‘The Leftovers,’ Life, Death, Einstein and Time Travel

The Leftovers
Courtesy of HBO

This post is not the usual kind of fare you see on Variety. But then, “The Leftovers” isn’t a typical show. As we’ve been saying all season (and before), not only has it been a beautifully acted and thoughtful exploration of love, separation and loss, it’s also been surreal, strange, funny and willing to take breathtaking risks. But no matter how wrenching, weird or wry, the HBO drama has always been deeply rooted in the most powerful bonds and the most primal emotions.

On “The Leftovers,” there are a number of coincidences that may not actually be coincidences, which is one reason the three-season evolution of the show has been especially strange and moving for Variety’s chief TV critic, Maureen Ryan. The arc of several characters has contained echoes of her own progress through grief, doubt, death and the kind of mysteries you ultimately have to let be. She shares some thoughts on these matters below — and you don’t need to have seen “The Leftovers” to read this (though it does mention a few tangential details from the show). But like a viewer of the drama, which ends June 4, you have to be ready to settle in for a long, strange trip.

“The Leftovers” is about quantum mechanics.

Don’t let the sex cults and post-death karaoke distract you. It is essentially a showcase for physics.

I recently read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein, and it’s wonderful as a character study of the man and his times, but it also elegantly explains the science of Einstein’s discoveries. Even so, I only grokked about 30 percent of what Isaacson was putting down, science-wise.

But I did understand this (I think): For all intents and purposes, at least as far as an observer is concerned, a subatomic particle might as well exist in more than one place. At certain points, it’s not quite possible to tell where an individual particle is — its location cannot be determined with accuracy. So an observer has to treat it as if it were in multiple places.

There is no fixed point, no particle or phenomenon that exists without affecting something else. Einstein understood this. And yet, until the day he died, there were things he couldn’t work out about how particles and waves and light work. “Spooky action at a distance” is a gem of a phrase that came up in his work; “entanglement” is another evocative word physicists use a lot. These might as well be episode titles for “The Leftovers,” where what seen is unreliable, and what is unseen and speculative may be more important.

Some people — some scientists — got angry at Einstein, because he took away a lot of the certainties that physics had been built on. But he was right about many things, and we now accept that there are states and dimensions we only barely understand. The veil between here and there is tissue-thin.

This is a staple of science-fiction storytelling: The crew member or away-team officer who is right in front of everyone else, but a glitch in the space-time continuum has made him or her invisible. It’s a go-to construct because it reflects one of our deepest fears: To exist in two states. To be here and unseen. A ghost, a wanderer without a voice.

All the characters on “The Leftovers,” even the sane-ish ones, exist in many places, with chasms often separating them. Some are present but unseen; some, when absent, are more powerful, even at a distance. Time’s relative, according to physics: How it passes and whether it passes at all depends on a lot of stuff (mass, velocity, the amount of wine a particle has had, etc.).

The show has found ways to illustrate these highly variable quantum states, to show how far apart these people are from each other, and from different versions of themselves. They see each other, sometimes, but they often cannot bridge these gaps.

And that’s OK.

Sometimes all you want is to be seen.

“The Leftovers” is the observer, viewing human particles who exist in many modes and places and times. They, like us, are here and there, with the living and the dead, hopeful and undone. Here and not here. Gone and left behind. (Echoes of a classic music video from A-Ha.)

The show has never delved too far into various scientific explanations behind the Sudden Departure, but on a bone-deep level, something about the event the show describes feels right — it feels true, like it could happen. Because there is no fixed point, the center cannot hold. Death is always coming, separation is always lurking, sudden tragedies happen every day, and, if we are entangled, we are undone.

We all know that’s part of the package deal of being human, and if we don’t know that, we’re taught that by time, the slowest and most exacting teacher. As I told a friend who also lost someone recently, grief is the boss level of love. (In some alternate universe, there is a version of me that has turned that observation into a smash-hit collaboration with Ghostface Killah.)

In our undone-ness, we make jokes, we hug, we learn sometimes, we cry, we drink, we may get back tattoos of a fish turning into a dragon. Responses vary.

