In the end, there was Nora’s story. The Leftovers concluded its third and final season with the episode “The Book of Nora,” which brought us back to the flash forward we saw of an aged Nora Durst at the end of the season-three premiere. The episode opens in the present timeline with Nora Durst (played by the inimitable Carrie Coon) going into the machine that allegedly sends her to wherever the departed went. The inscrutable physicist Dr. Bekker still doubts that Nora will actually go through with the procedure, which requires her to curl up in the fetal position, naked inside of a bubble, as irradiated liquid fills it, and, presumably, disappears her. We see her do it, and just as the fluid reaches her head, she looks as though she’s about to scream something that sounds like, “Stop!”
The episode ends with Nora’s story of what happened. She’s older now, and she’s telling an equally graying Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) what happened, and why she wasn’t at her brother Matt’s funeral. Nora says she did in fact go through with the procedure, and went to the Other Side, which isn’t floating debris in space or some sort of hellscape, but rather the same world, a parallel world, where they were actually the ones who departed. That is, the 2 percent who disappeared had the inverse experience where 98 percent of the world’s population vanished. Nora looked for her family and understood in that moment that they were the “lucky ones,” because they had only lost her. She watched her family from afar, now with a new mother, and decided in that moment she had to go back home: “I was a ghost who had no place there.”
So Nora found the scientist who first made the machine — the first person to ever go through — to make another one, which is how she came back. “So much time had passed. It was too late,” Nora says. “And I knew that if I told you what happened that you would never believe me.” Kevin replies: “I believe you.” “You do?” Nora asks. “Why wouldn’t I believe you? You’re here.” “I’m here,” she replies, smiling with tears in her eyes.
In some ways, the finale was an unexpected way for The Leftovers to end, answering the central question it didn’t seem like we would ever get an answer to: Where did the departed go? But the explanation came from Nora’s story, and it’s up to us whether we believe her or not. Notice there are no cutaway shots to Nora’s supposed experience back in Earth 2 to confirm what she’s saying — just what she’s telling Kevin. “Let’s say you wrote something that you knew was not true, but then somebody else recites it and they believe it. Does that make it true?” show creator Damon Lindelof said of the ending’s ambiguity, in an interview with Vulture about the making of the finale.
Ultimately, it’s the refusal to definitively answer the question that reinforces one of The Leftovers’ central themes about the nature of faith: Is something true because people believe it? Can something be true if no one else believes it? “We have a unanimous feeling as to which one of those realities is real and we will never, ever say, ‘This is what really happened,’” Lindelof said. “Kevin believes, or says he believes, the story; that’s the whole point of the series. That’s what religion is.”