(This post actually covers what happened in the episode, and presupposes knowledge of the show. It has spoilers.)
“So,” Allison asked, turning to me with tear-blurred eyes as the last sweet gasp of The Leftovers faded away, “was all this just a way of telling us to be thankful for what we have?”
Before the finale, it might have seemed like an absurd question. This was a bizarre and at time operatically-bleak show about loss and grief, about how what you love can be taken away at any moment due to sickness or accident, chance or fate, one misstep or maybe some kind of supernatural event like, in the show, 2% of the world’s population disappearing all at once. Indeed, I titled my review of the opener (also in the words of Allison) “You’re Alone In Your Beliefs.”
The show was about (inasmuch as it could be reduced) somehow trying to find meaning in the face of that. Some people tried to find religion, or more likely start their own. Some entered doomed relationships where pain was the only thing that worked. Some joined cults, so threw themselves deeper into sex and nihilism. But everyone was broken by that universal truth: we’re all going to die. As Woland said in The Master and Margarita, the problem isn’t that man is mortal. It’s that he’s so often unexpectedly mortal.
How do we live with that? How do we trudge on? How do we find solace? It’s a question this remarkable TV show, one of the most astonishing I have ever seen, dared to ask but didn’t presume to answer. It didn’t care to solve its mysteries. And that turned out to be the answer the whole time.
(Much more below the jump)
Let The Mystery Be
The first hint that we might have an optimistic ending was when the opening credits used the Season 2 theme song, the buoyant and lovely “Let the Mystery Be”, by Iris Dement. All season, The Leftovers used different opening songs, including the Perfect Strangers theme, which turned out to be oddly poignant. The penultimate episode used the ponderous and terrifying Season 1 song, which was fitting. As absurd an episode as it was, it was Kevin at his most broken.
This, though, brought back Iris. The opening credits are still horrifying, but in less a supernatural way, and more about the nature of death itself. That hole in your life. But it isn’t so much about the leaving, as much as the questions that follow. It plays with our uncertainty, and says at the end, let the mystery be.
That’s something that, obviously, no one in the world of the Departed could do. Understandably so! For one thing, it wouldn’t be a good show if they just had normal lives, occasionally saying “Hey, remember that weird thing from a while ago?” But the point is that it was impossible to forget. It was the weirdest thing that ever happened, and showed that the universe was more terrifying than we could imagine (which, in a way, is what the slowly growing knowledge of mortality is to every human).
The weirdness is what gave the show some of its most enjoyable but devastating spark. Everyone wanted to know the unanswerable question: where did they go? Nora Durst, played by the remarkable Carrie Coon (who created one of the medium’s greatest performances), could never let go. Nora lost her husband and two children, though to be fair she didn’t seem hung up on the husband. Justin Theroux’s abs might do that to anyone.
But the children. She refused to accept that they were dead. They were just missing. Departed. The show, like life, drew its central tension from those who weren’t sure if “dead” and “departed” were different. And when she found scientists who could send her there, she had to find out. She got put into a glass ball, surrounded by liquid, ionized, and: smash cut.
She’s old, in Australia. She has some kind of dove-based job. She’s alone. Kevin finds her. He pretends they barely knew each other. We don’t know if this is a weird alternate reality. But then, a little later, he confesses that he had been looking for her for years, and that he pretended to erase their cruel history together to try to start over.
After his confession, they have tea. She tells him that she really did slip to the other side, and that in that world, 98% of the people disappeared. The other 2% tried to exist in a world where everyone was gone. She found her family, but they were the lucky ones. They had each other. They survived intact. So she somehow made her way back.
A lot of the discussion has been on whether this was “true” or not. Was Nora lying? And if not, what did it reveal about the world of the show? While her story sounds far-fetched, we are in a show where the 2% did disappear. It isn’t a show about crazy people, but a world where the impossible is suddenly chillingly possible. So it could be that there was a glitch in the world and it split into two but the people didn’t replicate. It could be parallel universes crashing together. It could be like Kevin’s underworld, or another version of it. It could be anything. So her story could be true, but it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter because it is all the same thing. Whether 2% vanish or 98%, there are those that survived. Whether her vision is of a different dimension or some kind of weird mirrored hellscape doesn’t matter because both worlds contain the sadness of loss, and every loss in someone’s life is privately unbearable, because there is always that void. Whether she made it up or not doesn’t matter, because at the end, it doesn’t change where they are. They’re in a world where the potential for loss tinges and distorts every human interaction, that between broken non-messiah Kevin and cursed Nora the most.
But when they are together, at the end, they aren’t cursed. Just by Nora telling her story, a veil seems to be lifted. They both recognized that because it doesn’t matter what happens, they can accept the loss that intertwined with life as something to deal with, and not a broken chalice with which to poison themselves.
They recognized that the world was crazy, sure. Maybe Kevin was temporarily immortal, even though he’s not anymore. Maybe there are weird cults and scientists who can send you to another world. Maybe the things we took for granted are gone. But not everything is.
Nora asks if Kevin believes her. He says he does, and she asks why. “You’re here”, he replies. She pauses, smiles, takes his hand. “I’m here.”
That’s all we can ask. We’re in a world that we don’t fully understand. Our atoms are mostly hollow space; our bodies are filled with bacteria we need to survive but which has no idea it exists, much less that a conscious and scared human depends on it somehow. We don’t really understand how consciousness works: how the “I” comes into being from electronic currents. The universe is impossibly vast and endlessly weird and the mechanics that run it are literally alien to our experiences. We age and wither and die. The earth opens beneath our feet. We crash cars into unconcerned mountains. We crash into each other, and never know if our fate tried to make us turn left but we turned right. We don’t know if any passing encounter will be the one that defines our life or the one that ruins it.
But so what? We’re here. We can’t answer the mysteries. We probably won’t ever fully understand our place in the universe, our role in the world, or ourselves as individuals. We are never fully in control of our lives, and certainly not our bodies, the few feet of bones and blood that is the only thing we ever really own. That could be terrifying. That could poison our lives. But it doesn’t have to.
Just as we didn’t need the Sudden Departure to understand that all is fragile, we didn’t need Nora’s story to be true to realize that we can overcome that. We must. The world is still a place where, against all odds, love and joy and weirdness can exist against the terrible mundanity of deliquescence. That The Leftovers let that be its final message is, in and of itself, a miracle. It’s one that I’m glad I could say I was here for.