The Leftovers: It’s Complicated. It’s also an artistic triumph. Co-created by Lost’s Damon Lindelof and Election’s Tom Perrotta based on the latter’s novel, the show is set in a world where an unexplained event caused the complete disappearance of millions of people all over the globe, transforming society in disturbing ways. It also features a sprawling cast, complex family relationships, and the occasional trip to an alternate dimension, or something. So yeah, there’s a lot going on.
Need a refresher course before the show returns for its final — and fantastic — eight episodes, starting with Sunday night’s season-three premiere? Then do not depart this page: our who’s who and what’s what for one of the most baffling and rewarding shows on television.
The Sudden Departure
On October 14, 2011, 140 million people — fully 2 percent of the world’s population — vanished without a trace. Known as the Sudden Departure, this tremendous upheaval shapes the mildly postapocalyptic world of The Leftovers in every way. It accounts for the post-traumatic stress and crippling grief experienced by nearly every character. It gave rise to a cottage industry of scientists determined to uncover the cause, businesses catering to the needs of the bereaved, and both religious and atheistic cults who promise to make sense of it all for their acolytes. It also led to the creation of two government agencies: the Department of Sudden Departure (DSD), which investigates departure claims and ferrets out fraud (like that of Perfect Strangers star Mark Linn-Baker, who faked his Departure when the rest of the sitcom’s cast vanished without him); and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives and Cults, whose Waco-like approach to fringe organizations has been the bloody backbeat of the show since season one.
This small Texas town was completely spared by the Sudden Departure, making it a center of scientific study, religious pilgrimage, and grift and exploitation. It’s been officially designated “Miracle National Park” by the government, which strictly monitors the entry and exit of its 9,261 residents and their visitors. Season two ends with its borders overrun by the Guilty Remnant, a sort of death-cult determined to serve as “living reminders” of the Departure to its survivors.
Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux)
Kevin is the handsome, brooding, handsome, mentally ill, handsome, dead and resurrected, and last but not least, handsome patriarch of the fractious Garvey family. Kevin served as the chief of police in the sleepy New York suburb of Mapleton, a job he inherited along with a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia from his father, Kevin Sr. (Scott Glenn, whose character is currently holed up in Australia). Kevin’s “is it real, is it supernatural, or is it a hallucination?” visions and misadventures have driven much of the show’s action.
At the moment of the Departure, Kevin was cheating on his wife Laurie in an impulsive one-afternoon stand; his lover disappeared from their motel bed. During season one, the increasingly unstable family man and a local gun nut named Dean graduate from shooting stray dogs to kidnapping Patti Levin (Ann Dowd), the local leader of the Guilty Remnant cult. When she kills herself in front of him, he covers up her death, comes clean months later, and is told not to sweat it by the government, which in The Leftovers’ world has very little problem at all with the murder of cult members. This is cause for concern, since all three members of the family Kevin had before the Sudden Departure have done time in cults themselves: His ex-wife, Laurie, joined the Guilty Remnant and eventually helped recruit their daughter, Jill, while his adopted son, Tommy, took up with the British healer and harem-keeper known as Holy Wayne.
By the start of season two, all three have left their cults, but only Jill remains with Kevin. They’re joined by Lily, the infant daughter of Holy Wayne and one of his many ersatz wives, a young woman named Christine, left on the family doorstep by Tommy. Together with his new girlfriend Nora Durst, whose loss during the Sudden Departure was catastrophic, they move to the town of Jarden (see above). While there, his dissociative sleepwalking episodes lead him to attempt suicide in the same water where three local teens disappear that very night. Guilt-ridden and cracking up, he’s also literally haunted by Patti, who is either a hallucination or an actual ghost. (The Leftovers isn’t big on answering such questions.)
In order to purge himself of Patti, Kevin poisons himself with the help of a local shaman (more on him later) and travels to a purgatorial “other place” — a luxury hotel where, in the guise of an international assassin, he stalks and kills an alternate version of Patti who’s running for president. He then learns that her “real” self in this world is a little girl, whom he pushes down a well before falling in himself to finish the job. Once resurrected in the real world, he winds up getting shot by the father of the disappeared girl (again, more on him later), travels back to the hotel purgatory, and escapes by singing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” at karaoke. Season two ends with Kevin and his whole big crazy extended family reunited.
Nora Durst (Carrie Coon)
If Kevin’s the broken brain of the show, Nora’s its broken heart. An employee of the government department that investigates Sudden Departure claims, she’s also one of the event’s worst victims: Both her husband (who was cheating on her) and her two children disappeared from their kitchen while her back was turned. This was not her first brush with tragedy, either: Her parents died in a house fire when she was a little girl, leaving her and her brother, Matt Jamison, now a minister, to fend for themselves. Before she met Kevin and adopted Lily, her primary coping mechanism was hiring prostitutes to shoot her in the chest while she wore a bulletproof vest.
Following her brother Matt’s lead, Nora brings her ad hoc family to Jarden in hopes of making a fresh start, but also out of terror of ever suffering through another round of Departures. She’s particularly distraught over a theory that she herself may have served as a “lens” that focused … whatever it was that made her whole family disappear; compared to scientific or supernatural explanations such as this, she prefers the idea that it’s all entirely random and meaningless. Wouldn’t you?
