How The Leftovers’ Series Finale Compares to Lost

Photo: HBO and FOX

A fateful meeting between two long-ago separated lovers at a party. A milky-soft palette that signals another place, or another time. Longing stares. The impenetrable feeling of things left unsaid. It’s Nora and Kevin’s reunion in the last episode of The Leftovers, but it’s also Jack and Kate’s in the Lost finale, which aired almost exactly seven years ago, but runs in tandem with so much of the thematic meat co-creator Damon Lindelof is still mincing. And yet there’s one key difference between these very similar moments: One is the real world, and one is the afterlife. It’s a maturation of more than a decade’s worth of ideas that have turned Lindelof into the de facto master of surrealist televangelism, airing his demons of faith and id through broad-stroke stories. On Lost, this form of storytelling was often baffling and prodding. On The Leftovers, it’s brief and reasoned. It’s the conclusion to Lost’s thesis statement: That, in the end, it’s not the big things that happen to us, but how we choose to survive them.

It’s not that The Leftovers succeeds where Lost comes up short. That’s been the critical narrative for a while now, but Lost — for all of its dead ends and what-the-hells – remains its own entity and, if nothing else, a hauntingly beautiful dissection of the way we love and fail each other. Jack Shephard, Lost’s polarizing lead, was a doctor come undone for his inability to fix things. He failed his fellow survivors, who turned to him for guidance. He failed his lovers, from ex-wife Sarah to island sweetheart Kate. He and his father, whose death is the reason Jack was on the plane, failed each other by putting ego above matters of the heart. The controversial final season took Jack down a journey steeped less in metaphor than in physical, mythical turmoil. On the island, he was a major player in the godlike leadership race, some unnamed rule that said the island needed a protector of its secrets, fortune, and powers. Lost played all of this straight, but went kooky in its mystery narrative, where what looked like an alternate reality in which the plane never crashed was actually an afterlife where the survivors reunited. Jack, as he died on the island, was the last to “wake up” in the afterlife, because as the show’s center, his journey to actualization was the key unfolding narrative, and took until the end to crystalize.

The Leftovers looks like the Kevin Garvey story, if only because, like Jack, he was a dark-haired, dark-bearded alcoholic with a god complex, daddy issues, and the sheen of majestic importance. But what stuns about the show’s finale is the spin on this idea: The Leftovers is more about Nora, the “normal” person, than Kevin, the one who seemed destined to save the world. Much like Lost, where the survivors of a plane crash searched for meaning after cataclysm, the characters of The Leftovers did the same after their own tragedy, a mysterious world event where 2 percent of the global population disappeared into thin air. Nora lost her two children and husband in the Rapture-like Sudden Departure, while Kevin Garvey just lost his mind. Neither are nothing, but Nora’s story was weighted by a tangible absence, and Kevin’s a more mystical one — he lost time, forgot events, saw ghosts, went to the afterlife. And because the show tempted the supernatural, the finale — which starts with Nora about to be blasted with nuclear energy into another realm to find her family (much like Desmond on Lost was blasted into the afterlife by his father-in-law, Charles Widmore) — seemed a setup for a Lost-like revelation.

And at first, it really felt like just that. We cut from Nora in the Kubrickian contraption to an older Nora going by the name of Sarah, living in Australia, delivering carrier pigeons to a nunnery. We got a peek of it at the end of the season-three premiere, “The Book of Kevin,” but the finale, appropriately titled “The Book of Nora,” gives us the full view. “Sarah” lives alone in the country, she has no friends, she’s complacently displaced. Until Kevin shows up on her doorstep and talks about his brief interactions with Nora back in Mapleton. He says they only talked once, after a dance, which Nora responds to with confusion. Where are they and what’s going on? Is this like Jack meeting Kate in the afterlife?

Not at all. As we learn by episode’s end, this is just plain old Kevin and plain old Nora, separated by years of resentment and an absence of things to say. It’s a fake-out simply by not being one at all. Lindelof and his writing team — who should really be acknowledged, as it’s clear their guidance and talent is as much a part of The Leftovers’ fabric as its co-creator’s — did the unexpected for a “weird” show. They played it straight.

The Leftovers told us outright that the mystery was unsolvable, and in the finale, made it clear with Nora’s simple story about crossing over. The camera never leaves her face as she tells Kevin that she wandered through the Hades-like other world where her family now lived, stumbled upon them, and realized they didn’t need her. “I was a ghost who had no place there,” she tells him, not sadly, but knowingly.

Unlike the images of Jack & Co. in the afterlife, we see no flashes, no cutaways, no “proof” that this happened. Because it doesn’t matter if it did — what matters is that Nora has accepted what was robbed of her, and made peace with the fact that she’ll never know why. It’s the same message of Lost in fewer words, with the confidence to do what we’re often told not to: to tell instead of show. The series as a whole, but especially here, is an exercise in viewership, and making peace with the fact that things aren’t always how or what we want them to be — television especially.

There are other surface-level comparisons that bring to mind Lost in The Leftovers: a father helping his son along his messiah-like travails, ghosts in the woods, Australia as a main setting, characters driving old VW vans, a major underwater explosion, triumphant scores. But those matter less than where we end up — Lost is about finding faith and The Leftovers is, in a way, about losing it. That dividing line is what gives each show a distinctness, but is also a statement for how Lindelof’s own worldview might have evolved and adapted along the way. Sometimes, the best way to live is to stop demanding answers, and — like Nora — to start living without them.

How The Leftovers’ Series Finale Compares to Lost