We lose hope in mid-range hotels, we find redemption in living rooms and churches and the Outback. We see a truth and mistake it for the Truth and feel comforted by the imposing structure we give that Truth, for a minute or a decade or a life.

The thing that unites the characters of “The Leftovers” is that the Departure confirms their worst fears: That they didn’t deserve to be loved, that they didn’t deserve a family, that they were always in an unstable environment, that, sooner or later, rug was going to be pulled out from under them. They were waiting for it, on some level. In the wake of this worldwide and intimate tragedy, they’ve split; They exist across many dimensions. Like subatomic particles, their trajectories cannot be predicted.


I live in a multitude of quantum states. I have for almost a decade.

There is a 50 percent chance that I have the genetic disorder that killed my mother six months ago. She was diagnosed about eight years ago. There is no treatment for Huntington’s Disease, which destroys the mind and body with equal indifference. There is no cure, only witness.

I live in two modes: I have it, and I don’t have it. Sometimes I live in a third state: I don’t think about it. Fourth mode: Checking medical websites at 3 a.m. to make sure I definitely have it (though medical professionals frequently assure me I’m fine in every way). Fifth state: Travel. Sixth state, the one that so often saves me: Writing about made-up people who definitely exist in my head and heart. Seventh state: Listening to people I love laugh.

All of these worlds, all these selves, exist at once. I am afraid and unafraid.

I care more than I ever did, and I don’t give a damn.

“Yes,”“The Leftovers”says. “Yes.”

This show makes me feel seen. Because it doesn’t try to solve these core problems. It is a dramatic recognition of the fact that contradiction and collision define us, and may break us (or not). It is a lamp in the darkness, not the end of darkness. A lamp is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t negate the arrival of night.

There is no solution. The problem — the joy — is that we are alive. And so many people have stories like mine. Or worse. I am lucky, compared to many in this world. I’m healthy, aside from a janky knee. I get to do this job, and I love and I am loved, and I have money for therapy, for travel, for tea parties with my favorite five-year old. My mom was here for 75 years. Some get half as many.

But there is no fix, no medicine, no answer. Sometimes broken things (and people) stay broken, sometimes there is no good option. Sometimes choice itself is an illusion. If I don’t have HD, one of my siblings probably will. I can’t think about whether my son has it, because that Schrodinger’s box is kept locked.

In the main, however, there is no escape from this inexorable truth that waits in the genetic wings. It is the slow, artisanal Departure.

I want truth, not pity (though I will accept a little pity, especially if you’re buying). In all seriousness, though, it’s a form of disrespect to discount reality (and the most amazing healthcare practitioners I’ve encountered never, ever do that, and they still manage to be kind, which is a form of magic).

Don’t reject the darkest timeline; like the characters on this show, I have to live there sometimes. If you don’t see that version of me, you don’t see me.

But that’s not all there is to life. We laugh a lot, those of us who live partly in that timeline; it’s quite possible that we find more things funny than you do (and the fact that “The Leftovers” understands this is one of its core accomplishments). So much that happens in our weird, unexpected alternate realities is ridiculous, absurd, surreal, hilarious, hilariously sad. So many things at once.

Because we humans are greedy, we want all of our states and dimensions and depths to be seen. Easy, right?

Whatever our damage, we all just want to be known, to be seen unflinchingly — and maybe even compassionately — no matter how many worlds we inhabit or places we hide. Human beings can find those bonds — those momentary, subatomic collisions — in the most unlikely places: At the bottom of a well, at a dinner table, on a bridge in Texas, on a Tasmanian sex boat.

If we’re lucky, our shaggy, spectacular, evolving, terrible selves are recognized in this life, once in a while. Maybe even all at once — the dream is for all of our quantum locations to be spotted. What if, for the briefest span of time, an observer could pause the hurtling energy of the universe and pin down every single place and time in which we exist? Everything seen, mapped, understood.

I have had some moments like that. More than a few courtesy of an HBO drama featuring an orgy. (I know.)

Those flashes of recognition are not just enough. They are everything.

