“Not to oversimplify a very complicated show, but this is really just a love story between Kevin and Nora. That’s where we wanted to push our story chips — into the middle of the love table.”
That’s something Damon Lindelof, co-creator of The Leftovers, said on the Vulture TV Podcast two months ago, when the HBO drama’s final season was just beginning. Now that the last episode of this series has aired, it’s clear that Lindelof really wasn’t kidding about those story chips.
In its final bow, “The Book of Nora,” The Leftovers turns its focus almost entirely to Kevin and Nora, depicting how they find each other again under endless blue skies in a future Australia. After the first 15 minutes, which depict the lead-up to Nora’s crossover to the parallel plane where the suddenly departed landed, this episode unquestionably becomes a love story, right down to those closing moments when Kevin and Nora hold hands, and Nora’s doves flutter back home, and The Leftovers theme music segues into “Pachelbel’s Canon,” a standard heard at one out of every three American weddings. (Okay, I made up that statistic. But it feels true, doesn’t it?)
Does this ending mean The Leftovers was really just a love story about Kevin and Nora all along? No, nor do I think that’s exactly what Lindelof was implying. But in the second and, especially, third seasons, the relationship between those two characters became the backbone of the show, giving the writers a consistent prism through which to explore its central themes.
From the very beginning, The Leftovers has been about the unbridgeable chasms that can unexpectedly open between human beings who love each other. The Sudden Departure, which whisks away 2 percent of the world’s population, creates an obvious, permanent gap between those taken and those left behind. But during their time in Miracle, Kevin and Nora show us what it looks like when two people care for each other, occupy the same space, and still can’t quite bridge the gulf between them. When they were together, Kevin and Nora were to each other what Nora says she was in the presence of her old family in that Other Mapleton: They were ghosts.
Upon finally tracking down Nora in Australia, it’s fitting that Kevin initially acts like he has no memory of most of their relationship, including their time in Miracle. He basically stages the Sudden Departure of most of their shared history, partly, as he explains it, because he thinks it will allow them to start over. This is his way to hit a reset button, or, perhaps, turn a fail-safe key, just as he did in “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Twin Brother)” and, yes, just like Desmond did on Lost. (Note: This will not be the last time I refer to Lost during this piece.) But it’s also the creation of yet another blank space for them to try to cross, between their early past history and their present and between his understanding of their relationship and hers.
I watched The Leftovers finale and wrote this piece before it actually aired, so I have no idea how viewers will respond to this episode. But I imagine some people who have a hard time swallowing certain details, like the idea that Kevin has been traveling to Australia, a rather large continent, for two weeks every year and asking around until he finally finds Nora living in a charming little house in the absolute middle of nowhere. I agree that that stretches the bounds of believability, but then again, so does the Sudden Departure and the idea that Kevin could die and end up at a hotel, working as an assassin. On a series that has always wrestled with the conflict between faith and logic, The Leftovers asks us to take a few leaps of faith with it at the end, something I was willing to do.
I’ll admit I was willing to do it, too, because there is something beautifully tragic about Kevin repeating the same behavior over and over again out of desperation, thinking it would somehow put him back into Nora’s orbit. This is a particularly Lindelofian — sure, that’s a word now — conceit, one that reminded me immediately of something that happens at the end of another season three finale: Yeah, the one on Lost, when Jack makes his “We have to go back!” speech to Kate and confesses that he’s been using his Oceanic Airlines golden ticket to repeatedly fly back and forth between L.A. and faraway cities, including Sydney, hoping the plane will crash and deposit him back on the island. Jack was wracked with guilt, and felt it was his responsibility to save those left behind, and the island itself. Kevin feels regret, too, but his motivations are more simple and relatable: He wants to be with the woman he loves and for both of them to finally feel whole.
The Leftovers never explains exactly how far into the future we’ve jumped when we meet older Kevin and Nora – in an interview I did with Justin Theroux, he suggested the finale scoots ahead by about 15 years – nor does it spell out why Nora has decided to live in such extreme isolation in the middle of Australia. But if you believe Nora’s account of her crossover – which, in keeping with my Lost references, I think of as a flash sideways – it makes sense that she chooses to basically go into hiding. She has always been the series’s most adamant, outspoken skeptic of religion or anything that smacks of woo-woo phenomena, and yet she climbs into a time travel bathtub and (allegedly) teleports herself to a parallel universe. Whether her story is true or not, in order to explain herself to anyone back in Miracle or Mapleton once she returned, she’d have to admit she was wrong – either wrong about the fact that there’s no great beyond or wrong to try to go there at all – or too afraid to go through with it. Having to do that, not to mention deal with the possibility that she’d be viewed by others in the same way she used to see people like the widow of the man on the Miracle tower, is too much for her to handle.
Why Australia, though? That’s the last place Kevin left her. There’s something romantic in this, too: Nora wants to stay hidden from Kevin, but at the same time — as her ongoing therapy sessions with Laurie imply — there is a part of her who wants to be found. He’s been trying to make this day happen for years, and she’s been waiting for it to come.
When describing The Leftovers, the Sudden Departure is often characterized as a Rapture-like event. But it obviously differed conceptually from the Rapture because the people who got extracted from this mortal coil were not good Christians chosen by God. They were randomly selected like ping-pong balls in a lottery drawing. With that image of Kevin’s and Nora’s hands reaching out and finding each other to hold, The Leftovers reminds us one final time that this show was never about who gets chosen and why they’re gone. It’s about who you choose — actively, fully, wholeheartedly choose — to give your heart to and finding your own version of rapture with them. This is reflected in the love between Kevin and Nora, but evoked, too, when Kevin updates Nora about his children and his father. Family is part of that equation, too.
There are a couple of lyrics in Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be” that don’t appear in the shortened version of the song used in The Leftovers opening titles, but summarize the final message of this wonderful, occasionally surreal, surprisingly life-affirming series pretty well: “I believe in love and I live my life accordingly / But I choose to let the mystery be.”