I didn’t watch the final season of The Leftovers in Damon Lindelof’s preferred weekly format. Rather, I took it in over three nights (blame Sky for not knowing what to do with it), and if I’m completely honest, it wasn’t until the finale that I thought it reached the heights of Season Two. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t still (probably) the best series currently on TV (or was, at any rate), just that by the time of its third run, it had evolved into something familiar, rather than disconcerting. As such, HBO was probably right to call time, as a fourth innings (Lindelof projected it might have had enough juice to go that far, left to its own devices) could have seen a shift towards mild contempt.
The big takeaway is that Lindelof has successfully rehabilitated his reputation after the litany of brickbats coming his way following the Lost finale (3.8: The Book of Nora is the anti-Lost finale) and the unfair maligning he received following Prometheus (blame Ridley if you don’t like it). Whether segueing from that to a redo of Watchmen in series form is wise, well, I’m dubious, but he’s re-earned the benefit of the doubt.
Inevitably, the most discussion has been generated by the season finale, and rightly so, proving as it did satisfying on just about every level (even the aging makeup worked, going for the subtle effect rather than Guy-Pearce-in-Prometheus). But what about the preceding seven episodes? Occasionally, I had a strong sense of déjà vu, such as how the previously oblique, could-have-gone-either-way spiritual journey of Kevin’s dad (in 3.3: Crazy Whitefella Thinking) turns out to be a John Locke-ian descent into hubris and fevered self-delusion (so like pretty much anyone else in the series, to a greater or lesser extent, then).
That isn’t to say the episode isn’t a great watch – Scott Glenn is centre stage; how could it be otherwise? – but that, like much of the season, it felt like Lindelof now knew the furrow he was ploughing so well there was little else left to unearth. Instead he was simply striking a deeper groove, embedding rather than discovering.
Matt: He was a grown man, 36 years old.
Kevin Sr: That makes no fucking sense at all.
Kevin Sr, formerly a mystery figure with, if not answers then a seemingly direct line to someone who has them, is revealed as wearing the emperor’s new clothes, annoyed that it isn’t all about him (“I’m not in it, asshole” is his response to Matt’s The Book of Kevin, since clearly what he is planning is far more important, and he at least has been listening to the voices, watching for the signs, and going wherever his Niagara ’81 tape will lead him).
There’s an inverse The Last Wave quality to the coming apocalypse of his mind (appropriate, since Lindelof has namedropped Peter Weir’s other spiritual horror Picnic at Hanging Rock in respect of the series’ broader, unknowable mystery), of someone so bull-in-a-china-shop with his conviction that he will dance to save the planet, he manages to land on the man he believes is key to fulfilling his quest, killing him.
I particularly loved his response to learning that Isaac was – might have been, although Matt seems pretty certain – 36 years old when Abraham took him up the mountain for sacrifice. And, as incredulous as he is at this – the old man willingly sacrificing his willing adult son – as deranged as it sounds, is exactly what happens in the penultimate episode. Another highlight is his telling Christopher Sunday (David Gulpilil) just how he synchronicitously came to be where he is, the glorious thing about synchronicities being that their meaning is in the eye of the beholder, rather than an untarnished fact. Lindsay Duncan also gives a particularly fine performance as Grace, his partner on a confused quest for meaning and validation.
Kevin: What you’re thinking is happening, isn’t. It’s all in your head, man. It’s not real.
While the opening scene of 3.1: The Book of Kevin sets out the thematic store of blind faith (or hope) with the shifting goal posts of apocalyptic Second Coming Millerite-types in 1844 (particularly redolent currently of 2012 prophecies resorting to spiritual rather than physical earth changes as an explanation for nothing very much happening and recalibrating the dates for these changes by a few years; either that or for the overthrow of the ruling elite – or one of them – being always just around the corner), and follows it with a very hands-off modern take on Waco (a drone strike takes out the Guilty Remnant), complete with government cover-up, so the targets are on both sides of the fence.
Laurie, the rationalist, has persuaded herself it’s completely appropriate to “scam” seekers – not taking money is neither here nor there, worse even, since it makes it seem as if she and John consider the deception morally justified (nevertheless, Lindelof seems to be setting her up as some kind of bastion of responsibility and sacred oaths in keeping Nora’s presence from Kevin for 15-20 years, as if she actually has a leg to stand on). But it hides that she is contemplating suicide. Dean, meanwhile, has completely lost it, which is a bit of a shame in as much as he’s used for little more than a few fireworks when he was one of the cryptic backbones of the first season (there’s a crash-and-burn quality to some of Lindelof’s decisions).
