‘The Leftovers’ Series Finale Review: They Had to Go Back

Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Book of Nora,” the series finale of HBO’s “The Leftovers.” For a post-finale interview with executive producer and showrunner Damon Lindelof, go here. For all of Variety’s coverage of “The Leftovers,” go here

“I’m here.”

One moment from the series finale of “Lost” packed so much power that it nearly threw me across the room. Sawyer and Juliet encountered each other in front of a vending machine, and suddenly they remembered each other, and the great love and potent chemistry they shared exploded between them.

The best and most famous episode of “Lost” is “The Constant,” which is about different man and woman separated by time and space and dimensions, but who promise to find each other, one day. They won’t give up, no matter what.

What if you took those kinds of moments and made an episode of television that was 72 minutes long, one that was the capstone to an exceptional saga? What if that episode provided a moving, heart-wrenching, sincere and romantic coda to a story about of redemption, loss, separation, sin, connection and the kind of love that cannot be denied or eradicated — i.e., the themes that Damon Lindelof has always been fascinated by? You would get “The Book of Nora,” which is easily one of the greatest TV finales of all time. 

Many people worked on “The Leftovers,” of course. The show’s writers outdid themselves again this season. The drama’s directors, especially executive producer Mimi Leder, who helmed the series finale, imbued its wild poetry with endless amounts of compassion, craft and insight. Hundreds of crew members made every set and location and costume look exactly right, and the music and soundtrack were always beyond perfect. Of course, every member of the cast knocked it out of the park, every chance they got. The credited writers of the series finale are executive producers Tom Spezialy, Tom Perrotta (who wrote the book the whole thing is based on), and Lindelof, and all of them deserve to attend many Australian parties (or weddings). To all the people who gave us the Tasmanian sex boat and the Wu-Tang trampoline and the dick jokes and the Assassin Realm and the wide Australian skies: I salute you.

But this finale was just so damn Lindelofian — the pure, crack-y, magical version of that. Shorn of the need to service a mythology, “The Leftovers” entered the land of myth, and yet it stayed grounded in the messiness of specific human beings and transmitted an impish sense of humor. It evoked, in every way that matters, a bittersweet and lovely mixture of pain and wonder. It’s hard to wrap up any TV program, and it’s incomparably harder to do so with one of that series’ best episodes. The list of shows that have done that is short, and “The Leftovers” surely deserves to be on it. 

Much of the finale, for some reason, visually recalled for me “The Little Prince”: Maybe it was Nora’s leather jacket and all those stars and the earnestness at the core of both stories, which are otherworldly but contain lessons about surviving this broken world. (“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”)

Once again, because “The Leftovers” never asked me to cry, it made me cry. A lot. Very few shows can go to these emotional wells and not give in to the temptation to manipulate viewers in a crass, craven way that smacks of shortcuts and fear and compromise.

None of that happened here. This season was an eight-day — well, eight-episode — wonder. And to cap it off, there wasn’t a false note in “The Book of Nora.” The drama could be sludgy and too often wallowed in self-pity when it started, but it evolved so weirdly and wonderfully, and there was so much lightness in the series finale. Like its core couple, who had been through so much, it danced.

Every frame exuded truth — in pursuit of a story that may have been false. But honestly, when those pigeons landed, did you care? No, you did not. If you have a pulse, the final Kevin-Nora scene — and the return of the pigeons — slayed you.

But is it true?

Did Nora really enter an alternate dimension, track down her family, come back, and settle down in the middle of nowhere in Australia?

Well, the last part is verifiable: That’s where Kevin found her, living alone and under a fake name. He told her a false story, one designed to erase or at least reduce the enormous amount of turmoil they’d both experienced since they talked in that hallway in Mapleton, New York.

It was a good story, and Kevin almost got Nora to believe it. He knew that, despite her history of giving no quarters to liars, some part of her wanted to believe him. Wouldn’t it be easier? But both the audience and Nora had questions, undoubtedly. 

Maybe Kevin had gotten brain damage on that last trip to the other side. It’s quite possible the experiences of the last decade or two damaged his memory. His episodes of mental illness could have taken a turn; perhaps a survival-driven memory wipe had taken place.

