re able to do what they should have been doing all along, these two refugees: cling to each other. Grab hold. It’s a good moment.

The Guilty Remnant

Also in the finally finally department: All of Laurie’s conflict and now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t commitment to the GR cause is truly tested by her daughter’s arrival at the compound. And, sure, she can smoke a cigarette with the kid (a perversion of basic parental responsibilities, no?) but can she send Jill out into battle? Can she, at last, discard her attachment to her family and sacrifice her daughter on the pyre the GR members built for themselves? I’m relieved to say that no, she can’t. Laurie has been a tough character to love, these past few months. I’m glad to see her redeemed. But I’m also glad to see her still apart from Jill and the Chief; complete forgiveness would have rung false. I’m also glad to see her reunited with Tom, who — one could argue — is the member of her family that she feels the most kinship with: He is from her original family, and he predates the others. (I do wonder, though, exactly how those two ended up at the same place at the same time. I thought I read surprise in Lori’s face when she saw her son; maybe I’m wrong.)

Meg, on the other hand: if Laurie’s all out, Meg is all the freaking way in. Blood-spattered and beaten after the riot, Meg’s eyes are scary. If not for those eyes, I’d think the GR was down for the count. But there’s no way those eyes are drifting off into the sunset. We’ll be seeing more of her.

Tom

Poor Tom, bereft of faith and still doing his best to take care of Christine and her baby after Wayne seemingly abandoned them. Tom’s an even more powerful Job figure than the Chief: the Chief was doing dirty deeds when the Departure hit and Tom was, by the logic of the show, innocent. I loved the scene where he meets the churchgoer in the parking lot; these days, the phrase Can I help you more often than not means Go away, and that this man actually wants to help — and that there are people out there who will accept that help! — pleases me as much as it seems to please Tom. Not that he gets to enjoy that moment, as Christine vanishes, leaving him and her daughter alone. Tom does the smart thing: Tom goes home.

Nora

Oh, Nora, poor Nora. I figured out a few episodes ago what the GRs had planned for those photos, and it’s worried me. As she brushes her teeth, we know the horror waiting for her downstairs. 

And it is horrible. That was the worst part for me: the Loved One we saw at the Conference was amazing in its verisimilitude. The Loved Ones the GRs sprinkle throughout Mapleton are bad mannequins with creepy staring eyes. The Mapletonians, understandably, burn the abominable things along with the GRs’ houses, and the way they do it is revealing. Some of them drag the fake bodies through the streets like the cruel objects they are; others, like the couple with the Down Syndrome–afflicted son, carry them with reverence, even in their grief. 

Nora falls into the latter category. She sits with her family; she puts her children to bed. Along with the rest of you, I suspect, I expected her letter to Kevin to end up a suicide note, her pistol coming into its full Chekhovian potential; but suicides don’t generally pack for the trip, and so it’s hard to know what Nora intended.

But Tom has done a good thing, here; I suspect a better thing than he knows. He’s gone home, but he hasn’t stayed. Instead, he’s left the baby there, on the doorstep for his parents to take care of, just like in a storybook. (We don’t know exactly when Laurie left, or whether Tom knows his mother has been with the GR.) It’s Nora who needs to find her, though. The moment when she sees her family is the first time we see her close to crying, and the moment when she sees the baby is the first time we see her truly happy. Even the Chief — hell, even Jill — seem to feel something like wonder at the sight of her. Everyone’s been trying to pick up their old lives; maybe what they need is a new one. 

Holy Wayne seems, in the end, to have done some good. Did the Chief wish for his family back? I think he did and that his wish was granted, at least partially; he has his daughter. More than that, though, this baby is special. Maybe she won’t save the world, but she might help at least this tiny little slice of it. The season ends on a hopeful note, which is a relief; this season was dark. It’s nice to know something good can still happen in Mapleton. It’s also satisfying to know there’s more darkness to come.