I wish I didn’t identify with Nora Durst so much, some days. Because Carrie Coon is such a great actress, and because this show is working on such an enormously accomplished level, Nora’s heroic effort to seem normal slays me. It’s perfect, it’s wrenchingly real, it’s a meteor screaming across the sky, one that I can see from every plane of existence.

In flashes, in small moments, Carrie shows you just how monumentally difficult it has always been for Nora to go through the motions, to get through the day, to tell herself that everything is more or less OK. She’s got this.

No one sees the strain, the gears working at capacity, the levers and pistons giving off steam, the boiler close to exploding. But it’s in her eyes; even when she’s silent, she crackles with ropey, alert energy. It’s so much damn work to live, much less to care. Nora can’t stop, she won’t stop, she’s afraid to stop. She can’t afford to know what happens if she does.

For years after the Departure, she kept going, because she didn’t have a choice. Did she?

Actually, for a long time, she chose a lie. I get it.

What monster would deny Nora her lies? That she loves (loved?) Kevin, that she could survive losing her family, that she could find a new career and reasons to keep living, and that it would be OK. Sometimes you fake it ’til you make it, and who’s to say she wouldn’t have made it, if she believed hard enough, if she tried hard enough, if she just endured?

There’s that great “Deadwood” episode title: “A Lie Agreed Upon.” We make these agreements all the time, sometimes from the best impulses.

Nora and Kevin did bring each other comfort. She was able to love again, or feel flickers of connection. She never stopped making an effort. Sometimes a lie is just a future truth that hasn’t come into focus yet; it keeps blinking out and shifting position, like an indecisive electron. “The Leftovers” is full of people willing alternate realities into being.

But sometimes a lie is just a lie. In “Certified,” Nora showed us the cost of her big lie. She couldn’t lend it her energy anymore. Past and present, love and rage, what was true and not true: There was just too much of all of it. Her resting state, underneath it all, was exhaustion.

The gravity well of a black hole had hovered nearby, for such a long time. It had nothing but time. It ate time. Spinning all those plates in the air, she resisted it so mightily. Wasn’t that enough? Maybe not.

It’s tiring to grieve. It’s tiring to not know. I haven’t had the test for HD, for all sorts of reasons. But I understand the desire to make a choice. I understand wondering about what something means, and being tired of the question. I understand standing on that hill, wanting to test out the box the scientists made.

One state, not multiple states. One location. An Answer, finally.

We saw an older version of Nora in the season three premiere, so what happened in that box? Her face looked hard, shut down. I understand. You want the Answer to be final.

Nothing is final. I told a lie about death.


My mother died six months ago. The day after Trump was elected. (I know.)

The story I told myself during the years I watched her die was this: When she was gone, it would be hard, but I would have my life back and wouldn’t that be a little bit good? A lot good? Wouldn’t it be a relief? To not silently bend under the weight of so many psychological, legal, medical and logistical needs? To no longer have my life — to no longer have her life — stolen, an atom at a time?

That was a good story. Not imaginative, but it got the job done. The lie helped me get through the last year of a long string of hard, deeply confusing years of self-discovery and fortitude and sadness and lightning bolts of joy. I’ve written about these years, and the large tattoos that resulted. One for a dying father. One for a dying mother. A dragon for something else that happened. A dragon for all of it.

I had so much time. Not enough, and so much. Einstein was right: The passage of time depends on your perspective. Blink: My son is two feet taller. Slooowww motion: There was enough time to wish, from the bottom of my soul, for a different velocity, an alternate life.

Frozen in amber: Summer 2015. The end of a long, hard day. Spontaneous speech was hard for my mom by then. She somehow willed herself to get out this entire sentence:

“Maureen, there’s no point in going on like this.”

She didn’t die for 17 more months.

I am in that room. I am here. I am the astronaut, coming back to a different planet, a faster time, another life.

Sometimes my mother was with me, sometimes she was elsewhere, lost in memories or …. I would look at her face and not know where she was. Don’t look to Heisenberg for expertise on uncertainty, a black hole that eats love.