We know from watching this series, and from living this life, that just about anything is possible, and for people in extreme circumstances, the extreme is always plausible. This has always been a story about competing stories, and Kevin’s checked out. Potentially.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter that he was lying. Nora’s story easily bested his compelling tale of heroic persistence (a story in which, as predicted, Kevin became proactive instead of merely reactive). She not only spun a better yarn than he did, she won the three-season competition for the very best story. 

As was the case at the end of the third episode, once again, a woman was sitting at a table in a remote Australian house, next to a wall of windows, sharing a heartbreaking chronicle. And before you ask whether Nora’s account was true, ask yourself this:

Were you there when Jesus rolled away the stone? When Moses saw the burning bush? Did the bush actually burn? Were you there when the Buddha found the bodhi tree and received enlightenment under it? Were you there when sacred laws were handed down, when the prophets and saints and martyrs and holy ones communicated with their gods? Did you see it? Do you know these things happened?

Empires have been founded on what is unseen — ideas and stories that people take on faith.

In churches, in communities, in families, we distill. We boil events and spectacles and tempestuous moments into edited, concentrated versions we can live with and build on. We can’t contain or remember it all, so we choose which parts to emphasize and edit out. And sometimes, as this show has done so deftly, we come up with metaphors for what we feel and need and want.

The best tall tales — the best movies, shows, plays, poems — work when they reach the parts of us that know how distilling and editing and invention work, and we don’t care that they’re not “true,” because the stories align with the deepest truths in our cores. Great art draws on the outlines and foundations and distillations of reality to tell better stories. Stories that can make human beings into epic heroes, villains, angels, devils — more than we are in everyday life. 

This tale had its epic elements — hundreds of millions of people disappearing affects everything. But “The Leftovers” was always about individuals, and in the end, it telescoped down to one person and one question: How does Nora Elizabeth Jamison Durst feel about the truth?

Given that the show and every single person within it contains multitudes — and that’s always been a big part of its point — there’s no one answer to that. The ambiguity here never slides into vagueness; it is nurtured and harvested like a rich, strange crop. I think this older Nora was who she always was, and she changed, because this is a show about multiple selves existing at once

Within this installment, a trio of events helped the enduring, unchanging Nora evolve: The nun, the goat and the bath were the turning points, I think.

The finale was a three-act marvel: There was the moving goodbye between Matt and Nora, and Nora’s entry into the pod; there was Nora’s life in the Australian countryside and her eventual encounter with Kevin; and finally, we got one long sequence at the end, the one in which Kevin and Nora told their stories.

In the middle of the episode, Nora — ever the fraud investigator — felt compelled to confront the nun about betraying her vows. The nun wasn’t having it; after all, even Nora had to realize that living under an assumed name and lying about who she was didn’t give her a strong position to argue from. Nora had to confront the idea that she lies too, and this may have helped her do something she probably really wanted to do anyway: She unbent and forgave Kevin for his enormous fabrication.

The scene with the lost goat proved that Nora was always who she was, and she couldn’t eradicate that core of herself. As much as she’d hidden herself away and tried to be as alone as possible, she still cared about other living creatures. She would go through hell to rescue just one lost, bleating animal.

And before “The Leftovers” ended, there was yet another immersion, in a show that is extremely fond of baptisms of all kinds (as well as ladders and Significant Animals). Nora’s bath was meant to calm her down, but trapping herself in that space (a larger version of the clear, round pod from before) was scary. What if she couldn’t beat down the door? What if she was alone in her self-imposed exile forever?

So do these moments — giving in to who she was and relenting about the constant pursuit of the truth, realizing she needs others more than she had been willing to admit — mean that she’d changed so much that she’d be willing to lie to Kevin? It’s absolutely valid to say, “It doesn’t matter,” but I will come down on one side or the other regarding her story (more on that in a moment).

