Like the frontier fundamentalists in the flashback sequence that opens its third and final season premiere, The Leftovers is greeting the end with open arms. Co-created by Election author Tom Perrotta and Lost honcho Damon Lindelof, and based on Perrotta’s novel of the same name, the show has only seven more episodes to go before it’s over forever. You might expect its chronicle of a world where millions of people suddenly vanished into thin air — and of the messed-up, blessed, and cursed lives of those left behind — to slow down, pare back, take stock.
Fat chance of that. “The Book of Kevin,” tonight’s episode, takes a decidedly accelerationist approach to its countdown to extinction. It starts with a cleverly soundtracked excursion to a pioneer community, where an apocalyptically minded Christian sect is perpetually disappointed to discover that the world is not ending as scheduled. It then jumps to the very day we last left off, with the members of a very different cult, the nihilistic Guilty Remnant, holed up in the visitors’ center for the national park they’ve just stormed. Then the government sends in a drone and blows up all 93 of them, including longtime cast member Liv Tyler’s ringleader Meg Abbott and Jasmin Savoy Brown’s young recruit Evie Murphy, to kingdom come.
We pick up the action three years later, with our heroes’ lives not so much different as reshuffled. Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is chief of police again, but of Jarden, Texas, rather than Mapleton, New York. The department he heads includes his son, Tommy (Chris Zylka), whose stint as a federal-agent-murdering cult member indicates the Jarden PD could do with more stringent background checks, as well as a white horse Kevin rides while on duty, which does the impossible by making him somehow even more handsome. His longtime companion, Nora (Carrie Coon, who’s pulling double duty on Fargo this year), still works for the Department of Sudden Departures, serving as a liaison with the police if any homicide suspects claim their alleged victims were raptured rather than murdered; one of her arms is in a cast for reasons yet to be explained, which makes it hard for her to get undressed but easy for her and Kevin to kick off their foreplay.
Kevin and Nora’s house also serves as the office for John Murphy (Kevin Carroll), who’s undergone quite the 180 since last we saw him. Last year he tried to murder Kevin; this year he’s the dude’s BFF. Last year he ran the palm-reading psychic Isaac out of town; this year he’s taken over his gig. But unlike Isaac, whose gifts appear to have been for real, John’s a goldbricker. Rather than relaying genuine messages from the dead to his bereaved clients, he recites information fed to him via earpiece by Laurie Garvey (Amy Brenneman), ex-wife of Kevin and ex-member of the Guilty Remnant cult, who culls supposedly unknowable secrets from social media accounts. But don’t worry — they only do it to provide their clients with closure and shred the money they charge. (Because who’d believe it if it were free, right?) Oh, yeah, John and Laurie are also married now, and everyone seems cool with it — including Laurie’s no-longer-estranged daughter Jill (Margarte Quallley), who’s home from college to celebrate Tommy’s birthday in a badass Nirvana Incesticide T-shirt.
Elsewhere in town, Reverend Matthew Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), Nora’s brother, preaches to an ever-growing congregation about the possibility that something incredible may happen in Jarden 14 days from now, on the seventh anniversary of the Southern Departure. He parades his no-longer-comatose wife, Mary (Janel Moloney), and their son, Noah, as proof that this is a place where miracles happen, and he’s got John’s religiously devout son, Michael (Jovan Adepo), backing him up. Here, I suppose, is the place to mention the episode’s two big reveals: Mary is leaving Matt because she’s tired of his fundamentalist zeal about her reawakening, no matter how long he waited for it; and Matt, Michael, and John are co-conspirators in the creation of the episode’s titular “Book of Kevin,” a gospel inspired by the idea that Kevin Garvey cannot die within the Jarden city limits and therefore may be the messiah. “I’m not fucking Jesus,” Kevin says when he finds out. “I’m not saying you are,” Matt deadpans in his goofily broad way, “but the beard looks good on you.” Rim shot! Or at least there would be a rim shot if Kevin didn’t physically attack him first.
As with any good time-jump gimmick, the episode allows your mind to race through its three-year gap. Where’s Erika (American Crime’s Regina King)? What happened to Nora and Kevin’s adopted daughter, Lily? How did Nora break her arm? What persuaded Kevin and Tommy to put on the badge? John and Laurie — what’s that about? Are Matt and Michael and John on to something with this whole “Book of Kevin” business, or are they, you know, crazy? But these aren’t the sort of information-gap games played by the show during its earliest episodes, when vital information like the sibling relationship between Nora and Matt was withheld for no apparent reason other than to provide a cheap shock when the reveal arrived. Nor is this the narrative sudoku played by Westworld and other shows, in which mysteries are treated like puzzles to be solved rather than questions to be explored for emotional payoffs. What The Leftovers is doing here has a lot more in common with Mad Men’s between-season leaps, in which the show would skip over a few months and rely on its (and our) firm grasp of its characters to make sense of the differences between then and now. It displays remarkable faith in the audience’s intelligence. And by the time a genuine WTF twist does roll around, in the form of a much older Nora living in Australia under an assumed name and denying any knowledge of Kevin at all, you’re having too much fun to care.
Wait, what’s that? Fun? In my episode of The Leftovers? It’s more common than you think. Ever since the show gave itself an overhaul by introducing a new setting and new cast at the beginning of season two, and especially since it spent an entire episode watching Kevin attempt to murder his way out of the Afterlife Hotel, The Leftovers has become one of TV’s most rollicking viewing experiences by virtue of its sheer audacity. It’ll kick off a season with a sequence set hundreds or even thousands of years in the past with no apparent connection to the present not once, but twice. It’ll juxtapose a lazy morning in the burbs soundtracked by Simon & Garfunkel’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” with the image of Kevin attempting to asphyxiate himself with a plastic bag and duct tape. It’ll reintroduce Dean the dog hunter (Michael Gaston), a menacing character we haven’t seen since season one, only to reduce him to black-comic relief with his claim that dogs have assumed human form and begun infiltrating the government — then make him menacing again by having him shoot and nearly kill Kevin before his son Tommy blows the guy’s brains all over the side of the squad car. It’ll feature a scene in which a gaggle of bros disobey town zoning laws to erect a gigantic inflatable statue of Gary Busey in anticipation of his Second Coming.
Comedy, tragedy, horror, symbolism: The Leftovers fires them at you one after the other and doesn’t much care whether you’re able to field them. To find another show this confidently manic in its creativity you’d have to turn to Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope — minus its emotional ambiguity and gorgeous European pomp and camp, perhaps, but with a relentless focus on grief, trauma, and all-American God and guns and self-improvement schemes that make for a pretty fair trade. For Lindelof (co-writing with Patrick Somerville), a creator who once seemed debilitatingly preoccupied by the reactions of his audience, this show is an absolute breakthrough. For director Mimi Leder, it’s a showcase for a steady hand and keen eye that keep all the disparate parts working as a powerful, often beautiful whole. For its very lucky viewers, it’s a sign from television heaven that rumors of Peak TV’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. That crazy frisson you feel while watching the best shows, where you start each episode having no clue what will happen, but every confidence that it will somehow feel right? The Leftovers is one of the chosen few that can give it to you.