One of the many songs featured during the opening credits for the Leftovers is Iris Dement’s “Let the Mystery Be.” For the last few seasons, it’s been a warning, a taunt, and a not very subtle foreshadowing. The central mystery of the Leftovers is The Departure, a day seven years ago when 140,000,000, two percent of the world’s people suddenly vanished from the Earth. The aftermath is messy—survivors try to figure out why they weren’t taken, why the people they loved were; cults, including the Guilty Remnant, form. Everyone thinks they know the answer—and no one does.
Producer Damon Lindelof’s last big show, Lost, also had a central mystery—what is the Island, where is it, and why is it so special? But after six convoluted, sometimes thrilling, often maddening, and pretty much totally nonsensical seasons, the answer was….it was maybe a conduit for time travel where good battled evil in the form of smoke monster who took the form of Titus Welliver and the survivors were really in a happy nondenominational church somewhere in Purgatory?
It was fucking bullshit, that’s what it was. Lindelof’s gravestone was going to read “Guy Who Fucked Us Over With Lost,” unless he made something like the Leftovers.
Shockingly, he succeeded. Lindelof and co-writer/producer, Tom Perotta whose book the series is based on, managed to have a show with a central, unexplainable mystery, numerous supernatural events, many of which were not believable, possible, or grounded in any sort of reality, and managed to make something with emotional resonance, a finale that has closure and a quiet poignancy that you wouldn’t have expected from the first season, which was dominated by people dressed in white clothing chain smoking and angrily scribbling on notepads while Kevin hallucinated feral dogs killing people in the dead of night.
So, does the Leftovers “let the mystery be?” Yes, and no. The third and final season has a new storyline—on the seventh anniversary of the Departure, a Great Flood is supposed to come, and perhaps wipe everyone out. The motley crew of central characters, Nora, Kevin, Laurie, Michael, Matt, are (mostly) all convinced that Kevin is a second coming of Jesus—since he’s died and risen from the dead a few times—Matt’s even written a faux new New Testament. Through a series of events they all end up in Australia for the week of the seventh anniversary, but in the penultimate episode, which Kevin sacrifices himself and goes the other side (where he is a member of the Guilty Remnant, and president or, alternately, an assassin, assigned to kill himself), he emerged from death in the real world, a flood-soaked Outback, and everyone, including him and his father are very much alive. The world did not end.
A few mysteries that might have gone unsolved—did Laurie kill herself when she went scuba diving the day before the anniversary?—are answered. She is alive. She’s still Nora’s therapist, years later after taking a dollar from her before Nora went to the radiation machine. I am not sure how I feel about that choice—on the one hand, the ambiguity of the last scene with Laurie was haunting and beautiful—on the other hand, her killing herself didn’t make sense to me. On the other hand, knowing what happened to her is a bit too tidy (and playing too much to a happy ending). On the other other hand, I am glad she’s still with us.
Nora is also still alive, and the mystery about whether or not the radiation machine designed by the Swedish scientists (or Finnish or Swiss, I don't fucking know) worked, is answered—if you believe her heartbreaking story. For a while, you don’t quite know. The scene where she climbs naked into a glass bowl that fills up with a clear liquid—she will have to hold her breath for 30 seconds while she is zapped—leaves you wondering if she goes through with it. For just a second, it looks like she’s about to gasp, “stop!” but the camera cuts off just before we hear or see her say anything.
But, she tells Kevin that she “went through.” It’s not clear how many years have passed—15? 20?; Carrie Coons and Justin Theroux are Hollywood actors with no body fat in their late 30s and early 40s aged to look “old” so they look about 45. (I have one minor quibble with one very superficial choice—the stylist who gave Coons her terrible haircut this season should be forced to wear the same haircut for five years as punishment).
But Kevin has found her in Australia, where she keeps doves and rides a bicycle in the fields and lives alone. He tracked her down to the nunnery where she delivers her doves, and the nun tells Nora about Kevin. Nora is frantic, and packs to run away when there’s a knock. There he is, Justin Theroux, absurdly handsome and dashing, brandishing a bizarre, aw-shucks demeanor and accent (I half expect him to say, “How you doin’, little lady,”), and acting like Nora and Kevin’s history started and stopped in the hallway at the school dance. Nora (like the rest of us) feels insane. Is Kevin crazy? Is he playing her? Has he had a lobotomy? Did any of the first three seasons even happen? Does he not really remember their long, sordid history, the years they spent together, the terrible fight they had in the hotel room, featuring the best use of an A-HA song since forever?
He invites her to a dance that night—and she shuts the door in his face and starts to smoke. But, Nora can’t let the mystery be. She runs to dance—which turns out to be a wedding—and they have yet another absurd encounter. “How long are you going to keep this up?” It ends in tears—Nora can’t take the unreality, the fake Kevin, the one who never had psychotic episodes and had to be chained to the bed to keep him from sleepwalking and doing terrible things, she can’t believe the one who never left her, and she leaves, panicking in the dark.
Lost, like the Leftovers, reveled in the surreal, but whereas Lost had one foot in a logical world (how are we are going to prove the properties of the Island with science? How can we map the location? What is the reason people are fighting for the stupid fucking Island?), the Leftovers just doesn’t give a fuck. It goes all in on the surreal and the spiritual—people see each other through the TV; they drink poison and rise again; they capture birds, bury them, and the birds disappear from the box; they find a sacrificial goat tied to a tree by necklaces and rescue it. And the Leftovers is all the better for going all in on the weirdness.
That’s how we have Nora climbing a muddy hill to save a goat that was supposed to be sacrificed. That how we have the love doves disappearing and not returning to their cage until just the right moment; that's how we have Kevin show up at the door and admit it was all an act. That how Nora describes “going through” where there is a parallel universe with those who Departed. They are living in an alternate universe where they are the only survivors; there’s very little infrastructure and entire towns are abandoned. That how we are able to believe that not only did she go through, but she traveled by boat from Australia to New York to find her family, and that when she found them, she didn’t say hello, that instead, she found the scientist who invented the radiation machine to invent a new one so she could come back. (I found myself thinking of Jack on Lost, at the end of Season 3, when Lost should have ended in the parking lot of LAX, shouting to Kate, “We have to go back!”)
So, the central mystery—the Departure—is partially answered. If we believe Nora, they are still alive, in another universe. But, the why?, the how? is not answered. And that’s OK.
The episode, which featured love song after love song (Billie Holiday, “The Man I Love”; Otis Redding, “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember”; the show has been using music to fantastic advantage throughout the series, but especially this season)—seemed to have one song missing from its extensive soundtrack, after all: “All You Need Is Love.”