Within the context of the “Leftovers” universe, or ours, there’s reason to support the view that the truth of her story doesn’t matter. Whatever happened to Nora — whether her journey to be with her children was real or metaphorical — that experience allowed her to come back to this house, to this place. It allowed her to survive and re-establish her connection with Kevin. Even if it only happened in her mind — even if she believes it’s true, but that truth is based on a fantasy, a dream or a hallucination — she still experienced a transformation. Something certainly happened to her.

Kevin knows all about that: The kind of experience that feels like a dream, but the realest dream you’ve ever had, one that helps you work through some deep issues in your life. Let’s face it, when it comes to outrageous-sounding tales full of allusions and prophetic events and dream-like truths containing fantastical twists — none of which can be proven — well, Kevin would be the first person to understand an experience like that.

(And since we’re talking about Kevin, how fabulous was Justin Theroux in this? Kevin had to tenderly lie, to try to keep a lid on his emotions in several scenes, and later go through an array of reactions to Nora’s incredible tale. Every single note of Theroux’s performance was heart-wrenching in its subtlety, honesty and compassion. And when Kevin spotted Nora at the dance — sorry, a wedding — my heart just about burst.)

I think Nora went to that other place. If anyone could travel between dimensions and perform supreme feats of endurance, it’s the bravest girl on Earth.

I may have one or two doubts, as every true believer does. One question that sticks with me — well, almost every frame of this incandescent series finale will stick with me  revolves around what Nora did when she saw her family. Or rather, what she didn’t do.

Having endured so much pain, so much grief and so many tribulations to find them in that alternate realm, how could she resist running up to her children and throwing her arms around their necks? How could she refrain from allowing herself to feel the warmth and weight of their bodies again? Of course, logic indicates that they’d barely remember her by that point, and she would have probably scared them by throwing herself at them, or even just introducing herself to them calmly. But logic doesn’t make you climb inside a clear ball and travel to an alternate dimension.

That’s where my doubt enters: Who has that kind of heroic self-control? Well, Nora, possibly. Simply seeing her kids, and knowing they were OK and even happy, was enough for her. That’s all we’re supposed to want for those we love — contentment, safety, a future. They had those things, and, sated by that knowledge, the brave, smart, generous Nora could give them the gift of not upsetting their lives in that fragile, strange world. 

She came back, but she was still alive. What to do about that? She hid in the past.

Think about it: She didn’t own a phone. She traveled by bike. No one really used phones much in the finale; there was barely any technology to be seen. The music — Billie Holiday, Otis Redding — recalled the past. There were muddy farms and a low-tech wedding and fields of flowers that looked as though they came straight from the 1939 film version of “The Wizard of Oz.” After everything she’d been through, Nora ended up hiding out in a Frank Capra movie (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” but with lions and goats and assassins, oh my.) 

Of course. After all the beautiful experiments, surreal moments and wild events, “The Leftovers” went classic. A two-hander, a man and a woman, conversations, dancing, the truth. And if you weren’t wrecked by that final scene, I just don’t even know.   

I didn’t know who Carrie Coon was before the arrival of “The Leftovers.” But kudos to the show’s creative team for realizing that she was not only capable of elevating the scenes she was in, but that she could carry the series — all its weight, all its emotions, every turbulent and questioning theme. 

Of course, the entire show’s cast has been peerless and all of the core actors who received showcases this season — Coon, Christopher Eccleston, Amy Brenneman, and of course Justin Theroux should be locks for all kinds of awards nominations. As very specific and fascinating human beings, each character — and each performance  was enthralling.

But Coon is doing Hall of Fame work in a Hall of Fame season. Not surprisingly, director Mimi Leder’s camera focused on her face like a miner who’d struck a thick seam of gold. As Nora, Coon’s face is a weapon and a gift and a vessel of wonder. As many times as I watched this finale (and I re-watched some scenes about nine times), I never get tired of watching Nora react to things, and think about things, and pedal that bike for all she’s worth.

In “The Book of Nora,” we first heard Nora’s determined voice. The camera never left her face as she recorded the video that would help document her voluntary Departure (and the fact that one of the scientists never believes Nora is a small but very effective running joke). In that scene: Nervousness, resolution, resentment, anger, flickers of grief. No cuts. Coon made all of those transitions on camera, with the precise grace a figure skater doing a quadruple jump like it was nothing.

