(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.
(Note: This isn’t a “review” per se of Episode 1 of The Leftovers, nor is it a summary of what came before. We might do a mini-breakdown every week, but there are people far better at that, and at tying that into the big themes, than I am. This is just random thoughts. There are minor spoilershere, but nothing you wouldn’t know just from getting the general vibe. If you’ve never seen the show, the central driving plot point is not spoiler.)
Season 3 of HBO’s The Leftovers, perhaps the most astonishing and awesome (in the literal sense) show I’ve ever seen, opens with colonial characters we’ve never seen in an unmentioned place, though it seems clear it is Australia (it is colder in August than January; the people look Australian; we know the show is going there eventually). But while you can look for Easter eggs, it doesn’t really matter: what matters is that these strange characters are wrapped up in the same mysteries our main characters are. Roughly: why do some things happen and others don’t?
The wordless cold open shows a family of three, a youngish married couple and their young son, enthusiastically following a preacher who divines through what we, on our couches, snicker at as snake-oil tomfoolery, what day a rapture-like event will occur. The family spends the night excitedly standing on the roof, waiting. They are still there the next morning, which sort of sucks, since they gave away their goat and other possessions. Ah, but the preacher gets another date! And the same thing happens.
The mother still believes, with a desperate yearning, when she gets the next date. The father has taken the son away. She climbs to roof on a cold night, a storm comes in, she looks at the lightning with hope and terror and despair…and climbs down the next night, sodden, broken. Laughed at and scorned. Of course nothing happened. Phonies have spent thousands of years convincing suckers that the end was here. And it never was.
But in the universe of The Leftovers, the End did come, of sorts, and that’s the driving tension. If you’ve never seen it (and again, this isn’t a spoiler), one day 2% of the world’s population suddenly vanishes. They might be eating breakfast or at school or driving a car or on TV. Just bam- gone. The show has resolved to never “solve” the mystery, because that’s beside the point. It is more interested in asking what would happen next?
What happens is much how you would expect. 2% is a perfect number, because the world could go on pretty normally, on the surface. But everything is different. Some religions take this as vindication; others have no idea what it means. Dozens, hundreds, probably thousands of new religions and cults spring up, showing finally that there is no difference between the two. Beauracracy tries to make sense of it, but there is a lingering and miasmatic dread everywhere. Every human interaction is changed. How do you become close when the person might disappear? How do you create bonds in the face of such awful mystery?
Those of you paying attention to life might ask: ok, but don’t we all wonder that? After all, we’re all going to die. We all have that looming and terrible mystery at the back of every interaction. Every meeting carries within it the seeds of tragedy. The law of conservation of matter hints that every cloud carries the memories of someone’s weeping goodbyes.
And that is part of the show, to me (I never want to say “that’s what it’s about”, because it is reductive and makes it a lesson). The show at many times seems like an enveloping manifestation of grief, filtered through terror, humor, and an outlandish sense of possibilities. It’s a far stranger and outright weird show than I am making it seem.
But it isn’t just grief. It isn’t “just” that we’re all going to die one day. If there is a central message of the show to me, it became clear in the first episode of this season, which took an incredible show to dizzying heights. As Allison and I discussed it, we came to realize that it was saying, in a way (or rather reminding us), that we’re all alone in our beliefs. Every single one human being has a different faith, because we all have a different way of looking at the world, even if it is just slightly.
Everyone in The Leftovers went through the same thing, ostensibly, to one degree or the other (some to horrifying ones. Carrie Coon’s Nora turned her back on her husband and two kids to grab something and then they were gone). Everyone is looking for answers or trying hard not to think about it. Everyone has an idea or an answer, but even the people in the same churches or the same cults filter what happened through the veils of their own experience. Everyone is broken in their own way, and removed from each other. No one can really know how the other person is handling this world.
Kevin, the primary character, was tormented by a ghost no one else could see. But aren’t we all?
And that’s sort of the point. None of us experience the world in the same way. We can’t. We’re ultimately all alone. You could be staring at the same sunset with the love of your life, the person with whom you share every experience, inseparable, and you can both be describing your inner monologue, but you can never really know what they are thinking, or how they are thinking, or the way the aching orange blabbers through their brain and tingles the nostalgic memory centers buried somehow in their toes. And you can never really know how they feel about dying.
And that’s ok. There are nearly 7.5 billion people experiencing the terrors and mysteries of the world all alone, but we find each other, and come together. The Leftovers shows the aftermath of these mysteries, but it is just an exaggerated look at what we go through just from being alive. It portrays this loneliness and fright as unmistakeable, instead of sublimated. It rips away the veil. But it leaves open the possibility that people still come together, and that there is still light and happiness and joy even in the face of unspeakable loss, which, really, all loss is.
And to me, love in the face of this is the whole point of life. It’s not how we get by. It’s why we get by. It’s the miracle for which we don’t have to wait.
Anyway, watch it. There’s never been anything like this on TV. It’s singularly great, brilliantly acted, beautifully directed, impossibly rich, often funny, difficult, wrenching, and bizarre.