The Leftovers Is One of the Great Dramas in American TV — and It Deserves a Third Season

Justin Theroux in The Leftovers. Photo: Van Redin

The Leftovers is one of the great dramas in American television. I don't disagree with my colleague Margaret Lyons's belief that its second-season finale makes a fitting series finale, and that if it ended here, nobody involved should feel that the series' potential hadn't been reached, or at the very least hinted at. But I still think HBO should renew it, not just as a vote of confidence in the kind of challenging popular art that built the cable channel's fortunes, but because there have got to be a lot of people working there who sense just how dazzling and special the show is, and suspect that it still has compelling stories to tell and fresh notes to strike.

Sunday night’s season finale, which was directed by the great action filmmaker Mimi Leder, climaxed with members of the Guilty Remnants cult marching across the bridge into the untouched-by-the-rapture town of Jarden. It was an hour of many miracles, of the supernatural as well as filmmaking varieties. Former police officer Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) was shot to death by his anguished neighbor, John (Kevin Carroll), and resurrected yet again; he spent more time in the seeming-afterlife where he’d spent a full TV hour in the stunning episode “International Assassin,” performing the entirety of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” at karaoke to find (or earn) his way back to the world he knew, and perhaps emerged as a shaman figure at the end of it all. (His story was echoed by an earlier scene of Erika digging up a live bird that had been dead in the ground for three days.) 

Janel Moloney’s paralyzed Mary Jamison walked again and reunited with her preacher husband, Matt (Christopher Eccelston), who had guided her out into the countryside and then back into Jarden in “No Room at the Inn.” John’s wife, Erika (Regina King), discovered that her teenage daughter, Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown), had not vanished at the quarry but been drawn into the plot to open Jarden, a gambit masterminded by radical Guilty Remnant member Megan Abbott (Liv Tyler) that initially fooled people in the camp outside the town into thinking the trailer stalled on the bridge contained a bomb that would have severed paradise from the outside world. Kevin’s girlfriend, Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), lost and then recovered her adopted baby in a wrenching slow-motion sequence (silent but with music, a Leftovers specialty) whose purity of feeling evoked late-period silent cinema; its aesthetic peak was an overhead shot of Nora covering her child with her body against the onrushing crowd, an image that rhymed with one from the season’s opening sequences, which flashed back to prehistoric times to show a mother surviving a cave collapse and expending every last iota of her own flagging energy to protect her infant, until the snakebite poison in her bloodstream finally killed her. (The opening, "Axis Mundi," was also directed by Leder.) 

The show’s ability to portray this type of heightened, blatantly big action un-self-consciously, without cute, ironic, or self-aware touches, is remarkable, and in contemporary TV, almost unprecedented. At a time when much of the durable and notable popular art from previous generations is not only archived online but embedded in the collective memories of increasingly impatient and jaded viewers, the most radical thing that TV storytellers can do is simply tell their story, embracing intense emotions and letting incident follow incident according to emotional logic and musical intuition, without feeling the need to flatter viewers’ pretense of sophistication by assuring them that it’s only a movie (or a TV show), and that on some level they’ve seen it all before, and are much too cool and smart to give themselves over to something pitched at the level of pure melodrama, or opera.

To watch The Leftovers is to leave all pretense behind, and experience the story as a child might experience a bedtime story, or as an adult (or a child) might experience a dream or nightmare, specifically a lucid one. There were, no joke, several points during season two (particularly “International Assassin” and the season finale) when I got so wrapped up in the show’s eerily powerful images and situations that I felt as if I weren’t watching the show, but having a dream about it. Everything has a tactile reality, from the sound of the coat hangers moving around as Kevin chooses a uniform in the dream hotel to the skritch-skritch of dry soil shifting as the resurrected Kevin claws his way up out of the earth. Everything is presented so matter-of-factly — one action leads inexorably to another not according to rules of “realism,” but through emotional or visual logic — that the entire show resists any attempt to critique it in terms of believability. Style-wise, 2015 TV’s closest equivalent to The Leftovers was the third and final season of Hannibal, another series that seemed to be unfolding entirely in figurative or metaphorical space. The characters feel like real people, and they feel real emotions (as do we), even though what’s happening from minute to minute makes no sense at all by the standards of our world.

Based on Tom Perotta’s novel of the same name, and developed by Damon Lindelof (Lost) and Perotta, The Leftovers was strong right out of the gate, though at times too unmodulated in its gloominess — the necessary consequence of its premise, probably. It must be tough to maintain a light touch on a series about the aftermath of a mysterious event that made a percentage of the world’s population simply disappear, especially when the characters look so bereft at every moment. In season two, though, The Leftovers splintered and deepened its vision, building on storytelling experiments Lindelof had tried on his last major series, Lost. While some episodes this season, particularly the first two and the finale, were ensemble pieces, it more often focused its energy on a handful of major characters, following their journeys from start to finish in the space of an hour. Season two thus wove in and out of TV drama’s two dominant modes: the short-story anthology and the novel. This technique was, of course, characteristic of Lost as well (they might as well have titled this series Loss), but to its credit, The Leftovers dialed back the former’s arbitrary-seeming and often-audience-pandering twists, as well as its tendency to wildly oversell what co-creator J.J. Abrams (now the boss of the Star Wars franchise) has termed “puzzle-box storytelling.”

The refrain of season two’s opening-credits song is “Let the mystery be” — the phrase might have been the watchword for The Leftovers’ second season, which built out the show’s already-elaborate mythos, shifting the setting to a new location, adding new major characters, and fleshing out the “rules” of this world without ever listing them in a tediously prosaic way. It seems obvious from watching this series that Lindelof, Perotta, and their collaborators have thought about why certain things are happening, and might even have a set of lists, flowcharts, and blueprints in the writers’ room somewhere, but they never show us their homework, and as a result, the show never feels like an equation that viewers can “solve” and then discuss purely in terms of their own mastery. The imaginative foundation of this story is, and should remain, like the foundation of a house: rock-solid but unseen. Otherwise it loses its magic. And this show is magic. To watch The Leftovers is to willingly surrender the imagination to a state of emotional openness, empathy, and intuitive understanding, not unlike the sensation I felt at age 16 when I woke up from a deep sleep to see my beloved grandfather, who had died two weeks earlier, standing in my doorway in his trademark coveralls and white short-sleeved shirt and bolo tie, telling me, "I just stopped by to let you know that I'm all right, and you don't need to worry about me, and you'll always be my buddy," and then stepping away and gently closing the door behind him. 

Distinctions like “real” and “not real” mean as little on this show as they do when we have lucid dreams like the one I just described. Such terms are quite beside the point, just as they are beside the point when you’ve traveled down the rabbit hole of your own unconscious and are content to spelunk there for a while, no matter how frightening it can sometimes be. I’ve heard many creative people, not just in the arts, say that they do a lot of their problem-solving when they’re asleep; this is why people say “sleep on it” before making a big life decision. The unconscious has its own way of seeing things, its own way of making connections and sorting things out. If anyone from HBO is in the position to give The Leftovers another season, I’d humbly recommend watching any of season two’s episodes a second time right before turning in for the night. Come morning, the right choice will be obvious.

Read Margaret Lyons’s argument against a third season of The Leftovers here.