The Leftovers Ends With No Answers — But Here’s One Possible Theory

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Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon in The Leftovers finale. Photo: HBO

HBO’s The Leftovers has always been a story of faith and doubt, filled with coincidences that might really be the result of fate’s wheels turning. Sunday’s finale was the culmination of everything that series co-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta and their collaborators have done to put that notion and others across during the show’s three seasons, but always with an element of what we might call “plausible deniability.” No matter what uncanny events occur, the viewer can credibly interpret events as breaking one way or the other, secure (or insecure) in the knowledge that the show will remain officially agnostic about what happened and what we’re supposed to take away from it. As the second season’s theme song advised us — in a nifty bit of meta-commentary on the disappointingly received finale for Lindelof’s last major series, Lost — we have to let the mystery be. It might (or might not) be a sign that the theme reappeared at the start of the series finale, during a season that changed its theme music every episode. I prefer to think of it as a sign, or at least a hint, but I’ll entertain other explanations, because The Leftovers devised its own intricate cosmology but kept many of its fine points a secret right up to the show’s final frame.

In that spirit, let’s observe that the series finale of The Leftovers aired exactly ten summers after the finale of The Sopranos, a show rich in ambiguity, dream images, daring but seemingly offhand pivots of tone and style, strategic deployments of anticlimax (such as Richie Aprile’s death in season two), and conspicuously unresolved story strands. Among the latter was the Russian gangster in season three’s classic episode “Pine Barrens,” who survived two bumbling mob assassins’ murder attempts like a mook Rasputin, then vanished from the show forever. Episode writer Terence Winter has said he suggested bringing the Russian for a cameo later, but series creator David Chase refused, preferring to think of the character as, in Chase’s words, “a creature out of a Russian folktale.” The disappearing Russian now seems in retrospect like a harbinger of many other audience provocations that distinguished the series. The most notorious, of course, was the finale’s abrupt cut to black, which Chase himself has repeatedly described, with increasing exasperation, as a generalized statement about how life was precious and could be snatched from us at any moment, but that instead sparked a seemingly unending debate between fans about whether the hero lived or died.

Leave it to Lindelof, Perrotta & Co. to take the last four minutes of The Sopranos and turn it into a show.

In that spirit, I’ll tell you what I initially believed happened in The Leftovers finale. Then I’ll tell you the conclusion that I came to the day after I watched it and how I got there.

You should bear in mind that nothing I say here is meant to seem “definitive.” The Leftovers bunch wouldn’t have spent their second season warning us to “let the mystery be” at the start of each new chapter if they didn’t mean it.

You should also bear in mind that I have — to my surprise as much as everyone else’s — a personal relationship with this series that has ripped away the membrane that usually separates artists from critics, making it impossible for me to review any future Lindelof productions without a disclaimer. Lindelof told me earlier that year that that episode five of season three, “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World,” was inspired in part by his reading of my personal writing about grief and recovery, as well as previous writing I’d done about the character of Matt Jamison, the minister played by Christopher Eccleston. (Go here to read our full discussion on the episode.)

So, about the finale: Just as the last episode of The Sopranos, the end of which made viewers wonder if their cable went out, summed up everything that Chase’s series was about, philosophically as well as dramatically, so too did The Leftovers ending distill the show’s half-spiritual, half-psychiatric vibe. Lindelof and Perrotta’s series has always been good at suggesting, like a therapist or cleric, ways of thinking about trauma and loss that don’t so much identify destinations for us to journey toward, but suggest various pathways for us to travel as we think and heal.

A therapist once told me, “Everyone in a dream is you.” I think that in the dreamy universe of The Leftovers, every character is us, and every plot development, even the ones that contradict each other, “really happened.” Ordinary distinctions between “real” and “not real” don’t apply here, for the most part, and the writers have made a point of messing up any possible left-brained attempts to “solve” the show’s mysteries. No matter how far backward you bend in order to justify a single reading of events on the show, there’s always going to be a wild card like a David Burton, who showed up in the “International Assassin” episode telling Kevin he has to sing to get home, then appears again in “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World,” in the “real” world.

The episode starts with Nora (Carrie Coon), a fiercely unsentimental but deeply emotional person, saying good-bye to her brother Matt right before getting into the transporter-destroyer-teleporter that she’s been told will take her to the other side, wherever that is, and reunite her with the family she lost on the day of the Event. As the chamber fills up with fluid, the episode (written by Lindelof and directed by the great Mimi Leder) cuts away from Nora the instant that she seems to change her mind about drowning herself — a mode of transport that links her to her lover Kevin, a Christlike shaman who journeys to the other side by drowning or intentionally asphyxiating himself, as well as Kevin’s ex-wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman), who appeared to commit suicide by drowning. The cutaway from Nora is another echo of the Sopranos ending, however oblique: The timing of the cut, not just mid-sentence but mid-word, is so brutal and seemingly random that at first I thought it was a glitch in HBO’s signal.

