We’ll never know what caused the Sudden Departure, the instantaneous disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population at the center of HBO’s critically acclaimed drama The Leftovers. Series co-creator Damon Lindelof has said so, repeatedly, and if anyone knows the danger of promising answers he’s in no position to deliver, it’s the guy who did Lost. It’s a smart move, too: By taking “What happened?” off the table, it leaves the show free to explore a far more open-ended and rewarding question: “What happens next?”
But here’s the thing. We in the audience may know that the Sudden Departure will always be an unsolved mystery, but the people in the world of the show itself sure don’t. Much of The Leftovers’ is driven by the theories, belief systems, religious doctrines, mystical mumbo-jumbo, and out-and-out nihilism embraced by its various characters to explain the world-changing event and give life meaning afterward. Below, you’ll find the major schools of thought through which the people of The Leftovers attempt to understand their weird world.
It was scientific.
“There’s gotta be a logical explanation!” If millions of people around the globe suddenly vanished, this would be a natural response. For one thing, determining what caused the Sudden Departure with science might prevent it from happening again, either on a global scale or on a person-by-person, region-by-region basis. For another, if you can figure out why they disappeared, you might also be able to determine where they went, whether they’re still alive, and whether they can be brought back. Finally, there’s plenty of money to be made doing the research.
Unfortunately, that research has come up empty. The Denzinger Commission, a high-profile scientific inquiry funded by the U.S. government, announced that its findings were inconclusive in the pilot episode. Various theories have nonetheless been trotted out throughout the series. Could it be, as one episode title put it, “A Matter of Geography” that caused Nora Durst’s whole family to depart from their kitchen, or that kept Jarden, Texas, departure-free? Could certain individuals like Nora function as a “lens,” concentrating whatever force it was that wiped those around her out of existence? In many cases the proposed answers are pseudoscience at best — the scientists who propose the “lens” theory to Nora, for example, also happen to believe that she’s the human instrument of the demon Azrael. Regardless, statistical anomalies like the situations of Nora and Jarden, which break the Departure’s 2 percent pattern, tend to draw scientific study the same way people who prove immune to a pandemic do.
It was supernatural.
In a sense, duh. When 2 percent of the world’s population vanishes into thin air, that isn’t a natural occurrence. But what we mean here is that instead of having some scientific cause beyond current human capacity to uncover, the Sudden Departure was beyond science entirely — that it was mystical, or magical, in origin.
This theory leads some believers to connect the Sudden Departure with the Rapture, an event described in evangelical Christian eschatology as the bodily removal of righteous believers from the Earth prior to the traumatic events of the apocalypse. (This was the basis of the megapopular Left Behind series.) While many congregations large and small, mainstream and extremist, hold to this interpretation, it has a major flaw: Good people and bad people from every religion (and from no religion at all) departed on October 14. But anomalies in the evidence don’t matter much in matters of faith.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the Sudden Departure’s possibly divine origin — not to mention suffering through a catastrophe of this magnitude with no conventional explanation, or even the closure of dead bodies, in sight — led to an uptick in religious displays. Schools now allow, and even encourage, prayer. New denominations sprang up by the score. The state literally named the town of Jarden, Texas, “Miracle” after it was spared any departures; inside the city limits, regular residents coexist with stylite hermits and dudes who conduct Old Testament animal sacrifice.
… and a lot of other supernatural stuff is happening, too.
Here’s where it gets tricky. The Leftovers could have left the Sudden Departure alone as the sole, uh, departure from the physical laws that govern our existence and then simply depicted the aftermath. Think about it like The Walking Dead: Just because there are zombies doesn’t mean that there have to be vampires and wizards and dragons or whatever running around too.
However, the show continuously hints at other mysterious phenomena taking place, albeit on a much smaller scale. Many of these incidents could have rational explanations. For example, mental illness is a possibility in the cases of the visions that afflict Kevin Garvey and the voices that haunted his father. Coincidence and happenstance could play a role as well: Perhaps the town of Jarden, Texas, just got extremely lucky, as did Reverend Matt Jamison when his wife Mary snapped out of her coma after spending time in Jarden. Then there’s the power of belief — the psychosomatic triumph of mind over matter that makes people feel that cult leader and sex predator Holy Wayne (and, later, his former acolyte Tommy Garvey) is able to absorb their pain with a magical hug.
But some incidents can’t be explained away that easily. Kevin survives not one, not two, but three brushes with death that really should have been enough to kill him: drowning, poison, and a shot to the chest. Jarden’s resident psychics Isaac and Virgil are shown to know things about the lives of other people — whether it’s information about loved ones long dead or premonitions about the future — that would be impossible to guess so accurately or suss out by natural means. Even Patti, the dead leader of a Guilty Remnant cell who “haunts” Kevin through much of season two, is able to issue warnings to him about events in his near future that she couldn’t know about if she really were just a mental manifestation of his guilt. Finally, there are Kevin’s two postmortem, pre-resurrection visits to a purgatorial afterlife/alternate reality/who knows what, where he has to perform various tasks in order to return to the “real” world — could be the fever dream of an injured brain, could be a genuine trip across the astral plane. If any one of these occurrences are verifiably mystical, that makes the possibility that the Sudden Departure was as well a lot more likely.
It doesn’t really matter.
This existentialist viewpoint is embraced by most of the show’s protagonists — and, interestingly, its antagonists. What difference does it make why or how the Sudden Departure happened? It happened, and unless and until we get an ironclad explanation, all we have to reckon with is a senseless tragedy that effectively destroyed the lives of every human being left on Earth. The only question is how to cope.
Some people adopt a pretty laissez-faire approach, not really caring how you choose to live your life so long as you don’t mess with those of others. But such live and let live types can get pretty touchy when their boundaries are crossed: Consider Kevin Garvey’s often hair-trigger response to cults during season one, or John Murphy’s vigilantism against alleged mystics and miracle workers in season two. Nora Durst alternates between periods of paranoid guilt over potentially having caused her family’s departure and spite and rage against anyone who believes she, or anyone else, “caused” it to happen at all.
The hardest of the hard core on this end of the spectrum are the Guilty Remnant, the show’s most prominent cult. They dress in white, live communally, take a vow of silence, chain-smoke (what the hell difference does it make, right?), use physical punishment against defectors (or as a false flag to heighten tensions with local communities), and stage confrontational protests to shock normies. Why? To serve as “living reminders” that whatever the cause, the Sudden Departure was the end of the world as we know it, and carrying on like everything’s normal or that there’s some hope for the future is a near-criminal act of denial.
Under the leadership of Meg Abbott, who assumes control of the group from within during season two, the GR grow more lenient about their practices, wearing civilian clothes and speaking aloud. (They still smoke a lot.) They become more extreme in their tactics: menacing school buses full of children with hand grenades, raping interlopers before dousing them in gasoline and threatening to set them on fire, and murdering innocent bystanders who’ve seen too much. And they get much more ambitious in their goals: Instead of screwing with individuals who lost family or friends in the Departure, or harassing whatever random locale they happen to live in, they take aim at the biggest symbol of hope in America: Jarden, the town the Departure passed over entirely. They storm the town’s gates en masse, leading thousands of pilgrims and tourists of all possible beliefs into this supposedly sacred ground to loot, celebrate, worship, fight, or whatever they care to do. The point is that nothing is sacred, or even just normal. When 140 million people departed, they took normal life with them.