let the mystery be

I Loved This Season of The Leftovers — and I Hope This Is It

Justin Theroux in The Leftovers. Photo: HBO

The Leftovers has achieved one of the unlikeliest triumphs in television. It took an emotional but onerous first season and turned it into a soaring second without sacrificing its identity or abandoning its artfulness (or its artsiness). It reveled in its refusal to solve broad mysteries while steadily solving a smaller-scale mystery throughout the season. It opened with a nine-minute dialogue-free flashback to cave people, situated some kind of purgatory in a grand hotel, satirized tourism, introduced a brand-new family and asked us to be profoundly invested in them, and even changed its theme song to be an incredibly on-the-nose directive to “let the mystery be.” It maybe even rehabilitated Damon Lindelof’s (overly negative) reputation. That’s a lot for one show to accomplish in a ten-episode second season. And it’s also why there shouldn’t be any more episodes of The Leftovers.

Last night’s season finale ends with our protagonist Kevin’s resurrection. He returns to his Jarden house to find his family there, with his formerly unresponsive (common-law) sister-in-law conscious and smiling, his ex-wife happily among the crowd, his sort of estranged stepson beatifically holding his baby daughter. His teen daughter and preacher brother-in-law gaze on. Then we see his girlfriend, Nora, relieved beyond measure, and she tearfully says “you’re home.” Kevin cries his beautiful tears once more, acknowledging that indeed he is. This is one among vanishingly few moments of pure human happiness on the show, a shocking respite from the pervasive suffering and loss, and it is the perfect ending. The story is complete, the Garveys-et-al. arc reaching a satisfying conclusion — all as their new town burns around them.

The characters, and the audience along with them, have been through catastrophic grief and confusion, disorienting amounts of violence, familial betrayal, self-doubt bordering on psychosis. In the finale, the ostensible sanctity of Jarden was breached when Meg and her branch of the Guilty Remnant riot-stormed over the bridge and set up some kind of sit-in in the visitor center. We’ve already seen the kind of disruption and misery the GR likes to wreak; no need to revisit that story ever again. We’ve watched members join and leave the group; no need for more of that. We’ve seen the stonings, rape, the murder-suicide. With Nora, we know someone who lost her whole family in the Departure. With Erica, we know someone who didn’t lose anyone. With Meg, we know someone who craves destruction and dismantling. With Laurie, we know someone who thought she wanted that but saw another way. We saw Patti Levin die many times. And come back to life in certain ways many times, too. We even saw her as a child. The deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead are raised — between the Garveys and the Murphys, the Biblical bases are pretty well covered. We’ve seen whole-scale fraud and unfailing devotion. Goat sacrifice. The Ninth Doctor’s penis. Bret Butler. A mighty F-U to J.J. Abrams’s mystery box. The Leftovers drained the well dry, so to speak.

These past ten episodes have been hauntingly beautiful, but even in that short season the show still found itself occasionally stalling. The first four episodes move the story forward by a matter of hours: Evie and her friends disappeared at the end of episode one, episode two looped back to that same moment, and episode four picked up the following morning. (Episode three took place elsewhere.) If a show has managed to cover as much as The Leftovers has covered and still teeters on the edge of repetitiveness, that’s an indicator that the story has reached its natural conclusion.

There’s no inherent virtue in longevity. Shows should run as long as they need to run — but god, not a minute longer. The Leftovers has a chance to go out in a blaze of glory, at the top of its game. It’s a precarious perch at that top, though, and at any moment the show’s complexities could turn into frustrating convulsions, and its intense study of distress could edge right into Andy Sipowicz–level character-torture. Even the Book of Job, The Leftovers’s favorite text, has a happy ending.

Read Matt Zoller Seitz’s argument for a third season of The Leftovers here.

I Loved S2 of The Leftovers & I Hope This Is It