Then we meet Nora again, looking ten years older. We don’t know where we are, geographically or in time. At first I assumed the Australian landscape was somewhere in the alternate reality that Kevin had visited twice at length, in “International Assassin” and “The Most Powerful Man in the World” (though maybe a less jock-ish, David Lynch–does–James Bond corner of it). Nora has evidently been living there long enough to acquire grey hair and wrinkles. Kevin shows up on her doorstep, visibly aged as well, telling a hugely redacted story about how they met that makes him sound like one of those earnest stalkers that used to be commonplace in romantic comedies until critics started pointing out en masse how creepy they were.

The way the place is photographed, favoring wide panoramas of depopulated areas, has a dreamlike aura, in character with the rest of The Leftovers, though more gentle and reflective. Kevin’s account of his and Nora’s relationship made it seem as if we’re supposed to think we were getting either a glimpse of life on the other side or Nora’s dream of it, a place in which Kevin might not be Kevin but “Kevin,” a dream-figure manifestation of Nora’s issues. I also wondered if this show, which has shown us so many doppelgänger-like figures, was doing it again here with Kevin, two versions of whom had struggled to the death in the preceding episode, “The Most Powerful Man in the World.”

Eventually the episode gets around to clarifying that this Australian outback is, in fact, a continuation of the reality we saw in the opening sequence, where Nora intentionally drowns herself. We’re just further along on the timeline. Nora explains to Kevin that she ended up on the other side and wandered through a mirrored universe in which she had died and the rest of her family had lived, her husband remarrying an attractive woman (when describing her, Nora says “she was pretty” twice). Nora’s account of her journey is redolent of the sequences in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge is taken on a tour of his past, present, and future as a ghost who can’t interact with the living, as well as the post-bridge jump sections of the American version of that story, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Nora’s descriptions of the other side are conveyed without flashbacks. Its vividness is put across by Coon’s skills. It is the high-water mark in one of the best lead actress performances I’ve seen on a TV series. Jen Chaney’s 2016 piece about Coon sums up everything I could possibly say here about her, so I’ll just add two things on her performance in this finale. First, the scene was a sustained piece of verbal storytelling that ranks with the “One Time at the Beach” scene in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Tommy Lee Jones’s closing aria in No Country for Old Men. Second, Coon’s performance made me believe her as strongly as Kevin believed her.

Another striking thing about Nora’s story is the way it gives audiences an organizing metaphor for a scenario that happens over and over on The Leftovers, and in life: people comparing their own grief to others’ as if it were an ouch contest. Rather than seeing a world in which there was no Event, Nora sees one where there was another, mirrored but more devastating event. There aren’t even enough people left to fly planes and have an airline industry; it’s possible to travel for long periods of time without seeing another person; and rather than standing as the sole survivor in her family, Nora is the only person who was taken.

On first viewing, I was convinced that Nora really did visit that other world, but I later came to think that the only reason I believed the story is because Carrie Coon delivered it. Now I’m not sure what happened. And as always on this show, what happened is less important than what the characters are feeling as it happens to them, or as they describe the events to others.

There are many creative choices in this episode that the viewer just has to decide to be okay with. The biggest one, for me, is Kevin’s seeming amnesia about his relationship with Nora. Lindelof has justified these as conventions out of a romantic comedy — they made me think of Deborah Kerr’s explanation for bailing on Cary Grant at the end of An Affair to Remember, oddly — and while I’m not entirely persuaded in terms of character motivation, this gambit is no stranger than anything else we’ve seen on the show. In fact, it’s of a piece with The Leftovers’ knack for lucid-dream logic, in which the sleeping mind is met with a scenario that seems outwardly realistic but that has a few details that are surreal or inexplicably “off.” When you’re having a dream like that, you aren’t sure at first if you’re awake and having a weird experience or asleep and envisioning a mostly believable one.

The Kevin-Nora exchanges in the ending sum up the heart of The Leftovers perfectly. Lies are personal attempts to twist reality into a shape that the liar can live with or function within; it’s the opposite of accepting what actually happens to us in life and dealing with the implications, however unpleasant or embarrassing those might be. The resolution of the couple’s story here is also about letting yourself be vulnerable, trusting others to accept you, and accepting love when it’s offered. The finale brings Nora’s story and Kevin’s in the preceding episode together — marries them, sort of. Kevin’s ridiculous airport-thriller adventure in “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)” pits two Kevins against each other. One of the Kevins is being compelled (by a version of Ann Dowd’s character, Patti Levin, who haunted him like a specter in season two) to destroy the world; the other Kevin has been tasked with killing the first Kevin in order to prevent that from happening. It’s an externalized version of an internal conflict that’s always driven Kevin, though it’s not always easy to see because he’s such a reactive, emotionally constipated character (note the detail that he has so many bowel movements in a day; he can expel physical toxins but not emotional ones). My own reading of the battle in “The Most Powerful Man in the World” is that the “president” version of Kevin is one driven by his doubts and demons to destroy love, and the other Kevin knows he must be stopped. The apocalypse that ends that episode may not signal the end of that world, or any world, but the end of Kevin’s potential for happiness. It seems fitting that the next and final episode would see Kevin traveling obsessively to Australia over and over to find Nora (a wonderfully romantic image, however fucked-up the characters may be).