Nora: If we can’t have a sense of humour about you being the messiah, we’re going to have a problem.
Matt registers shades of Kevin Sr’s Locke complex, but at least he isn’t a convert, and his journey is more one of humanising, of being brought gradually to the point of expressing the flaws in his thinking. It’s also, surprisingly perhaps, one of the more amusing journeys of the season, despite the pathos of his final scene with Laurie, and the recurrence of his cancer. But where Kevin Sr is undone by self-glorification, Matt is set on anointing another, John the Baptist-style, be it covering up the death of the man in the tower so as to suggest a departure (an illusion Nora takes vindictive glee in puncturing) or pronouncing Kevin the new messiah.
Matt: I’m sorry to bother you, but are you telling people you’re God?
3.5: It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World might be the most fully-formed episode of the season after the last, despite being a chance for HBO, on face value, to reap their T&A quota for the season. Kevin meets someone alleging he is God (Bill Camp’s David Burton, who was lurking around in Kevin’s afterlife in the last season and will pop up again there in this, where he alleges stating he is God is merely a chat up line).
It’s a return to his Season One rectitude that Matt is so impassioned, he feels he needs to take down a faker (“We need to compel him to confess to what he did!”) And yet, beneath this, beneath the justice served on a murderer, he still wants answers from him, still lacks certainty in any respect (Matt: The sudden departure? Burton: Yeah, that was me. Matt: Why? Burton: Because I could”), still wants a cure, even if any chance of it being real is resoundingly shredded when Burton gets mauled by a lion (“That’s the guy I was telling you about” being one of the best lines of the season).
That leaves the Kevin and Nora episodes, for the most part the bookends of 1 & 2 and 7 & 8. As entirely engrossing as Justin Theroux’s and (particularly) Carrie Coon’s performances are, I didn’t find a whole lot new to dig into in the early stages of the season. We’d seen similar things before with them, of Kevin not coping and making dangerous detours (the whole “Is it Evie?” plot thread is particularly weak, with her being revealed as someone entirely different especially so), Nora following up leads that might, hope-against-hope, prove a means to contact her departed kids, even though she’s on the surface level intent on disproving their “carrot stick”.
There are some fine, alleviating moments in there (“Why didn’t you just give me half?” asks Kevin after she smuggles $20k through customs, the limit being $10k per person, to the reason Kevin is letting her take the trip to the other side alone: they’re in a “toxic co-dependent relationship and we both realise we’re better off apart than together”). And 3.7’s “I’ll burn you up good” on their preferred means of their mortal remains being disposed of). But there’s a strong whiff of a holding pattern, as if Lindelof is teasing the story to get to a certain point. And that’s true with the minimal future flash too, that the season feels very linear, shorn of the kind of tricks and rug-pulling that had hitherto largely defined it (and notably, which return with the all-round acclaimed finale).
Christopher Sunday: There’s no song to stop the rain.
Which brings me to 3.7: The Most Powerful Man in the World (and his Identical Twin Brother). On one level, I found it hugely enjoyable, almost as much as its direct predecessor from the previous season (although it couldn’t possibly be). But that’s the problem too. It’s indulgent fan service, a sequel that feels a little beneath such a supposedly high-minded show, whatever Lindelof’s protestations about feeling he needed to justify it in and of itself. It’s Star Trek: The Next Generation returning to the holodeck too many times, or Deep Space Nine over-exploring the mirror universe.
Thematically, it makes sense, and it’s a nice touch that nothing Kevin tries to do for others works out (“Then why are you here?”) but that still results from giving Kevin a bag more of inessential problems he hadn’t resolved for the season. There are some ingenious devices (using mirror surfaces to jump between Kevins) and crude ones (his massive shlong), but bringing back Patty, magnificent as Ann Dowd always is, is an example of talking oneself into a manoeuvre that should have been let to lie (“Because I owed you”). Still, I very much liked the ending, which managed to homage both Vanilla Sky (using the Beach Boys) and Fight Club (nuclear fireworks instead of rigged detonations).
Kevin: I believe you.
Nora: You do?
Kevin: Why wouldn’t I believe you? You’re here.
Nora: I’m here.
