For as much time as The Leftovers spent on loss and its manifestations, it was very much a show about possession and unity. And though it may have been hard to discern at times, it was also a show about hope. [Spoilers.] Each season ended with the show’s central characters, Kevin and Nora (Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon), reuniting—last night’s series finale included. The message, per Leftovers creator Damon Lindelof, is something like that of The Wizard of Oz: These characters had what they needed all along. To Quartz, Lindelof said that the ending of that movie (and, by extension, his own series) “should be unsatisfying.”
And yet, The Leftovers series finale was a profoundly satisfying experience. It stayed true to the series’s longstanding refusal to explain too much. What turned some people off immediately about this show was its lack of answers—superficial readings decried The Leftovers as weirdness for weirdness’s sake. I like weird, so that was never going to bother me, but I also loved the way The Leftovers used its expository terseness as an empathic device—the show’s unexplained mysteries (starting with the sudden departure, a rapture-like event in which two percent of the world’s population spontaneously vanished, and expanding from there) put its characters on equal ground with its viewers. That made this fantasy truer to life than virtually every other American television show airing right now. Who has all the answers anyway? Not one human, and certainly not The Leftovers. Wisdom, we’ve been told through the ages (even if we have a hard time internalizing it), is about accepting what you don’t know, and The Leftovers was a very wise show.
Its constant interrogation of its characters’ beliefs—virtually all of which were manifestations of their reactions to the sudden departure and attempts to cope with unexplained tragedy—made the show a model of agnosticism. It wasn’t about imposing a dogma, it was about understanding how dogma comes to exist in such varied ways. “Let the mystery be...” went the Iris DeMent song that played over the show’s second season credits and then again, during those of last night’s series finale. That song suggests yet another coping mechanism, this one a little more in touch with the universe’s vastness and unintelligible (at least by the human mind) simultaneity. It’s just another shot in the dark of coping with life, albeit delivered by DeMent with a jubilance that’s mighty persuasive.
Granted, The Leftovers finale did explain a few things after about an hour’s worth of the most disorienting storyline any episode of this show has ever attempted. Nora was back from... wherever she went when she was zapped to the supposed site of the departed. Or maybe it wasn’t Nora—she was using an alias—and Kevin found her, except he didn’t seem to remember anything that had transpired, and then he invited her to a wedding that he had advertised as a dance and, and, and...
It turned out, these two people were Nora and Kevin, both attempting in their own ways to erase the past but concentrating so hard on it that it consumed their present. They finally cut the shit. Kevin admitted his ruse and Nora explained what happened to her: She was beamed to another dimension, as it were, where 98 percent of the population had vanished, rather than the two percent of her prior reality. I imagined a split in a formerly unified timeline—everyone was on Earth together until the sudden departure, when two dimensions branched out: the one we’d been watching for the past three seasons, and another one where the departed were the ones who stayed. For our purposes, only Nora was privy to the latter. Here The Leftovers found yet a new way to be empathic by briefly exploring what the departure meant for those who departed. Nora saw her family together, happy, and realized that in that dimension they were the lucky ones. “In a world of orphans,” their family unit had remained mostly intact (minus her).
Allowing for her to explain this to Kevin, instead of actually showing her personal departure and what the other dimension looked like, allowed The Leftovers to end on a suitably ambiguous note. We—Kevin and the viewers—could only take her word for it. Nora was made nervous by the prospect. Once she realized the other dimension wasn’t the place for her, she had herself beamed back by the scientist who built the departing machine in the first place. Back in the reality she shared with Kevin, she refrained from contacting him because she thought he wouldn’t believe her.
But after Nora told her story, Kevin did believe her, or at least he said he did. “Why wouldn’t I believe you?” he said. “You’re here.”
“I’m here,” said Nora.
Anxiety comes from ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. Kevin and Nora spent almost the entire series anxious (if not flat-out tortured), and the final moments of The Leftovers allowed them for perhaps a fleeting instant to find peace in the present, together. “Love wins” is a phrase that the finale’s director (and executive producer) Mimi Leder used a few times in her interview with TV Guide about the finale. It would seem corny or pat were it not entirely earned. The Leftovers’ dedication to empathy meant that, if by last night’s finale you didn’t love those characters and want to see them at peace, the show had failed you. But judging by the reaction, including the one in my own heart, the show was an immense success.