The Leftovers ended a year ago last week and its final episode is my favourite episode of television of all time. It’s an antidote to despair, a lit match in a darkening world, a chance for hope and healing and the possibility that, in the end, however trite it sounds, love might just conquer all.
But what I found most moving was the way that The Leftovers, which like many “quality” American television dramas is mostly about a middle aged heterosexual white man in crisis, relinquishes male subjectivity in its final episode. Writers Damon Lindelof, Tom Spezialy and Tom Perrotta and director Mimi Leder permitted a woman to be at the centre of the story in the form of Nora Durst, played by the astonishing Carrie Coon.
While there are full episodes devoted to other characters, The Leftovers remains largely focused on Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) as a male leader literally left behind in this disordered new world. The show begins four years after 2% of the world’s population suddenly vanishes or “departs”. Kevin is losing his grip on reality after losing his wife to the clutches of the local cult and his father to a mental institution. He can’t connect to his disaffected teenage daughter, her scantily clad friend hangs around their perfect suburban home like the ghost of Mena Suvari in American Beauty and he’s struggling to succeed his disgraced father as the new police chief. So far so Sopranos, Mad Men, Six Feet Under and any number of award winning series that portray the alienation of traditional masculinity in the modern world. He’s no diabolically evil Walter White but he kidnaps and beats cult leader Patty Levin (Ann Dowd) and seems primed to join the angsty antihero hall of fame.
As The Leftovers continues it moves towards grander theological themes and Kevin isn’t merely struggling with his responsibility as a male authority figure, now he’s potentially a literal messiah. At the end of the second season he dies twice, finds himself in a purgatory-like state and is resurrected. In the third and final season’s opening episode, The Book of Kevin, he sports a beard and rides through the town on a horse like Jesus meets a Texan gunslinger, the pinnacle of American masculinity. Reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) is even writing a gospel about him. It’s the midlife crisis elevated to a cosmic level. In the penultimate episode, The Most Powerful Man in the World (And His Identical Twin Brother) Kevin is “killed” and resurrected once again to prevent an incoming Biblical catastrophe.”What now?” his father asks him. The middle aged, heterosexual white male messiah, The Most Powerful Man in the World, has saved the world he presided over and remains disillusioned. While the The Leftovers could have easily ended with Kevin continuing to ponder his place in the universe it unexpectedly shifts subjectivity away from him and towards Nora Durst.
Nora, who lost her husband and two children to the departure, might ostensibly be Kevin’s love interest but is a deeply complex and unpredictable character. Grief personified as a sharp woman burdened with unresolved love and guilt, she was always a crucial part of The Leftovers’ identity and unusual as an often unlikeable female character. However, while she certainly never existed solely to soothe Kevin’s existential mangst she is moved aside to accommodate his centre stage story. That is, until the final episode, The Book of Nora. She deserves a gospel just as much as Kevin.
Nora stares straight into the camera. She’s about to let a group of physicists annihilate her in a strange machine in the hope that it will send her to wherever her departed family went. She blankly tells us her name, that she is of sound mind and is acting of her own free will. “I don’t believe you”, says the physicist. She makes her statement again, this time naming her departed children. The mask of stoicism slips and her voice trembles with emotion. Not only is this Nora’s story now, but the act of her telling her own story truthfully is crucial to the final minutes of The Leftovers.
After Nora seemingly “goes through” the machine we cut abruptly to a sequence first glimpsed at the end of The Book of Kevin, where a much older Nora now calling herself Sarah delivers cages of homing doves. And so, extraordinarily for a show with a typically troubled male lead, the final hour of The Leftovers rests upon the grand yet intimate questions of what did Nora experience in the machine and does she have any hope of finding some kind of peace by revealing it.
Director Mimi Leder never leaves Nora’s side, allowing us intimate access to her solitary new life which is suddenly shaken by an older Kevin appearing on her doorstep. He acts as if their tumultuous romantic relationship never happened, that they only met once and that he just happened to bump into her on vacation in Australia. He invites her to a wedding reception on false pretences and Nora can’t tolerate any of the lies. “I can’t do this, she says, in tears, “Because it’s not true”. Later she’s disproportionately angry when a nun blatantly lies to her about the man she has just seen sneaking out of the nun’s bedroom window. She’s getting closer to abandoning her false identity and telling us her story.
Reminiscent of Kevin’s symbolic encounters with feral dogs and a stag, Nora is given a similarly profound, more explicitly Biblical experience. She must struggle up a hillside in the driving rain to free a goat from a tangle of bead necklaces and a wire fence, symbolising the entrapment of mankind’s collective sin. Kevin then returns to her house and finally confesses. Of course he remembers everything that happened between them and he’s been coming to Australia for years to look for her. And while Kevin shedding the dishonesty and exposing his vulnerability is a powerful moment it’s not really his story anymore. It’s time for Nora to write her own gospel.
In the final minutes of the series we hear what happened to Nora and its the closest we’ll get to a big reveal. The mystery at the heart of the series, the fate of the departed, is semi-solved. Nora tells Kevin her story of finding a parallel world through the physicists’ machine, a world in which 98% of the population has departed and the missing 2% were in fact the leftovers. After seeing her children safe and happy she realises that she is in fact the lost soul and she returns to ‘reality’.
The surreal experience she describes isn’t visualised, merely vocalised, but it’s reminiscent of Kevin’s dreamlike purgatory visits. A number of (unsurprisingly) mostly male viewers insist that Nora must have been lying to Kevin yet his equally surreal misadventures aren’t questioned to the same degree (hello, Reddit). In my view it’s not just cynicism and a bizarre devotion to what’s ‘possible’ (“how could a society with only 2% of the world’s population function?”) within a drama that is fundamentally constructed around the impossible but a refusal to let a woman be that important to The Leftovers’ complex mythology. “I knew if I told you what happened that you would never believe me”, she says. “I believe you”, he replies. Faith is one of the series most crucial themes and in these last moments Nora reaches out to Kevin and the audience and asks us both to trust her. “Why wouldn’t I believe you? You’re here” he says. “I’m here”, she repeats, tears flowing as she smiles. In this final scene we see these two broken people returning to each other but we also see a woman rediscovering her identity because we listened and because we believed in her.
At the beginning of The Book of Nora Nora says her heartbreaking goodbye to her brother Matt and recalls that as children he called her “the bravest girl on Earth”. Now she has a title to rival Kevin, The Most Powerful Man in the World. At last, it isn’t just men who get to have profound existential experiences that define a quality television series. In its final episode The Leftovers subverts the once transgressive now tedious dark male antihero formula by showing us that the simple act of a woman telling us her story can be the most powerful act in the world.