Nora’s story is fun to think about in terms of alternate realities. The only thing that bothered me about Kevin’s trips are that they seemed so ridiculously macho and juvenile in some ways. It’s all about commandos, assassins, luxury hotels, tuxedos, presidential codes, nuclear weapons, and the like. But what if the reality you see is shaped by your own perceptions of what’s interesting and important? Kevin is a cop, he’s not an intellectual, and he’s overwhelmingly, at times hilariously, stoic. It makes sense that his alternate world — where everyone is dead — would look like a crackpot version of a Jason Bourne film.

If we roll with that interpretation, it makes it easier for me (or anyone) to think that Nora really did go on a journey, and that the only reason we didn’t see it portrayed in images is because Carrie Coon’s performance is so powerful that we didn’t need them. So let’s set aside, for a moment, the fact that the Leftovers bunch didn’t show Nora’s trip because they wanted us to wonder if it really happened. Let’s say it did happen.

What sort of world did Nora see?

One that’s more reflective of Nora’s sensibility than Kevin’s.

The only fantastic or science-fictional element is the duplicate teleporter that she asks the machine’s inventor to build for her so that she can return to our world. Everything else that she describes sounds like a version of what we’d see right here, right now. But it’s a bleak and depopulated world, distinguished by open, empty spaces, and it’s a very hard world, filled with people who feel isolated and alone but have decided to just soldier along and depend on themselves, not a community. (It seems notable that Nora never mentions the machine’s inventor as part of a community: I picture him living in a shack somewhere like the Unabomber.)

So does everyone who visits an alternate reality see one custom-tailored to fit their personalities and interests? Maybe.

But another possible way to see these trips is that they aren’t really trips, but traumatic dreams or hallucinations brought about by near-death experiences. What if Kevin never went anywhere, either? What if he just hallucinated those adventures as a byproduct of the trauma of forcing his own clinical death? What we could be dealing with here, in both Kevin’s visible journeys and Nora’s narrated one, is a description of metaphor-laden dreams that don’t describe any external reality, but the internal landscape of the person telling the story.

Thus, Kevin’s trips look like the kinds of movies he probably watches on TNT or AMC on Memorial Day weekend, sitting on a couch with a six-pack of beer and a bowl of chips. And Nora’s trips look more like an Andrei Tarkovsky or Samuel Beckett film because that’s more her speed. (Not that she’s given any indication of being into either of those artists — I’m just describing how the vibe is different.)

So if the “other worlds” are not other worlds, but dreams of a sort, then what we’re seeing when we watch The Leftovers is a Russian nesting doll metaphor for trauma, grief, and recovery. The show is itself a dream, and within it, there are other dreams, each experienced by individual characters who all have their own sensibilities and emotional issues. You fall down a rabbit hole, and when you’re at the bottom, you have a choice of more rabbit holes to go down, and there are probably more at the bottom of whichever one you choose.

A minister friend of mine once cautioned me against comparing my own grief to anyone else’s, especially when it led me to conclude that my own was not so bad in comparison. He said that no matter what sort of loss you experience — a parent, a child, a spouse, a friend; even a nonlethal loss like a divorce, a layoff, or losing your house in a fire or flood — the event opens up an emotional abyss that you fall into. “It’s all the same abyss,” he said. Some people fall more deeply into the abyss than others, always for their own reasons. And once you’re down there, he told me, “There are no magic words from other people that can get you out. You stay down there until you’re ready to climb out.”

I’ve heard from so many people, including colleagues who write about television, that this show has been hugely helpful to them as they work through their own losses. It’s certainly been helpful to me, and it was helpful long before I learned that Lindelof was taking details from my story and transforming them into elements to be used in his. Of course, the therapeutic aspects of the show aren’t enough to cement its claims on importance. I think it’s the writing, directing, acting, editing, photography, and music that do that: i.e., the storytelling, the filmmaking. But it’s the point of it all, the ultimate function of it all, that gives the form meaning. The Leftovers was not content to be impressive or thoughtful. It was also generous and kind.

I miss it already.

The Leftovers Ends With No Answers — But Here’s One Theory