Laurie Garvey (Amy Brenneman)
A single mother before she met Kevin, Laurie married him when her son Tommy was 3 years old; she and Kevin had a child of their own, Jill, later on. But the Departure of her third, unborn child from inside her womb drove her from the family and into the arms of the Guilty Remnant, a cult of chain-smoking, white-clad nihilists who believe the Sudden Departure was the end of the world, and anyone who carries on as if it were otherwise is just fooling themselves. When her involvement with the much-hated cult nearly gets her daughter burned alive, she quits. Joining forces with Tommy, himself a cult refugee, she begins rescuing and deprogramming doubt-stricken GR members by day and running over devout ones with her car by night. Before long, she’s driven Tommy away (after the GR nearly kills him, too) and lost a book deal for attacking a publishing exec after one of her deprogramming “success stories” drives their whole family into oncoming traffic. But her hard-earned experience with delusional beliefs comes in handy when she reunites with her increasingly distraught ex, Kevin, down in Jarden.
Jill Garvey (Margaret Qualley)
Jill starts the show like many other teenage TV characters — sullen, withdrawn, rebellious — but with one obvious difference: Those other teens never experienced the disappearance of their classmates in the middle of a school day due to the Sudden Departure. The turmoil in the lives of her parents drives her to the Guilty Remnant, her mom’s cult, for answers. She leaves the group after escaping the fire that destroys its compound in her hometown, then maintains secret contact with her brother Tommy during his anti-cult operations with their mom, from whom Jill remains estranged. Upon the move to Jarden, she emerges as the kind of person other people like to tell their troubles to, whether it’s her sorta-stepmother Nora or Michael Murphy, the religious kid next door with whom she starts a relationship. Her decision to go to college is perhaps the best indication that for her, now, life goes on.
Reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston)
Despite the happy face he almost always displays to the world, Nora’s man-of-the-cloth brother has had one of the most complicated journeys of faith on the show. Matt’s wife Mary was rendered brain-dead in an accident during the Sudden Departure when the driver of an oncoming car vanishes before hitting the brakes. For the years following the event, he digs up dirt on the Departed because he can’t stand the notion that the guy who destroyed his life by vanishing was some sort of hero or saint. After losing his church to the GR, who buy it when his tactics drive it into insolvency, he and Mary move to Jarden, where, sure enough, she was miraculously revived, if only for one night. His insistence that something supernatural occurred brings him into conflict with local skeptics and forces him to take desperate measures to stay in town — at least until Mary, pregnant following her one-night revival, wakes up for good and proves the naysayers wrong.
Meg Abbot (Liv Tyler)
Once a happy-go-lucky resident of Mapleton, Meg lost her mother the day before the Sudden Departure, the magnitude of which completely wiped out her grief in the eyes of the world. Traveling to Jarden for answers prior to the events of season one, she encounters Isaac, a psychic later drummed out of town, who tells her her mother’s unspoken last words for her were just some dumb knock-knock joke. This begins a nihilistic downward spiral that causes her not only to join the Guilty Remnant, but to take it over from within and drive it to ever more extreme, terroristic measures. She’s the ringleader behind the plot to storm Jarden, which ends season two.
John Murphy (Kevin Carroll)
Introduced as a series lead along with the rest of his family at the start of season two, John is a jocular, hail-fellow-well-met type — or at least he seems that way at first. But his role in Jarden as a much-loved firefighter conceals a darker motivation: He and the rest of his engine company are secretly vigilantes who boot mystics and charlatans (to John, they’re one and the same) out of town with extreme prejudice. This isn’t his first brush with vigilantism, either. He’d previously done time for shooting and wounding his pedophile father-in-law, Virgil. When he learns that his neighbor, Kevin, was on the scene when Evie disappeared but said nothing, he shoots him, too. But the pair share a seemingly sincere rapprochement when Kevin, you know, rises from the dead.
Erika Murphy (Regina King)
An accomplished doctor who mends more than her fair share of bullet wounds over the course of season two, Erika also spends the season harboring two secrets. First, she’d decided to leave her husband John until the (for a time, anyway) unexplained disappearance of their daughter Evie forced her to change plans. Second, she witnessed the miraculous resurrection of a dead bird she’d buried in a shoebox in a sort of good-luck folk ritual. The timing of these events led her to blame herself for Evie’s vanishing — putting her at odds with both her mysticism-hating husband and her nihilistic neighbor Nora. Her season-two arc ends with her failed attempt to communicate with Evie once she returns as part of the silent Guilty Remnant cult.
Michael Murphy (Jovan Adepo)
Michael is the Murphys’ teenage son. A devoutly religious kid, he’s a key part of Rev. Matt’s congregation in Jarden, and the boyfriend of his neighbor, Jill Garvey, with whom he has an everything-but-sexual relationship. He also forges connections with some of the town’s fringe figures: These include the hermit who lives atop a pillar at the center of town, as well Virgil, Michael’s seemingly psychic grandfather, who was cast out of the Murphy family fold after being shot by John for molesting an as-yet-unnamed family member. It’s in this role that he witnesses Virgil’s suicide, and Kevin’s poisoning and resurrection.
Evie Murphy (Jasmin Savoy Brown)
Evie is Michael’s twin sister, a star student with a mild case of epilepsy. Her disappearance from a local swimming hole along with two friends at the beginning of season two triggers the suspicion that the Sudden Departure phenomenon has returned to afflict the town of Jarden, Texas, at last. However, the teens actually faked their vanishing in order to join the Guilty Remnant. Thoroughly estranged from her family, Evie played an integral part in the group’s storming of the heavily guarded town in the season-two finale, a role facilitated by her chance meeting with Meg Abbott during her visit to the town years earlier.