Mostly, I really like that the show ended on an affirmative (“People hold candles, Nora”), that for Kevin and Nora, as Lindelof puts it, “their love story is representative of the search for human connection”. Of Collateral Beauty, I complained that Allan Loeb turned its lead’s awaking emotional connection into a plot twist on the level of “I see dead people”, so it’s a testament to the writing and performances here that, despite the main topic of conversation in its wake being “Did she/didn’t she cross over?”, the two of them being together at the end, only fifteen years later, is the chief rewards point, that Kevin has no qualms about believing Nora’s story, to her astonishment, because if that’s what he needs to say to be with her that’s what he’ll say (and honestly, it isn’t that much of a leap after what he’s been through).
Nora: And that’s when I understood. Over here, we lost some of them. But over there, they lost all of us.
Lindelof tells how, in the pilot, he had the idea that Peter Berg shoot a departure so that not only did the baby disappear, but we also saw the mom in the front of the car disappear from the baby’s POV. Berg was probably too busy planning out his next piece of jingoistic nonsense to take Lindelof up on the idea, but you can see how it has followed through in The Book of Nora. He also felt that, given his anecdote of the boos that greeted Picnic at Hanging Rock at Cannes, the show had a responsibility to tell, but not to prove, to give an option that might or might not be the case while being of the view that it’s “critical that you question it”.
Suicidal Man: Would you kill a baby, if it would cure cancer?
Kevin Sr: No.
Suicidal Man: That’s exactly what I said.
For my part, I tend towards Nora having made her fantastic voyage up. Whether that’s because she couldn’t bring herself to go or it was all a scam, I don’t have a strong opinion, but Lindelof clearly put in the “kill a baby” conundrum having no correct answer (the man Kevin Sr meets says he wouldn’t, Nora says she would, and they both get rejected) to foreshadow the possibility of the latter, even if one of the doctors’ nihilistic attitude (she doesn’t like the odds of survival saying it’s “more likely that 140 million corpses are floating about in space somewhere”) suggests the counterview.
You might wonder where all the previous clients are, if Nora got duped, but since they travel around and get Mark Linn-Baker to do their go-betweening, it would probably be fairly easy to keep ahead of disgruntled ex-clients who wake up in the desert with their stomachs pumped.
Mainly, her story is just too awfully NEAT to buy, from not being able even to bring herself to talk to her kids, to, particularly, tracking down the scientist who designed the process and persuading him to build a machine on the other side that sends her back (has she been watching Back to the Future Part II?)
This is Nora, after all, who has taken on the mantle of self-appointed scape goat, and listened to a nun pointedly telling her “It’s a nicer story” in response to being scoffed at for her explanation of why Nora’s doves didn’t return (that they were off delivering messages of love). Nora has picked a nicer story, and her only surprise is that Kevin didn’t want to demolish it like she did every barefaced lie she came into contact with.
Apart from that, the general disorientating tone of the episode, suggesting all manner of possibilities – she’s living on the other side, The Quiet Earth-style, Kevin is an alt-world Kevin – his twin even – which is why he doesn’t remember their relationship – only to fall back on this being real, on not offering any eleventh-hour revelations, suggests Nora’s disappearance leads back to a more mundane explanation. Theroux and Lindelof concurred that “It doesn’t matter” whether Nora went or not; I’d suggest it does if it ever becomes a sticking point between Kevin and Nora in the future, but thankfully we’re left at a point of happily ever after.
What’s curious about the final run is how it much it retreats following the end of Season Two’s more unquestionably impossible final feats (“I shot you in the chest point blank, and you got up”), offering them up as remembrances, but now almost immaterial. Even killing Kevin again isn’t performed with the permanence that suggests it’s any more than an explicable hallucination (as for whether Kevin had a destiny, I’m not sure I ever bought into that especially, mainly because Patty was haranguing him so, but also because I could quite believe that any number of people were experiencing similar uncanniness in parallel).
It’s as if Lindelof became uneasy about his instinctive desire to push in a Lost-esque direction, checking himself before it was too late, but along the way lost a little of the creative delirium that fuelled the second run. Don’t get me wrong, Season Three is first-rate television, and you couldn’t wish for a better send-off instalment – it certainly isn’t a weak retread like Return of the Jedi to Two’s The Empire Strikes Back – but until that ending, its showrunner was perhaps playing it all a little safe.