At the beginning of season two, The Leftovers’ theme song made its own sudden departure. The epically morose music by series composer Max Richter vanished, along with its Sistine Chapel–style imagery of people falling away from Earth to the anguish of the loved ones left behind. They were replaced by the jaunty country jangle of Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be” and a sort of reverse-Polaroid montage of family photos created by inescapable prestige-TV title designers Elastic. As of tonight, the circle is complete. “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother),” the series’ penultimate episode, combines the two opening sequences, using the soundtrack of the former to accompany the imagery of the latter.
Richter has done fine work for The Leftovers as time has gone by, but his original opening theme sounds hilariously dour and overwrought after the black-comic brilliance of seasons two and three. Or maybe I have that backward: Is it the ironically sunny pictures of everyday people smiling as their loved ones vanish and their world comes crashing to an end that’s inappropriate, given the gravity of the situation as conveyed by Richter’s music? It’s a matter of perspective, I suppose. Which makes the use of the original theme song in this context just as predictive as every other opening theme has been during this wild final season. After all, the episode ends with Kevin Garvey, doomsday-cultist president of the United States of America in an alternate dimension, facing down Kevin Garvey, international assassin and the president’s identical twin, with the fate of the entire world at stake. Who ought to win depends on where you’re sitting.
So yes, this is the show’s third journey into the afterlife or limbo or whatever you call the place where Kevin Garvey goes when he dies. No hotel for him this time, though — we catch up with his alter ego on a deserted tropical island besieged by professional killers. (Sound familiar? It sure would to series co-creator Damon Lindelof!) With the help from his dog-murdering pal, now the sort of guy who paraglides to the rescue wearing head-to-toe black body armor, Kevin come out of retirement for one last job: Assassinating the president before he can start “an unauthorized nucular war,” in the parlance of our times.
But the stakes are even higher than they seem: Kevin isn’t just his old international-assassin self. He’s also his own target. By staring into any reflective surface, he can warp back and forth between the killer’s body and that of the leader of the free world. (We’re through the looking glass, people! Again, sound familiar?) Except this version of the free world is somewhat less free, thanks to the ascension of the Guilty Remnant to political power. Picking up on plot threads from Kevin’s first “assignment” in this alternate reality, in which he was sent to kill “Senator” Patti Levin before she could win the White House, we now find that not only was the assassination attempt unsuccessful, but that a GR-ified Kevin has gotten elected, with Patti as his secretary of Defense and, surprisingly, Meg Abbott as his vice-president. It’s a tantalizing glimpse of how The Leftovers might have looked had it gone even farther into the realm of dystopia — if, instead of targeting apocalyptic death cults with drone strikes, the American government and its drones were taken over by one of those cults.
In keeping with the mirror imagery, Kevin discovers much about the world is basically backward. Here, Evie Murphy is the sole survivor of a government attack that killed her family, not the other way around. (Presumably, it was an assault by the militarized Guilty Remnant on the miracle town of Jarden designed to wipe out a symbol of hope for the future.) Here, instead of searching for their missing family to the point of death, the little kids of Kevin Sr.’s disciple Grace are prepared to give speeches about how they don’t need a mommy and daddy at all, per GR indoctrination. Here, giving Kevin’s penis a good once-over is a matter of national security (his, uh, penis-print unlocks access to his doomsday bunker), instead of, y’know, just something lots of people would like to do for fun. If you want an image that sums up the episode’s gleeful mix of dread and screwball comedy, President Kevin’s bodyguard (the false Kevin whom Grace murdered in a case of mistaken identity) sneaking a glimpse at the commander-in-chief’s junk as he prepares to give the order to wipe out all human life is tough to top.
There’s a whole lot of half-whimsical, half-convincing military-thriller business to enjoy here, as concocted by co-writers Lindelof and Nick Cuse: taking us down to DefCon One, unlocking the nuclear football, gaining access to the comms room, kill-or-be-killed battles with Secret Service agents, earpieces that enable the wearer to speak directly to God (or the Australian simulacrum thereof), et cetera. The climax of the episode centers on the so-called Fisher Protocol, a program that forces President Kevin to personally murder a volunteer who has the key to the nukes surgically implanted in his chest in order to give that fateful final order. It’s the assassin Kevin who’s got the key inside him, naturally, which leads to a final kill-or-be-killed scenario in which Kevin will die no matter what. After courting death and attempting suicide for years, he finally must kill himself.
Which is, perhaps, what he wants. Patti tells him that despite his supposed desire to go home and stay there, he keeps winding up on the other side. Back in the real world, Michael Murphy (Jovan Adepo, beautifully understated as always) questions why Kevin would continuously risk death on behalf of schemes he doesn’t really seem to believe in. In the alternate dimension, Christopher Sunday — the aboriginal clever man who here is the prime minister of Australia — points out the absurdity of Kevin and his father’s scheme: “Do you believe that? Do you believe your father can sing a song and stop the flood?” “No,” Kevin is forced to admit. “Then why are you here?”
At that moment, The Leftovers drives home just how desperate all these characters are, even if we’ve been too caught up in their moment-to-moment struggles and the series’ increasingly daring and rewarding tonal twists to notice. Seriously, what the hell are any of these people doing? Why did Kevin’s dad spend years collecting aboriginal folklore in the belief that he, and he alone, could stop a second Biblical flood? Why did Nora fly across the world to subject herself to an experiment she heavily suspects will kill her, just on the off chance that it’ll reunite her with her kids somehow? Why have Matt and John and Michael spent two years writing a book in which the Messiah is their local police chief? Why did Laurie spend all those years following the Guilty Remnant and trying to fix broken people, including herself, with a series of different belief systems? I think the answer in every case is that they simply have nothing else to do. The Great Departure shattered the world so badly that they’ll grab any shard of it they can, in hopes they can rebuild anew around it.
Kevin’s final choice is whether to end that possibility in the alternate dimension once and for all, and he takes it. Not out of the nihilism propagated by Patti and the Guilty Remnant, no — he does it out of the belief that only by destroying this other world can he truly resume living in the real one. It’s a romance novel his alternate selves wrote that sells him on the idea, one that Secretary Levin purloined from the Oval Office. In the book, the Kevin character, having fought his way across the world to be with the woman he loves, winds up fleeing into the ocean rather than submit to the terrible vulnerability of allowing himself to be loved by her in return. “He was a … coward,” Kevin reads, his voice catching in his throat in one of Justin Theroux’s finest moments on the show. “A coward dressed in the uniform of a brave man.” To be brave again, he has to cut off his chance at escape. “We fucked up with Nora,” the dying assassin Kevin tells President Kevin as the white-suited politician reaches into his chest to pull the key out of his heart. It’s going to take courage to set that right.
So we end with the sight of the missiles flying and exploding, wiping this limbo from existence. Kevin comes to in the real world, where the “flood” has come and gone — a bad storm to be sure, but not the apocalypse. He finds his father sitting on the roof to which he fled in terror when Kevin Jr. didn’t return from the other side with the mystical song that would stop the rain. “Now what?” he asks his son. In this parable of the absurd lengths to which people will go to avoid facing unpleasant truths, or surrendering to the happiness that can ameliorate them, this is the toughest question of all to answer.