The scene between Christopher Eccleston and Carrie Coon was spectacular, all the more so for being so low-key and warm and achingly real. They felt like real siblings. The Matt Libs were terrific, and this is something I never would have thought I’d say back in season one: Matt, you really were a great gekko.

And then. Every single part of that almost silent, strange scene in which Nora entered the machine should be taught in film school: How to establish mood and tone with barely a word being spoken.

The woman who’d lost her children returned to a womb of sorts, to be covered in fluid, to find a refuge from the pain and brokenness of her life. Leder’s angles accentuated the strangeness of the moment, the sci-fi allegory of it all, and yet it felt intimate and oddly peaceful too.

Undergirding it all was tension — we knew an older Nora lived in Australia years after this event. Did she back out of the interdimensional trip? It sure looked as though she may have, right at the end, when her mouth may have been forming a word starting with “s” “Stop”? But she did go over to the other side? I think she did. But I could be wrong. (And it doesn’t matter.) 

It’s hard to overcome the urge to celebrate screenshots of almost every frame of this finale. There were the gliding, lyrical views of the Australian countryside, the shaky camera in the scene in which Nora almost fled, the warm romanticism of the wedding, and of course, having proven herself a master of these things, Leder shot the key monologues with an incredible fidelity to emotional truth. Kevin, outside Nora’s little house, shaking with vulnerability and fear as he told the truth about his search. Nora, at the table inside, traveling into her memories, re-living all of it, quietly at peace with her pain and relief.

This was true resolution. She was finally ready to trust the most dangerous thing of all: Hope. 

We live in times in which people choose their truths, so, as you might, I get a prickly, uncomfortable feeling when someone says “The truth doesn’t matter.” There is, as we have seen on this show and in the world, a really scary downside to picking the story you believe in and sticking with it no matter what happens in reality. Not having a basic reality we all agree on, not having basic parameters for the truth, has begun to seem terrifying on a daily basis. So why would I believe that what Nora and Kevin have done — picked a set of truths and decided to believe them — is a good thing?

Because outcomes matter. Intention matters, but results matter more.

A truth that hurts no one else, and allows a damaged person to survive unimaginably painful circumstances, is very different from a manipulated “truth” that encourages people to hurt and demean themselves and others. There are stories that prompt cruelty and revel in cynicism and selfishness. There are stories that do much, much better than that. Even stories that are full of darkness, like many of the tales in “The Leftovers,” can help us discover and believe in grace. 

“The Leftovers” has always tried to understand how stories work, and it wants us to do that too.

Without being didactic or moralistic, this sincere, risk-taking, funny, silly, humane, deeply caring drama wants us to think about what stories we tell each other. When we tell ourselves tales about what we’ve accomplished, who we’ve hurt, who we’ve helped and what we’re trying to achieve, are we looking at all the layers of self-justification, self-pity, enthusiasm, kindness, resentment and imagination and that go into those stories? Do we look at who we damage as we try to edit out the embarrassing details and the unflattering angles? When we distill and condense, are we mindful about staying open to possibility, and do we remember kindness? Do we stay curious about other people’s stories and their dreams and nightmares? Do we forget to throw in a half a cup of compassion when we mix up a new batch of whatever we call the truth?

Kevin believes Nora not because he wants to start a new religion or use her story to start an inter-dimensional war. He believes her because he loves who she is and how she got to be this person. He loves the person she was before this moment, and the person she is now, and everything in between (no matter where that in-between took place). His belief consisted of loving acceptance and a leap of faith, all at once.

If Nora had to be creative to survive everything she’s been through, that makes sense, given that there’s no roadmap to survive the loss of one’s entire family. When there are no rules, when there is no proof and no sure comfort, what is left? What’s true?

Holding hands.

A long time ago, in that tattoo shop, Nora didn’t know the Wu-Tang symbol; she thought it might be a phoenix.

Maybe it was.

Maybe those pigeons were phoenixes, all of them reborn souls, coming home again, finally at rest.

 

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