Frozen in amber: She tries to tell me something, its importance stamped on her face. She can’t get the sentence out, and sits back in her chair, defeated. Words are my salvation, and they’ve been taken from her. I hold every word I write tighter, like Matt with his holy books.

Unlike Matt, I didn’t believe it was all part of a plan. I just wanted to be free, for so long, and I told myself I would be (and in some ways, I am). This is the reality of caring for and loving a terminal person. That’s the reality of not knowing if today the one who named you will know your name. All of it is hard on a scale you are never prepared for, and nothing ever prepares you for the next part. The ladder gets harder as you go.

And you don’t want it to stop, because then they’re gone. That’s the Catch-22 that drains you dry.

The lie — about After — got me through a lot. The lie was a lifeboat.

Some lies amount to pretty great PR spin. I do feel good about how hard I tried, don’t get me wrong. I trudged through Mordor and I threw the f*cking ring into Mount Doom — twice. Thanks, mom and dad!

Few want to know this truth: Yes, it’s all made me a better person, but I would have been OK being less good. I didn’t choose any of this. On some level, on the most grinding days, I would have been fine with being 48 percent less worthy. Maybe 70 percent. No more tests of my character, I would say to myself through gritted teeth. No more Now I Am Better Because Suffering. I see you, Nora. Can’t we just be hobbits, getting quietly drunk back in the Shire? Can’t I live in Miracle, Texas, which was spared?

I wanted the cup to pass from me. It did. Time is a Judas. I want it back. Well, not all of it. Some of it.

Patient: “Tell me what to do.”

Laurie: “I don’t know.”

In recent months, I gave up on the lie. It was a start. The other state, that fictional universe, that untruth about After — it was attractive bullshit. Slowly I admitted what I always knew — that my lifeboat was sitting on top of a boulder in a dusty lake, and it was full of holes.

I was angry. Someone sold me a defective boat.

I was resentful. I had been prepared for some light, pastel, tasteful grieving for mom. I am a presumptuous idiot. I’d gone through such a mountain of pain and strain since my father died in 2013, right when my mother got worse and needed much more from me. During this slow, grinding time, I grew enamored of the idea that I would get a break when she died. A release from the gravity well; the tractor beam would let go of my little shuttlecraft. I deserved that release, that hall pass. I forgot a universal truth: “Deserve got nothing to do with it.”

“Jane the Virgin” is phenomenal at everything — obviously — but its recent arc about what characters have gone through after a significant death is just too damn real.

“You are in a long-term relationship with grief,” Alba told Jane.

I only wanted to casually date grief. Nothing serious. Alba helped me admit that my wished-for subatomic state — hovering, bouncing, never committing, flitting between polarities — wasn’t going to work. Damn you, Alba. (I love you, Alba.)


“You are someone else

I am still right here.”

What kind of person asks to get shot while wearing a bulletproof vest? What kind of person writes a holy book about a dude named Kevin? What kind of person builds an Ark in the backyard? This is grief: You keep meeting new versions of yourself, people who surprise you. These variations were there the whole time, or they are new. Where do they come from? Who opened the TARDIS door? There are so many versions and reversions, so many regenerations, so many faces for the faces that you meet. Some are great. Some are mysterious. Some are the president, wearing white. Some sit on a roof, afraid.

Day to day, it can be hard to keep up. These strangers keep coming, and they bear a startling resemblance to me.

I don’t wear all-white or visit the afterlife or get shot. I listen to Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” on repeat.

“If I could start again

A million miles away

I would keep myself

I would find a way.”

I understand Kevin’s desires — to visit his other self, to be somewhere else, where the questions and answers don’t neatly line up, but he feels closer to the possibilities of both than he does in his everyday life. It’s a departure lounge for the next phase, full of duty-free gifts and intense possibilities. God might be in that realm and He might be a dick; Patti Levin might be there, she seems certain of who she is and what needs to be done. “The Leftovers” celebrates our ability to split, to copy ourselves, to take advantage of the inevitable Enterprise transporter accident — the diverging timeline, the dueling realities.

Why not? Why not see what happens in those other realms, those branched lives? After all, what happens in Kevin’s non-life — in the dream life, the prophetic life, the death-life — it may hold a key, some answers, an Answer. Relief.

At least, in the May 28 episode, Kevin got to make a choice. Fear is not the mindkiller, doubt is. It’s not wrong to wonder where the kids’ shoes went, but some questions eat a hole in the soul, like the blood of the Xenomorph burning through a spaceship’s hull.

I see you, Laurie. Oh, Laurie. We talk about being there for someone. We talk about what it takes to be moral, to bear witness. We never discuss the price of true compassion. The ability to listen, to care and to serve and to respect privacy — we don’t often get into where those energies comes from, what they cost.

The daily expense of just one acidic question: Could I have done more? (Yes. No. Both are true.)

Every single heartbreak I endured while going to the pharmacy, buying groceries, watching “Judge Judy” with mom, watching my father make coffee for the last time, his bones brittle and wrong — yes, Johnny Cash, I remember everything. I thought the everyday aches I had to put to one side during a time of sheer survival had been dropped, had slunk away, had eroded over time. Like Laurie, I thought the memories, the hour of witness, had had the good taste to fade.

Some of it did. But much of that lump of witness remained, waiting for a chance to take center stage. The boxes are packed, the possessions have been given away, the logistics of death are wrapped up. And so it comes back; the regret, the laughter, the stories, the images. The times I held their hands. The times I didn’t.

Ripley is the only human being to get on her ship at the end of “Alien”; She is alone, but the ghosts come with her. (And that movie is one of my all-time favorites not for showing that Ripley was brave, but for showing that she was afraid, so very afraid. And she did it all anyway.)

The persistence of memory means you’re always in in many places at once. I understand, Laurie. I understand, Nora. Two Kevins, both admitting that the reality of love made them want to flee in terror. I understand wanting to forget, and not wanting to. Bearing witness is an act of love and a rebellion against that eternal asshole, time.

How do we talk about this? Have you enjoyed a few thousand words about how you can’t? We need them, but we don’t have many words that are more functional, more useful, than “grief,” “memory,” “love,” “regret,” “relief,” “connection,” “loneliness.”

It’s that last one that “The Leftovers” understands in its bones, in its molecules. How lonely it can be. You can be a product of quantum mechanics — a Costco assortment of lives and times, shadowboxing with all the different versions of yourself, past and present — and yet we want more. We want to connect, for someone else to know what it was like. It’s just science.

“What have I become

My sweetest friend”

Nora knows no one can understand her pain —and few can see her normality. She wants to know that someone understands the magnitude of her loss, but who could? And at the same time, she doesn’t want to be defined by the unique conditions of her suffering. Her eyes are lasers, shooting out a message, “See me, see what I’ve been through —but that’s not all of me.”

See my mundanity too, my stupidity, my mistakes, my terrible singing voice and my tendency to blather. See my haircut and my new shirt and that I’m trying. See how much I love blueberry preserves and bad puns. See me as Judas, as a savior, as a friend. Don’t just look. See.

Witness the truth and live with the lie. Accept that it’s all true, and none of it is. We explode into new selves; they mutate yet remain bound to the past. The equation of love remains vexing; all of these problems without solutions remain as necessary as oxygen. All states are possible; there are laws that control them, but we can’t penetrate the deepest mysteries. Entanglement, at a distance. Questions, always questions. Even Einstein didn’t know.

Two women embrace on a hilltop. They were near each other, electrons circling an atom — and for a moment, they existed in the same space. They knew. They saw. Nuclear fusion, but for emotions.

I go through pictures of mom and think of them in terms of thefts: That was back when mom could walk. That’s when she could stand. She could still talk then. A picture of her swimming with my son a dozen years ago jolted me into remembering another life, a dream I once had, a parallel universe.

She always smiled at me, every time I came through the door. Until the very end, when her eyes no longer followed me. She had been my fading ghost; I became hers.

She went inward, eyes on a new destination. She was looking at a ship, I think; in my mind, she walked to it, proud and tall and smiling. She went into the West.

Take me with you, I said.


I can be both places.

Wait for me.